Where’s Charlie? by Tim Soyars

Tim Soyars was born and grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating from high school in 1963, he worked for a while and went to a local college part time. In 1965, he realized he was about to get drafted, so Soyars joined the Army.

“I figured the military would be a great place to get myself together and plan a career,” Soyars writes in his memoir, Where’s Charlie? Memories from a Time of War, 1965-68 (iUniverse, 279 pp., $31.95, hardcover; $21.95, paper).

“In addition,” he notes, “the military was a requirement for my generation, so I knew I had to serve and I wanted to serve. After a few years in the Army, I’d be ready for college and have a better chance at succeeding, so [enlisting] sounded like the thing to do. The thought of dying in a war crossed my mind, but I was confident and never gave it serious consideration.”

Soyars had basic at Fort Jackson where he applied for OCS. He took Infantry AIT at Jackson and OCS at Fort Benning. The newly minted lieutenant arrived in Vietnam in March 1967 as an officer replacement for Company C, 2nd/5th of the First Cavalry Division in the Central Highlands. Soyars served for a year with Company C. He experiences in Vietnam make up the bulk of this book, which also includes excerpts from many of the letters he wrote from the war zone.

The author’s web site is http://timsoyars.com/order_264.html

—Marc Leepson

Blood on the Tracks by S. Brian Willson


S. Brian Willson was born on July 4, 1941, and grew up pretty much an All-American boy in upstate New York. He joined the Boy Scouts, was on the Student Council at Chautauqua Central High School, and was co-captain of the basketball and baseball teams. Willson joined the U.S. Air Force in 1966, graduated from OTS, and served a six-month tour in Vietnam in 1969 commanding a special Combat Security Police Unit based at Binh Thuy Air Base.

It was in Vietnam that Willson, who, he says, “always had a tendency to fight against authority,” began seriously to question the way the war was waged—a questioning that led to a postwar life as an active “revolutionary nonviolent pacifist,” as Willson terms it in his new memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson (PM Press, 500 pp., $20, paper).

Willson joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the War Resisters League, and for a time headed the Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Greenfield, Mass. In the mid-eighties he actively protested American foreign policy in Central America.

He is best known, though, for what happened on September 1, 1987, when Willson, along with a small group of protesters, sat down on the railroad tracks in front of the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. A U.S. Navy locomotive ran over Willson, severing both of his legs below the knee.

After he recovered Willson continued his activist activities. “I no longer travel the world,” he writes. “I don’t want to use the fuel or pollute the skies. But my journey continues. This book is my witness to the wars we have fought against others and that we are now inflicting upon ourselves.” Willson’s web site is bloodonthetracks.info

—Marc Leepson

Soldiering On in a Dying War by William J. Shkurti

William J. Shkurti, an adjunct professor of public policy at the John Glenn Institute of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, served a 1970-71 tour of duty as an artillery officer in Vietnam with B Battery, 2/35th Artillery, at Fire Support Base Lanyard near the Cambodian border.

Shkurti had graduated from Ohio State in 1968 and then enlisted in the Army. He served in Vietnam at a time when morale was plummeting. That experience—specifically, trying “to find some meaning in the sacrifices of all the soldiers who fought and died in the those last stages of America’s withdrawal from Vietnam”—is what is behind Skhurti’s first book, Soldiering On in A Dying War: The True Story of the Firebase Pace Incidents and the Vietnam Drawdown (University Press of Kansas, 356 pp., $34.95).

What happened at Fire Support Base Pace (which was known as Lanyard when Shkurti served there) was that two groups of American troops refused an order to go out on a night ambush in the fall of 1971. That action made the news and caused a small sensation back home. Many saw it as emblematic of the crumbling morale and discipline of the about-to-withdraw American Army in Vietnam.

Shkurti looks deeply into that incident (which took place after he had returned home), other “combat refusals,” and other kinds of unsavory incidents (including My Lai), and concedes that the Army in Vietnam was dealing with “sagging morale, fickle allies, and a determined enemy” in the war’s late stages. He says that “discipline problems, fragging, racial tension, and drug abuse” took place, but mainly happened “back in the rear.” And he concludes that combat refusals in general were blown out of proportion and did not represent a wider pattern of crumbling discipline.

Troops in the field, he says, “rose to the occasion.” They “looked out for each other, sacrificed for each other, and in, the end, protected the interest of their country.”

—Marc Leepson

Fighting PTSD One Poem at a Time by James H. Rose

VVA member Jim Rose’s Fighting PTSD One Poem at a Time (Xlibris, 152 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $10.66 ,paper), is a heartfelt collection of short poems, many of which address matters close to the hearts of many Vietnam veterans: daily life in the war zone, post-traumatic stress disorder, Agent Orange, homelessness, and Gold Star families. Each has a short introduction by the poet.

Some veterans who suffer from PTSD and the “effects of Agent Orange, have hobbies to help them deal with them in their daily lives…. I write poetry,” Rose writes. “It allows me to purge whatever is bothering me from my mind for a while by transferring it to paper or computer.” If the poems “help just one veteran to understand the situation that he or she is in, then they will have served their purpose for more than just one. ”

This excerpt is from “Colors,” which deals with Agent Orange:

Agent orange, purple, and pink

Agent white, green, and blue

it would have been so appropriate

if they would have added some red too

He could have taken the bullets and bombs

but what was so hard for him to know

was that what he was dying from

sounded like a rainbow

—Marc Leepson

Dogtag Summer by Elizabeth Partridge


The plot of Elizabeth Partridge’s Dogtag Summer (Bloomsbury USA Childrens, 240 pp., $16.99) begins in 1981 when the eleven-year-old protagonist, Tracy, and her best pal, Stargazer, find a dogtag in an ammo box in her adoptive father’s workshop.  Eventually, the reader finds out the importance of the dogtag and what it means to Tracy.

I won’t act as a spoiler here, but in this young adult novel the meaning of the dogtag seemed crystal clear to me the moment it was discovered. Tracy’s adoptive father is a stereotypical Vietnam vet with alcohol dependency,  PTSD, intimacy problems, and a low-level job. Tracy herself is half Vietnamese and is called “gook” and worse by her peers.

Because of Stargazer’s loopy name, I figured his parents would be hippies, and I was correct. His father is a stereotypical peacenik who refers to Vietnam veterans as “baby killers,” which made me very uncomfortable, which may have been the goal of the author.

I have met many Vietnam veterans with alcohol and intimacy problems, but none of the hundreds of peaceniks and hippies I have spent time with ever called me a baby killer, even though they knew I served in Vietnam. Maybe I was just lucky.

Even so, the stereotyping made the book a hard read for me, as did the pervading sadness of the book and the secret-keeping, which drove the plot forward to the end. Eventually, Tracy finds out some of the truth about her origins: that her real name was Tuyet, for one thing, and that her mother was not a prostitute.

I found the appendix annoying, and I’ll give just one example. The author says: “The television reporting of the war turned many people, like Stargazer’s father, Beldon, against the war, angry at the government and at the GI’s who had fought there.”  It would take me several pages to deconstruct that sentence, so I won’t, but it serves as an example of the over-simplification that is endemic in this novel.

Elizabeth Partridge has a degree in Women’s Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of biographies of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Partridge has won many writing prizes and honors.
—David Willson

We Don’t Walk Nowhere by James L. Longton

Although it is billed on the cover as “A Jim Longton Novel: Vietnam, 66-67,” James L. Longton’s We Don’t Walk Nowhere (Trafford Publishing, 240 pp., $16.26 paper) reads more like a memoir than a work of fiction. The years 1966-67 happen to be the exact period that I spent my months in Vietnam in the Army, but Longton’s tour of duty could not have been more different from mine.

The book was a revelation to me, and despite some less-than-sterling editing and proofreading—countless missing commas and apostrophes and misspelled words—I enjoyed the book and recommend it to readers who are capable of suspending their nitpicking about typographic imperfection.

I can’t think of any other Vietnam War book that shows as clearly and honestly the life of a Morse code intercept operator (a spook) in Phu Bai and other dangerous locations in the war zone. Our hero, James, is seriously wounded and is evacuated to Camp Zama, Japan, so the reader also gets a lot of interesting narrative about the hospital and the recuperation experience.

The book is well written and fun to read and possesses a lot of narrative vigor, as well as rude humor. Sandbag filling and shit burning have never been as clearly explained and as well integrated into the story line as Longton manages to do. The novel also has one of the best covers I’ve seen on a Vietnam War book: a photo of a G.I. self-showering using a bucket of water.



—David Willson

Blue Water, Brown Water by Randall Gray Cook

VVA member Randall Gray Cook’s new, well-written memoir, Blue Water, Brown Water: Stories of Life in the Navy and in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 392 pp., $14.50, paper), is “about what the Navy looked and sounded like,” Cook says, “in day-to-day operations.” The book also is about “some of the best men I have ever known,” he says, “and about how the world looked through my eyes” while the author served in the U.S. Navy from 1968-71.

Cook signed up for a stint in the U.S. Navy in 1967 with the draft breathing down his neck. He reported to Officer Candidate School in Newport, R.I., in February of 1968. His first Vietnam War assignment, aboard the destroyer, the USS Herbert J. Thomas, began on July 4, 1969—blue water duty on Yankee Station in the Gulf on Tonkin.

His second tour began early in 1970, a brown water tour during Vietnamization. Cook’s assignment was to “provide ‘armed logistical support’ to whoever called for our services in the Mekong Delta.” Most of that time he spent aboard the USS Monmouth County, a World War II vintage LST.

—Marc Leepson

Making the News, Taking the News by Ron Nessen

Ron Nessen is best known for his highly visible role as President Gerald R. Ford’s White House press secretary from 1974-77. Among other things, Nessen, in essence, announced the end of the Vietnam War to the nation on April 29, 1975, as he stood on a stage in the Old Executive Office Building next door to the White House and read to a waiting press corps President Ford’s statement that all U.S. personnel had been evacuated from South Vietnam.

Before Nessen’s highly visible role in the White House he had worked as an NBC News correspondent and did five reporting tours in Vietnam beginning in 1965. During his time in the war zone Nessen lived well (eating at French restaurants, living in good hotels), but also saw a lot of the worst that the war had to offer. Nessen even was wounded and later was booted out of the country by the South Vietnamese for asking President Nguyen Van Thieu an “impertinent” question.

“Vietnam dominated my life for nearly a decade,” Nessen says in his new, sprightly written memoir, Making the News, Taking the News: From NBC News to the Ford White House (Weslyan, 276 pp., $27.95). “I came of age as a journalist there. I gained confidence in myself, as a reporter and as a man.

“I witnessed many horrifying things there. I saw friends and colleagues—and innocent children and adults—killed there. I met a woman there whom I later married. I won praise and journalistic awards for my coverage. I almost bled to death while reporting on the war in Vietnam when a fragment from an exploding hand grenade pierced my lung.”

The war, Nessen writes, “shaped who I was—personally and professionally—what I thought of myself, what others thought of me.”

Nessen went to Vietnam as a supporter of the war effort who “believed the United States could win,” as he puts it in the book. “But the more time I spent in Vietnam,” he writes, “the more I was exposed to combat, to death, to the horrors of war, the less certain I was in my hawkish stance. Eventually, I began to question whether LBJ was doing the right thing in pursuing the war.”

Nessen devotes about half of his book to his reporting in Vietnam and about half to an inside-baseball account of his life as President Ford’s spokesman. He mixes in highly personal details of his life with solid, first-person reporting on the inner workings of the Ford administration.

—Marc Leepson

The Craft We Chose by Richard L. Holm

Richard L. Holm spent thirty-five years with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. During that time he worked undercover in seven countries as a paramilitary adviser, operations officer, senior manager, and station chief. Holm’s first two assignments consisted of leading paramilitary missions in Laos and Thailand from July 1962 to September 1964 during the United States’ so-called Secret War in Laos and just before the American massive troop build up in neighboring South Vietnam.

In his well-written memoir, The Craft We Chose: My Life in the CIA (Mountain Lake Press, 568 pp., $30), Holm gives plenty of details of those two-plus years. He spent a good deal of that time working closely with Lao tribesmen “monitoring and impeding—or at least harassing—efforts by the North Vietnamese to supply the [communist] Pathet Lao” along the ever-changing Ho Chi Minh Trail, a good deal of which wove through Laos.

Holm evokes his time in the jungles of Laos very well in this long book. He also includes details of how he later survived a horrific plane crash in Africa that left him temporarily blinded. After recovering, Holm went on to work clandestinely, recruiting agents to spy on China and the Soviet Union.

It “is imperative for Americans to understand and support what the CIA does,” Holm says. “To put it plainly, the agency needs a constituency. The more the public appreciates what we do, the stronger their support will be. In a nutshell, that’s why I wrote [a previous memoir] The American Agent in 2002 and The Craft We Chose.”

—Marc Leepson

Trouble at Puma Creek by Wesley Murphey

Wesley Murphey, who served four years in the submarine service between 1974 and 1979, says he’s always had a fascination with the Vietnam War. Perhaps that is because he just missed taking part in it.  His mystery/thriller, Trouble at Puma Creek: A Vietnam Vet, A Deadly Hunt (Lost Creek Books, 340 pp., $15.95, paper) deals
with the 1980 murder by a rogue Oregon State trooper of Roger Bruington, a Vietnam veteran.

The veteran was killed because he had discovered a suspicious shack in the forest. Or was it because he had discovered a government cover-up of proof that the American POWs were being held in Vietnam?  A Korean War veteran, Detective Jim Dowdy, is on the case.

This suspense novel is set in the mountains near Dexter, Oregon, and the author displays skill and familiarity with this region and its people. This thriller maintained suspense well and kept this reader’s interest.

For more info, go to the Lost Creek Books website.

—David Willson