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

2nd Platoon: Journey of the Pack by Billy W. Smith

Billy W. Smith (in the photo above, donating a copy of his book to the Elba, Alabama, High School library)  served as an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st of the 27th, the “Wolfhounds” of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. His memoir, 2nd Platoon:Journey of the Pack (297 pp., $15, paper) “is about the facts and the experiences of a foot soldier’s life,” he writes. “Try to picture in your mind a group of 20-year-old men in jungle warfare and combat, in a foreign country engaged in battle with a very well seasoned enemy.”

Smith, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, notes that there “was no glamour of a Hollywood movie” in the Vietnam War. There were, he says, “plenty of horrors, death, seriously wounded men, burned, disfigured, mentally scarred, total exhaustion, men’s lives changed forever. There were no John Wayne’s, Rambo’s or other super heroes that were bulletproof and could whip an entire unit all by himself.”

The book follows Smith’s tour of duty and is based on the many letters he wrote to his sister Vivian Fuchs and a journal he kept in Vietnam. Smith also offers his thoughts on how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home and what factors influenced the outcome of the Vietnam War.

This book will appeal to those who are interested in Smith’s wartime activities and those of his fellow Wolfhounds.

To order a copy of the book, contact Smith at 629 Co. Rd. 409, Elba, AL 36323 or email firstwolf48@gmail.com

—Marc Leepson

Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by Robert W. Doubek

Robert W. Doubek says he is “blessed and cursed with a sharp memory.” I totally believe him after reading his Creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial: The Inside Story (McFarland, 324 pp., $35, paper).

Bob Doubek tells the story from his recollections and personal notes, calendars, photos, and news clippings, supplemented by material from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund Collection archives, as well as public records including those from the Library of Congress. Consequently, the depth of his account appears limitless.

After much controversy involving Maya Lin’s design, the Wall was dedicated in 1982. The book is a good read because Doubek, who was an important player in the Memorial’s early history, describes the fervor, as well as the pettiness and rancor ,displayed by those for and against the design, himself included.

As executive director of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, Doubek was “in charge of building the Memorial,” he writes, “participated in every major decision and event.” Differences of opinion between him and co-VVMF founder Jan Scruggs, as well as with another early proponent of the Wall, Jack Wheeler, were practically a daily occurrence. All of the men were Vietnam War veterans; each had a highly personalized perspective of the Memorial’s purpose.

The biggest problems during planning and building were finding sponsors, raising money, and determining the Memorial’s design. The earliest sponsor was Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who later played a crucial role in resolving many stalemates. H. Ross Perot also took an early interest in the project. The Memorial’s most important boost came from President Jimmy Carter when he signed into law a bill that provided a site on the Mall for the Wall in Washington, D.C. Money accumulated slowly but at an ever-increasing pace of public contributions.

In the book’s longest chapter, “Our Opponents Take the Field,” Doubek objectively presents the opposition’s resistance to the design. James Webb and Thomas Carhart were the major voices against the design. They enlisted the support of Perot, who had changed sides. Targeted were Maya Lin and the jury that selected her plan for the Memorial during a nationwide contest. Opponents tried to discredit them with false accusations and prejudicial arguments.

The media split on the topic. Doubek likens a face off between Lin and Perot to Bambi Meets Godzilla, but for once Bambi survived. Throughout the dispute, by the way, Vietnam Veterans of America endorsed the Memorial’s design.

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Jan Scruggs, Maya Lin, and Bob Doubek with a model of Lin’s design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Doubek, Scruggs, and Wheeler stood together against the opposition. After the compromise of adding a statue and a flagpole to the site, groundbreaking proceeded as planned.  Nevertheless, the design debate raged until the dedication ceremony. Even after the dedication, there were disagreements about where to place the statue and flagpole.

One factor not discussed by Doubek is the tremendous psychological and spiritual impact the Memorial has exerted on Vietnam War veterans. In dozens of memoirs I have read, veterans cite visits to the Wall as turning points in their lives. In a somewhat magical way, the sight of the Wall and the visitors surrounding it gives many veterans a clearer understanding of the war and their involvement in it.

To me, this effect above all else validates the construction of the Memorial.

—Henry Zeybel

351 Days in Da Nang by Ray Norton

In 351 Days in Da Nang: Memories of a Navy Investigator (CreateSpace, 116 pp.,  $23.75, paper) Ray Norton tells us he never says he “fought in Viet Nam (because I didn’t). I do say I was stationed in Da Nang or land based with the Navy in Da Nang.” Norton, in fact, served as a security guard and Naval Support Activity (NSA) investigator. “Just because you are in the Navy,” he goes on to say, “does not mean you were on a ship.”

In his book Norton relates his experiences in Viet Nam, using that spelling to hearken back to the days before American intervention. He includes insightful contributions from two life-long friends, Bill Sanderson and Richard Madison. The three served at Da Nang at the same time, from August 1969 to July 1970, working in different fields.

Cheryl Norton also gets space to express her feelings about the year-long separation from husband Ray, during which she gave birth their daughter, Rebecca.

Ray Norton spent  only fourteen months on active duty in the Navy after joining the Reserves, opting to do so rather than being drafted into the Army. His basic training lasted two weeks; his account of it is a masterpiece of dry humor. Norton’s sense of humor unexpectedly pops up in other places in the book, too.

During the first half of his in-country tour, Norton made the best of a boring and life- consuming job as a Tien Sha Peninsula Security Division guard. He finished his tour with detective work as one of six NSA investigators at Camp Tien Sha, adjacent to Da Nang. He reviews a dozen of his most interesting investigations, which provide excellent reading.

At Monkey Mountain. The author is on the left.

The book contains sixty-seven photographs, including two of Military Payment Certificates and one of C-rations, featuring an open can, a plastic spoon, and a P-38. Norton occasionally explains what is common knowledge for old timers, but does not overdo it.

Of course, part of his motivation for writing this memoir was to pass on his experience to his five grandchildren, “who someday may actually read this thing.”

The author’s website is http://raynorton68.wix.com/351days-in-da-nang

—Henry Zeybel

The Secret Place of the Most High by S. T. Simms

The Secret Place of the Most High (Little Miami, 37 pp., $6, paper) is S. T. Simms’ testimony to the power of the 91st Psalm. The mother of Simms’ best friend called his attention to that New Testament psalm shortly before he deployed to Vietnam in 1967. Soon thereafter, it became his gospel.

With excellent writing, Simms takes the reader deep into the Vietnam War Valley of the Shadow of Death to explain his beliefs. On the second day of the 1968 Tet Offensive, Simms’ ten-man patrol walked into a point-blank-range NVA ambush in the jungle north of Saigon.

With muzzle blasts coming straight at them, not a man was injured, even after counter-attacking, pursuing the enemy, and attacking again. Second in line with a grenade launcher, Simms had fired as fast as he could with enemy RPGs exploding directly in front of him, but nothing touched him—”no blast, no shrapnel, no flying dirt…NOTHING.”

Steven Simms

Simms attributes his platoon’s survival to the power of the 91st Psalm. A month and a half later in another action, Simms took a piece of an RPG shrapnel in his left knee during a fight in which his unit had one man killed and six wounded. He offers his survival as evidence of the Psalm’s continuing power: “I was not invincible but still a candidate for ‘long life.'”

He later attributes a healing event regarding one of his children to the power of the same psalm. To know and trust God places one in The Secret Place of the Most High, Simms believes, and the believer will be delivered from harm.

Simms’ story is factual and unobtrusive–and informative rather than preachy. This makes his message acceptable for believers and non-believers alike.

—Henry Zeybel

Life on a $5 Bet by Edward J. Mechenbier with Linda D. Swink

Way back when, several Americans wrote about their experiences as POWs in the Vietnam War. The books by Robinson Risner and John Dramesi made a great impact on me because they graphically detailed the physical pain and deprivation suffered by Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

In Life on a $5 Bet (Little Miami, 323 pp., $30), Edward J. Mechenbier, with the help of Linda D. Swink, has written an account of his time as a POW in Vietnam, but from a different perspective. His recollections focus on the psychological interplay between prisoners and their guards.

Mechenbier does take the reader into the torture rooms, describing a rope technique and other relentless punishments. But mostly he looks at what he calls “the funny side” of prison life. He contends that humor was the “mechanism that made the serious aspects of prison life more palpable.”

Regardless of the prisoners’ aims, though,the laughs were few and far between for me. When a prisoner won a psychological battle too convincingly, guards frequently beat him to even the score. Smiles I received based on a prisoner’s experience were tempered by the sorrow I felt for his predicament. “Singing in the Rain” might be a better title for the first half of the book—or, better yet, “Singing in the Monsoon.”

Although Mechenbier cited the Code of Conduct as a guide to proper behavior for a POW, the Code’s overly restrictive rules caused more hurt than help. The “die-before-you-talk” restrictions of the Code trapped men in untenable positions. Mechenbier admits as much. He mentions the Code a dozen times in a positive way, but he does not discuss the post-war controversy that caused its revision.

Mechenbier names a lot of names, none more than Kevin McManus, his F-4 backseater and Air Force Academy classmate who was shot down with him in 1967. Frequently together, they made the rounds of the Hanoi Hilton, Plantation, Zoo, Camp Faith, Camp Unity, and Dogpatch prisons for five years, eight months, and four days.

After repatriation, Mechenbier returned to duty as a fighter-branch test pilot because flying was all he wanted to do. He resigned his commission, however, when regulations required him to move to a non-flying job after eleven years. By then, his wife and he had adopted three daughters—from Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea—and then conceived a son of their own.

After resigning from active duty, Mechenbier joined the Ohio National Guard to fly the F-100. He soon took command of an A-7 squadron, leading it for seven years. Recognizing greater opportunities for advancement, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, giving up flying. He excelled as a high-level jack-of-all-trades and eventually attained the rank of major general. A specially designed program for generals allowed him to return to the cockpit of the C-141.

While performing his National Guard and Reserve duties, Mechenbier held several full-time jobs as a civilian in the flying industry, about which he tells many interesting stories.

His final official Air Force flight was piloting a C-141–known as “the Hanoi Taxi” because it was the plane that had brought him and the other POWs home from Vietnam in 1973—on a mission to Hanoi to repatriate the remains of two American MIAs in 2004, a fitting finish to forty-four years of military service. In the photo above, he is saluting the remains on the tarmac in Hanoi.

The title, by the way, is based on a bet between Mechenbier and his father regarding an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

—Henry Zeybel

Marshall’s Marauders by Allan A. Lobeck

Allan A. Lobeck’s Marshall’s Marauders (Lulu, 396 pp., $33.92; $2.99, Kindle) has one unique feature: Of the hundreds of Vietnam War novels I have read, this is the only one that has no page numbers. I found that very frustrating, especially as this is a very large book.

Lobeck, a Vietnam War veteran, says that his book is based on his experiences leading an infantry platoon. He acknowledges that PTSD has affected his life, and that that VA doctors who heard his story in counseling sessions suggested he document his Vietnam War experiences “to help me let go of the pain I continue to suffer.”

I started reading this novel with intense curiosity how such a project would play out. The main character, Marshall Rooker, arrives in Vietnam, is sent to the 25th Mechanized Division Headquarters at Chi Chi and is assigned to the 4th Battalion, known as the Mohawk Battalion. The men spend their time in the Iron Triangle, “one of the hottest areas in all of South Vietnam.” 

Marshall Rooker, a second lieutenant when he arrives in Vietnam, tells us he enlisted so he wouldn’t be drafted into the infantry. He often talks about the beauty of the jungle and how he is destroying it. Much of the novel takes place in 1969. Rooker, who does not like TV reporters, says his unit is the “best fighting machine in the 25th Division.”

Rooker treats the ARVNs well and has good things to say about working with them. The book does not reflect the often-seen casual racism of American troops toward the Vietnamese. Rooker is happy to be in the “best mechanized platoon in all of South Vietnam.” His unit is nicknamed “Superman” by the enemy.

Allan Lobeck

After recounting 63 straight days of combat, and after Rooker suffers a head wound, the novel seems to enter an alternate reality. In this part of the novel, our hero goes into Cambodia with a special team and rescues four downed flyers. His group is called Marshall’s Marauders. He loses half his stomach and suffers two serious concussions.

Rooker is flown to the United States in Gen. Westmoreland’s private jet to get surgery.  He goes to Walter Reed and meets President Johnson, who awards him not one, but two Medals of Honor. Johnson also officiates in a White House Rose Garden wedding in which Rooker marries his girlfriend Susie.

Then Rooker is promoted to the rank of general, at the age of 23, a secret promotion. He is categorized with American war heroes such as John Paul Jones, George Armstrong Custer, Alvin York, and Audie Murphy.

For the frosting on this alternate-reality cake, our hero fulminates about Jane Fonda “going up to North Vietnam,” which he “had read about in the military newspaper.”  Rooker goes on and on in this vein, but during the time period of this novel the only thing Jane Fonda was getting press for in military newspapers was her much-praised role in the film Barbarella, which made her the most popular pinup in Vietnam.

So this rant is as anachronistic as having LBJ marry Rooker in 1969, after Johnson had left the White House. Rooker did take some hard knocks on the head, so I forgive the character these lapses, even as I take the author to task for them.

This is a Vietnam War infantry novel like none other. For those who are okay with no page numbers and want something very different, try this novel.

The author’s website is www.allanlobeck.com

—David Willson

Beyond Dark Clouds by Glen D. Edwards

Glen D. Edwards, who served as an Australian Army medic in the Vietnam War, called on thirty-eight Vietnam veterans and family members to produce historical capsules of what he calls their pre-service, service, post-service, and next chapter experiences in Beyond Dark Clouds (Digital Print Australia, 404 pp., $79.95).

What follows is a look at a few of these interesting and varied case studies.

Bruce Shanks began his Australian Army apprenticeship in January 1966 soon after learning that, as he puts it, “you are paid to do as you are told, not to think for yourself.” Shanks did not heed this, and his antiwar sentiments soon landed him in the brig.

“I had to do everything on the double,” he says. “While sitting on the toilet I had to mark time. This was the Army’s last desperate attempt to make me conform to the system.”

While Shanks was facing the Viet Cong in villages near Vung Tau, his wife Veronica was in Australia “marching for peace,” she says. “Wives of warriors see stories in each others’ eyes silent reflections of compassion and courage.” Spousal testimony in this volume offers a unique expression of the impact of the Vietnam War.

Another woman’s viewpoint is provided by Australian Army Nursing Corps Officer Patricia Ferguson. Freguson’s basic training recollections will ring true with most veterans. “The Sergeant Major, who tried to teach us military drill,” she says, “would throw his hat on the ground and say ‘This is a march, not a waltz.'”

Ferguson was assigned to the First Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau. Her brother Peter was fighting with Australian units in Nui Dat and he visited his sister occasionally, but, as she says, “I couldn’t take him to the Officers Mess, even though he was my brother.”

Patricia Ferguson had many intense moments dealing with the trauma of war in her Operating Room. One example: “I sat on one side of the bed. Michael died at 8:10 pm. Much of me died that night. I kept it all inside. My feelings were always suppressed. With time the tears were replaced with feelings of anger.” She shared many of her wartime memories with high school students after her discharge.

George Baker had an uncommon in-country arrival as a U.S. Marine .His unit made a beach landing at DaNang. “The night before we made our amphibious landing we were issued ammunition and were told to expect heavy resistance once we hit the beach,” he says. “When the landing craft reached the beach and the doors opened, we raced ashore and fought our way through women selling their bodies and kids selling ice pops.”

The segment on Baker’s post-service—as with many of the book’s essays—includes dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The problem I had was that no one knew how to treat PTSD,” Baker says. Once [his therapist] had mastered the skills, I asked him to debrief me.” That may be a first in PTSD therapy.

Paul Thomas of New Zealand, with a Maori tribal ancestry, had twelve siblings. “Saying goodbye to my family was difficult,” he says. “The excitement of joining the New Zealand Regular Force Cadets tormented me, as I bit hard hard on my bottom lip and tried to look sad as I waved goodbye.”

William Healey from Wakefield, Massachusetts, recalls that in high school “Vietnam War propaganda was really kicking in. We would have a history quiz every day and would have to know the numbers of troops in Vietnam that day.” The history lessons and a trip to Europe led to Healy’s rejection of the Domino Theory. Despite his antiwar feelings, though, Healey volunteered for the draft.

He became a clerk in Phu Bai until a dispute led to his reassignment to a hot firebase near the DMZ. “The longer my tour went on,” he says, “the less I cared about others because I had to concentrate on my own survival. Many around me were being killed, so I tuned out. I am not going to die here.”

Glen Edwards

PTSD, combined with Healey coming out as gay, complicated his life, but today he and his partner have celebrated sixteen years together. I urge readers to take a look at Healey’s next chapter segment for the rest of his story.

Ulysee ” Skip” Williams was raised  in an all-black neighborhood in Florida where, he say,s he “always felt I was being watched by mom and neighbors.” Graduating from high school in 1968, Williams wanted to join the Marines but his mother objected so he enlisted in the Air Force.

She was fully aware that many Americans had been killed in the 1968 Tet Offensive and didn’t want to lose her son that way. After two years in the Air Force, he says, “I felt I wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam.”

But he was, and was stationed  nine miles from the Laotian border near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Williams worked on a flight line but had many interactions with the Vietnamese people. “The physical characteristics of Vietnam were rich in color and beautiful like the people who always seemed to be smiling,” he says. “It was nothing like America. At home people were stone-faced because of racial tension.”

Williams says he didn’t want to leave Vietnam because he felt he “had an obligation to the people still in Vietnam. As the freedom bird soared away, I felt guilty leaving them behind., and for the first time in a year, a tear or two rolled down my cheek.”

This extensive case-study-like compilation of the Vietnam War experiences covers a multitude of emotions generated by war. I recommend this as a reference book with something of interest to all.

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

—Curt Nelson