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

Never Too Late by Ralph T. Jones

COver333333333333333333How does one classify a book that begins with an author’s note that says: “The events I have written about of my tours are those I have control of and may not be in the order they happened. My mind is full of many partial and unclear actions, some still may only be cruel images of my imagination”?

That’s what Ralph T. Jones writes in Never Too Late (Red Feather Publishing, 401 pp., paper). Jones, a VVA life member, also says that he chose to use nicknames or fictional names for the people in the book. The protagonist is seventeen-year-old Tim. With his mother’s consent, Tim joins the Army, trains as an infantryman, and arrives in Phouc Vinh, South Vietnam, in October 1965.

Jones takes the reader on a step-by-step journey of Tim’s experiences. It includes firefights, search-and-destroy sweeps, the death of a best friend, and bouts of drunkenness. Along the way, the reader sees the death of Tim’s youth and the birth of his disillusionment. All of this leaves him torn between fear and love of combat.

Tim returns to the United States, marries, and becomes a father. But he cannot find meaning for his existence. He rejoins the Army and in 1970 returns to Vietnam as a UH-1H crew chief and gunner. Tim’s two Vietnam tours fill the first half of the book.

The book’s second half describes Tim’s post-war life. Intent on making a career of the Army, Tim suffers a catastrophic car wreck. He spends much of three years in the hospital, which leads to his involuntary retirement. Left in  a state of physical and psychological pain, the rage within him builds up so much that he turns into a truly hateful man.

From this point, Jones takes the reader on a second journey that follows Tim through a battle to regain his humanity. This journey is as equally enlightening as the first.

Jones tells Tim’s story in a sort of chronological shorthand: Dense but brief paragraphs with few transitions comprise each chapter. At times, the book reads like a movie script. Jones first published Never Too Late in 1990, and this edition is a revision of the original.

—Henry Zeybel

My Story by Gary Lyles

 

The purest truths come from personal experiences. Gary Lyles’ My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade (E-Book Time, 263 pp., $14.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle.) scores an A-plus for honesty in recollecting his experiences as a United States Army infantryman in Vietnam.

The book came to life from “a barely legible pile” of “random handwritten thoughts” and “a shoe box full of memories,” Lyles says. For decades, he could not write about Vietnam. He believed he needed to incorporate what “he had learned about the war” to give his experience perspective.

But Lyles finally decided, he writes, that that effort would “add little to the personal story.” He realized that what he had done spoke for itself, and that incorporating the history of the war did not relate to his combat life. Consequently, Lyles writes with a candidness that might embarrass lesser men.

From the day he arrived in-country and was assigned to the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Lyles knew he had entered a nightmare world. Fear was his constant escort. Within a month, he was ordered to kill two prisoners, refused to do so, and watched in stunned horror when two fellow soldiers carry out the murders. Several months later, with great disinterest, he watched an American apply pressure to a VC’s chest wound by standing on it until he died.

Lyles spent most of his tour in the Central Highlands where his unit “stayed in the field continuously.” He took part in many firefights. He learned as much as possible from more-seasoned grunts. Chosen to lead a squad, he mastered the art of directing artillery, as well as setting and avoiding ambushes. Two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, and promotions from E-3 to E-6 within a year validate Gary Lyles’ battlefield proficiency.

As much as he learned to hate the enemy Lyles also respected their skills. As he puts it: “I knew that the NVA would be advancing behind the barrage of artillery fire. Years of experience had given the NVA the ability to walk artillery in toward their objective with the ground troops following extraordinarily close behind the exploding shells.”

Lyles’ imagination often became his strongest enemy. What he saw compounded his fear for what might happen next. When his unit deployed to the DMZ, his worst fear materialized during the battle for Nhi Ha village: He and four other men were cut off while manning a listening post.

“As I peered up over the edge of the crater, my heart sank,” he writes of that horrific encounter. “Hundreds of NVA soldiers had just cleared the wood line and were advancing at a slow walk. Artillery flares lit up the night sky. The flares swinging from the falling parachutes made the shadows of the advancing soldiers move in an eerie manner. They were uniformed soldiers camouflaged with leafed branches attached to their helmets, pistol belts, and webbing. They were moving in our direction with bayonets fixed.”

The 196th Light Infantry Brigade crest

His courage, though, constantly overpowered his fears. Lyles and three of the other men survived being overrun, but in a footnote he says, “The vision is seared into my brain. I had nightmares for years because of it.”

Lyles does not waste words. He describes and gives his opinions about events and people and then moves on without explanations. His just-the-facts accounts of interactions between American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians introduces many questions to ponder. He fully understands—but without specifically saying so—that his knowledge is truth born of battle.

Books such as My Story offer history lessons that subliminally reveal that there is no truth to history beyond what each individual learns on his own.

—Henry Zeybel

Women Made Me Do It by Tony Marlin Buchanan

WOMEN COVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR

For Tony Buchanan, life and two tours as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger Company (in 1966-67) are inexorably wrapped up in the arms of two women he had loved since childhood. Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve in 1957 as an underage E-1, went on to serve three stints in the 101st Airborne Division and as a MACV advisor in 1966.

In Buchanan’s memoir, Women Made Me Do It (Warwick House, 105 pp., $9.95), he writes about his ten-year rise from Private E-1 to Staff Sergeant and his difficult assignment with an under-strength South Vietnamese Ranger Company. He spells out the details of a scrappy, tough, lonely childhood and how he grew to manhood in the rice paddies, jungles, and villages near Xuan Loc.

Throughout all of it, Tony Buchanan longed for the love, tenderness, and comfort of two different women who sheltered and embraced him: Frances and, later, Linda.

Buchanan was one of nine children who grew up in grinding poverty in Brevard, North Carolina. Constant movement plagued his early years. Eventually the family returned to North Carolina, but Buchanan’s father drifted in and out of the picture. They struggled to eat, to live, to get by. At one point, the family lived out the summer in a tent.

Tony Buchanan’s long-suffering mother held the family together. Schooling was spotty, difficult, and ended for him in seventh grade.

He caddied at a golf course, got into scrapes with his brothers and older boys, developed into a pint-sized boxer, and didn’t take kindly to sitting still in class. He stole a car, went on a joyride, vandalized property, and learned his way around street people. He was headed for worse trouble when he met Frances, his first love.

But after Frances dumped him, Buchanan freaked out. The next morning the five-foot-three, 117-pound, fifteen-and-a-half year old visited five military recruiters. The Coast Guard recruiter told him to get the family Bible and write in it that he was eighteen years old. That bit of mischief got him into the Coast Guard Reserve.

After six months active duty, he came home. Frances spurned him again, so at age eighteen Buchanan transferred to the U.S. Army. He had Infantry School at Ft. Benning and jump school at Ft. Campbell. In 1961 he got married, but almost from the beginning the marriage began crumbling. His wife moved back home, he had a string of new lovers, and then Buchanan volunteered for the Vietnam War.

He served with a Ranger Advisory Team working with a South Vietnamese Ranger Company that was dispirited, under strength, and underpaid. Visits from ARVN family members in the field, corruption, and patronage plagued the unit. American advisors could make recommendations, but did not command the units they worked for. Morale was often dangerously close to mutiny.

A U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese forces circa 1966

Buchanan tried to instill American-style discipline, but learned that the company did better with guerilla-style raids, night ambushes, and hit-and-run ops. His street smarts helped make him effective—and lonely for women. Throughout the next year, Buchanan sought out prostitutes and ignored his stateside family.

Buchanan served well, and instilled a fighting edge in the men he advised. He also was wounded, went through a divorce, and faced near exhaustion from combat.

Buchanan—who received  the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Ranger Badge—was discharged in September 1967. He found his second great love, Linda, in 1978.

In his memoir Buchanan’s writing is honest and direct. But a weakness of the book is that he does not explore his emotional responses to the traumatic events in his life. His mother instilled toughness in him, so maybe we should not complain too much about the small details of a true warrior.

—Robert M. Pacholik

Condemned Property? By Dusty Earl Trimmer

In Condemned Property?: Our Most Unpopular War Continues for Americans Who Fought in Vietnam… WHY? This is Their Story and Mine (Dog Ear Publishing, 484 pp., $29, hardcover; $25, paper) “Dusty” Earl Trimmer provides a look at his service in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book also contains the stories of other Vietnam War veterans, along with Trimmer’s strong opinions about the war and those who fought in it.

Trimmer wrote the book, he says, “to honor our fallen warriors during and after the Vietnam War,” along with “living warriors of that war who are still fighting their demons.”

Trimmer believes that the war “should have and could have ended… with a complete American victory!” He lays a large share of the blame for the fact that there was no “American victory” on Americans who protested the Vietnam War, as well as the U.S. news media.

The war, he writes, “was always about stopping communism. It was not a revolution by loyal patriots, as the Viet Cong were used and discarded by North Vietnam. The Ameri-Cong left-wing media and the left-wing protestors were also used TO DEFEAT THEIR OWN FELLOW AMERICANS!

Trimmer goes on to say that Vietnam veterans “are NOT condemned property. Although the media would have Americans believe that, with generations of very inaccurate reporting—actually, they have been LYING! Many of us are still fighting to survive; many of us are winning again, just as we as a generation have always been…winners!

A note about the book’s subtitle: the Vietnam War certainly was, as Trimmer notes, “unpopular.” However, it wasn’t “our most unpopular” war; that sobriquet belongs to the American Civil War, which divided the nation so drastically that Americans took arms against other Americans.

—Marc Leepson

A Date with Vietnam by Steven Weathers

Steven E Weathers’ memoir, A Date with Vietnam (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $12.81, paper), starts off with the author telling us about his problems with authority in high school. I quickly found myself wondering how he’d do with military rules and authority given the fact that the relatively mild high school structure troubled him. Weathers says he wanted to be treated as an adult, and thought that he would get that in the military.

I also wondered how soon we’d get a reference to John Wayne. We did not have long to wait. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I especially liked his military films when I was a kid,”  Weather says. He goes on to praise Wayne for playing military characters “so true to life.”  Weathers grew up “in a family and a society that made you feel it was your duty to go fight communism.”

He was told “to join, not wait to be drafted. Guys who are drafted are treated like shit.” This sounds like Army recruiter talk, and it is a lie.  Weathers’ recruiter told him, that in his opinion, “a bunch of jungle backwoods pack rats wouldn’t hold up long against the American military machine” in Vietnam. The recruiter also told him that losers get drafted and that second-class soldiers are the first to be sent to the fighting.  Another lie.

Steven Weathers viewed serving in the Army as a patriotic duty—and his ticket to manhood. This point of view was not unusual for men to have in the mid 1960s.

A small-town Indiana boy of seventeen, a high school dropout who knew how to type, Weathers took the military aptitude tests and ended up as an Army clerk typist. He was sent to Okinawa, “a cushy assignment on an island paradise.”  At seventeen he was too young to go to Vietnam, but as soon as he turned eighteen, Weathers volunteered for the war zone.

Assigned to the 18th MP Battalion, Weathers was happy to have escaped small-town boring America. He makes the usual observations about Vietnam upon arrival. He is hit in the face by the hottest air he had ever experienced. He comments on shit-burning, but says he never got assigned that dirty detail. He mentions the steel wire on the windows of the bus that took him to his assignment.  Protection against grenades, he says.

Weathers

Weathers next went to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Transportation Command, where he lived in the Le Lai Hotel in Saigon. He discovered that he was considered a REMF and explains what that is.

He and his roommate spent their off duty time “drinking, smoking pot and frequenting the local whorehouse.” Weathers’ job consisted of typing up disposition forms, memoranda, and the occasional classified documents twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

After betting promoted to E-4, his job changed. He became a harbor pilot escort, using a jeep as transportation, and also PBRs ( patrol boat, river.) On one mission his jeep came under fire. His passenger, a harbor pilot, was killed; Weathers narrowly missed death himself.

This memoir offers a good description of the impact that Tet 1968 had on Weathers’ life, and life in general in Vietnam for soldiers with assignments such as his. After Tet, Weathers was moved out of the hotel and into more a typical barracks living situation. Later, while riding in a helicopter, he fell out at about fifty feet, and survived only because he landed in a grove of trees that cushioned his fall.

The main strength of this memoir is its unabashed honesty, especially about Weathers’ behavior and that of his best friend.  He tells us about kicking Vietnamese off of their bicycles while driving his jeep if they impeded his progress. He says he enjoyed “kicking gook ass” in bars.

Like many other rear-echelon troops, Weathers had a mama san to clean and polish his boots and do his laundry. Like many others who served in Vietnam, his favorite song was the Animals’  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”  He expressed outrage at a culture that sold dogs and cats and other pets in the marketplace for dinner items.

When Weathers came home in 1968 after two tours of duty, he partied for thirty days. But his parents were at him about moving out and getting a job. So he went back to the grocery store job he had left to join the Army.

Civilian life was hard. He had two dismal marriages. Weathers joined the Army Reserves where he found the structure and camaraderie he missed from his time in Vietnam. Weathers became a Senior Track and Wheel Inspector, and later a drill instructor. He received many honors and medals, and stuck with the Reserves until retirement.

Eventually he even found true love. She had been married for sixteen years to a man she called “a crazy Vietnam vet.”

This memoir is an honorable and honest addition to the canon of Army Vietnam War memoirs. I enjoyed reading it. There were many familiar chords in it reflecting my own REMF tour of duty in the Vietnam War–and also many differences.

—David Willson