Vietnam War River Patrol
A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta
Richard H. Kirshen
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2017, 260 pages
Book Review published on: April 26, 2019
Richard H. Kirshen’s Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta provides an amusing and yet thought-provoking, first-person account of the author’s tour in Vietnam circa 1969 juxtapositioned with a luxury riverboat cruise he took with family in 2012. It is always appreciated to hear a compelling story situated in a war zone told by a person who lived it. This one begins in 1967 with Kirshen avoiding the unknowns of his draft notice by taking a calculated risk of enlisting in the Navy. His civilian logic was sound: avoid ground combat with the Army or Marines in Vietnam by joining the Navy and serving on a ship out in the open ocean. His logic proved to be true for eighteen months, during which he attended the Navy version of boot camp in San Diego and an electronics and electricity course in San Francisco followed by an operational assignment on the USS Banner, a ship based in Yokosuka, Japan. Upon leaving the Banner, however, Kirshen’s plan began to break down. He left Japan, attended the Navy Dive School at Subic Bay, Philippines, and afterward received orders to deploy to Vietnam where he served as an LCM-6 gunboat captain. In his own words, “I considered the Mekong Delta to be the third most dangerous place for human beings in the year 1969. I ranked it slightly behind the moon and Washington, D.C.”
Flash forward over forty years, and his wife and family propose a return trip to Vietnam aboard a luxury river cruise ship. This is the nexus of the book. Kirshen reflects on his past and eventually capitulates to the idea. From there, the two stories of Kirshen’s Vietnam—one from the past and the other from the present—are woven together for the reader. The stories from his tour in Vietnam and his survival there are extremely interesting. The luxury riverboat stories were far less compelling but were an interesting way for Kirshen to link back to his past in Vietnam. Comparing and contrasting the past with what he was experiencing in the present along some of the same expanses of the river was enlightening. What I found most interesting was the universality of some of his experiences during a war in Vietnam over forty years ago to my personal experiences during a war in Iraq in 2007. I imagined that if I were to return to Baghdad in the future, I might experience some of these same feelings, both good and bad.
The book provided an ample amount of black-and-white photographs and other artifacts that helped to convey the story of the author’s past experience in Vietnam. Having the current river cruise pictures also presented in black and white completed the blending of the author’s two diverse experiences in Vietnam. This book would be a good read for historians who want nonfictional or anecdotal evidence of combat-related experiences in Vietnam. The book would also be helpful in corroborating experiences in combat by Army soldiers using a person who served in combat but was not in the Army.
Book Review written by: Paul Sanders, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas