Charlie One Five by Nicholas Warr

Nicholas Warr grew up in Oregon. He graduated from high school in 1963, started college, but dropped out after two years and went to work in a plywood mill. “The mindless hard work and abject boredom of working graveyard shift took its toll, and I found myself in the Marine Corps recruiting office in Eugene [Oregon] in February 1966,” Warr writes in Charlie One Five: A Marine Company’s Vietnam War (Texas Tech University, 400 pp., $39.95), a detailed history of Ware’s Vietnam War unit.

Warr took to Marine life. He did so well in boot camp that a DI recommended him for OCS, which he took at Quantico. Then came Basic School, where Warr again thrived. Offered his choice of MOS, he thought about supply and logistics, but decided to go infantry after his Basic School platoon commander “made me a deal that I couldn’t refuse,” Warr says, “using a very effective guilt trip.”

Next came a six week “high-intensity Vietnamese language course” at Quantico, a thirty-day leave, and a flight to Vietnam in November of 1967. Warr spent his tour as a platoon commander with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, Fifth Marines.

His book is an in-depth Vietnam War history of Warr’s old unit beginning when it arrived in Vietnam in December of 1965. Warr spent years doing the research, using a combination of his own memories, his battalion’s Command Chronologies and Combat After-action Reports, along with other records, as well as interviews with dozens of other former Charlie One Five Marines.

Nicholas Warr

Warr—the author of Phase Line Green: The Battle for Hue, 1968 (1997)—wrote Charlie One Five, he says, to tell the truth about his unit’s Vietnam War history. He was “determined,” Warr says in his Preface, to show how the Vietnam War “tasted and smelled, looked and felt, and how it is remembered by those who rose to the challenge of serving their country, risking everything in that worthy endeavor.”

Much “of what has been written” about the war and “most of what was made into movies” focuses on “aberrations,” Warr says. “These lurid stories are mostly made up; if incidents similar to them did occur, at least in my experience, they were the rare exceptions, not the rule.
“For the most part, those who experienced combat in Vietnam served their country and the South Vietnamese with honor and then returned home and went on with their lives. That’s the Vietnam War I choose to write about.”
The author’s website is nicholaswarr.com
—Marc Leepson

American Warrior by Gary O’Neal


Gary “Butch” O’Neal lied about his age and joined the Army at age fifteen to escape a hardscrabble life after being passed around to relatives in Colorado, Nebraska, Utah, and South Dakota following his parents’ divorce. He had Basic Training at Fort Benning, then Infantry AIT, then jump school. He served his first Vietnam tour beginning in 1967 with the 173rd Airborne, operating out of a fire base in the Central Highlands.

“I’d been lost living in America, and in Vietnam I got found,” O’Neal writes in his readable memoir, American Warrior: The True Story of a Legendary Ranger (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s, 304 pp., $26.99), written with David Fisher. “War was what I was good at. It made me a whole person. Like other people fighting over there, I became addicted to the high of being at risk.”

Gary O’Neal

O’Neal wound up fighting in Vietnam for most of the next four years. Before that, though, his past caught up with him when the military discovered his age secret. He was booted out of the Army with an honorable discharge and told he could not re-enlist. But he was eligible for the draft.

And, in 1969, O’Neal became one of the few young American men who manipulated his local draft board—not to get out of the draft, but to move ahead of others and get drafted. He re-entered the Army under his real name. The Army made O’Neal take Basic and AIT again. But he didn’t much care.

“I just wanted to get back to the war,” he says. The DIs “pretty much left me alone; they spent their time messing with the deadheads, trying to turn them into soldiers.”

O’Neal took jump school again at Benning, then it was back to the war. The Army, of all things, made the young man who was itching to become a LRRP, a truck driver. But he soon was back with the 173rd, at Headquarters Company, 4th Battalion. Later he did become a LRRP with Echo Company of the 20th LRRPS, aka Charlie Rangers.

A good deal of the book is made up of details of O’Neal’s Vietnam War tours of duty. He saw plenty of action, was wounded, and received the Silver Star. O’Neal went back for a third tour near the end of the war working for MACV-SOG based in Da Nang.

He went on to fight in both Gulf wars, and became a founding member of the first DOD anti-terrorist team and a member of the Golden Knights Parachuting Team.

—Marc Leepson

Singing to the Lions by Robert A. Gisclair

The in-country Vietnam War novel written by a veteran of that conflict has been an all-but-disappearing species in recent years. Two and three decades ago, war novels by Vietnam veterans came streaming out of word processors. Today, there are precious few in-country novels amid a seemingly endless avalanche of Vietnam War memoirs.

Which brings us to Singing to the Lions (Margaret Media, 300 pp., $14.95), a well-told work of Vietnam War fiction by Robert Gisclair, who served a tour of duty in 1968-69 as a forward observer with the 101st Airborne’s 501st Infantry Regiment. Bobby Gisclair came home from Vietnam, went to college, traveled the world, and then went to work for more than three decades in the oil fields and offshore platforms in southeastern Louisiana where he lives. Singing to the Lions is his first novel. And it is a good one.

The novel begins in triple-canopy jungle as a squad of grunts, on patrol, faces intense Vietnam War-style physical and emotional challenges. The main character is White, an everyman (“he had been average in everything”) who goes through the ultimate young man’s rite of passage as he puts in an eventful tour of duty. Gisclair does a fine job evoking the sights, sounds, and smells of the infantryman’s life in the jungle at the war’s height, as well as White’s psychic evolution from nervous replacement to seasoned grunt.

White “walked on like an automaton,” Gisclair writes early in the novel, “his eyes locked on [a fellow grunt’s] back. The pain was gone from his body and he was no longer tired. But now he felt a new qualm of nothingness, as if nothing he or anyone else could do would mean or change anything. His existence, and the existence of everything else, was meaningless, an empty void.

“For a moment he wondered if he was going mad, but then realized—it wasn’t madness. It was reality. And when he fully understood it, he wished he would go mad.”

It gives nothing away to say that White does not go mad. But he does face plenty of madness before the novel ends.

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam War Helicopter Art by John Brennan

Back in 2009 we ran a query on our Arts of War on the web page for John Brennan, who served as a Flight Operations Coordinator with the 114th Assault Helicopter Company in Vinh Long in 1970-71. Brennan was collecting names that in-country Army helicopter crews painted on their aircraft from 1961-73 for a book he was putting together.

“I have cataloged over 2,550 names to date,” Brennan told us. “I expect that number to exceed 3,000 when complete, and would very much like to include as many personalized copter names as possible. The second part of this book project is a photo collection of helicopter nose art that includes names, artwork, graffiti—everything and anything that was painted officially and unofficially on in-country Army copters.”

Brennan’s 3,000-name-strong U.S. Army Helicopter Names in Vietnam was published in 2011. Now comes his Vietnam War Helicopter Art: U.S. Army Rotor Aircraft (Stackpole, 208 pp., $26.95, paper), which includes scores of homemade pics of helicopters adorned with homemade art. Said art, as Stackpole editor Chris Evans puts it, is “funny, dark, sexy, and even downright strange.”

Brennan offers chapters on different types of helicopters, including the AH-1 Cobra, CH-47 Chinook, OH-6 Loach, and the UH-1 Gunships and Hueys. Each pic has a short descriptive paragraph. Abe Gomes’s photo, for example, of a UH-1H adorned with a painting of the Frito Bandito on its nose, says:

“UH-1H 69-15767. 174th Assault Helicopter Assault Company. Chu Lai, 1971. Nose art by crew chief Keith Jarrett. Served in Vietnam from November 1970 to April 1971, accruing 515 flight hours. Crashed upside down on April 27, 1971, when Jarrett moved the nose art to UH-1H 68-16573.”

—Marc Leepson

Seabee Teams in Vietnam, 1963-1968 by Kenneth E. Bingham

Seabee Teams in Vietnam, 1963-1968: The 13-Man Teams That Helped Rural Vietnamese and Who Fought Alongside the Special Forces (CreateSpace, 232 pp., $14.95, paper) is an excerpted reprint by Kenneth E. Bingham of the book, COMCPAC REPORTS: Special Edition, Seabee Teams, Oct. 1959-July 1969, written by Lt. Joseph L. Henley and Chief Journalist Thomas A. Johnson.

That volume also contained reports on Navy Seabee teams that served elsewhere around the world. In his book, Bingham has excerpted the sections on the Seabees in Vietnam beginning in 1954 when Seabees helped move about a million refugees (most of them Catholics) from North Vietnam to the south as the communists took over.

Two years later Seabees worked on surveying South Vietnam’s few roads and bridges. The first two thirteen-man Seabee teams arrived in Vietnam in January of 1963 to work with Army Special Forces in the CIA-funded Civilian Irregular Defense Group. Those teams built Special Forces camps and outposts, airfields, and roads, and worked directly with Vietnamese on many projects in rural areas.

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Seabees taking a break while building a field hospital in Vietnam in 1967.

“Most of us took it for granted that the air bases we landed in, roads we drove on, helo-pads we mounted out from, and the camps we lived in, or passed through, and the water and food and fuel storage were somehow always there––or most likely didn’t give it a thought,” Bingham says.

“But long before we arrived, military and civilian engineers were busy preparing the ‘ground’ to make it possible to fight a war; and begin attempts to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese. A recent travel guide to Vietnam mentioned the superior roads and infrastructure in the Southern portion of Vietnam––as opposed to North Vietnam––due to the American presence there during the Vietnam War.”

—Marc Leepson

Colorado Mandala by Brian Francis Heffron

Brain Francis Heffron’s novel, Colorado Mandala (Little House Books, 254 pp., $14.95, paper), is a classy looking book with a cover featuring a detail from a painting by William Keith of a wild mountain canyon with a distant river. It sets the tone for the book.

The relationship of Michael, Paul and Sarah provides the framework of this novel in the wild setting of the Colorado Rockies. The war in Vietnam has just wound down and an era of peace has been arrived.  A concept called free love is in the air.

I didn’t live in Colorado in the 1970s but I knew people who did, and some of them fit the characters Heffron presents. Michael is not a recent veteran of the Vietnam War, but is filled with a rage that often comes out in violence and is fueled by a large alcohol consumption and cocaine use.  Michael and Paul are partners in a gem business. Paul is the talent behind the production of the finished gems. Michael has a salesman’s charm when it suits him. Lithe, green-eyed Sarah supports herself and her ten-year-old son, Stuart, by producing batik dyed apparel.

The author tells us that Michael was in the Special Services, but later it is made clear he meant Special Forces, AKA the Green Berets. The text implies that Paul is himself a military veteran but does not make it clear what kind. The author says that it was unpopular for a young man to become a Green Beret. The way I remember it, Green Berets were American icons celebrated in hit songs and movies.

In the pivotal chapter of the novel Paul discovers the Vietnam War journal written by Michael in Japan, which contains the secret of his rage. This is not a thriller or a spy novel, but a love story, so I will provide this spoiler.  Michael was a Special Forces Captain in Vietnam way out in the boonies where he was co-leader of an A team of Montagnards. The other leader, Stuart, was also a captain.

Brian Heffron

The journal tells us that Stuart went off his nut and started shooting the Montagnards, who Michael calls “Indians.” I had not encountered a Special Forces Team that did not have a sergeant on it. Two captains? New to me.

I was bothered often while reading this lyrical novel by the tone and language relating particularly to military matters, especially to all things Special Forces.

For example, when Michael gives a reference to distance he uses miles, not klicks as the SF men did. The way Michael refers to himself in the journal as an officer, rather than as a captain, set my teeth on edge.  Michael says that he and Stuart Drummond had commanded the unit for two and one half years. I’d need more details to believe that. He mentions setting up Claymores and widow makers.  I know what claymores are, but what are widow makers?

We are expected to believe that Michael went back to the states, found Sarah, and got involved with her as a lover, but he has never told her that he is the one who shot and killed her husband, Captain Stuart Drummond.

The three adults in this novel, who all love and care about the ten-year-old, decide it is okay for Paul and Michael to take him on an expedition deep into a cave.  At that point, I could no longer suspend my disbelief. This plot device is not believable, even in the context of the irresponsible 1970’s. All three adults would never think this was a grand idea, especially the very protective widow, Sarah. Of course, the boy has an asthma attack deep in the cave, and has to be rescued by Paul with spectacular derring-do involving swimming out of the cave via an underground river.

There’s lots of plot left in the novel. It involves a Rocky Mountain High festival and a cockfight, as well as a fight between Paul and Michael.

I recommend this book to all who wish to revisit the 1970’s, with a heavy dose of the Vietnam War Syndrome as an evil that permeates the souls of those of us who served in that war.

As for the cryptic title, “mandala” refers to the shape and form of the bun into which emerald-eyed Sarah chooses to twist her blonde hair.

—David Willson

Stumbling Through the Sixties by Howard Flomberg

Howard Flomberg undertook his short autobiography, Stumbling Through the Sixties (CreateSpace, 162pp. $12.95 paper), as a project to stay sane once poor health forced him into retirement. He takes the reader through his impoverished childhood in Queens, New York, through his Air Force career, and to the present day.

His style is breezy and anecdotal, like that old uncle you had when you were a kid who loved to tell stories and wax philosophical. Flomberg seems to have had a desperate childhood, growing up as an orthodox Jew in a difficult household. His father died when he was quite young, to be succeeded by a brutish, alcoholic stepfather. Relatives sometime helped, but money was a constant issue. Flomberg had trouble in school. He was smart but easily bored, and his grades were poor. He was chubby and wore hand-me-downs. 

Howard Flomberg

After flunking out of college, he entered the Air Force as the lesser evil—the other choices were the Army and the Marines. Luckily, they trained him in the very earliest computers, vacuum tube models. He was stationed in Bangkok, where, in one of the book’s more exciting scenes, he acquitted himself well in a knife fight with some local toughs.

Flomberg writes about a CIA operation, Igloo White, that placed sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and used the results to analyze the data in South Vietnam. Flomberg was flown into the Igloo White base to pull maintenance on the systems, and there were firefights all around him.

Perhaps in a future book Howard Flomberg will write more about Igloo White, an intriguing, outlandish undertaking. He should be congratulated just for getting his book in print. Like your uncle, he’s often entertaining.

The author’s website is http://hpflomberg.blogspot.com

—John Mort