Welcome to “Books in Review II,” the online-only column that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly print magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.
That column and this site contain book reviews by writers who specialize in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Our regular Books in Review II reviewers are John Cirafici, Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, Bob Wartman, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel. The late David Willson wrote hundreds of reviews for Books in Review II from its inception in 2011 through the spring of 2021.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
The events that Ken Convoy covers in The Erawan War: Volume 1: The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos, 1961-1969 (Helion & Company, 64 pp. $29.95, paper) take place at a time when the Domino Theory was a key factor in American national security policy. That theory, which President Eisenhower first explained publicly in 1954, held that a communist takeover of one nation would inexorably lead to communist takeovers in nearby countries, which would “fall” like dominoes.
In 1961 the Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos was seen as a key nation under threat from communism as it bordered two communist countries, China and North Vietnam, as well as noncommunist Thailand, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Consequently, the Eisenhower Administration placed remote, landlocked Laos squarely on the Cold War chessboard.
To thwart a communist insurgency in Laos the United States in 1961 became clandestinely involved in its largest-ever paramilitary covert operation (code-named Erawan) amid a civil war between Lao factions including the communist Pathet Lao. Convoy’s concise, heavily illustrated book—nicely supported throughout by photographs and maps—describes the CIA’s efforts to reverse the advances that the Pathet Lao and its ally, the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN), made throughout much of northern and central Laos.
Similarly, important missions were conducted to counter the PAVN’s use of the Ðuong Trường Sơn (known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern and southern Laos, and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia, which the communists used to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.
Demonstrating incredible initiative, a handful of CIA field officers, working with Thai Special Forces, successfully imbedded themselves in Lao tribes, including the Hmong, and built a formidable fighting force to counter the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.
Equally impressive were the efforts to maintain trail-watching teams that collected intelligence on PAVN movements and assessed the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign.
One of the most audacious operations—Codename Fox—inserted teams into the People’s Republic of China to tap phone lines. Another trained a team of Nung—Chinese tribesmen from Vietnam—to conduct direct action ops against the PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA operations in Laos also included superb air support provided by Air America and BirdAir, and a secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in 1964.
The story of CIA operations in Laos, one of America’s longest-running Cold War engagements, as Convoy recounts it in this book, is a fascinating one.
However, I found it odd that U.S. Army Special Forces, although not central to this story, were barely mentioned even though they conducted parallel operations in Laos from 1959-62. Although this book is clearly about the CIA in Laos, you can’t give the complete picture without mentioning in some detail the Green Berets’ Operation White Star.
Otherwise, The Erawan War is a great military and military intelligence history book.
Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.
Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.
Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.
As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.
Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war.
Randy Brown’s So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 76 pp. $9.99, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a brief collection of short, experimental wartime poetry. Brown served in the Iowa Army National Guard as a civilian journalist in the war in Afghanistan in 2011. He is the author of the acclaimedWelcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, and is a co-editor of the 2019 Military Writers Guild anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. Full disclosure: I know Randy Brown and admire his work.
Some of the poems in his new collection have appeared in two veteran-and military-oriented literary journals, Collateral Journal and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. There are 55 pages of poems, some of which contain poems within poems. I found it interesting to read a few of the poems backwards for a new jolt of understanding.
The outstanding poems include “frag out!”, which reads in toto:
has a heart filled
Sometimes one of Brown’s titles is also part of the poem, as in “timing”:
the line between a poem
and a joke
One of my favorites is “Clausewitzian nature poem”:
the only thing
war ever changes
is the uniform
Then there is “Catch-23”:
If you want peace,
prepare for war.
If you want war,
prepare for war.
Some are mind-blowing, such as “pauses, for effect”:
Why do you hate America?
Why do you hate, America?
One of the poems that almost physically grabs and shakes you is “tell me how this ends”:
what happens when your war
is old enough to enlist?
what happens when your war
is old enough to leave home?
what happens when your war
is old enough to vote?
Another outstanding one is “defensive driver”:
I never understood
why some Joes startled
at every blowing grocery bag
until I came home myself
and found the camels hiding
The best personal war poetry, no matter what war it’s written about, will basically ring true for all other wars. That’s what Brown’s work does. There is a place in the world for very short poetry and Randy Brown has found himself at home in that place.
Here is the book’s final poem, “all this will be yours”:
Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.
After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.
In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.
The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.
Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.
Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.
I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.
With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.
Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.
Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.
Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”
The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the twenty-four-hour-light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.
At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.
Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.
Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.
She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.
We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.
Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”
We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”
There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.
We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.
In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”
Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”
The title of James C. Downing Jr.’s The Second Team: A Vietnam Pilot’s Journal Account of Faith, Freedom and Flying (Encodable Impact, 404 pp. $17.76, paper; $17.77, Kindle) is not a reference to a skill level. It rather refers to former Army helicopter pilot Downing’s tour of duty in Vietnam, which began in 1966 when he was among those who replaced the first wave of 1st Cavalry Division chopper pilots returning home after tours ended.
Downing begins his story by writing about his less-than-sterling childhood, and then explains how his love of flying came about. His deeply held Christian faith is evident throughout the book; virtually each page contains some mention of his devotion to his personal God. Sometimes during his Vietnam War tour Downing’s faith seemed at odds with his fellow pilots who spent much leisure time carousing at the Officers’ Club. But he persevered.
Downing enlisted in the Army in July 1963, completed helicopter flight school, and was sent to Korea where he was 1st Cav’s Commanding Gen. Hugh Exton’s personal pilot. Downing writes that as his flight hours accrued, he learned valuable lessons on the ground, as well as in the air.
From Korea, Downing deployed to Vietnam, and another assignment with the 1st Cav as a Chinook pilot. To fill an empty slot, he was temporarily assigned as a slick pilot for a few months, then went back to the twin-engine CH-47.
Downing kept a daily journal from his first day in the Army to his last. He leans heavily on those journal entries in this memoir. They contained masses of info on his daily life in Vietnam, and that minutia tends to bog down the story for a reader who isn’t as enamored of flying as the author is. On the other hand, those who appreciate the expertise and finesse required for piloting slicks and Chinooks in combat will be well rewarded.
Several times Downing repeats stories, and the book contains some spelling and grammatical errors. At times, the book reads as if it was dictated or copied out verbatim from the journal pages. Downing would have benefited from tighter editing and proofing, but the book, in the end, is a good read—a good story from a good man. And a book I recommend.
Gemma Jablonski’s Jungle Combat: A Combat Pilot’s Tape Recorded Transcripts from Vietnam, 1968-1969 (299 pp. $27.99), paper; $15.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War time capsule. That’s because it is not based on memory, but consists of a series of edited transcripts of tapes recorded by John Astle during his Vietnam War tour of duty in 1968-69. Jablonski, a long-time friend of Astle, transcribed the audio tapes.
John “Ace” Astle went to Vietnam as a Marine aviator. During his year flying helicopters he kept an audio diary on a small tape recorder, sending the tapes home on a regular basis. He also regularly received tapes from home. He recorded many of the tapes while he was in the latrine, which is why he told his family not to “try to read anything into the tone of my voice.”
The entries are arranged chronologically, running from June 1968 to June 1969 where they appropriately, and abruptly, end with the last tape.
Astle was stationed at Marble Mountain, part of the Da Nang complex, where he flew large CH-46s. When the young lieutenant first arrived there he heard were rumors of impending attacks by the Viet Cong. On a recording he made on his second day in-country he said: “One thing I will say about Vietnam is that I don’t think I’m going to like it very much and will probably be happy to end my tour and get back to the States.” Hearing the sounds of artillery fire in the distance, he said that it wouldn’t be long before he would begin flying “out into bad guy land.”
After Astle’s first few flights he reported that he was “kind of disappointed” that he didn’t get shot at. Later, I read his accounts of several several life-and-death adventures, I couldn’t help wondering why he was “writing” about such things home to his mother. Most of the participants in the war I know tried to keep their families in the dark about the day-to-day dangers they faced. Astle, on the other hand, seemed to have no desire to hold anything back.
He talks about a rocket attack on the base, a mortar attack, and about sixteen men who were lost in a helicopter crash. He talks more than once of having been in “a shit sandwich.” One time a bullet came into the cockpit. Another mission ended with twelve holes in the helicopter. And he talks of mid-air collisions. I can’t help but wonder how much additional stress was put on his family as they listened week-by-week to so many hair-raising stories.
The transcribed tapes do, however, make for an interesting, immensely readable book. Every veteran has a story and each deserves to be heard. This book has an easy, consistent flow, and the credit for that goes to Jablonski.
One thing that puzzled me was the more than three dozen instances in which this Marine aviator referred to his helicopter as an airplane. There may have been pilots who did that, but I think it would have been extremely unusual.
Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.
Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam.
His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.
In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.
Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade.
When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.
The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.
After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.
Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.
Tom Crowley’s Mercy’s Heroes: The Fight for Human Dignity in the Bangkok Slums (Koehler Books, 190 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is an inspirational, often heartbreaking, look at a long-established children’s charity in Bangkok, Thailand.
Crowley served in the Vietnam War, commanding a 25th Infantry Division rifle platoon. After the war, while battling PTSD, he made a significant life change. After working as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer and for General Electric in Asia, he left the business world to take on life as a volunteer, helping to rescue and protect street kids in Jet Sip Rai, Bangkok’s largest slum. He believes that through this work he has been able to find great personal spiritual understanding.
The Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation has 23 kindergartens throughout Bangkok, working to prepare children for grade school. The first school opened in 1972 in a pig slaughterhouse pen. The organization grew beyond the schools, helping the children’s families, as well as the general community. Some of the children are brought to the Centre, Crowley reports, by concerned people who “basically” kidnap them away from the dangers of the streets.
Today the Mercy program is based on education, shelter, and community assistance. Mercy also provides medical support for children with HIV/AIDS. Crowley worked with Mercy for more than 14 years.
Mercy Centre was started by Father Joe Maier who, Crowley says, “believed working with the poor meant living with the poor.” He followed that principle by living in the same shack for twenty years. When Crowley first decided to volunteer he wasn’t sure what he would be able to do. But then, he writes, he was told, “Don’t worry about where you might fit in. Things will develop. You have to change for Mercy; Mercy will not change for you.”
He sometimes took groups of older girls to dance classes and on camping excursions to national parks. He tells stories about an adult with Down Syndrome who was placed in a kindergarten class, and about children he called the Follow-Me-Home Girl, the Woodshop Boy, the Sleepy Boy, and two Rail Line Kids. The heroes of the book’s title include the children, staff, and volunteers at Mercy Centre.
Early on, Crowley says, he fell in love with all the kids. The sections of the book in which he tells of individual children that includes their photos, drive the story. Crowley occasionally incorporates stories about his experiences in the Vietnam War in 1966. He remembers, for one thing, that death was always present, and that he thought of himself then as “a dead man walking.”
The Mercy Centre is an independent foundation, not funded by the Catholic Church. It’s dependent on public donations to sustain its programs. Contact information is included at the back of the book for those interested in making contributions.
If you read this story of selfless work being done to help children who try to survive in one of the poorest parts of the world and I have no doubt you’ll reach for your wallet. I did.