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

Wassermann Gardens by Milo Samardzija

Milo Samardzija’s title alerted me that the subject of his book,  Wassermann Gardens (Publish Green, 170 pp., $8.99, Kindle), might be venereal in nature. I was not disappointed. The author has taken the old Vietnam War myth about an island where soldiers with incurable sexually transmitted diseases were marooned for eternity and turned it into a dystopian allegory of how Vietnam veterans were treated by society when they returned home.

Just a chapter or two into this short, powerful novel, my mind was reeling with thoughts of other populations of people on islands: especially Lord of the Flies.  But there also were intimations of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, Robinson Crusoe, and Richard Connell’s short story, The Most Dangerous Game.  

We are told that the soldiers living on this island are Vietnam veterans, although initially there were soldiers from America’s earlier wars there. Death has claimed the older veterans—and the newer ones, too, at a rapid rate. Many are blind as a result of their venereal diseases. The blind are not popular on the island as they demand special treatment.

The helicopter that delivers their rations is often late, sometimes by weeks. The venereal-diseased veterans have denuded the island without seriously considering becoming self-sufficient by fishing the surrounding waters.The men have few skills and are not dedicated to trying to learn any. They just want to be fed by the food from the helicopter. They do not work together as teams to survive.

Milo Samardzija

A scheme is hatched to mob a helicopter and escape. One of the smarter captives has figured out that the men are on one of the islands in the Philippines. That plot goes awry, of course, and results in dire consequences. A main character named Marlowe tries to do things right, at least according to tenets he believes in, but madness finds him.

This grim tale provides much food for thought. I enjoyed reading it, but I have a dark view of the world—and a dark view of the Vietnam War.

These disease-ridden Vietnam veterans are a part of the past that America does not want to own up to, which led me to often to think of the current scandals in the VA hospitals.  Perhaps the author intended that a reader be provoked in that direction.

—David Willson

21 Months, 24 Days by Richard Udden

Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.

“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,”  Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman.  “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.

Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”

Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.

As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.

1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion

Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.

He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.

The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.

Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.

He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.

“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.

Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.

The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html

—Henry Zeybel

You Had to Be There by Gene Gorman

Thought for the day: There’s no such thing as a good deal that a GI can’t fuck up. A bunch of guys I served with believed that thought was gospel. In fact, some of us occasionally qualified as the sentiment’s poster children. But Gene Gorman beat all of us when it came to self-destruction.

In You Had to Be There: A Memoir of a Miraculous Life (Archway, 260 pp. $35.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), Gorman sets some kind of record for successively running up ladders of success and then free falling from the top rung, loaded with beer. He performed his one-act play as both a Marine and a civilian.

His book is a good read because he pulls no punches. Gorman presents a classic alcoholic’s story by revealing himself at his absolute worst. Watching him is both tragic and funny, sort of like seeing LeBron James block his own breakaway, game-winning layup. Fortunately, we eventually see Gorman at his best.

Born in 1946, the second oldest of six children, Gene Gorman began working as a pre-teen door-to-door Christmas card salesman to supplement the family’s income. From then on, he never stopped selling a product or himself. He started drinking at fifteen—mostly beer. Told to leave home after high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

His drinking steadily increased, even after he reached the fast track of driving an admiral. He did a tour in Vietnam, mainly leading a squad on search and destroy operations north of Dong Ha. Home from the war, Gorman received choice assignments while drinking his way to an honorable discharge.

In civilian life, Gene Gorman excelled in many different sales jobs, usually lasting around ninety days each. Once he lasted three years. But booze inevitably took control and he repeatedly walked away from work. Gorman seldom, if ever, got home before the bars closed in the wee hours of the morning.

Gene Gorman married and was divorced by the same women three times. They had two children. At the age of twenty-nine, Gorman resigned himself “to just being a drunk and waiting to see what happened to guys like [him].” Delirium tremens and repeated failures at detoxification finally forced him to admit he was an alcoholic and enter a twelve-step program at thirty.

Gene GormanThe book’s second half provides a message of hope for anyone trapped in addiction.  As a member of the Easy Does It Club, Gorman (at left) followed the guidance of recovery mentors and, working for others, maximized his talent for selling cars. Alone, he founded a program—The Winning Edge—that teaches leadership skills worldwide. You can look it up.

His managerial success led to building a used automobile sales corporation—Gene Gorman Associates—in  Punta Gorda, Florida. It now is nearly twenty years old. You can look that one up, too.

Simultaneously with his business success, Gorman started a new family and made amends with his first wife and older children. His story frequently takes on a well-earned proud poppa and grandpa tone. The book contains twenty-eight pages of pictures that closely resemble a family album.

The author’s website is www.genegormansbooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

By What is Sure to Follow by Donald N. Burton

Donald N. Burton enlisted in the Navy in April 1966 after receiving a draft notice from the Army. He did three tours in the Vietnam War. His novel, By What is Sure to Follow (Hellgate, 262 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle), is “based,” he says, “on real in-country legendary events of uncommon valor, unbelievable luck and supreme dedication to brethren, chronicling unknown exploits during the early years of the Vietnam War.”

The plot centers on former Marine Sgt. Luke Sims, whom we first meet in a veterans rap session at the San Diego Vet Center in 1989. He’s attended these meetings for fourteen years to try to become normal.  He was attached to the First Force Reconnaissance Company in Vietnam. His assignment included watching grids for enemy troop movements and reporting them. Luke Sims also enlisted to avoid the Army draft, like the author.

After a short introductory narrative about the rap sessions, the reader is plummeted back to Sims’ time in Vietnam, and given a respectable and well-written story about Marine Recon. At the end of the book, (spoiler alert), we end up back home again in the present, and it is revealed that Sims has gone crazy and has been responsible for a series of killings.

The structure of the book is like a Fig Newton. The fig part is fine, but the Newton part I had trouble with. I don’t think this book needed the wraparound plot device of making the Marine recon vet a mass killer. That stuck in my craw.

In the course of this novel we get references to John Wayne, Dear John letters, “Wooly Bully,” A Fist Full of Dollars, enemy ears as trophies, Indian Country, M-16s being issued with a warning, jungle rot, and much more.

If the book is meant as a warning about the aftereffects of PTSD, I think it goes too far.  I have many friends who are Marine Corps Vietnam War veterans, and I would trust them with my life.

—David Willson

Pick Up at Union Station by Gary Reilly

Pick Up at Union Station (Running Meter Press, 274 pp., $16.95, paper) is the seventh book in The Asphalt Warrior Series. Murph, the Denver cabdriver featured in the first six books of this unique and totally fun series by Gary Reilly, is back.

It’s a Seattle sort of a night in Denver.  “It was April, and it was raining buckets.” After Murph says that, he then discourses on clichés as is his inclination, having spent seven years on the G. I. Bill earning a degree in English.

Murph has a party to pick up at Union Station, as the title warns. The party’s name is Zelner, and so it begins. What ensues is another Madcap Murph book, in which our hero gets involved with the problems of one of his fares. The problem Zelner has is death, which happens in the back seat of Murph’s cab.

The novel is filled with Murph’s usual ruminations about the nature of existence. “When you drive a taxi for a living,” he says, “you rarely get the opportunity to feel ecstatic.”

Very soon the reader is given the first clue that Murph is an Army veteran: “I’ve often wondered whether ‘Army joke’ is an oxymoron, but let’s move on.”

Murph’s creator, Gary Reilly, was an Army veteran who served in the Vietnam War. The next Gary Reilly book will be out later this year or early next year. It’s called The Detachment and ninety-five per cent of it takes place in Vietnam. It’s written in the voice of an MP Private named Palmer.

You could say that Gary Reilly is doing his best work—now that he’s been dead a few years. All of his novels have been published posthumously. By the way, Reilly was an MP in Vietnam.

I kept track of the references to Army service in Pick Up at Union Station. There are more than two dozen, and they tend to be funny as is most of the book. The threat in the book is a serious one—foreign spies attempting to destroy America. But Murph’s muddling and meddling with American heroes who work to defeat dangerous foreigners provides humor. Spoiler alert: his meddling does not lead to the downfall of America. That was a relief.

Murph descends into near madness and questions his own sanity late in the book. But without ruining the suspense, I will say that I expect to see Murph back in another Asphalt Warrior book in a year or so. I eagerly await him. He is a survivor and a hero unlike any other in modern fiction.

For more info on the late Gary Reilly, go to theasphaltwarrior.com

—David Willson

Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge by John D. Deaton

Dr. John Deaton served as an Air Force doctor in Vietnam in 1967-68 and witnessed the Tet Offensive. He arrived in country mid-August 1967, addicted to the barbiturate Seconal, seeking redemption. “At the 12th Hospital [in Cam Ranh Bay], I found the affirmation I had been seeking, and just in time to save my life,” Deaton writes in his memoir, Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge (Amazon Digital Services, 417 pp., $9.99, Kindle). An internal medicine specialist, Deaton comments on several issues that I have found of interest as a Vietnam veteran.

“Again, it sounds small of me to mention it, but the peculiar military put down of having one person call another a “Remf” is, to me about as small as you can get,” he writes. And later: “By the way, Jane Fonda doesn’t deserve our loathing. Wishing to end the war, as we all did, she made a mistake. Big deal!”

This book gives us as good and intimate introduction to 12th USAF Hospital as we are ever likely to get. The most gory details of that hospital are there for the interested reader. Also the struggles of Dr. Deaton to deal with his Seconal habit, and to kick it, with the help of fellow doctors.

Deaton sings the praises of military nurses, and makes the point that at least 7.500 women served in the military in the Vietnam War. For those interested in details of how the Tet Offensive affected the 12th, no better book than this one exists I know of.

Another thing I loved about Deaton’s book is his comment on the word “’Nam.” To wit: “But in 1967, the last innocent year of our involvement there, we still called it Vietnam.”

Perhaps the wisest thing he says about the American war in Vietnam is: “Stopping a guerrilla war requires a ten to one superiority in numbers, the support of the local populace and a strong network of bases. We had none of the three.”

Deaton points out that the giant Cam Ranh Bay base had a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, and a massage parlor. Also a tennis court and a whorehouse. More reasons we lost that war.

I enjoyed this fine book, and I think that many others will too. If you’ve been an addict, you’ll especially appreciate it.

—David Willson

The Ghosts of the Green Grass by J. L. Bud Alley

Invariably, wars produce battles that become historical benchmarks. Not enough can be written or spoken about those events. Arguably, the Vietnam War’s 1965 Battle in the Ia Drang Valley between the Army’s newly formed 1st Air Cavalry Division’s 7th Cavalry and the North Vietnamese Army achieved such magnitude.

Ia Drang’s distinction began with Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, which examined the entire battle.  J. L. “Bud” Alley has written a  book about just the final stage of that fight—the 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry’s engagement with North Vietnamese forces at Landing Zone Albany. His book, The Ghosts of the Green Grass (Codi, 393 pp. $29.99), reveals exploits unrecognized in previous writings.

Alley served as a 2/7 second lieutenant in 1965-66. Part of an experimental U2 (untrained second lieutenants) program, he went from college to his unit without attending a basic officer course, although he later received training in combat communications.

His story focuses on more than the fighting.  Alley, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, walks the reader through a chaotic month of assembling the battalion at Fort Benning for deployment to Vietnam as part of the newly formed 1st Cav. Equipment and manpower shortages hindered planners. Uncertainty about practically everything plagued company grade officers and sergeants.

Bud Alley in Vietnam

“I was not sure if a Harvard professor could make sense out of the complexities,” Alley writes.

After thirty days at sea on the USS Rose, the battalion arrived at Qui Nhon in mid-September 1965. Its operational base was at An Khe.

Impulsive and unpredictable leadership stalled the battalion’s development into a fighting force. The Army was thin with experience across the board, Alley says. Six weeks after the battalion arrived in country, its stressed-out commander asked to be relieved.

On November 17, 1965, the day the entire battalion finally deployed in the field, no strategy existed to counter an enemy attack. The day’s plan was simple: march indirectly from LZ X-Ray to LZ Albany to avoid a B-52 ARC Light strike. The battalion’s column stretched from eight hundred to fifteen hundred meters in length. Delays were frequent. “We had no maps or idea of our destination other than to follow the man in front,” Alley writes.

Having never chosen an extraction landing zone, the battalion leaders were uncertain as to which of two cleared areas constituted LZ Albany. When the company commanders gathered to discuss the problem, the battalion came under fire on all sides from NVA forces.

Bud Alley

The battle that followed became a fight for survival. Alley graphically describes the intensity of combat that cost the battalion one hundred fifty-five dead and one hundred thirty-four wounded. He weaves in first-hand accounts, his own included, worthy of awe and admiration.

A bitter conclusion to the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley came soon afterward, when Gen. Westmoreland told the 2nd Battalion survivors that they had achieved “a great victory over the Communists from the North.” A year and a half later, units of the 4th Infantry Division fought nearly identical costly battles in the Ia Drang, fights that are described by Robert Sholly in Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors.

As Charles Baker does in his book, Gray Horse Troop, Alley links the 7th Cavalry’s Vietnam War experiences to its 1876 Little Bighorn Battle, but in greater depth. Alley points out many similarities between the “ghosts” of Gen. George Custer’s last days and 2/7’s encounters.

Alley’s book is based on more than fifty interviews with the men, wives, and widows of the Seventh Cavalry fighters, as well as military records and other published and unpublished sources.

Bud Alley earned a master’s degree in history in 2011. But he still possesses a sense of humor. At times, with its wealth of dialogue, The Ghosts of the Green Grass resembles a novel.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.theghostsofthegreengrass.com

—Henry Zeybel