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

The Siege of LZ Kate by Arthur G. Sharp

In the March/April 2013 print edition of The VVA Veteran we ran a feature story that looked at 21-year-old Army Special Forces Captain William Albracht and his heroic actions in late October and early November of 1969 at Firebase Kate in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. More than 5,000 NVA troops mounted a ferocious assault on the precariously situated firebase and its 150 American and South Vietnamese troops, primarily Montagnard special Civilian Irregular Defense forces.

“Albracht’s troops suffered a growing number of deaths and injuries,” Sharp wrote. “Morale plummeted as food, water, ammo, and medical supplies dwindled drastically. Albracht had taken shrapnel in his arm on October 29 as he directed a medevac helicopter attempting to land at the firebase. He was given the opportunity to leave with the other wounded, but refused—choosing to stay at Kate to lead the remaining besieged troops.” After more intense bombardment, Albracht led the men to safety through a long, treacherous trek through NVA lines under withering enemy fire.

The article went on to explain that Albracht, an active member of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Quad Cities Chapter 299 in Iowa, received a Silver Star for his actions that day. The men who served under him, though, began pushing in 2011 for him to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. That action is still pending.

Albracht receiving the Silver Star—his third—at a ceremony at the Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., on December 15, 2012 

Sharp’s new book, The Siege of LZ Kate: The Battle for an American Firebase in Vietnam (Stackpole: 256 pp., $24.95), tells this story in expanded form. It focuses on details of the escape and also looks at broader issues, such as the newly implemented Nixon administration’s Vietnamization policy.

Another book is due out on the same subject next February: Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Fire Base Kate, written by Albracht and William J. Wolf, with an introduction by Joe Galloway

—Marc Leepson

 

Red, White, & True by Tracy Crow

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $21.95, paper), edited by Tracy Crow, is an anthology of nonfiction. Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. She served in the Marines for ten years.

Many of these thirty-two true stories deal with how lives have been affected by military service, either the service members or those close to them. The most powerful—and also most sad—are the stories that deal with the Vietnam War. That includes “The Thirty-Day Project,” in which Chrystal Presley tries to understand her father’s Vietnam War experiences. Those experiences traumatized her childhood and left her barely able to function.

Her father was a type very familiar to many members of the Vietnam Generation. In fact, I had a father similar to Presley’s. But my father had never been to Vietnam. He was a World War II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  I expected from the title that the story would progress through thirty days of conversation with her father. But no conversation happened. Presley made one effort and that was that.

Tracy Crow

Not all the stories in this large collection deal with the Vietnam War, but a surprising number do relate to America’s most controversial overseas conflict.  Ronald Jackson, Tracy Kidder, Stephen Wilson—all are Vietnam veterans with worthy stories to tell.

Children of Vietnam veterans also speak out. In addition to Chrystal Presley, there also is Lorrie Lykins with “Panel 30W, Row 15,” and Leah Hampton, with “Above and Beyond.” Read these stories and you may weep, as I did.

These fine stories remind us of the residual cost of America’s wars. They do so in a relentless and involving way.

In a country made by war, there’s nothing special in having a jumpy, sometimes violent father, one who wants his children to be neither seen nor heard. No loud noises permitted, not unless you want to court disaster. Lots of fathers of this sort figure in these stories—men who were called to war and who did their duty to this fine country, and who did not come back as the men they left. Nor did they return to the country as it was when they departed.

Most of this is sad stuff. Did I read a story in this anthology that made me happy, made me laugh? Not that I recollect. Still, I highly recommend this collection for libraries—especially young adult libraries—and as a gift to any young person who is hot to join up and go off to war. These stories might cause him or her to reconsider.

—David Willson

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