Chapter 1 Summary

On a mountain in Vietnam named Matterhorn by the U.S. military, Second Lieutenant Mellas settles into his role as a platoon commander in Bravo Company. A college graduate, Mellas is unsure of how he should conduct himself as a Marine. He feels intimidated by the other men who have longer combat experience, and he feels driven by a desire to rise through the ranks by virtue of political maneuvering and thereby protect himself from facing actual combat. Mellas is extremely perceptive in noticing the behaviors of the popular commanders and in trying to see what it will take to raise himself in the military.

The units situated on Matterhorn have been giving the task of preparing the mountain to be a major site for artillery operations. Therefore they spend most of their days either going out on patrol or working on the mountain building fortifications and clearing the dense jungle underbrush.

Coming back from a patrol, one of Mellas’s men, Fisher, reports that he has a leech trapped inside his urethra. Leeches are a normal part of life in Vietnam, but this is a unique, dangerous situation. The leech is making it impossible for Fisher to urinate and is causing extreme pain. The medics, called squids, come down and examine Fisher, but they don’t know what to do. It is decided that Fisher should leave Matterhorn on a medic-run helicopter to go to a hospital far from the front lines, where a real doctor can work on him.

However, the day is turning toward nighttime, and the helicopter is slow in arriving. The longer it takes for the helicopter to arrive, the more dangerous it will be, given that Matterhorn is surrounded by enemy soldiers. Eventually, the medics decide to operate on Fisher before it is too late. One of the medics, Sheller, cuts into Fisher’s penis, causing a flood of blood and urine. Later, the helicopter finally arrives. As Fisher is taken in a stretcher to the waiting helicopter, Sheller tells Mellas that he doesn’t know whether Fisher will come out of this impotent or worse.

Fisher’s sudden evacuation is the cause of some dissension within the ranks. One of the African American soldiers, Mallory, has been suffering from severe headaches for weeks. Mallory has applied to the commanders for medical leave, but they don’t take his requests seriously. Mellas’s superiors, First Lieutenant Fitch and Second Lieutenant Hawke, believe Mallory to be a malingerer and a lazy soldier, so they put off his request. Many of the African American soldiers, led by their spokesman, China, see racism behind the commander’s denial of Mallory’s request. 

Chapter 2 Summary

That night is Mellas’s first doing "hole-check," an activity whereby twice during the night he goes along the front lines and checks in with all the soldiers. Because the camps on Matterhorn are nearby the dug-in North Vietnamese Army, no lights come on at night, and Mellas does hole-check in complete darkness.

He leaves his hooch, the name for each soldier’s tented living quarters, around eleven and makes his way to his first soldier. But Mellas miscalculates in the darkness and winds up meeting a soldier from the wrong squad. Finally he gets on track, and it takes him a few hours to complete the hole-check.

The next day, Mellas goes out on patrol with one of the squads. Led by Jancowitz, the squad’s leader, then Mellas, the men wind their way into the jungle on the lookout for enemy troops. After the long night of hole-check, Mellas is exhausted. He’s also struck fearful by the knowledge that he is really in the battle zone now, that any second they could be engaged in a firefight with the enemy. After cutting through a thick stand of bamboo, the men hear a rumbling noise nearby. Daniels, one of the squad’s soldiers, explains to Mellas that they are hearing what they call “Gook trucks,” elephants carrying supplies for the North Vietnamese Army. Jancowitz suggests that they radio in a fire mission—sustained artillery fired from base—at the supply line. Mellas is uncomfortable with the idea because he doesn’t feel good about killing innocent animals, but the men convince him that this is what should be done.

During days when the men aren’t on patrol or constructing fortifications on Matterhorn, Mellas leads a map-reading class for the squads. During one particular class, Mellas notices that Jackson, an African American soldier in the third squad, is one of the best students. Later, meeting with the other commanders, Mellas suggests that Jackson be promoted to squad leader since he seems to be smart, in addition to the fact that having an African American in leadership might ease the racial tensions within the company. But the other commanders express doubt about whether Mellas’s proposal is a good idea.

Mallory continues to complain about his headaches, and the medic Frederickson confronts Mellas as to what to do about it. Mellas decides to pay the soldier a visit. After talking with Mallory, Mellas is convinced that he does need help and promises to secure him a trip to the hospital. Mellas goes back to the other commanders, who still believe that Mallory is a malingerer who does not need their help. Mellas decides to send Mallory to the hospital anyway.

After Mallory flies to the hospital, though, Mellas receives a telegraph from the doctor there saying that he can find nothing wrong Mallory. Mallory is then sent back to Matterhorn. 

Chapter 3 Summary

Word comes down that some of the senior battalion commanders will soon be visiting Matterhorn. This means that the enlisted men and soldiers need to clean up so they look professional and soldierly in front of the senior officers. This command doesn’t go over well with some of the soldiers. One of the squad leaders, Jancowitz, doesn’t want to shave his mustache. More problematically, Parker, one of the African American soldiers, refuses to cut his Afro. Parker says that his hair isn’t nearly as long as that of some of the white soldiers who use grease to slick down their hair. Because his hair is kinky, it sits higher on his head. Parker approaches Mellas with his problem and asks to see the higher commander. Mellas takes Parker up the hill to see Fitch, the company commander. But Fitch says that orders are orders and commands Parker to cut his hair. That night a few of the white soldiers come and find Parker. They shout racial epithets at him and hold him down while they completely shave his head.

Broyer, another African American in Mellas’s platoon, goes off to find China, the unofficial leader of the black men in Bravo Company. Broyer apprises China of the situation with Parker’s hair, and China tells Broyer to send Parker his way. When Parker meets up with China, China scolds Parker and tells him that he shouldn’t pick fights with the leadership over unimportant issues, such as haircuts. China tells him that they are “biding their time” until the “real showdown.”

Out on a routine patrol, Mellas and the first squad come upon evidence of North Vietnamese Army (or NVA) troops in the near-vicinity. Mellas sends a trio of riflemen, a fire team led by a soldier named Rider, to the front while the rest of the squad holds back. Suddenly they hear a blaze of firing. Mellas has his radio signalman order mortar attacks to the location of the NVA. After a while, the firing dies down, and then Rider and his men return unharmed. Rider reports that they saw three enemy soldiers and that he believes he killed one of them. Mellas radios in the report, and they go looking for evidence of the NVA. Even though they don’t find hard evidence that they have killed any enemy soldiers, the report goes back to headquarters and up the chain of command, becoming more and more exaggerated with every pass, until the official line is ten NVA men dead. 

Chapter 4 Summary

Colonel Mulvaney, head of the regiment of which Bravo Company is a part, sits through a meeting behind the front lines far away from Matterhorn, where Mellas’s engagement is reported by Simpson and Blakely, the battalion commanders in charge of Bravo Company. Mulvaney is frustrated that the report on the firefight is bereft of actionable intelligence. Mulvaney doesn’t just want enemy dead; he wants to learn as much as he can about their positions and strategy.

Simpson also reports on the progress of the fortifications and the artillery positions at Matterhorn and says that he is planning to move his command center to the mountain. Mulvaney tells Simpson to go ahead, even though he knows there is a planned operation in the works that will send the company currently located at Matterhorn into the bush.

Back on Matterhorn, Mellas approaches Hawke, the executive officer of the company, about securing medals for Rider and his fire team. Hawke demurs, saying that medals are for Marines who act beyond the call of duty. According to Hawke, Rider and his team were just doing their job as Marines. He does say that perhaps he can secure Rider a promotion.

Mellas and Hawke discuss their relatively different backgrounds—Hawke having come from a community college in Massachusetts, Mellas from Princeton—and Hawke sees into the truth of Mellas’s ambition, correctly guessing that the lieutenant thinks he can someday run for Congress as a decorated ex-Marine.

Fitch, the man in charge of the company, tells the other commanders of the plan for the battalion leaders to set up at Matterhorn. He mandates that they have to find the NVA machine gun that they know is somewhere nearby.

Mellas and Goodwin, another platoon commander, each take out squads the following morning in search of the NVA machine gun. Goodwin’s squad engages the enemy, and Mellas and his men can hear the firefight from their position....

(The entire section is 507 words.)

Chapter 5 Summary

As the Marines in Mellas’s platoon and others prepare to leave Matterhorn, the mood among the leadership waiting on the landing zone for the helicopters is decidedly upbeat. Simpson is overjoyed that he’s able to take two entire companies—Bravo Company and Delta Company—to engage the enemy. He celebrates by opening up a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon whiskey and passing it around to the other officers and enlisted men nearby.

Blakely, the officer just beneath Simpson, isn’t nearly as upbeat, although he tries to act as though he is. Blakely is worried that in the switch whereby Bravo Company leaves Matterhorn and Charlie Company takes Matterhorn, the mountaintop artillery space will be left exposed and...

(The entire section is 514 words.)

Chapter 6 Summary

Set up at the camp, Mellas and Fitch discuss a rampage mission Mellas’s platoon is preparing to undertake. A rampage is Marine-speak for ambush: the plan is for Mellas to go out with a squad and set up along a known NVA route, wait for the enemy soldiers to appear, then engage them in a firefight. Mellas is both anxious and excited at the prospect. It’s an opportunity to see some real combat and burnish his credentials; at the same time, he and his men will be in real danger. Before Mellas can prepare his men, though, word comes down that Delta Company, the other company that is entering the bush, is out of food rations. Fitch says that the men of Bravo Company will have to split their own rations with the men of Delta Company.

Mellas returns to the platoon to prepare the men for the rampage. They have already heard about having to split their rations and are understandably upset. Mellas tries to stem their anger, but there is little he can do. The mood of the squad led by the African American Jackson is more subdued and relaxed. Williams, a white soldier from Idaho, cleans his gun, while Parker, the African American soldier who had his head shaved, and Cortell, another African American soldier and a close friend of Williams, rib Shortround about his inability to put his rifle back together after cleaning it. Things get ugly when Shortround responds to one of Parker’s gibes with the comment, “At least I didn’t get shaved bald.” A tussle between Parker and Shortround ensues, and both Williams and Mallory, the African American soldier claiming headaches, draw their guns in the now-racial dispute. Jackson steps in to stop the fight, and Mellas comes over to tell everyone to pipe down and get ready for the rampage.

The men head out and set up in the jungle in preparation for the ambush. Cortell’s fire team, which includes Williams, goes out to the front. Mellas lies in wait with the rest of the squad. Mellas drifts to sleep in the still darkness, but he is awoken by an anguished scream. Cortell returns to the squad, hysterical. He says that a tiger has taken Williams. Cortell says that they were waiting to launch the ambush when a tiger came out of nowhere, batted Williams across the neck, tore into him, and dragged him away. Mellas radios in that the rampage is aborted. The men sneak into the jungle and find what is left of Williams’ body, which they wrap in a poncho and carry back to camp. 

Chapter 7 Summary

Fitch, the Bravo Company commander, begs over the radio for a helicopter to take Williams’s body out of the bush, but the commanders claim that the rain and fog makes it too dangerous to allow rescue flights.

The company’s mission is to march to the location of a known NVA ammo supply and destroy it. The ammo dump, as the Marines call it, is far away, however, and since the company has already given away half of its rations, morale is low. Kendall, one of the other platoon leaders in the company, is leading the march, but he continues to get lost. Mellas, who is getting a reputation for being savvy with a map, finds the company commanders and suggests that he lead the march. They agree, and he moves his platoon to...

(The entire section is 668 words.)

Chapter 8 Summary

Bravo Company moves on, and it has now been three days since the men have had any food. Their orders are to reach a series of checkpoints in the jungle, but the company commanders don’t know what or whom they are looking for, only that they are to arrive at each checkpoint by a certain deadline. However, because of malnourishment, injuries, and the strain of carrying Williams’s corpse, they are already a day behind schedule.

Back at the base, Simpson is distracted as the other commanders share cigars after dinner. Simpson tells Blakely that he believes he should be back on Matterhorn, back in the bush with the men on the ground. Simpson is infuriated with the slow progress of the company, saying that they need to...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Chapter 9 Summary

After five days without food, the march has become slow torture for the men. Usual security precautions are thrown out as the men do anything to keep themselves moving. Leading the column, Mellas decides to move through a river to save time. But men often slip and fall, and Shortround nearly drowns. Eventually, the men march out of the river and up a steep ridge. As more rain falls, the march continues into the night. Vancouver, walking point, discovers a cleared trail, and Mellas instructs him to take it, figuring that at this point it matters little whether they run into NVA troops or not. One of the men in his company, called Hippy, is severely affected by jungle rot in his feet and can barely push himself to continue.


(The entire section is 472 words.)

Chapter 10 Summary

After marching through the canyon, the column comes upon a huge cliff face that reaches straight up. Looking at the map, Mellas discovers that the next checkpoint for the company is on the top of this mountain, where they are to build a landing zone and wait for more orders. Mellas calls his ablest men and directs them to start making their way up the mountain using climbing rope, belaying each other as they climb. Five hours later, they are still climbing upward through the fog. Mellas realizes that they are perfect targets for any NVA troops that could be in the area, but he knows he has no other options.

After the company arrives on the narrow ledge that is the top of the mountain, called Sky Cap, they start to clear...

(The entire section is 493 words.)

Chapter 11 Summary

Finally, the men are moved out of the bush to Vandegrift Combat Base, known as VCB. The Marines in Bravo Company aren’t allowed too much time to recover, however, because as soon as they are showered, cleaned up, and outfitted with fatigues, they learn that their mission while at the base is to be on constant alert, waiting at the edge of the airstrip, where they could be called at any moment back into the bush to provide backup to another company that has engaged the enemy.

On his way to a meeting with the other battalion commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Mulvaney passes by the men from Bravo Company returning from the landing zone and notices their haggard, broken-down appearances. This leads him to call a meeting with...

(The entire section is 428 words.)

Chapter 12 Summary

Mellas goes to see Sergeant Major Knapp at the battalion office. Mellas tells Knapp about the situation with Cassidy and requests that he order a transfer. Knapp requires some convincing, but he eventually comes around to Mellas’s point of view and orders the transfer.

That night, Simpson puts on a formal dinner for all the officers in the company. Mellas is disgusted with the display but has no choice but to attend. The men drink a lot and are served a delicious meal. Simpson gives a toast during which Mellas can hardly contain himself from scowling and walking out of the room.

The next morning, it is raining, so the men in Bravo Company assume that they won’t be required to go out on any rescue...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Chapter 13 Summary

The men in Bravo Company are taken by the helicopters to where the reconnaissance unit, Sweet Alice, has engaged the NVA. Mellas is with the last group of Marines to be transported into the bush. A soldier breaks his leg leaping from the departing helicopter, and Mellas goes to the front to meet Fitch. Fitch tells him that they have had some men shot but none killed. The enemy appears to have retreated. Suddenly, mortars and artillery begin firing in their direction. Mellas, Fitch, and the other commanders dig in and radio back to VCB for further directions. Medevac helicopters come in to take the wounded back to base, and the company moves into the dense jungle for protection.

Back at VCB, Simpson feels flushed with...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Chapter 14 Summary

The men in Bravo Company recover from the battle on Helicopter Hill. Fitch radios in medevacs to take out the wounded, but the fog has become too dense to allow for air traffic. Mellas goes over in his head the events of the battle, wondering if he accidentally killed Pollini or if he did the right thing by trying to rescue him, when the prospect of winning a medal was as prominent in his mind as saving the soldier’s life.

Back at VCB, Blakely and Simpson discuss their next move. They realize that the numbers for the Helicopter Hill attack will not reflect well, with so many Marine casualties compared to a handful of NVA soldiers confirmed dead. They know there are NVA troops positioned on Matterhorn and in the ridges...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Chapter 15 Summary

The next morning, the Marines in Bravo Company are still trapped in their defensive position with little sign of reinforcements coming to the rescue because of the dense fog above. What little water is left is being saved for the wounded soldiers. The rest of the men try to collect condensation on their ponchos, which they lick habitually. Godwin takes a few men to recover the killed soldiers who were standing post the night before. It’s a dangerous mission, but they return unscathed.

They spend the rest of the day pensively waiting for an NVA attack. Fantasies of escape pass through Mellas’s mind. He imagines running away during the next attack and taking what ammunition and food he has and making a break for VCB....

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Chapter 16 Summary

Mellas and Fitch listen to radio reports of the two nearby companies, realizing that help is far away and that their prospects of surviving the current situation are bleak. The company medic comes around and announces that many of the men are becoming dehydrated and weakened, so he proposes taking the IV fluids from the wounded who will most likely die and giving them to the remaining soldiers who are in fighting shape. Fitch agrees to make the hard decision. One of the wounded whose IVs will be redistributed is Kendall, the other platoon commander who is breathing with only one lung.

Fitch comes up with a plan and tells the other company commanders. He proposes to shift all the men, including the wounded, into a single...

(The entire section is 466 words.)

Chapter 17 Summary

Mellas and the other Marines of Bravo Company are overjoyed to see the arrival of Hawke with troop reinforcements and more ammunition, food, and water. Mellas helps Hawke dig his hole while the mortars from the NVA artillery positions begin to fall. Mellas asks Hawke about Mallory, and Hawke explains that he will face a court-martial and a stiff punishment.

That evening, the mortar siege ceases, and the men settle down in relief. With the arrival of platoons from Delta Company, it seems that the role of Bravo Company in the battle around Matterhorn has ended, and they expect to be pulled out the next day.

Back at base, however, the commanders are reluctant to give up their opportunity to take a piece out of...

(The entire section is 516 words.)

Chapter 18 Summary

Mellas and his men move forward, knowing that the odds are stacked against their success. Almost immediately after the firing begins, Mellas and his men are pinned down by NVA shooters. Mellas and four other men ended up hiding behind a big log. Jermain rolls off and throws a grenade at the NVA positions, but he’s shot in the process. Mellas radios to Fitch and explains the situation. If they don’t take out the NVA machine guns, they’re all going to die.

An idea appears in Mellas’s head, and he seems to see the situation as if from above. He can tell where the main machine gun is, and what he can do to take it out. He instructs the men to train their fire on two bunkers while he makes a run for it. With the men...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

Chapter 19 Summary

The Marines wait for a counterattack from the NVA, but the enemy keeps heading north to Laos. Helicopters come to medevac the wounded back to VCB. The helicopters are able to take the most direly injured, but the fog sets in again, and the walking wounded, such as Mellas, are left temporarily in the bush.

The medics tell Mellas that his right eye is seriously damaged if not lost completely. Mellas has the option of waiting for another rescue helicopter, but with the leadership in the company so sorely depleted, he decides to stay with the men and postpone his recuperation.

That night, Mellas is sharing a hole with Jackson, who serves as radio operator. Mellas is set to go out on night patrol, to check the...

(The entire section is 491 words.)

Chapter 20 Summary

Mellas is medevaced to an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Getting off the helicopter, Mellas is swarmed by nurses and medical staff. The nurse in charge demands Mellas hand over all his weapons, including Vancouver’s sword. Mellas refuses, however, and argues with the nurse that he be allowed to keep the sword. But she gives it to a corpsman and says that he can pick it up when he is on his way back to the front.

As he is taken on a gurney toward surgery, Mellas strikes up a conversation with another nurse, but this one is pretty with red hair. He notices her nametag and gazes at her body, realizing how long it has been since he was with a woman. Going into surgery, Mellas quotes a line from T.S. Eliot’s...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Chapter 21 Summary

The same day that Mellas is medevaced to the aircraft carrier in the South China Sea, Bravo Company leaves Matterhorn once again. The men return to Helicopter Hill to wait for helicopters to take them back to VCB. As Bravo Company ascends toward the landing zone, Blakely tells Fitch and Hawke that they need to send their men back down the hill, that all the helicopters are tied up elsewhere and that Bravo Company will have to spend the night in the space between Matterhorn and Helicopter Hill. Blakely takes Fitch aside and tells him that Simpson is transferring him out of the battalion.

The next day, the company is sent back to VCB, where a memorial service is organized to pay tribute to the Marines from the company...

(The entire section is 457 words.)

Chapter 22 Summary

Mellas arrives at Quang-Tri, the hub for the division’s administrative staff, where he will spend a night before moving on to VCB the next day. Mellas goes to the staff club, where he finds Cassidy drinking alone. Mellas drinks with Cassidy for a while, then goes of to sleep. When Mellas wakes up, Fitch is at the foot of his bed. Fitch explains that he has been transferred out of the battalion and that Hawke has been given command of the company. After making speculative plans to get together once the war is over, Fitch and Mellas say goodbye.

On the flight from Quang-Tri to VCB, Mellas reaches out the window and drops Vancouver’s sword into the bush. To Mellas, it’s a symbolic gesture of respect to Vancouver, the...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Chapter 23 Summary

Early the next morning, Bravo Company strikes out on its next mission. A few hours later, the men have set in to their defensive positions and Mellas is out on patrol. He hides behind a blasted stump and tries to think about the meaning of life. In reflecting on Hawke’s life and death, Mellas realizes that the things that have driven him to this point, the pursuit of pride and ambition, have suddenly become pointless.

The weather is warm, a harbinger of the coming postmonsoon season. After months of steady rain, the jungle will become dry and sweltering. Mellas focuses on the greenness of the natural world and the indifferent jungle.

Mellas uses one of Hawke’s old tin cups to fix coffee, and this act...

(The entire section is 413 words.)