Welcome to “Books in Review II,” a web-only feature 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 Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, David Willson, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910
Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.
Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.
I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam(2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.
Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.
Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.
To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.
Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.
I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.
“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.
With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:
Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.
The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.
Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.
In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”
Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”
The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking.
Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.
The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.
Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.
We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.
Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.
This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.
Michael Coffino’s new book, Truth Is in the House: A Novel Inspired by Actual Events (Koehler Books, 364 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $7.49, Kindle), considers the important effects that geography and environment have on the development of an individual’s personality. In this case, he focuses on the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City in the 1960s and the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Coffino grew up in the Bronx, and served in the U.S. Army in 1968-70.
The two main characters are Jimmy O’Farrell and Jaylen Jackson. O’Farrell is an only child. His parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 from Ireland and they live in New York City. Jackson is an African American living with his brother and parents in segregated Dublin, Mississippi, where his family, Coffino writes, has to “navigate the mine-laden fields of Jim Crow terrain.”
In separate violent physical incidents O’Farrell is the victim of a gang-related attack and Jackson’s brother suffers an injury in a racially motivated assault. After a few other racial incidents, Jackson’s father goes missing and his mother takes her two sons out of the South and into New York City.
By 1965, as the Vietnam War escalates, Jimmy and Jaylen are finding success playing basketball at separate schools. The two meet on a playground basketball court, but then go their separate ways.
O’Farrell drops out of college and is quickly drafted. When he reports for induction, he ends up being inducted as a draftee into the Marine Corps. At about that same time Jackson enlists in the Marine, and their time at Parris Island overlaps. They both end up in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967.
At first, it was jarring to read about Jimmy and Jalen being in high school, then on almost the next page, in basic training, and then fighting in Vietnam. But, I really liked about how Coffino handled those transitions, as that’s pretty much how fast things seemed to move at the time.
Another thing I really liked was how Coffino made the military experiences of the two young men only about ten percent of the book. The rest sketches their lives before the war and the afterward.
What they experienced and learned in the military and in the Vietnam War stays with Jimmy and Jalen the rest of their lives, and giving plenty of space to their post-war lives works well in the depiction of the over-all lives of these men.
One of the book’s themes is learning to develop a strong moral code. As a result we see characters in Vietnam reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.
Truth Is in the House is a great look at two young men growing into, and then out of, their military experiences and at the effects they have on their neighborhoods—and their neighborhoods continue to have on them.
Nancy K. Napier and Dua Thuy Ha’s The Bridge Generation Việt Nam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime (272 pp. $15, paper; $3.69, Kindle) is an interesting book on several levels. It is at once jarring and revealing. It was jarring to me, a Vietnam War veteran, because Napier and Ha refer to the conflict as the “American War.” It was revealing in that they chronicle—through interviews, observations, and essays—the progress that has taken place in the entire country of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.
Napier is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Boise State University. She managed an extension program developed by Boise State and funded by the Swedish government that brought an MBA and Business Management curricula to the National Economics University in Hanoi. Dua Thuy Ha is a Boise State alum who lives and works in Vietnam.
The book lives up to its subtitle by dividing recent Vietnamese recent history into three segments: “War,” from the early 1950s into the 1980s; “Hunger,” from 1975 to 1990; and “Launch,” from the early 1990s to today. The Bridge Generation is a term the authors give to Vietnamese people born in the late 1950s and early 1990s, as their lives “bridge” the three eras.
The authors interpret the eras from their perspective living in Hanoi, and the narrative is filtered by that and by the Vietnamese government’s communist ideology. That said, the book contains an engaging history of the Boise State project and its successes in preparing leaders for the new, emerging Vietnam. The book’s interviews were conducted with a wide variety of Vietnamese people of differing ages, experiences, economic levels, jobs, and goals.
Napier’s personal asides about living in Vietnam contain some interesting moments, including the vagaries of translations of English idioms and slang; food availability and preparation; and private conversations under the eye of the communist government. She extolls the emergence of Vietnam’s economy on the world stage and the resilience of the people who are making it happen.
This book presents, in a scholarly light, the progress that the Vietnamese have made as they seek their new position on the world stage.
Mark R. Anderson’s Shadows of Saigon (Old Stone Press, 285 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, e book), tells a story that more and more of us can relate to. It deals with an aging Vietnam War veteran looking back on his life and realizing the significance that his war experiences continued to play long after the fighting ended. Anderson served in the U.S. Navy Reserves and wrote this book to honor his father and uncle who both served in the war.
Grady Cordeaux, 68, is a Louisiana farmer who lives alone and has no family. R.C. Carter, 72, is his neighbor and also is a Vietnam veteran. Unlike Grady, R.C. is happily married and has been for several decades. R.C. says the two of them went to war as young men but were old when they came home. “Their rural farm upbringing shaped Grady and R.C. into the men they became,” Anderson writes, “but while they were still teenagers, they also experienced the trauma of war, which changed them forever.”
With no warning, Grady suffers an apparently severe heart attack. His first thought is about who will take care of his dog. He arrives at a hospital and the testing and treatments begin with R.C. frequently at his bedside. As he lies in bed with a newfound sense of mortality, Grady begins to think back on his life.
His memories from high school days include being a hero on the football field, falling in love, and having just enough run-ins with the law to be given a choice by a judge between jail and military service. June 1970 when he arrived at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for basic training was his first time outside Louisiana. Anderson portrays Grady’s time in basic more like something you’d see in a movie about Marine Corps boot camp rather than what it was like on an Army training base in 1970. It’s unlikely Army D.I.s would have yelled in the faces of trainees on the first day, calling them “sorry scrotum sack of pus monkeys” and “worse than dick cheese.”
Within days of arriving in the Mekong Delta Grady was moving through swamps and rice paddies and survived his first firefight. Grady planned to stay faithful to his girlfriend, even though he met a beautiful Vietnamese woman in Saigon (see the book’s cover). We read several letters he received from home. Over time those letters began telling the story of a nation turning more and more against the war.
.Anderson does a good job weaving Grady’s story through the times he’s fading in and out of consciousness in the hospital bed. When you intentionally bring back memories of the past, you often encounter issues that have yet to be resolved. For Grady—and for many of the rest of us—the time for dealing with those issues is beginning to run out.
At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.
McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.
I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.
He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.
McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”
He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.
His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.
There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”
McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.
Come Now the Angels: Five Marines in Vietnam: A Woman’s Story of Love, Death, War, & Hope (A Seat at the Table Publishing, 353 pp. $14.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) the debut novel of Florida author Susan Kummernes, centers on a U.S. Marine Corps gun team stationed in Con Thien near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam in 1967.
Their charismatic gunner, Jesse McGowan, an all-American boy from Maryland, is based on the author’s own first love, who was killed in Vietnam. Fighting alongside him are Mike Redd, an African American from Georgia; Chingas Ramirez, a Mexican American from New York City; Angel Santiago, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Chicago; and John Beau Parker from Florida. Though from diverse backgrounds, the men are forever bonded by their shared experiences in the war.
In between the chapters about the Marines are those detailing the memories of Annie Miller, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart-turned-Washington Post reporter—and a fictional stand-in for Kummernes herself. While on a trip to New Orleans in 2006, Annie encounters a group of Vietnamese Americans protesting the city’s decision to dump the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in their neighborhood. She meets Lucky Dai, whom she learns is the daughter of Mike Redd and his wife, a Vietnamese nurse named nicknamed Tweet.
Susan Kummernes wrote and researched Come Now the Angels for twelve years, a dedication that shows in the accuracy of the battle scenes and the impressive detail of the 1960s settings. That Kummernes drew from her own experience as well as from outside sources is evident in the level of personal care she shows for her characters and their stories.
The novel’s strengths are somewhat overshadowed by bits of contrived dialogue and Kummernes’ tendency to over explain the social and political context of the story (at one point, Jesse talks so pedantically about the Domino Theory that even the other characters get annoyed). That said, Come Now the Angels is a poignant and compelling novel and would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War on generations of Americans.
This may be Kummernes last novel. When asked recently by the book and author website Pretty-Hot.com what was next for her, she responded, “As a writer? Nothing.”
Kummernes is donating all proceeds from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America. Her website is susankummernes.com
Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.
The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”
The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.
St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.
Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.
St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.
Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”
On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.
St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”
In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.
Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive.
Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors.
In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.
Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.
The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.
This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.
The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.
For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.
Edward Fedrick’s Darkness Bravo: A Soldier Remembers 1966-1967, 1968-1969, (Covenant Books, 326 pp. $33.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) contains 36 chapters of nearly nonstop, close-up, Army grunt action in the Vietnam War. It was a sheer pleasure to read.
Ed Fedrick joined the Army in January 1966. He took a train from Memphis to Ft. Benning for Basic and AIT. He then found himself in Vietnam, based near Quan Loi not far from the Cambodian border, assigned to Bravo Company in the 2nd/8th of the 1st Infantry Division. He received two Purple Hearts during his first tour; after volunteering for a second tour he received two more.
Fedrick fought in five big battles, but most of the book is filled with details of his everyday, small daylight patrols and night ambushes. His descriptions are filled with so many details that you feel you are there with him. At one point during his two tours of day, Fedrick’s company had 54 consecutive days of enemy contact.
Throughout the book, he paints pictures filled with weapon and ammo weights, the pros and cons of different weapons, methods he and others devised to overcome the jamming problem of the M-16, physical characteristics of fellow soldiers, and tales of leadership and bravery.
Ed Fedrick is painfully honest with his feelings about himself and his combat brothers. He speaks of himself as being mediocre and sometimes inadequate. But when you finish reading Darkness Bravo, you’ll find out that he is totally adequate—and a true hero.
Going on patrols an ambushes, his quiet thoughts included things such as, “I know I’m going to die today,” “I’m not going to live through this,” and the same thoughts in other words. Nearly everything he says about his fellow soldiers is complimentary.
After leaving the Army, Fedrick joined the Memphis Police Department. He has retired and with his wife Louise lives in the hills of Tennessee.
Darkness Bravo opens with a good Glossary that will be helpful to the uninitiated. The last 27 pages of this excellent book are filled with beaucoup pictures of Fedrick, his fellow Big Red One soldiers, and his wife. I suggest looking through these pics before reading the book to meet many of the people Fedrick writes about.
Two minor complaints: I would like to have seen a map of his areas of operation and a Table of Contents, or at least chapter titles on the page headers.
That aside, Darkness Bravo is flawlessly presented. Put reading this one on your bucket list.