The First Casualty - A Vietnam Memoir
Author: Karl Orndorff
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 392 pages
Somehow manning a fueling station in Vietnam doesn’t sound exceptional. Karl Orndorff’s “The First Casualty: A Vietnam Memoir” makes that seemingly boring and repetitious function come alive with interest and excitement. For starters, what better target for enemy mortars and 122mm rockets than a 10,000 gallon bladder full of gasoline? That’s the environment where the author worked and lived for two and a half years in Vietnam.
Through a fast pace, easily understood, creative writing style one can smell the fumes, experience the frustrations, enjoy the humor, and respect the ingenuity of a teenage corporal left to his own wits within a war zone with little oversight or leadership from his parent unit.
When Orndorff decided to write about his experiences nearly 40 years after leaving the military, he visited the Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Research Center in Quantico, Virginia to review the records of his unit, the 7th Separate Bulk Fuel Company, during the time that he served three different tours in country. Shocked that the ‘official records’ did not agree with the reality that he experienced and verified, he chose the book’s title from a quote by tragedian Aeschylus: “Truth is the first casualty of war.”
After growing up in a poor rural Pennsylvania family with an abusive and alcoholic father, Orndorff joined the Marines Corps at age 17, right out of high school. His harsh childhood experiences prepared him for the rigors of boot camp which he felt was much easier than most young recruits. He volunteered for Vietnam and was assigned as a team leader with one other young Marine to man a standalone field fueling station supporting Korean Marines whose culture and language he couldn’t understand and whose tactics he found appalling.
In a well written narrative of his experiences, he tells of being isolated with no contact by his company’s leaders or any resupply of fuel or food for four months after the Tet offensive. He describes the horror of mortar and rocket attacks on his fuel dump; about him and his assistant running through rice paddies with no support to provide security for a Marine pilot whose F4 jet crashed near their camp; and with no guidance or expertise, of trying to build under hostile fire a pipeline across a large river. These and other activities that he witnessed, the author alleges, are contrary to the ‘official records’ written back in the secure base camps. However, he states that he has documented his versions of the incidents in a book sprinkled throughout with photos of burning fuel dumps, destroyed fuel tankers, and other scenes from Vietnam.
With each succeeding tour, the author became more cynical and critical of the American war policy and the lack of leadership from his unit’s senior NCOs and officers. While he took pride in doing his job and the Corps, he also drifted into drug and alcohol abuse during his final tour. Fortunately, he shook early addiction and went on after his four-year enlistment to become a successful industrial designer.
Reviewed by: Joe Epley (2013)