The 14-Hour War by James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron

James E. Wise Jr. and Scott Baron’s 14-Hour War: Valor on Koh Tang and the Recapture of the SS Mayaguez (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $34.95) is the second recently published book on the May 12-15, 1975, Mayaguez Incident, the Southeast Asian postscript to the American War in Vietnam. The most recent book, Robert J. Mahoney’s The Mayaguez Incident: Testing America’s Resolve in the Post-Vietnam Era, is a very detailed, almost hour-by-hour, recounting of the entire four-day event.

Wise and Baron’s book, on the other hand, zeroes in on the action that took place on May 14 on Koh Tang Island off the coast of Cambodia where some two hundred mostly inexperience Marines were sent in to try to rescue the container ship’s crew. When the Marines landed, there were no crew members on the island. But there were tons of Khmer Rouge fighters and the Marines wound up fighting for their lives in a vicious fourteen-hour battle. Forty-one American troops died.

Wise, a former Navy aviator, intelligence officer, and Vietnam veteran, and Baron, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, have collaborated on several military-themed books. In this one they tell their story well, using many long, first-person recollections of those who took part in the fighting on Koh Tang Island.

—Marc Leepson

Dog Tags by Ginger Cucolo

In her book Dog Tags: The History, Personal Stories, Cultural Impact, and Future of Military Identification (Allen House, 324 pp., $14.95, paper) author Ginger Cucolo says she has “a personal and intimate connection with the military.”  That connection: She is the daughter of a Navy veteran, the daughter-in-law and sister of an Army veteran, the niece of a Marine, and an Army wife.

All of the above led Cucolo to research and write a history of the ubiquitous military dog tag, which was first used in the Civil War a hundred years ago. As the subtitle notes, the book goes over the history of the dog tag and also contains personal stories—many told in the first person from emails and letters to the author, including several from Vietnam veterans.

Here’s an excerpt from Vietnam veteran Gordon Rottman’s contribution: “During a noon break on an operation I [racked] out in a hammock without a shirt (it was really hot). The sun shifted and I was no longer in the shade. When I came [to] my chest had reddened and you could make out the tags and chain. One of my Cambodians shot a pic of me with my camera napping at the time. I still have the photo.”

The author’s website is www.dogtaghistory.com

—Marc Leepson

Nothing Left to Lose by Allan G. Johnson

Allan G. Johnson received a PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan in 1972, so I deduce he spent most of the Vietnam War in graduate school. His biography has no mention of military service and he says straight out in an interview that he has never been to Vietnam.

The closest his novel, Nothing Left to Lose (Plain View Press, 295 pp., $18.95, paper) gets to Vietnam is a series of letters home from Joshua Carson, a Marine who dies in Vietnam in mysterious circumstances thirty miles from Khe Sanh, the last place he was seen alive. Readers of the book, as well as his parents and his brother (the main characters in this novel), never learn exactly what happened to Joshua.

As this novel is about the war at home and the antiwar movement, Johnson was in the right place at the right time to experience the gritty details of what it was like for an antiwar demonstrator to be tear-gassed and beaten by the police. Johnson is successful in delineating the character of Joshua’s father, a World War II veteran who is shown to be understanding and sympathetic to his youngest son, who had been a sterling ROTC officer but then became a draft dodger. Of course, Carson’s older son had to die before that was possible.

I found William Carson believable, even though I never met any such father, let alone had one. That is a testament to the skill of Johnson, who has crafted a beautifully written novel filled with believable characters who take believable but brave actions.

Johnson’s conclusion to the novel is set in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and is the best evocation of that scene I have read since Larry Heinemann’s Cooler by the Lake, and Larry was there. Once I read Johnson’s recounting of that debacle, I felt I’d been there, too. I am glad I was not.

The author’s website is www.agjohnson.us

—David Willson

Now Playing… Again by Patrick J. Dunlavy

Just as John Carter bumped his head and was transported to Mars to become a warlord in the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, Bryan Powers, the protagonist of Patrick J. Dunlavy’s conjectural novel, Now Playing… Again: A Novel of Second Chances (LuLu.com, 272 pp., $35, hardcover; $19.95, paper), gets a bump on his head and is transported back into his own past to be allowed to get a re-do on the big high school football game his team lost.

What does this have to do with the Vietnam War? It is made clear at the end of this novel that it is a tribute to PFC James Vincent Vinciguerra, the author’s best friend from high school “who died in combat on January 25, 1970, in Vietnam.”  I won’t spoil the ending of the novel for potential readers as to whether they won the big game this time or if the best buddy is saved from dying in Vietnam in 1970.

Dunlavy, who spent 28 years working on Wall Street, has offered to donate a portion of the proceeds of this book’s sales to Vietnam Veterans of America in memory of Vincent Vinciguerra.

—David Willson

Engineers at War by Adrian G. Traas

The U.S. Army’s Center of Military History has been publishnig the United States Army in Vietnam series of detailed history books for decades. These huge, heavily footnoted histories, written by some of the nation’s top military historians, deal with a wide range of Vietnam War topics, including combat operations, advisory efforts, logistics, and communications.

The latest in the series is Engineers at War by Adrian G. Traas (647 pp., $80, hardcover; $35, paper). Traas, a visiting professor at the Center, is a retired Army Corps of Engineers Lieutenant Colonel who served two tours in Vietnam. In his book, Traas covers the entire history of Army engineers in their support of combat operations and in carrying out construction in Vietnam during the war.

He shows how the engineers began with a handful of advisory detachments and grew to, at the height of the war, more than ten percent of the Army troops serving in South Vietnam. At its height, the Army engineer effort in Vietnam consisted of a command, two brigades, six groups, twenty-eight construction and combat battalions, and many smaller units.

The book also may be downloaded as a PDF at this URL: http://www.history.army.mil/html/books/091/91-14-1/index.html

—Marc Leepson

The Encyclopedia of The Vietnam War edited by Spencer C. Tucker

I have had the first edition of the massive, three-volume The Encyclopedia of The Vietnam War: A Political, Social, and Military History on my shelf since it was published in 1998. It has proven to be an accurate, unbiased, excellent reference book on hundreds of aspects of the Vietnam War. The good news is that the book’s publisher, ABC-CLIO, has just released a four-volume second edition (an abridged one-volume book was published in 2002) once again edited by Spencer Tucker. It retails for $395.

Tucker is a VMI grad and Fulbright scholar who served as a U.S. Army captain in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, and then taught for 36 years at TCU and his alma mater. Paul G. Pierpaoli Jr., is the Encyclopedia’s associate editor. Merle L. Pribbenow II, James H. Willbanks, and David T. Zabecki (the retired Army Major General who edited Vietnam magazine) are the assistant editors.

The first three volumes contain nearly a thousand thorough entries by scores of contributors (including the editors). Most are university historians who specialize in the Vietnam War. The subjects include military ops, weapons, biographies of significant players (Americans, Vietnamese, and French), the antiwar movement, early Vietnamese history, the French war, post-1975 events in Vietnam, and Vietnam War-related literature and film.

The new fourth volume contains more than 1,550 pages of notated documents. They range from entry number one, “Ho Chi Minh: Speech at the Tours Congress, December 1920,” to number 225, “President Bill Clinton: Announcement of Normalization of Diplomatic Relations withVietnam,July 11, 1995.”  The volume’s appendices include an inclusive Order of Battle, a chronology, glossary, and selected bibliography.

The entry for Vietnam Veterans of America, which is found between “Vietnam Veterans Memorial” and “Vietnam War Frauds, Fakes and Wannabes,” written by Pierpaoli, is taken primarily from VVA’s official history.

—Marc Leepson

Three Lives of a Warrior by Phillip Butler

Retired Navy Captain Phillip Butler (USNA, ’61) divides his life into three phases (learning to be a warrior, serving in the Vietnam War, and making the transition to life after coming home) in his long, readable memoir, Three Lives of a Warrior (Camelot Press, 513 pp., $24.95, paper). The bulk of the book is the section on life number two, which contains details on the nearly eight years Butler was held as a POW, from April 1965 to February 1973.

Butler, who is 71, grew up in Oklahoma, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, and trained as a naval aviator. Two years after earning his wings, Butler was shipped to the aircraft carrier Midway in April of 1965 and flew a dozen missions over North Vietnam as an A4 Skyhawk attack-fighter jet pilot. On the next mission, a night bombing run over Highway One, his plane’s bombs exploded, and Butler barely escaped with his life.

He ejected, made it safely to the ground, and managed to escape into Laos. Four days later, the NVA captured him. Butler details what happened to him at the hands of the North Vietnamese, including various forms of torture all those years. He was not freed until February 12, 1973.

Returning home, Butler says, “was a euphoric time, pasted with deep disappointments and distress. It was an emotional roller coaster.” His “family life,” he says, “was a disaster with a wife who sued for divorce and a lovely eight-year-old daughter who was trying to understand me, as I was her.”

In the early 1980s, not long after he left the Navy, Butler became a peace and social justice activist. He joined Veterans for Peace, and later served as the organization’s national board chair. Today, he chairs the Peace Coalition of Monterey County, California.

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

—Marc Leepson