ON THE GROUND BOOK REVIEW

By Ray Calafell

By: GARY WARTH


By Ray Calafell

ON THE GROUND: The Secret War in Vietnam
By John S. "Tilt" Meyer, with John Peters

   Although memories fade with time, there are some that will immediately jump back into your consciousness with the hair-trigger of a scent, a sound, and in the beginning of this second book by CCN recon man Tilt Meyer, a misty rain over windswept treetops seen while listening to his youngest daughter play the piano at her private lesson.  His mind is transported to a place and time very distant from the pleasing sounds of his beloved little Alaina's melodies and to a world where his life could have ended, guaranteeing that hers would have never begun.  Such is the plunge on which the author takes his reader right from the start of this action-filled book of the memories of some of CCN's recon men as they take the fight right to the North Vietnamese Army on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

   Tilt has managed to get some of the other, usually tight-lipped recon men of MACV/SOG's Command and Control North detachment to open up to him and to finally put to paper and thus preserve for the ages more stories of their many close calls, and oh so many more acts of unheralded bravery.  Some of his best writing is reserved, as it should be, for the first-person narratives of his own struggles with the rear-echelon troops that are so eager to impose their will on the men whose lives they put at risk, and the conflict it causes within courageous men who undertake these missions more for themselves than for any vain glory.  However, that is not to say that he neglects the numerous stories of the other recon men of CCN.  To the contrary, Tilt has devoted the majority of this second book to many previously untold stories of men and teams that have previously been unknown to all but the very few who participated in these missions.  This is good, since history waits for no man, and as we get older and fewer, these stories will die with us.

   Perhaps one of the most significant stories put to paper in this book concerns the events of August 23, 1968, when a large contingent of NVA sappers caused the single largest loss of life for the men of SOG.  This attack on the DaNang compound has been previously written about in at least two other books.  However, I can assure you that no more historically-accurate description of this "night in Hell" exists.  The events of that terrible night have been meticulously detailed by the men who were there and each of their stories has been masterfully woven into the tapestry which the authors reveal to the reader for the first time anywhere.  They have managed to piece together the many separate, eye level events as experienced by the survivors, including author John Peters; added the observations of the recon team that was pulling security on top of Marble Mountain, and the after-action investigations by both the Army and the Marine Corps which showed the extent of complicity in the attack by the villagers around Marble Mountain, the South Vietnamese military police (QC) and even some of the indigenous camp guards.  This series of events make for the single best after-action report you will ever read regarding this battle.  This alone makes the book indispensable for any Vietnam history buff.

   Another important aspect of the book is its continuing documentation of the bravery of the "little people" that fought and died alongside our men.  Their memories and names are forever preserved, something that Tilt has made a significant part of this book.  These men had names and faces which should never be forgotten, and now they will not.  One of the bravest, and already known to those who may have read other books on SOG missions, is the intrepid Captain An, Kingbee pilot extraordinaire.  The whop - whop blade-chop of the old warhorse Captain An piloted was familiar to teams on the ground and under fire . . . and no more pleasing sound to the ears of a recon man existed, since An never refused a mission to recover a team under withering fire and on the verge of annihilation.  It is therefore not surprising that several more of Captain An's exploits are documented within these pages.

   The beauty of the book is that because Tilt has made it an anthology, the stories provide the reader with a broad set of experiences from different perspectives.  Some of these are macabre, such as the chapter dealing with a deadly encounter with a bouncing betty mine.  Others are humorous, such as the incident involving taking the little people to an outdoor showing of 1951's "Little Big Horn" with Lloyd Bridges and the not-unexpected ending - and I am not speaking of the film's ending!  Several stories deal with taut, gripping, life-and-death missions into Oscar 8, the deadliest map reference for a SOG team . . . with the bottom-line being: Oscar 8 will still send chills up the spine of every recon man alive.

   One of SOG's most successful post-Vietnam careers is that of now-retired Major General Eldon A. Bargewell, who ran recon with CCN as a non-commissioned officer and One-Zero of RT Michigan.  A previously untold story of his run-in with a bunker complex full of pristine intelligence material is rich with evidence of why Eldon has always enjoyed the deepest respect of his men.  Although short, the Chapter fills the book with the character of a man who certainly left his imprint on all who served with him.

   Perhaps the most painful chapter in the book concerns Tilt's own return to "the world" upon the conclusion of his first tour.  The angst felt by him is not unfamiliar to those who served in combat with small units and who formed strong bonds with the men with whom they fought.  Assignment to Ft. Devens instead of Bragg and the shock of SF men who bragged about avoiding duty in Vietnam while getting out of shape in the 10th Group sends Tilt running to Mrs. Billye Alexander in the Pentagon, who works her legendary magic to get this SOG man back to his "family."

   Military history readers are fortunate that so many of SOG's warriors are excellent writers, otherwise these snapshots of a time in history when young men strapped on their gear and headed into the mists of the deadliest jungle in the world at that time would have been lost forever.  Tilt Meyer's flashback, put down on paper, has added some well-crafted photos to the SOG album . . . one that his beloved little Alaina will be able to show her children one day and say: this is what MY daddy did in that war, so very long ago. 

   Get this book - you owe it to your grandchildren.

   Ray Calafell (10/17/06)       

ON THE GROUND:  The Secret War in Vietnam
By John S. "Tilt" Meyer, with John Peters
Price: $24.95
Published by Levin Publications Group, LLC, a subsidiary of Leatherneck Publishing, Inc.
To purchase the book, go to www.realwarstories.com
 

By: GARY WARTH -

Staff Writer As the Vietnam War becomes a distant memory for many Americans, at least one local veteran is doing his part to tell people about another war they may have never even known.

J. Stryker Meyer, an Oceanside resident and North County Times columnist, is a former Green Beret who served two tours of duty with Special Forces, which fought covert operations in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam during the years of the Vietnam War.

Meyer, 61, who was told he could not talk about his experience for 20 years, has now written about his experiences in two books published by RealWarStories.com: "Across the Fence" (2003) and, most recently, "On the Ground" ($24.95).

   
Both are subtitled "The Secret War in Vietnam." The cover of his newest book also states: "They were wounded or killed in places where they never went."

"Vietnam was 40 years ago, and today, there's a lot of people who don't know where Vietnam is," Meyer said. "Today, a lot of people don't know about the Vietnam war, and especially the secret wars."

The book, which includes several photos Meyer accumulated from friends over the years, has many first-person accounts of several chilling encounters with enemy forces in Laos.

"I never took pictures," he said. "We couldn't keep diaries, and we signed a document saying for 20 years, we would talk to no one about these missions. And that meant no pictures, no diaries. I was pretty much lame-brained and followed the rules. Fortunately, some friends of mine didn't."

As he set out to write the book, Meyer found he didn't need a diary. Narrow escapes, fiery gun battles and other encounters with the enemy were not memories easily forgotten, he found.

In the introduction to his book, Meyer revealed how shackled he sometimes is to the war his country would not acknowledge for years.

Describing a tranquil scene of his daughter practicing piano at home while he gazed at some wind-swept trees in the distance, Meyer wrote how the image triggered a flashback to North Vietnam.

"We made for a stand of trees about 100 meters away, although the thick vegetation made it agonizingly slow," he wrote. "My throat felt parched and tight from moving so quickly. I knew every second that ticked past decreased the odds of us getting out."

The flashback continued, and Meyer described seeing trees swept by the wind of approaching helicopters as he reloaded and emptied his rifle. His daughter's voice snapped him out of the flashback.

"We don't always know when or why, but these memories come back to us, reminders of what we did and who we were in another time," he wrote.

Although his memories are vivid, Meyer turned to his friend and former Green Beret John Peters for help, as he thought Peters could tell his own story better. Peters not only wrote his own chapter, but edited, rewrote and contributed so much to the book that he was given a co-author credit. Meyer said the new book reads more like a novel than his last book because of Peters.

"He's one of these scary-bright people," Meyer said about serving with Peters. "He was fearless."

The book is not a historical perspective of why America crossed the Vietnam border for a secret war. Rather, it's the story of the men who fought the war, often with the help of the Bru, members of the Montagnard tribe, whom Meyer described as "just four months out of the jungle and loincloths." The Bru were 14 to 18 years old. and, while not skilled in modern warfare, were an asset to the Americans because of their fierce hatred of the North Vietnamese, who had driven them off their ancestral lands.

In one chapter, Meyer's description of the Laotian countryside is a startling juxtaposition of the brutality he saw in combat.

"Moving north along the ridgeline, we began gradually descending, often encountering one beautiful new vista after another," he wrote. "The mountain atmosphere sparked fond memories of skiing in the Rockies and hiking, without a gun, along the Presidential Range in New Hampshire's White Mountains."

At noon that day, his team found an area overrun with thousands of wild orchids, which reminded him of ones he saw selling for $5 to $50 back home in a New Jersey flower shop. The men ran through the field like happy children, he wrote, picking the flowers and sticking them in their hair, teeth, behind their ears and in buttonholes.

About four hours later, Meyer and his small team came across North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Meyer radioed for air support and three other men on his team ambushed the approaching enemy. The Americans were trapped for a while, and Meyer described his air support as "the most beautiful napalm dive I'd ever seen."

Meyer writes matter-of-factly about gun battles and said he has no idea how many enemy he killed during his two tours, but even during the heat of battle his conscience at times was triggered.

Spotting a sniper with a rifle-propelled grenade (RPG) climbing into a tree, Meyer wrote that he put the man in his sights of his CAR-15, a Colt submarine gun. For the first time in his 16 months of missions, Meyer extended the stock of the collapsible gun to stabilize his aim for a far shot. While many of the men he had shot were not even visible through the thick forest, Meyer could clearly see this target.

"It was the one time in Vietnam where I actually had a soldier in my sun sights for several minutes," he said. "I could see him in a tree maybe 200 yards away. I could see him pick up the RPG. At one point, one of my guys moved and he saw him. He put his round in his RPG and I had this moment where I thought of my third-grade Sunday School teacher saying, 'Thou shalt not kill."

Meyer wrote that he silently hoped the sniper would back down, but as he watched him aim at one of his men, he fired his shot.

"In a troubling way, it seemed unfair, or unsportsmanlike," he wrote. "But war is not designed to be a sporting contest. If the situation were reversed, I had little doubt what he would opt to do."

Meyer and his fellow troops were often in such kill-or-be-killed situations. Three chapters of his book are dedicated to a firefight that cost the lives of 18 Green Berets, the biggest single-day loss in the history of Special Forces.

After two tours of duty and clashes with a commanding officer who he said almost got him killed, Meyer left the Army and Vietnam. He never returned to either, but said he would one day like to visit Vietnam.

Contact staff writer Gary Warth at (760) 740-5410 or gwarth@nctimes.com.