Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues tells a comedic World War II barracks story about a twenty-year-old draftee who learns to cope with a diverse assortment of soldiers during basic training while enduring the wrath a bullying superior.
J. Dennis Papp updates the theme in Fear Was My Only Weapon: Can a Personnel Clerk Maintain His Sanity and Survive Vietnam When He’s Forbidden to Have Any Bullets for His M16? (CreateSpace, 233 pp., $8.96 paper; $2.99, Kindle). Papp’s story takes place at Bear Cat outside of Long Thanh in Vietnam during the first nine months of 1968. Married and twenty-three years old, Papp had been cruising through administrative duty at Fort Sill when he received orders for Nam with only nine months of service remaining.
Papp joined Personnel Actions Team 4 at Bear Cat. He still had a lot to learn, and his bosses picked on him. His friends were the usual supportive suspects: Clyde, Smiles, Numbers, The Face, Boomerang, and Incoming. Papp’s nickname was Pinky. Naturally, each name had a story behind it. Bear Cat went untouched during the Tet Offensive.
Papp and his buddies solved administrative problems, went on R&Rs (Papp took three), and roamed the base (below ), which had tents, a mess hall, a PX, and a barber shop. While bonding, they cracked old jokes that still bring smiles and they drank as if tomorrow didn’t exist.
His Top Sergeant chose Papp to be his whipping boy. The abuse culminated with an Article 15 for Papp that carried a fine, plus a fourteen-day restriction with laborious extra duty. Papp’s only revenge was to out-shout the Top during a Red Alert without suffering consequences. Papp describes a lifetime-quota of mental turmoil over the possibility of not making it home. But the life-ending threats he experienced were mainly in his mind until late in his tour. Then he went to Dong Tam as part of an advance party. There, “the days were physically draining; the nights, emotionally so, ” Papp writes. He mixed concrete all day and went through Red Alerts at night.
The book’s title is based on the fact that Papp had no infantry training; therefore, on his first guard duty in Nam, he was not permitted to lock and load a bullet into the chamber of his rifle. Thereafter, an “impotent” M16 became his trademark.
Papp is a witty writer. But he might reconsider his style. He doesn’t need to explain how to button each button when a character puts on a shirt. And when it comes to dialogue, every comment doesn’t merit a response.