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21 Months, 24 Days
By Dan Lavery (reviewer)
21 Months, 24 Days: A blue-collar kid's journey to the Vietnam War and back
by Richard Udden
(CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015)
"21 Months, 24 Days" by Richard Udden takes the reader from his enlistment, hoping to avoid becoming a grunt as an inexperienced eighteen-year-old kid, to an articulate curious soldier with unbounded energy, learning on the run. Expecting an easy two years working in a trade, he was assigned infantry and sent to Vietnam to fight in a jungle he accurately describes in such detail the reader is with him experiencing the toughest life imaginable. Most every chapter contains photographs that show the details he writes passionately about.
Because of his certificate in Machine Shop Technology, he hoped the Army would use that skill to assign him away from infantry, instead they made him a grunt. After advanced Infantry in Alabama, they sent him to NCO school in Anniston, Alabama, delaying his entry to Vietnam by five months! From Oakland Army Base in California, he boarded an airplane for Vietnam where he landed a day later. Assigned to A Company, First Cav Division, he looked around and felt he had "dropped down through a rabbit hole, to where there was no escape." He would be stuck here for a year at nearby Bien Hoa Air Force Airbase.
Standing guard was grueling as he had to do seven days a week at night, where trip flares were in place in case VC approached. Once they tripped a wire connected to a trip flare, the whole sky would light up. If there were others approaching he could send up a parachute flare to illuminate a larger area. Barbed wire weaved through the area to prevent crawling or running through. Many weapons existed to handle any size of force including claymore mines, machine guns and calling in jet aircraft.
His loneliness grew as he kept sending letters home but had not received any in return even though he knew they were writing. Much later, he was able to receive their mail and gifts. Soon, he was transferred to Fire Support Base called "Buttons," twenty miles from the Cambodian Border, with A Company known as "Ace High" where he received his own M16 rifle, helmet, and joined his fighting group of many experienced veterans. He was in awe of their appearance and proud to be a part of such a unit. Immediately he earned a nickname "Boston Bean" and became emotionally attached.
His first combat assault was when Ace High moved by helicopter into the jungle for about two weeks, where they would resupply soldiers in the field. They moved in, flying over a jungle with six Hueys at two thousand feet at one hundred twenty knots, landed, and dug a large hole to sleep near and store their machine guns, ammo, and equipment. Leeches, bees, and termites attacked where they hadn't sprayed insect repellent. This was living hell. In two weeks, they were back, having completed that mission.
In March 1970, Udden states that Nixon's invasion of Cambodia and the extension of the war was to not allow North Vietnam to take over South Vietnam because that would make us "look helpless and lose face in the world." Many contend though, by extending the war, Nixon's solution cost three million more Vietnamese lives and the lives of more than 20,000 Americans.
Soon, Udden was transferred to Firebase Candy for guard duty, seven miles from the Cambodian border. He was informed the VC used Cambodia for rest, food, ammunition, and relaxation just as our troops used the VIP center. But artillery constantly bombarded the area "to soften up the VC and NVA soldiers just over the Cambodian border." The noise bothered him so much he wanted a transfer to door gunner on a Huey. Soon, they moved out of Candy to find action near the Cambodian border.
Udden was selected for Combat Leadership Training and even spoke with his family using a ham radio link that picked up his sagging spirits like "standing on the moon." The rainy season was far more annoying than the heat of the sun.
Everyone liked Steve from California who was married just before Vietnam, meaning he was not to do combat. Their Colonel was replaced by another whom the men despised for his annoying new orders that exposed them to more danger. Udden later saw a VC up close while foolishly reading a book on patrol. Both dropped to the ground. He felt vulnerable and angry at himself.
In his first real firefight, a few days later while in the jungle in single file, VC machine gun fire hit the group. Dave was shot in the stomach and a Huey took him away. Udden changed that day. It hurt him personally and he felt the need for revenge of his military family. He recalled Biblical support for an eye for an eye retaliation in the Old Testament. Three more men were killed shortly afterwards. When a howitzer sent a shell into their midst three more were hurt badly. He received a promotion to Specialist 4 and made Fire Team leader. A few months later, Udden was promoted to sergeant.
While walking on patrol, someone tripped a wire tied to a grenade in an artillery shell, throwing him in the air with shrapnel hitting Steve in a thigh while he went down. No Medivac could reach there, nor could volunteers, despite hours trying. Steve's death deeply affected Udden.
After his Army life, he married, had two children, and is a retired Control Systems Engineer. He attended a reunion with many of his war pals, visited Steve's family, and honored the dead at the Vietnam Wall. His life stands as a tribute to many who served in our most controversial war.
Dan Lavery graduated Annapolis, navigated a Navy jet, was carrier qualified, earned his NAO wings in Florida, and then a ship to Vietnam. He resigned, turned peace activist, joined VVAW, and became a civil rights lawyer for the UFW, the ACLU, and private civil rights practice. His memoir, "All the Difference," describes his change from a pawn in the military to a crusader for justice.