Vietnam Body Count by Mushroom Montoya

Montoya served two tours in Vietnam aboard the USS Trippe (DE 1075) and the USS Truxton (DLGN 35). In his creatively written memoir, Vietnam Body Count (CreateSpace, 370 pp., $17, paper), Montoya  tells us that after killing soldiers, women, and children in Vietnam, he circumnavigated the globe.

Montoya’s worked in “R” (Repair) gangs on board his Navy ships. He fixed things such as broken plumbing. His job was to keep a ship from sinking and he also fought shipboard fires. They called him a snipe.

This memoir, which reads very much like a novel, pays homage to Herman Wouk’s classic shipboard novel, The Caine Mutiny. The main plot is the tension between Chief Jaffe and Mushroom Montoya, whom Jaffe decides is a “peacenik” and must be gotten off his ship by any means possible.

Jaffe tries again and again to frame Montoya as a drug user, which he is not. Mushroom is a guy who showed up for this stint in the Navy, his second, with hair down to his shoulders. He burns up his rage at the killing by running around and around the ship’s smokestack screaming. He also meditates, which seems suspicious to the chief. Montoya, who is from California, even has a mantra.

The captain of the ship, as we are alerted by the title, is obsessed with getting a positive body count. He is a Commander, not a Captain, and also is obsessed with making Captain. Unfortunately, his ship has killed friendly villagers and American and South Vietnamese soldiers, which has given the ship a negative body count.

Mushroom Montoya

To get the body count up, the captain decides to bomb a Catholic church during Sunday morning mass. Intel indicates that the VC are hiding ammo under the floor of the church. Montoya and friends decide to alert the priest that the attack is coming so that the church will be empty when the bombs hit. Montoya is told that it would be tantamount to treason to give this information to the priest.

Montoya’s efforts to thwart his captain’s goals are fueled by letters from his friend Kathy, who asks him if he is the sort of guy who took part in the My Lai Massacre and the napalming of Vietnamese children. She says that she hopes “he is not involved in stuff like that.”

Of course, the purpose of war is to kill, so he is involved in stuff like that.  All of us who were there were involved.

Montoya holds forth about the purpose of the Vietnam War. He says we were not there to stop the spread of communism, but “we’re pouring [money] into the pockets of the cigar smoking fatties at Dow Chemical.”   He goes on to say: “We’re killing the Vietnamese so that American business can thrive.”

I was pleased when Jane Fonda was addressed as a subject in this philosophical war memoir. Mushroom says he was proud of her when she was in Hanoi trying to stop the war. Montoya agrees with Fonda, and praises her and her film Barbarella.

Chief Jaffe, on the other hand says, “She’s a fucking traitor. I hope they shoot the bitch.” Montoya replies, “She has big balls.”

For readers who enjoyed The Caine Mutiny and want to read a book similar to it in many ways—but which takes part in the Vietnam War—this is the book for you. I found it a refreshing contrast so many Vietnam War memoirs that laud the American war in Vietnam, but forget about all the innocent villagers who died from being shelled, and the many American soldiers who died as a result of indiscriminate friendly fire.

Blasting a Roman Catholic Church off the face of the earth on Sunday morning was not an effective way to win hearts and minds or defeat the spread of communism.

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

—David Willson

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Mr. Carter’s Sword by Ken Webb

I found Ken Webb’s Mr. Carter’s Sword (Amazon Digital Services, 262 pp., $3.00, e book), a post-Vietnam War caper novel, entertaining. It caught my attention right at the beginning with references to two of my biggest interests: Lutherans and golf courses.

After the Lutheran funeral of Mr. Carter, who had been an Army Ranger in Vietnam, the surviving members of his Ranger Team meet again. The legacy of a box of secrets triggers a desire for vengeance against the two men who changed the team’s destination in Vietnam to protect their drug and smuggling operation. This change led to the deaths of several Rangers. The bad guys, Colonel Cain and Colonel Ha, are now very rich and own corporations that mask their criminal origins.

Our Ranger heroes figure a way to get even by separating the colonels from their millions through a kidnapping scheme. As one of them puts it: “This scum needs to be punished.”

Another phrase that rang in my inner ear was, “The war that never quite went away.” No, it has not. The millions that the vengeance team intends to get from the kidnapping is destined to go to needy Vietnam veterans. A worthy cause.

Caper, revenge, and kidnap thrillers are not thrilling unless things go wrong. That’s the formula and this book doesn’t disappoint in that arena.  There also is the requisite cast of colorful characters, all carefully introduced so if they are killed or maimed, we’ll miss them, and perhaps even shed a tear at their loss.

This respectable thriller does hit the occasion clinker. For instance, Webb refers to the Medal of Honor as the “Congressional Medal of Honor,” and the city of sin in the Nevada desert as “Las Vagas.” But mostly Webb does a decent job of storytelling. I was pleased that during the Rangers’ attempts to get “payback for those lost boys” there was an appropriate reference to iconic “John Fuckin’ Wayne.”

Author Ken Webb has a son who served with the First Ranger Battalion and provided insight. Webb has a degree in journalism, but evidently no military experience.

I consider this book a good investment for reading on my Kindle, and I recommend it to those who can’t get enough Vietnam War-connected thrillers. This is a worthy addition to that genre.

—David Willson

Do You Hear God Talking? by John Nicolazzo

John Nicolazzo is a Vietnam War veteran. He also is a retired boxer and an ex-boxing coach who “has been battered and beaten by the trials put before him,”  as he notes in Do You Hear God Talking? I Do and So Can You by John Nicolazzo (CrossBooks, 98 pp., $8.99, paper). Nicolazzo tells us that God is the author of this collection of prose and poetry, and that he “had the privilege of being selected to write the words down.”

The book is arranged in sections: “Inspirational Messages Spoken to Me by the Holy Spirit,” “Poems from the Holy Spirit,” “Praise and Worship Songs to Our Creator,” and a conclusion.

On page eighty-five Nicolazzo talks about his  “troublesome sleep stemming from my Vietnam experiences.” This is the author’s most direct reference in the book to “the horrors of the war.”

He tells of a miracle that happened while he was dreaming about being back in Vietnam pursuing an enemy soldier. Nicolazzo got him in his sights and pulled the trigger. He then awoke in his own bed, smelling gun powder, having been gunshot. “Blood was gushing out,” Nicolazzo writes, saying he was “filled with an unexplainable peace.”

No gun is mentioned in this section. So how did he get shot? We are not told. No bullet or bullet fragments were ever found. The author simply says, “this was truly a miracle.”

Vietnam veterans looking for a book of prayers and meditations from the hand of a Vietnam veteran need look no further. Join with John Nicolazzo as he explores his connections with God and his Savior, Jesus Christ.  

—David Willson

This Is What Hell Looks Like by Stuart Allan Steinberg

Untitled

Stuart Allan Steinberg served in the U. S. Army from 1967 until 1971 as an Explosive Ordnance Disposal operator. Wherever he went he was greeted with respect. “E-O-Fucking-D,” someone would intone.

He helped clean up the worst nerve gas disaster in U. S. history in March of 1968 at Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. To leave that behind, Steinberg volunteered for Vietnam. He served in Vietnam from September 1968 to March 1970, dealing with every possible kind of explosive situation short of atomic. 

Steinberg calls his job in Vietnam exhilarating and exciting. That is also true of his memoir This Is What Hell looks Like: Explosive Ordnance Disposal: Dugway Proving Grounds 1968, Vietnam  1968 -1970 ($4.99, e book). He communicates those pleasures with his strong and creative language. He is a master of understatement, as when he says: “In this country there have been times when it was not an advantage to be a Vietnam veteran.”

Steinberg’s comment about volunteering for Vietnam made me laugh aloud. “I’m Jewish,” he writes, “and Jews were not exactly lining up to volunteer for Vietnam.” Norwegian Lutherans were not doing that either. Many of us had to be drafted.

Steinberg served in several places in Vietnam, including the 184th Ordnance Battalion at Qu Nhon, the 25th Ordnance Detachment (EOD) at An Khe, and the 287th Ordnance Detachment in Phu Bai in Northern I Corps. He mentions the death of a friend from exposure to “herbicide” in Vietnam. He also says that he suffers from diabetes due to his exposure to Agent Orange. And has had bladder cancer, which the VA does not presume to be related to AO. Stuart Steinberg and I know better.

He includes a long, eloquent rant on the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam, which is more than worth the price of the book. As for the effectiveness of the toxic herbicide against the enemy, he says: “Fat fucking lot of good it did.”  The Viet Cong still came and went just as they pleased with nothing slowing them down enough to matter.  “Vietnam,” he writes, “is the war that just keeps on fucking killing.”

This is an edge-of-the-seat book in which the reader is right there with Steinberg as he disarms satchel charges, clears dead bodies for bobby traps, strips ordnance from bodies, and has to deal with the foul stench of rotting flesh while disposing dud RPG rounds and stick grenades of Chinese origin.

He uses vivid and honest language to describe what he saw. Steinberg thought it “a sick fucking war and the people who were in charge were twisted motherfuckers.” The war, he says, “will always be a mystery to me… Win what? What did we win?” That is what he asks those who say that we won that war.

Steinberg’s prose communicates “the long, hard, brutal, sweaty hours” of his job in Vietnam. His emotional honesty moved this reader when he discussed how he is trying to have a good third marriage and mend his relationship with his son.

He describes himself as a “uninformed dumbass” who should have been “by any measurement…dead and then some,” but who went on from Vietnam to get a law degree and become a capital crimes defense investigator in Oregon.

One thing I enjoyed about this memoir is his comment about Ham and Lima bean c rations—his favorite. “I was the only soldier in Vietnam who liked them,” he says.  I also loved his reference to Francis Scott Key’s “rocket’s red glare” at Fort McHenry. As an EOD operator, Steinberg saw plenty of that.

Steinberg went on to work as a veterans’ service officer, accredited by the VA to handle claims. One of his clients had bone cancer from AO exposure, perhaps the same Multiple Myeloma I have. I am sure Steinberg was an excellent advocate.

This is one of the most powerful memoirs of Vietnam it has been my good luck to read. Buy this book and read it.  It is the most honest Vietnam memoir since Ernest Spencer’s classic, Welcome to Vietnam Macho Man. It kicks ass and takes names.  

For ordering info, email vietnameod@thisiswhathelllookslike.com or go to http://thisiswhathelllookslike.com

—David Willson

Reckoning by Neal F. Thompson

VVA member Neal F. Thompson’s Reckoning: Vietnam and America’s Cold War Experience, 1945-1991 (Charlevoix Books, 588 pp., $22.95) is an analytical look at the post-1945 wars in Vietnam—an “exercise in identifying facts that have been hiding in plain sight,” as Thompson puts it.

Thompson, a lawyer who flew helicopters in the Vietnam War with Troop F of the 8th Cavalry Regiment’s 1st Aviation Brigade, spent sixteen years researching and writing this book on the Cold War. What he found was “a grossly dysfunctional political system and political class, focused primarily on domestic politics,” he writes, that “mostly stumbled, bumbled, lied and connived its way through the Cold War from one election cycle to the next, deceiving itself, its citizens, and their allies and enemies alike.”

The end of Soviet-era communism, he says, came about “due far more to dumb luck, unintended consequences, and the relentless stupidity of our adversaries than any bi-partisan, long-term strategy.”

Thompson also has harsh things to say about chickenhawks—those who have never served in the military, but are happy to see the nation get involved in wars. “It is my firm belief,” he says, “that the overwhelming majority of Americans today, both Left and Right, can fairly be labeled ‘Chickenhawks,’ who provide their taxes and go about their business while others, in a so-called volunteer military, pay the price and bear the burden of interventionism. This is the one and only reason why tens of millions of people acquiesce so easily in imperial adventures of questionable utility.”

As for the book’s title, Thompson sees a reckoning coming for the United States. “As run since 1945, this country cannot go on forever,” he concludes. “Just what will stop, how and when, remains to be seen. But sooner or later, there will be a reckoning. Either we will reckon with our history, learning what we should have learned and changing our ways accordingly, or our history will surely reckon with us.”

—Marc Leepson

A-bout-Face, Forward March by Stephen Paul Campos

Stephen Paul Campos’s A-bout Face, Forward March (AuthorHouse, 295 pp., $28.99, hardcover, $19.95, paper) is about “surviving the turmoil and uncertainties of life and trying to heal and make sense of them afterward,” the author writes in his preface. “This is my personal journey from my ‘in-sanity’ in my addictions and dysfunctions to new birth, hope, peace and serenity.”

Campos grew up in Modesto, California. “I often dreamed of becoming a professional baseball player,” he writes. “I also fantasized about being in the Army, a soldier like John Wayne, and single-handedly winning the war.”

After graduating from high school, Campos married his girlfriend after she became pregnant. He then briefly lived a “hippie lifestyle,” as he puts it, and enrolled in junior college. But Campos was an indifferent student and his marriage was on the rocks when his wife gave him an ultimatum: “Go into the service or we’ll get divorced.”

Campos “got into a lot of trouble” in the summer of 1967, he says, and decided the Army would be the way to escape. “Maybe the service wasn’t a bad idea,” he writes. “If I joined the Army, then I would not have to worry about getting drafted and being sent out in the infantry.”

Stephen Paul Campos

He did join the Army at age nineteen, but wound up in the infantry anyway, serving a combat-heavy tour of duty from April 1968 to April 1969 with two companies in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. Compos tells his life story in this book, with a heavy emphasis on his tour of duty.

The last few chapters deal with his emotionally rocky homecoming. “NO one would look at me,” Campos writes. “NO one wanted to ask me about Vietnam. NO one would look at me. I felt the rejection and their internal opposition for my war effort.”

Campos began to drink heavily. He developed post-traumatic stress disorder. Using lots of reconstructed dialogue, he describes his many years of emotional ups and downs. He ends with a short chapter with advice on how to overcome “dysfunctions, addictions and anxiety.”

“For those of you have have been in combat,” Compos writes, “PLEASE take heed and get help. War does change a person. But, we can overcome it and make something beautiful out of our lives.”

The author’s website is www.a-bout-face.com

—Marc Leepson

Seven in a Jeep by Ed Gaydos

Ed Gaydos grew up  in St. Louis. When he was fifteen, he left home and spent the next seven years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Wisconsin. But Gaydos never went into the priesthood—mainly because he realized celibacy was not for him. Instead, the twenty-two-year-old came home, lived in his parents’ basement, and began a Master’s program in philosophy at St. Louis University. He also anxiously awaited the inevitable call from his draft board.

“I had no strong feelings against the war, and not enough guts to leave the country,” as some of his friends did, Gaydos says in Seven In a Jeep: A Memoir of the Vietnam War (Columbus Press, 332 pp., $17.95, paper), his well-written look at his Vietnam War life and times.

Gaydos tried to get into Air Force OCS, but when he was told he’d have to do four years as an EM, he declined. Instead, Gaydos joined the Army after a recruiter told him he could serve for less than three years and put off induction for six months so he could finish his MA. “On the form I had to check a box for what specialty I wanted,” Gaydos says. “There were four listed, and I picked combat engineering. I had no idea what a combat engineer did, but it seemed more glamorous and probably safer than infantry, artillery or tanks.”

Ed Gaydos

Gaydos had Basic Training at Fort Leonard Wood and AIT at Fort Sill, where he changed his mind about becoming an officer. Gaydos, instead, managed to get into Artillery Combat Leadership school at Sill, a six-month shake and bake operation. Gaydos thrived in the program, becoming the honor graduate of his class. He arrived in Vietnam in April of 1970, and served for eleven months with B Battery of the 5/27th Artillery at LZ Sherry in the Central Highlands

Gaydos’s memoir focuses on his time in Vietnam. He makes good use of a mountain of letters he wrote to his family and then-girlfriend Kathleen (now his wife of forty-something years), as well as the photos he took in country, along with some research he did on his unit at the National Archives.

The result is a readable book filled with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue and some black humor, along with excerpts from his letters, as well as a collection of photos that ably evokes Gaydos’s time in the Vietnam War. 

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

—Marc Leepson