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

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The book is composed of newspaper columns, unpublished essays, speeches, stage monologues, poetry, and—for me most interestingly—interviews Travers conducted.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

The Private War of Corporal Henson by E. Michael Helms

No information is given about the author in E. Michael Helms’ The Private War of Corporal Henson (Stairway Press, 267 pp., $17.95, paper), except that he wrote the war memoir, The Proud Bastards.  The Acknowledgments section gives a “thank you” to “the members of my combat veterans counseling group,” so it would not be presumptuous to assume that Helms fought in the Vietnam War. Helms ends the acknowledgments with the words “Semper Fidelis,” a good indication that he served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

The first page of this novel is akin to a checklist of every bitter cliché encountered in many novels and memoirs written by Vietnam War veterans. To wit: There was no parade when the book’s protagonist came home from the war on a “freedom bird.”  And that he was fearful of encountering “hostile demonstrators.” And that there was no grateful nation thanking him for his service.

E. Michael Helms

Seventeen years after his war, the title character Nathan Henson joins a support group of Vietnam veterans to try to deal with his PTSD.  “In a series of gut-wrenching sessions, he faces the ghosts of his past,” Helms writes, “and shares the struggles of others as they confront and relive horrors and dark secrets kept locked inside.”

This is a worthy novel about a Vietnam veterans rap group. I cannot judge how accurate the book is about how the group functions because as a former Vietnam War REMF, I have never been allowed to be part of one. But I’ve read books dealing with this concept, and this one seems to measure up to what’s been written in the earlier volumes.

I recommend this book to those who want to read more about this special experience. There is much powerful emotion displayed in the sessions portrayed here, and there is some hope for healing.

The author’s web site is www.emichaelhelms.com

—David Willson

 

Stingray by Alan C. Thomas

Alan C. Thomas’s Stingray: The Russians are Listening (America Star, 274 pp., $27.95 paper; audible.com, $27.81 audio book) reads like a memoir, at least for the first quarter of the book. So I am grateful that we are informed by the author that “All characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is coincidental.”

Thomas is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served in Vietnam with detachments of the 3rd and 5th Marines, including on POW pilot rescue missions in 1970 in Quang Tri Province. His first book, Flashback: Vietnam Cover-Up: PTSD, dealt with veterans’ post-traumatic stress disorder.

Stingray is a complex tale of apparent paranoia, industrial espionage, duplicity, and international intrigue. It was difficult for me to make sense of it all. Is Rob Thomas, the main character in this novel, crazy, as he is constantly accused of being? Or is there a vast web of plots against him designed to discredit his accusations of wrongdoing at Mare Island Shipyard?

This thriller has Kafkaeseque complexities that made my head spin. For those who see conspiracy everywhere they look, Stingray may be for you.  It contains much pill taking, beer drinking, and cold pizza eating. Also the consumption of hot dogs and chili dogs. The fast food eating alone would have made me crazy.

The hero goes to California at the behest of an old friend to take a job at Mare Island Shipyard, and one crazy thing leads to another. Everywhere he looks he sees plots thickening. He ends up in the care of a psychiatrist who is later killed, along with his shipyard boss, in a suspicious car accident. The shrink is convinced that Rob Thomas is a “wacko.”  Hard to argue with that diagnosis.

Alan C. Thomas

Thomas leaves his wife in Florida when he decamps to California. She “wouldn’t follow along the path that I needed to take.”

That “path” refers to the fact that she had been repeatedly raped by her father when she was a kid, so she was not interested in marital sex.

Thomas calls his father and tells him that he has discovered that the streets of California are not paved with gold. That is typical of the phraseology used in this book.

If you enjoyed Thomas’ first book, this one is more of the same, and I predict you will enjoy it. Security leaks at Mare Island and possible KGB operatives infiltrating America—this book has plenty of that.

The author’s website is www.alancthomasbooks.com

—David Willson

 

Freedom Is Your Destiny by Daniel T. Eismann

Physical warfare, spiritual warfare, and miraculously recovering from health challenges are the central issues in Freedom Is Your Destiny (Desert Sage Press, 318 pp., $14.99, paper) by VVA life member Daniel T. Eismann, a lawyer who serves as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. 

This well-executed volume is a must read for anyone interested in Eismann’s topics. This decorated, two-tour Vietnam veteran Huey crew chief has written a detailed account of life aboard a UH-1, as well as pre-flight and post-mission maintenance.The organization of the chapters with transitions from riveting combat missions to biblical histories of Jesus and his apostles are generally well done. 

There are twenty-six chapters, many of which are worthwhile. The one disadvantage in this book, though, is the lack of an index. 

I recommend the chapter called “Blessed Are the Merciful,” featuring the OR Nurse Annie. It’s the one I enjoyed the most. Some chapters contain opinions that are open to discussion, but not this one. “God has anointed certain people with the Motivational gift of mercy,” Eismann writes. Annie embodied this biblical reference.

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Daniel T. Eismann

“Enjoying the Battle” is the title of the chapter devoted to the author’s health issues and those of his daughter and their “miracle” healing. This will resonate with all Vietnam veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange, as well as with families who have experienced traumatic illness. 

The final.chapter, “Going Home,” focuses on.the Freedom Bird Vietnam veterans longed for. The author also.mentions the spiritual requirements for attaining the freedom flight to heaven. These requirements will likely be evaluated in various ways by readers.

 
—Curtis Nelson

No Place for a Lady by Thea Rosenbaum

As Thea Rosenbaum stepped from a still-moving C-130 onto the Khe Sanh runway on January 29, 1968, she was greeted with the click -click of incoming rounds. Throwing herself behind some oil drums, the young war correspondent noticed cows crossing the runway. It reminded her of the terror she had experienced as a child during World War II.

He memoir, No Place for a Lady (AuthorHouse, 194 pp., $16.95, paper), written with Chris Moore, has greater depth than many war stories. Thanks to Rosenbaum’s well-crafted writing the reader can see through her eyes as she relates her wartime experiences in Berlin and Vietnam.

After describing landing at Khe Sanh, Rosenbaum spends several chapters explaining how war was not new to her and how she and her family survived World War II in Germany.

Just as this narrative is not an ordinary book, Thea Rosenbaum was no ordinary child. At the age of five she traveled ten miles by train to enroll in school. During the final weeks of the war, she saved her mother from being raped by Russian soldiers.

Rosenbaum admits to serious feelings of inferiority. But by the age of twenty-one, she had become Germany’s only female stockbroker at Oppenheimer & Company. Later, she would become the only German female journalist covering the war in Vietnam. Her desire to produce top journalism led Rosenbaum into potentially dangerous situations, including going through Vietnamese airborne troop training.

As the reader is drawn into the Rosenbaum’s life, you can appreciate why she spends so many pages describing her youth. It becomes quite clear that her growing-up experiences brought a new kind of self-confidence. Dealing with a child-molesting grandfather, being an au pair for a family with no children, and falling madly in love with a violin player built a foundation for dealing with all kinds of people.

Thea Rosenbaum

Arriving in Khe Sanh was as fortuitous for a journalist as it was dangerous. There was no lack of action to report. It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Moving into Saigon later during Tet, the author writes:

“There is no battle line. Now this is true generally of the fighting in Vietnam, but during Tet, and in Saigon, if you went to an area where fighting was under way, you would have great difficulty in pointing to one side of the street or the other and say with any certainty that is where the Vietcong are and that is with the South Vietnamese are. You just couldn’t do it with any consistency.”    

Being a German citizen and a noncombatant was no guarantee of safety. While Rosenbaum was in Vietnam, a group of German doctors was taken out to a field and shot by the Viet Cong. The author writes that Americans were also guilty of atrocities, but says we were not nearly as cruel as the Viet Cong were.  

After she left Vietnam, Rosenbaum worked in the White House as a German correspondent for ARD television. She became well acquainted with Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and interviewed people such as David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, Jesse Jackson, and Hugh Hefner. One of the greatest experiences of her life, she writes, was seeing the Berlin Wall fallThea Rosenbaum became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

She ends her narrative with these words. “Yet sometimes I ask myself, was it more important to meet every president since Nixon or to spend time with my family? It can be difficult to choose between historically important people and taking care of your children. But would I do it again? You bet I would.”

Would this reviewer recommend this book and read it again? You bet I would.

The author’s website is www.noplaceforalday.com

—Joseph Reitz

Mekong Mud Dogs by Ed Eaton

Ed Eaton’s Mekong Mud Dogs: The Story of Sgt. Ed Eaton (Eaton, 278 pp., $17.45, paper), is a recounting of the author’s experiences with B/3/60 of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Read this book if you have the stomach to face confronting the worst of the Vietnam War on a daily basis.   

My experience was photographing the second phase of the Tet Offensive around Saigon and Cholon during early May of 1968 when  Eaton company and other 9th Infantry Division units slugged it out in house-to-house fighting in a factory complex near the edge of Cholon, as well as in rice paddies adjacent to the Kin Doi Canal ship channel, while snipers and 107mm rockets lobbed death from a distance. The American grunts, artillery, and helicopter gunships did their best to destroy them.

I was one of the hated FNG/REMFs Ed Eaton speaks not so fondly of in his book. He, on the other hand, was an 11B10, Light Weapons Infantryman, based on a spit on land next to the My Tho River deep in the Mekong Delta, serving as part of the Mobile Riverine Force.

In eighteen bruising chapters, we get almost every sight, taste, smell, instinct, comment, and attitude an infantryman shares with his buddies. They are in the business of killing at close range. We get details about sighting in on a enemy’s torso, steadying the rifle, and dropping the charge for the kill. Ed Eaton does not waste time or mince words about the experience. He fought, and he survived. That says enough.

Eaton earned his Combat Infantryman Badge the hard way—by patrolling, walking point, checking on his guys, helping medevac out the wounded and dead, surviving multiple deadly ambushes, and killing with an M-16, a M-79 grenade launcher, and later with an XM-21 match-grade sniper rifle.

Ed Eaton

Early on, Eaton survived a 55-gallon drum mine explosion on a Navy Supply Tender ship after which he was forced to swim through a river of oil, find a hatch, get through it into another compartment of oil, and then swim toward the deck of a ship that was sinking in mid-river and listing badly as she settled on the bottom.

From there, we move to multiple search and clear insertions, search and destroy missions, “recon-by-blood” probes, and chilling remain-over-night occurrences where mosquitoes, leaches, immersion foot, ringworm, sheer exhaustion, and probing VC are the only things you focus on. Ten year-old C-rats with canned fruit salad and stale pound cake are all that you eat—if you can force them down.

Ed Eaton moves up from being a basic infantryman, to point man, to sergeant, to platoon leader, to platoon sergeant, and eventually to an elite sniper school in Vietnam. It is a ghastly experience in which his humanity, his fears, his losses, and his resignation that death is near at every moment, are ever present. Yet he soldiers on. What we have here is a good man doing his best in utter hell.

As his tour progresses, Eaton’s vigilance stays focused on movement in the shadows, shapes that do not look right, distances to tree lines, booby traps and punji sticks, along with mud, the damnedest stickiest, oozing, slimy, filthy, shit-filled canal water, and utter exhaustion. Near the end of his tour he interacts with REMFs, drinks too much beer, “shines-on some bullshit” to NCOs and officers, and slides closer to a PTSD crackup.

During a brutal all-day firefight, Eaton crash-lands hard, damaging his spine, and then works feverishly to rescue a Captain who was also badly wounded. The images, smells, and emotions eat away at him in long, sleepless nights afterward.

After coming home, Eaton can no longer hunt (something he loved doing), and crashes through jobs, college, alcohol, women, and more alcohol. He damn near dies in another plane crash. After that, he begins a four-decade long recovery.

Ed Eaton, despite his feelings toward FNGs, REMFs, and dumb-ass lieutenants, has told a fine story of a tortured man who is rebuilding himself, after surviving the Vietnam War. Read it if you want to know the truth of what war can do to humans who experience it at the combat level.

The author’s web site is www.mekongmuddogs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik