1966: The Year of the Horse by Robert K. Powers

Bob Powers, who was born and brought up in Chicago, tried to join the Army Reserves in September of 1965. He was working as a newly minted journeyman electrician with a newly bestowed 1A draft classification. “I had a new 421 Pontiac Bonneville coupe and a Corvette powered cherry ’56 Chevy,” he writes in 1966: The Year of the Horse (Dog Ear Publishing, 215 pp., $14.95, paper), his war memoir. “I loved muscle cars and drag racing. My love life was great and my future was looking good.”

Powers’s future did not look so good after he failed the Army Reserve physical—and it looked much worse when his draft notice came in January of 1966. Strangely, Powers passed his draft induction physical, and was inducted into the Army on March 30. Then came Basic Training at Fort Polk in Louisiana, followed by Infantry AIT at Polk’s infamous Tigerland, and then the inevitable assignment to Vietnam.

Powers put in an eventful nine months with the 1st Cavalry Division’s 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry in the Central Highlands. His tour of duty was cut short after he was severely wounded following a day of humping the boonies when a trip wire booby trap went off as Powers and his unit were waiting for a helicopter.

“All of a sudden there was a tremendous explosion to my right,” Powers writes. “It felt like I had been hit in the head with a rifle butt. My ears were ringing and there was dirt everywhere. I slipped my left arm out of the straps on my rucksack and I went to do the right and I couldn’t move my arm. I extended my left arm across my chest and my hand into my right armpit and I could feel a large wet hole in my back. My hand was covered with blood.”

Powers was medevaced out and operated on at the 15th Medical at LZ English. He recovered at the 85th Evac Hospital in Qui Nhon, the 7th Field Hospital in Japan, at Clark Air Force Base Hospital in the Philippines, and at Ireland Army Hospital at Fort Knox.

His readable memoir, filled with much reconstructed dialogue, is told chronologically, beginning with Powers’ Army Reserve physical and ending with his honorable discharge in March 1968.

The author’s website is www.1966theyearofthehorse.com

—Marc Leepson

Cottonwood by Tom Dawson

Tom Dawson served as a combat correspondent in Vietnam. After coming home from the war he became an educator. The two main characters of Cottonwood (CreateSpace, 375 pp., $14.95, paper), his literate and well-produced novel, are named Tom Dawson and Sam Wilson. They served together in Vietnam.

The author gives one of his main characters his own name and much of his past history, including his experience in Vietnam as a combat correspondent.  We are told that his old friend Sam was, “a Nighthawk who flew in Huey gunships.”

The conflict the novel presents us with takes place in Cottonwood Springs, Colorado, where Sam owns a run-down trailer park that functions as a place for lower income folks to abide in peace. Developers have their eyes on Sam’s property, and have made him an offer that he refuses. This, in turn, stirs up trouble with the developers, who have a vision of turning sleepy little Cottonwood into another Aspen—a haven for millionaires who will build their mansions there to be close to the ski slopes. Further complicating the plot is Tom’s secret affair with Sam’s daughter, Sandy.

There are many references to the Vietnam War including the back story that Tom and Sam met in Officers Candidate School at Fort Benning, but chose to leave OCS uncompleted when the government “began offering early outs for soldiers volunteering to be sent to Nam.”  This caused me to scratch my head in puzzlement.

In short order, the two of them were “riflemen assigned to the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division, working out of Cu Chi just northeast of Saigon.”

After about half of their tours of duty had elapsed, Sam got the Nighthawk assignment, and Tom got the job of typing “stories on a Remington typewriter about body counts.”  During his Nighthawk assignment, Sam shot a water buffalo, which brought him bad Karma.

The novel and the characters wander far from Cottonwood Springs. At one point Tom is in New York City contemplating the missing World Trade Center towers, the “architectural martyr,” and feeling a cold chill when he hands over his fare to a taxi driver of “Middle Eastern origin.”  Sam Wilson takes off for Mexico with two companions, one of them named Jesus, and ends up being involved in gold mining and revolution.

About half way through, Cottonwood turns into a mystery of sorts. I won’t spoil it by giving away the details.

I enjoyed the book and the many references to movies, songs, and books.  All the main characters seemed to be movie experts. To list all of the movies mentioned and talked about in this book would double the size of this review.

Dawson has produced a novel, in which all the characters are searching for the meaning of life, and he did it without losing this reader. That is a great accomplishment.

—David Willson

http://tdawson-cottonwood.com/author.html

I Flew With Heroes by Thomas R. Waldron

Thomas R. Waldron graduated from Clemson University in January of 1962 with a degree in civil engineering. He also had completed Air Force ROTC, and upon graduating was commissioned a USAF 2nd Lieutenant. Then came flight training at Vance AFB in Oklahoma. After more USAF training, including survival school, Waldron’s first duty assignment was as a KC-135 Stratotanker co-pilot with the Strategic Air Command flying out of Columbus, Ohio.

In his memoir, I Flew with Heroes: A True Story of Rescue and Recovery During the Vietnam War, Including the Raid at Son Tay (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $14, paper), Waldron concentrates on describing his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty in which he flew K-135s, and then HH-3 and HH-53 Jolly Green rescue helicopters in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos out of Udorn Air Force Base in Thailand.

As the book’s subtitle indicates, Waldron took part in the celebrated November 1970 joint Army-Air Force raid on the Son Tay prisoner of war camp outside Hanoi in North Vietnam. During the raid Waldron flew on Apple 3, the mission gunship. When he landed at Son Tay, Waldron writes, “my heart was still pumping and the adrenaline machine was on maximum output.”

He and the three other Apple 3 crewman received the Silver Star for their actions during the raid. Even though there were no U.S. prisoners at the camp, the assault force killed scores of North Vietnamese troops and returned without losing a man.

The author is donating a portion of the profits of book sales to the Wounded Warriors Project.

—Marc Leepson

The History of Bearing Children by Jacqueline Murray Loring

Jacqueline Murray Loring (above) is the editor of two important anthologies, Summer Home Review: A Community of Words: A Circle of Poets, An Anthology of Selected Poems and Stories (2002), and Summer Home Review, Volume II: A Community of Words: A Circle of Writers An Anthology of Poems, Prose, Plays and Translations (2005). The Summer Home Review books celebrate the experience of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

There is fine poetry in these two anthologies, which includes works by Vietnam veterans David Connolly, Preston Hood, Gary Rafferty, Marc Levy, and many others.The books, Loring says, “trace the literary bonds of all the poets and the influences of their poet-teachers like Bruce Weigl, Fred Marchant, Yusef Komanyakaa, Lady Borton, W. D. Ehrhart, Lamont Steptoe and Martha Collins.”

This review focuses on Loring’s The History of Bearing Children (Quercus Publishing, $10.00, paper), a new slender and austere volume of her own poetry. It consists of thirty poems on forty-eight pages.

We are told in the Author’s Note that Loring lives on Cape Cod with her husband, Gary. Nothing is said there of her or Gary’s military service. A reader must find the dedication for more details. The book is dedicated to “my husband Gary Loring who served in the U. S. Army in Vietnam from 1967-1968, where he was stationed in Saigon and worked out of the 3rd MASH Hospital in Dong Tam, south of Saigon during the Tet Offensive, to Spec Todd W. Eastman, and to everyone who has been impacted by warring.”

That would be everyone on this planet.  “Warring” is a new word to me in this context. To my ear it sounds a lot like “whoring.”  I looked it up. “Two or more people or groups in conflict with each other.”  That about covers it.

A partial list of war-related terms I gleaned from this small book follows.  The list almost reads like a poem itself: Jungle foliage, enlisting, Army blankets, the South China Sea, warriors, battles, Gold Star tea, booby-traps, bamboo paper, Abu Graib, shrapnel, conscientious objector, SEAL, dog handler, grunt, Marine, war games, dog tags, flashbacks, about face, AWOL. Agent Orange, badge of courage, Army private, Edgewood Arsenal, battlefield, “the barrel of a gun,” war, crisp salute, Tet, flashbacks, death, napalm, Navy uniforms, box of medals, squadron.

These thirty poems carry a heavy freight of martial language, and they do the task gracefully and with elegance.

The poem :”Agent Orange” whispered most powerfully to me because I’m dying of Agent Orange-provoked multiple myeloma, which is directly related to the thirteen-and-a-half months I spent basking in the sunshine in South Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. The words that stuck in my brain are these: “Bones withered like the trees poisoned from the sky.”  Loring is writing about me and my cancer-ridden bones. She has never met me, and very likely has never heard of me.

Buy this small, powerful book and read these poems. Become more aware of how all-inclusive the butcher’s bill of war is.

To get a copy of the book or for more information send an email to jmljake@capecod.net The mailing address is: J.M. Loring, PO Box 338, Monument Beach, MA 02553. The website is http://capecodwriters.net

—David Willson

An Honorable Illusion by Kurt Chismark

Kurt Chismark graduated from Cornell University, enlisted in the Army in 1968, went to OCS, then served with the 6th Special Forces Group (Airborne), and as a rifle platoon leader in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade. He received three Bronze stars, the Air Medal, and attained the rank of Captain. Chismark, a VVA member, belongs to Chapter 535 in Nevada County, California.

While in Vietnam, Chismark led search and destroy missions. In Honorable Illusion:  A Memoir (AuthorHouse, 112 pp., $14.95, paper) he writes vividly of this experience of plodding through Vietnam’s jungles, villages, and rice paddies with the 173rd.

This slender book is organized into fifteen short chapters with titles such as “Only in the Movies,” “A Total SNAFU,” “The Frag,” and “R & R.”  Chismark gives the reader a good sense of what his tour of duty was like, both in his six months in the field and the six months he spent in the rear—and he does it without using any swear words worse than “darn.” This narrative definitely is suitable for a young adults interested in reading about the Vietnam War.

Chismark’s strong Christian faith is evident throughout the book. Like many Americans of the Vietnam Generation, Chismark came from a family with a strong history of military service. So he was prepared to go to war in Southeast Asia, and as Chismark says in his preface, he “felt happy, thankful and proud about my new role and opportunity to command troops in combat in Vietnam to prevent the spread of Communism throughout the world, and thus protect our freedom.”  A bit later he says, these causes “may have been based on false assumptions, erroneous information and possibly a bit of hubris.”

By page 33, Chismark describes how the women and children in the villages he and his men tromped through looked at them as “big, armed, alien, storm troopers who couldn’t speak their language or understand their culture or customs.”  Truer words were never spoken.

When Chismark confronts a bound and gagged VC prisoner who is staring into his eyes, he imagines that prisoner thinking, “What in God’s name are you doing here?  You have no business here. You don’t care about anything but going home, and you are despicable. In addition, I have been trained and indoctrinated. I am not afraid to fight to the death. Our side is right and you don’t get it. We are obsessed and we will win!”  For this reader, this is the most powerful point made in this book.

I noticed no mention of John Wayne or ham and mother fuckers or Agent Orange in this infantry memoir, unlike in most others. But the author does include most of the other obligatory details of his genre: sandbags, concertina wire, the smell of burning feces, saddle-up, RTO’s, VC, NVA, ARVN’s, Dear John letters, hard drug use, fragging, spitting on returning soldiers, Kit Carson Scouts, the war as movie (a la Apocalypse Now,) R & R, booby traps, AK-47’s, M-16’s, hammer and anvil, suspicion of draftees and those who served in the rear, Mermite containers, blivits, Vietnamization, pacification, music such as “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”  by Eric Burdon and the Animals, and Freedom Birds.

Even in my Vietnam War tour of duty in the rear, I encountered most of this stuff, directly and indirectly, and I enjoyed reading about all of it in this lively book.

Near the end of this memoir, Chismark is stationed at Fort Benning, where Lt. William Calley was under house-arrest. Chismark says here that “Many Vietnam vets were perceived as baby killers, guilty by association.”  He goes on to say that “Times were tough on returning vets.”

I see this as the second most important point in the book. It bears mentioning, too, that all of us who returned ran the risk of being perceived this way, even if we spent the war typing memos and filing documents. My family and their friends assumed I spent my tour of duty doing the things that Calley was convicted of doing.

There are a couple of unusual things about this slender book that Chismark deserves credit for and which set it apart from the dozens of other infantry memoirs I have read.  He devotes a lot of space to praising his Kit Carson Scout, a VC who left the enemy to join the Americans and who worked with Lt. Chismark and his platoon. The scout, Tran, gets a chapter of his own, “Killer Defector—Enemy Possessed,” and credit for saving Chismark’s life and the lives of his troopers countless times due to his skill at spotting booby traps and navigating trails when he acted as point man, his usual role.

“I can honestly say Tran was the number one reason our platoon experienced the success fighting the VC that we did,” Chismark says.

The other thing that Chismark does that is not typical is that he honestly states near the end of the book what his family went through with him before he came to grips with his PTSD. To wit: “Unpredictable bursts of anger, over imbibing, verbal abuse, catastrophic thinking, ‘bossiness,’ insensitivity, and narcissism.”

Chismark’s memoir is brave and honest. I read it in one sitting. I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

Military Memories Guest Book Archives by Robert Heurung

Vietnam veteran Robert Heurung created a website called Military Memories in 1997. “The purpose of this website is to: Support Military Troops and Veterans, Honor our Fallen Comrades, Increase Awareness of the POW/MIA Issue,” Heurung writes in Military Memories Guestbook Archives, 10/1998-3/2012 (xlibris, 727 pp., $23.99, paper), a compilation of about 5,000 short posts people have sent to the website.

The website also includes photos of Danang and the surrounding area that Heurung took while serving as a U.S. Navy Seabee in Vietnam from February 1968 to March 1969. There also is a link to the website of VVA’s Central Minnesota Chapter Chapter 290.

Here’s a typical entry in the book, chosen at random. Dated April 4, 2007, it’s from a veteran in New Jersey: “I could not believe it. Here I was just passing some time and came upon your website via YAHOO. I was at Camp Tehn Sha Feb 68 to Mar 69. I just called a buddy who was there at the same time. He went nuts when he found out there is a page out there if you ever want more pictures or are in the New York area I work at the Statue of Liberty. My # is …. Welcome Home Brother!”

—Marc Leepson

Valor in Vietnam by Allen B. Clark

Allen B. Clark graduated from West Point in 1963. He served in intelligence with the 5th Special Forces Group in Vietnam in 1966-67 and was severely wounded. His new book, Valor in Vietnam: Chronicles of Honor, Courage and Sacrifice, 1962-1977 (Casemate, 288 pp., $29.95), consists of a nineteen chapters, each of which contains a true Vietnam War story.

“Herein are first-hand narratives by Vietnam War participants,” Clark says in his Introduction, “highly intense, emotional, and personal stories.” This “is the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of people who experienced it. It is my hope and prayer that these stories reflect the commitment, honor, and dedication with which we performed out duty in the Vietnam War.”

What the narratives also reflect is a view of the war as seen primarily through the thoughts and deeds of officers. Eighteen of the twenty war veterans chronicled in the book are former commissioned officers. The only enlisted men Clark concerns himself with are “legendary Vietnam warrior” SSG Patrick Tadina, who served in the war for five years, and Spec4s Robert Fleming, “a battle-hardened young [173rd Airborne] paratrooper,” and James W. “Jess” Jones, a 101st Airborne Division medic.

—Marc Leepson

The author’s website is www.valorinvietnam.com/abouttheauthor.html