There have been so many books published during and after the end of the Vietnam War that ended with tanks from the People’s Army of Vietnam storming the presidential palace on April 30, 1975. The last two servicemen to die in Vietnam, Charles McMahon and Darwin Judge, both Marines, were killed in a rocket attack at Tan Son Nhurt Airport the day before, on April 29th. It was thirty-three years from the first unofficial casualty, Flying Tiger John T. Donovan killed on May 12th of 1942, and twenty years from the official date established by the Department of Defense when Richard B. Fitzgibbon Jr. was killed on November 1, 1955. (An interesting and eery note is that the real date of Fitzgibbon’s death was in June of 1955, but the family lobbied congress to have Fitzgibbon’s date changed so that he could be the first person to “officially die” in Vietnam conflict. Ironically, he was killed by another U.S. airman. His son Richard B. Fitzgibbon III, who was a Marine, was killed in Vietnam in September of 1965. They are one of only three instances amongst U.S. casualties in which both a father and son were killed in the Vietnam War.)
From this crucible of madness, death, and desolation came a combat memoir by Patrick Farley titled, Surfing to Saigon. It is a raw, complex story of an eighteen-year-old man who volunteered for the Army on January 11, 1968. He was inducted, along with his brother, on January 25th. From that day on we are taken through Army basic training until his final departure from the bush and Vietnam back to the world a year later. This is not your usual combat story. Then again, Pat is not your usual soldier. He is a man who walks his own line. If you are looking for the flag waving, we-are-doing-the-good-deed book, this one is not for you. What makes this book stand out for me is that Pat wrote this in the words and context of an eighteen-year-old boy, not a man looking back, censoring himself. He wrote it from the perspective of the young man who lived through this disturbing time. The best visual and audio that I might give you is the scene in Apocalypse Now where the Doors are singing The End.
This captures some of the fear, death, the desolation of Pat’s story. 1968 saw the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy by assassination, the culture turned on its head, the violence of the Democratic National Convention, and then the beast of Vietnam was in full roar. In that same year, a young infantryman, Patrick Farley stepped into the mouth of that beast and his story began.
Pat writes for the grunt. The guy who humped through the bush day after day just counting those days before he boarded the big bird to get back to the world. His writing is filled with vitriol against the insane orders that were issued by ranking officers who were only interested in punching their tickets to pin that Combat Infantry badge on themselves, to aid in their promotion with their careers at the expense of the lives of their men, and in getting the elusive “body count” to send back to their superior officers.
He takes us on his first patrol, where is he assigned to be the point man. You feel the tension when Pat, who knows that he knows nothing about combat, is put in this vital position and told to get moving. Pat has a bad unexplained feeling as he takes the men up the trail. He is removed from the point position because it was felt he was not moving fast enough. He was derided because he was a cherry. Pat’s bad unexplained feeling is verified when his patrol walks right into an enemy ambush. He describes the fear and the chaos, the helplessness, because you have to learn the skills of survival right there, because this type of training was never reviewed in boot camp. The books is filled with moments like this. Later in the book we are with Pat in the Mekong Delta region in a fire fight that turns into a blood bath for the Army forces; when they are pinned down in an ambush in a rice paddy that becomes a killing field for Pat and his fellow soldiers. He describes the bullets tearing through his ruck sack with such intensity that his poncho becomes a plastic sieve.
What Pat reveals is the frustration and anger that the men felt when told to take certain positions, and did it with a great cost to life and limb, and then after all of this trauma were told to abandon their positions soon after. This was an important indicator that we really did not know where we were going with this war.
This is in contrast to WWII, where land once taken did not fall quickly back into enemy hands. Two of the best examples I can think of are the Allied battle of Monte Casino in Italy where the number of men lost was 55,000 (almost the total number of soldiers lost in the Vietnam war), and the battle of Iwo Jima in the Pacific theater with 26,000 American casualties, including 6,800 dead. In both cases, the loss of life was not in vain as this territory never fell back into the enemies hands again. And both battles made an important contribution to the war effort in both the Pacific and European theaters. The men who fought in these battles at least had the satisfaction that the loss of blood and treasure had some real meaning. This feeling was not to be felt in the Vietnam war.
Pat writes like Charles Bukowski or Henry Miller. They have their own style. They have their own unique critique of the world, and most importantly their own vision. Just like the other two authors Pat gives no quarter in this book. He is an original. He is not at all politically correct (thank you Pat!). This book may not be for everyone, but it is for serious readers who are interested in the existential cauldron of hell we define as combat.
Patrick Farley today is a much different man then the young man in his book. Pat is a surfer and filmmaker. His surfing documentary Cowell’s and The New Millennium won Best Documentary Award from the New York International Independent film festival. He is also a surfboard shaper and artisan who now every year turns his house and front yard into a magical Santa’s Village. He starts in September, and by late November it is a winter wonderland with snow, elves and a miniature village. His other hobby is going to Disneyland and enjoying the rides and atmosphere. One of his beautiful German Shepherds is now officially named “Mickey”.
I have known Pat for twenty-three years and I can say that in the waters here in Santa Cruz, where localism is real and tribal, Pat is one of the few surfers I have known who constantly shares waves with other surfers. Now – you never want to burn Pat in the water, but if you have respect for everyone and know the rules of the road there is no kinder person in the water than Pat. Surfing with him, I cannot count the times I have heard, “Go, take this one.” He has surfed all up and down the North Coast of California. He was an early surfer in Mexico in such places as Puerto Escondido and Scorpion Bay. He also lived in Hawaii in 1975. Surfing is his life.
Pat is also one of the subjects of another documentary, Between the Lines, narrated by John Milius. This is a story of two surfers, Patrick Farley and Brant Page, who chose two different paths to take during the Vietnam war. It was the winner of Best Documentary at the 2009 X-Dance Film Festival.
The war took a toll on Pat, but he has found ways to sooth those wounds that will never really heal. He does not drink or do drugs. The ocean and his hobbies keep his spirit headed in the right direction. Pat is a no-nonsense man, but he always has a smile on his face.
I recommend this book to anyone who is reality-oriented and wants to see the Vietnam war from the hard-core perspective of a young man who made it through the bush to come back to the world and establish a life that was born out of a hell in the jungle. Pat is a living testimony to the spirit and resilience of the men who fought a war that no one wanted to acknowledge, and came back to an ungrateful nation. Patrick Farley is a stand-up man and human being.