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

Snakes, Rain, and the Tet Offensive by William Ingalls


“Mortars, Heavy Equipment, and Books” could easily be added to the subtitle of Snakes, Rain and the Tet Offensive: War Stories With Photos by William Ingalls (War of Words,  271 pp., $90), a remarkable recollection of the author’s 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty.

Ingalls’ first day with the 362nd Combat Engineers was also the first time he had done “more than turn the key in a road grader,” he writes. “Each day was a learning process.” The unit spent five months in the shadow of Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain), expanding Tay Ninh Base: building roads, helipads, bunkers, and hootches. The Viet Cong were entrenched on the mountain so mortar and rocket attacks were a constant threat.

Ingalls freely expressed his antiwar opinions, but he also was dedicated to his work and took pride in the well-built culverts and base construction projects he worked on. When he was selected as his company’s Soldier of the Month, the officers and NCOs asked for his opinions on the war. “Just following orders didn’t work for the Germans and Japanese,” Ingalls replied, “so why should it work for me?” The Soldier of the Month award was withdrawn.

Ingalls made good use of his downtime, shooting some three hundred slides of daily life on the base, including photos of the showers, mess halls, hootches, and bunkers and the occasional makeshift brothel or store. He read Hemingway, Kafka, T S. Eliot, e e cummings, Rod McKuen, and others in his grader cab during work breaks.

During Ingalls’ sixth month in country the company was relocated to what he calls “The Cambodian Adventure,” building a Special Forces base camp on the border “directly in front of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.” Disobeying a sergeant’s order to go to the aid of some men wounded in an ambush saved Ingalls’ life. He refused, citing an Army regulation never to abandon your equipment.A group of engineers “drove down to the ambush site, and were all promptly killed,” Ingalls writes. “Thirteen guys gone, just like that.”

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William Ingalls

He credits his first wife Deborah for sending his “Communist East German EXA-1″ camera to him in Vietnam, enabling him to produce a photographic record that Ingalls likens to Mathew Brady’s work in the American Civil War.His wife saved all the slides in a shoe box.

The quality of the images ranges from hastily shot photos to carefully captured ones, such as nighttime explosions and tracer trails.

Bill Ingalls’ MOS was 62E-20 (Road Grader Operator). With this work, he has added Photojournalist to his resume.

The author’s website is www.warofwords.co

—Curt Nelson

 

 

Please Enjoy Your Happiness by Paul Brinkley-Rogers


In 1959 at age nineteen, U.S. Navy enlistee Paul Brinkley-Rogers fell in love with a thirty-one-year-old Japanese woman—Kaji Yukiko. Fifty-five years later, Brinkley-Rogers—who went on to become a Newsweek correspondent who covered the war in Vietnam and Cambodia for eight years—recreates that platonic relationship in Please Enjoy Your Happiness (Touchstone, 333 pp; $25.00 paper). In speaking across half a century, he tells Yukiko, “I never was awed as I was when I was close to you.” Practically every sentence in the book supports that declaration.

The relationship lasted for six months while his ship—the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Shangri-La—operated out of Yokosuka, Japan. Actually they spent only forty-five days together when “the ship was anchored in your harbor,” Brinkley-Rogers writes, but they communicated by letter while he was at sea. The book contains ten of Yukiko’s letters that focus on his future.

The two instantly bonded while she served as a geisha-like hostess at a bar called the White Rose. In their limited time together, she opened the doors of the arts to Rogers and provided him with guidance for a lifetime. Virtually every experience with Yukiko provided enlightenment for him.

Yukiko’s education extended deep into Eastern and Western music, poetry, and cinema. Raised in Manchuria, she fled to Japan following World War II to escape the Soviets. Amid the post-war chaos, a Yakuza gangster took her as a mistress. Her ultimate release from the gangster partially involved Brinkley-Rogers.

English by birth, he grew up under an estranged mother and domineering father. The family moved to the United States in his late teens. After high school, he joined the Navy to escape from home and find his identity.

As a leftist thinker and with a high regard for the downtrodden, the young Navy man easily developed an appreciation for all things Japanese. More than once, he berates America for bombing Japanese cities and civilians during World War II. Yukiko integrated him into a segment of Japanese society in a manner that nullified any stigma he had as an American sailor.

Many people, including a Japanese detective, found reasons for helping Brinkley-Rogers. They appeared to appreciate his exceptionally astute mind and positive nature. I strongly doubt that time might have distorted his memory of 1959 because, along with Yukiko’s letters, he frequently refers to photographs and notes from the past.

After the Shangri-La completed its deployment and returned to the United States, Brinkley-Rogers and Yukiko never met again.

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Paul Brinkley-Rogers

Reading Please Enjoy Your Happiness is a cerebral exercise. The writing .imbued me with nostalgia for my late teens and early twenties. The author cited almost-forgotten poems and words from songs to emphasize the lessons Yukiko taught him. In a subtly funny way, he describes his commander and the ship’s chaplain and their close-to-fanatical zealousness to control his thinking and actions.

Fundamentally, the book’s story line falls well outside the values of today’s young people, but the same observation applies to the time in which it took place. Which is what makes the book timeless and interesting.

Before retiring to Arizona, Paul Brinkley-Rogers spent much of his life in the Far East as a journalist. He shared a journalism Pulitzer Prize in 2001.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Can I Stop Running? by John Podlaski

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John Podlaski put in a 1970-71 Vietnam War tour of duty as an infantryman with both the Wolfhounds of the 25th Division and the 501st Infantry Brigade of the 101st Airborne. He published the novel Cherries-A Vietnam War Novel, which was well reviewed when it appeared in 2010.

When Can I Stop Running (184 pp., CreateSpace, $7.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is mostly a work of fiction, but many of the events are taken from Podlaski’s own experiences.

“The places mentioned were real and did exist,” he tell us. The characters are fictional.

The book takes place during one night in Vietnam when the main character, John, and his African American buddy, Louis Gladwell, spend the night by themselves in a Listening Post 500 meters  outside the wire, “deep in the Iron Triangle jungles.”

The book is an exploration of the mental aspects of fear. The author alternates the telling of many things, terrifying and otherwise, that happen to scare John and LG, with the relating of tales from his childhood that scared him. There is a lot of use of italics, which was off-putting, but the storytelling is exemplary.

The fears all ring true. They reminded me both of growing up in Yakima, Washington, and of time I spent in Vietnam isolated from a defense system that gave me any sense of well-being. I should say, though, that not much of my time in Vietnam was spent that way.

Readers who loved Cherries will enjoy this book. I did.

—David Willson

Midair by Craig K. Collins

Midair: An Epic Tale of Survival and a Mission That Might Have Ended the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 246 pp., $26.95) is a book that contains two quite different elements. The first is an amazing true-life war story that author Craig K. Collins, a former journalist, relates quite well. The second is the espousal of the controversial theory that the Vietnam War could have been won if only the Air Force had been given permission—as the noted Vietnam War hawk Gen. Curtis Lemay once said—to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”

The heart of the book is the story that Collins—the author of Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture—relates about the military adventures of his uncle Don Harten, an Air Force jet pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions in three different aircraft (B-52, F-105, and F-111) over North and South Vietnam from 1965-72.

The part of Harten’s story that provides the book’s title is an almost unbelievable tale of survival. It took place in June 1965 over the South China Sea. During an intense typhoon Harten’s B-52 bomber collided head on with another B-52 at 30,000 feet. Harten ejected and narrowly avoided death a dozen times before he was rescued.

Interspersed with this almost unbelievable tale of survival is a theory posited by Harten and other pilots that fighter jet bombing operations over North Vietnam, such as Operation Rolling Thunder, were “effed up beyond all recognition,” as Collins puts it.

There was no way, the pilots believed, that “fighter jets could bring even a small country like North Vietnam to its knees by punching at its jungle midsection,” Collins writes. “The consensus was that the jet jockeys needed to let the big boys take out Hanoi in one or two missions.”

The Vietnam War, Collins contends, wasn’t lost “in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t lost in the skies over Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam. And it wasn’t lost in 1975 when the last marine helicopter lifted from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Rather it was lost in the White House, the halls of Congress and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.”

This is a book for you if you enjoy reading a harrowing story of war-time survival—and if you’re convinced that politicians and generals’ perfidy was the reason the U.S. did not prevail in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

Code Warriors by Stephen Budiansky

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These days we apply different terms to an important game heroes and villains play: Leaking. Hacking. Phishing. Today’s players are Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, numerous Russians, and anybody else with a computer who searches deeply into the files of others—in other words, spies at work. Back in the day, they called it espionage.

One of the world’s most interesting espionage battles took place during the Cold War—from the end of World War II to the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Stephen Budiansky recreates this period in Code Warriors: NSA’s Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War against the Soviet Union (Knopf, 410 pp., $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).

The story extends back to before World War II and describes America’s espionage tactics that led to the 1952 creation of the National Security Agency, which in turn led to crypt-analysis techniques capable of deciphering “unbreakable” codes.

An historian and lecturer, Budiansky has written fourteen books about military and intelligence history, science, and the natural world. In this highly informative book Budiansky tells less than a complete story because, as he explains, NSA “continues to this day to be extremely chary of revealing any details of its successes against Soviet cryptology.” In writing Code Warriors, Budiansky primarily relied on archival sources and document collections.

Nevertheless, Budiansky—the former national security correspondent and foreign editor at U.S. News & World Report—presents fresh perspectives on NSA triumphs and failures against Germany and Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and, most of all, the Soviet Union. He shows how NSA evolved into an organization in which “what had been acceptable in wartime but anathema in practice became the norm for peacetime, too.” While reading about the tactics NAS used on foes and friends, foreign and domestic, I vacillated between love and hate for the agency and its leaders.

Budiansky’s summation of the early years of the Vietnam War could dredge up unpleasant memories for veterans of that conflict. He cites many cases of American “overconfidence” and “disdain for the intelligence capabilities of the enemy,” along with falsification and concealment of the truth by NSA. Much of the latter aimed to appease the White House and established precedents that eventually were used to justify going to war in Iraq, he concludes.

111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111The scientific problems of code breaking are inseparable from politics, Budiansky says, but his accounts “give a sense of what the code breakers were up against without assuming any special knowledge of cryptology or mathematics on the part of the reader.”

Budiansky does not ignore aficionados of code breaking, however. His five appendixes challenge the mind:

  • Enciphered Code, Depths, and Book Breaking
  • Russian Teleprinter Ciphers
  • Cryptanalysis of the Hagelin Machine
  • Bayesian Probability, Turing and the Deciban
  • The Index of Confidence

When I reached that point in the book, I signaled a time out that is still in effect.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Contrasts of War edited by Larry Johns

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Contrasts of War: Vietnam War Images from U.S. Army Medic Bob “Doc” Shirley (Red1Publishing, 100 pp., $29, paper) is a conjurer’s trick, in the best sense. By juxtaposing fragments of poems by veteran Michael Monfrooe and refugee Chay Douangphouxay with the simple, elegiac photographs of Bob Shirley, the book attempts to transport the reader to war-torn Vietnam—its beauty, its starkness, its horror, its humidity.

It’s a story of men and children. Women, too, are portrayed, but not as often as helicopters. Nor were they as important. There are mothers and old women, and there’s a marvelous image of a barely dressed performer at a remote base gyrating on a makeshift stage as the men stand in rapt attention. But the focus immediately returns to the young American soldiers and the even younger local urchins attracted to them.

As a medic, Shirley had greater access than most. His photographs are straightforward and unadorned. They show soldiers at rest and during combat. His images of helicopters in defoliated forests are stark. His men are tense, even at rest. His children are inscrutable, serious far beyond their years—even when smiling.

In one photo five men stand awkwardly on the edge of a landing zone surrounded by a nearly leafless forest. The helicopter overhead, judging by the scant attention being paid to it, is rising away from the scene. On the facing page reads:

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere
A wasteland of lost innocence,
Covered in a cloud of smoke,
Screaming of deadly silence,
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
–Chay

In another photo, also in pale color, two men—seated, shirtless, and still—face the camera. One, smoking a cigarette, appears several times in the book. The facing page reads:

Common Bond

Just two American boys conceived through the draft,
Brothers borne in the womb of war.
–Chay

Shirley’s are not great photographs, but they are clean and honest. Nor are the poetic fragments of Douangphouxay and Monfrooe great poetry. But magic sparks from the juxtaposition and the conversation that’s generated between words and images.

Larry Johns is the impresario who pulled it all together. In trying to make sense of his older brother Jeffrey’s death in Vietnam in 1969, he visited the country several times and even built a memorial there to his brother.

Working with these three artists, Johns’ skillfully woven collection of poems and photographs stimulate the subconscious into a greater understanding of the past.

–Michael Keating

Tragedy at Chu Lai by David Venditta

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David Venditta’s Tragedy at Chu Lai: Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a U.S. Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969 (McFarland, 212 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is the story of the author’s hunt to find out exactly what caused the death of his cousin, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Nicky Venditti.

David Venditta, a retired journalist, conducted a twenty-one-year investigation, wading through official misinformation and uncovering hitherto unknown facts. The two men were cousins, but the spelling of their last names differs because part of the family reverted to the original spelling—Venditti—that officials at Ellis Island had altered two generations earlier.

In 1969, The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania, attributed Nicky Venditti’s death to “wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.” The assumption was that “a rocket got him,” David Venditta says. In 1994, curiosity led him to contact the newly organized Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ask about his cousin’s death. The Friends told him the death was listed as a “non-hostile” casualty. That motivated David Venditta to try to find out exactly what happened.

The book’s first half recreates Nicky Venditti’s life through childhood, elementary and high school, military training as a helicopter pilot, and arrival in Vietnam. The last half reveals his cousin’s extensive research into the matter from the time he contacted the Friends in 1994 until he wrote the book in 2015.

The author learned that an “instructor unknowingly discharged a live grenade” during classroom instruction and that was what killed Nicky and two other soldiers. Slowly but methodically, David Venditta looked through paperwork from virtually every available government source and interviewed one hundred thirty people from all levels of command, as well as friends of those who died.

Most significantly, the author learned that no meaningful investigation or conclusive report had resulted from the incident. Repeatedly finding the Army remiss in its approach to the three deaths, David Venditta tried to find a guilty party worthy of punishment. Eventually he found and interviewed the instructor who had detonated the grenade. His confrontation and conversations with the man constitute the climax of the book.

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The author, a pic of his cousin, and his pilot helmet

Guilt for what happened is never clearly established. The possibility of sabotage existed. David’s relations with the instructor provide an excellent psychological study about the acceptance of responsibilities related to war. “What if?” and “Stuff Happens” influenced the thinking of both men.

When I finished reading the book, I had mixed feelings about David’s investigation and his conclusions.

I intend to pass the book on to my brother-in-law, who (like David Venditti and unlike myself) did not serve in the military. I look forward to hearing his opinion. To me, many of the author’s questions are unanswerable—perhaps even unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about them.

David Venditta’s encounters with military personnel and military procedures steered him toward another project, interviewing more than a hundred veterans of both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He published accounts of these men in another book, War Stories:  In Their Own Words.

—Henry Zeybel