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

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Men Come Home From Work… Late by Galen Hobbs

The plot of Galen Hobbs’ Men Come Home From Work…Late  (AuthorHouse, 364 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) involves two men escaping from two POW camps twenty years after the end of the American war in Vietnam War. Jake, who is in the Air Force, and Crow, a Navy SEAL, meet by chance and join forces to try to evade the Vietnamese Army.

When they arrive in Laos, they are joined by a Marine named Ed and by a woman named  Michelle, who appears to have no military affiliation.

They are pursued by a drug gang who are trying to kill them. The United States Embassy also wants them dead. They head west with many obstacles to deal with, harboring the hope in their hearts that they might link up with their families.

The book begins with an author’s note that the novel takes no position on the question of whether Americans were left behind “knowingly or unknowingly” in Vietnam as prisoners of war. Hobbs says he made up all characters’ names, places, and incidents.

Before the story begins, there are two pages of the something called “19 Rogers’ Rules.” The first rule is, “Don’t forget nothing.” The book does give the appearance of having included everything necessary to make the story move right along.

Galen Hobbs

This is a complex tale which seems somewhat muddled, but it held my interest.

The book, in essence, does make a case that the Vietnamese kept Americans after the war. However, it failed to convince me that there were any good reasons to do so.

Readers eager for another Vietnam War POW book could do much worse than to read this one.

I read it in one long sitting.

The author’s website is http://www.ghobbsauthor.com

–David Willson

Wisconsin’s 37 by Erin Miller  

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In Wisconsin’s 37: The Lives of Those Missing in Action in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 251 pp., $29.95, paper) Erin Miller, a young, first-time author, has skillfully parlayed an extensive and exhaustive research project—the outgrowth of a homework assignment—into a quite readable effort to tell the life stories of the men noted in her subtitle, some of whose remains were recently returned from the battlefield.

Miller is an admitted military neophyte who had to develop a glossary of people, places, and terms, to begin her research. The book stems from a response to an innocuous social media entry and is based on Miller’s deep dive into countless documents, as well as interviews with family members and comrades of the thirty-seven Wisconsin men listed as missing in action in the Vietnam War.

She wrote the book with the help of University Wisconsin U.S. History Professor John Sharpless, who calls the experience at once an “emotionally draining, and deeply rewarding.”

Miller and Sharpless present the story chronologically, from 1965-73, and add post-war information about individual histories and repatriation efforts. As of the time of publication in May of this year, twenty five of thirty seven remain unaccounted for.

The book is a thoroughly commendable memorial to the lives of these men. The biographies allow us to vicariously visit with each of them. We learn of their hopes, dreams and plans, as well as their families’ unanswered questions and loss.

–Tom Werzyn

Fighting the Cold War by John R. Galvin

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Gen. John R. Galvin subtitled his 2015 book, Fighting the Cold War, with A Soldier’s Memoir. The title tells only half of the book’s story. Along with recalling his life, Galvin offers a world history lesson that spans his eighty-six years on earth from 1929-2015. He also provided hard-earned practical knowledge about leadership by citing good and bad events and decisions related to his forty-four year military career.

Originally published in 2015 and reviewed here, the memoir now is available in paperback (University Press of Kentucky, 517 pp. $29.95).

Galvin’s accounts of his two tours in the Vietnam War offer grim lessons in leadership. During his initial tour as a brigade operations officer with the First Infantry Division, Galvin was relieved of duty and sent to a staff job in Saigon. He served his second tour with the First Cavalry Division mainly as an infantry battalion commander. He flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside his men in combat.

Comparing Galvin’s two tours gives the reader a short but concise study of the subtle variations that constitute acceptable combat leadership. Putting his men’s welfare first brought Galvin both failure and success.

The book’s thirty-two page collection of photographs that span Galvin’s lifetime could almost serve as a memoir by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Gen. Galvin in Vietnam in 1970 during his second tour of duty, with the First Cavalry Division

Face to Face by Don Fox

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At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss Don Fox’s Face to Face: Images from a Different War (Old Goat Press, $35, hardcover; $20, paper), with its uninspired cover montage and the erratic quality and sizing of the photos. Easy to dismiss, that is, as another in a crowded field of ill-conceived self-published books of war photos.

It’s not. The book is a masterful meditation on War and the Other. Don Fox, a VVA life member, grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The Vietnam War provided his first look at a different culture—a culture that clearly mesmerized him when he served a year in country in 1966-67.

The 19-year-old Fox—a “Good Morning, Vietnam” disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon—spent untold hours on the streets photographing its inhabitants. But when he returned to the States, he put several hundred Ektachrome slides in a cardboard box and stored them in the basement. During his life’s moves Fox always took that box with him, but somehow the slides wound up in the basement. Half a century later, when he finally opened the box, Fox found that his slides were badly damaged. Mildew had eaten into the film emulsion of many; others were water stained.

But what surprised Don Fox is that he remembered each shot: the place, the situation, his intention, his shyness, his excitement. He realized, too, that the images had been percolating in his head for all that half century. He had never really left them behind.

So he spent a year laboring to restore images and assemble them into a book. The restorations were uneven, yet curiously even the ravages of time and neglect have somehow been incorporated into the images. As Fox writes in his Epilogue, this book is the work of two photographers. One is a “naïve, fresh-out-of-high-school soldier”; the other, a “world-weary retired English teacher.”

The result is a beautiful album arranged in a straightforward format: photographs on the right, brief commentaries on the left-hand pages. Often the remarks are Fox’s own reflections. Other times, he’s employed the crystalline thoughts of others, such as the novelist Tim O’Brien and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

For example, Fox presents a photo of woman in front of a collapsible gate with her face illuminated by a single ray of light. The facing page quotes the 18th century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du: “Alone, in silence, she beheld the moon,/ her heart a raveled coil of hopes and dreams.”

There are more than two dozen photos in this slender volume, including several I could live with for a very long time. One is of an innocent, curious child in a crowd looking back at the photographer while everyone else is concealed by scarves or conical hats.

afvnlogoAnother is a child held on the shoulders of an old man. “At first what caught my eye was the contrast between the old man’s gnarled hands and the smooth face of this little girl,” Fox writes. “But the true contrast is seen in the young child’s ancient eyes.”

In yet another remarkable photo a woman carries two huge pots with a shoulder pole, her face obscured. The background is a gated storefront. Her belly is swollen with child.

“And when I see the sun reflecting off her conical hat,” Fox writes, “I see her halo.”

To order, go to Fox’s website, oldgoatpress.com

–Michael Keating

Post 8195 edited by Bobby White

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Twenty-three men recall “untold truths” in Post 8195: Black Soldiers Tell Their Vietnam Stories (Beckham, 228 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) edited by Bobby White. Far beyond their confrontations with the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, the men still battle post-traumatic stress disorder.

These twenty-three men served in every branch of the service and performed the duties expected of them with lasting pride. A majority of them were infantrymen and remember horrific episodes from the thick of combat. Their gut-level candidness exceeds what is found in most Vietnam War books.

They focus on fears that nearly overpowered them. They emphasize challenges more than heroism, although they acted heroically in times of crisis. They often still show amazement for what they did and saw long ago. Even today, they dwell on how “Vietnam was a big hell spot,” as Ismael Rolle, Jr., put it. “We had no alternative but to fight and survive.”

Mostly draftees, the men express controlled anger regarding racism during their time in Vietnam. They recognized that a racial bias existed, but lived with it. Several became squad leaders.

Eulas Mitchell Jr. says, “I had a squad of fifteen men; all were black.” They performed with “perfection,” which “didn’t sit well with the powers.”

His unit was broken up. Then, Mitchell says, he “was given thirteen southern boys nobody wanted.” He turned them into a “good group” that simply “wanted a proven leader.”

The VFW Post in West Park, Florida, under the guidance of Bobby White, began a program to counsel veterans in multiple ways, especially those with PTSD. Called Stone of Hope, the program is an extension of one offered by the local Vet Center. White, retired from a thirty-two year career with the VA, organized a rehabilitation program that emphasized transcendental meditation, yoga, and chiropractic.534951_lno7y3kp

Post 8195 grew from this program and enhanced the men’s recovery from PTSD. Today, most of the men are in long-term marriages, have families and children, and enjoy retirement benefits earned from civilian careers.

The VFW post plays a major role in the lives of four hundred African Americans, White says,  providing them with both guidance and “the place” for adults to “hang out.”

—Henry Zeybel

Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

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Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Sweden by Matthew Turner

 

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Lance Cpl. James Earle Harper, an African American from Mississippi, is badly wounded at Khe Sanh saving the life of his lieutenant. In the Cam Ranh Bay hospital, just before Christmas 1967, he is visited by—not Santa—but by President Johnson, who pins a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to his hospital gown.

Harper is central to Sweden (The Mantle, 327 pp., $14.95, paper; $3.95, Kindle), Matthew Turner’s first novel. In the 1990s, Turner, a New Zealander, was living in Japan, working as a freelance translator, he said in an article on his publisher’s website. That’s when he learned of a late-1960s group called the Japan Technical Committee for Assistance to Anti-War U.S. Deserters (JATEC), the underground arm of Beheiren, the Citizens’ Federation for Peace in Vietnam.

The desertion rate for the Vietnam War peaked “at 73.5 per 1,000 troops in 1971, well above the highest figures from World War II (63 per 1,000 troops in 1944) and the Korean War (22.3 per 1,000 in 1953),” Turner writes in a historical note. JATEC’s role in helping Vietnam War deserters was a small but fascinating one.

Turner started writing this novel in 2010. “[M]ost of the primary sources I relied on in researching Sweden were written in Japanese by people involved with the group,” he said. Another important source was Terry Whitmore’s 1971 memoir ,Memphis, Nam, Sweden: The Story of a Black Deserter.

Whitmore was the model for Earle Harper, who, after his encounter with LBJ, is flown to Japan for rehab at a U.S. military hospital. He’s told his next stop probably will be the States. Instead, he is ordered back to Vietnam and a war he no longer believes in. So he deserts.

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Matthew Turner

So does another character, Eddie Flynn, a seaman apprentice on a U.S. hospital ship, after gruesome chores with the triage unit and in the morgue led to spells in the brig and drug addiction. Flynn spends one month as a patient in the naval mental health unit in Yokosuka. Pronounced fit for return to duty, he simply walks away.

In alternating chapters, Turner tells Flynn’s story, and Harper’s, and that of a rowdy trio of teenagers. He also shares absorbing details on Japan’s past, geography, religion, culture, and cuisine; recreates several days of a violent student strike at Nihon University; and portrays life at a hippie commune, a way station for American deserters.

The narrative keeps moving, thanks to Turner’s efficient prose, as well as an attractive supporting cast. The Beat poet Gary Snyder shows up at a Buddhist temple. And JATEC operatives—the jazz enthusiast Masuda among them—show resourcefulness in guiding the deserters on their individual perilous journeys.

There’s no guarantee of reaching the country’s far north, embarkation point for the next leg of the escape.

–Angus Paul