The Proud Bastards: One Marine's Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam

The Proud Bastards: One Marine's Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam

4.6 16
by E. Michael Helms

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A riveting memoir of one marine rifleman's journey from Parris Island through the hell of Vietnam and the Tet Offensive with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines.

In 1967, a young E. Michael Helms boarded a bus to the legendary grounds of Parris Island, where mere boys were forged into hardened Marines—and sent to the jungles of Vietnam. It was the first


A riveting memoir of one marine rifleman's journey from Parris Island through the hell of Vietnam and the Tet Offensive with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines.

In 1967, a young E. Michael Helms boarded a bus to the legendary grounds of Parris Island, where mere boys were forged into hardened Marines—and sent to the jungles of Vietnam. It was the first stop on a journey that would forever change him—and by its end, he would be awarded the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

From the brutality and endurance-straining ordeals of boot camp to the endless horror of combat, Helms paints a vivid, unflinchingly realistic depiction of the lives of Marines in training and under fire. As powerful and compelling a battlefield memoir as any ever written, Helms's “grunt's-eye” view of the Vietnam War, the men who fought it, and the mindless chaos that surrounded it, is truly a modern military classic.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Keith William Nolan author of Battle for Hue The best grunt-level, tell-it-like-it-was work I've read....A classic.

The Veterans News A stunning account of war....Like Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, The Proud Bastards is timeless.

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Chapter 1

Boot Camp. Parris Island. God, how I had dreamed about that place! Everything I had read and heard about was true. But my romanticized visions of being molded into a United States Marine at the legendary Recruit Training Depot were about to be quickly and rudely transformed into something more closely akin to a nightmare....

Yes, Mikey, there really is a Drill Instructor who jumps aboard the bus to welcome your arrival. Only, his maniacal ranting and raving and the most god-awful foul-mouthed ear-bending cursing you never wanted to hear serve to quickly dispel my notion that this is going to even remotely resemble the adventure that I had envisioned. I think I really screwed up this time!

Hey, there really are yellow footprints on the pavement for us to line up on as we frantically scramble off the bus at the DI's orders. After being unceremoniously shown how to attain something faintly resembling the military posture of attention, and several of the "herd" being reminded somewhat unkindly that the other foot is the left one, we are "marched" to a wooden building and issued field jackets because it is January and it is late at night or early morning and it is very cold. We don the field jackets over our civilian clothing and they become our security blankets, guarding us from the cold outside and somewhat less from the fear-induced lonely chill inside.

We are "herded" (the DI has given up trying to teach such hopeless worthless pieces of shit how to march this night) to another wooden building, a "holding pen" of sorts. It is crammed with metal-framed bunk beds, thin bare mattresses and pillows with neatly folded green woolen blankets at the foot of each. We are ordered to sleep. We try. We fail. We talk very little, but we think very much -- confused, disoriented, regretful, self-pitying thoughts: What have I done? What have I gotten myself into? Oh shit! is repeated a thousand times in a thousand ways. No one escapes.

Daylight threatens and we are aroused in a surprisingly nonviolent manner by another DI who is not really a DI but at this point we think everyone is a DI. We trudge in mock unison to the shearing room where butchers posing as barbers cause the crowning vestige of our civilian identities to fall in pitiful heaps upon the floor. Blond, black, brunette, red, short, long, curly, straight -- nothing matters. We are now all the same.

Another building and we are stripped of our civilian clothes, shoes, belts and all personal effects. We have nothing. We are nothing. We are issued olive-drab utility shirts and trousers, web belts and brass buckles, soft covers, black boots, socks and skivvies. We put them on. Now we are something: United States Marine Corps recruits -- "boots." We are reminded that we are still worthless pieces of shit who will probably never become real Marines, but even that is better than being nothing or being a civilian. We have been promoted.

The sun is getting high in the clear winter sky now and we have been led to a big tin building by an enraged sergeant who we are sure must be one of our bona fide DIs. He is too mean and nasty to be otherwise. It must be catching -- everyone is being rude as they "issue" buckets, canteens, mess gear, shelter halves and poles, packs, webbed gear, helmets, punches, pokes, slaps and insults to us. We are soon consoled, however, because we are introduced to our "best friend" who will be with us during our trials and tribulations while on the Island -- the M-14 rifle.

We shoulder our burdens and our best friend and double-time toward a large two-story barracks that will be our home until death, desertion, disgrace or graduation do us part.

We are on the second floor of the large white structure and we are standing at attention in front of our racks and we are very scared. Our DIs are introducing themselves to us. Sergeant Bottoms is the DI who escorted us from the tin building. He is young and mean looking and I don't think I like him. Staff Sergeant Burns is slightly paunchy and a sadistical son of a bitch and I'm sure I don't like him. Gunnery Sergeant Franz is our Senior Drill Instructor. He is short, built like a cannon ball, and looks somewhat like a bulldog (although most bulldogs I've seen seemed a lot less ferocious than Gunnery Sergeant Franz).

Our Senior DI has just demonstrated that he doesn't take any insolence or other shit off of any maggot recruit -- a point-of-fact driven home by the prostrate figure gasping for breath on the squadbay's wooden deck. I am much too intimidated to form a quick opinion of Gunnery Sergeant Franz, as I strongly suspect he can read minds.

We have been instructed as to the proper way to address our Drill Instructors ("Sir, Private so-and-so requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor, Sir!"); have learned never to refer to ourselves in the first-person ("I"), and never, never (Oh Jesus, save my young ass!) refer to our Drill Instructors as "you" ("You? You? Are you calling me a 'ewe', Private? With a yard of dick and a sack full of balls, how dare you call me a female sheep!").

We have also learned that Marine Corps Drill Instructors are all hard of hearing ("Sir, yes Sir!" I can't hear you. "Sir, yes Sir!" I still can't hear you, ladies! "Sir, yes Sir!" Say it like you've got a set, you worthless cunts! "Sirrr, yesss Sirrr!!!").

We are in a brick building filling out forms according to a corporal's instructions when I see it. The clock on the wall. It is two o'clock in the afternoon of the first day. Oh god, this can't be true! I'm sure I've been here almost forever, and it's only two o'clock? The first day? Maybe I'm dreaming. That's it. We must be filling out some final forms. Soon we'll leave here and march to the parade grounds and pass-in-review and graduate. It can't still be the first day -- my entire eighteen years haven't lasted this long. But it is. Two o'clock. The first day. Jesus, how time flies when you're having fun.

"Sir, Private Helms requests permission to speak to the Drill Instructor, Sir."

We are back in our barracks and standing at attention in front of our racks (as we must do at all times unless we have been otherwise instructed) and I am feeling sick and I am sure I am going to throw up.


"Sir, Private Helms requests permission to make a head call, Sir." (We have learned that Marines piss and shit and shave and brush their teeth in the "head," not the bathroom.)

"What's the matter, maggot, fixing to mess your drawers?"

"Sir, no Sir. The private is about to throw up, Sir."

"You will not throw up on my beautiful clean deck, will you, Private?"

"Sir, no Sir!"

"Because if you do puke on my beautiful clean deck, you will take a spoon and eat it all up, won't you, Private?"

"Sir, yes Sir!"

"And you will take a fork and eat up all the chunky pieces, won't you, maggot?"

"Sir, yes Sir!"


"Aye, aye, Sir!"

I double-time down the squadbay and through the hatchway leading to the head. I race to a toilet as waves of salty spit well-up from my throat. I spit into the bowl a few times but don't puke. The nausea subsides. I run back to my rack and assume my statue position.

Time passes. How much time is impossible to ascertain in our bewildered state. We continue to stand frozen before our racks, afraid to commit so much as a twitch lest we incur the wrath of our Drill Instructors. We have been commanded to stand still. We do. A flurry of incoherent thoughts bombards my consciousness: I am hungry I feel sick I am not really here I am tired I am dreaming I am in a world of shit I do not belong here I think I will tell my Drill Instructor that I have made a mistake and changed my mind and could I please go home now but I don't want to die and that would be suicide this shit can't be real I will wake up soon I can't take this much longer maybe they will let me go home if I just explain that I think I want to change my mind no hard feelings but this isn't quite what I expected the recruiter didn't tell me this shit.

It is late in the afternoon and we are marching to chow, our first meal on the Island. At least I think it is our first meal but I can't be sure because we have been here a long time and we should have eaten before but I don't think we have so this must be our first meal. We "stand at rigid attention -- asshole to bellybutton" in single-file waiting to enter the hatchway leading to the mess hall.

In turn we reach the serving counter, execute a left-face, grab a metal tray and lift it smartly upward so that we are staring at our tray as if it were a mirror. We sidestep along the chow line one pace at a time, ever-fighting the temptation to avert our eyes from our muddled reflection toward the myriad sights, sounds and smells our befuddled senses are now starting to detect.

The recruit to my right has dared to remove a hand from his tray to scratch his ear and Staff Sergeant Burns who must have eyes in the back of his head has snatched him out of line and flung him into a table and is proceeding to deride the poor unfortunate's family heritage in a most vile and profane manner. I instantly become self-mesmerized by a tiny speck of dried food clinging to a section of my tray. Up and down the line other miscreants are falling prey to the Drill Instructors' eagle-eyed vision and the mess hall has become a gymnasium as numerous recruits perform various punitive exercises under the guiding berating of a host of DIs. United States Marine Corps Drill Instructors are obviously oblivious to the fact that stress is detrimental to the digestive processes of the human body. But then, we are not human beings, we are mere recruits, boots, maggots, scumbags, lower than whale shit which lies on the bottom of the ocean.

As we reach the servers we lower our trays to receive our chow, being careful to keep our eyes locked straight ahead. The ones serving our chow are also recruits, but they are much different than we are. There is a certain "air" about them. They are "salty." They are in the last stages of their training. Their metamorphosis is nearly complete. They will soon be real Marines. We feel like shit before their eyes and they know it and they love it. The bastards.

We proceed to our tables where we are commanded to sit in unison, bow our heads in unison and pray in unison. Finally, Gunnery Sergeant Franz barks the long-awaited order:


With relish I gaze hungrily at the contents of my heavily laden tray. Oh, god! Liver and onions floating in a milky gravy. I think I am going to be sick again. I can't possibly eat this shit! But I do, because I have been ordered to. I just hope I don't have to eat it again later, off the squadbay deck....

Dear Mama,

I have arrived here at Parris Island, and it's just about what I expected. They treat us pretty rough, but it's all for our own good. I'll just have to stick it out and do my best.

It has been the longest day that I can remember. It seemed like at least three weeks.

You ought to see my hair! I look like Yul Brynner! I've met a few guys and am getting along fine.

How is everybody doing? I hope y'all are doing fine. I don't have much time but my return address is on the envelope. Tell everybody to write soon.

Love, Mike

I have hurriedly scribbled down this letter during what's left of our "free time." We are graciously allotted thirty minutes each night to sit on our inverted buckets and write home to family or friends. Of course, before we can attend to such correspondence, we must first shit shower shave brush our teeth scrub our web belts and soft covers shine our brass buckles polish our boots and -- most importantly -- clean and oil our best friend M-14 rifle. Then we can lounge upon our buckets and write to our heart's content.

I really like the stationery. The Marine Corps has graciously provided us worthless shitbirds with matching writing paper and envelopes with the Iwo Jima flag-raising emblazoned on them. Despite the shock and rigors of the past hours, a faint glimmer of esprit de corps stirs somewhere deep within our gut as we gaze upon the immortalized image of real Marines from long ago. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope for us yet.

"Prepare to mount!"

Oh, shit! Staff Sergeant Burns and Sergeant Bottoms have come to tuck us in. We stand before our racks and "count off." There are seventy-seven lowly maggot recruits on deck.


One hundred fifty-four elbows and seventy-seven assholes swing madly into motion, scrambling frantically into seventy-seven racks and lie frozen at attention.

"Get out of them goddamn racks you goddamn shit maggots you're too goddamn slow!"

One hundred fifty-four elbows and seventy-seven assholes levitate to instant attention before their racks.


Another frenetic dive to our racks.

Another tirade of blasphemous oaths as Sergeant Bottoms this time beckons us to exit our racks.

After five or six tries we must have gotten it right, or maybe they have just given up on trying to teach us hopeless ones the proper manner of retiring for the night. At any rate, we have just finished singing the "Marine's Hymn" and the Lord's Prayer, still lying at attention.

"Goodnight, ladies!"

"Sir, goodnight, Sir!"

"I can't hearrr youuu!"

"Sirrr, goodnight, Sirrr!!!"


Exhaustion prevails, mercifully ending the long day.

Copyright © 1990 by E. Michael Helms

Meet the Author

E. Michael Helms turned down a chance to play college baseball and joined the United States Marine Corps after high school graduation. As a rifleman with the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines (The Magnificent Bastards), he was involved in some of the heaviest fighting of the Vietnam War, including the Tet Offensive of 1968. For his service, Helms was awarded the Purple Heart Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Citation, and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, and was honorably discharged in 1969.

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Proud Bastards 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I found this book by accident at a public library a few years back. I saw the 4th Marine Regiment crest on the cover and it caught my eye-I served a tour in Vietnam in 65-66 as an FMF Corpsman with the 4th. I read it in one night-stopping several times to catch my breath. Mike put into words a lot of what I saw but did not have the skill or nerve to write about. He had me smelling the jungle, gun solvent, woodsmoke and fear all over again. The book brought back vivid memories of things I had completly forgotten. His in-your-face honesty hit home like nothing I have read before or since. This book is outstanding and I recommend it highly for vets who are still trying to figure things out and for non vets who want to know what it was really like. A great book by a guy who was there. Larry Hill
JeannieWalker More than 1 year ago
"Lock and Load" - For some reason, this reminds me of Flight 93 with Todd Beamer and the heroism shown by him and all the 40 victims on that flight. Todd's last audible words on the last day of his life, "Are you guys ready? Okay, let's roll!" The heroes on that doomed flight fought to stop terrorists from reaching their target, and ultimately gave their lives in order to save others on September 11, 2001.This is a memoir and grunt's eye view of the jungle combat in Viet Nam and the fierce fight with the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) with occasional battles waged by the Viet Cong. The author saw and experienced the horrors of combat. He didn't die in the jungle warfare, but he lived with the scars and vividly remembered the heroism and courage of the men who fought with him. I personally applaud the young E. Michael Helms, who boarded a bus and took a journey that made him a hardened Marine. I am sure he deserved each and every medal that was awarded to him. The author tells it like it was. He describes the brutal war with authenticity, truthfulness and faithfulness. What more can anyone ask for in a memoir? I believe anyone who takes the time to check out and read "The Proud Bastards" will come away with what it is like to face, encounter and relive painful memories of things you will never forget, but people you will always remember. It took a lot of courage to become a Marine, and journey into jungle warfare. It also took a lot of courage to write this battlefield memoir.Some of my relatives were Marines, and they were known to swell with pride from time to time. Marines are ingrained with Semper Fidelis and they are "Always Faithful". Their brotherhood is something that we can all learn from.  I hope everyone picks up and reads this compelling book. If there ever was a modern day classic - this is it...
tomdavidson More than 1 year ago
Nothing wrong with being a proud bastard. We earned it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Perhaps the best book about combat I've ever read. The writing is superb, and like all good writing, becomes transparent as you are carried into the story. The setting is horrific, the language raw, as you share a teenager's thoughts and emotions in the face of violent death. Words are not wasted here - the writing is spare and accurate. There is no moralizing about the 'meaning' of the war. In effect, the author says, 'Here's my story. Draw your own conclusions.' My conclusion is that Mr. Helms is one hell of a writer!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really enjoyed this book. Was easy reading with the story moving right along. The way it's written lets you get into his head and understand his feelings. Worth a read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is the best book by far that I have read about the Marine Corps and Vietnam. Mike Helms really tells it like it was!This is very much required reading for anyone who wants the truth about the Marine Corps in Vietnam. as a former 'Grunt' corpsman,I can say this book really brings it all back. If he writes another book,you can bet I will stand in line to get it! Way to go,Mike! SEMPER FI!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
'The Proud Bastards' is truely one of the greatest Vietnam War books ever written. Michael Helms tells his true and painful story of MARINE boot camp and the hells of Vietnam. This book is intense and extremely realistic(because it's true). It is a story about a right of passage and a young mans journey to manhood through the horrors of war. A must buy for everyone who is intested in the Vietnam War. WELCOME HOME and SEMPER FI, Mike! --Rick Swartzlander
Guest More than 1 year ago
As someone for whom the idea of 'war' has never been anything more than a vague specter lurking somewhere in other people's pasts, I eagerly suggest that 'The Proud Bastards' should be required reading for those of us who are lucky enough to have never had first-hand experience. In a voice rivalling the fluidity of Kerouac, Michael Helms has managed to weave together the intense -- the almost too intense -- story of his travails through bootcamp and into the thick of the Vietnam ground war. But this is not just a book about war. It is a book about relationships forged in the surrealistic heat of battle; it is about psychological self-preservation; it is about instinct under pressure; it is about young men, many of them teenagers, whose previous notions of life, loyalty, and purpose are put to a test the likes of which no human being should ever have to face...and the gut-wrenching task, then, of trying to reconcile these notions with ultimate reality. In simplest terms, 'The Proud Bastards' is about going to hell, and, for the too few fortunate, returning. The descriptions and accounts are excruciatingly vivid, the personalities are real...but through all the death and destruction, Helms somehow manages to convey much of his story with the most therapeutic of human instincts -- a sense of humor, if only out of desperation. Based on reviews I've seen by veterans far and wide, it is apparent that 'The Proud Bastards' has done justice to the experience of war. As for the rest of you...dig in, do a shot of rot-gut Bourbon, and read this book. You will not regret it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
DiiMI More than 1 year ago
It takes courage to enlist knowing you will be dumped into one of the ugliest and most controversial wars of recent history, Vietnam. To bare your soul and write about the horrors, nightmares and fear endured while trying to maintain your humanity and come home alive, well, that goes beyond any courage I could ever possess. E. Michael Helms has given this reader an eye-opening experience into the hell he lived in from Boot Camp to Vietnam and he does it with dignity, grace and stark honesty. Proud Bastards is Mr. Helms’ journey, the good, the bad and the ugly, told as only one who lived through the assault on his senses, his person and his heart as he struggled to survive intact, emotionally, mentally and physically. Watching comrades fall, dealing with the brutality of an extreme foreign climate, smelling death and suffering all around, Mr. Helms brings each page to life with his words until, from the safety of your arm chair, one feels they are there beside him every step of the way, from the young man naïve to war, to life as a fighting marine whose heart and mind are forever filled with people, places and events that are a huge part of the history he lived. E. Michael Helms knows how to tell a story from the heart, pulling no punches, while riveting his audience to every single word he writes as his tale honors all of those who have stepped onto a battlefield knowing they may never leave. Mr. Helms makes his personal journey, our journey, I laughed, I cried and my heart raced as I hung on every word. Despite one’s personal feelings about war, there is no way to ignore the strength and courage of the individuals who stood tall and dug deep when needed. That is how powerful E. Michael Helms’ writing is. Well Done!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
like it but slow beginning
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