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
Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon, Volume 2: The Fall of South Vietnam: The Beginning of the End, January 1974–March 1975 (Helion, 104 pp. $29.95, paper) is a concise history of the final chapters of the decades-long American war in Vietnam. Ironically, it all takes place after the signing of the so-called Paris Peace Accords in January 1973.
South Vietnam, going into its death spiral, was burdened by several disadvantages—unlike North Vietnam. For one thing, South Vietnam was competing for munitions with Israel as a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which all but drained the pipeline of promised U.S. military aid. In contrast, the Soviet Union and China replaced most of the North’s materiel losses from the 1972 Easter Offensive.
It also was Saigon’s misfortune that President Richard Nixon’s impeachment and resignation in 1974 put an end to his promises of aid and support if the North launched a campaign to crush South Vietnam’s government. His successor, Gerald Ford, faced with a Congress opposed to renewed involvement, was not going to re-commit the U.S. to the conflict in order to save the South Vietnamese regime of Nguyen Van Thieu.
Beyond external factors, there President Thieu’s lack of strategic vision and poor decision making. In contrast, the strategic goal of the North—reunification under a communist regime—always remained the same despite years of horrendous combat losses. With the United States no longer a player in the war, the North totally applied itself to developing and implementing a final campaign.
Grandolini, a historian and aviation journalist and author who was raised in Vietnam, effectively uses primary source documents to discusses another part of the equation: an unanticipated sideshow that caught the South off balance. In January 1974, South Vietnam suddenly found itself in conflict with the People’s Republic of China over the disputed Paracel Islands. After several naval engagements, China prevailed and took control of the islands.
The North’s leaders relied on a centralized and highly disciplined command structure with combat-experienced generals to form a strategy for ending the war in total victory. The resulting plan called for corps-sized phased regional offensives to begin in 1974 with the aim of probing for exploitable weak points that could be followed by breakthroughs.
It was of great interest to learn about the successful concealment efforts by the NVA, including the use of bogus transmissions and hidden movements of major units, some advancing well over 300 kilometers. On the other hand, the South Vietnamese Army’s reaction to the Spring 1974 NVA thrust into the Parrot’s Beak must have surprised the North’s planners. In a multi-corps armored counterattack, the ARVN swung through Cambodia to outflank and outmaneuver the NVA while supported by highly effective airstrikes. They mauled the NVA units and sent them into retreat.
But that would be the last ARVN offensive operation during the war. Although ARVN units often put up heroic resistance to NVA attacks, the fact remains that without American aid the South was forced to fight defensively with limited resources.
In 1975 things irreversibly fell apart for the South. The North’s operational plan originally called for two stages, destroying the ARVN in 1975 and victory in 1976. The South’s fate was sealed, however, when in March 1975 Thieu abruptly—and without proper preparation at the tactical level—ordered the evacuation of military forces from northern South Vietnam. The withdrawal soon became a rout swollen with countless thousands of civilians blocking the way.
This well-researched and well written volume closes on that rout and sets the stage for the final battles and the fall of Saigon.I strongly recommend Target Saigon to anyone with an interest in the final two years of the Vietnam War.
Arrigo Velicogna revisits an overlooked portion of the Vietnam War with Into the Iron Triangle: Operation Attleboro and the Battles North of Saigon, 1966 (Helion, 88 pp. $29.95, paper). Attleboro was the largest American operation of the war to that date.
Part of British publisher Helion’s Asia@War Series, this large-format book overflows with graphics. Classic color artwork of armored vehicles, aircraft, and troops on the ground enhance a wealth of black-and-white photographs. Maps appear when needed. The graphics could almost stand alone in telling the story of Operation Attleboro.
Velicogna holds a doctorate in war studies and has taught military history at King’s College London and Wolverhampton University. He also has worked for several British defense-related organizations.
After opening the book setting out the causes of the Vietnam War, Velicogna provides background on the forces that engaged in Attleboro. In his description of, as he puts, it, “the U.S. Army that fought the Vietnam War,” Velicogna covers the infantry battalions; mechanical, artillery, and aviation units; airpower; Mobile (Mike) Strike Forces; and gets into specifics examining the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, the 1st Infantry Division, and the 25th Infantry Division.
In this section—a book in itself—Velicogna amazed me with his ability to combine a multitude of minor points and form a complex picture in each category. He also has an unquestionable talent for research. His background material perfectly prepares the reader for the combat action that fills the second half of the book.
The time frame is November 1965-December 1966 when the South Vietnamese Army was incapable of assuming military security adequate to American expectations. MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland therefore opted to forego counterinsurgency tactics until the U.S. decisively defeated enemy troops in hidden camps north of Saigon.
As a result, at Hill 65, Ap Bau Bang, Trung Loi, and Nha Mat, the U.S. 1st Infantry Division faced off against the Viet Cong’s 9th Division in encounters that preceded—and paved the way for—Operation Attleboro. That’s because the VC had planned to target ARVN forces, but the Americans got in the way. Velicogna crisply and concisely summarizes the fighting in which the U.S. troops prevailed.
The spontaneity of these battles and frequency of smaller ones caused the opposing Attleboro commanders—American Gen. Edward DeSaussure and VC Col. Hoang Cam—to modify their tactics erratically. What began as routine search-and-destroy missions rapidly expanded as Americans discovered many enemy base camps, ever-larger tonnages of rice, and large quantities of enemy supplies.
De Saussure eventually outmaneuvered himself, and Cam altered his tactics to meet the Americans head on. A stalemate ensued until the Big Red One’s commander, Gen. William DePuy, replaced DeSaussure and redeployed his scattered units. The fighting turned into a pursuit of Cam’s men to Cambodia. Velicogna describes these these events as if they happened yesterday.
He includes a box score of the 72-day-long Operation Attleboro in which friendly versus enemy losses in personnel and material are so disproportionate that they seem questionable. However, U.S. airpower and artillery swayed the outcome of many encounters, including more than 200 B-52 sorties against suspected command and logistics positions. To me, the greatest success of Attleboro was the discovery and destruction of 68 enemy base camps.
Velicogna ranks Operation Attleboro as “the precursor of the later, larger, operations in [III Corps], especially Junction City.” The U.S. Army, he writes, “had found a way to grapple and maul enemy main force units in areas where unrestrained firepower could be brought to bear, in turn reducing their influence on pacification efforts.”
That conclusion sounds extremely self-evident. To wit: If, in some isolated spot, I can beat you mercilessly, I will win—and help others.
True War Stories: Tales of Deployment from Vietnam to Today (Z2 Comics, 260 pp. $19.99, paper) is an anthology of 15 true overseas war and other graphic military stories starting with the Vietnam War. Each one is told by a war veteran and drawn and colored by top-flight comics artists.
The two evocatively drawn (and told) Vietnam War stories, “My Vietnam Blast” and “Bomb Convoy,” clearly illustrate the mortal dangers faced by in-country U.S. service personnel who didn’t have combat MOS’s.
The former is the story of Robert Kent, a young (22-year-old) USAF sergeant who worked perimeter security at Cam Ranh Bay Air Base during his 1970-71 Vietnam War tour of duty. Put together with the artists Dave Acosta and Aladdin Collar, the story tells the tale of one horrendous night in April ’71 when the base was hit by enemy sappers who blew up the ammo dump, and includes the story of a heroic sentry dog.
“Bomb Convoy” is the story of Ray Partridge, who was drafted into the Army in 1967 and served for a year as an MP based at a Royal Thai Air Force base. Drawn by his daughter, Skylar Patridge, and Kelly Fitzpatrick, the story centers on a hairy bombtruck convoy run Ray Partridge worked in 1968. Riding at the head of the convoy in his MP escort Jeep followed by a stream of fast-moving 18-wheelers packed to the gills with shipping containers of ordnance, it was an all-day trip from the coast to Korat RTAFB through villages and along dangerous mountain roads. The tale ends with an unnerving encounter Ray Partridge had with an armed jungle fighter.
All profits from the book, edited by Alex de Campi and Khai Krumbhaar, are being donated to military nonprofits chosen by contributors, including the Air Force Assistance Fund, The Armed Forces Arts Partnership, and the USO.
Fred Rosenblum’s new book of poetry, Tramping Solo (Fomite Press, 84 pp. $15, paper; $4.99, Kindle), would fit neatly into a backpacker’s pouch—physically, emotionally, and mystically. The book contains 35 poems averaging 50 lines each. That’s mid-length poetry, which should make for comfortable reading for most people. These verse are comfortable, that is, until you get to the subject matter.
The poems cover a three-year period in which Rosenblum—who spent 1968 as a U.S. Marine in South Vietnam—was out of the military and hitchhiking up and down the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska. He used that time to hide out from his past while also trying to deal with it. The poems’ titles include “The City Snarled,” “Jamming With Dead Russians,” Mending Seine,” “Sundown Jungle Texarkana,” and “Under a Bridge in the Pouring Rain.”
Dreaming of “a Londonesque sketch/of adventure,” Rosenblum trades Southeast Alaska and its adventures for those he had had in Southeast Asia. He refers to the journey as “the period of jazz cigarettes and psychedelia.”
He remembers times in Vietnam when he was as “fatigued as/Jesus ascending Golgotha.” Then he recalls:
“the piss yourself
apprehension of the firefight
“The sweltering, sulfuric air
held the steaming metallic stench
of blood and evacuation,
married to the jungle’s rotted
respirations of floral decay.”
Then the truly unforgettable sounds and smells of “nightfall’s napalm raining.”
“ – those silver satanic angels
with their ravaging
Phantom strikes, to this
very day still strafe me,
deep into the stygian abyss
of my sleepless nights.”
In “Enamored of the Art,” Rosenblum writes that he’d been drawn to Alaska by its:
home of restless longings
— a white fang wealth of yearning
churning in my chest.”
A lot of this is bare-chested, big-muscled adventure writing as Rosenblum reports on traveling through areas where bears outnumber people and works in a pulp mill and on commercial fishing boats with rag-tag crews for his “paltry share of the take.” He also travels the American Southwest on a Greyhound Bus noting:
acrid air of perspiration
permeated the scenic cruiser.”
This is outdoorsy stuff. It’s not an accident that, along with Jack London, we get mentions of Woody Guthrie, Jack Kerouac, and Sonny Barger of the Hell’s Angels.
Don’t be overly concerned by the fact that this book is presented as poetry. The poems serve as the launching pad for Fred Rosenblum’s memories and the stories they have turned into.
Drop the book into your pack the next time you’re going to spend some time in the great outdoors. It’s there that you’ll enjoy the companionship of these poems most.
William Winders’ Finally, Home (243 pp. $40, paper) is an amalgam of personal interviews and material gleened from reference materials. The interviews are mainly with Vietnam War veteran and former POW Dan Hefel, the subject of this very good book.
On Dec. 4, 1968, Daniel H. Hefel drove from his home near Buena Vista, Iowa, to the U.S. Army recruiting office in Dubuque and enlisted. In April 1969 PFC Hefel found himself in South Vietnam at Camp Sally as a 101st Airborne Division riflemen toting an M79 grenade launcher. For the next few months he took part in many large and small-scale actions from the A Shau Valley to the DMZ. Neither the NVA nor the VC could slow Hefel down, but a mosquito disabled him for a few weeks with a dose of malaria.
During this down time, Dan Hefel applied for and got permission to transfer to a 101st Aviation platoon as a Huey door gunner. He soon began flying missions manning an M60 machinegun.
On February 5, 1970, his chopper crashed near the A Shau Valley. The pilot died. Hefel and two other crew members survived, only to be captured by the NVA. They were transported to Hanoi and thrown in POW camps.
In Finally, Home, Dan Hefel recalls his POW experiences, which included recovering from a broken back and other crash injuries and dealing with torture, loneliness, and mental anguish. At one point, the prison doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on him without anesthesia. After being held for three-plus years, on March 27, 1973, Hefel, along with 590 fellow American POWs, was released.
A year after returning to the U.S., Hefel was declared disabled due to his combat injuries and retired from the Army as a staff sergeant. He returned to Iowa, reunited with his family and friends, got married, raised a family, and is now living the American Dream on his Harley.
Finally, Home is a very good book, loaded with pictures, maps, and drawings. I recommend reading Sgt. Dan Hefel’s story.
The book is available from Winders’ newspaper, The Dubuque Leader, 1527 Central Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001.
In Paper Dog: The True Life Story of a Vietnam War Dog (Elm Grove Publishing, 180 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper) former U.S. Army veterinarian John Kubisz tells the true story of a Vietnam War scout dog named Paper. Kubisz treated the seriously injured dog when he was the CO of the 764th Medical Detachment at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969.
Kubisz’s publisher says that he “clearly has much in common with Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H,” so, being a fan of the TV series, I was excited to have this book in my hands. As I began to read, I did see some similarities between his life story and Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the popular TV sitcom and Hollywood movie.
But I also was disillusioned with Kubisz’s disdain for the Army. When most of us had to deal with less-than-stellar superiors, red tape, or insufficient materiel, we sucked it up and made the best of it while trying to follow military SOP. Kubisz, on the other hand, did it the Hawkeye Pierce way. One main reason for SOP is to enable a smooth transfer of duties when personnel are replaced. When Kubisz and his ragtag crew rotated back to The World, their replacements were left to deal with a nonstandard operation.
That said, this book is well written, well presented and a pleasure to read. Kubisz performed amazing—even heroic—feats with Paper and his other patients. He showed great compassion for the dogs and their handlers and he improved the level of veterinary care for all the U.S. war dogs in Vietnam.
The story of the dog named Paper and his 101st Airborne handler Tom Hewitt makes up nearly half of the book and is heartwarming and insightful.
Paper Dog contains a lot of good information and many photos. Be prepared to meet an Army officer with very little military bearing, but do read this well-written and very interesting book.
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.