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
Darrel Whitcomb’s Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 368 pp. $27.95, paper; $20.49, Kindle) 2021 is a well-written, researched, detailed, and informed book filled with accounts of incredible search and rescue missions. Whitcomb, a USAFA graduate who served three Vietnam War tours as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, begins with the earliest phase of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a backdrop to the evolving SAR mission. That quickly leads to the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and Operations Linebacker I and II, the centerpieces of the book.
Reading the details of these rescue missions I was repeatedly awestruck by the courage and perseverance of the rescue crews—especially when so many were shot down, riddled with fire, killed, or captured.
On the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive North Vietnamese antiaircraft units were heavily equipped with the latest Soviet technology and concentrated around sites targeted by U.S. forces. Facing an array of weaponry that could defend at all altitudes and weather, attacking aircraft were always in danger of being brought down.
The Russians had supplied the North Vietnamese with an abundance of artillery and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles with supporting radar, as well as fighter aircraft. Most telling was the large-scale introduction of portable, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired SA-7’s. Those weapons brought about U.S. losses practically every time they engaged attacking American aircraft. And nearly every attempted rescue mission took place in a high-risk environment.
The North Vietnamese monitored the American radio net, and set traps for inbound rescuers using downed flier as bait. Many rescuers and pilots consequently were hit by intense fire.
The questions then arose: When is this tradeoff too costly to continue a rescue effort? Is it ethical not to try to rescue a downed crew? If so, what was the morale impact on others who continued to fly high-risk missions?
Perhaps the BAT-21 episode, which is described in this book, has been written about extensively, and was the subject of a Hollywood movie, best illustrates cost-versus-gain. BAT-21 was an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft that was shot down. Only one crewmember, the navigator, survived, and he wound up in a highly dangerous sector saturated with ground-to-air missile sites, SA-7s, and antiaircraft artillery.
The effort to save him resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft and the deaths of eleven airmen. What’s more, U.S. planes scheduled to help embattled South Vietnamese troops in desperate need of airstrikes were diverted to the rescue effort. After an extensive effort the navigator was rescued by a determined and courageous two-man SEAL team backed up by South Vietnamese Navy commandos.
Was saving the navigator worth the losses? As Air Force Gen. John Vogt said about ordering highly risky SAR missions: “The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that was ever in doubt, morale would tumble.” Hence, the “moral imperative” of the book’s title.
One comes away from this book with a deep-felt admiration for the crews who willingly put everything on the line to rescue others in the Vietnam War.
Saigon Kids: An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam (Mango Media, 308 pp. $19.95, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is a tell-all book about the adventures of some self-proclaimed military brats, the sons and daughters of the American military service members, Foreign Service officials, and civilian families who lived in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The book is an amalgam of accounts of teen-aged antics, along with a bit of gunfire, mortar fire, oppressive heat and humidity, Saigon traffic, and Buddhist Monk self-immolations.
Arbuckle, the second oldest of four sons of a U.S. Navy Chief Journalist who managed the Armed Forces Radio Station in Saigon from 1962-64, takes us along with his posse of friends as they navigated the heat, sounds, and smells of Saigon before the big buildup of American troops. His narrative toggles among angst-filled teenage dialogue, contemporary commentary about the U.S. war in Vietnam, and general philosophical impressions of what it was like living in the South Vietnamese capital at the time.
Arbuckle also regales us with tales of his family’s dealings with “just another duty station” in a “very hot place.” We get descriptions of his high-strung mother, his stern and demanding father, his two younger brothers, their Vietnamese maid, and how they interacted.
Some of Arbuckle’s stories about his social life—such as his quest for cigarettes and his visits to brothels and bars on To Do Street—border on the tedious. His stories of the goings on at the American Community School, however, enliven the narrative.
Arbuckle, who joined the Army in 1968 and was assigned to the 50th Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia, went on to became a professional musician. He played the saxophone and had a successful career. He writes about this talent in the book, but not to a great extent. We hear more about that in his author’s note at the end of the book.
Interestingly, in the Epilogue Arbuckle speaks of his own “struggles” with what we have come to recognize as post-traumatic stress. Some of what he has experienced does not differ from what those who fought in the war have gone through emotionally.
This is a well-written book with a cast of interesting characters.
“Logistics,” the British Field Marshal Viscount Wavell of Cyrenaica once said, “are a function of command.” In the Logistics in the Vietnam Wars, 1945-1975 (Pen and Sword/Casemate, 224 pp., $34.95) N S Nash examines the processes, resources, and systems involved in generating, transporting, sustaining, and redeploying or reallocating materiel and personnel in the twenty century wars in Vietnam. Nash looks at three distinct wars: the war of the Vietnamese against the French (1946-54), the Vietnamese against the Americans (1956-73), and a civil war pitting North Vietnam against South Vietnam (1973-1975).
N S “Tank” Nash received his MA in Military History from Birmingham University and was a member of the British Army Catering Corps for thirty years, rising to the rank of Brigadier. He is the author of several books on military history, including Valor in the Trenches. This is his first book on the Vietnam wars.
Nash presents this work in an accessible, colloquial manner, often employing derision and sarcasm while analyzing the actions of French and American military and political leaders. During the First Indochina War, AKA, “the French war,” Nash details how France’s initial use of wheeled transport proved vulnerable given the terrain, climate, and, ultimately, the adaptability of their enemy. The French military leadership’s desire to engage the Vietnamese in a set piece battle ended disastrously when they were routed by General Vo Nguyen Giap at the famed 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
After the partition of Vietnam as a result of the Geneva Accords that year, the Americans supported the pro-Western South Vietnam government. The mobility of American forces with the use of helicopters solved most of the logistical problems the French had encountered. The American problems in Vietnam proved to be more tactical than logistical, with the only logistical issue being an overabundance of amenities and comforts for the troops. The use of chemical defoliants and bombing proved ineffective against the guerilla tactics used by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese.
In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal in 1973, Nash describes the civil war between the North and the South as a fait accompli, noting that the North Vietnamese Army was far better prepared for the largely conventional war that ensued.
Though the thesis and title of the book are about the logistics of the Vietnam wars, Nash also delves into the political, diplomatic, and social machinations of the wars. When he sticks with the logistics, the book is solid. His analyses of the 1968 Siege at Khe Sahn and the M-16 are particularly noteworthy. When Nash veers into diplomatic or political history, however, the narrative is less convincing. Errors of fact diminish the storyline and distract the reader.
For example, President Kennedy did not approve 200,000 American advisers in the summer of 1961. He approved providing funding to increase the South Vietnamese Army from 170,000 to 200,000 troops. And In 1956, there were, in fact, many “pressing issues” between the North and South, as evinced by that fact that nearly a million North Vietnamese people fled to the South between 1954-56.
Nash is effusive in praise of Gen. Giap as “the master logistician,” and his plan for the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu is worthy of praise. But Nash also details how Giap lost the Siege at Khe Sahn due to logistical failures, led the disastrous Tet Offensive, and provided logistical support for the failed Easter Offensive in 1972. His side won the war, but his record was far from “undefeated.”
Bum Phillips once explained the brilliance of fellow football coach Bear Bryant, explaining that he “can take his’n and beat your’n, and then he can turn around and take your’n and beat his’n.” Without access to an incredibly devoted workforce of indefatigable porters and without what Nash describes as a “total disregard” for the lives of his own troops, one wonders about the genius of Giap.
Though he would have benefited from a steadier hand, Nash writes with great aplomb in exploring an under researched aspect of the wars in Vietnam.
In the Shadow of Green Bamboos (Willow Stream Publishing, 196 pp. $10.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by C.L. Hoang is a delightful collection of a half dozen short stories, all of which contain brief but penetrating glimpses into the lives of a cross section of people, Vietnamese and American, who were affected in significant ways by the American war in Vietnam. Hoang was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. This is his third book; all three deal with the country of Vietnam and the wars that took place there.
The opening story, “In a Land Called Honah-Lee,” involves a chance meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a stuffed toy dragon and a connection made between children in both countries. But then there is fatal anti-aircraft fire and the story becomes one of survivor’s guilt.
By the time I was half-way through the next story, “Flowers in the Sky,” I saw that Hoang’s method of storytelling makes his words come alive, consistently—almost like watching a movie. All of my senses were engaged. This story takes place in Saigon in late 1972 and features a six-year-old boy, a red lantern, a harvest moon, and an exciting parade.
It’s a time when the Americans are withdrawing, the boy’s father is away from home fighting, and his mother’s hair is noticeably turning grey. This is a good example of Hoang’s writing at its best and shows off his ability to tell stories in a very moving manner.
In the title story, a Vietnamese woman living in Washington, D.C., thinks back over almost fifty years of marriage to the American she met in Saigon. Her memories stir up secrets, including one about a “mysterious crying woman.”
The title of the fourth story, “Of Crickets and Dragons,” should be enough to entice you into wanting to read this tale of two young boys killing time in 1968 Saigon.
“When Swallows Return” begins with pleasant memories of college life in the early sixties, including with love poems written on fancy stationery. The war then brings a time of separation that becomes permanent when a plane is shot down. But then, almost fifty years later, a mysterious phone call changes everything.
As I prepared to begin to read the final story, “A Cup of Love,” I wished there were a dozen more in this book. Then this one begins with an older Vietnamese woman saying to her young granddaughter, “Do you want to hear a story?” And the voice in my mind drowned out the voice of the young girl as I may even have said out loud, “Yes, Mr. Hoang, another story, please.”
But what I really want is another book full of stories by C.L. Hoang.
Larry Duthie’s Return to Saigon: A Memoir (OK-3 Publishing, 295 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.77, paper; $11.77, Kindle) focuses mainly on the author’s time in Vietnam, which actually began a few years prior to his military service there during the war, and includes a visit he made to the country three decades later.
Duthie’s father was an engineer who took a job in Saigon in 1959 and moved with his family to Saigon. The author spent his senior year of high school attending the American Community School not far from Tan Son Nhut Airport.
In 1965 Duthie enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a series of coincidences, he was selected from the enlisted ranks to train as a naval aviator. The following year he was in the seat of an A-4, attacking enemy targets in North Vietnam. Among other things, Duthie was shot down near Hanoi, and saved by a helicopter rescue crew that performed heroically under fire.
Throughout the book, I was tickled to read snippets of information of events yet to come, then quickly returned to the present. Later, out of the blue, these events would appear. This was done in a manner that flowed seamlessly, as in a conversation.
Duthie did a great job enabling me to visualize the action as I read. His terminology and descriptions are suitable for aviators and non-aviators alike.
I found two things that Duthie wrote about unsettling. One was that American policymakers’ large egos got in the way of proper action and lives were lost. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, for instance, once was aboard a ship and sat in on an air attack briefing. Because of his presence, the order-of-battle was not presented to the pilots. As a result, a pilot was shot down.
Another instance involved the Air Force rescue team that had extracted Duthie from impending capture after he was shot down. The helicopter had headed back to rescue his wingman who had also been shot down. A Navy admiral denied them permission to do so, stating, “The Navy takes care of its own.” Then a Navy rescue team failed in their attempt to extract that pilot. He was captured the next day and died in captivity as a POW.
Two minor complaints: I would have liked to have seen a map identifying Yankee Station and some of the land targets, as well as a few more images.
Duthie’s degree in journalism and his years in newspaper publishing are apparent in the book’s impeccable writing and editing. For that reason alone it was a very enjoyable read. But add to that the story Duthie tells, and Return to Saigon is a must read.
Gary D. Schmidt has written more than twenty books for young people and has won many awards, including a Newberry Honor Awards. His latest book, Just Like That (Clarion Books, 400 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), will join his pantheon of noteworthy books written for young people, aged ten and up. The story will grab any middle school student’s attention (and any adult’s, for that matter) from the first paragraph.
I say this as a former middle school teacher and coach and a former Marine CH-46D helicopter crew chief. The story begins in the summer of 1968 with one of the protagonists watching an evening news report from Vietnam and witnessing the crash of a Ch-46A helicopter full of Marines. What a great way to start a conversation about the war in Vietnam and its effects on young people back home. Schmidt uses this literary device to introduce us to Meryl Lee Kowalski and the intense emotions she faces after the death of her best friend, Hodding Hoodhood (Schmidt’s protagonist in his book, The Wednesday Wars), in a bizarre car accident.
Loss and how we deal with it are woven masterfully into this story. Meryl Lee, like any adolescent, cannot seem to wrap her head around this senseless loss as she grieves. The loss leaves an emptiness inside her, an emptiness she refers to as her blank—always close by and always ready to consume her.
Meryl Lee’s parents decide that she needs a change of scenery and enroll her in a boarding school in Maine. If you Google “how stress affects adolescents,” you will find that the top three factors are losing a loved one, going through your parents’ divorce, and moving to a different school.
We are soon introduced to a second protagonist, Matt Coffin, a streetwise boy of middle school age who lives on his own in an old fishing shack on the Maine coast . As I read Just Like That, I kept seeing the young people I taught and coached in mddle school a hundred years ago. They somehow morphed into the young men I served with and flew with over the unfriendly skies of South Vietnam. Reading Schmidt’s novel brought a smile to my lips and the occasional tear to my eye.
The dexterous manner in which Schmidt draws all of his characters and the intense situations he creates for the main ones are part of his superlative ability to tell a story and draw the reader into it. He creates well-developed characters and that will always keep you reading.
This is a story that understands the human nature in all of us. It’s the intrinsic trust in the goodness of humanity that Schmidt exudes that makes you turn page after page in awesome wonder. Just Like That is an engaging story that will encourage students to turn to more classical literature such as The Grapes of Wrath and want to learn about important figures in history like Mary Queen of Scots and Spiro Agnew, known to the girls at St Elene’s as “Zipper” Agnew.
One warning: Just Like That is not a good book to pick up at bedtime because it will keep you reading all night long.
Phoenix 13: Americal Division Artillery Air Section Helicopters in Vietnam (Pen & Sword Books, 192 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $11.49, Kindle) is an informative and colorful memoir about the role that observation helicopters played during the Vietnam War. A native of Sayreville, New Jersey, author Darryl James graduated from Rutgers University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology, and then became an Army reserve lieutenant through the school’s ROTC program. After his initial training at Fort Devens, James started Army flight school at Fort Wolters in Texas, then took advanced flight training at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Arriving in Vietnam in September 1968, James was assigned to the helicopter base in Chu Lai that was part of the Americal Division. The division’s area of operations stretched from Da Nang south to the coastal town of Duc Pho, and west to the Cambodian border. Like most new pilots, James expected to fly a UH-1 Huey helicopter as a co-pilot. To his surprise, he was assigned as a solo pilot in the lighter and smaller OH-23G Raven and OH-6A Loach series helicopters.
Disappointed at first, James soon realized the importance of these lesser-appreciated machines. For the next year he flew observation missions, delivered personnel and supplies to mountain outposts, and helped rescue crews from downed aircraft. These missions were especially challenging given the conditions of the terrain and the weather. He often had to take off and land in areas so constricted that the slightest error could mean death.
More than once James recounts the measures helicopter pilots must take if their engine fails so that they will be able to land safely. Likewise, he also describes the catastrophic consequences of helicopters damaged by enemy fire and unable to reach safety.
Unlike most memoirs, James recounts his experiences in the third person, as if he were writing a novel. He writes in an easygoing, even breezy style with a singular blend of humor and cold facts. That’s how he describes courage overcoming fear and the sheer professionalism instilled in every Army aviator—and how these elements make automatic the techniques every new pilot struggles to master.
For those seeking a thought-provoking look into the broader world of Army helicopters in the Vietnam War, Phoenix 13 delivers.
Jumping from Helicopters: A Vietnam Memoir (Turtle Creek, 242 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a paean by a loyal and thankful veteran to his unit in the Vietnam War. John Stillman, ably aided by his daughter Lori, takes the reader through his 1967-68 year in-country with the 1st of the 502nd in the 101st Airborne Division.
This book is presented in a unique format. Following an engaging story, well written and edited, there are a few chapters designed to encourage conversations that might be developed for a high school AP English class. This book could be a useful tool for today’s students who typically get little historical exposure to the Vietnam War or the stories of its veterans.
For 50 years Stillman did not talk to anyone about his war experiences. He also put up with daily—and nightly—hidden struggles with post-war traumatic stress. An invitation to address a few classes following a high school reunion and his daughter’s sensitivity to his demons convinced him to break down the walls and write this book with her.
He begins at the beginning, with his birth in Chicago and rearing in the Saint Louis area, noting his desire to be a soldier from an early age. Stillman enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and describes being inducted, and what it was like going through Basic Training, AIT, and jump school. He leavens the narrative with wry humor and anecdotes.
Before his departure for Vietnam, Stillman’s father gave him a journal “to record [his] thoughts.” Those journal entries are sprinkled throughout the book, providing insights into Stillman’s experiences.
Despite the book’s title—and although he was with an airborne unit—Stillman and his fellow 101st troopers didn’t make any parachute jumps helicoptes. They did, however, make countless plunges from helicopters before the before the skids hit the ground. Stillman writes that the times he felt the most free in Vietnam were when he was sitting in choppers, his feet on the skids, riding the wind.
This is a worthy offering–a good read and one I recommend.
Emerson Gilmore’s book of Vietnam War poetry, It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave: Viet Nam Fifty Years Later, a Memoir in Verse (106 pp. $15.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), moves beyond the borders of the war to consider the effects of armed conflict in general and the unfortunate fact that war is apparently a consistent part of human existence.
Gilmore served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from January 1970-February 1971 as an interpreter and interrogator. The book’s title refers to the fact that his war memories will stay with him for his entire life.
The book gets off to a great start with the first line of the first poem: “None of us was meant/to war.” Gilmore writes that Basic Training at Ft. Jackson taught him how to “guard empty buildings/with empty rifles.”
On his way to Vietnam, he writes, “I stopped in to fill my stomach with beer,/drank for nearly a year/and landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.” That was not Gilmore’s last beer, as he admits, “I drank the war.”
He also tells us through his poetry that he “never fired or was fired upon” and he spent much of his time in “the clubs of Saigon/where the whores/knew my name.” Gilmore sometimes writes disparagingly about street prostitutes calling out offers of sex, “Their breath tainted with rat and dog.”
There’s a great poem about both sides during the war singing “the ageless G.I. blues,” with a nod to the 1960 Elvis Presley song and the lyrics to a similar song in James Jones’ great World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, as well as the Hollywood movie version of the book.
Gilmore’s poetry gives us much to think about. Such as: “I will never fight another war/even if God says.” And:
“History without wars bores,
shortens the books,
drains the blood from professors’ careers,
cuts the balls from
man after man
Why Adam and Noah
if not for war?”
Several of the poems are written with a rhythm that would make them especially interesting to be read out loud. Some, if you read carefully, are love poems to lost buddies. Some are straightforward in their story telling; others make creative use of symbolism. A few are fairly light-hearted, but most are as serious as the idea of endless war.
I admire Emerson Gilmore’s poetic efforts to reduce the numbers of American casualties in the war: “If I turn on the radio,/sons will die. The man/will say so. I have not/turned on the television for/months, saving countless lives.”
There’s also serious PTSD at work here, along with occasional glimpses of possible redemption.
I read through this volume three times and different things jumped out at me each time. This book of poetry is alive and I encourage you to engage with it. It’s one of the good ones.
David Grant Noble’s Saigon To Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-1963 (McFarland 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) is a compelling memoir about his work in Vietnam during the Kennedy years. With candor and humility, Noble illustrates the challenges of gathering usable intelligence and realizing the true nature of the war. Drawing from detailed letters to family and friends, Noble has created an engaging, often dreamlike, account of what he saw when the facts were not always clear.
In 1961, David Noble trained at the Army Counterintelligence Corps school at Fort Holabird. When he received his orders to go to Saigon, he had no idea what country it was in.
Arriving in May, 1962, Noble found himself poorly prepared for his assignment. He was a tall, blonde kid with a Yale degree in French Literature. Speaking no Vietnamese, he was stunned to learn that no else in his department did either. That situation reflected the low status the war in Vietnam warranted at the time in the U.S.
Despite this, Noble’s resolve was firm. Committed to the ideal that South Vietnam was a young democratic republic struggling to survive, he would see that it did. The issues seemed clear, and to suggest otherwise was heresy.
Even though he was a Private, Noble enjoyed the privileges of an officer with the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in Saigon. After months of barracks living, Noble found himself quartered at the Continental Palace, one of the city’s finest hotels. The ironies abounded, with more to come.
Posing as a civilian worker for the Army, Noble began traveling around Saigon, then to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, gathering information simply by talking with South Vietnamese and foreign officials. He became a good dinner companion and a respectful guest in their homes.
Gradually, and reluctantly, Noble realized that America’s perception of the Ngo Dinh Diem administration was false. Far from helping the people of South Vietnam, Diem cared only for his family and friends. While ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist and Montagnard populations, Diem ordered every report sanitized, declaring every operation successful, and every one of his actions just.
The façade weakened for Noble after a carefully planned Viet Cong attack on a Central Highlands village. With help from collaborators, the VC drew away Montagnard defenders and several Green Berets. With the village left poorly defended, the Viet Cong overran it, killing many villagers, burning houses, and seizing stocks of weapons and food.
The next day Montagnards suspected of collaborating were arrested, but getting useful information from them was difficult. Interrogations required three translators to convert questions from English to French, then to Vietnamese, and then to the tribesmen’s dialect. Often the questions were incomprehensible to the prisoners, and their answers were opaque.
Having never used maps, calendars or clocks, they couldn’t provide specifics about the Viet Cong. They had collaborated simply because they were treated better by the VC than by their own government. They had never heard of Ho Chi Minh or Ngo Dinh Diem or the principles each professed to uphold.
Noble came away deeply shaken. It was the bitterest example of the absurdity of his nation’s cause. The implications were anathema to his superiors, but for Noble the conclusions were clear.
By the end of his one year tour of duty he had become a valuable asset to the Army. Because of the many skills he learned and contacts he made, Noble was offered a reserve commission. But he refused it. The gulf was too vast between what Noble was told to believe and what he had learned.
Wistful, bittersweet, at times despairing, Saigon to Pleiku is a sobering meditation on the dawn of America’s entry into the Vietnam War. For readers seeking a personalized insight into these formative years, Noble’s memoir is well worth the read.