Welcome to “Books in Review II,” the online-only column 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 John Cirafici, Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, Bob Wartman, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel. The late David Willson wrote hundreds of reviews for Books in Review II from its inception in 2011 through the spring of 2021.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that deal with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Gary Henderson’s Memoirs of a Grunt: On The Ground In Vietnam 68/69, (117 pp. $19.95, Paper; $3.99, Kindle) is not a story-telling book but a cut-and-dried memoir that reads much like a journal or diary. Reading it, I learned a lot about what Henderson did during his tour of duty in Vietnam, but struggled to visualize much of it. Henderson arrived in-country on August, 13, 1968. Three days later we was assigned to C Company in the 1st Brigade, 1/327th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Base Bastogne west of Hue. He was immediately given the nickname “Tennessee,” and thrown into the mix of daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes. Throughout this memoir Henderson shows us much of what many U.S. Army grunts experienced in the Vietnam War.
Memoirs of a Grunt has a useful glossary and a list of items (including their weight) regularly carried by most infantrymen. It also has an annotated map identifying some of the places where Henderson saw action—and pics, lots of pics. You can find more of Henderson’s pictures on his website. memoirsofagrunt.smugmug.com
It’s a truism that war is often made up of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In his book Henderson writes mostly about that boredom. But don’t let that scare you away from reading it. He is so open and honest that some of what he reveals is downright embarrassing, including things that many of us have done, but elect not to discuss.
He writes about career soldiers’ penchant for volunteering for combat duty for the sole purpose of building their resumes—and receiving rank and decorations. What happened in Vietnam was that many of those who had rank didn’t have the experience or competence needed to lead men in combat or to make good life-and-death decisions.
On March 23, 1969, Henderson was badly wounded and medically evacuated. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering in hospitals in Japan and at Ft. Campbell undergoing five surgeries and then was medically discharged.
I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Grunt. I now feel that I know Gary Henderson. I believe others will enjoy reading it as well.
From its first to final page, 100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival (Koehlerbooks, 321 pp. $19.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) deals with a conscientious man’s everyday trials living in war and peace. It focuses on retired Army Lt. Col. Joseph F. Tallon’s Vietnam War tour of duty flying OV-1 Mohawks for the 131st Aviation Company, operating out of Marble Mountain Army Airfield in 1972.
The Tallon family’s military service reflects dedication to the nation far beyond the norm. Joseph Tallon’s father served at Normandy as a Navy gunner on D-Day in World War II. His two sons became Army officers.
His account of his flying duties in Vietnam covers only half of the story of Tallon’s war service. He flew missions in Mohawks mostly at night, accompanied by a single observer seated alongside him. They primarily performed side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) surveillance parallel to the coast of North Vietnam in search of targets of opportunity. Unarmed, they radioed sightings to ground controllers. Harassed by antiaircraft artillery rounds although over water, Tallon once had to outfly an NVA SA-2 missile.
As a lieutenant, Tallon caught nearly all of his company’s extra duties on the ground. He spent daylight hours supervising the unit’s motor pool, an endless task that he accomplished with small bribes to contactors and by performing the same labor as the recalcitrant enlisted men who served under him. Discipline was lax and morale low in mid-1972 because the comparably few service members in Vietnam expected the war to end any day.
On his 95th day in-country Tallon’s Mohawk lost an engine on takeoff and crashed. He ejected but did not escape the fireball that engulfed the crash site. Severely burned and injured internally, he endured medical treatment—best described as torturous—in overseas and stateside hospitals.
Tallon’s storytelling relies upon handwritten letters he sent to his new wife Martha Anne, letters and transcriptions of cassette tapes she sent to him, and excerpts from contemporary newspaper articles. Tallon fills the role of a newlywed with daily letters to his young wife that overflow with promises of eternal love and the sorrow of being separated.
Joseph Tallon’s son Matthew adds a lengthy afterward to the book by describing his success gaining recognition for his father’s fellow crewman who died in the Mohawk crash. Forty years after the fact, Matthew Tallon’s effort secured a Purple Heart medal for the family of Spec.5 Daniel Richards.
100 Days in Vietnam is filled with honesty about everything Joseph Tallon saw and did, pro and con, during the war, throughout his recovery, and beyond. All is relevant. His relationship with the Army fluctuated as he dealt with unpredictable acceptances and rejections of him as an individual. Confronted by overwhelming injuries and subsequent bureaucratic turmoil, Joseph Tallon has repeatedly proved his worth as a warrior and citizen.
Russell Pettis’ Mohawk Recon: Vietnam from Treetop Level with the 1st Cavalry, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 158 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, e book) is an interesting account of an unusual Army mission in Vietnam. Pettis, who served as an OV-1 Army Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft crewmember, has an easy-going writing style that takes the reader along on his one-year tour in the Vietnam War.
The OV-1 Mohawk was unusual. It was a state-of-the-art, fixed-wing reconnaissance platform equipped with side-looking airborne radar, infrared target detection systems, and cameras. Unlike other Army aircraft, the Mohawk was equipped with ejection seats. At a time when the Air Force was taking possession of almost all of the Army’s fixed wing aircraft, the Mohawk remained in Army hands. However, the Air Force insisted in 1966, and the Army agreed, that Army Mohawks would operate only in an unarmed configuration.
Pettis, flying as one of a two-man crew, was the enlisted operator of the onboard detection systems employed while the pilot flew at low levels on day and night recon missions over hostile territory. He ended up flying 315 missions and put in more than 1,000 hours in the air.
Anyone who served on operations in Vietnam is going to feel right at home with Pettis’ experiences as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He writes about sharing a shoddy GP Medium tent with rats, subsisting on C-rations, enduring frequent torrential rainfalls, being shot at, and enduring a bout of dysentery. He also enjoyed the company of Australian and New Zealand troops drinking the Vietnamese beer we called “Bah-me-bah.”
The author’s missions were varied, and included flying parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking for truck traffic and water sorties seeking out enemy sampans. He flew “down in the weeds,” as low as sixty feet, and on higher-altitude missions looking for enemy troop movements.
When Pettis described his first combat sortie I felt a shared moment with him. His pilot flew the Mohawk across the A Shau Valley at the same time when I was on the ground there during Operation Delaware. When he described his OV-1’s frequent exposure to ground fire, I recalled the time I saw a Mohawk land at Tay Ninh with bullet holes stitched across its fuselage.
It was particularly interesting to read about a mission in which Pettis’ Mohawk’s navigational system failed while over featureless terrain and the pilot unknowingly flew into Cambodia. Then discovered a North Vietnamese airfield with MiGs on the ground. Two enemy fighters then launched and pursued the Mohawk into South Vietnam until F-4s were scrambled to intercept the MiGs.
Another amazing incident came to mind as I read the book. I had learned of a Mohawk pilot who engaged a MiG-17 at approximately the same time in 1968. In this case, the aircraft was configured with weapons in violation of the 1966 Army-Air Force agreement and the pilot shot down the MiG. Because of the weapons violation, the Army didn’t officially acknowledge that aerial victory until 2007.
I immensely enjoyed reading Russell Pettis’ account of his exciting missions, along with his descriptions of day-to-day grunt life in Vietnam. I highly recommend Mohawk Recon.
Incident at Dak To (257 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Louis Edward Rosas is a very enjoyable military-procedural science fiction story that brings to mind pulp novels of the Vietnam War era. If this book had been serialized in a monthly science fiction magazine 50 years ago it would have been well received.
In the book, we learn that Army Capt. Jay Swift wrote his Vietnam War story in a pocket journal in 1967, making it possible for him to relate it to us today. Swift and his buddy Fred Mason apparently worked for the CIA in Vietnam. They experienced combat in the war and still occasionally wore their Army uniforms, but mainly worked in civilian clothes. When asked what they did they said, “We are field analysts.” Their official job was to “locate and acquire exotic foreign technologies,” meaning things the Soviets and Chinese may have been ahead of the U.S. on, with the goal of reverse-engineering the stuff to our nation’s advantage.
They get called off an assignment in the Middle East to go to Vietnam to investigate an object of unknown origin that’s been recovered from a crash site near Dak To. The site, Rosas writes, “is smack in the middle of an enemy tunnel complex that was nearly overrun by combined NVA and Viet Cong forces. Whatever crashed there is of deep interest to them.” The recovered object was placed in a supposedly secure vault in the basement at the American Embassy, but then disappeared.
There had been reports of a fast-moving aircraft that “appeared as a glowing light in the night sky.” The object seemed to carry a “radiation signature,” and Swift’s initial thinking was that his assignment probably didn’t have anything to do with the war, and that whatever the object was had just dropped into the war zone. The two men are put up in an air-conditioned room with bulletproof windows in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel where they worked day and night trying to get to the bottom of the mystery object.
The fun kicks in when Swift is told of “a blue-white fireball,” a “large impact crater,” a weird fog that suddenly appeared, and M16s that were strangely disabled. Then come missing witnesses, dissolving bullets, and encounters with Men in Black who walk through walls and always seem to be one step ahead of Swift and Mason.
This fast-moving story is told sometimes in third person, other times in first person, in cinematic-like form. Louis Edward Rosas, whose father served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, never gets in the way of his storytelling as he takes the reader on a wild ride.
The words “conscientious objector” are at once are a label, a category, a frame of mind, a belief—and a designation that can well cause a wounded war veteran to stiffen his spine. Conscientious objector status, classified 1-O by the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War, was granted to tens of thousands of American men during the war. Nearly 55 percent of them completed alternative civilian service.
Wayne R. Ferren, Jr., the author of the memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway, 538 pp. $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), is a self-described hippie. Ferren writes that he has “a firmly professed primal faith, neo-pagan, and new-age bases for my beliefs, as well leanings toward Buddhism and Transcendentalism,” although he was raised as a Methodist.
His book contains more than 425 pages of text, along with 60 pages of endnotes. It follows Ferren from his 1948 birth to the present, and seems at times to be a peripatetic ramble through his life. An early interest in geology propelled him to study the interconnectedness of the earth and its systems. He takes us through his school years, where he began to form his anti-conflict beliefs, and his future involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s.
Throughout the book Ferren regales the reader with his thought processes and how he went about securing his much-sought-after CO designation from the Selective Service. He even includes copies of copy of the paperwork involved, intertwining those passages with the story of his life and times as a “hippie activist.” There are a few factual errors, but the writing and editing of this book are well done.
As a Vietnam War veteran, I found myself reacting to Ferren’s story with a much kinder eye than would have been possible for me to do 50 or so years ago as the ensuing years have both blunted and sharpened my perceptions of the antiwar movement and those who took part in it.
Which is why I recommend this book as maybe it’s time to see the other side of the coin.
History is not kind to losers. Those who appease, such as British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, or step down like President Richard Nixon, become exemplars of not only defeat, but of moral failing as well. In Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 660 pp. $40.99, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) the historian George Veith attempts a rehabilitation of South Vietnam’s longest-serving president, Nguyen Van Thieu.
Thieu resigned his post in the spring of 1975 as the North Vietnamese advanced on Saigon, ensuring that the nation of South Vietnam was resigned to the pages of history. The military historian Lewis Sorley wrote that Thieu was “arguably a more honest and decent man than Lyndon Johnson, and—given the differences in their respective circumstances—quite likely a more effective president of his country,” suggesting that Veith’s revisionism is meaningful.
Veith, a former Army captain, is a PhD candidate who has written two books on American POW/MIAs from the Vietnam War. His most recent book is Black April: The Fall of South Vietnam, 1973-1975 In that 2012 book, he argues that the South Vietnamese were “quite capable of defeating the North Vietnamese,” but failed mainly because the U.S. Congress didn’t support them adequately because of the influence of “antiwar crusaders,” “major media institutions,” and the “Left around the world.”
Drawn Swords in a Distant Land is a monumental achievement in its breadth and scope. The massive tome is divided into 24 chapters and supported by 43 pages of endnotes. In addition to many American and Vietnamese primary and secondary sources, Veith interviewed an array of former South Vietnamese officials.
In the past two decades, some Vietnam War historians have emphasized the South Vietnamese experience, though most of this literature has focused on the regime of the first President of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem. In his book, Veith covers the Diem regime and the rotation of South Vietnam governments after his 1963 assassination before spending the bulk of the book on Thieu.
The book is primarily a political biography of Thieu and his effort to build a democratic republic with a viable economy and rule of law. He had to accomplish this while fighting a war against an indigenous communist enemy and the well-armed and well-trained conventional forces of the North Vietnamese Army. The book contextualizes the role of the United States through the South Vietnamese perspective, which effectively lessens the American role.
Veith posits that Thieu’s role has been unfairly relegated to that of the losing and last President of South Vietnam, effectively devaluing many of his accomplishments. He implemented land reform, returned political power to the local level, oversaw several elections, and held together a fractured nation, all while leading the armed forces. Vieth’s sympathetic portrayal of Thieu reveals a resilient individual who was transformed from a modest military general to an inspired yet practical politician.
Though under his regime regional and religious allegiances dissipated, Thieu could never unify the competing groups of South Vietnamese nationalists. Veith portrays him as a model of probity who nonetheless oversaw a government plagued by corruption and scandal that he was unable to control.
These issues are endemic to all fledgling democracies, and, though there was dissatisfaction among the South Vietnamese with Thieu’s government, it remained preferable to communism. In the end, Thieu could not both build a nation and fight an enemy after it lost the support of its American patron.
Though a generous depiction of Thieu — at times too sympathetic as many historians would challenge Veith’s contentions on Thieu’s land reforms and fair elections —Veith concedes that when South Vietnam needed Thieu to be at his best, he was at his worst.
Veith’s ambitious undertaking is worthwhile in its reassessment and a challenge to the belief that South Vietnam was a corrupt American puppet in a Cold War drama. But this perspective may be slightly off-balance by overly diminishing the American role. Vieth’s commitment to his subject leads to indulgent rhetorical flourishes, and the level of detail he provides allows the narrative to meander.
Given the large cast of characters, the book would benefit from a dramatis personae, and would have been enhanced by a more robust conclusion.
But these are minor quibbles in an important revisionist history in understanding America’s South Vietnamese ally.
The World Played Chess (Lake Union Publishing, 400 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $10.pp, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is an important work of Vietnam War fiction even though it’s being marketed as a coming-of-age story (“a young man’s unlikely friendship with a world-weary Vietnam veteran”) to attract more readers. Best-selling author Robert Dugoni did not serve in the military, though he has had a long-time interest in the Vietnam War and its veterans.
Dugoni’s main character, Vincent Bianco, is an attorney with a wife and teenage children. As his son approaches his eighteenth birthday, Vincent thinks back on his life at that same age forty years earlier. His thoughts center on two Vietnam veterans who were on a construction work crew he joined in the summer of 1979 before going off to college.
One of the veterans, William Goodman, who served in the Marine Corps, opens up to Vincent about his wartime experiences as the summer goes on. Goodman kept a journal of his year in Vietnam and, though they’d no contact for decades, he sends it to Vincent because he’s never forgotten that when Vincent would ask him about the war, he would listen attentively. That leads Vincent to dig out a journal that he kept during that summer.
Vincent reminisces about what he learned about the war from Goodman all those years ago and starts reading his Vietnam War journal. He finds the daily entries funny, poignant, sad—and horrible. The novel alternates between Goodman’s 1968 stories and Vincent’s in 1979, and the plot swirls around the stressful year Goodman spent in Vietnam, the lessons he learned, and how those lessons were passed along to a father and his son.
Be prepared for a gut-punch of an ending that takes place at the top of Hill 1338, somewhere in South Vietnam, in which Dugoni searingly sums up America’s experience in the war.
Robert Dugoni writes about the war as if he had been there, though he wasn’t, and that’s not an easy thing to do. In addition to doing a ton of research, a novelist can only pull that off if his or her heart’s in the right place. It’s evident that Dugoni cares about Vietnam War veterans and the unique things that can still be learned from them.
This is the best novel dealing with the Vietnam War and its ongoing legacy I’ve read in a long time.
Charles Hensler’s There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin‘: A Vietnam War Memoir (289 pp. $9.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a gripping account of Hensler’s tour of duty in Vietnam from April 1968 to May 1969. This unique memoir is written as a long letter to Hensler’s family. This creates an intimacy between the author and readers. In addition to his wartime experiences, Hensler provides a timeline of the war’s key events and the changing political landscape at home.
Hensler’s dual approach is compelling. With sober clarity he illustrates the growing number of American casualties and the dwindling support for the war. At the beginning of his tour nearly 14,000 American troops had died in Vietnam. One year later that number more than doubled.
After recounting his childhood in rural Pennsylvania, Hensler describes his decision to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1967, his training at Fort Polk, and arriving in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. He notes that during the Tet Offensive the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army had proved their resolve to win at any cost. Despite huge losses, they staged uprisings all over South Vietnam, shocking the American public.
Hensler served with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade northeast of Saigon. His descriptions of his first days, then months, in country are vivid. As a new mortarman, he carried heavy loads of equipment and ammunition on long patrols.
In addition to the risks of tripping mines and booby traps and being ambushed, there was the hostility of the environment itself. The triple canopy jungle was rife with leeches and red ants, forcing men to continually check for the first, and often strip naked to free themselves from the second. Staying dry was impossible in the heat, humidity, and constant rain.
Because wet underwear caused chafing, men rarely wore any. Even writing letters home was challenging. Trying not to drip sweat on the pages, Hensler says that he wrote in pencil because ink would quickly wash away.
In addition to the constant tension and fatigue from the long patrols and nights on guard duty, he and his buddies felt that they were there in Vietnam for nothing–a point perfectly summarized by the often-said G.I. phrases in the book’s title.
“Most GI’s in Vietnam,” Hensler writes, “felt they were getting screwed over by being there, at least in the post-Tet Offensive years when the country turned the corner on the war. It became apparent, even to the lowest private, that with the way things were run we were never going to win.”
With his engaging, unsettling, often haunting style, Hensler imbues in readers a sharp sense of the conditions American infantrymen endured: Their exhaustion. Their loneliness. Their doubts, even despair. Their cautious anticipation of the end of their tours. Their dream of the Freedom Bird, the plane that would take them home.
A magnificent book, There It Is…It Don’t Mean Nothin’ will linger in my mind for a long time.
Michael Dean Moomey’s novel, Red, White & Blue: Life of a Warrior (Archway Publishing, 250 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), is a wild look at one man’s adventurous life in the Vietnam War and later working for the FBI and CIA. Moomey, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy during the war. He says this novel was inspired by actual events.
In the opposite of what you might expect, main character Jake Lewis’ mother pushes him to join the Navy at age 17 to get him out of the house and away from his abusive, alcoholic, World War II-vet father. He is sent to the Philippines to catch his ship where he starts off on the deck-cleaning crew before being moved to loading gun mounts, then later serves as a helmsman on the bridge.
Jake undergoes Special Warfare Training after that, and then takes part in top-secret rescue missions in Vietnam in which he engages in close-combat action. One involves a POW camp in Cambodia run by the Viet Cong. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he volunteers to go to Khe Sanh during the siege. When he and a few buddies take a week of R&R in Taiwan, they get into a bar fight so big they are expelled from the country.
Jake then volunteers to join a team trying to rescue the crew of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea. Then he works with the CIA on a covert operation in Thailand. He’s a senior Studies and Observations Group (SOG) team leader when he begins his third year in Vietnam by re-enlisting and taking part in action in Laos.
If you’re think I’ve revealed the book’s entire plot, think again. What I’ve described here takes place is less than half the book. Jake later goes to work for the FBI and then the CIA. Moomey ends the book with Jake writing: “Well, you’ve heard all of my adventures.”
Michael Dean Moomey writes in a conversational, readable manner. Reading his look is like listening to someone telling you a story—and you hanging on every word. The story is told in a hypnotic fashion that keeps pulling you in.
Although Gregory Doering’s HONOR & Indignity: An Unheroic Memoir (216 pp. $11.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is, as he puts it, an “unheroic” book, I can say with no uncertainty after reading it that Doering is anything but unheroic.
In December 1967, after finishing USMC boot camp, the Marine Corps decided his MOS would be 3531, motor vehicle operator. Doering had mixed feelings about that, but at the same time was elated that he was not going to be a rifleman. He arrived in Vietnam in April 1968, was sent to the 9th Marines at Camp Carroll, then was quickly moved 20 miles north to the Ca Lu Combat Base in Quang Tri Province where he was put to work driving an M274, a small light-weapons carrier vehicle known as a Mechanical Mule.
Within a month, the Marine Corps saw fit to change his job again and he filled an open position as an ammo humper in a mortar team and began seeing serious combat action. After several months of fighting along the southern edge of the DMZ, he was sent back to the rear. Arriving in Quang Tri with “the distant blank stare,” he was assigned to a headquarters Motor Transport unit.
This is where HONOR & Indignity turns dark. With abundant supplies of alcohol and drugs, Doering’s morale crumbled and his mental health deteriorated. All he cared about was getting out of Vietnam. On his return to The World, he was sent to the mental health ward at Camp Pendleton. As Doering describes what happened there, his book gets even darker.
With his mother’s persistence and help from the Red Cross, he was transferred to a VA Medical Center closer to home in Washington State. After being finally diagnosed with severe PTSD and getting discharged, he sought treatment and after several years began living a normal life.
His initial ignorance and shortcomings were common to newbies in combat zones. But unlike many who hide these embarrassing moments, Doering writes about then in great detail in his memoir. His honesty and candor are at sad, yet refreshing.
Greg Doering is, in my mind, a real hero. Not just for his performance under fire, but for this brave and selfless presentation of his life. You will be hard-pressed to find a more completely detailed and honest war memoir.
HONOR & Indignity is very well written, but raw language and depictions of combat might offend some readers. Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.