West of Hue by James P. Brinker

James P. Brinker’s West of Hue: Down the Yellow Brick Road (BookSurge, 354 pp., $20.99 paper, $2.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir that centers on the author’s tour of duty with a recon platoon in the 101st Airborne Division’s 2/502 Infantry Regiment “Strike Force” Battalion. Brinker went to Vietnam in December 1969 and put in eleven months in Vietnam, eight of them in the jungle.

Brinker spent his last three months as a mail clerk, bartender, and training sergeant. It was hard for him to adjust to being a REMF, but he coped. It took some digging to find out, as Brinker is modest about medals he received, but he was awarded a chest full of them, including three Bronze stars with “V” device.

The men in his recon platoon were the only troops in his battalion who wore full woodland camouflage. Serving as the eyes and ears of the battalion, the platoon searched out the enemy, then let the line companies do the hard work—at least in theory. In practice, it seldom worked out that way.

Brinker was allergic to bamboo, so he should not even have been in Vietnam. He developed a serious rash from the bamboo he encountered daily until his unit moved West of Hue into the bamboo-less high mountains. Of course, there were worse things than bamboo there: plenty of the enemy, along with snakes, leeches, centipedes, crocodiles, and tigers.

Brinker tries hard to describe what it was like to be in combat. He “was too busy to actually react except in the basic human instinct to stay alive,” he writes, as he tried to strike “a balance between excessive fear and over-zealous bravery.”

In the recon platoon Brinker was often both the forward observer and radio operator. It didn’t take him long before he was “no longer a nice innocent farm boy from the Heartland.”  Brinker tells us that he “started to get bloodthirsty and totally fearless, which had never been in my character before. Now it remained embedded in me like a huge war scar.”

He explains that the mission of the military is to close with and kill the enemy. At one point he says they were shooting away like “the team of John Wayne and Audie Murphy.”  Later he pooh-poohs somebody who tries “shooting from the hip, John Wayne style.”  At one point, he notes that the combat he experienced “was just like the movies starring John Wayne.”

Brinker deals with many of the same subjects that Vietnam War infantry memoirs tend to focus on: the black syph; Agent Orange; what he calls “grunt mode” or numbness from the war; the song, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place;” the My Lai Massacre; and how those events colored the hometown reaction to Vietnam veterans.

Brinker says that by going back home to Iowa, he “would be back at the bottom of the heap again as an unwanted Vietnam veteran.”

I totally get that, as I felt that in Seattle when I returned. He says it became “fashionable” to spit on Vietnam veterans upon their return, but then notes that he “never personally saw spitting or heard any negative comments at the airports.”  I thank him for that honesty.

Brinker criticizes John Kerry  “and the leftist establishment” who started to “negatively stereotype Vietnam vets.”  Brinker ends with a statement “We fought a good fight then and won from a military perspective.”

What military perspective was that? I have read that before in Vietnam War memoirs, but I have not seen any research to support that point of view.  It seems more a feeling than a fact.

The book could have used an editor and proofreader. Often sentences end without a period. Words that need capital letters don’t get them, and two words sometimes run together. 

Still, Brinker has written a worthy memoir that I enjoyed reading. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about the life in Vietnam of a recon team and has thick skin about the finer points of punctuation.

—David Willson

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My Vietnam War by E. E. ‘Doc’ Murdock

E. E. “Doc” Murdock tells us in the first sentence of My Vietnam War (H.O.T. Press, 329 pp., $12.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) that the book is a novel and that he wants to make us understand “what it was like over there.” He also tells us this book takes place in 1967, “the deadliest of the Vietnam War.”

The handling of military information in the book suggests that Murdock—an Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology, Administration, and Counseling at California State University, Long Beach—was not in Vietnam as a soldier. Perhaps he was not there at all, in any role.

The novel begins with a quote from Descartes: “How can you prove we are not sleeping and this is not just a dream?” The author says this is from his Philosophy 112 textbook, which becomes a major character in the book. It is often quoted from and referred to, and the main character’s reliance on the book gains him the nickname “the philosopher.”

Our hero calls himself the Watcher (we find out much later that his name is Scotty). He works all day in “the warehouse,” the Army’s Central Saigon food supply and shipping facility, along with his boyhood friend, Brent. Scotty says that he and Brent are “part of the Army’s hoard of behind-the-lines manual laborers who help keep the war going.” There is little information about what the warehouse job consisted of, which leads me to believe that Murdock knows nothing about any such job.

Scotty and Brent joined the Army to avoid the draft. They grew up in Mesa, Arizona, where they worked in Brent’s father’s auto wrecking yard. They had a small-time marijuana-dealing business, and get heavily involved in that business in Saigon. By the way, both men arrive in Vietnam without having had AIT or any other kind of training after basic.

They spend their nights in Wong’s Bar in the saddest part of downtown Saigon where “Purple Haze” and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” play on the jukebox.

This is that rarity, a Vietnam War REMF novel, at least in the beginning, that is written in a very literate style. After taking his time getting to the warehouse job, Murdock skitters away from it like a water bug on LSD. The narrator, Scotty, spends a lot of time stoned, in a dreamlike state, mulling over the past and fantasizing his present in very long internal monologues—long and tedious internal monologues.

       E.E. “Doc” Murdock

Scotty questions the authority of his fat, disgusting sergeant (Sgt. Fartass Farkas). He soon finds himself in the jungle, first as a grunt, and then as an assistant medic or corpsman. The author uses those Army and Marine terms interchangeably.

Scotty has a spiritual experience with a young naked Vietnamese woman in the back room of Wong’s. She tells him dream-tales, one involving a turtle, which emphasize the sacred nature of animal life. Scotty often mulls over this memory. He puts it to practice when on road-guard duty. This ends badly when his partner getting killed and his head cut off and put on a spike after Scotty leaves his post to return a small green turtle to a body of water.

When the company medic dies in an ambush, Scotty is assigned his job without any training, and is given what Murdock calls a “field promotion” to specialist, even though he has not specialized in anything. This is one of many jarring notes in this novel that caused me to think that Murdock never walked this walk, which is why he struggles to talk the talk.

There is action in this novel, but it is leavened by the almost endless internal maundering of the narrator. This is as far from a stripped-down action/adventure novel as a writer can get. That’s fine with me, but I crave the flavor of authenticity and did not find it in this book

There is a long, long hospital sequence during which Scotty is recovering from wounds. There also is a dramatic ending involving the Tet Offensive in Saigon. Spoiler alert: A character turns out to be a VC officer who protects Scotty during the fighting. None of this rings true. And many other things did not resonate with truth.

This novel did not make me understand what it was like “over there.” Not even close. I don’t recommend it to anyone who spent time in Vietnam in any capacity whatsoever.

If you were there, I believe that by the third page you’d be throwing the book against the wall, hollering “Bullshit!” as you do.

—David Willson

Vietnam to Western Airlines by Bruce Cowee

One of the missions of Vietnam Veterans of America since its founding in 1978 has been to counteract stereotypically negative images of Vietnam veterans in the news and entertainment media. That’s also the mission of Bruce Cowee in his book Vietnam to Western Airlines: An Oral History of the Air War (Alive Book Publishing, 536 pp., $36.95), a series of oral histories from thirty-three men who—like the author—flew in the military in the Vietnam War, then went on to become pilots for Western Airlines.

These men “are the cream of the crop of the generation that came of age in the 1960s,” Cowee writes. “They are my heroes, and their stories speak for themselves as a testimony to their courage and flying skill.”

               Bruce Cowee in Vietnam

Cowee received his commission as a USAF second lieutenant in December 1966 after completing Air Force ROTC at the University of California. He flew C-7A Caribous out of Cam Ranh Bay during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour.

In his book, Cowee introduces each chapter with a few paragraphs about the Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots in question. He then lets the men tell their pre-war, war, and post-war stories.

—Marc Leepson

 

The Gunny, Master Guns, and Bullets and Bandages by Raymond Hunter Pyle

Raymond Hunter Pyle is a two-tour Vietnam veteran who served in Da Nang, Cua Viet, and Dong Ha in 1967 and in Da Nang from 1968-69. I suspect he was a Marine Corps NCO, perhaps a gunnery sergeant who did a lot of recon. Those suspicions are based on the extreme realism and wealth of believable detail that Pyle displays in these three fine and rousing action adventure tales of a Marine Corps NCO.

What are my qualifications for reviewing Pyle’s Marine Corps novels, all of which take place in the thick of battle and often deep in the jungle of Vietnam—all three of which I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend, with a few misgivings? I was not a Marine, and I never wanted to be a Marine, but my father was. He was a normal guy before he served in protracted combat in the World War II. For the rest of his life he was a bitter, difficult man who never talked about his war experiences.

To try to reach some understanding of why my father was the way he was, I have read hundreds of Marine Corps books, starting with his unit history. This was an enriching experience, but having a father who was present and communicative would have been much preferable.

Pyle is a great storyteller, and he presents us with flesh-and-blood characters we care about and get completely involved with. I would rank him right up there with Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs, two of my favorite action/adventure novelists. Long sections of The Gunny CreateSpace, 448 pp., $13.70, paper; $3.99, Kindle), in fact, in which the title character is alone in the jungle hunting the enemy with a knife reminded me vividly of similar scenes in a Tarzan novel in which the “King of the Jungle” killed Nazis with a knife.

Pyle’s scenes were every bit as thrilling and exciting as those of Burroughs’ Tarzan. That is high praise.

However, Pyle has not had the benefit of the editors that Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs had. The Gunny is the best edited by far of the three books. But even that book suffers from anachronistic rants such as: “During bull sessions between attacks, the Marines on the hill had talked about the hippies in California and how they would spit on military men coming back home from Vietnam and call them baby killers and worse.” That simply did not happen in 1967-68.

The other two books suffer from frequent dropped capital letters, missing prepositions, and erratic spelling. Pyle, for example, uses the term “nuke mom” for the common fish sauce (nuoc mam) of Vietnam. 

The Gunny also tests credibility with the meteoric rise to Gunnery Sergeant of Frank Evans, due to his saving the life of a Marine Corps general who demonstrates his gratitude by becoming Frank’s rabbi.  One of the most absorbing parts of the book is the lengthy section in which Frank is assigned to Khe Sanh to investigate the malfunctions of the M-16 for the general.  Pyle gets all of this right, and makes it interesting as well.

It’s mostly action with the occasional bit of reflection, such as: “Every man has a dark, violent spirit inside of him.”  Certainly Sgt. Frank Evans does.

Master Guns (376 pp., $3.99, Kindle) is a Marine recon novel and a fine one. Everything you ever yearned to know about Marine recon is in this novel and it all moves right along.

Rhodes, the main character, also rises rapidly in the Marine Corps. He makes the sudden jump from NCO to captain. I know a friend who managed to do that in the Marine Corps, so while it can be done, it is unlikely, but possible. The novel makes clear that the role of recon is to develop intelligence on terrain, enemy movements and numbers, and finding potential LZ’s for future operations, but there is no shortage of actual battle.

We get a long and educational disquisition on where the term “klick’ comes from as a measure of distance. There is also a great scene in which an artillery strike is called in on the Marines’ own position. We find out exactly why the 9th Marines were called “The Walking Dead.”

At Khe Sanh, the Marines were sitting ducks in a muddy pond, being hit with long-range artillery, mortars of all sizes, recoil-less rifles, 122 MM, 140 mm, and 155 mm rockets and even RPG’s fired by sappers just on the other side of the wire.

In Bullets and Bandages: A DMZ Story: Vietnam 1967 (BookBaby, 302 pp., $3.99, Kindle), two main characters’ lives are entwined by marriage, family ,and career: Staff Sergeant Marowski and Terry King, a Squid and a Navy Corpsman.

Marowski and King survive for weeks in the jungle near the DMZ after surviving a helicopter crash, evading the enemy, and undergoing just about every bad thing that can happen to someone in a jungle.

Pyle is a spell-binding teller of tales and he really knows the lives of Marine Corps professionals, and he has the writerly gifts to hold the attention of the reader.

The author avoids right-wing rants until the very end of the book. Vietnam veterans returned to a country, Pyle writes, “that didn’t care much about the war or its returning veterans.” The country “was mired in its own selfish and self-centered politics and social problems. The age of the spoiled brat society had begun.”

Pyle tells us that Marowski and King, “like thousands of others, got on with their lives and tried to make sense of it all. Few ever did.” That point is debatable, at best.

Based on my reading of many hundreds of Marine Corps books, I believe that some Vietnam veteran authors seem to feel sorry for themselves in a way that the authors of the World War II and Korean War Marine Corps books did not. Maybe that has something to do with Pyle’s reference to a “spoiled-brat society.”

I’m looking forward to Pyle’s fourth book in this series. I hope it will have a stern editor who will keep the faith on proper English punctuation and keep the rants out. Suggestion: Pyle could put his rants on a blog aimed at those who need them.

—David Willson

Good Bye, My Darling; Hello, Vietnam and ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by Michael D. Lazares

We’re reviewing Michael D. Lazares’ Goodbye My Darling; Hello, Vietnam! (CreateSpace, 312pp., $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (CreateSpace, 282 pp., $15, paper; $3.99) together because they share author and editor—and because “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” contains some of the more exciting episodes that held this reader’s attention in Goodbye My Darling.  

Lazares served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He flew Loaches in his first tour and Chinooks in his second. Lazares then put in seven years in the Army as a flight instructor. He went into the Army Reserves, and retired after twenty-eight years of service. He then became an officer in the Tacoma Police Department. Because I enjoyed Good Bye so much, I will put his book Tacoma Blue at the top of my recreational reading list. 

When Lazares first arrived in Vietnam, he flew for E/82nd Artillery in the First Cavalry Division. One of the many things that makes his books fun to read is his rough-and-ready attitude toward authority figures. Lazares has a genius for rubbing them the wrong way, as well as a great gift for relating stories about these incidents and about the many hair-raising adventures he had while flying.

His “Snakes in the Lake” story appears in both books. I found this autobiography preferable to the catch-as-catch-can, multiple author book, “We Gotta Get out of this Place,” because I prefer Lazares’ writing style to that of most of the other contributors to We Gotta.

I hasten to add though, that there are stories in We Gotta by authors other than Lazares that make that book well worth the price. “Bird Dog’n” by Carl Buick is one of those stories.  “Cantelopes” by George Van Riper, a tale of overuse of Agent Orange, is another. For me to enjoy that tale, it had to be a good one, and it was. It even made me laugh more than once—aloud.

Both books contain many knuckle-chewing tales of flying with almost no fuel, darkness descending, clouds obscuring everything, and shots being fired from the ground by just about everybody and anyone.

Of these two books, the one I recommend as indispensable for those who search out helicopter books is Good Bye, My Darling because it is that rare book about a Vietnam War helicopter pilot that dares to give a back story, the boyhood origins of the author, and does it in a way that makes the book as interesting as the thrill-a-minute sections that take place during the author’s two Vietnam War tours.

These two books touch many of the same bases that earlier helicopter books touched, and that is a good thing. We witness defoliation missions. We meet Charlton Heston. We find out about ash and trash. We get to see again the VC barber of legend and history. There’s even a mention of my home town, Yakima, Washington.

The books are not all scary action episodes. Lazares is also capable of reflection, as when he flies over some French cemeteries and observes:  “I was too young to appreciate the fact that if the French couldn’t defeat this primitive V.C., what chance did I have.”  Good question.

Lazares is that rare Vietnam veteran who can produce a literate book about his tours of duty without being an English major or having any pretensions.

I have noticed that the books produced by Vietnam veteran fliers avoid most of the pitfalls of the grunt-written books. My theory is that fliers are smarter and their lives have turned out better.

It’s just a theory.

—David Willson

                               The author in Vietnam

A Pink Mist by John A. Bercaw

John Bercaw went into the Marine Corps in 1960 as “an undisciplined and troubled high school dropout,” he writes in his memoir, A Pink Mist (CreateSpace, 296 pp., $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle). He served for four years in the Marines. In September 1967 Bercaw reinvented himself as an Army Warrant Officer trained to fly Hueys, which he did in Vietnam with great distinction.

After the war, Bercaw served as an instrument instructor at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia before he joined the Illinois Army National Guard. He retired in 1990 as CWO4 and a Master Army Aviator.

A short list of his medals includes: the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf  Cluster, Purple Heart, and an Air Medal with “V” Device. He has a BA degree from Aurora University and spent nine years as a instructor at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.

John Bercaw is a smart, literate, self-deprecating, and witty writer who has worked hard with his research to make his book as good as it can be. He wears his learning lightly, but it makes the book a delightful reading experience. He begins with a quote from the Italian poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days; we remember moments.”

                  John Bercaw

We get a brief and entertaining section on Bercaw’s time in the Marines, but the book is about his year in the Vietnam War flying Hueys, mostly for the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry, known as the One Quarter Cav.

The “Pink Mist” of the title refers the time when Bercaw was flying his Huey and got shot in the leg by a machine gun and the cockpit of the helicopter filled with a pink mist of blood.

The book is arranged chronologically in short sections. These episodes or vignettes are often violent and exciting, but are sometimes funny or moving. Sometimes a section is all of these things and more.

I read this book pell-mell, transfixed by Bercaw’s narrative voice and by the wonderment that he survived so many medevacs, resupply, and rescue missions.

The book left me with a profound respect for the Huey as a versatile machine that could do much more than it was designed to when flown by the brave young men who took them up in all kinds of weather and conditions, often while being shot at.

A Pink Mist ranks near the top of this genre, along with the classic Chickenhawk by Robert Mason. I highly recommend it all who want to know what flying a Huey in the Vietnam War was all about.

Near the end of the book, Bercaw says, “I was leaving Vietnam. I did not yet understand that Vietnam would never leave me.” I’m certain that every Vietnam veteran knows what he is talking about.

I know that I do.

—David Willson

A Marine’s Journal, Feb. ’67-Feb ’68, By Mike Holiday,

Mike Holiday’s A Marine’s Journal: Feb. ’67 – Feb ’68 (Abbott Press, 218 pp., $15.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) looks like a published journal by a Marine dealing with his thirteen-month Vietnam War tour. However, we learn in that it is much more complicated than that.

This book is based on real events that either happened to the author or to someone he knew. “I have decided to label this work as fiction,” Holiday writes, because memory becomes clouded. The names are fictitious but the people are all real, we are told. That is as clear as mud.

I doubt that many teen-age Marines who left high school early spent time in Vietnam keeping a journal, but Mike Holiday did. It is apparent  that Holiday is an exceptional person, and not just because the way he deals with mindless authority and sergeants who find a button unbuttoned more important than common sense and saving lives.

The book is told in a complex format that works, but at first it is a bit hard to follow. Holiday alternates first-person commentary journal entries with current third-person point of view which expands and explains them. Plus he sometimes goes off on jarring rants about war protesters and commies trying to take over the world just like the Nazis did and how the Vietnamese didn’t seem to appreciate that the United States was there to save them from communism.

Holiday makes no bones about his agenda in this book. “Despite revisionist history, most of the young men who fought in the war were not dopers, potheads, murderers or baby killers as the liberal media and liberal society have painted them over the years.”  Holiday’s book shows us “the written voice” of an “eighteen or nineteen year old, from traditional America…. A youthful patriot.”

A Marine’s Journal is far more complex than the author’s stated agenda would lead us to think. Holiday was told by his stepmother when he left for Vietnam that she hoped he’d die so she’d never have to see him again. Also one of the strongest episodes in the book shows a Marine killing a baby by punching him in the head to make him be quiet and not give away their position to enemy soldiers.

“This was war,” Holiday says. “This was not murder.”  Nevertheless, a dead baby was the result.

When Holiday arrived in Vietnam, he was briefly assigned to Headquarters, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, on the late-night shift as a radioman. During the day he put up concertina wire, dug trenches, and burned shit. He soon volunteered for the field where he carried the thirty-pound PRC 25 radio and called in artillery support for his platoon when they needed it, which was very often.

A Marine’s Journal contains most of the usual references that are found in a Marine Corps memoir of the Vietnam War, but there are some new ones, too. I had never encountered the term “Billy Boat Band” for a newbie before. Or “Funewgy” for fucking new guy. There is an excellent glossary at the end of this book, but it is not in alphabetical order.

With the help of an editor to smooth out repetitions, misprints and typos, and the deletion of some of the boring rants, this book could have been one of the classic Marine Corps journals of the Vietnam War. If Holiday says it once, he says it a hundred times in many ways: “We were dying to save a backward country from takeover by communists.”

Still, the book is well worth reading. I give Holiday huge credit for never mentioning Jane Fonda, John Wayne, or Bob Hope. Also, I give him big credit for the epiphany he had in Vietnam about going to college to become a teacher when he got out of the Marines so he could make a positive contribution to American society.

Holliday did that.  He has my respect.

—David Willson