Almost 200 pages into Bill Connell’s Marine memoir, “Surrounded By Courage,” the word strikes like stepping on a cold, rusty nail.
Readers know what this word means and what the place meant for so many American servicemen. In his book, Berrien County resident Connell chronicles his career in the Marine Corps from the early 1950s and the Korean War through the 1960s and Vietnam. Writing the word years later, Connell knows Vietnam’s impact, having witnessed the combat deaths and surviving its hellish struggles.
But did Connell and the men he led have any idea what they faced? What the nation was entering, when they received the 1965 transfer order from Okinawa to Vietnam?
In his book, Connell notes he had previously read reports on the United States’ growing involvement in Vietnam. He recalls reading one news article where a Marine wrote his congressman about a lack of fresh fruit and the congressman investigating the concern.
“From that article, I decided we were in trouble in Vietnam,” Connell writes. “It was not the shortage of fruit that bothered me. The petty congressional meddling was my concern. My best guess was that the investigation was more about election publicity than fresh fruit or troop welfare.”
Discussing his book in an interview, Connell says he had some idea what he and his Marines might be facing in
Vietnam. After enlisting at 17, he’d experienced limited combat at the end of the Korean War. He’d spent the next decade-plus as a career Marine, traveling to numerous assignments and locations with wife Faye. Connell’s peacetime duties included Marine drill instructor.
As for Vietnam, he knew of the Marine Corps and Army’s small unit assistance there. Everything that Vietnam would become for the U.S., Connell says nearly 50 years later, “I probably didn’t know exactly what it would be. ... I had visualized it as possibly another Korea.”
Traveling to Vietnam in 1965, his men looked to Connell for advice. During shipboard training sessions, the men kept asking other questions.
“... These young Marines wanted information about Vietnam,” Connell writes. “They wanted to know details about combat, but sometimes these questions had no answers. These were not questions of fear only questions of concern.”
Those questions would soon be answered in-country. Connell shares stories of a memorial service held for killed American servicemen – a ritual he witnessed only once in Vietnam; working as a helicopter team; being mistakenly dropped in the wrong area then a chopper arriving for them; firefights with Viet Cong; Da Nang, Operation Harvest Moon; life and sudden death; courage and loss.
In some ways the earliest drafts of “Surrounded By Courage” were written during Connell’s tour.
“Even in Vietnam, I made mental notes.”
He wouldn’t start penning his memories until the mid-1990s, years after his retirement from the Marine Corps.
“I wrote in chronological order and found as I started writing details began coming back to me,” Connell says.
In the pages leading to Vietnam, Connell writes not only about his life as a Marine but he paints a detailed peacetime picture of Marine Corps life in the 1950s and ‘60s. Connell has a storyteller’s narrative style. A reader will feel like they are sitting with Bill Connell as he shares stories of his life, the Marines, and war. It is an engaging book.
First published in hard cover in 2003, “Surrounded By Courage” has more recently been published as a trade paperback and Connell has held book signings.
Connell entered the Marines as a South Georgia teen. He saw the world and he experienced what the world can do, but regarding his career, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“It was an interesting career,” Connell says. “If I had it to do over, I would do the same thing again.”
Bill Connell’s “Surrounded By Courage” is available through Tate Publishing, www.tatepublishing.com/bookstore or in ebook format or by emailing the author at email@example.com