You ready for some darkness of the grisly, war-is-horror variety? We hope so, because this book is full of that kind of thing. Our main character, Richard Perry, describes war as "Hours of boredom, seconds of terror," (11.24) and that might as well describe the book. The guys in Perry's platoon kill a lot of time on their base, or "hooch," playing checkers and messing with each other, but when they leave the base for a mission, that's when it gets real.
The whole thing starts on an airplane from Anchorage, Alaska to Japan. Perry, the main character, sits with a woman named Judy who's going to Vietnam to be a war nurse. Nearby, a guy named Gates keeps making jokes about how the Vietcong—the enemy—had better be ready for him.
Perry's not too worried, because he has a leg injury from playing basketball. He expects to be put behind a desk somewhere.
From Japan, they fly to Vietnam, and the nurses are separated from the soldiers. Gates, who goes by Peewee, bonds with Perry about both being from cities, and also about how neither of them wants to cut himself to swear a blood oath with other black men. They do agree to watch each other's backs, but they exchange spit, not blood.
Know who's not watching Perry's back? The actual army. At least, not when it comes to his injury. His medical profile isn't on file at all.
They're both assigned to the Alpha Company with another guy named Jenkins, and are taken to Chu Lai. No one's happy to see them when they get there. The guys in their new platoon call them "cherries"—as in, new to the war—and worry that they'll get everyone else killed.
On that encouraging note, everyone goes on patrol. The "cherries" are put in the middle of the platoon's formation (the most protected spot) but Jenkins steps on a mine and dies. Guess that's why they called him a cherry. Their lieutenant, Carroll, says a prayer over Jenkins that refers to him as an "angel warrior" because he was so young.
They spend the next stretch of time getting to know the guys in their platoon. Perry does night watch with Lobel, a movie-obsessed guy. A guy named Brew wants to go to seminary school, Brunner keeps making borderline racist comments, and Sergeant Simpson can't stop talking about how he doesn't have many days left before going back home. Perry also gets sick for a couple days.
While he's sick, he misses a mission, so he's the one loaned to another company when he recovers. He loads a machine gun under the orders of a jumpy lieutenant named Doyle, who orders shots and white phosphorous gas to be dropped on a group.
Uh oh: the group turns out to be Americans. Perry winds up seeing a bunch of his countrymen dying because of the mess-up. Newly scarred, he returns to his platoon.
After a peaceful mission handing out gifts and food in a small hamlet, Perry's platoon is ordered back to the hamlet. The Vietcong had been killing Americans near there, and possibly punishing the villagers for accepting their aid.
It's night, and they can't see much. Carroll is hit and they open fire on the village in their attempt to get the Vietcong.
The men fly with Carroll to a hospital in Chu Lai, but he dies. A guy in their platoon, Monaco, delivers the "angel warriors" prayer and they return to base. It's very somber.
Simpson asks Perry to write a letter to Carroll's wife. His letter is so well-written that the captain, Captain Stewart, offers him a job corresponding for him. Perry can't type, though, so he can't take the offer. So much for that job prospect.
Stewart, by the way, is known around the hooch for volunteering his platoon for dangerous missions just so he can up his count of Vietcong soldiers killed. If the body count is high enough, he might get promoted to major. Crafty, if a little (a lot) dangerous for his men. As if Perry doesn't have enough to worry about.
A new lieutenant, Gearhart, is assigned to the platoon along with two new soldiers. On their first mission, Gearhart accidentally sends up a flare giving away their location, and the Vietcong fires on the platoon. One of the new men dies.
In case you're counting, enough people have died already that the book would be a major by now.
As you can imagine, Gearhart feels horrible. He writes a letter to the dead man's family, but it's so full of guilt that Perry is asked to rewrite it. Perry tells Gearhart that even if he feels guilty, that's for him to deal with, not the dead soldier's family. Simpson is put in charge of the platoon over Gearhart.
The platoon goes into a village that had been attacked by the Vietcong. They soon find that the Vietcong had killed one person from every home—children included. In one hut, a Vietcong soldier comes out of hiding and tries to fire on Perry, but his gun doesn't work. Perry freaks out and empties his gun on him. It's the first man he's killed up close, where he can see the body afterward.
After that, they decide to evacuate the village and set fire to it, to avoid possibly encountering more hiding Vietcong. Perry leaves pretty scarred from his near-death experience.
The platoon is transferred to a new, more northern base called Tam Ky, where the conditions are worse—both with the fighting and the hooch they're staying in. On their first patrol, Gearhart saves his squad from attacking an enemy group that turns out to outnumber them, but the second time, they're less lucky. Both Perry and Brew get hit. Brew dies on the plane, and Perry gets taken to the hospital.
Perry's leg injury is, luckily, not so bad. Well—kind of luckily. He's lucky that his leg isn't getting amputated, but then again, if his injury was worse, he'd get to go home.
He also sees Judy in the hospital. Remember his nurse friend from the plane? Well she's sadder than before. She gives him a kiss before he returns to his platoon.
Back at the hooch, things are even worse. Simpson's gone, and their new sergeant, Dongan, doesn't seem to like black people. He has reassigned black soldiers to the more vulnerable positions in their formation, and everyone's at each other's throats.
And in case morale wasn't low enough, a woman wanders toward their base with her two children. Hang on—wait for it. She hands one of her kids to a soldier—because who could say no to a cute, innocent toddler?—and both the kid and soldier blow up. Putting mines on a kid has got to be a new low.
So now that everyone's traumatized, the platoon goes into what turns out to be a major battle. The goal is to take over a hill where there's been North Vietnamese Army activity. The platoon's captain argues with a colonel of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army) over who should go first.
Perry's platoon loses, so they end up going first, but they don't see the enemy at all. Then the ARVN wants to go first, so they switch. Sounds like they need a better method, like Ro-Sham-Bo.
As the ARVN lead the way, fire opens on them while they're in the rice paddies (an open area where they can't take cover). Perry's platoon is able to retreat and shoot from a covered area, but to get picked up by chopper, they have to take over a nearby hamlet village.
In the village, Dongan is shot, and Perry has to kill more than one North Vietnamese soldier. More soldiers are coming, so both Perry's platoon and the ARVN pile up their dead in one hut, then set it on fire so the bodies won't be defiled.
The squad returns to base. Are they finally getting time to relax and come to terms with their losses? Not so much. Before long, they're sent out again. Brunner's in charge this time, and he sends Peewee and Perry away from the group to make sure a ridge is clear. As they head up a hill, they hear the Vietcong fire on their platoon.
They run away from the gunfire and hide in a hole all night, hoping they won't be found. In the morning, a young soldier tries to get in the hole, and they have to kill him so he won't draw attention to them. When you "have to" kill someone, you know things are rough. You know, in case that wasn't clear already.
They leave the hole and find Monaco frozen in place, waiting for a chopper, with Vietcong soldiers pointing a gun at him from the bushes. They fire on the bushes when the chopper arrives. All three men make it to the chopper, but with injuries.
Perry comes to in a hospital. Once again, his leg is wounded, but not bad enough for amputation. Darn?
At the hospital, Perry, Monaco, and Peewee reunite. Monaco has to return to the squad, but Peewee and Perry get to go home—Peewee because of his leg, and Perry because his medical profile has arrived. About time.
Right before boarding the plane home, Perry finds out that Judy was killed when her field hospital was hit. He and Peewee hold hands on the plane. They don't know what's awaiting them, back in the World.