Books in Review II

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Welcome to “Books in Review II,” an online feature that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the national magazine of Vietnam Veterans of America.

This site contains book reviews by several contributors, while other reviews appear in each issue of The VVA Veteran. Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War or Vietnam veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
Vietnam Veterans of America
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

Email your comments, questions, and suggestions to mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

Shamrock 22 by Rick Hudlow

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Rick Hudlow recounts his life story in Shamrock 22: “An American Aviator’s Story” (AuthorHouse, 415 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper; $3.99, e book). Hudlow is a man who lived to fly and who devoted his career to the Strategic Air Command—particularly the B-52.

“As a young man I served but did not get into combat in WWII,” Hudlow humbly writes. “I served through Korea but was deeply involved in the new B-47 so did not serve in Korea. I served in Vietnam and saw our forces in action in the field and participated in the bombing campaigns in Vietnam.”

Hudlow’s story follows a path laid out by his father—a pilot, business owner, and consultant. Hudlow spent his boyhood at airports. He began flying by standing at the wheel of a Ford Tri-Motor because he was too small to see out the windshield. He enlisted in the Army aviation cadet program at age eighteen. Throughout his career, Hudlow extended to his subordinates the same high degree of confidence and respect that his father showed to him.

Rick Hudlow

The core of Hudlow’s book deals with the Cold War, a topic practically forgotten since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. He entered SAC with the initial B-47 deliveries and rose in rank and influence as the Command’s importance toward deterring nuclear war increased.

Hudlow clearly enjoyed and was “most proud of” the everyday performance of his B-47 and B-52 crew duties. Promoted to staff level, he conceived modifications that improved B-52 capabilities.

In Vietnam, Hudlow served on a targeting panel. He came to recognize that B-52 bombs were being fused incorrectly. He inspected recently bombed areas and flew with forward air controllers to validate that observation. He then designed new fusing practices that improved bombing results. After that, the Seventh Air Force Commander consulted with Hudlow about other bombing tactics.

Upon his return from Vietnam, Hudlow failed to achieve his life-long goal of becoming a SAC Wing Commander and retired. He immediately went to work in private industry and spent many years traveling to parts of the world he missed while serving in the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel

Between Here and Monkey Mountain by Laren McClung

Laren McClung is a poet from Philadelphia. Her poetry has appeared in War, Literature and the Arts and other serious journals. In Between Here and Monkey Mountain: Poems (Sheep Meadow Press, 64 pp., $14.95, paper) she thanks the William Joiner Center and the poets Yusef Komunyakaa, Vinh Long, and Bruce Weigl, among others.

McClung also thanks her family “for their conversations, which made many of these poems possible.”  These thank yous are clues to her connections to the Vietnam War.

This poetry book has a creepy-beautiful cover from a famous painting that has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, but is suitably grotesque. The back cover has a long cryptic blurb from the great poet Bruce Weigl, who has written a Vietnam War poem or two.

The title contains the clue that made me hope and suspect that this book was a book of Vietnam War poems, even though the back cover showed McClung to be a very beautiful young woman for whom the Vietnam War is likely an event that concluded long before her birth. That is surmise. I also surmise that her father is a Vietnam War veteran.

The book has a large number of fine Vietnam War poems, perhaps having their roots in the above-mentioned family conversations or perhaps coming from the same wellsprings of imagination from which Stephen Crane pulled The Red Badge of Courage.

Section three, entitled “Monkey Mountain,” is all Vietnam War poetry. It consists of thirteen pages of excellent poetry dealing with the tour of duty of a grunt. Friendly fire, bouncing betties, morning ambushes, LZ’s, the red-brown clay of Khe Sanh, the South China Sea, R&R in Bangkok, Pleiku, and Qui Nhon all make appearances.

Laren McClung

There is also plenty of the Vietnam War and fine poetry elsewhere in the book. I loved “Lined up on Their Backs” and also “A Fable of Tuy Hoa.” Here is the latter:

Someone was shot in the free zone.

He said maybe a farmer, maybe

carrying a rucksack.  As he walked up to check

He saw her wedged under the Viet Cong.

Did she know enough to play possum in the grass?

When he rolled the body from hers

he said he caught sienna of eyes opening.

This one was alive.  He carried her

from the field to the firebase, his only

prisoner.  She was four, he said.

I wouldn’t have thought that a young woman who had never been anywhere near the Vietnam War could write that poem, but what do I know?  Not just anyone can write a truly great Vietnam War poem, but Laren McClung has done it. In fact, she has written several.

“Many of the poems are mysterious, passionate love poems,” the poet Stanley Moss says on the back cover, “and there are war poems.” That’s an understatement.

Buy this book and read it and add it to that small shelf of Vietnam War poetry books that are worth reading, savoring, and saving.

—David Willson

The Sea Swallows by Henry F. Dagenais

Henry F. Dagenais’s The Sea Swallows: Campaigning in the South Vietnam Delta with Chinese Catholic Exiles (Henry F. Dagenais, 448 pp., $13.99, paper) is a memoir of the author’s first Vietnam War tour, from September 1967-68. During that eventful tour of duty Dagenais served as a MACV advisor leading a small team of American troops working with a group of exiled Nationalist Chinese Catholics (the Sea Swallows) in An Xuyen Province in southernmost South Vietnam in IV Corps.

Dagenais begins at the beginning with his flight to Vietnam and ends a year later with getting on a plane “to the United States, the land of the big PX and home.” In between, he provides details of his memorable year in the war zone.

“The sequence of events,” he writes, “is as accurate as memory and some old notes serve me.” Dagenais says he consulted no government documents and “made no attempt to ensure my account coincides with what anyone else has written. It is as I remember the events, from my position on the ground at the time.”

Using much reconstructed dialogue, Dagenais details his work on hearts and minds and military missions against the Viet Cong in the Delta. “Daily operations,” he writes, “consisted of patrolling outlying hamlets and known areas of VC activities such as tax collecting and recruiting. Patrols were usually platoon size, 15 to 25 men, and had the mission of gathering intelligence and providing assistance and protection for the local population.”

In his area of operations—about 500 square kilometers—American and South Vietnamese forces controlled less than twenty percent of the territory. The Viet Cong, Dagenais writes, “could move rather freely throughout large portions of the area with little interference from government forces.”

—Marc Leepson

Wommack’s The Art of Leadership by David R. Wommack

Wommack’s The Art of Leadership: Moving from Military to Industry  (CreateSpace, 118 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, e book) is a gigantic book crammed into just over a hundred pages. Author David R. Wommack’s career stretches through several realms in the military (including serving as an Army lieutenant in the Vietnam War in 1969-71) as well in the public sector.

The text is a clear-cut, well-organized guide designed to empower former military personnel to move into leadership roles in industy. It is obvious that the author speaks from personal experience in the workplace and not from a theoretical perspective.

Perhaps the most important concept that Wommack explains is the difference between management and leadership. Both are necessary positions in industry, but are very different. Wommack uses quotes from successful leaders to illustrate his points. For instance, this observation from Peter Drucker: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

What makes this book unique are the first 88 pages in which Wommack describes the characteristics of a true leader and how military life, by its very nature, develops those important skills. I believe anyone with military training will better understand the possibilities for leadership roles as the author explains how to make the transition from military to industrial leadership.

Chapter 3, “Leading,” is the book’s powerhouse. In it, Wommack explains how trust, honesty, and a willingness to take responsibility are integral components to successful leadership. Wommack also suggests using humility and humor—traits that one might not expect to come across in an industrial setting.

David R. Wommack

The author believes that humor can lighten the workplace atmosphere.  “Humor can make work fun. Fun? Yes, fun! Jokes. Laughter. Puns. Pranks. Games. Humor. Keep away from sexual humor for obvious and legal reasons, but self-deprecation—poking fun at oneself—is a sure sign of humility.”

Chapter 5 deals with motivating, training, and coaching of groups and individuals, necessary skills for any successful leadership career. Later, Wommack discusses finding a new job, covering areas such as resume writing, interviewing, and the need to be persistent in follow-up with employers.

While this book focuses on individuals leaving the military, I believe it would be helpful for anyone looking for a career. Any energetic job seeker is bound to feel grateful for the empowering ideas Wommack presents.

When you finish reading Wommack’s the Art of Leadership, the pages should be severely dog-eared and profusely highlighted.

The author’s website is www.davewommack.com

—Joseph Reitz

Echoes of a Distant Past (revised) by Eraldo Lucero

Eraldo Lucero’s Vietnam War memoir, Echoes of a Distant Past, first published in 2012, has recently been reprinted in a revised edition (CreateSpace, 190 pp., $35.38, paper).

You can read our 2012 review at vvabooks.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/echoes-of-a-distant-past-by-eraldo-lucero

Horses and Helicopters by Jim Downey

The title and subtitle Jim Downey chose for his book—Horses and Helicopters: A Son’s Tribute to His Father and Their Shared Military Service (iUniverse, 115 pp., $13.95, pape; $3.99, e book)—perfectly describes his intentions. The son is James R. (Jim) Downey III. His goal is to identify areas of the world where his and his father’s paths crossed during their military careers. The father—James R. Downey, Jr.—served twenty-seven years in the Army (1927-55); the son served twenty years in the Air Force, from 1958-78.

The first third of the book chronologically presents the paperwork left by the elder Downey after his death in 1986. It is mainly excerpts from a career’s worth of military records and orders, some of which are difficult to decipher, a fact recognized by the author. The father spent much of his early career in China and the Philippines, areas where his son later traveled. This opening section also includes paperwork related to life’s ordinary activities.

The son, who goes by Jim, devotes most of his part of the book to a questionnaire he received from the 366th Fighter Group Association in 1994. The questions focused on his experiences during his three Vietnam War tours of duty when he crewed aircraft while stationed at Danang (F-4C), Udorn (HH-53), and Korat (A-7D) Air Bases.

Jim Downey’s opinionated answers provide many enlightening and humorous anecdotes. He proudly remembers the selfless esprit of the HH-53 Jolly Green Giant helicopter crews and support personnel, which he rates as “the best managed” with “the highest morale of any squadron I ever worked with.”

USAF  Jolly Green Giant in the Vietnam War

He less-happily recalls frequent rocket attacks at Danang, but confesses that afterward he appreciated the lessons they taught: “Things I thought were important were not that important anymore,” he writes.

Downey berates the VA for its lack of understanding and medical support related to the effects of Agent Orange, to which he was exposed while working with C-123 Ranch Hand operations

Overall, the book does not clearly link the travels of father and son. Nevertheless, it is a distinctive approach to recreating the long military service—1927 to 1978—performed by two dedicated members of one family.

—Henry Zeybel

The Thin Wall by R. Cyril West

R. Cyril West was in elementary school during the Vietnam War. His novel, The Thin Wall (Molon Labe Books, 336 pp., $12.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), takes place at the height of the war in 1968. It is set in Mersk in Bohemia in the former nation of Czechoslovakia during he time when the Russians crossed the frontier and took over the country. This time of uproar is used as a cover by the main villain of the book, Colonel Gregori Dal, to abduct an American Vietnam War POW and use him for his own ends.

Gunnery Sergeant Russell Edward Johnston, a red-haired American captured by the Viet Cong, was supposed to be executed and buried in an unmarked grave deep in the Bohemian forest. That’s what the Kremlin ordered.

But Dal had been recruited by a splinter KBG group to smuggle him to East Germany and then to Cuba where Johnston would become “a prized trophy for Castro.”  I have no idea why he would be a trophy—and West never tells us.

The author uses Johnston as a sort of a Hitchcockian MacGuffin to sustain the story and keep the novel’s plot moving along.

R. Cyril West

This may sound like another piece of fictional POW claptrap, but this book is not. It is a literate and literary novel. Milan Kundera, Josef Skvorecky, Franz Kafka, and other great writers are referenced. Colonel Dal burns some of their books in a public fountain. Elvis and Beatles LPs are also destroyed.

There is a large cast of well-developed characters and the author has provided a useful guide to them in the front of the book. There is a beautiful, young single mother the colonel becomes fixated on. She also is the object of attention from a doctor, an undercover spy long forgotten by his handlers. There is even a politically incorrect “village idiot” who is much more than comic relief.

Johnston may appear be just a plot device, but his back story is explained so that when bad things happen we feel badly for him. “He was on his second tour,” West writes, “just three months from leaving ‘Nam when it happened. Johnston and two other Marines. They were on a patrol when they came under heavy fire and were separated from their platoon.”

The men eventually fell into the hands of Russian intelligence agents who decide to hand them over to Soviet psychologists to be analyzed and then used as human guinea pigs in science experiments.

I enjoyed this novel. I even bought into some of the Cold War paranoia. The tragedy of the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia is well-demonstrated in this book, which is a POW thriller only on its surface.

There is a lot more going on in this well-written book. I recommend it.

The author’s website is www.rcyrilwest.com

—David Willson