Welcome Home by Patty Hardin

Welcome Home: Veterans Share Their Memories of ‘Nam (Home’s River Publications, 130 pp., $10, paper) is a compilation of nineteen short, first-person stories of Vietnam veterans put together by Patty Hardin.

“For the past few years I’ve made a point of saying thank you to the Vietnam veterans I meet,” Hardin, who lives in Long Beach, Washington, told us when she was putting the book together. “It is important to me that these men and women are acknowledged in a positive way for their service to our country. I am amazed, and most of all humbled, by the trust these veterans have shown me by telling their stories and loaning me priceless research materials.”

The book includes photos of some of the veterans in Vietnam. Most speak of how and why they wound up in the military in Vietnam, their tours of duty, and their homecomings. Nearly all of the stories are very short, with several exceptions, including an eleven-part entry by former infantryman Dennis Galetti, Sr., who did a 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division’s 3/47th Infantry.

For ordering information, email the author at sharkey51@centurytel.net

—Marc Leepson

Avalanche and Gorilla Jim by Albert Dragon.

Avalanche and Gorilla Jim: Appalachian Trail Adventures and Other Tales (Morgan James Publishing, 306 pp., $21.95, paper). The title tells it all. Author Albert Dragon realizes his life’s dream to hike the Appalachian Trail. He backpacked the trail (in sections) at different times, from 2002 to 2007, and his hiking companion for much of this journey was Gorilla Jim whose real name is Carl James Saxton.

The book’s connection to the Vietnam War is through Gorilla Jim, who served in the U. S. Army in Vietnam. In the second chapter Dragon describes some of that service and includes a few other mentions scattered through the book at great intervals, usually to explain his companion’s wariness with some people. He arrived in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry, was involved in Operation Pegasus at Khe Sanh, was temporarily blinded, and was awarded a Bronze Star.

The bulk of this book deals with backpacking the Appalachian Trail, and it is a worthy successor to Bill Bryson’s classic book on that subject, A Walk in the Woods, which Dragon credits as changing his life and inspiring this journey.  All the challenges and joys of hiking the “A. T.” are covered in this book:  the cold, the heat, the steep trails, the bugs, poison ivy, the heavy packs, bears, water shortage, the great views from the top of peaks, and the camaraderie with the other hikers on the trail, all of them with silly nicknames like the ones in the book’s title.

Al Dragon

I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in backpacking the Appalachian Trail.  Dragon does not shy away from the harsher aspects of hiking the trail. He even includes a section dealing with the more notorious murders associated with the trail. Speaking personally, this book is as close as I need to get to the famous trail.

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

—David Willson

Through My Eyes by Bob G. Whitworth

Bob Whitworth was a draftee who served in Vietnam with the Americal Division’s 21st Infantry, 4th Battalion, 11th Light Infantry Brigade, Delta Company  from April 1968 to April 1969. He was awarded a Bronze Star with the V device and a Purple Heart.

Whitworth’s base of operations for his entire time in-country was LZ Bronco, about fifty miles south of Chu Lai. His unit was loaned out to various outfits to patrol “from the coast of the southeast corner of the northern quarter of South Vietnam (designated I Corps) near Duc Pho. North about 100 miles to Da Nang, and west about 70 miles to the mountainous border of Laos.”

On the beach at the South China Sea nearby was LZ Bronco, which was not a small firebase. “It had an airstrip for supply planes, a staffed hospital, numerous bunkers, groups of tents, helicopters, large storage containers,  a mess hall, an outdoor movie screen made of plywood, and storage areas with basic supplies,”  Whitworth says.

In Through My Eyes: A Story of Hope (Aperio Press, 312 pp., $24.99) Whitworth tells the story of his year in Vietnam as a grunt in short, plainly written chapters with titles such as “First Day in the Field,” “Booby Trap,” “Leeches,” “Red-Headed Snake,” and “Friendly Fire.”  He has written an honest, heartfelt book, which is G rated. I noticed only one bad word in the entire book.  When shit-burning detail is described, for example, he uses the word “poop.” That sort of sensitivity is shown throughout. There is also humor, Christian faith, and a lot of hope, as the subtitle promises.

Whitworth’s platoon got baths and clean clothes every 45 to 50 days, whether they needed them or not. That bath was usually in a creek or a pond with an armed guard. Whitworth describes the injuries and deaths of  many of his friends. That includes Eddie, who survived the Watts Riots, but who did not survive losing his legs and one arm to a Bouncing Betty in the war. For those readers who wish to go straight to the combat scenes, the Tam Ky sections offer plenty of fireworks and bloodshed.

Whitworth’s book is well-edited and well-designed with one of the best covers I’ve seen on a Vietnam War memoir. It pictures the author at Tam Ky after the fighting. The black-and-white photos and maps at the center of the book are superb and informative.

I’m not sure we need one more grunt memoir, but Whitworth has done an honorable job. I enjoyed reading this book, primarily due to Whitworth’s matter-of-fact voice and his gift with details, such as his depictions of pickled pigs’ feet and ice cream. Thanks, Bob, for a job well done.

The author’s website is www.throughmyeyesethebook.com

—David Willson

Leading With Honor by Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis was piloting his F-4C Phantom jet on November 7, 1967, over North Vietnam when he was shot down. He was held as a prisoner of war in the Hanoi Hilton and other North Vietnamese POW camps for more than five years. These days Ellis is the president of Leadership Freedom, a consulting firm he founded. He also is the author of the new book, Leading With Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton (Freedom Star Media, 233 pp., $22.99), in which Ellis tells of his time as a POW and gleans fourteen main lessons in leadership from that experience.

Lee Ellis

“In the Hanoi Hilton I learned that leading with honor is about doing the right thing, even when it entails personal sacrifice,” he writes. “More than not, doing the right things—accepting responsibly, fulfilling your duty, telling the truth, and remaining faithful to your word—is the most difficult thing to do, but it’s also the thing that brings long-term success. Shortcuts may work for the moment, but almost everything of lasting value comes at a price.”

Among the POW leaders Ellis writes about are Robinson Risner, Jeremiah Denton, James Stockdale, Ken Fisher (with whom he was shot down), Leon Ellis, John McCain, and Jim Warner. “In the POW camps they chose courage over compromise, commitment over comfort, and pain over shame. Their character, refined in the fires of captivity, propelled them to success in a wide range of endeavors.”

—Marc Leepson

Glory Denied by Tom Philpott

Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America’s Longest-Held Prisoner of War, which was published in 2001, is now out in a new paperback edition (Norton, 496 pp., $16.95).

As we noted in our review in the April/May 2001 “Books in Review” column in the The VVA Veteran, the subject of the book is Col. Floyd James Thompson. The former Green Beret was captured by the Viet Cong in March 1964 and held longer than any other prisoner of war in American history. Thompson suffered greatly during his nine years of captivity, physically and emotionally.

While he was held by the Viet Cong, Thompson’s wife moved with their four young children into the home of an Army sergeant. The Thompsons reunited after his release, but their marriage soon dissolved. Thompson later suffered a stroke that diminished his mental capabilities.

In Glory Denied, syndicated newspaper columnist Tom Philpott (left) tells Jim Thompson’s story mainly through the verbatim testimony of his family, friends, and colleagues. Much of Thompson’s own contributions come from interviews he gave for another book prior to his stroke.

—Marc Leepson

The Presidents Club by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

The Vietnam War comes up several times in The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity (Simon & Schuster, 641 pp., $32.50), a sprightly written account by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy that examines the relationships of former U.S. presidents to sitting presidents beginning with the Eisenhower administration.

Gibbs and Duffy, who are TIME magazine editors, include an entire chapter on former President Dwight Eisenhower’s influence on Lyndon Johnson’s prosecution of the Vietnam War during the tumultuous last four years (1965-68) of Johnson’s presidency. LBJ invited Ike to address his top Vietnam War policy makers in February of 1965, the authors report, and the former five-star general who did not escalate the war in Vietnam during his eight years in the White House (1953-61), made a case to use America’s military might to mount “a campaign of pressure,” as Ike put it.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Gibbs and Duffy say, asked Ike if that including using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. Eisenhower replied that if China intervened, the U.S. should “hit them from the air, using whatever force was necessary, including nuclear weapons.” Ike “doubted that would happen,” the authors note, “But the United States [had] to put its prestige into keeping Southeast Asia free; if that takes [quoting Ike] ‘six to eight divisions… so be it.'”

Eisenhower later became disenchanted with Johnson’s handling of the war.  Ike was particularly bothered by LBJ’s public assertions that he escalated the war because of promises that Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy had made to come to South Vietnam’s defense. Ike “had never made a unilateral military commitment to defend Vietnam, he insisted; he had only promised [South Vietnamese Premiere Ngo Dinh] Diem ‘economic and foreign aid.'”

Despite his disenchantment with Johnson, Eisenhower never publicly disagreed with Johnson on Vietnam War policy. Ike espoused a hawkish stance up to his death in March of 1969.

There’s also a chapter on the interaction during the election year of 1968 between Republican candidate Richard Nixon and LBJ, who on March 31 had announced that he would not run for re-election and would seek peace with the Vietnamese communists. Gibbs and Duffy show that Nixon continually promised Johnson that he—Nixon—would not “do anything to undercut the U.S. position” in bargaining with North Vietnam, and then worked to do the very opposite.

Nixon, in essence, helped sabotage the budding peace talks, making LBJ and his Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Nixon’s Democratic opponent, look weak and indecisive in the process. Nixon used allies such as Henry Kissinger (who served as an adviser to Johnson on Vietnam War policies) and Republican bigwig Anna Chennault to all but subvert the peace process. The historian Robert Dallek said that the moves that Nixon made behind the scenes with regard to shaping the peace process in 1968 contributed to “a fall campaign that would produce as much skullduggery and hidden actions as any in American history.”

It is also worth nothing, the authors say, that with the missed opportunity for the start of peace talks in 1968, the Vietnam War “would continue and widen, the death toll mount, the damage deepen for years, until it finally ended on terms very much like the ones tentatively agreed to in October of 1968.”

—Marc Leepson

More Than Names On A Wall by James McComb

Walking back from a visit to the Bucks County Vietnam War Memorial wall in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, which contains the names of the 136 county residents who died in Vietnam, James McComb felt unfulfilled. While he was proud that his county’s largest war memorial was dedicated to those who died in the Vietnam War, McComb felt that more than a wall containing faceless names was needed to honor the sacrifice of those veterans.

Acting on this belief, McComb–a member of VVA Chapter 210 in Doylestown—began work on a book that serves as both an individual and a collective memorial to all 136 individuals listed on the wall. More Than Names On A Wall: Remembering Bucks County’s Veterans Who Lost Their lives Serving our Country during the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 258 pp., $12.95, paper) is McComb’s end product.

After a brief preface explaining his inspiration for the book, McComb, who served in Vietnam as a radio operator assigned to the 1st Marine Air Wing west of Khe Sanh, dedicates one to two personal pages to each fallen serviceman, organized alphabetically according to the year in which he died. Using mostly information he obtained from the Internet, McComb provides a photo and biographical information, including rank, circumstances of death, and location of service. He also includes a brief (one- or two-paragraph) biography of each individual.

Thanks to McComb’s dedicated work, Bucks County’s Vietnam War dead are no longer just names on a wall. Rather, they are real people with faces, families, lives, and individual stories. As McComb points out in his preface, the fallen veterans “deserve to be known as more than inscriptions on a wall.”

—Dale Sprusansky

American Horse by William Panzarella

In American Horse (366 pp., 24.95) author William Panzarella use the life story of a fictional character, Frank Keller, to tell the story of America from the Great Depression through World War II in Europe, the Cold War, and the Korean War, after which Frank’s son, Thomas, goes off to fight and die with the 1st Cav in the Vietnam War. Frank descends into the hell of alcoholism, loses his chain of hardware stores, his wife and daughter, his self-respect, and ends up serving time in jail. The novel details his long climb back from these depths to redemption of a sort.

Lots of bad things are said in this book about hippies, anti-war protestors, and recreational drug users. Much alcohol is consumed by World War II vets.

The author also alleges that the U. S. chose to leave behind many POWs in Vietnam when we withdrew, leaving the South Vietnamese to do their best without American troops and money. The author also alleges that it was commonplace for returning soldiers to be reviled and spat upon by war protestors and hippies. It’s that kind of a book.

The novel is handsomely designed, but poorly edited and proofread, so some of it is rough-going for a sensitive reader. A further hindrance to this reader was the author’s use of words that often stopped me in my tracks, as I had to look them up or scratch my head to figure out why they were there.  One example of this was the word “pleonasm.”  I learned something when I looked it up, but nothing I felt I needed to know.

The author’s website is http://www.williampanzarella.com

—David Willson

Steinbeck in Vietnam by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck died shortly after he produced the contents of Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War (University of Virginia Press, 216 pp., $29.95), a book that is composed of columns he wrote for Newsday while he was in Southeast Asia between December 1966 and May 1967. The book, edited by Thomas E. Barden, is one of a recognizable genre, that of the famous American writer traveling to a war zone to write a book about what he sees there.  One big difference with this book is that it didn’t appear in the 1960’s. The writing did not become a book until 2012.

While reading this book, I could not resist comparing it to a similar one written by another great American novelist, James Jones, who published Viet Journal in 1974 based on his visit to the war zone. Both are handsome books, well produced and well edited. Steinbeck in Vietnam has many fine photos of Steinbeck, but I was disappointed that there was none of him standing next to General William Westmoreland.

While I read Steinbeck in Vietnam, another book that often popped into my mind was his Travels with CharleySteinbeck in Vietnam seemed like an extension of Travels with Charley, but with a wife in tow, rather than a dog.  Steinbeck keeps harping on the same subject that he harped on in Travels: that America’s moral fiber was not what it once was.

Steinbeck often goes off on the war protestors at home and how weak and unproductive they are compared with the U. S. troops in Vietnam, and how the folks protesting the war were on “relief”—his antiquated way of referring to welfare checks he accuses them of receiving. Steinbeck also wishes that there was a way to transport the war protestors to Vietnam and place them on the Ho Chi Minh Trail to see how they’d do there. I got the impression he would not have shed a tear if they all died there.

This book was of special interest to me because I remembered John Steinbeck’s trip to Vietnam, having seen him being interviewed on television while he was in-country. The AFVN programmers sandwiched some news in between showing us episodes of Combat and Star Trek.

I was in Vietnam the same time as John Steinbeck was, but for a much longer period of time, However, I did not hobnob with dignitaries or get out into the boonies.

John Steinbeck IV, his famous father, and LBJ in the White House in 1966.

Steinbeck’s son, John IV, was also in Vietnam at that time, and he and his father were able to spend some time together. The elder Steinbeck is never very clear in this book as to what John IV’s role in the war was. If you wish to read more about that, I highly recommend John IV’s classic book, In Touch, and his much later book, written with his wife, Nancy, The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck, which was published ten years after his death, in 2001.

John Steinbeck was brave to travel to Vietnam in his mid-60’s and to spend five weeks there. He found himself in harm’s way more than once. He was much impressed with America’s war technology, especially the helicopters and “Puff the Magic Dragon,” with its awesome firepower. It led him to ask: How could we lose a war against peasant rabble when we had all the modern advantages?

I recommend Steinbeck in Vietnam to Vietnam War-oriented readers. However, if you’ve never read anything by Steinbeck and are looking for a place to start, this is probably not the book. Grapes of Wrath is not that book either. I’m still fond of Of Mice and Men. Perhaps that would be a good starting point.

—David Willson

Drift by Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow, the popular TV and radio political pundit of the left, has hit the jackpot with her new book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (Crown, 275 pp., $25). The book, a well-written and well-argued essay that looks into the history of how America has raised and used its armed forces, reached the top of the best-seller lists soon after it was published late in March—and has remained there since then.

Surprisingly, given Maddow’s strong political temperament, this book is not a political screed. It even has earned praise from some prominent conservatives. That includes Roger Ailes, the chairman and CEO of FOX News whose right-wing credentials are unimpeachable.  Drift, Ailes says, “makes valid arguments that our country has been drifting toward questionable wars [since Sept. 11, 2001], draining our resources, without sufficient input and time. People who like Rachel will love the book. People who don’t will get angry, but aggressive debate is good for America.”

Maddow traces the current state of military affairs primarily to what happened during the Vietnam War when President Lyndon B. Johnson sharply escalated the conflict in 1965. “With only halfhearted gestures toward trying to keep the country on board with a war he never realy wanted to fight, Johnson set about trying to fight his war in a way the American people might hopefully not notice too much,” she says.

By that, Maddow means that Johnson famously “tried to fight a war on the cheap” by not calling up the National Guard and Reserves. Those and other similar citizen soldier units had been two important components of all of America’s wars since the Revolution.

Then came the end of the draft and the post-Vietnam War reorganization of the military in the late 1970s and 1980s, featuring the all-volunteer force and the use of the Guard and Reserves as adjuncts to the standing military. That state of affairs, Maddow argues, has led to fundamental changes in the way the U.S. has gone about taking military action in the last twenty-five years.

“As we’ve pushed military experience further and further away from civilian life, we’ve also pushed decision making about the use of the military further and further away from political debate,” she says. That seems to be a point that anyone on the left or right would agree is not a good thing.

—Marc Leepson