Books in Review II


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

–Marc Leepson, Books Editor

Vigilance by Ray Kelly



Reading Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City (Hachette, 328 pp., $28.00, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is like reviewing New York City’s crime files from the mid-1960s to today. Kelly served forty-three years with the NYPD. He provides insight into fighting crime from the perspectives of the street cop up to the commissioner.

A lifelong New Yorker, Kelly was born in Manhattan and earned bachelor and law degrees from colleges in the city. His book ties together his efforts to improve the police force with various mayors’ ambitions to make New York City safer and more livable.

During the summer following his junior year at Manhattan College, Kelly earned a second lieutenant’s commission through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. His three older brothers had been Marines. Soon after, he also qualified to attend the police academy. So, on graduation from college, he “put the NYPD on hold” for three years to fulfill his military obligation.

Kelly became an artillery forward observer and fire-support coordinator after completing infantry warfare training. Newly married to Veronica Clarke, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton until he shipped out aboard the USS Gunston Hall to Vietnam in 1965.

Kelly underplays his role as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Initially, he led a team on amphibious-assault landings in amtracks. “We’d take modest sniper fire,” he says. He also writes that he enjoyed working with men from all parts of America, which refined his leadership skills. “Virtually everything I know about being a leader, I learned in the Marine Corps,” he writes.

“I spent most of my tour in the valleys near Hue and Phu Bai,” Kelly says. He took part in day and night helicopter assaults and Operations Harvest Moon and New York. His details of encounters with the enemy focus on other people as the performers of extraordinary actions.

Kelly felt pride in his young men for their dedication. His primary regret is that he and his men never had a “full understanding of the endgame.” Confusion, he says, “was a constant part of the Vietnam experience. He and his men often ran around in what he calls a “fog of war.”


Ray Kelly in Vietnam


With the NYPD, Kelly frequently moved from one part of the city to another because of his ability to improve the efficiency of problem precincts.  Promotions came rapidly. He helped remove sex businesses from Times Square and reduced the city’s homicide count after it reached rampant proportions. That hard work led to his first appointment as police commissioner in 1992.

For the next twenty years, Kelly continued to lead police organizations in NYC, the federal government, and even overseas. From 2002-13, during his second appointment as commissioner following 9/11 , he determined his mandate to be “counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.”

Ray Kelly, who retired to the private sector in 2014, carried a tremendous burden. I doubt anyone could report that trying period of police work with more accuracy and authority than he does.

—Henry Zeybel


The Man Who Walked 3,500 Miles to Kill Me by William Zoesch



Sometimes a passage in a book gets ingrained in a reader’s mind. That happened to me with the following words from William Zoesch:

“His brain was not going to tolerate an insult like this, I thought having seen enough head wounds of all types to last me for the next fricking millennium. His CT scan showed the bullet track through his brain, bone fragments lay where his personality once was, and then exited out through his right motor sensory strip.”

The patient bled out on an operating table.

Dr. Zoesch (rhymes with “flesh”) spent four years (1969-73) in the Army, with one year in Vietnam. Then he returned to college and studied Emergency Medicine. From 1984-92, he was a doctor in the Air National Guard. And from 2003-07, he doctored for the Army Reserves, with a year in Afghanistan. His separations from the services include two honorable discharges and a resignation of his commission.

Zoesch records his combat zone experiences in The Man Who Walked 3500 Miles to Kill Me: Reminiscences from Vietnam and Afghanistan (Lulu, 378 pp., $18.95 paper; $9.95 Kindle). The book evolved from diaries he wrote thirty-two years apart.

He incorporates the two diaries into one storyline and thereby deals with both wars simultaneously. Zoesch intersperses his life as a captain in Vietnam from June 1971 to April 1972 with his time as a colonel in Afghanistan from September 2004 to September 2005. We leap back and forth between the two countries, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. But every entry is dated.

Initially, the book’s organization works and similarities between the start of the author’s two tours are comparable. But once Zoesch reaches his units, his jobs differed so greatly that they lack relativity. Nevertheless, the book abounds with enlightening and entertaining stories.


Operating room at the 24th Evac Hospital in Vietnam

In Vietnam, Zoesch ran TOCs at Long Binh and Xuan Loc. In Afghanistan, he ministered to the wounded and sick at Bagram Air Base and Kabul. The common core of Zoesch’s two combat tours was long working hours and fatigue brought on by too little sleep.

Zoesch’s Vietnam War memories offer new twists to old facts. For example, he explains how a Claymore mine works to illustrate the damage one did when a Thai soldier used it to assassinate another soldier over a woman. In Zoesch’s world, the unit mascot is a dog named Roach who kills other dogs on sight, even other mascots. And in the tiny Bearcat officers’ club, a barmaid with self-induced catatonia is allowed to pass out on the floor for hours at a time. Most interesting, Zoesch’s running battle with finance concerning back pay ends in a “High Noon”-type showdown.

As a TOC boss at Bearcat, Zoesch worked closely with his Thai and South Vietnamese counterparts. He developed great respect for the Thais and believed their combat skills were under-appreciated and under-publicized.

When President Nixon reduced in-country troop strength in 1972, Zoesch moved to Xuan Loc. Shortly after he arrived, a  South Vietnamese battalion took heavy losses, something he had not experienced. Later, Zoesch became aware of additional problems such as heroin trafficking and the use of torture and murder as interrogation techniques. After the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, however, he focuses on the war.

In remembering Afghanistan, Zoesch’s recitations of treating wounds and illnesses resembles a medical textbook. He uses words such as beta-agonist, auscultation, and rhabdomyosarcoma, which might confuse the average reader. But he clarifies them with detailed and lucid explanations. As the months roll by, his diary fills more and more with descriptions of unusual medical cases, one involving an illness that doctors claimed “had not been seen in forty years.”

The doctors at Bagram worked twenty-four hour shifts and tended to Afghanis as well as to GIs. The breadth of costly medical aid and transportation provided to the civilian population, including life support, surprised me.

At age fifty-seven, after four months of eighty-plus-hour work weeks, Zoesch grew deeply depressed. Then he moved from Bagram to Kabul, which he likens to going from a penal colony to a city. An R&R to Doha coupled with his appointment to command the clinic in Kabul rejuvenated him. He continued to treat patients while becoming an administrator involved in policy making and politics until finishing his tour.

In both wars, as he neared the end of his tours, Zoesch reflected on what he had seen and done and philosophized about what the future held for America. His book’s Epilogue presents a sound case against the rampant use of American power to democratize the world.

The book’s title refers to a Mongolian Muslim soldier who said he had walked all the way to Afghanistan (3,500 miles) to kill infidels—Americans in particular. He made the pronouncement as a POW while Zoesch treated his battle wounds.

Here’s one more passage ingrained in my mind:

“Along the north side of our tiny airfield, there was a scene there etched into my memory ever since—twelve black body bags covered by swarms of flies. Squatting about five meters away were three Vietnamese soldiers eating their lunch from bowls with spoons. That to me was Viet Nam in one cataclysmic blink. I have seen filled body bags in Viet Nam and Afghanistan but that one moment in time survived and summarized all of the rest.”

—Henry Zeybel

Adventures of Point-Man Palmer in Vietnam by Betsy Grant



Vernon Grant began drawing birthday cards at age three. His wife Betsy has compiled some of his writings and cartoons in  Adventures of Point-Man Palmer In Vietnam: Cartoons and Writings by Vernon Grant (Little Creek Press,  156 pp., $15.95,paper). Grant’s drawing of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Betsy Grant’s dedication set the tone for this biography and introduction to the cartooning of this “artist and soldier.”

Enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1958 launched Vernon Grant’s military and cartooning careers. He went through OCS at Fort Benning in 1960.  “Vernon was the artist for the Classbook for this 50th Company Officer Course,” Betsy Grant writes. “Vernon was one of the 4.6% of the class graduates that were Black.”

Several small problems: The book’s timeline is not consistently chronological; it is not always clear whether quotes are Vernon’s or Betsy’s; the drawings are not dated; and some caption typography can be difficult to read.

In 1964, while a Communications Officer at Ft. Carson, Colorado, 1st Lt. Grant—who died in 2006—presented his Commanding General with a uniquely prepared request for more field radios. It was in the form of a comic strip. The general responded: “Please accept my thanks for the brochure which I have looked through several times with a chuckle.”

Grant had been encouraged in his artistry by his father. He was also inspired by comic books such as Little Lulu, Donald Duck , and Buck Rogers and by encouragement from fellow soldiers.

Cpt. Grant  received his Army discharge in 1968 after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That’s when he began publishing his cartoons and graphic novels. “Stand By One,” published in 1969, presents combat life in panels in which Grant occasionally inserts himself in his depictions of a soldier’s routine in the field, off duty, and on stand down. That includes humorous scenes such as a lineman atop a pole observing a North Vietnamese Army patrol passing below and reporting, “Course I’m no Intelligence Expert, but if I was you I’d rate this ‘Current and Fairly Reliable!'”


Betsy and Vernon Grant on their wedding day in 1978

This entertaining compilation features Grant’s tour de farce of Point-Man Palmer and Invisible Peppermint, the protagonist’s girlfriend and guardian angel. When they first set foot on the tarmac in Vietnam Palmer’s helmet proclaims ” SHORT! 364 DAYS 23 HOURS 59 MINUTES.” The adventures take this soldier and his unseen buxom girlfriend through the boonies until Palmer is captured. The surprise ending has Peppermint swimming in the Saigon River trying to save her soldier boyfriend.

Like the comics Grant read as a child, the last page announces in bold type:  “DON’T MISS BOOK TWO! OF POINT- MAN PALMER.”
The entire collections are out of print, but copies are available at
—Curt Nelson

A War of Logistics by Charles R. Shrader


Historian Charles R. Shrader borrows a quote to describe the First Indochina War between Viet Minh and French Union forces as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” His research backs up the quote in the sense that poor logistical support can defeat an army.

There’s no doubt about the depth of Shrader’s research; it’s evident in the seventy pages of notes in his book,  A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 488 pp., $60, hardcover and Kindle).

The book is based on “declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material,” as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies, Schrader says. Viet Minh sources are limited to contemporary documents captured by the French, POW interrogations, and the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Maps, tables, figures, and photographs abound to support the text.

The book’s first half explains the influence of Vietnam’s terrain on troop movements. Most of the fighting took place in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin. The rugged terrain stymied the development of a system of highways, railroads, and waterways capable of supporting large-scale military activities such as those used in World War II.

Shrader goes on to discuss the disproportionate sizes of the opposing combat forces, then explains how their logistical systems were organized and operated, and compares the opposing transportation systems. He presents detailed summations of the dependency for war supplies that the Viet Minh had with what was then known as Communist China and the French Union with the United States.


Viet Minh fighters during the French Indochina War

Helicopters were scarce and used primarily for medical purposes. Poor weather conditions, widely scattered airfields, limited numbers of aircraft and aircrews, and constantly improving Viet Minh antiaircraft capability minimized the effectiveness of the French Union air force. The Viet Minh had no air support.

The book’s second half describes the war itself and how logistical factors influenced the outcome of combat operations. Initially, a series of political and military actions forced the Viet Minh to find refuge in the countryside while the French occupied the cities. From there, differing military philosophies pitted the mobility of the self-sufficient individual Viet Minh soldier against the mobility of the technologically dependent French Union army.

What began as mere ambushes by the Viet Minh grew into head-on collisions with the French. The titles of Shrader’s chapters tell the war’s story: “The Campaign for the Lines of Communication,” “The Limits of Aerial Resupply,”  “The Triumph of the Porters.”

Logistically the French relied on mechanized transportation and awaited air and sea supply shipments from France, which were often four months away. Meanwhile, day by day, Viet Minh porters carried supplies on their backs from the border with China.

Shrader presents a continuous string of eye-opening stories and facts. For example, the French Union employed a third of its infantry forces in Indochina keeping roads and waterways open to traffic. Both sides had about ninety battalions in Tonkin, but the French assigned sixty-four of theirs to protecting lines of communication and rear areas, leaving only twenty-five battalions for mobile offensive operations.

Basically, the French Union’s logistical effort went mainly toward resupplying posts where the troops protected trucks and boats from ambush in order to resupply themselves. Meanwhile, dispersed groups of Viet Minh porters moved nearly unopposed along trails hidden in the jungle.

Accounts of the Viet Minh invasion of Laos and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu are as fresh and interesting as if they occurred yesterday. “The Viet Minh refused to recognize the theoretical limitations on their logistical capabilities,” Shrader says, “and they frequently surprised the French by their rapidity of movement, their ability to concentrate men and supplies undetected, and their logistical stamina.”

The Viet Minh proved decisively , he says, that “even in the mid-twentieth century, a lack of superiority in material could still be overcome by the intelligent application of sheer manpower and a determined will.”
Reading this book saddened me—again. Much of what Shrader tells us reminded me of the American war in Vietnam.

Every fact in his book was available before the United States committed itself to the Vietnam War and then more or less duplicated the French Union’s effort. What more is there to say?

—Henry Zeybel

Heroes to the End by Jim Smith

Jim Smith wrote for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Vietnam during his 1971-72 tour. His only difficulty was his bosses’ demand that he not denigrate American policies or practices.

For one of his first articles, Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of Bien Hoa’s First Team Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget about it; otherwise, if the article were printed, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

Smith chose not to buck the system. For seven months he “used helicopters as taxis and was ferried to every city in South Vietnam,” specializing in “secondhand accounts of heroism.”

Despite the censorship, Smith was able to report vignettes of people and events from the front lines to the rear. He had a knack for finding stories that undammed a flood of memories for me. He just might do the same for anyone else who spent time in-country.

Smith has collected all of his by-lined articles, along with previously unpublished work, in  Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam (iUniverse, 337 pp.; $23.95 paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book separates people into nine categories such as “Combat Heroes,” “South Vietnamese and South Korean Units,” “American Units,” and “Invited Guests.”

During Smith’s tour, America’s war effort rapidly unwound as President Nixon cut troop strength with his Vietnamization strategy. Because we know what came to pass, Smith’s reporting of “Do Gooders” now resembles satire. He shows that as Americans departed in droves, the few remaining troops labored with greater misdirection than ever.

Smith also provides insights about weapon systems and the people who operated them. As counterpoint to battle action, however, he emphasizes the American soldiers’ desires to depart the country and to “let the ARVNs do it all.” Lacking fire support and facing newly introduced SA-7 heat-seeking missiles, a helicopter pilot said, “The only thing that’s destroyed when we go out on a search-and-destroy mission is us.”

The NVA’s 1972 Easter Offensive receives much of Smith’s attention. During that time, he spent weeks in and around Kontum City. His reports of the NVA victory at Tan Canh and the fighting in and around Kontum rank among the book’s highlights. The stories of these events, he tells us, “didn’t run” in the Stars and Stripes.

Smith patrolled the jungle with grunts and flew with helicopter crews to get first-hand views of the war. The longer he was in country, the more risks he took. “Whenever I wanted to find out what was really happening in a battle zone, I went to the helicopter people first. The hell with the information officers,” he writes. “Most of them were completely worthless and were just worried about putting a positive spin on things.”

In his section called “Clerk in a War Zone,” Smith discusses the five boring months he spent processing troops at Cam Ranh Bay before his reassignment to Stars and Stripes. The luxury he enjoyed in Saigon as a reporter should elicit (even after all these years) at least one WTF from former boonie rats. The fact is, however, that Smith had the talent to make the change—proof that at least one soldier was used to the best of his ability in that war.

The book contains twenty pages of photographs and closes with excerpts from letters Smith wrote to his parents. That includes:

“I’ve lived my life over mentally a hundred times since I’ve been here.”

“Well, nobody forced me into it…here I am out in the jungle 30 miles southeast of Saigon. That’s a damn poor lead sentence but so are my surroundings.”

“I’m down with the real people, as the Lt. says—the ones that matter in Vietnam.”

“I don’t know how anyone could keep his sanity if he had to do a full tour in the jungle.”

Smith confesses to feelings that surprised me with their depth of both love and hate toward the Army and its men, his job, and the war. His willingness to record his feelings shows a lot of courage.

Before enlisting to avoid being drafted into the infantry, Jim Smith worked as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, New York, while earning a bachelor’s degree at Hofstra University. After the war, he returned to reporting and editing for that newspaper until 2014—a forty-five year career.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War U.S. Helicopter Names, Vol. 2 by John Brennan

Vietnam veteran and historian John Brennan, with the help of a query on The VVA Veteran‘s Arts of War on the web page—and with his own tenacious original research—put together two volumes of books featuring names and images on helicopters in the Vietnam War. Vietnam War U.S. Army Helicopter Names, Volume 2 (Memoir Books, 80 pp., $19.95, paper) is now out in a new paperback edition.

The custom of personalizing military aircraft started as soon as air warfare began during World War I. Among those early images was the toothy shark face, something still used a hundred years later.

My hope is that this project continues to flourish, possibly discovering more art on the noses, such as this poignant question: “My God, How’d We Get In This Mess?”

To read our review of the first edition of this book, go to

—Curt Nelson

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War Edited by Chris Green

I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (Big Shoulders Books, 96 pp.) is a book I will long remember. This volume, edited by Chris Green with a foreword by Jim Fairhall (both of whom are English professors at DePaul University), contains the largest collection of essays with the fewest number of sentences I have ever read.

Green invited fifty Chicago veterans to share their memories from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The common theme of “war is hell” flows through all the essays. Contributors were asked to begin with the words “I remember.” The greatest difficulty was finding veterans of America’s latest conflict, as less than one percent of the population served in Iraq or Afghanistan. “It seems America no longer goes to war, the military does,” Green writes.

The veterans’ memories are not presented chronologically by war. Instead, one writer remembers his part in Bosnia, while the next, say, is talking about his experiences in Vietnam. The memories, however, are clearly written, and the reader can easily identify the war being discussed. If there is any doubt, the wars each writer took part in are identified at the end of the book.

The uniqueness of I Remember is that one or more sentences often tell a story of their own. Such as: ”I remember the abrupt claps of gunfire and the rude whistling of rounds,” and “I remember Fort Polk, autumn 1968. Night training, ITT. Parachute flares descending, an ambient glow penetrating the forest canopy,” and “I remember …shots.”

And:  “I remember the right wall opened up, and the engine carried them out of the plane,”   “I remember I raced away from the plane. I knew my hands were burning and I think my head was too,” and “I remember the hot, dry air. I remember my life was about to change forever. I remember the distance growing louder. I remember the explosion. I remember the sirens and alarms. I was not at home. I was in Afghanistan. I remember my first indirect fire.”

Jasmine Clark’s collection of photographs enhance the reading. Many are complete stories in themselves. One photo by Rolando Zavala depicts a group of soldiers resting in a hut. That image will be etched on my brain forever.

One of the book’s photos from the Vietnam War

The final veteran’s entry made a most unusual observation: “I remember the love. You probably have the wrong idea about war. War isn’t about hate: it’s about love. Hate has no place in war. You shoot any person not because you hate him, or you hate his ideology, or because crazy old Sgt. Hubble told you to. You do it because he’s trying to kill somebody you love.”

This book is notable for its simple style and depth. It will be of benefit to anyone looking to understand the experience of war. This is a worthwhile work of wartime literature that will long be remembered.

The nonprofit publisher, Big Shoulders Books, which is associated with DePaul University’s Master or Arts in Writing and Published program, is offering this book without charge. To order, go to

—Joseph Reitz