Spectre Gunner by David M. Burns

David Burns joined the Navy in 1951 when he was fifteen years old. He served for sixteen years in the Navy, then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1967. His memoir, Spectre Gunner: The AC-130 Gunship (iUniverse, 138 pp., $23.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper), looks at Burns’s second, third, and fourth Vietnam War (1969-75) tours of duty as an aerial gunner on a modified C-130 nicknamed the “Spectre.”

During that time Burns flew 287 secret missions with the 16th Special Operations Squadron (SOS) out of Ubon Air Base in Thailand over Laos, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and Cambodia—most of them designed to disrupt truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The black-painted planes were fit out with four 20mm guns and four mini guns. “This was the most deadly gunship in the world!” Burns says.

Burns was injured during his second C-130 tour when a 20mm clip fell to the ground as he and others were loading them onto a plane. “I had shrapnel wounds on my chest and face,” Burns says. “My T-shirt was shredded, and I had a gaping hole in my left foot where a bunion had been! Other than that, I was alive!” He spent three weeks in the hospital, then returned to duty.

Then, in June of 1972, his C-130 barely escaped a direct hit from a missile that “went off about fifteen feet behind the aircraft,” he writes, “and lit up the inside of the aircraft when it exploded!”

“I could not breathe properly,” he says, and “suspected I had broken a rib or two. And my right wrist was useless… The doctor put a cast on my wrist, taped my ribs, and grounded me for three weeks.”

—Marc Leepson


Boots by Stephen L. Park

Stephen Park was drafted into the Army in July of 1966 at age twenty. He was given the opportunity to go to OCS and took it. Park arrived in Vietnam in February of 1968 and put in a year with Delta Company of the 1st Battalion/18th Infantry in the 1st Infantry Division, most of it in the field as a platoon leader operating out of the Big Red One’s base camp at DiAn.

“Although drafted, I was glad to be [in Vietnam] in a perverse way,” Park writes in Boots: An Unvarnished Memoir of Vietnam (Writers AMuse Me Publishing, 284 pp., $13.99, paper), a readable, well-written book that focuses almost exclusively on his year in the war zone. “War had its own strange lure, and I accepted the fate of my role long before arrival. I trained for it, bought into the idea of war, with a surplus of youthful naivete to be perhaps overly curious about war.”

When he arrived in country, Park “still possessed the feeling of innate immortality,” he writes, “but the false bravado of group roars, growls, and chants repetitiously performed in training was gone.”

Stephen Park

Changes “within myself,” he says, “were to come quickly, subtly, almost intangibly within the next two weeks. I could feel it inside as I changed from sentimental ideals to the cheap reality of war, the ‘learning curve where a year of aging could be done in a month’ type of shit. It was something no amount of training could duplicate. It was part of becoming hardcore.”

The author’s website is http://stephenlpark.webs.com

—Marc Leepson

The Happiness Jar by Samantha Tidy

In the acknowledgments section of The Happiness Jar (Storytorch Press, 336 pp., $34.95), author Samantha Tidy thanks Gary McKay, the author of of In Good Company and The Men Who Persevered, “for all things Vietnam and beyond.”  Tidy and McKay are Australians, and much of this book is set in the land down under. One of the main characters, Brian Hudson, is an Australian Vietnam veteran, “struggling with the long term effects of the war and has been missing since he walked out on his wife Beth and their two children in the dead of the night twenty years ago.”

Brian and Beth’s daughter Rachel dies of cystic fibrosis at the age of twenty–seven, “intentionally leaving behind secrets that push each of her remaining family to question what it is they want from life.”

This is a book of journeys—the journey of Matt, Rachel’s bricklayer son who has not made much of his life, and the journey of Beth, the mother, who had devoted all of her life to keeping Rachel alive as she is fighting cystic fibrosis. Rachel’s will propels Matt into the vast Australian outback where he makes a surprising discovery in an Aboriginal settlement. Beth journeys to Varanasi, India, to the banks of the sacred Ganges, where she, a woman frightened of filth, enters the river and disperses Rachel’s ashes into the “silver blanket” of the sacred river.

Samantha Tidy

Samantha Tidy

The novel contains much that relates to the plight of the Australian Vietnam veterans. Flashbacks are called “khaki-colored memories.” Brian, the father and husband who disappeared, is afflicted with them. I won’t act as a spoiler of the story of a family destroyed by the forces of the Vietnam War, but I will say that this one of the best Australian novels related to the what Tidy calls “war nobody would talk about.”

There are many powerful scenes in this novel. My favorite comes near the end when Beth experiences Kundalini, her dark night of the soul, through eating a very spicy vindaloo.

Tidy uses many puzzling and flavorful Australian words in the book. One example is  “Esky,” an Aussie word for a beer cooler.

Tidy does a marvelous job creating and bringing alive the alien world of Australia for this American reader. Her prose is so evocative I could feel the ever-present flies crawling on my eyes and ears as I read the book.

I highly recommend this book to those who know little or nothing of Australia’s contribution to what we imprecisely call the American War in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.samanthatidy.com  For purchasing info, go to www.storytorch.com.au/publications

—David Willson

Vietnam Journey by Ronald Stanley Miller

Detroit native Ron Miller spent more than five decades working and traveling in Asia and the Middle East. That includes the better part of a decade in Vietnam, the subject of his memoir, Vietnam Journey: Ten Years in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 262 pp., $14, paper).

Miller and his family arrived in Vietnam in May of 1965. They left just before the communist takeover in April of 1975. He was twenty-nine years old when he came to Vietnam to work for a big construction company. He and his family flew out of Saigon on April 25, 1975.

“We were among the 3,000 refugees officially evacuated that day,” Miller writes. “For us the Vietnam experience was over. I was nearly 40 years old and had spent a quarter of my life in the country. Two of my sons were born there and for ten years we adored the Vietnam [sic], but Casablanca it wasn’t.”

Miller “vowed,” he says, “never to place my loved ones in jeopardy again. This would be the last time. From this very moment on we would choose to reside and work exclusively in peaceful secure companies.”

—Marc Leepson

Solo Vietnam: A Novel by Jeanette Vaughn

Solo Vietnam (Age View Press, 266 pp., $14.99, paper) is Jeanette Vaughn’s sequel to Flying Solo. The cover features a color photo of a warplane. Between that and the title, I figured this novel would focus on the American air war in the skies over Vietnam. I was half right.

Nora Broussard wants to go to Vietnam, but the U. S. government won’t allow her to fly combat there, so she figures out an alternate route. She joins Bob Hope’s USO show as a torch singer and also arranges a job as a USO club manager.

This enables our heroine to leave her children and mother behind in New Orleans and to land in South Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. She encounters her lover, Steve, in an intimate scene aboard an aircraft carrier, but then Steve goes down over Laos along with his plane.

After that, the book became a bit far-fetched for me. Still, it remained interesting, even engrossing, as Vaughn—although not the greatest stylist—is a fine storyteller, and she has a seldom-told story to relate to us.

Jeanette Vaughn

Jeannette Vaughn is a writer and sheep rancher. Two of her children are Navy pilots. Nothing is said of the author’s military experience, but much is said in the acknowledgements to thank those with military experience from whom she drew information and details for the novel, particularly Marine Captain Robert Lathrop. She tells us that the many missions in her book were based on his manuscript memoir, Eternally at War, which can be found in the Texas Tech University Vietnam Center and Archive.

This novel is spiced up with expressions such as “Gookville,” and “baby killer.”  Mostly, though, the author avoids falling into the trap of writing the same old Vietnam War novel. Instead, she has come up with a novel that covers new ground in a responsible way, along with enough romance and action to hold this reader’s interest.  I enjoyed the book.

—David Willson

Support Troops by Brian Nicol

Brian Nicol was drafted into the U. S. Army in June 1969.  He was assigned to the Army Headquarters Command in Saigon from 1970 to 1971. His novel, Support Troops (Amazon Digital Services, 175 pp., $2.99, digital), is set in that familiarly observed environment and is pitch perfect in every way. Nicol has been a writer and editor, and it shows in this literate and witty novel. 

He’s created a unique voice for the main character, Spec5 Alan Lacey, a 22-year-old, smart-ass company clerk. All the power a company clerk has is communicated through vividly set scenes and incidents, all of them recognizable to me. I served in that same environment in Vietnam a few years earlier, also as a Spec5, and spent a lot of time typing and dealing with officers. Nicol provides the novel with realistic American characters, both lifers and draftees, and also he manages to create interesting and well-rounded Vietnamese characters.

The officers I dealt with were not the monsters that some in this novel are shown to be, so I did not seek to frag them, although there was a Sergeant Major who tempted me. The most powerful section of the novel is near the end where our hero plans a fragging. I won’t spoil it by telling how that came out.

Reviewing an e-book is a first for me. I’ve struggled with how to do it, as I could not use page numbers as reference points, nor could I write comments in the margins—there are no margins. I made a special effort with this novel, as it is such a superb work on this oft-neglected subject.

If you wish to read only one novel about support troops in Vietnam, this is the one. It held my attention; it had humor and pathos; and it is as well written as they come. It even has an epilogue that takes place in 1983 at the Tu Do Bar in Honolulu which wraps up a few mysterious plot lines.

—David Willson

Hidden Army by Lawrence Rock


VVA member Lawrence Rock was a sergeant in the U. S. Marine Corps from 1964-67. He is the editor of a previous book on Vietnam War support troops, The Tooth and the Tail.  A disclaimer: I reviewed that book  in Books in Review II, and my positive review is quoted in Rock’s new book—Hidden Army: Support Troops Types in Vietnam: An Oral History (CreateSpace, 346 pp., $14.99, paper).

Hidden Army is well organized into subject chapters with clear headings such as “The Blue Water Navy, Early Years,” “Supply Logistics Support,” “Medical Support,” and so on down to Chapter 10, “The Blue Water Navy, the Later Years.”  Because I was an Army stenographer in Vietnam, I turned first to the “Administrative Staff Support” chapter. This thirty-page chapter is clearly organized and arranged, with a brief introduction and then lists the names, identities, and ranks of those interviewed.

I immediately hit gold when I read about Army Spec4 William Harkins, an ammo specialist at Long Binh, who matter-of-factly describes a detail he was on when he first arrived in Vietnam, “spreading Agent Orange around our perimeter.”  I “do not remember inhaling any spray,” Harkins says, “but I do remember the defoliant coming into contact with my hands.”  Since I have developed Multiple Myeloma caused by my exposure to Agent Orange while I was stationed at Long Binh Post in 1967, this bit of first-person evidence of AO being applied there was of high interest to me.

This entire book is packed with such revelations, and every page is worth reading. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to truly get a sense of how it was in Vietnam for the almost 90 percent of us who served as support troops.

The book does not have an index, so you’ll have to read all of it to find a precious nugget that hits you in the heart. It is worth the effort.

—David Willson