Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning: The World of a Combat Division in Vietnam

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"In Apocalypse Now some idiot says 'Ah the smell of napalm in the morning.' That's baloney. You smell death one time, you won't like it, I guarantee it." This is the Vietnam War as it was experienced by the average American soldier. It is the story of the men of the 25th Infantry, the "Tropic Lightning" Division. The film Platoon was inspired by the tour of duty of one famous Veteran of the 25th, Oliver Stone - but the images with which these ordinary GIs confront us are as powerful as any movie and often more eloquent. "I waited a few minutes ...
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Overview

"In Apocalypse Now some idiot says 'Ah the smell of napalm in the morning.' That's baloney. You smell death one time, you won't like it, I guarantee it." This is the Vietnam War as it was experienced by the average American soldier. It is the story of the men of the 25th Infantry, the "Tropic Lightning" Division. The film Platoon was inspired by the tour of duty of one famous Veteran of the 25th, Oliver Stone - but the images with which these ordinary GIs confront us are as powerful as any movie and often more eloquent. "I waited a few minutes and I got up and ran, and I fell, and crawled and had tears in my eyes. ... I could hear the rounds hitting close and going by me. It sounds like a dry stick broken in half close to your ear, a snap. ... It felt like the harder I tried to run the slower I was going." The men of the Tropic Lightning Division experienced nearly every facet of the Vietnam War, from tiny skirmishes to the great battles of the Tet Offensive. They confronted a hostile land and climate, fought determined Viet Cong guerrillas, and traded blood with the battle-hardened North Vietnamese Army. They knew the Vietnamese as the enemy, as tenuous allies, and many points in between. Serving in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971, the men of the 25th saw the tempo of the battle swing back and forth. The violent realities, however, remained the same from beginning to end. Based on both interviews with veterans of the 25th and the divisional records, this gripping history provides a vivid view of how the war was actually fought. Listen to what these men have to say about their ordeal - the stifling heat; the brutal terrain; the machinery of death; the horror of being wounded in action; the struggle to bolster morale; life in base camp; life, and death, on patrol. These troops bore the brunt of the Tet Offensive, chased deadly shadows through the Viet Cong's infamous tunnels, and battled the enemy at close quarters during countless swift ambushes and firefights. "Comb

This honest, unflinching narrative presents the personal stories of the 25th Infantry--the division that inspired Oliver Stone's film, Platoon. Bergerud contends that the Vietnam War was lost in the field, where divisions like the 25th Infantry were obliged to fight in massive, expensive, and seemingly pointless campaigns against a stubborn, resilient enemy. Photos.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this gripping oral history of the Vietnam War, soldiers of the 25th Division recount the ways the war was actually fought and the psychological pressures they endured. Bergerud ( The Dynamics of Defeat ) divides his material into broad categories such as weapons (``The Tools of the Trade''); medical care, from the wounding of a soldier through his evacuation and treatment; the antipathy between frontline soldiers and support troops, and relations between Vietnamese civilians and American GIs. Raw memories of combat form the core of this impressive book, as the veterans recall their experiences in a viciously hostile environment--ambushes, minefields, friendly fire (``I was more afraid of our firepower,'' says one vet, ``than of the enemy's''). The men also complain about the paucity of experienced NCOs and the crippling officer-rotation system. Only one group of memories is wholly positive: those of comradeship. Photos. History Book Club selection. (Mar.)
Library Journal
Bergerud's name is a familiar one to students of the Vietnam War. His Dynamics of Defeat ( LJ 11/15/90) was a well-received study of the war in the Hau Nghia province of what was South Vietnam. His latest work studies American participation by examining the war through the eyes of the officers and men of the 25th Infantry Division, nicknamed ``Tropic Lightning.'' The 25th soldiered on in Vietnam from 1966 to 1971 and was the unit in which the director Oliver Stone served. Some 5000 of the names on the Wall, the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., are from the 25th. An outstanding example of the use of personal experiences to describe the nature of the fighting and of the world the soldiers knew, this memoir is a necessary addition to any library collection.-- John R. Vallely, Siena Coll. Lib., Loudonville, N.Y.
Roland Green
Using both documents and oral-history material with skill, Bergerud presents a history of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division ("Tropic Lightning") in Vietnam. The division's service was variously distinguished by the highest killed-in-action total of any American division, through its having a decisive role in the Tet Offensive, and for the service in its ranks of one Oliver Stone. The division is viewed at all levels, from division commander to point man on a patrol, and what emerges is a valuable portrait of how the division functioned in Vietnam and how its successes and failures influenced the "Vietnam experience" of those serving in it. Recommended for larger Vietnam collections.
Kirkus Reviews
Twenty years after the US withdrawal from Vietnam and a spate of books on the war, Bergerud (Military and American History/Lincoln Univ.) offers a fresh and original work that gives essential new insight into the US-Vietnam experience. Ignoring the diplomatic maneuvers of nations and the strategic histories of battles, Bergerud graphically reveals "the world confronted by an American combat division...including...climate, living conditions, deadly combat, and morale," and catalyzes his text with the unvarnished stories of combat veterans. He focuses on the 25th Division; nicknamed "Tropic Lightning," it lost 5000 men between 1966 and 1971. Bergerud notes, for example, the lack of experienced NCOs to lead troops in combat; the Army's answer, he explains, was to create "shake and bake" instant-sergeants drawn from likely looking stateside conscripts who were run through brief courses in leadership and then shipped to the fight. As Armored Cavalry Commander Carl Quickmeyer (one of the author's many interviewees) says of his first tour of duty, "I took over a squad after three months in country...but now, you have four shake-and-bakes and a green platoon leader. And then you had guys who had been there for seven or eight months who didn't have any experience." Explanations of Army standard operations and of soldiers' reactions are definitive and riveting as Bergerud covers the emotions of men in firefights; the quagmire of patrolling the same area hundreds of times; soldier's stories of being wounded; Vietnamese civilians' views of US soldiers; drug use; racial tension; and the Army's withholding of troop-movement intelligence from grunts, even though for them it was vital, possiblylife-saving, information. The war at ground level, in full force. (Photographs and maps—not seen.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813311289
  • Publisher: Westview Press
  • Publication date: 3/16/1993
  • Pages: 328

Meet the Author

Eric M. Bergerud is professor of military and American history at Lincoln University in San Francisco and the author of Touched with Fire: The Land War in the South Pacific, Red Thunder, Tropic Lightning and The Dynamics of Defeat.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Introduction 1
1 A Setting for War: Coping with a Strange and Hostile World 9
Land and Climate 11
The Works of Man 28
2 Tools of the Trade 43
Infantry Weapons 45
Armored Vehicles 63
Supporting Arms: Ground 73
Supporting Arms: Air 77
3 Around in Circles: Warfare in 360 Degrees 89
Preparations for War 94
Intelligence 99
Objectives, Tempo, and Terrain 105
Firefights 132
4 The Shifting Battlefields of Vietnam 149
The Tethered Goat 150
Tet 163
Above the Earth and Below 185
5 WIA: Wounded in Action 195
Wounds 197
Evacuation 200
Care 205
6 The Vietnamese 219
Civilians 221
South Vietnamese Forces 246
Charlie 252
7 To Stand and Fight: Morale in the 25th Division 259
Political Motivation 262
Day by Day 274
Field Morale 290
Epilogue: Last Thoughts from Three Veterans of the Tropic Lightning Division 317
Appendix: A Roster of the 25th Infantry Division 323
List of Terms, Abbreviations, and Acronyms 327
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