Left for Dead by Larry E. Thompson

Larry E. Thompson’s Left For Dead (81 pp., $25, paper) is a short memoir filled with lots of photos—and with details of the PTSD that the author faced after coming home from Vietnam in June 1966 after putting in a year’s tour of duty with the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry.

Thompson joined the Army in 1961 at age nineteen. His entire unit shipped out to Vietnam in June of 1965. They landed at Vung Tau and started out providing security for Bien Hoa Air Force Base. Thompson and his fellow Big Red One troops were then sent on recon operations in several areas of South Vietnam, including the Central Highlands. He saw plenty of action and suffered emotionally after coming home. Thompson stayed in the Army, retiring in 1982.

“I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” Thompson says, “which many people (including myself at one time) understand very little in regards to its devastation, and think of those suffering with PTSD as crazy or ready to snap at any moment.”
—Marc Leepson

Wooden Ships and Iron Men by David D. Bruhn

Retired Navy Commander David D. Bruhn provides everything you ever wanted to know about U.S. minesweeping operations in the Vietnam War in Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The U.S. Navy’s Coastal and Inshore Minesweepers, and the Minecraft that Served in Vietnam, 1953–1976 (Heritage Books, 343 pp., $34, paper).

This is Volume III in Bruhn’s “Wooden Ships and Iron Men” series of books on Navy coastal minesweeping operations beginning in 1941. The two previous volumes focused on World War II and the Korean War. In this volume Bruhn, who served in the Navy from 1977-2001, looks at the work done by two dozen Navy coastal minesweepers from 1953-76. In addition to ferreting out mines and performing other operations in Vietnam, the ships’ crews also searched for downed aircraft, sunken ships, and lost munitions off the U.S. coasts, in the Caribbean, and throughout Asia.

Most of the book deals with U.S. minesweeping and other sea operations in Vietnam. The latter included patrolling the coast to prevent war supplies from being smuggled in by sea to the enemy. Most of the work in Vietnam, however, consisted of often-dangerous minesweeping ops along the 1,200-mile coast of South Vietnam and on the vast network of waterways in the Mekong Delta and other rivers, including the Long Tau, the Perfume, and the Cua Viet.

“Despite a concerted, multi-year Viet Cong effort to kill American mine warriors, sink their [ships], and prevent merchant ships from delivering their precious military cargos to the capital, the enemy never succeeded,” Vietnam War naval historian Edward J. Marolda says in the book’s Foreword.

The book, Marolda notes, “will stand for years as a standard reference on the wartime and peacetime contributions of the U.S. Navy’s mine warriors and their sturdy ships.”

The author’s website is www.davidbruhn.com/

—Marc Leepson

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan

Aimee Phan was born and raised in Orange County, California.  She teaches writing and literature at the California College of the Arts.

Her novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martins Press, 368 pp., $25.99), starts with a Prologue set in 2011. In it, the reader is introduced to Cherry, who is about to start training to be a doctor, and to her brother Lum, who has been banished to Vietnam, where he is involved in construction work. Cherry has recovered from a serious accident that left her scarred;  Lum was sent way by his family.

The author of this physical, detail-rich novel finds plenty of words to describe furniture and flower arrangements and the like. But she chooses to not immediately reveal what Cherry’s accident consisted of, nor what Lum did to cause his banishment to Vietnam.

Cherry postpones her medical school so she can go to Vietnam to visit Lum and others of her family who remained there. She extends her stay in Vietnam, which angers her mother back in America.

I have a problem with novels in which the authors deliberately withhold information from their readers to build suspense. Another aspect of the novel that posed a problem was the jumping chronology. On page 26, the novel jumps back in time to 1979. To Malaysia. My head spins. What now?

The strong point of the novel is that the Vietnamese diaspora is examined and presented in minute detail through the lives of the characters.  Some of them do not survive, some barely survive, others go crazy. Some return to Vietnam, and others do very well in America or in France.

This is a novel filled with foreboding and with detailed descriptions of how the characters breath.  Such as: “Duyen deeply inhaled and exhaled before answering.”

Most of the male characters are not as fully and richly developed as the female characters are. The scrambled chronology does produce some meaningful juxtapositions, but this reader was often confused. One of the main characters in the novel says, “Noble values could be learned growing up in constant fear of poverty, hunger and a corrupt government.”

I guess the same thing could be said about a novel reader. The more difficult and demanding the novel, the more the reader learns. Still, I would have liked to be entertained more.

—David Willson

Grunts, Pilots & ‘Docs’ by Michael Dan Kellum

Michael Dan Kellum joined the Marine Corps, serving first as an enlisted man, and then as a Lieutenant during his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1970 with H&S Company, 2nd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment and with Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. Since getting out of the Marine Corps after coming home from Vietnam, Kellum has had a long career as a journalist working for several newspapers in East Texas, where he grew up.

Kellum is the author of a two-volume series of books that tell the Vietnam War stories of scores of those who fought there, mainly Marines and Navy Corpsmen. In American Heroes: Grunts, Pilots & “Docs”: Building “Hard Men”…U.S. Marines Vietnam War Stories, 1966-71 (Navarro-Hill Publishing Group, 539 pp., $43.90, hardcover; $30.90, paper), which is Book I, and Book II, American Heroes: Grunts, Pilots & “Docs”: Leathernecks Find ‘em, Fix ‘em, Kill ‘em: Vietnam Combat Stories, 1965, ‘69-’70 (498 pp., $42.90, hardcover; $29.90, paper) Kellum has done a ton of research to relate the tales of Marines in action.

“My goal in this book,” he says, “was to give the reader a vicarious feeling of having worn our bleached white by the sun and rotting off our feet jungle boots, dressed in shades of green camouflage jacket and trousers (for you civilians that’s a long-sleeved shirt or green t-shirt and cargo pants) from head to toe… Welcome to the Vietnam War where 1 in 5.9 Marines who served in-country were either killed or wounded. Marines, in turn, exacted a much, much worse killed-in-action/wounded-in-action licking on the enemy.”

For ordering info, go to the author’s web site: http://www.michaeldankellum.com

—Marc Leepson

Private War, Personal Victory by Loretta M. Kantor

The subject of Private War, Personal Victory:  A Footnote to the Vietnam War by Loretta M. Kantor (Windy Acre Publishing, 299 pp., $18, paper) is her husband, Lloyd Kantor. PFC Kantor served in Vietnam with Co. B, 2/35 in the Army’s 4th Infantry Division, and later with Co. C, 1/52nd Infantry of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in the Americal Division in Chu Loi, where he was severely wounded. On November 16, 1970, Lloyd Kantor suffered the loss of both legs, both arms, and one eye, along with other serious wounds for which he was awarded Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars, which offered him no comfort.

Lloyd Kantor’s story is powerfully told by his wife of many decades. Loretta Kantor pulls no punches in this honest and harrowing work, which relates the details of her husband’s long and painful road back from the wounds he received in Vietnam and from his early commitment to the presidential campaign of Richard M. Nixon who promised to end the war in Vietnam, but was in no rush to do it.

I was in tears more than once reading of Lloyd Kantor’s time in the cockroach-infested Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and later in a VA hospital.  Loretta Kantor covers a lot of ground in this book and manages to give a few well-deserved whacks to John Wayne and the lies about war that his movies inculcated in American youth.  She also presents a positive view of the C ration treat officially known as ham and lima beans, which I believe is the first I’ve read in hundreds of Vietnam War books.

She even has a kind and healing word about Jane Fonda. Loretta Kantor reminds us that “the enemy is in Washington, D.C., where politicians are quick to send Americans off to war and just as quick to deny them their benefits.”  Some things never seem to change.

PFC  Kantor received broken ribs during his physical therapy, and long hours were spent trying to get him to drive a car again. His wife makes the point that this unreasonable goal for a man with no arms, no legs, and one eye was more about the egos of therapists than it was about doing the best thing for her husband.

Loretta Kantor tells the familiar tale of shameful rejection by the VFW back in the day, because of the fear VFW members had of Vietnam War veterans and what they might do because of “mental problems. “  Agent Orange also gets attention in this fine memoir.

My favorite quote from the book comes near the end. Loretta Kantor proposes that one of the things her husband would often say when especially frustrated would make a clever recruiting poster.  “First they fuck you up, then they fuck with you the rest of your life!”  I like it. It speaks to me and my experience with the VA.

The author has wonderful, positive things to say about Army nurses and what they did for Lloyd Kantor when he first was brought in from the field, about to die from his wounds. She also briefly reviews Home Before Morning, the classic Vietnam War memoir by the late Linda Van Devanter, and says of the one-time Army nurse’s tour of duty in Vietnam that it “nearly destroyed her life.”  Loretta Kantor wrote Lynda Van Devanter a letter as a way of thanking “all of the nameless doctors and nurses who had saved Lloyd.”

Everyone who is unsure about the costs of war—the butchers’ bill—should read this beautiful and powerful book. It is well-designed, well -edited, and written with love and passion. There are also before-and-after photographs of Lloyd Kantor, which make it clear what he lost in Vietnam, but also that he chose to live a great life with Loretta. Together, they have bravely traveled to places that most men never go, let alone men who have had their arms and legs blown off by a land mine.

The book’s web site is http://www.ghostriverimages.com/gallery/kantor_private.html

—David Willson

Shore Duty by Stewart M. Harris

When Stewart M. Harris joined the Navy out of high school in 1960, he thought he had discovered a savvy way to serve his country, avoid the draft, and receive a free college education. At the time, Harris viewed his four-year commitment to the Navy as a relatively safe and stable alternative to the uncertainties of the draft.

Harris found himself assigned to serve as senior adviser to Coastal Group 16—a remote and dangerous junk base on the South Vietnamese coast—in 1968 after his original commitment to the Navy had ended. It was then that he realized that his service had become anything but safe and predictable.

In Shore Duty: A Year in Vietnam’s Junk Force (iUniverse, 325 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper), first published in 2009, Harris traces the steps that lead to him becoming the senior adviser to a land-based naval group. He also discusses the year he spent leading a small team of sailors in one of the war’s most challenging and trying land posts.

As Harris describes in his book, Coastal Group 16, located ten kilometers east of Quang Ngai City (nearly forty kilometers from the nearest American units at Chu Lai), was the most remote and underdeveloped of the twenty-eight junk bases in Vietnam. Four Americans and eighty to ninety Vietnamese operated out of a fort built of coconut logs and mud.

“Mud everywhere. No electricity. Drinking water only from rainfall,” is how Harris describes the place.

Further complicating matters, Coastal Group 16 was located in an enemy-controlled area, and all of Harris’ predecessors had been killed. Despite nearly overwhelming obstacles, Harris led his group impressively against the enemy. He was awarded the Bronze Star for his service with Coastal Group 16.

Harris’ approachable, honest, and down-to-earth style of writing makes this intriguing book an enjoyable, easy, and illuminating read.

—Dale Sprusansky

Tunnel Rat in Vietnam by Gordon L. Rottman

“There is little mention of tunnel rats in unit histories. Since there were no tunnel rat units as such, they being ad hoc teams and volunteering individuals, there are few separate studies and reports other than those buried within unit records.” Those are the words of the prolific military historian (and Vietnam veteran) Gordon L. Rottman in his latest book, Tunnel Rat in Vietnam (Osprey, 64 pp., $18.95, paper).

Rottman has added to the body of tunnel rat knowledge with this concise, heavily illustrated volume, number 161 in the British publisher Osprey’s Warrior series of books. Rottman follows the series formula and offers a no-frills, detailed accounting of what life was like for those who went down into the VC tunnels to ferret out the enemy, mixed in with boilerplate facts about the war and those who fought in it. The formula also includes lots of technical details and the book contains plenty of information on the pistols, knives, flashlights, and other things the tunnel rats carried below (and above) ground.


Author Gordon L. Rottman

While the book has lots of photos of tunnel rats in Vietnam and while Rottman describes what the men went through, he never mentions the name of any individual who served as a tunnel rat. This is an odd omission in a book that showcases the unique, extremely dangerous, tension-filled job that tunnel rats did in the war.

—Marc Leepson

A Vietnam War Reader edited by Michael H. Hunt

Students of history know that primary sources—such as letters, diaries, newspaper articles, speeches, transcribed conversations, and official documents—are the key to understanding any historical event. Michael H. Hunt, an emeritus history professor at the University of North Carolina who taught Vietnam War history for many years, presents an excellent selection of primary sources in A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives (University of North Carolina Press, 256 pp., $59.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper).

Hunt’s book, which was first published in 2010, is set up chronologically, beginning with Vietnamese independence movements going back to early French colonial times over a hundred years ago.

Hunt includes material from a wide array of Vietnamese and American participants. There are the voices of top-rank Vietnamese communist leaders, as well as peasants, NVA and ARVN soldiers, and South Vietnamese politicians, along with American presidents, secretaries of defense, and other war policy makers, military personnel, and antiwar activists. Hunt provides excellent, concise introductions to each of the seven large chapters, as well as to the subsections within the chapters.

—Marc Leepson