More than 20 years ago, Michael Dan Kellum, a Marine First Lieutenant living in Texas, decided to compile his experiences — and those of some two dozen fellow soldiers who fought beside him in Vietnam — into a book. As he encountered other men with stories to tell, the project became a labor of love. He eventually interviewed more than 1,100 Marines, helicopter pilots, medical staff, and others who served our country during the Vietnam War.
The book became so large that Kellum decided to publish it in two volumes — based on a recommendation from Ross Perot (yes, that Ross Perot), who graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a Memphian, Bill Leftwich. Book 1 is Grunts, Pilots & Docs: Building Hard Men: U.S. Marines Vietnam Stories, 1966-1971. Book 2 is Grunts, Pilots and Docs: Leathernecks Find ’Em, Fix ’Em, Kill ’Em: Vietnam Combat Stories 1965, ’69, 1970.
As Kellum explains in the introduction to Book 1, "The stories that are recounted are not big unit action tales of masses of men clashing, but rather individual enlisted men's and junior officers' personal glimpses of what they saw and felt in combat situations. I never ceased being amazed at the heroism of some of the Marines and Navy Corpsmen I encountered along the way, and their 'I-was-just-doing-the-job-they-trained-me-to-do, aw shucks' attitude. Their heroism aspect just came across magnified tenfold when they didn’t boast of their accomplishments or fully realize how special they truly are. Many of them have never really talked about their experiences, much less put down on paper what they did in Vietnam for one reason or another — until now."
One of those heroes was Lt. Col. Bill Leftwich, who died in a helicopter crash near Danang on November 18, 1970. He remains the highest-ranking Memphian killed in Vietnam. That's Leftwich pictured on the cover of Book 2, calling in an air strike with blood streaming down his face. His bravery is honored in several ways. In Memphis, the tennis center at Audubon Park is named for him, and a handsome monument tells the story of his deeds in combat. In addition, each year the U.S. Marine Corps present the Leftwich Trophy for Outstanding Leadership to "the most outstanding captain serving in the First Marine Force."
Lt. Kellum and several fellow Marines who served under Leftwich are coming to Memphis on Thursday, November 10, to take part in a "birthday/BBQ" at the Whispering Woods Hotel and Conference Center in Olive Branch, Mississippi. November 10th is considered the actual birthdate of the Marine Corps. On Saturday, these men will take part in a more formal Marine Corps Banquet at the conference center.
Also on Saturday, a somewhat more personal event will take place. Scott Leftwich — the son of Lt. Col. Leftwich — will join author Kellum and others who served under his father's command, and pay a special tribute to Leftwich at his grave in Forest Hill Cemetery.
Kellum will later present hardbound copies of his books to the Benjamin Hooks Central Library.
"To think that I started out telling my story and that of 22 other men — and it grew to what it is today after 21 years of work," says Kellum. "I would hope that these two books become a classic on the Vietnam War."
Book 1 (539 pages) is $26.95 softcover, $39.95 hardcover. Book 2 (498 pages) is $25.95 softcover, $38.95 hardcover. To order books and to learn more about Lt. Col. Leftwich and many of the soldiers who fought with him in Vietnam, visit the author's website: www.michaeldankellum.com.