Spare Parts Book Review

Spare Parts: A Marine Reservist’s Journey from Campus to Combat in 38 Days

By Buzz Williams

Hardcover in dustjacket, 300 pages and photographs

Published by Gotham Books, March 2004

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1-592-40054-X

ISBN-13: ‎978-1-592-40054-6

Dimensions: ‎6.2 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches

Buzz Williams saw enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve as a way to achieve his two primary goals – serving in the Marines and going to college.  Inspired by his older brother, he wanted to go to boot camp.  Upon graduation, he drilled “one weekend per month, two weeks per year” and attended service schools on the LAV-25 Light Armored Vehicle.  His unit was activated as part of Desert Storm and participated in the liberation of Kuwait.  Afterwards, he remained in the Reserves and became a teacher, eventually leaving after realizing the constant shifting from civilian to military worlds was exasperating his PTSD from the war.

This is a very personal story, an autobiographical arc following his journey from civilian, to boot camp, Reservist, a combat deployment, Reservist, and ultimately a return to civilian life.  New Reservists go through the same boot camp alongside enlistees destined for active service.  A sizable portion of the book describes the boot camp experience in great detail, along with the eventual realization that everything in boot camp is planned and specifically designed to prepare the recruit for combat conditions.

I found the descriptions of the Reserve drills and training fascinating.  The transition from civilian to military mode can be jarring, and there is little time to preserve (or learn) the specialized military skills which may, at short notice, be required for the unit to perform well in combat.  Williams’ descriptions of dealing with his OCD and returning from Desert Storm are also interesting.

Spare Parts is well written, Williams is an excellent story teller and the book flows well.  His descriptions of his fellow Marines will be recognizable to veterans.  His insights into the Reserve program are interesting.  The Reserves are a vital part of the U.S. military, but one which is rarely described in detail.  This book is easy to read but hard to put down, I can recommend it without reservation.

Voices of the Pacific Audiobook Review

Voices of the Pacific: Untold Stories from the Marine Heroes of World War II

Author: Adam Makos

Narrator: Tom Weiner

Publisher: Blackstone Publishing, April 2013

Audio Length: 10.75 hours

ISBN: 9781624609848

While I generally favor traditional printed books (preferably in hardback), I do occasionally listen to an audiobook.  The advantage of this format is the book can be enjoyed while engaged in other activities, such as modeling or driving.  In this case I was able to download the audio file from my local library, then link my phone to the car speakers and listen while driving to the MMCL IPMS show in Louisville last month.  It beats listening to the radio and makes the drive informative and enjoyable during what would otherwise be wasted time.

This book lends itself well to the audiobook format, being the personal recollections of fifteen Marines who fought in the Pacific War.  The men all share their stories in short narratives, and often relate different perspectives of the same battles.  The campaigns covered are Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Iwo Jima, and finally Okinawa.  Each of these operations was unique, with its own set of conditions and environments.  One thing they had in common was the effect on the Regiments and individual Marines.  By the end of each campaign the units had suffered tremendous casualties, and the surviving Marines were in rough shape – exhausted, underfed, diseased, and with their uniforms in tatters.  Assaults which were planned for three days often lasted for thirty days or more.

I recognized two of the Marines as authors of their own books – Sterling Mace and Chuck Tatum.  Many others relate anecdotes of other names well known to students of the Pacific War – authors Robert Lecke and Eugene Sledge, along with Marines famous for their combat exploits such as John Basilone and Lewis “Chesty” Puller.

Overall this is a fine book which offers insights of the war from the perspective of the individual Marines who fought it.  The last two chapters were also interesting, they described the Marines’ discharges from the service and their assimilation back into society.  They were also asked what advice they would give to young people today, and to society in general.  While this podium is continuously mis-used by celebrities, media figures, politicians, and athletes, the Marine veterans have paid for their citizenship in a very real way and earned the opportunity to voice their opinion.  Listening to this audiobook is time well spent, I can recommend it without hesitation.

One Bullet Away Book Review

One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer

By Nathaniel Fick

Hardcover in dustjacket, 369 pages, photographs

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt October 2005

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-61855-613-3

ISBN-13: 978-0-61855-613-7

Dimensions: 6.0 x 1.3 x 9.0 inches

Nathan Fick was a classics major at Dartmouth when he volunteered for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School, and that is where his account begins.  He subsequently graduated from The Basic School and the Infantry Office Course.  His first assignment after completing his initial training was with the First Battalion, First Marines as the Weapons Platoon Officer of Bravo Company.  He was deployed aboard the USS Dubuque (LPD-8) when the 9/11 attacks occurred.  In Darwin for a port call, they were the closest Marine force to Afghanistan and sailed immediately.

Fick and his Marines went ashore in Afghanistan, moving quite a bit but seeing little direct combat.  They rotated out of Afghanistan during the holidays, and Fick was offered the opportunity to train to be Marine Recon.  More schools, more training.  At the end was assignment to a Platoon in the First Recon Battalion.  Instead of mission they trained for – observing objectives in small teams without being discovered – they were issued five HMMWVs.  The platoon was to spearhead one of the major thrusts of the Invasion of Iraq.

The majority of the book is a day-by-day account of First Recon’s push though Iraq from the Platoon Leader’s perspective.  Their story will be familiar to most readers, as correspondent Evan Wright rode with the platoon and his book, Generation Kill, was made into an HBO miniseries of the same name.  I read both books together to compare the perspectives.  Wright’s book focuses more on the personalities and banter of the Marines in the platoon, and things unusual to those unfamiliar with Marines or the military in general.  Fick’s account is more thoughtful and less focused on tensions between the Marines and their leadership.  Fick is an excellent writer who cares for his men, and the perspectives of history and politics are not lost on him.  This is a great read which I can recommend without reservation.

Generation Kill Book Review

Generation Kill: Devil Dogs, Iceman, Captain America and The New Face of American War

By Evan Wright

Hardcover in dustjacket, 354 pages, photographs

Published by Putnam, 2004

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0-399-151193-1

Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches

This is the book which was made into the HBO miniseries of the same name.  Author Evan Wright was a Rolling Stone reporter embedded with the Marine’s First Recon Battalion during the invasion of Iraq.  Marine recon teams usually operate covertly, scouting out an objective and retiring, hopefully without the enemy even knowing they were there.  For this operation, First Recon was equipped with HMMWV light vehicle, more commonly known as the Humvee.  Their mission was to be the point element for one of the columns entering Iraq.

Wright rode in one of the five Humvees of Second Platoon, so he was able to observe events first hand.  His account is very personal and focuses on the actions and reactions of the twenty-three men in the platoon.  Much of the story is told in their own words.  At the Platoon level the overall strategic objectives are not always clear, the day’s plans are constantly evolving.  There is a constant cycle of moving to the next objective, maintaining equipment, eating, digging in, and moving again.  Sleep is replaced with snuff, energy drinks, and instant coffee, which the Marines eat as well as brew.

It is a messy business and Wright reports it all, both good and bad.  Some things went to plan while others did not, there are heroics and mistakes.  This is an honest and interesting account, both as a history of the war from a small unit perspective and as a study of men in combat.  I can recommend this book, even if you have watched the series.

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam Book Review

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Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam

By Oscar E. Gilbert

Hardcover in dustjacket, 288 pages, photographs, bibliography, notes, and index

Published by Casemate 2007

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1-932033-66-1

ISBN-13: 978-1-932033-66-3

Dimensions: 6.0 x 1.2 x 9.0 inches

Despite the number of books published about the Viet Nam War, many people are unaware of the role played by armor, or that the U.S. Marines deployed armored units.  Perhaps this is due in part to the nature of their employment.  Armor rarely fought in units larger than platoons, and often in groups of only two or three tanks.  There were no large set-piece battles, the tanks were generally employed to defend bridges or firebases, or to support sweeps through the countryside.  The result is the tanks were disbursed and moved in small groups from place to place, many of the crews commenting that they had never even seen their Battalion commanders while in-country.

Not surprisingly, the constant movements and changes in unit assignments have made it very difficult for historians to document the histories of the armored Battalions in Viet Nam.  Sweeps and patrols in support of the myriad of operations tended to blend together for the crews to the point that even the men involved were unsure if they had actually been part of a specific operation.  I was surprised to learn how vulnerable the M48 was to the RPG-7, a great many crew casualties were caused by this weapon.  Another problem was mines.  While these rarely totally destroyed a tank they generally were enough to disable the track and suspension, taking the vehicle out of the fight.

This is the third of Gilbert’s “Marine Corps Tank Battles” books which I have read.  Like the others, the bulk of the text is derived from interviews with the Marines themselves, in their own words.  The opening chapter gives a history of the country leading up to the war which is well worth reading just on its own.  The book is well written, and I enjoy the first-hand perspectives from the Marines who were there.  Recommended.

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Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East Book Review

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Marine Corps Tank Battles in the Middle East

By Oscar E. Gilbert

Hardcover in dustjacket, 312 pages, photographs, references, and index

Published by Casemate February 2015

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1612002676

ISBN-13: 978-1612002675

Dimensions:  6.1 x 0.9 x 9.1 inches

Like so many of the modern world’s current political problems, the on-going turmoil in the Middle East can be traced back to diplomatic missteps in the aftermath of the First World War.  Those decisions remain with us and are still costing lives on a daily basis over a century later.  In the first twenty pages of this book Oscar E. Gilbert traces the modern history of the Middle East which imparts on the reader an understanding of the basis for the conflicts which have plagued the region.  This chapter is concise and exceptionally well-written, it alone warrants the purchase of the book and is worthy of periodic re-reading.

The bulk of the book focusses on the use of Marine armor in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the M60 and M1 Abrams main battle tanks along with the lighter LAV-25.  The dominance of the better trained and equipped Marines during the conflicts with the Iraqi Army, even when outnumbered, are well described.  The use of armor in the drawn-out counter insurgency operations also offers many insights, such as the use of the vehicle’s impressive array of sensors.  Tactics used during the Battle of Fallujah illustrates the value of armor in clearing an urban environment, an arena where tanks are generally considered to be at a disadvantage.

The book is well researched and interspaced with first-hand accounts taken from interviews with the participants.  This is an engaging read, made somewhat more poignant by the recent decision to eliminate tanks from the Marine Corp’s inventory.  This is the second of Gilbert’s Marine tanks histories which I have read, and I can recommend them without hesitation.

Surgeon on Iwo Book Review

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Surgeon on Iwo

By James S. Vedder

Hardcover in dustjacket, 211 pages, photographs, and index

Published by Presidio, Book Club edition

Language: English

Dimensions: 5.7 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches

Dr. James S. Vedder was the ranking medical officer assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment.  On 19 February 1945 the 963 men of the Battalion assaulted the island of Iwo Jima and were in continuous combat for over a month.  Over 700 of the men of the 3rd Battalion became casualties, those who were not killed outright passed through Dr. Vedder’s aid station.

Vedder was in charge of the Battalion’s Navy Corpsmen whether assigned to the aid station or the Marine platoons as well as the other Doctors and Marine litter bearers.  He was effectively the chief medical officer and senior administrator for an outdoor emergency hospital which moved, often under enemy fire, and saw a continuous flow of trauma patients.  Problems of personnel, supply, transportation, and casualties among his own men were his to resolve.

This is a day-by-day first-person account of the battle for Iwo Jima from the medical viewpoint.  It is not for the faint of heart.  The clean single bullet wound where the hero clutches his chest and says, “They got me!” is Hollywood trope.  Combat wounds are often severe and traumatic, Vedder describes in detail the process of stabilizing the casualties and evacuating them from the front lines to the hospital ships offshore.

The backdrop for this is two armies fighting over a small volcanic island and all the hardships which that entails.  There are several books written about the amphibious battles of the Pacific War but few from this perspective.  This is a fascinating read, recommended.

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Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics Book Review

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Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics

Osprey Elite Series Book 154

By Gordon L. Rottman, illustrated by Adam Hook

Paperback, 64 pages, heavily illustrated

Published by Osprey Publishing, March 2007

Language: English

ISBN-10: 1846031362

ISBN-13: 978-1846031366

Dimensions: 7.3 x 0.2 x 9.9 inches

The development of the helicopter gave military tacticians the potential to move troops around the battlefield in unpresented ways. Natural obstacles or enemy defenses could be avoided by flying over or around to more suitable positions, opposing forces could be cut off by “vertical envelopment”.  Early helicopters were underpowered and therefore lacked the range and payload capacity to make them militarily useful for transporting large formations of troops or heavy equipment, but by the late 1950s new designs were emerging which made combat applications more practical.  The U.S. Army began organizing Airmobile formations, with helicopters effectively being used as flying trucks to move soldiers around the battlefield; the USMC saw the helicopter as another way to move Marines ashore during amphibious assaults.

These new formations saw their first widespread tactical application during the Vietnam war, where ultimately more than 12,000 helicopters were deployed.  In addition to troop transport types such as the UH-1 Huey, specialized gunships, observation, and heavy-lift helicopters were developed and incorporated into operations.  While they gave unprecedented mobility on the battlefield, helicopters were vulnerable to enemy fire, particularly when inserting troops into a landing zone.  A total of 2,066 helicopters would be lost during the Vietnam War.

Vietnam Airmobile Warfare Tactics describes the transformation of the helicopter from a novel aviation vehicle into a vital tactical asset.  This is a standard Osprey Elite Series book, well-illustrated and an excellent primer in operations and tactics of Airmobile warfare.  It provides useful insight into what all those helicopters in Vietnam War movies are doing, or at least supposed to be doing.  Recommended.

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Battleground Pacific Book Review

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Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5

By Sterling Mace and Nick Allen

Hardcover in dustjacket, 330 pages, illustrated

Published by St. Martin’s Press, May 2012

Language: English

ISBN-13: 978-1-250-00505-2

Dimensions:  5.7 x 1.3 x 8.4 inches

Sterling Mace grew up in Queens during the Great Depression.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor he failed the U.S. Navy eye exam but was able to bluff his way through the second time and was accepted into the Marines.  He was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, 5th Regiment, 3rd Battalion, Company K.  When he joined the 5th Marines they were rebuilding on the island of Pavuvu, after having fought at Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester.  His first combat operation was the assault on Peleliu.

Mace was a BAR man on Peleliu, an island which had no natural source of fresh water but an abundance of heat, insects, and Japanese defenders.  Company K was intended to be on the island for three days but due to the ferocity of the Japanese defense they were in combat for thirty.  Mace describes the constant combat as well as the deprivations of fighting in an inhospitable environment with no relief and little support.  Those Marines who survived the campaign emerged emaciated, their uniforms in tatters.

The 5th Marines were rebuilt and redeployed for the assault on Okinawa.  This was a very different campaign in many ways.  The amphibious landing was unopposed, the Japanese defenders withdrawing into prepared positions for a battle of attrition.  There were civilians on Okinawa, and rear areas where there was relatively little chance of encountering the Japanese.  The Marines were much better supported and supplied compared to earlier campaigns in the Pacific, but Kamikaze attacks put the Fleet offshore at much greater risk than previously encountered.

If readers find some aspects of Mace’s account familiar, there is good reason.  Eugene Sledge was a Marine mortarman who was also assigned to K/3/5, the same Company as Mace.  Sledge authored “With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa” which was one of the books used as the basis for the HBO / Tom Hanks production of “The Pacific” miniseries.

This book is well worth a read and goes by quickly.  I did find the writing style a bit distracting, it often wanders from a straight description of events into metaphor, striving for the poetic.  More pages are devoted to Peleliu than Okinawa.  I can recommend this book, but read “With the Old Breed” as well.

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