LETTERS TO PAT chronicles the day by day events of Bill Eshelman, a young Marine Captain writing home to his wife. Hoping to command a U.S. infantry company in combat, Eshelman is instead ordered to advisory duty with a Vietnamese Marine battalion. The ensuing months present new challenges: dealing with US headquarters, the Vietnamese way of doing things and contact with the enemy. Military history buffs will relate to the major battles described. Letters to Pat offers details in what the author believed was necessary to be a successful military advisor, in particular his relationship with his Vietnamese counterparts. “I make no attempt to buy my way into their friendship other than to accept them for who they are, eat their food, live with them, and help with advice when they ask for it …and when they need US support, give them everything I can get!”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bill Eshelman, graduated from the US Naval Academy and served 35 years as a Marine, retiring as a Major General in 1994. His career covered many different command and staff positions, but it was during his time as a military advisor to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion in combat that he recorded his actions and thoughts on an almost daily basis in letters written to his wife. These letters plus notes from his combat journal form the basis of his book written 50 years after his 1967-68 experience.
Bill Eshelman has written a wonderful account of his reflections while serving his year in Vietnam. Through the letters to his wife, Pat, at the time he served there as a young officer, he has recaptured the thoughts, impressions, and feelings of a Marine at war in a strange environment. Those of us who share his experiences can easily relate to his story. This is a great read for all who want to experience Vietnam first hand as it was experienced by a young Marine at the time.
—General Anthony C. Zinni, USMC (Retired)
First and foremost, the book is extremely well written and meaningful. Publishing the book can do a significant service to all Marines who served in Vietnam, particularly those who served as covans to the VNMC. The frustrations and personal internal conflicts described are shared by many, if not all of us. They certainly strike a chord with me.
There have been many accounts of this conflict, but most have been focused at the national, Vietnam theater or combat unit level. Eshelman brings the conflict to the level of the individual young Marine Officer, trying to do the job his country has sent him to do, with all the real emotions and questions that ran through our minds. In sharing his detailed thoughts, through frequent letters to Pat, he will open that world to many who could not enter it otherwise. I applaud the dedication and talent in writing this wonderful book.
—Lieutenant General James A. Brabham, Jr., USMC (Retired)
Once I got started, I had a hard time stopping—awaiting the next day or two—to see what happened. I like the format and the mixing of planning, combat, experiences with higher headquarters, side comments on the war in general, some appropriate pictures, and personal feelings at different times of the character and fighting ability of the individual Viet Nam Marines.
I personally think the book is an easy read and was made better by the added explanation in italics. The coverage of the Tet Offensive is compelling.
—Colonel Joseph Flynn, USMC (Retired)
I have now finished reading Letters to Pat—wishing there was even more yet! It should be a best seller—but more important, it should be required reading for those aspiring to be Marine officers.
Eshelman shows an intimate recollection of immersion with a TQLC infantry battalion in combat, sharing the extreme hardships, and skillfully advising/supporting a reluctant counterpart battalion commander . . . with the patience of Job!
He has created a most credible and unique insider, on the ground, vivid account (in constant rain, extreme heat, streams, mud/muck and otherwise jungle conditions) of what it was like in 1967-68 in RVN, including the Tet offensive and Hue City/Citadel siege—now 50 years ago.
—Colonel James H. Tinsley, USMC (Retired)
I completely concur with Eshelman’s conclusions. Despite his valor, we as a Country didn’t appreciate the staying power and history of NVN. They won and we lost.
I really enjoyed this superbly written book, the feelings, the dedication and the honesty. The self-effacing style and clear courage shown are why I am such a fan of our Marine Corps.
—Captain Robin Battaglini, USN (Retired)
A really good read. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of the ’68 Tet fight in Saigon and Hue Citadel. The assessment of the VNMC performance mirrors mine in 1970-71. I wish this book had been available for me to read before my tour as an advisor. The insights on counterpart relationship and frustration with trying to improve VNMC operational effectiveness would have helped me do a better job.
—Colonel James McClung, USMC (Retired)
Providing military advisors to foreign security forces continues to be a key component of US National Security Strategy. Eshelman’s “Letters to Pat,” drawn from his letters and journal written during his service in Vietnam, will be of value to anyone with either a historical interest or an interest in advisory efforts today. Counterpart relationships, cultural differences, support from higher authority, and physical hardships are among the relevant aspects covered in a clear and direct writing style.
—Colonel William Fite, USMC (Retired)
Eshelman is a very talented writer. After reading the book I know exactly what he did and how he tried to make the ARVN chain of command work instead of over reliance on using the advisor channels. Knowing many of those he served with made the book even more interesting to me. The strength of our Corps is the advantage we have knowing each other.
That said, I think all Covans would be interested in this book, as well as anyone else interested in the Vietnam War. I would recommend it to any university with a military history department, including West Point and Annapolis.
—Lieutenant Colonel E. George Rivers, USMC (Retired)
I found Eshelman’s recounting of the daily life of a Marine, especially as an advisor to the Vietnamese military, compelling. The book brings vividly to life struggles experienced in trying to coordinate US and South Vietnamese military activities. At times he sees the US attitude toward the South Vietnamese as the problem; at other times he reflects on the failure of the Vietnamese to assume responsibility for what should have been properly theirs. The Vietnamese “have learned that if they drag their feet long enough, the advisor will use US assets to accomplish the mission while they watch.”
The work also describes the failure to successfully pacify hamlets, coping with sickness and battlefield wounds (his own and others), grieving the death of companions, enduring the rain, missing his family, the constant demand for numbers that were in the process of being passed on often inflated, and emerging questions about the way the whole conflict was being prosecuted, and the emerging sense of the ‘senseless nature of it all.’
In addition, Eshelman recounts memorably what it means to go for extended periods without toilets, hot water, clean body and clothes while at the same time daily wading through muddy water up to one’s shoulders, while engaging an enemy that appears and then quickly vanishes. Yet the letters also reflect the ongoing desire of one trained to fight, to actually engage in combat, to be tested on the battlefield, to “miss not being in the action”, a desire most civilians, I am confident, have never come close to experiencing.
Living with death and the reality of the matter-of-fact documenting and reporting of death and often the lack of time to be emotional about it all at the time is a matter Eshelman also reflects on as he looks back on his experiences.
I also found commendable his effort to engage with the Vietnamese by learning their language, eating their food, and, in general, socializing with them.
Finally, Eshelman gets off his chest his often-experienced feeling that “the only people who want[ed] the war to end [were] the peasants. The Vietnamese politicians and the upper ranking military officers . . . never had it better . . . what with payoffs from a thriving black market.
Among the many striking statements in the book is the one to be taken in the context of doing what one has been trained to do and asked by your country to do: “It does no good to attempt to weigh the good and the bad. There is no good, and I reject the bad in order to live with myself.”
— Dr. Robert M. Baird, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Baylor University