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

lThe Silence of the Fallen by David DeChant

David DeChant served two tours in Vietnam, the first from 1966-67 as a U. S. Marine Combat Intelligence NCO assigned to battalion scouts, and the second from 1968-70 as an Embassy Courier flying throughout Vietnam on Air America flights. DeChant says very little in his new memoir, The Silence of the Fallen (Sanhedralite Editing and Publishing, 298 pp., $2.99, Kindle,) about his second tour; the emphasis is on that first tour.

The point of view of the book is different from many Marine Corps memoirs. We do get some of the usual stuff, such as “Eat the apple, fuck the corps—The Crotch.”  And DeChant playing “John Wayne with a friend throwing a K-bar.”

However, when DeChant details the first casualty in his unit, he points out that it was friendly fire, “one of the expendable millions in the folly of Vietnam.”  We do encounter yet another reference to a VC barber, but it turns out that this guy only looks like DeChant’s unit’s barber, in the sense that “all Asians resemble each other.”

DeChant makes it clear that his life was pleasant compared to that of many. For one thing, he never fired his rifle while in Vietnam. “We lived like animals in the bush; however life at Dong Ha was relatively nice: hot chow, cots, mail, clean laundry, calls home, and even movies in an open-air theater. Most of the time, we could even get a nice hot shower.”

He includes the oft-stated complaint of this era about the M-16, calling it “absolute garbage. A piece of shit.” He supports this contention with many details. DeChant notes that the Marines asked for, but did not get, their M-14s back.

M16 edited...............“We should have been at home chasing pussy, going to college, starting careers,” DeChant writes. It’s difficult to argue with that.

The story is told in stark and hypnotic prose. “Move out, slow down, keep your interval, pick up the pace, slow down, take a break. Dry land, rice paddies, rivers, streams, rolling hills, open areas, 12 foot high elephant grass, (find the chopper above), sweat, bugs, leeches, vipers, heat, thirst, and the ever present fear of sniper attack, ambush, booby traps, wounds and death.”

Then there’s this brilliant rant in this very quotable book: “We were trying to stay alive and survive the insanity of this war perpetrated by America’s so-called Best and Brightest (worst and dumbest)—immoral, treasonous, cowards, merchants of death and treacherous war-lovers, most of them!”

As you might guess, DeChant does not hold back his feelings and his facts. I loved this memoir and highly recommend it to those who have the stomach for it.

—David Willson

Love Poured Out for Viet Nam by Trena Chellino

Chester and Mary Travis were Christian missionaries to French Indochina and Vietnam from 1925-75, where, according to Trena Chellino, they “experienced an abundant measure of Christ’s indwelling and overflowing life.”

The Travis family, with their five children, were taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, but that part of their time in French Indochina is not explored much in Chellino’s Love Poured Out of Viet Nam: First-Hand Account of Chester & Mary Travis and Their 50 Years of Ministry in a Country at War (Living Stones, 251 pp., $5.99, Kindle).  I would have liked to read a lot more about those years.

I enjoyed this book as it is one of the few I have read in which people are actually happy to be in Southeast Asia. Keep in mind that Chester and Mary Travis were there for most of fifty years with their children. I have countless books by young Americans who spent a year or so in South Vietnam, and do nothing but complain about the people, the heat, the smell, and the food. The Travis family does none of that.

When they left Vietnam in February 1975, they cried. They did not go on about the glories of getting on a Freedom Bird. They were 82 and 77 by then, and it had been a dozen years since they had had a furlough. Long past retirement age, the couple admits, though, that they “were getting really tired.”

Their point of view about the war and about life in Southeast Asia was fascinating to me. President Nixon, they say, “resigned after a political blunder.”  Really? They also say that Americans were weary of the war so the United States refused to defend South Vietnam.

The couple continued to minister to the South Vietnamese during the entire war.The book contains chapters about hair-raising escapes over bad roads and driving cars that barely run. Chester Travis is a genius auto mechanic, so he kept old vehicles running long after they should have given up.

Trena Chellino

The journey via ship to the U. S. is described as “six weeks of tears” as they couple contemplated “the dark cloud of communism” that now “spread all over Vietnam.” What kept the Travis family strong throughout their time in Vietnam was the goal of providing “deliverance from Satan’s power and to be out in the sunshine of God’s infinite love.The hope was to reach “the hearts of hopeless, helpless, miserable human beings who were trapped far from God in a web of darkness.”

The Viet Cong murdered Christian missionaries in 1962 and the family was at serious risk when they took to the roads to visit remote villages where Chester Travis worked as an outdoor evangelist. They would sit with the Vietnamese in their huts and eat steaming hot rice with Nuoc Mam sauce.They learned to enjoy the taste and the odor. They endured malaria and dysentery while ministering to their assigned district of four provinces. This area contained a million people.

Lessons can be learned from this book. Chester and Mary Travis learned the language fluently and the customs, and they truly loved the Vietnamese people.

Qui Nhon, their home base, was at times a target for communist attacks, and it is a miracle they did not die. The chapter on Tet ’68 is one of the most interesting of the war-related chapters. The family was asked or told to evacuate to Bangkok, but refused to go. Five missionaries died during Tet—or as the Travises put it, they were “at home now with the Lord.”

I enjoyed reading this fine book and highly recommend it to readers who are hungry to read about brave Americans who went to the war zone to bring a better life to millions of South Vietnamese. They did not expect, or wish for, a parade when they returned home to America.

—David Willson

 

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Night Hunters by William P. Head

William P. Head’s Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Air Power (Texas A&M University Press, 440 pp., $60, hardcover; $23, paper)  is an excellent read for those unfamiliar with the history of Air Force gunships.

The book explains the evolutions of the AC-47 and AC-119, along with the history of the AC-130. Head, who runs the 78th Air Base Wing Office of History at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, emphasizes the efforts of ASD, WRAMA, and contractors to make the AC-130 a long-lived rather than stopgap weapon system. Consequently, AC-130 aficionados and war lovers might view Night Hunters as half of a book because of its long sections devoted to politics and economics rather than concentrating on AC-130 combat operations.

The chapters titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Recent Events, Modifications, and Policy Decisions” are the heart of the story because they examine the complicated pros and cons about the AC-130’s roles. Head’s account of the battle for Fallujah contains a depth of detail that forces the reader to reconsider the validity of the AC-130 as a close-air-support weapon.

His storytelling brings to life AC-130 crewmen and troops on the ground and dramatically emphasizes their interdependence. These two chapters make the reader question the AC-130’s future and its effectiveness in the past.

The book’s first half presents a fixed-wing gunship history through the Vietnam War; its second half deals with AC-130 history from the 1975 Mayaguez incident to the present. Rather than using background information from his own voluminous gunship writing, Head  frequently cites Jack S. Ballard’s Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships, 1962-1972. Along with Ballard’s work, Head relies heavily on the 78th Air Base Wing History Archives, as well as records from the base’s Air Logistics Center and the Air Material Area.

By telling the stories of the 1972 Battle of An Loc and post-Vietnam War operations such as Urgent Fury in Granada, Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm, and Provide Relief in Somalia, Head shows how the AC-130 went from from truck-busting to primarily close-air-support missions. His description of the Granada invasion provides enough U.S. misadventures to qualify as a scenario for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera—and he delivers it straight faced.

William P. Head

To better fulfill the promise of the book’s subtitle, greater elaboration of aircrew experiences might have provided a clearer understanding of AC-130 combat strengths and weaknesses. Other than speaking with two generals who had once piloted gunships, Head did not interview any other AC-130 crewmen. I view this omission as the book’s biggest weakness.

Interviews of crewmen might have helped to calculate more accurately the AC-130’s role in U.S. air power. I also find it disconcerting that when discussing minor combat operations, Head simply says the AC-130 performed its usual roles without adding details.

For example, he mentions AC-130 deployment to South America to fight drug dealers but gives no factual support. Similarly, he lists sophisticated equipment such as the AN/AAQ-17 IDS/FLIR—which he describes as “one of the most accurate high-tech devices ever conceived”—but fails to explain the operational advantage it provides.

As a former Spectre fire control officer and sensor operator, I believe crewmen deserve more credit than Head gives them for their influence on the development of AC-130 systems and tactics, particularly during the Vietnam War.

In more ways than one, the AC-130 mission was a fly-by-night endeavor from 1966-71. Combat missions doubled as training missions. New equipment that even tech reps did not know how to operate was tested and perfected under fire. Crewmen originated tactics through trial and error and passed them on by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until 1971 that a self-appointed, ad hoc trio of navigators at Ubon Air Base in Thailand wrote the first AC-130 tactics manual. The haphazard approach worked because during those early years mainly lieutenant colonels and majors who had spent most of their careers in C-130s piloted Spectre gunships. Their skillful flying accounted for the high—yet often questioned—truck count.

They deserve interviews because they set the standard.

—Henry Zeybel

The Vietnam Trilogy by Walter C. Kuhlman

Walter C. Kuhlman, the author of The Vietnam Trilogy (Outskirts Press, 314 pp., $19.95, paper), served in Vietnam with the U. S. Army in 1967-68 as a gunner on a Quad .50. He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

The Trilogy consists of three plays: Survivor, The Innocents of War, and Rap. Plays are written to be performed, and it is always a challenge for a reader to visualize a playwright’s intent, no matter how rich the stage directions are. Reading these three plays has made me eager to see them performed.

Survivor is set in Phouac Binh Province in South Vietnam right after the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive. The characters are a squad of 101st Airborne Division Army paratroopers—Company A, 1st of the 506th. The men are sent out on a search-and-destroy mission, but it turns out that they really are bait to draw out the NVA.

In the play we are told by one character that the whole war is an exercise in population control. It is mentioned that after coming home the men were spat on and called baby killers by antiwar demonstrators.

The survivor of this patrol, Fred Mercer, later tells his wife that their son is a cripple because he was exposed to Agent Orange in Vietnam.  America’s superior firepower is mentioned. Gen. William Westmoreland gets credit for his optimism about the light at the end of the tunnel.

This is a bleak play in which the ghosts of the dead soldiers Fred Mercer served with play important parts. His life after the war conforms to the great American cliché of how combat survivors spend their post war lives. He tries having a family, but is no good at that. He deals with his survivor guilt by drinking. He can’t keep a job. He becomes homeless and we see him putting a pistol to his head.

In The Innocents of War the protagonist, David, is the eldest son of a typical, very patriotic middle-class American family. The dad of the family, Olly, makes the point that the day after Pearl Harbor he volunteered for the Army.

Lots of hubris is expressed in this play. The family is convinced that David will go to Vietnam, kick ass, be back in a jiffy, and God will look out for him.

The family asks: How can little people in black pajamas hope to defeat Americans who have superior firepower and much better equipment? They laugh about how outgunned and out-performed the VC must be. Ollie regrets that Barry Goldwater is not president as he would drop the Big One and that would be that.

Walter Kuhlman

David leaves for Vietnam, time passes, and neighborhood boys start coming home in boxes. “We should have never let him go,” his mother says.

Uniformed Army men show up on their porch with bad news. David is MIA. Ollie says that this is not like any war we have fought before.

Time passes. David’s younger brother avoids the draft. Ollie dies. Eventually David’s commanding officer informs his mom what really happened to David. He was not missing. He was simply dead.

Rap is the third play. I can’t attest to the verisimilitude of how the rap group portrayed in the play is run. I’ve never been in such a group. I did approach a couple of such groups after I got back from Vietnam, but it was explained to me, none too gently, that they were for combat veterans only.

The leader told me that even some “girls” had applied. They’d been nurses in Vietnam and said they wanted to be a part of the group. “Can you believe that? They wanted to use up valuable time and energy needed for real combat vets.”

If the rap group portrayed in this play is representative, I missed nothing valuable. The leader of this group is clueless. She has sex with one of the group participants.

There is a schism between the Marines and the Army guys that sometimes leads to violence. Throughout the play the Marine Corps is referred to as “the crouch.”  That’s not right. My Marine Corps friends often lovingly called it  “The Crotch.” That oft-repeated mistake annoyed the hell out of me.

Also it is said in the play that the war was fought “on the cheap.” Really? The war I took part in was not fought on the cheap. Yes, there were distribution problems, but tons of money was spent.

This play did make me think, which is a good thing. I would love to see it performed. On the other hand, I have trouble believing that the sex scenes would not trigger audience laughter.

Agent Orange and malfunctioning M-16s are mentioned. The main point seems to be that the U. S. government poisoned us and then refused to care for us when we needed care.  It’s impossible to argue with that.

—David Willson

Mary Travers by Mike Renshaw

Mike Renshaw was a close friend of the late Mary Travers and also is a Vietnam veteran. In Mary Travers: A Woman’s Words (CreateSpace, 222 pp., $18.99, paper), Renshaw has pulled together a wide variety of Travers’ writings and arranged them in a handsome volume.

The book is composed of newspaper columns, unpublished essays, speeches, stage monologues, poetry, and—for me most interestingly—interviews Travers conducted.

Renshaw writes that Mary Travers was America’s premier female folk voice in the 1960s. I would have said it was Joan Baez, but perhaps due to Travers being the Mary of Peter, Paul, and Mary, she reached a larger audience. Certainly Peter, Paul, and Mary sold a lot more records than Joan Baez did.

The book begins with a moving chapter on Lila, the maid who helped raise Mary Travers and who motivated much of her philosophy of social justice. This section of the book contains Travers’ strongest and most emotional writing.

Travers admitted to being a Luddite, and I enjoyed her rants against machines. Her commitments to civil rights, the women’s movement, and to world peace cannot be faulted.

There’s a great chapter on the difficulty of singing our National Anthem. The first verse, Travers wrote, “is passable poetry. You’d be embarrassed by the subsequent verses, which no one ever hears.”  She goes on to state that “our national anthem is a war song and in a way it’s sad that the song that represents our nation should perpetuate the glory of war.”   Perhaps she forgot that this is a country made by war.

My favorite part of the book is near the end: the full texts of interviews she did with Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, and Richie Havens. The interview with Dylan is one of the best I’ve ever read.

There is a lot more to praise in this book, including Travers’ moving piece on the death of her dog and a scary section about a visit to South Korea.

I believe that this book is mostly for fans of Travers and of Peter, Paul, and Mary. For them, it will not disappoint.

—David Willson

Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Mary Travers at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965

Incoming by Richard E. Baker

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Richard E. Baker served with the 4th Infantry Division Band in the Vietnam War. According to his novel, Incoming: The Piteous Recognition of Slaughter (Stephen Banks, 214 pp., $12, paper) the author “has suffered a lifelong battle with PTSD and his devoted his life to researching the illness.”  Baker has written other Vietnam-War related books, most notably Shellburst Pond.

Pete, the main character of this novel, is a trumpet player who made the mistake of enlisting in an Army infantry band. He could play “Chet Baker riffs,” but he would not get a chance to do that during his tour of duty in Vietnam.

He is eighteen years old and has a dark shadow he calls Clifton. Clifton is with Pete nearly all the time, but nobody else can see Clifton. Pete thinks he will be safe from the killing part of the war as his MOS is O2B2O, trumpet/coronet player. He is said to be “a hell of a horn player.”  But as Pete says, “things have not gone as planned.”

There is a lot of understatement in this book. I also see great kinship between Incoming and Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan. The main difference is that this book is punctuated traditionally—no dashes.

Pete and Clifton leave for Vietnam, along with the rest of the band, from a dock in Tacoma, Washington, on the U.S.S. John Pope. The first one hundred pages of the book are powerful and take place entirely aboard this small ship. The men stop briefly in Okinawa, and then arrive at the coastal South Vietnamese city of Qui Nhon.  Around this point we get a reference to an American icon as Baker writes that a character “was calm as John Wayne even though he never went to war.”

Richard E. Baker

The band ends up stationed at Dragon Mountain Base Camp near Pleiku. They are forced to break into a supply depot to steal training manuals to learn how to be solders. They set up their Claymores backwards at first because they had received no specialized infantry training. Their sergeant, SGT Bigglio, is an incompetent martinet.

With their band instruments in storage, they become infantrymen, slowly and with great sacrifice of lives. They are tossed into the burning barrel of war, fuel for the fire. They do the best they can. They serve the needs of the Army and the Army does not need band members, so the promise is broken—the promise the recruiter made back in the States.

It is familiar story, but also an uncommon one: pimple-faced teenagers transform themselves into killers. They will never be musicians again.

There is a powerful set piece in which a tank slowly runs over a protesting Buddhist monk that is as chilling as anything I have ever read in Vietnam War literature. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and the Rolling Stones get mentioned. Sonny and Cher appear briefly.

At one point we are told by a Vietnamese: “No Americans, no war. There was nothing complicated about it.”  We meet characters who wear necklaces of dried VC testicles and worse.

I recommend this book to anyone who intends to see an Army recruiter. Read this book first. It is a powerful corrective to the optimism of any teenager who thinks that joining the Army during time of war is a good idea—even if he can play the trumpet like Cat Anderson.

–David Willson