The Journey of a Warrior by Gerald H. Turley

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. Gerald H. Turley says that his book, The Journey of a Warrior (iUniverse, 513 pp., $41.95, hardcover; $31.95, paper),  is not a biography of former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Alfred Mason Gray. Instead, Turley says, the book is “a retrospective of a unique Marine whose impact on his institution was both traditional and perhaps under appreciated.”

Turley served two Vietnam War tours of duty. During his second tour, in 1972, he was instrumental in helping the South Vietnamese repulse the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Turley wrote The Easter Offensive: The Last American Advisors, Vietnam, 1972 (1994) about that pivotal event in the Vietnam War.

His new book focuses on the years 1987-91, when Al Gray was the Marine Corps Commandant. But Turley does touch on Gray’s earlier service, beginning in 1950 when he joined the Marines, soon after the outbreak of the Korean War. “Thus began,” Turley writes, “for Al a lifelong adventure and love affair with the tough and unrelenting world of the professional Marine Corps.”

Gray joined as a private, then went to OfficerBasicSchool at Quantico, graduating in 1952. He served in the thick of things in the Korean War beginning early in 1953, extending his tour to become a platoon leader and then a company commander in the 7th Marines. He became one of the first Marine Corps officers to “enter the Southeast Asian theater prior to America’s major military build up for the Vietnam War,” Turley says, noting that Gray received a Bronze Star with V device on November 6, 1964, for actions during a secret mission in Vietnam.

Gray went back to Vietnam in September 1965 with the 12th Marine Artillery Regiment of the 3rd Marine Division. He stayed for three years, extending his tour twice. “He was seemingly ubiquitous in supporting the division’s active deployments and combat operations against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces,” Turley notes. Gray did another Vietnam War tour in 1969, “in conjunction with surveillance and reconnaissance matters,” Turley says.

Gerald Turley

Most of the book covers Gray’s post-Vietnam War years in a variety of high-level leadership positions, culminating with his time as Commandant. Turley knew Gray, having served under him in the late 1980s.

 

He calls Al Gray “beyond a doubt the most unforgettable man I have ever known. I have had the unique opportunity to have served under him, been responsible for implementing a couple of his visionary ideas, been his confidant, sometimes his ‘Napoleon’s Corporal,’ at times his personal critic, a friend in time of need, and always an admirer or his vision, drive, and selfless devotion to the Marine Corps.”

 

—Marc Leepson

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The Zenith by Duong Thu Huong

Duong Thu Huong’s The Zenith (Viking, 528 pp., $32.95) is a complex doorstop of a novel that examines the lives and thoughts of a group of top Vietnamese leaders of the 1950s and 1960s. The cliché “It’s lonely at the top” sums up one of the main points of the book, but also gives little of the sense of this enormous novel.

I found the English translation (by Stephen B. Young and Hoa Pham Young) strange. Often it seems as though the finished product was translated from a couple of other languages, not just one. I checked in the front of the book, though, and the only other language acknowledged is Vietnamese.

Perhaps the translation is brilliantly loyal to the original Vietnamese, but I have no way of knowing.  All I know is that I found this novel very hard to read and much of it hard to follow—very much as I have found some giant Russian novels a challenge, especially the ones with casts of hundreds and with characters with similar-looking names.

A section at the front of the novel listing the characters and their names, alternate names, pet names, and nicknames would have been a welcome courtesy to this reader. It also would have been helpful to have had a brief paragraph about all the main characters, explaining who they are, who they fictionally represent, and how they figure in this story.

The sort of guide produced for James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake could be models. To be fair to Joyce, I found his novels more of a pleasure to read and ultimately more rewarding. But to be fair to Duong Thu Huong, James Joyce’s novels were written in my native language. Novels in translation are always potentially problematic.

The Vietnamese culture is also more alien to this American reader than the Russian and Irish cultures, both of which are essentially Western. There are many culture-shock moments in The Zenith related to food, sex, and death. The novel itself acknowledges this difference between their culture and that of the “American bandits.”

The dust jacket has laudatory quotes from Le Monde, L’Express, Le Figaro, Elle, and Telerama.  All of them are French magazines, so I suspect there is a French translation of this novel, too.  A further clue is that the author lives Paris. I wouldn’t be surprised if her French is as good or better than her Vietnamese. That is pure conjecture and could be dead wrong, of course. Most of the dust-jacket praise gives no real sense of this huge novel, or convinces me that the reviewers have read it all the way through.

Duong Thu Huong

I’ll quote from a typical sentence to give a sense of the awkward English in the book.  “In this line of work, if you are not the chief honcho of a pit, having bags filled with cash and a brain filled with devilish schemes, then most likely you take up working in the pit as an ordinary ruffian or rascal, unafraid of quarrels with guns and knives, or you might be at a dead end, without another livelihood, ready to throw your life away as so much straw or grass…. In actuality both  ‘old men’ were born gamblers.” Yikes.

“Chief honcho?”  Isn’t the expression, “head honcho?”  I guess I am nitpicking here, but many sentences have to be read two or three times to make sense of them.

One of the delights of the book is the frequent food references, often in list form. There are hundreds of them. Here’s one: “She made snail stew with banana stems, frog stir-fried with pepper and bamboo shoots, catfish soup with vegetables, shrimp braised in rice wine, or eel in turmeric.”  That sounds good. On the other hand, I’ve eaten in many Vietnamese restaurants and don’t remember ever encountering one of these dishes.

More than anything else—more than a book about Ho Chi Minh being marooned on a mountain top during the American war, surrounded by guards, forbidden to have a private life, his wife murdered and his kids hidden—this is a book about the importance of food in Vietnamese culture. On page 361 there is a detailed recipe for deep-fried mung bean paste. It is so detailed it even debates the difference between frying the paste in peanut or sunflower oil.

I read so many references to roast pork that I had my wife buy me a pork roast to cook.  I was also tempted by the references to shrimp soup with fish bladder and steamed rooster and pork pie with fungus, but I wasn’t sure where to send my wife for fish bladder or what sort of fungus to direct her to buy for me. As for steamed rooster, I wasn’t sure if I steamed it with the feathers on or off.

So those dishes remain in the book. As for duck’s blood with pig’s intestines, that one did not even tempt me. I’m too Western, I guess.

Awkward idiomatic expressions figure in this book as often as food imagery. “He suddenly remembered that his wife was in bed and for sure was still awake.”

“For sure?”  Was the translator a Valley Girl?  That expression occurs often. I started circling it every time I saw it, but soon my arm got tired.

Also, one of the female characters is said to have fig innards on her teeth. “Innards?”  Maybe fig seeds. Figs don’t have innards. Also, don’t scorpions sting? This author has them biting. Seems wrong to me.

All the above being said, I do recommend this book to any reader with energy. You must be willing to put in a lot of time and to keep detailed lists of characters and names, which I had to do to make sense of the book.

I can’t say it better than L’Express:  “The Zenith is a stunning reflection on the tragedy of power when it is taken hostage by totalitarian ideologies.”

I’d like to see a cookbook from Duong Thu Huong. She could produce a stunner.

—David Willson

Class of ’67 by Jack Wells

Jack Wells was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps’ Sixth Basic Class of 1967, from which 498 newly minted second lieutenants graduated on November 1 of that year. “BC 6-67 sent more lieutenants off to war and suffered more officers killed or wounded than any Basic School class since the Korean War,” Wells says early on in Class of ’67: The Story of the 6th Marine Officer Basic Class of 1967 (CreateSpace, 231 pp., $45.95, paper), a well-conceived and well-written tribute to the forty-three men in his class who died in Vietnam.

Wells was a forward observer with A Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, and also the artillery adviser for the 21st ARVN Ranger Battalion, before ending his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour as the XO for H Battery, 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines. He conceived of the idea of a book honoring his classmates who died in Vietnam in 1998 at the class’s second reunion. The result was “Basic School Class 6-67: The Tip of the Spear,” an article Wells wrote in the Marine Corps Gazette in 2002. That article became the first chapter of his book.

The book’s final chapter describes the effort “to create a living memorial to Basic Class 6-67 and those who served with them” in the form of a nine-room primary school near the village of Thang Binh in Vietnam, not far from the 5th Marines’ 1967 regimental headquarters. Working with the East Meets West Foundation, the Marines of 6-67 raised the money to built the school, which was dedicated in February of 2006.

“In front of the school,” Wells writes, “a memorial wall displays 165 inscriptions engraved on marble tiles that reflect some of the thoughts of those who supported the project. Funds from the project paid for construction of a small library two years later.”

—Marc Leepson

Walking With Grunts by Stan Hessey

Stan Hessey, an Anglican priest, spent twenty years as an Australian Regular Army Chaplain. During one twelve-month period, in 1969-70, Father Stan served in Vietnam as a chaplain with the 8th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment. His Vietnam War experiences are at the heart of Walking With Grunts: A Memoir of My Year in Vietnam as an Australian Army Chaplain with the 8th Infantry Battalion (Xlibris, 87 pp., $53.49, paper).

“During the year I served in Vietnam I was often reminded of Kipling’s Gunga Din,” Hessey writes, “who tries to bring water to the troops. My ‘water’ would be spiritual. Sometimes it seemed impossible.”

Working with the Australian troops in Vietnam, Hessey says, “was a time of great testing. Many were conscripted and very young. They did the job they were trained to do, and believe me, they did it well. It was popular during and after the war to pour scorn on these men for doing their duty. Their job was not approved of by many of their fellow citizens. But they upheld Anzac tradition. Even today those Diggers stand ten foot tall. I know, because I walked in their shadow.”

—Marc Leepson

A Legacy of Hope by John E. Craven II

On the front cover of A Legacy of Hope: One Veteran’s Journey: Turning my Disadvantage to an Advantage for Others (Walsworth Publishing Company, hardcover)  we are told, “All the proceeds from the sales of this book go to the expenses for construction of a new school in Vietnam in conjunction with the D.O.V.E. Fund.” Two very cute little Vietnamese kids are pictured on the cover.  One is making the “V” for victory sign.

The author, John E. Craven II, a member of VVA Chapter 259 in Michigan, served in the U. S. Army from 1968-1970. He was in Vietnam with Company A of the 70th Combat Engineer Battalion in 1969 near the village Khanh Duong. Craven’s a member of the Southpoint Community Christian Church and  of the Board of Trustees of the D.O.V.E. (Development of Vietnam Endeavors) Fund, a non-profit humanitarian group that works with “the poorest people of Vietnam.”

Much of the colorful little book is told with photos, or at least reinforced by them. Most of those photos and most of the book cover Craven’s trip back to Vietnam with people associated with the Fund and its wide-ranging bus tour of the country. A few pages near the beginning tell us about Craven’s tour of duty and his disappointment with how he was treated as a returning veteran, as well as his recourse to alcohol to deal with the rejection he felt by his country.

Like most of us, though, John Craven surmounted his readjustment problems. He got his college degree and established a family and a career.

John Craven

A Legacy of Hope is the healing story of Craven’s involvement with the D.O.V. E. Fund, which has raised a million and a half dollars. The Fund uses all of that money to build schools in Vietnam, as well as to fund scholarships, medical care and disaster relief. To date, D.O.V.E. has built more than forty schools, including nursery schools,  daycare centers, elementary schools, and junior high school, Craven is most closely associated with the building of the junior high, a tribute to George C. Davenport, Jr., Wayne Robert Elkins, Sr., and William F. McLaughlin, three men he served with in Vietnam who died in the war.

The book is offered at no charge for those who donate any amount to the D.O.V.E. fund. So, if you want to make a difference and do something positive for the Vietnamese people, send a check to The D.O.V.E Fund at PO Box 350741, Toledo, OH  43635. You can also contribute via the group’s website,  www.dovefund.org 

John Craven’s book moved me to do so. That’s how powerful it is.

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

—David Willson

Same River, Different Water by Douglas Young

Douglas Young served as an infantry officer in Vietnam. He did two tours of duty, with Company B, 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and with Company C, 2nd Battalion 5th Cavalry of the 1st Cavalry Division. His wife, Cindy was a U. S. Army nurse whom he met in Vietnam in 1969. She was working in the Neurosurgery Ward at the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh.

Douglas Young’s new book, Same River Different Water: A Veteran’s Journey from Vietnam to Viet Nam (CreateSpace, 190 pp., $39.95, paper), is a large-format book, dominated by many full-page color photographs of high quality.

Same River Different War is well written and well designed. The recounting early in the book of the first meeting of CPT Young and 2nd LT Cynthia Mason is powerful and moving. It takes place in the Neurosurgery Ward, which is full of paralyzed and head trauma patients. The butcher’s bill of war is presented to the reader in an unforgettable way. The ward is called “The Vegetable Garden” for reasons I won’t go into.

The Youngs returned to Vietnam in February 2005 to spend a year and a half teaching English at the University of Hue. That is the predominant subject of the book, but the author skillfully weaves in information about his tours of duty in combat and how that experience affected him.

The book is divided into seven sections. The most powerful one is titled “Don’t They Hate Us?”  Young convinced this reader that the Vietnamese do not hate us. He offers many reasons why he thinks they do not, saying  straight out: “They most assuredly don’t hate us.”

Douglas Young was a keen observer while he lived and taught in Hue; he encountered no Vietnamese who showed hatred. Most Vietnamese, he points out, are too young to remember what they call the American War.

Then there is the fact that Vietnam fought a war with China after the American War.One Vietnamese admonished Young that we Americans think we are the center of the universe, but we are not, and that their war with the French and their wars with China made the twelve years of war with America seem much less significant.

Young discusses the effect of Agent Orange on Vietnam, noting that it is another reason the Vietnamese would have every reason to hate us. Another reason he gives is the high number of bombs we dropped on Vietnam.

Still, Young says that hatred was not something he encountered during his stay. When he returned to the United States and attended infantry reunions, this question was often asked of him, and he assured fellow veterans that he was treated well in Vietnam. Many veterans did not believe him.

Douglas and Cindy Young are exceptional Vietnam veterans who have done great things in Vietnam and who have made fine friends there. Douglas communicates that fact on every page of this beautiful and healing book.

—David Willson

Transition to Duty by Leo Flory

Leo Flory was drafted into the Army when he was nineteen in February of 1968. He had basic and AIT at Fort Sam Houston, then went on to serve a 1968-69 tour of duty as a combat medic in Vietnam with Bravo Company, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, 101st Airborne Division. Flory tells his Vietnam War story in his memoir Transition to Duty: A Combat Medic’s Tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Screaming Eagles (The Priscilla Press, 320 pp., $19.50, paper).

“I was a country boy [from Michigan], without knowledge of the world and with only a curiosity about a far off war,” Flory writes. “I had no thought whatsoever of the military and very little chance of ever volunteering for it. But when the call ‘came to me,’ I did not shirk it. I went to do my duty and joined the military service, even if in an abstract way. Then, I was sent off to war and assigned to one of the most recognized and famous units in U.S. military history.”

The author’s web site is http://www.floryenterprise.com

—Marc Leepson