When "Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War" arrived in my mail for review from the Leatherneck editorial office in Quantico, a brief note was included. Publisher/Executive Editor Colonel Walt Ford, USMC (Ret) wrote: "We usually don't review novels in the magazine, but I thought this one was exceptional. Frankly, I was riveted from page one because it took me right back. The only things that the author changed or altered were the actual units and a few of the locations. Rarely has war fiction impressed me so much."
After reading the first few pages, any rough-and-ready who has experienced bullets whistling by and shells bursting all around will certainly agree.
Writing in the vivid, gritty tradition of Norman Mailer ("The Naked and the Dead"), James Jones ("The Thin Red Line"), and Mark Bowden ("Black Hawk Down"), Navy Cross Marine First Lieutenant Karl Marlantes immediately introduces us to young Marine Lieutenant Waino Mellas (obviously himself fictionalized) and his company as they maneuver into the mountain jungles of 1969 Vietnam.
Advancing as best they can in torrential monsoon rains and knee-deep mud, plucking off leeches and avoiding man-eating tigers along the way, the Marines find themselves surrounded and outnumbered by a North Vietnamese regiment. At that point, autobiography fuses with fiction to make for a stunning "let-me-put-you-there" 600-page read.
In reality, during the first five days of March 1969, Marlantes, serving as executive officer of Company C, 1st Battalion, Fourth Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division (Reinforced) of the Fleet Marine Force, faced the same kind of highly trained, solidly equipped unit just north of the infamous Rockpile, south of the DMZ and east of the Laotian border.
Sustaining numerous casualties from mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, small-arms and automatic-weapons fire, the company was near obliteration. Marlantes combined and reorganized the remaining members of the platoons and led an assault up a mountain infested with fortified bunkers, manned by highly skilled, well-armed enemy soldiers.
Under withering fire from surprised North Vietnamese troops, he ran across the fire-swept hilltop to wipe out four enemy bunkers in succession. Although seriously wounded by now, Marlantes refused medical attention until the perimeter defense was established and the other wounded evacuated. His Navy Cross citation notes: "His heroic actions and resolute determination inspired all who observed him and were instrumental in a decisive rout with minimal casualties. By his courage, aggressive fighting spirit, and unwavering devotion to duty in the face of grave personal danger, First Lieutenant Marlantes upheld the highest tradition of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.”
Such is the stuff "Matterhorn's" plot, characters and hero, Waino Mellas, are made of, to say nothing of how the terror and agony of fierce and vicious fighting matures each fictionalized personality. Note that any astute Marine who served during those months in “Bravo” Company's area of operation, and who knew the chain of command there, will place an easy fix on the actual names and locations.
Author Marlantes, who in addition to the Navy Cross was awarded the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and 10 air medals, needed more than 30 years to complete "Matterhorn," originally a 1,600-page novel. No publisher or literary agent bothered to read it until recently when the unwieldy manuscript was reduced to its present size. The 31-page glossary of weapons, technical terms, slang and jargon alone is worth the price of the book.
It would be easy to hyperbolize "Matterhorn" with any number of glow-words from the reviewer's convenient arsenal of adjectives. But the high praise always remains the same: "Just go buy and read the classic-to-be for yourself."