Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book Review - Road of 10,000 Pains

The following book review of Road of 10,000 Pains, the Destruction of the 2nd NVA Division by the U. S. Marines, 1967 was written by Karen St. John, Senior Book Review Editor of Veterans Today.

U.S. Marines, 1st Division, Vietnam, 1967
The U.S. Marines who landed in Vietnam were of the “Old Breed” of Marines:  the 1st Division and  “heir to the most glorious history in the corps.”  This same division had fought at Peleliu (Operation Stalmate) and Okinawa during WW II, and in Korea, leading the forces for MacArthur’s landing at Inchon and eventually fighting through six Chinese divisions at the Chosin Reservoir.  And when the proud men of this historically significant Division, [Foxtrot Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines (F/2/1) under Captain Gene Deegan] left Nui Loc Son in April 1967 and moved into the Que Son Valley, they were locked and loaded.  They were young – mostly in their teens – and they were walking into a nightmare. 

One of the young men going into the valley voiced an eerie premonition in the relative quiet of that April morning:  he wasn’t going to make it.  He shook hands with his mate and within a few minutes, became one of the first causalities of what was to be a grueling and intense seven-month long ordeal.  The Que Son Valley campaign would cost the lives of over nine hundred Marines and over six thousand North Vietnamese Army (NVA).

The massive 1968 Tet Offensive would shrink the significant 1967 battles into the background until September 1999, when a veteran Marine just happened to be passing through the Que Son Valley on his way to somewhere else and noticed something unusual. 

Que Son Valley Vietnam,  September 1999
The day was dark and rainy day when Otto J. Lehrack, some veteran U. S. Marines and several retired NVA officers were traveling across the south central coast of Vietnam.  As their van neared the Que Son Valley in the Quang Nam Province, the mood of the aged NVA veterans became animated.   Excitedly, they pointed out the terrain here, there and everywhere.  Tales of fighting in the valley in 1967 peppered the air in rapid succession. 

A veteran marine himself and author of several well-respected books on military events, Lehrack had never heard of any battles taking place in the Que Son Valley during the Vietnam War.  His ears perked up:  he smelled a story. 

Oh, lordy, was he right.  When he learned what had taken place in 1967 with our Marines, he became determined to bring the battles into the light, and pay tribute to the courage of all the men who fought there. 

The Story of the Battles by the Men Who Fought Them
Road of 10,000 Pains, the Destruction of the 2nd NVA Division by the U. S. Marines, 1967 by Otto J. Lehrack, tells the full story of the seven-month campaign, complete with a helpful glossary of terms for the non-military.  Lehrack also lists incomplete yet poignant descriptions of the campaign’s Medal of Honor recipients, and the multiple recipients of the Navy Cross, Silver and Bronze Stars and Navy Commendation Medal. 

You have to be intrigued with a book whose title is lifted from The Iliad, and whose profoundly simple dedication is to the one who led Lehrack “back into the sunlight.” Since it is a book about marines in the Vietnam War written by a Marine with two tours in Vietnam under his own belt, one can easily surmise that the darkness Lehrack escaped is the same darkness that many other veteran Marines from that war are forced to share. 

Road of 10,000 Pains is based on the individual testimonies of men who fought in the campaign. Lehrack’s regular, informative narrations throughout the book enhance the eyewitness accounts and personal histories.  Road of 10,000 Pains is rich in language that puts the reader in step with the troops, as in the description of the coastal lowlands that “comes to a halt against the foothills of…the country’s jagged spine…”  Numerous in-country photos place faces to names.  They record the anguish and tension of battle and many display youthful smiles on faces that show age within days.  The photos often serve as a memorial to the fallen.  Lehrack has included maps of battle strategies that show the positions of both sides.  As Lehrack describes, “The enemy developed a ‘grab them by the belt’ tactic, which dictated that they get as close to the Marines as possible…”

There are striking details of one chaotic scene after another.  Reading Road of 10,000 Pains is like watching a movie of the entire seven-month campaign in slow motion.  The brutality of the battles and the cruelty of the terrain pour eloquently from the minds and hearts of the survivors.  As noted in Road of 10,000 Pains,  “Each marine lay there in his own small world, a world…of flying hot steel fragments, any one of which could take away in an instant anything he ever was and anything he ever would be.”  The vivid descriptions are so riveting that one can hear the bullets whizzing through the air, the orders barked out, the piercing screams of the wounded or dying.  Rescuers were often shot in the process of retrieving the wounded.  So many marines died so quickly that at one point the men “…moved the wounded to one central location and lined up the dead, wrapped in a formation of blood-streaked ponchos.”   Quietly with no conversation spoken, “every Marine within sight stood at attention and saluted as the bodies went by.”  From the enemy in tunnels, mortar attacks, snipers, python snakes, and wretched thirst, their stories shock, frighten and ultimately, enlighten the rest of us, especially, those left behind. 

Lehrack lists the additional forces that came into the Valley to assist and shore up the Marines.  He rightfully sets aside special honors for the guts and glory of the chopper pilots who flew in under heavy enemy fire to drop off troops, ammunition, water and supplies, or to carry out the wounded and dead. 

Lehrack’s respect for the sheer strength and limitless courage of these Marines pours through his every sentence in Road of 10,000 Pains.  He also expertly guides the reader from a feeling of repulsion for what really happens in combat, to a sense of relief and gratitude that somehow, our men who fought in that valley of death were able to meet the ferocious enemy in equal measure, and scratch out another chance to survive the hell that is war.

However you have come to view the Vietnam War or the troops who fought there, one thing is certain from Lehrack’s Road of 10,000 Pains:  our fighting men did themselves and this country proud.   

Road of 10,000 Pains, the Destruction of the 2nd NVA Division by the U. S. Marines, 1967 by Otto J. Lehrack was a privilege to read. 

A humble thank you to all who served, survived or fell this ferocious campaign.  You will not be forgotten.  

About the author:  Karen St. John is an author and book reviewer for several publications and currently resides in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Additional writings by St. John on veterans’ issues can be viewed at http://web.me.com/kstjohn11/Site/Veterans_Issues.html.  Her personal essays on multiple other topics can be viewed at http://www.stjohnjournals.com.

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