James L. Estep


Company Commander in Vietnam


For those who didn’t return, who, like the centurions and their soldiers, deserved better from the republic they served.

And especially for William “Billy” McCarty. He made us laugh, and we miss him.


This is a story of American soldiers who fought in a faraway place, for an elusive cause, for eleven long years.

Historians now tell us our country’s military involvement in Indochina can be chronologically divided into three distinct phases. The early 1960’s was the period of the advisor, a period in which we tried to turn the tide in a relatively small insurgency, employing only a modest expenditure in men and material. This phase ended with the introduction of North Vietnam’s armies into the fray and the subsequent arrival of our ground forces in 1965. For the next three years, we sought to end the war by judicious use of our military might and would have probably succeeded in doing so had our national will not collapsed in the aftermath of the enemy’s 1968 Tet offensive. During the final and most costly phase, from the spring of 1968 until the Paris Accords were signed five years later, we simply looked for a way out.

Many fine books tell the story of America’s soldiers at war in each of these periods; however, most provide only a snapshot of our country’s exposure to this the longest of its military struggles. Having served four tours of duty in Vietnam during the years from 1962 to 1973, I had a unique opportunity to study the war’s changing face as our part in it evolved from a low-level advisory effort to the massive employment of over half a million men, before once again becoming what was essentially an advisory campaign.

Moreover, my postings as a Special Forces noncommissioned and commissioned officer, a U.S. rifle company commander, and an ARVN advisor provided a dimension of diversity other than time alone from which to observe our soldiers’ many-faceted participation in the conflict. I hope, therefore, to have succeeded in furnishing a broader appreciation of what some of these men experienced over the war’s long course, at the lowest end of combat’s spectrum—in the paddies, the plains, and the mountains of the Nam.

Saying that, I should mention that although the book embraces four diverse tours and times, its main theme centers on service with the First Air Cavalry in 1967-68. This was the time of Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s Tet offensive and the apex of the American infantryman’s involvement in the war. In short, it was the most exciting of the tours.

Similarly, although it spans an eleven-year period, the book is by no stretch of the imagination a history of our involvement in Indochina.

This is a true story, based on my experiences as I recall them. Many of the names herein have been changed to protect the privacy of those concerned. In like manner, the book’s quoted passages should not be looked upon as verbatim dialogue. Much of this dialogue is fictitious.

Still, these or like conversations did take place, and the tone and tenor of what was said are as true to the spirit of those interchanges as memory will allow after a lapse of, in some cases, over twenty-five years.

Unit designations of friendly and enemy forces are, as best as retrospect and research permit, those of the actual units involved.

Infrequently, however, there are minor discrepancies in the numerical designations of supporting forces. The most glaring example of this incongruity is the multiunit Binh Loc operation described in chapter one. In this instance, to facilitate clarity and continuity throughout the book, I have intentionally identified participating adjacent units as being those that were at the time assigned to my parent headquarters in the Fifth Cavalry Regiment.

Finally, radio call signs used throughout are, with few exceptions, those that were then in effect. However, there are some instances, again in the case of supporting forces, in which call signs are fictitious.

In sum, this is the story of America’s soldiers in Vietnam. It is a story of victories and tribulations, fears and joys, laughter and tears.

If in telling it I’ve offended any of those with whom I served, I apologize. Offense is certainly not my intent. You are the heroes of this work and of the nation that sent you forth to do battle on its behalf.

You are, without question, far better men than those timid souls who refused to fight in that faraway place, so long ago.

Prologue — Walter Reed General Hospital: March 1968

What time is it? Nighttime. Has to be nighttime ‘cause it’s still dark, right? Right. Who’s mourning in the next cubicle? Very unmanly thing to do. Ah yes, it’s the Huey pilot fresh from a tour of duty in the decidedly unfriendly skies of the Nam, and he’s mourning because he has no legs! Well, welcome to the snake pit, my friend; you’ve done your full duty. “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” Who said that? Who cares who said that, goddamn it, it’s not important! Demerol’s important.

Leg’s on fire! Feels as if someone has pierced it with a white-hot poker, one that all the miracle healers of this exalted medical establishment are unable to dislodge. But they can quell the pain with a simple shot of Demerol. I’ll call the nurse and tell her I need a shot.

Yeah, I’ll just politely say, “Nurse, nurse, I’m getting worse. Would you be so kind as to insert your magic needle into the attached IV and let that great destroyer of pain flow through my bruised and battered body, extinguishing the fire below?” But she’ll say no!

She’ll say it’s not time yet and then, smiling sweetly, tell me to just “hang tight” for another hour.

One hour, sixty minutes, three thousand and six hundred seconds.

Don’t count them. Remove your watch and put it under your pillow.

Good, now think of something else. Think of how fortunate you are; there’s still a foot attached to your leg. And hey, that’s a pretty unique occurrence in the “pit”! Think of the young lieutenant, so recently a whole and healthy warrior of the 173d Airborne, sleeping peacefully across the aisle from you. Between operations, he’s relatively, momentarily free of the animal pain. However, the animal will return with the next operation. He’ll lay with the animal pain again and again.

God, he’s ugly! Blast must have hit him right at chest level, really messed up his face. But he’s still got his sight, and they’re building him a new nose. Got the makings of it transplanted on his forehead already. Looks kind of funny there with a nose hanging from his forehead to his stomach, sort of like an elephant with its trunk tucked into its belly button. Of course they know what they’re doing here; they’ll trim it up nice and neat when the time comes. Hope it takes, hope it works and never clogs, because, having no arms, he’ll have no way of blowing it. On the other hand, they can do wonders in physical therapy. If they can teach you how to pick up marbles with your toes, I’m sure they can teach young Dave there how to pick his nose.

Unbearable! The goddamn pain’s unbearable! Got to have a shot!

Wonder where the old woman is with her Fourteenth Street go-go girls and bottle of Wild Turkey. What was her name? Sweet Mary? Gentle Mary?

Now she knows how to treat America’s wounded! Wish she’d come again tonight. Could leave her go-go girls behind, just bring the Wild Turkey. Yeah, that’s what I need, same as the first night.

When was that, last night? Night before? Whenever. No more morphine, makes me sick and the pain

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