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

Tales from the Teamhouse, Vol. III by Jim Kelley

Tales from the Teamhouse Vol. III (Old Mountain Press, 263 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is third collection of stories edited by Jim Kelley and written by members of the Special Forces, all of whom also are members of the Special Forces list. All of contributors are active duty or retired. Some are departed.

The book is arranged in subject sections and contains stories, humor pieces, and poetry. The stories range in size from a tiny anecdote to a long short story. They range also in quality. Some are sketchy at best, written by soldiers who had stories to tell but little notion of how to tell them. Others are superb tales that hold a reader’s attention and make him want more.

One of the better stories is “Big Boys” by Command U.S. Air Force SMAJ William E. Edge (RIP). It’s an account from his time in the Korean War with the First Cavalry Division. It deals with holding back the North Korean Army along the Naktong River.

Another fine story, “Pepsi From the Sky,” written by Rolf R. Kreuscher, deals with the evacuation of a village of about 1,000 souls in South Vietnam. This story embodies virtually all the themes and tragedies that were in place in the Vietnam War.

“Tet ’68″ by John Blevins also is an excellent piece. Blevins was sent to Saigon during Tet to get supplies for his team, and got stuck in Can Tho.

“Baby Killer!” by Reg Manning tells a funny story of how Manning dealt with a guy who made the mistake of hollering “baby killer” at him while riding a bike. “I never got spat upon, but I did get called a baby killer once,” he writes. I think that what happened to that ill-advised fellow should have happened to more of his ilk.

“Attack on the Camp” by Rudy Cooper (from his autobiography, Seed of Endurance) made me want to read his entire book. It was an exciting recounting of an attack, very well written, and emboding the values of the Special Forces.

“Barry Sadler in Panama” by Bill Coombs is a story about the former Green Beret on stage in 1965. Staff Sergeant Barry Sadler (above) was his billing and he made the point that he could not be paid “or accept any money for his appearances” while in uniform. I wish Barry Sadler had made it to one of the places I was stationed in 1966-67. We had to settle for Hank Snow.

The stories use language and themes that are often encountered in Vietnam War literature: Get the hell outta Dodge, cowardly ARVNs, the odious ham and lima beans, and so on. I encountered the notion that we were doing fine in Vietnam, and that we gave up fighting due to “a bunch of weak-dicked politicians who represented us.” There is a great glossary in the back of the book, more useful than most.

This book will please any aficionado of the Special Forces. I have not seen or read  Volumes I or II, but I’m sure those tales are as good or better than the bunch selected for this book.

—David Willson

An Unbelievable Life by Rena Kopystenski

Rena Kopystenski’s An Unbelievable Life: The Woman Who Became Vietnam Veterans’ Voice Against Agent Orange (Strategic Media Books, 300 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tour de force of how one person can affect and benefit millions of others.

As Vietnam veterans know only too well, the U.S. military heavily sprayed the herbicide Agent Orange throughout South Vietnam during the war. The catastrophic effects on plant life were almost instantaneous; however, the effects on human life began to appear much later—and still wreak havoc in 2015.

Kopystenski encountered Agent Orange for the first time while watching a news broadcast in late 1977. She was pregnant with her first child when she heard the words “suspected of causing birth defects.” Knowing that her husband had been an Army door gunner on a medivac helicopter in Vietnam, she believed there might be a connection between his exposure to Agent Orange and her first child.

The author begins to describe the problems with her son Alex during his first few months of life. Skin conditions became prevalent almost immediately, followed by other painful and frightening ailments. At three and a half months, the child had severe stomach pains. He would have died had her husband not literally held a doctor against a locker until he agreed to take a second look at the boy.

These events with her child set the stage for Rena Kopystenski’s decades-long, national and international campaign to uncover the horrific price of Agent Orange.

Although the book needs some editing—the author consistently misuses the word “effect” for “affect,” for example—Kopystenski pulls no punches describing her quest for the elimination of AO and its extremely toxic byproduct, dioxin, and compensation for its victims.

She and her “band of brothers” formed Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey in 1978. Then, while listening to a news report, the author heard the words “dioxin, toxic waste, and children with cancer.” The battlefield expanded.

Throughout the book Kopystenski expresses her appreciation for the many people who worked with her in the struggle, including Annie Bailey, “a whole 100 pounds sopping wet,” who became known as a battler for the cause.

While the focus is primarily on U.S. citizens, the author takes the reader to present-day Vietnam to learn of the tragic rate of Agent-Orange-related birth defects among its people.

Rena Kopysenski

Kopystenski is not reluctant in pointing fingers at politicians, even in the Oval Office, who have taken little or no interest in the sufferings of AO victims. She is equally quick to thank politicians who have made an effort to right the wrongs.

Rena Kopystenski presented her findings to the International People’s Tribunal of Conscience in Support of the Vietnamese Victims of Agent Orange, which took place in Paris in May 2009. Both the chemical companies and the United States government were asked to appear; neither did.

The Tribunal noted: “Wars do not end when the bombs stop falling and the fighting ceases. The devastation continues long after, in the land and in the minds and bodies of the affected population.”

Today, in a world where the term “weapons of mass destruction” slides so casually from the tongue, An Unbelievable Life is a must-read.

—Joseph Reitz

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An American Atrocity by Mike McCarey

Mike McCarey served as the First Marine Division’s chief prosecutor for most of 1968 when that unit was in Vietnam. McCarey’s office prosecuted all felony cases in the division.

Captain Conners is the main character in American Atrocity (J-ALM Publishing, 288 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a military/legal novel.  “On a rainy night in January 1968, several days before Tet, a squad of Marines on a mission to gather information is attacked by a large force of North Vietnamese regulars,” the back-cover blurb notes.

“Only six Marines live through the assault. The following day, the half-dazed and exhausted survivors capture three Vietnamese dressed as farmers. The captives are put on ‘trial’ for being the enemy, sentenced to death and executed. One of the captives—a teenage boy—is tortured and hanged.”

The plot brings to mind the real-life story told in Casualties of War, the book and the movie. Many of the same issues are presented and debated in this book. That includes questions such as:

  • Is it realistic to expect our soldiers and Marines to follow the rules of war when the enemy does not follow them?
  • Are rules for war realistic? 
  • When fighting an enemy who adheres to only guerrilla war methods, can we beat them if we stick with Geneva Convention rules?
  • All war is hell, but when does war become war crimes?

Captain Conners deals with all of the above. Things get complicated when Conners realizes that he had met and spoken to the three murder victims, and he knew for sure they were farmers, not Viet Cong. The six Marines who murdered them, however, did not know that. To them, all Vietnamese were alike, all were the enemy.

Mike McCarey

This is an engrossing book, with a well-told story. We encounter Bob Hope, people sniffers, a media that is against the war, and Marines being spat upon in airports back home and being baby killers.

Fragging is also featured. The Phoenix Program is mentioned as a defense as it involved murdering civilians whose crime was to be included on a list for perhaps no more serious a reasons than insulting a neighbor.

It is good to read a Vietnam War novel in which the hero spends most of his time behind a desk, not out in the field. It also is good to read a book in which justice is done, although it doesn’t resurrect the dead Vietnamese farmers. They are gone; their hearts and minds are beyond reach.

I highly recommend An American Atrocity to those who who wish to read a nuanced novel about the moral and ethical issues that infantry soldiers deal with.

The author’s website is http://anamericanatrocity.com

—David Willson

The author in Vietnam

Vietnam Convoy Trucker by William Patterson

Xulan, a Christian-based press, guided Bill Patterson through the process of writing his memoir, Vietnam Convoy Trucker (202 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). He could have benefited from a bit more guidance.

The book is slowed down by much repetition. Patterson tells the reader several times about his triple extra-large uniform and how he had a Long Binh tailor cut them down for him and what a good job she did and how he wore them for the entire time he was in Vietnam. He also mentions fifty-five gallon drums of Peneprime many times. It is a black, tarry substance that was applied to the roads to deal with the red dirt and dust, which Patterson, as a truck driver, did battle with every day in the Vietnam War.

Patterson enlisted in the U. S. Army Reserves during the summer of 1964. He was assured that by doing so he’d serve out his six years in the United States. In early 1968, he and his many friends in the 319th Transportation Company in Augusta, Georgia, were called to active duty status. Other reserve units who received this call fought the legality of it, but the 319th did not.

“We served honorably, won our medals, and commendations and came home,” he writes. “We did the right thing. I am proud to have been part of the effort.” Only one man from his unit died in Vietnam. “We acted in good faith,” he says. “We also made terrible mistakes.”

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who served in the Vietnam War, Patterson went there with friends and neighbors, men he had known for many years back home. When their war was over, the men returned to Augusta, and remained in contact for the following decades. This experience is well-described and brings home how vastly different it was for most of us who were brought to that war individually. It is easy to see the advantages of being surrounded with old friends in a war zone.

The 319th arrived in Vietnam September 1968. “The next day we immediately began riding with another company on convoy runs to learn the routes and procedures,” Patterson writes.  Later, he takes stock of the war, seen from his front seat in the five-ton cargo truck he drove nearly 15,000 miles through South Vietnam, delivering troops, barrels of Peneprime, apples, oranges, ammunition, supplies, equipment, and canned food on pallets.

Patterson’s book describes the life of a convoy trucker so well that I see no need for another book on this interesting subject.  “The work was hot, dirty, and dangerous,” he writes. “I ate mostly C-Rations and drank water from my canteen. Our workdays were long and we did not get enough sleep. I saw and was near combat, ambushes, aircraft bombing and road mines, and was exposed to toxic chemicals and mental worry.”

Patterson’s unit logged over a million miles. When they returned home to the Bible Belt they encountered a cordial welcome, with little of the war protesting that others of us ran up against elsewhere. Patterson thanks President Nixon for enabling his unit to shave six weeks off their commitment and get home early.

He also complains bitterly about Jane Fonda. “While MS Fonda was enjoying herself consorting with our country’s enemy, hundreds of thousands of patriots were returning from war duty,” he says. “Her action and those of others caused some real disrespect to be shown towards these soldiers who had endured so much.”

I don’t think poor Jane Fonda can be blamed for the fact that when I tried to return to the state job I’d been drafted out of, I was told they didn’t want me back. It didn’t occur to me she was responsible at the time, and I don’t buy it now.

Patterson’s low-key narration and deadpan style makes this book an easy and pleasant read. He has a gift for understatement that I enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to those who have been jonesing for more information on Vietnam convoy trucking. This is the book.

—David Willson

 

 

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson

Defiant by Alvin Townley

Alvin Townley’s Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned, which was published last year, is now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne/Griffin, 432 pp., $17.99).

In focusing on telling the stories of about a dozen captives, this well-written book draws heavily on the previous body of POW literature. It also goes over the story of the POW wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbied the government on their husbands’ behalf.

You can read our review in the January/February 2014 print issue of The VVA Veteran.

—Marc Leepson

 

Surprised at Being Alive by Robert F. Curtis

It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.

Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.

Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.

As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.

He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”

The book solidly supports Curtis’ claims and reinforces opinions held by other Vietnam helicopter pilots such as Bill Collier and Jim Weatherill in their recently published memoirs.

Robert F. Curtis

Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.

The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”

After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.

During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”

I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.

On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.

—Henry Zeybel