The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam – Book Review
The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam. Osprey Publishing, 2012. 340 pages of text, 5 pages of glossary, 1 page of pictures, 12 pages of short biographies of the men of Charlie Company. Paperback. $25.95.
In The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam Andrew Wiest chronicles the path that Charlie Company took to Vietnam: from the 9th Infantry Division activation, draft notices, training at Fort Riley, Advanced Individual Training (AIT), deployment to Vietnam, their first heart-wrenching losses, the beginning of replacements, their Freedom Bird, and finally, to the paths their lives took after returning from Vietnam.
Wiest begins by describing the need for the 9th Division to be reactivated for service in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Ninety percent of the Vietnamese transportation in the Mekong Delta was done by boat, and Wiest noted the importance of the area to both sides: "As the most valuable piece of real estate in South Vietnam, domination over the Mekong Delta was key to the success of both sides in the Vietnam War." Not only were the waterways in the Delta important to the Viet Cong for transportation of supplies, they were also a crucial communication network. If the United States and South Vietnamese forces gained control of the Mekong Delta, then that "offered the best and quickest method by which to throttle the Viet Cong and transform the war from an insurgency to a more traditional conflict."
For this to happen, however, a unique approach was needed. In July 1965, MACV assistant chief of staff, Brigadier General William Depuy, led a study on how best to base US soldiers in the waterlogged Mekong Delta, as there was no uninhabited land large enough to accommodate a large troop population. Two approaches were analyzed: dredging the bottom of the Delta to create new land, or to look to the past for a solution to the present problem.
Prior French operations utilized modified World War II landing craft to fight the Viet Minh in the Delta waterways. In 1965, MACV planners proposed converting LSTs (landing ship, tank) into floating barracks, which could then be grouped together to form a mobile floating base from which American and South Vietnam forces could operate. DePuy took his plan to Westmoreland, and Westmoreland’s superiors agreed to approve an infantry division to operate in the delta, initially referred to as "Z Division." The Joint Chiefs of Staff gave approval to reactivate the 9th Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, to serve as the "Z Division." Thus begins the saga of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 47th Infantry.
What was so special about Charlie Company and the 9th Infantry Division during the Vietnam War? What set it apart from other infantry divisions during this time period?
Wiest noted that at this time draftees typically experienced basic training and AIT under specialized commands, but they would then be split up and sent to various units. The 9th Division, however, was together for all stages of training, and the units stayed together during their year-long deployment in Vietnam. The officers of the 9th saw this as a unique command opportunity.
"They would know the men intimately—understanding their strengths, weaknesses, and foibles. Not only would the experience weld those men into a cohesive group of soldiers but also it would form a strong bond between the units’ officers, non-commissioned officers, and the ranks, forging a common brotherhood of war unique in the Vietnam era."
The members of Charlie Company arrived in Vietnam together in December 1966, full of confidence in their training and themselves. They were a close-knit family, which made it harder to deal with the inevitable loss of their members as their time in-country progressed. As the months rolled by on their deployment and casualties mounted, Charlie Company began to change. The original men of Charlie Company saw their numbers dwindle as replacements arrived to take the places of dead or wounded men. The original members had a hard time opening up to replacements—it hurt too much to see someone they loved get killed, so it was emotionally easier to not get close to the replacements. That made it hard for those replacements to feel as if they were a part of the "family."
When the surviving members of Charlie Company came home in the beginning of 1968, they did not arrive to the parades and celebrations their fathers had experienced after World War II. Their homecoming included taunts and jeers as the anti-war movement was picking up steam on the home front. The men of Charlie Company simply wanted to get home and move on with the lives that had been interrupted by their draft notices in 1966.
Wiest interviewed members of Charlie Company and their families, and he uses those interviews extensively throughout the book to incorporate personal details that help the reader feel an intimacy with the men. He also skillfully writes about the effect of Vietnam on the wives and children of the returning veterans, a topic that often gets brushed under the rug when describing the effects of combat experiences on returning soldiers. Many of Charlie Company’s veterans began to exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in the years following the war, negatively affecting those men and their families.
Only when Charlie Company began to have reunions did the wives realize they were not alone in dealing with a husband’s struggles and PTSD. Wiest ends by noting the cathartic effect these reunions had on the men and their families, writing "In coming together as a family again, a family that now included wives, siblings, and children, Charlie Company had taken the most important step in learning to live with Vietnam."
I recommend The Boys of ’67 to historians and the general public alike. Historians can benefit from the detailed history of Charlie Company—a part of the 9th Infantry Division that was unique in the Vietnam War because the men and officers trained together and were also deployed together. The general public can benefit from the richly emotional detail of the heartaches that men experience during war, and what they and their families experience in the aftermath of war.
Wiest’s use of personal interviews and letters home put a personal touch on the book. I felt a growing sense of attachment to the men of Charlie Company as the book progressed, felt a sense of their heartache when their brothers died, and I sympathized for many of them who struggled with PTSD following the war. Wiest addresses the ugliness and humanity of war, but also the loving bonds that are created between men who experience war together and the indelible marks it leaves on their minds.
Abigail Pfeiffer is a recent graduate of Norwich University with a Master of Arts in Military History. She lives in Phoenix, AZ, with her husband and stepdaughter. She focuses on 20th century American warfare and American POW history, and has a special interest in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. When Abby does not have her nose in a book, she can be found hiking, swimming, running, and cooking.