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

by Abigail Pfeiffer on February 5, 2015

E. Michael Helms

Have you ever had one of those bad days that everything seems to be going wrong? Maybe your car broke down, or the restaurant messed up your order, or your internet is running slow (oh the horror!). We’ve all been there. But I would take any of these problems over the type of hell soldiers go through in war.

Recently I read the Vietnam War memoir The Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam written by E. Michael Helms. In this account, Helms takes the reader through his time in the Marine Corp, starting with his very first days as a Marine at Parris Island to his subsequent deployment to Vietnam in 1967. Helms gives a vivid account of what Marine recruits experience during boot camp with a sense of humor that keeps the reader engaged and entertained, especially with his humorous tales of overly strict Marine boot camp officers. An example of Helms colorful portrayal of Marine boot camp life include this gem: “This evening at chow I got caught talking in the chow line with Dan Coker, a buddy of mine from South Carolina, and now we are going to pay for it but good. It was just a quick whispered exchange about how hungry we both always are, but ol’ Eagle-ears Burns heard us. I swear, that bastard could hear a gnat fart during a tornado.” (Helms, 24) Normally I don’t find myself laughing when reading a war memoir, but in this case, Helms hit my funny bone!

After his experience at Parris Island, Helm was sent to Dong Ha and assigned to the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines – an outfit that had seen substantial combat action by the time Helms arrived. Helms, like every FNG (fucking new guy) in Vietnam, experienced a time of uncertainty upon arrival. After training with the same group of men at Parris island, he found himself knowing only one other soldier from training. As Helm’s tour continued, he became an “old salt” after several combat experiences. Helm’s does a masterful job writing about his combat experiences and making the reader feel a bit of the anxiety a soldier feels during a combat excursion. In Chapter 10, Helms writes about his experience laying an ambush: “Picked out one of the figures and waited for the gun team to blow the ambush. And waited…..and waited…..Jesus H. Christ, guys, they’re getting awfully close….shit, they’re almost on top of us now. What the hell’s the matter with you assholes? God, they must have been sleeping. Should I shoot? Better wait….better blow it now or it may be too late. God, somebody fucking do something!” (Helms, 77)

Helm’s had similar experiences as other young American Vietnam vets – especially the horror of watching friends die violent combat deaths and the incompetency of the military leadership. In Chapter 20, Helm’s writes about going out on an LP (Listening Post – each night a group of soldiers leaves the perimeter and listens for any enemy activity), which needless to say, is not a desired activity by most soldiers. In this particular incident, Helms’ LP group almost mistakenly fired on another group of Marines, as the communication from leadership did not alert them to the other Marine’s presence and Helms’ group assumed they were the enemy. His anger shows through in this passage: “Somebody back at the CP is fixing to catch hell from one lowly PFC. I came that-fucking-close to blowing those bastards away, and if I had they would’ve died and maybe we all would’ve died and who the hell put two LPs in the same area? Worthless sons-of-bitching brass-fucking office pogue rear-echelon bastards can’t even get their shit together enough to keep LPs away from each other so we don’t blow our own shit away! Goddam ‘em, and their fucked up war!” (Helms 183-184)

Perhaps the most troubling part of the book is when Helm’s describes the murder of an American soldier at the hands of another American soldier. When men were sent to Vietnam, they all understood that they risked dying in Vietnam in combat. What most of them probably didn’t anticipate was death by another American. This is a testament to what can happen to men in extended combat situations and how PTSD is a condition that negatively affects our soldiers.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a grunts view of the Vietnam War. It is a straightforward account of one man’s experience in Vietnam in 1967. The reader does not need to be well versed in military jargon in order to enjoy this memoir. While every soldier had their own unique experiences during this war, The Proud Bastards highlights a common thread from most combat memoirs: survival, the brotherhood of soldiers, the crippling fear of combat, and the intense relief to have survived the tour.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Michael Helms February 5, 2015 at 11:48 am

Abigail, thank you for the wonderful review — I really appreciate it! –Michael

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