Year of the Monkey by Gene Hays

VVA member Gene Hays spent twenty-one years in the Marine Corps as an aviation electronics technician. That included a tour of duty in Vietnam where he worked as a Civil Affairs NCO. In his excellent memoir, Year of the Monkey (CreateSpace, 206 pp., $14, paper), Hays refers to his work in the war as “nation building,” teaching the principles of freedom and democracy to the peasant people of South Vietnam.

That’s nice work if you can get it. How did that go? I read his book to find out.

I spent a lot of time scrutinizing the color photo on this attractive book. I even used a magnifying glass, but the photo is so blurred and muddy that I got little out of it. I always try to use a book’s cover as a clue to what will be found inside. But other than a guitar held up high by one of the six Marines on the cover and a tattered flag with a yellow star on it, the cover was not very informative.

The back cover blurb tells us that this book follows “in the footsteps of “ Civic Action, A True Story, an earlier book that Hays wrote. The first pages of Year of the Monkey detail the efforts by Marine Corps Civic Action. It’s a gripping story and well-told, dealing with how the Marines worked hard to win “the hearts and minds” of Vietnamese villagers by providing them with textbooks and school supplies for their schools; teaching them basic sanitation related to their village wells and water supplies; and providing them with cement, manpower, and expertise to make the needed changes.

The Marines in these Civil Action Teams placed themselves at frequent risk when they went out to these villages on their missions. They went lightly armed and without steel pots or flak jackets. They also informed the villagers when they would be coming to show them courtesy and respect.

As the author says, “It was a slow and dangerous process,” which is an understatement. He goes on to state that while the Marines were connecting with the people, obtaining intelligence and trying to prevent attacks and secure the villages, “the enemy was trying to instill fear and subservience through murder and torture.”

The hero of this book is not the author, but Maj. Richard Risner. Another hero is Hays’s friend, Sgt. Dick Petterson. Most of the second half of this engrossing book deals with Maj. Risner’s capture by the NVA on August 20, 1968, when his unit was out in the countryside fighting this different kind of war, traveling to the semi-pacified village of Khoung Quang, considered safe during the day, but hostile at night.

Risner became separated from the rest of his team, and was captured and spirited away in a truck, the intent being to get him to Hanoi. During this captivity by the NVA, a soldier known as “Honcho” tortured him by dislocating his shoulders and beating him with a bamboo stick. Another one one of his captors “smashed all of his toes on both feet with a metal hammer” to make it unlikely he’d escape by running. He was also urinated and defecated on. He had a tether around his neck and his hands were tied tightly as well.

Risner managed to kill three of his captors and successfully escape to link up with Petterson who was looking for him, but then was bitten by a pit viper. This section of the book is very exciting and held this reader’s attention.

The blurb on the back uses the word “harrowing” to describe this story, and it is totally appropriate. But it also says that the ending is a surprising twist.  I read this section several times to find the surprising twist, but did not find it. The only thing that surprised me—actually shocked me—was that I found no evidence that Maj. Risner received any decorations for this brave and unusual escape, nor did he get any further promotions. A Major he was and a Major he stayed.

What was up with that? Admittedly, I spent my time in the Army, and the Marine Corps does things differently, but Risner received a Silver Star for an earlier act of bravery also involving Sgt. Petterson. They both should have received some formal recognition from the Marine Corps for this exploit. That puzzles me, and I don’t like puzzles.

It also should be noted that this section of the book reads like a novel. It is very well written, and there are details of Maj. Risner’s escape and Sgt. Petterson’s attempt to find and free him that only those men could have known.

Hays tells us that he interviewed Risner and was told in detail what happened during his escape and evasion, so that is covered. But I am bothered by the extensive details and dialogue dealing with Gen. Giap, the NVA commander. Where did this information come from?  Hays tell us in his Epilogue that the “book is based on actual events in the lives of Major Richard F. Risner, First Sergeant Richard M. Petterson and Master Sergeant Ronald E. Hays.” He goes on to say that some of the names of characters in the book have been changed.

Maj. Richard Risner

Hays tells us that Rich Risner worked in Hollywood as a stuntman after his Marine Corps career ended and was in The Great Waldo Pepper and The Stuntman.  We are told he was haunted by his military missions and by his time as a POW. The black and white photo of Risner on the back cover of this book displays a haunted and troubled face.

Hays states that Risner’s third wife said her husband was troubled by bad dreams and night sweats “until his last moments.” The sentence from this book that most sticks in my mind is: “He could feel and hear his broken toes squishing in his boots.”

I’ve read a bunch of books about Marine Corps Civic Action Teams, and this one is the most interesting and exciting of the lot. I highly recommend it.

—David Willson