Books in Review II

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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:

Marc Leepson
Arts Editor, The VVA Veteran
8719 Colesville Road
Silver Spring, MD 20910

We welcome comments, questions, and suggestions at mleepson@vva.org

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

Company Grade by Henry “Rocky” Colavita

The back-cover blurb on Henry “Rocky” Colavita’s Company Grade: Memoir of an Angry Skipper (Hellgate, 276 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells us to expect an “engaging, often funny memoir.” And that’s what Colavita came up with in this well-written book, beginning with his earliest memories of wanting to join the Army and to be a police officer.

His father’s Army career as a transportation officer took the Colavita family to many duty stations and assignments. As a student at Virginia Tech, Rocky Colavita joined Army ROTC, and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated.

The book includes lots of reminiscing about college life and early ROTC training. Colavita went through Infantry AIT, Ranger and Airborne Training, and Vietnamese Language School.

During his first tour in Vietnam he was assigned to an Airborne Advisory Team with MAAG, the predecessor of MACV. While working with a Vietnamese Airborne unit, Colavita was wounded and medevaced stateside for treatment and recuperation.

After recovering from his wounds he did a stint at the Army War College, then went back to Vietnam for a second tour, commanding Delta Co, 2nd/8th in the 1st Cavalry Division. Colavita’s call sign was Angry Skipper-6. He provides lots of good war stories about his second Vietnam War tour. After that, he finished a 20-year career as an Army officer.

Colavita joined the Fairfax County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office after he retired, rose to the rank of Major, and retired a second time. Colavita devotes only five pages to his law enforcement career. After enjoying what came before, I expected more great stories and anecdotes.

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam Vanguard edited by Ron Boxall and Robert O’Neill

In 2006 I read Australia’s Vietnam War, an excellent account of the impact of the war, in many different ways, on Australia. The book, though, did not contain much information about Australian forces fighting in Vietnam. Vietnam VanguardThe 5th Battalion’s Approach to Counter-Insurgency, 1966 (Australian National University, 456 pp., $50) fills that void by taking the reader on operations in Vietnam conducted by the 5th Battalion of the 1st Australian Task Force during an early phase of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

The editors and the book’s 27 contributors are veterans of operations conducted by Australian troops in 1966. Their goal is to recall with accuracy what transpired with Australia’s decision to join the war, as well as to show how its units prepared for operations, and to provide an account of the 5th Battalion’s year in combat.   

For readers familiar with the American way of war in Vietnam—especially those who were actual participants—it is very interesting to learn about similar challenges the Australians faced and their efforts to overcome them.

One parallel is the deployment of draftees into combat. The Australian battalion was half manned by national service soldiers who were conscripted and sent to Vietnam, just as many American troops were. Several contributors to the book emphasize the importance of not allowing disgruntlement at being conscripted and sent off to war become divisive within their units, especially in combat, and how they came to terms with it.  

Somewhat divergent operational approaches to the war by the Americans are contrasted with that of the Australians, reflecting lessons learned earlier about how to fight a counterinsurgency conflict. The Australians, unlike U.S. forces, had combat experience following the Korean War, including successfully conducted counterinsurgency operations. They had seen action during the 1948-60 Malayan Emergency and again during the confrontation with Indonesian irregulars in Malaysian territory. Consequently, many NCOs and officers in the Aussie Task Force in Vietnam had counterinsurgency experience.

It took years before American units could benefit from experienced personnel in Vietnam. As an example, my unit—the 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 506th Infantry, which deployed in 1967—had only a few NCOs who had served with the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66.

Australian leaders embraced the Hearts and Minds approach in Vietnam, as reflected in their Cordon and Search strategy. To illustrate the Australian way of war in Vietnam the contributors write about engagements in which they fought in difficult terrain against long-entrenched Viet Cong units. Many of their experiences in combat will be familiar to American Vietnam War veterans. Their frustration with some rear echelon units that didn’t provide full support to the troops in the field and their appreciation for courageous helicopter crews who braved ground fire, weather, and terrain are experiences American and Australian troops shared.

Members of B Co., 5th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment during Operation Tambourine

Australian soldiers found themselves unprepared when assigned to be advisers to local Vietnamese units and CIA-sponsored irregulars. Those assignments were disappointing and frustrating and remain a sore point with the contributors to this book.

The Australian military was very sensitive to casualties. This was something that Gen. Westmoreland, in contrast, was willing to accept for U.S. troops, as demonstrated by operations he ordered following 1965’s bloody Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. 

When the public in the U.S. and Australia turned against the war, the impact was especially felt by the veterans themselves.  American and Australian troops shared the experience of coming home from the war to an often indifferent nation.That factor has been a driving force in Aussie veterans’ desire at this late date to finally tell their stories. 

For the soldiers of Australia’s 5th Battalion, this book has provided that opportunity.

— John Cirafici

Black World: Special Ops by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s first novel, Black World: Special Ops (269 pp. $11.94, paper: $7.99, Kindle), stars Bill York, a former Navy SEAL and retired CIA agent. The book begins with a present-day scuffle with a few ruffians after a dinner date with his wife. Then we flash back to the back story of this mild-mannered family man.

York’s father, a Maryland State Trooper, knew someone who knew someone who secured him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy despite non-stellar high school grades and “fitness reports.” Rotruck paints a quite realistic and detailed picture of student life at the Naval Academy, including some of the shenanigans of the budding naval leaders.

During his studies, York develops an interest in the SEALs, and eventually is selected as a candidate. Rotruck tells a credible story as we follow York through the training, and the fabled challenges involved in the training of some of America’s most prestigious and fearsome special operations fighters.

We accompany York on a deployment to Vietnam with Team One where he is injured in a diving accident, which prevents him from continuing as an active member of the team. He then decides to resign his commission, and winds up getting recruited by the CIA.

Again, we get a nicely detailed review of training, this time several CIA venues. York’s reputation as a leader and savvy operator grow, and he is given more complicated and dangerous missions.

Throughout, York’s wife knows he’s working for the government, but not a lot more. He leaves, comes back home, and is gone again. After one hair-raising mission he decides to retire.

This is an interesting book, although some of the dialogue is a bit stilted. This is a first novel and I hope to see Bill York again—either as a free-standing operative, or back with the CIA.

—Tom Werzyn

Searching for Gurney by Jack Estes

Jack Estes’ Searching for Gurney (O’Callahan Press, 328 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a welcome return to high-quality Vietnam War literary fiction. Estes served as a rifleman with the 9th Marines and later with a CAP unit during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. He’s written two other books that deal with the war: A Field of Innocence (2014), a memoir, and a A Soldier’s Son (2016), a novel.

With Searching for Gurney’s first sentence—“JT woke, but they were still dead,”—the reader is immediately enmeshed in the world of a Vietnam War veteran’s post-traumatic stress. The veteran, JT, believes he should be able to handle his new civilian job because, Estes writes, “he’d led men into battle, run patrols, set ambushes, called in gunships, destroyed villages and hillsides. He’d fired rifles, machine guns, tossed grenades, and killed enemy soldiers so often that not killing felt odd. So this mailroom job was a skate.”

JT’s wife says he’s been different since he returned home from war. He never smiles and seems to carry a sense of danger with him. She “thought violence was when he punched a hole in the wall or broke a doorjamb,” Estes says. “That wasn’t violence.”

For his part, JT believes that no matter how much he and his wife fuss, God meant them to be together. “Why else would he have survived Vietnam?” Though he is too young to legally buy beer, he often goes to bars and drinks. After getting into fights, he thinks maybe “he’d be better off back in Nam.”

Coop served alongside JT. He’s back home just long enough to attend his grandfather’s funeral before he has to return to the war. While contemplating the funeral service, he thinks, “This wasn’t death. Death was that first patrol. This was sleep.” He also drinks in the morning so he won’t “stick a gun in his mouth.” And he’s glad to be going back because he “wanted war and didn’t care if he died. It was only when he felt at risk that he felt alive.”

Hawkeye completes the trio. He winds up in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence and quickly discovers in Vietnam that the “one thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on anything.” A fourth important character, Nguyen Vuong, joins the three Americans in the book’s third act.

The Vietnamese who are engaged in war with the Americans, Estes writes, believe they are fighting “in a great and noble cause that will be remembered until the end of time.” They read Shakespeare and share their poetry with each other.

Estes in country

The Americans pop amphetamines to stay alert, carry sawed-off shotguns, and live by the philosophy, “They say go. We go.”

They find peacefulness when they can “listen to the silence,” and are confused by the strangeness of hearing rumors of peace talks in the midst of fierce fighting.

In this extremely well-written, time-tangled story, the boyish-looking Lt. Gurney doesn’t make his appearance until the last few pages. He then quickly disappears. That triggers the search in the book’s title, and the plot wraps around itself in an intriguing and satisfying way.

Searching for Gurney doesn’t read like a comic book as so many war novels seem to. It conveys the impact of war through the lens of literary fiction. It’s also one of the few books I reread immediately after I finished it. 

Estes’ website is jackestes.com

–Bill McCloud

Three War Marine Hero by Richard D. Camp, Jr.

Richard Camp’s Three War Marine Hero: General Raymond G. Davis (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle) is a biography one of the mostly highly decorated U.S. Marines. From humble beginnings in rural Georgia, we follow a young Marine through his early training and his service in World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. 

After graduating from Georgia Tech in 1938, Davis (1915-2003) received an Army ROTC commission as a second lieutenant—which he promptly resigned to accept the same commission from the Marines. After Marine Officers Basic School he met and married his lifetime companion, Willa “Knox” Heafner. They became inseparable, writing to each other daily whenever they were apart.

Camp devotes a great number of pages to meticulously recounting battles and encounters in which Davis was involved in the Western Pacific in World War II and later in Korea and Vietnam. Camp also covers Davis’ peacetime assignments and schooling.

As Davis’ career advanced, Dick Camp became his aide. They soon became confidants and now Camp—a military historian and the author fourteen books—has written Davis’ life story. His access to Davis has produced a detailed and comprehensive book that is long on battle scenes and minutia, but at times a bit short on details about Gen. Davis himself.

Davis went to Korea in 1950 as a lieutenant colonel. During his varied assignments, he planned, led, and successfully completed the rescue of a company of Marines from a perilous situation at Yudam-ni. For that action he received the Medal of Honor.

As the Vietnam War began to loom on the horizon, Davis became involved in the development of the air-mobile concept and its applications for the Marines. Davis later took command of the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam, and served with distinction. In 1969, after his 13-month tour of duty, Davis returned to Marine Headquarters in Washington. He received his fourth star in 1971, served as the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, and retired in 1971

Three-War Marine Hero is a good book told by a competent author; it’s well researched and written. If you’re a Jarhead, it’s a must read.

—Tom Werzyn

Pop Smoke by Bill Lindsay

Pop Smoke: The Story of One Marine Rifle Platoon in Vietnam: Who They Were, What They Did, What They Learned (Palmetto, 222 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $19, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is former Marine Bill Lindsay’s memoir of his time in the Vietnam War. Lindsay says the names in his book are fictitious, but the events are not. I found the book a refreshingly solid retelling of one man’s experiences without having to put up with outlandish tales that so many other memoirs seem to contain.

The first sentence of the first chapter, “My Arrival,” puts us in the plane Lindsay is on entering South Vietnam’s air space on February 6, 1970. I liked that.

This book knows what it is. It’s a description of a military tour of duty in the Vietnam War, pure and simple. The last chapter, “My Return,” should probably be titled “My Departure,” because the book ends as Lt. Lindsay is flying home from Vietnam. There’s nothing in this book about his life before or after the war. This book is focused.

Assigned to the First Marine Division, Lindsay flew into Da Nang and wound up in the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment at LZ Baldy. His unit was in the thick of things, facing both Viet Cong and the NVA. Their success was measured by body count.

Someone handed him a flak jacket stained with mud or blood and told him he would be a platoon commander with India Company because they needed a new one. Lindsay says he never found out what happened to the previous platoon commander—and he never asked.

He had dreamt of commanding a platoon in combat after a challenge a Marine instructor had given him based on Ernest Hemingway’s words: “The only way to truly be a warrior and experience war was to be a soldier, on the front lines. You need to see the enemy and be able to look him in the eyes as you engage him in combat. That is the only way to really consider yourself a warrior.”

He was then told that the life expectancy of a new second lieutenant infantry platoon commander in Vietnam was “under an hour.”

Lindsay’s war experiences included going more than a month without a shower and losing thirty pounds while subsisting on a diet of C-rations. He trudged through monsoon rains. There were ambushes and times he’d sit down and cry as he thought of the dead and wounded. He put up with medical treatment for intestinal worms and malaria.

Bill Lindsay

When word came that it was his time to go home Lindsay was told that the helicopter picking him up would be there in a few hours. It was that quick.

His first reaction was that he wanted to remain with his men, but that request fell on deaf ears. He flew out with sad thoughts that “so many had been killed or wounded during my tour. I was leaving without a scratch. That fact seemed so unfair.”

And with that, Bill Lindsay’s Vietnam War story ends—a story of only his actual time in-country.

It’s a story that consistently rang true and is one of the best Vietnam War memoirs I’ve read.

–Bill McCloud

Thank You, America by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s Thank You, America: Autobiography of a Naval Career (Wheatmark, 178 pp. Paperback and Kindle) is a one-or-two-sitting read. It’s a delightful autobiography written by a retired Navy Chief Warrant Officer, with an emphasis on his unbridled love for his country, his career choices, and his wife and family. 

The book is an assignment-by-assignment journey that details, often with touches of wry humor, the places Rotruck has seen and the jobs he’s performed in a series of almost stand-alone chapters.

Rotruck starts in his home town, Gaithersburg, Maryland, and his decision to forgo college and join the Navy after graduating from high school in 1959. He takes us through Boot Camp, after which he came home to marry his high-school sweetheart. He then trained in repairing and maintaining Avionics and RADAR equipment. He goes on to explain that the rank of Chief in the U.S. Navy is one of merit and responsibility, and spells out the Chief’s Charge in the book’s appendix.

As the book progresses, Bob Rotruck goes through the each of his deployments during his twenty-year Navy career, describing his duties during air operations and his dealings with civilian contractors and their less-than-sterling knowledge about the products they were trying to sell to the U.S. Navy. Many of his assignments were aboard large carriers. He served as air squadron support on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (CV-63) on Yankee Station in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, and later aboard the John F. Kennedy (CV-67).

This is a very positive book without any of the blood, guts, glory, and pathos in many military memoirs. It’s well worth the read.

—Tom Werzyn                                                               

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam by Oscar E. Gilbert

At the heart of Oscar Gilbert’s compelling Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) are interviews with two dozen Marine tankers who served in the Vietnam War. Reinforced with a careful study of official (albeit limited) archives, Gilbert draws a clear line from the arrival of the Marines at Danang in 1965 to their departure from the country six years later. Through it all, he conveys the role of Marine armor in the war. 

From the start, Gilbert illustrates the differing strategies the Marines and the Army brought to the war. MACV’s approach was to draw the NVA and VC out into the open to defeat in decisive battles.The Marines sought to take ground and keep it, primarily in I Corps, where they worked with regional forces and ARVN units. It was only after prolonged pressure from above that the Marines went along with MACV’s strategy.

Gilbert, a former Marine who has written books about Marine tank battles in the Pacific in World War II and in the Korean War, describes the enormous problems tankers faced from the moment they arrived in Vietnam. Terrain ranging from coastal flats to mountains hampered freedom to maneuver and fight, especially in narrow streets during the 1968 Battle of Hue. Monsoon rains reduced fields to swamps, further restricting tank movements. Above all, U.S. military tactics for defeating enemies with tanks would prove ineffective against those without them. 

The book’s most sobering lesson illustrates how easily a tank can be disabled. Armor units were repeatedly ambushed by enemy units armed with RPG’s, satchel charges, and mines. Not once does Gilbert recount an action from which Marine tankers emerged unscathed.   

Using tactics that came to define the war, North Vietnamese units traveling by foot would attack the Americans, damaging and crippling tanks. Whether the units chose to stay and fight or withdraw, the results were often the same. Compelled to drive with hatches open for better visibility, countless tankers were killed and wounded. Tracks broke. Wheels were blown off. Machine guns jammed. And in an environment alive with fragments, tanks also were forced into duty as ambulances.

What’s more, tank maintenance problems were endless. Fine sand and dust wore down wheels, tracks, and suspensions. Air filters clogged quickly and required daily cleaning. Humidity clouded optics and caused water to accumulate in fuel tanks. Unless drained away, the water gave rise to algae that could kill engines. 

Despite those negatives, the North Vietnamese paid every time they engaged the Marine tankers, often suffering far more losses than the Americans. While the growing body count of enemy dead was ballyhooed by MACV, the declarations of victory rang hollow for the men who had earned them. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is a compelling piece of work. That said, Gilbert presents two challenges to less-informed readers.

First, to fully appreciate the book it would help to have a grasp of the Marines Corps’ chain of command at all levels. This knowledge is vital, given the frequency with which tank units were detached from parent companies or platoons to help Marines elsewhere. 

Second, the book has many photos, but only a handful of small-scale maps. Readers would need to look at a large-scale map of I Corps to fully comprehend the veterans’ accounts of the tank actions in the book.

To his credit, Gilbert readily acknowledges this. Actions fought by squads or even individual tanks are not easily documented. To that end, the book’s references include a link to the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association’s website and growing archive of maps. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is an often gut-wrenching account of brave, highly trained men doing their best under circumstances that defied them at virtually every turn. The book is a worthy addition to the library of any student of tank warfare and the United States Marines in the Vietnam War.

—Mike McLaughlin

Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–Bill McCloud

Snow’s Kitchen by Amy M. Le

Snow’s Kitchen: A Novella and Cookbook (Quill Hawk Publishing, 262 pp. $34.99) is Amy Le’s delightful wrap-up of a trilogy of autobiographical fictional tales telling the story of her family’s escape from Vietnam after the end of the American war and the challenges they faced resettling in the United States. Snow is Amy’s mother’s name, which explains the intriguing title of her debut novel, Snow in Vietnam. That first novel tells the story of her mother’s difficult life in Vietnam and the harrowing escape she made with Amy, who is called Dolly, and a young nephew.

The second novel, Snow in Seattle, begins in 1980, six months after the end of the first one. Snow in Seattle finds the small family dealing with the Pacific Northwest weather, American TV shows, and the idea of always-plentiful food. Seeing our country through the eyes of these new arrivals allow American readers to see ourselves in new ways.

Amy Le says she wrote Snow’s Kitchen in one month. I can believe it because of the natural flow of the story as it unfolds. She’s not sitting down at her writing table trying to make things up; rather, she’s relating things as she mostly recalls them. Le wrote the first two novels as a way of honoring her mother, who died of cancer in 2017. This work is intended to honor her mother’s love for food by sharing her recipes, which drew from cultures of the East and West.

In this book Amy, now going by the name “Christine,” moves through adolescence. Here are the book’s first two sentences: “The first boy I ever kissed was named Dung. Let that marinate for a second.”

Her mother has remarried and the family has moved to California. Her mom delightfully pronounces “ugly” in three syllables, “uh-guh-lee,” and once when excited she exclaimed, “Oh. My. Good. Nest!”

But all is not well in Christine’s teen life. She succumbs to peer pressure and her mother wants her to improve her “broken Vietnamese.” But the most serious issue is her relationship with the new stepfather.

Amy Le

He barges into her bedroom without knocking, reads her diary, and calls her vile names. “I hated being Vietnamese then,” she writes. “Our society was built upon the stupid, patriarchal, male-chauvinistic belief that the man was in charge. A woman’s role was to be obedient, subservient, and cater to her husband. I denounced my ethnicity, my Vietnamese name, my language, and everything that was associated with the culture.

“In feeling that way, I also inadvertently denounced everything that Mama represented, everything that she was, and I hurt her more than I understood.”

Amy Le maintains a consistent voice in all three books, as she continues to show her mastery of realistic dialogue. To get the most from this book I recommend first reading the first two in order. All three are great to share with family members and very much suitable for book clubs.

As a bonus, Le includes more than 100 pages of recipes with photographs.

Amy Le’s website is amy-m-le.com

–Bill McCloud