Time in the Barrel
A Marine’s Account for the Battle of Con Thien
James P. Coan
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2019, 256 pages
Book Review published on: May 24, 2019
U.S. Marine Corps combat base Con Thien, affectionately known as the “hill of angels” for its natural beauty, was more like “hell on Earth” in September of 1967 when 2nd Lt. James Coan reported for duty as the Tank Platoon commander of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment. Coan led his fellow marines for eight months, but his first thirty days proved to be the most dangerous as the base fell under an intense artillery siege that was compounded by horrendous monsoon rains. His book Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle of Con Thien provides a straightforward and unembellished account of leadership, patriotism, and survival on and around the hills he called “red clay bullseyes.” For Coan, this book was a long time coming.
After his return to “the world” from his year in Vietnam, Coan began writing about his tour of duty as a form of self-therapy. Years later, he determinedly finished the story, drawing on the diary he kept and with help from his wife and others, as a way to pay tribute to those who served and selflessly sacrificed themselves during the Vietnam War. He achieved this and much more, virtually re-creating the Battle of Con Thien to the point where you can almost hear the screeching of rounds coming overhead and feel the intense overpressure created from their explosions in your chest and ears, while the mud forces its way between your fingers as you claw the ground to escape it all. His masterful application of the first-person narrative invariably pulls the reader into the story almost as another member of the platoon.
In 1967, the scale and intensity of combat increased dramatically, originating out of the long-standing demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. The most northern area of South Vietnam fell under the command of the Army of Republic of Vietnam I Corps. Until late 1966, it was defended by Army of Republic of Vietnam troops, the III Marine Amphibious Force, and, in the case of Con Thien, U.S. Special Forces. Due to Con Thien’s commanding hilltop terrain in the flat Bến Hải River valley situated two miles south of the DMZ, the U.S. Marine Corps turned it into a combat base by the beginning of 1967. The base repelled several North Vietnamese Army (NVA) probes and defeated a major attack in May of 1967, leaving 49 marines and 197 NVA soldiers dead. This battle reverberated all the way back to Washington, D.C., leading to the major policy shift of immediately demilitarizing the DMZ. After four months of intense offensive operations in the DMZ, the U.S. Marine Corps cleared it out. Then on September 3rd, the day after free elections, the NVA turned to siege tactics, unleashing a continuous bombardment of rocket, artillery, and mortar fire on Con Thien. A week later, as a brand-new “butter bar” fresh out of Marine Corps Base Quantico, Coan entered the fray and found himself right in the middle of hell’s frying pan.
For the next thirty-four days, the reader follows Coan and his platoon, mounted on five M48A3 Patton tanks, through the morass of oozing mud and churned-up red clay that combat base Con Thien had been reduced to. The reader quickly learns that every movement came under enemy observation and was followed by accurate artillery fire, which led to the grim understanding of “hesitate and you’re dead” whenever moving above ground. The reader experiences huddling inside a bunker, thus gaining an understanding of why the U.S. Marine Corps held the earth dwelling as a vaunted sanctuary, even amidst the mud and rats. They get to know the coveted fifty-two-ton M48A3 Patton tanks and the brave men who crewed them. And they experience nights peering through infrared night sights in a M48A3 on a listening/observation post with the crew straining to catch NVA troops coming through the wire. Finally, Coan illustrates acts of leadership for the readers to see how the battle played out in a very unforgiving moment in time.
Time in the Barrel ought to bring great satisfaction to history students and small-unit leadership alike. The book also features maps, photos, and detailed endnotes. In this classic, Coan gives new meaning to the old saying “shooting fish in a barrel,” the “barrel” being the height of the Battle of Con Thien.
Book Review written by: Ronald T. Staver, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas