Missions of Fire and Mercy and Chopper Warriors by William E. Peterson

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William E. Peterson enlisted in the Army at eighteen, signed up to be a Huey helicopter crew chief, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. College bored him, and left-wing professors irritated him. He wanted to leave behind Carney, Michigan, apple orchard country. He wanted to fly at breakneck speed at treetop level above the jungles. He wanted adventure. Peterson’s served in Vietnam with the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Air Cav, AKA The Ghost Riders.

Peterson did everything in his tour that involved the Huey, and it is all in his memoir, Missions of Fire and Mercy: Until Death Do Us Part (CreateSpace, 302 pp., $21.99, paper) in exciting and exacting technological detail. If you hunger to read accounts of choppers in action in Vietnam, these books are for you.

The main body of Missions of Fire and Mercy consists of letters Peterson wrote home to his parents, friends, and his girlfriend Cindi. I give them credit for saving these great letters and for thereby helping Bill Peterson write graphic descriptions of the horror he dealt with in Vietnam on a daily basis.

When Peterson, a Swedish-American boy, arrives in country, he gets more than he bargained for. He even drinks some coffee, which he had never liked. He does not yearn for the lutefisk, but he states that his “faith in God has never been stronger. Even while stitching the area with machine gun fire, I find myself praying silently or maybe even audibly to Him for His protection. I firmly believe God has a timetable for all of us.”

As many Vietnam veterans have before him, Peterson notes how beautiful the country was, then says: “It’s a shame we are ruining it with bomb craters, Agent Orange, and burned out villages.”

Peterson expresses often how he feels about the fighting, calling it an “ugly, nonsensical war.”

“When I volunteered for this duty, I truly believed in this war—thought it was necessary to help stamp out communism, protect our freedoms—all that stuff,” he says. “Anymore, I think America has made a big mistake by coming here in the first place.”

But he then goes on to say: “We have the firepower available to put an end to this war in short order. If the politics could be put aside, we could win this war…”  That is a big if. Plus, when has politics ever been put aside?

Peterson comments that he had the utmost respect for his enemy, that “they were fantastic and determined warriors.” He goes on to say that the guerrilla war they engaged in was a hard one for Americans to fight.  “Sure, we killed a lot of them with massive firepower,” he says, “but the next day those who had not been killed were back at it again.”

The 1968 Tet Offensive is at the center of Missions of Fire. We encounter Clint Eastwood in his movie, Hang ‘em High, Raquel Welch in Bob Hope’s Christmas Show, and John Wayne westerns. Peterson also tells us the “guys in the rear really have it made.”

We once again hear that the AK-47 is much more reliable than the M-16, which jams when it gets sandy, and that Agent Orange was used without any thought that it might have harmful effects on humans. We meet Chris Noel in a mini-skirt and she is just as sweaty as the “rest of us.”  We also encounter shit-burning, and are told that Peterson is in a “God-forsaken war,” even though he has total faith that God is watching out for him.

Peterson’s Chopper Warriors: Kicking the Hornet’s Nest (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $17.95, paper) is mostly more of the same, although it also includes the work of other writers. All of them are pretty good, although Peterson is the best of the lot, and he is excellent. He is a gifted storyteller who mostly avoids the usual clichés of recent Vietnam War memoirs.

We find one in this book, however, in Larry Troxel’s “Double Security.”  After a big firefight, one of the VC bodies is “that of the barber who has been working on base and cutting our hair.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one. 

I enjoyed James De Bose’s “Four Killer Agents.” It is an excellent entry on spraying defoliants from C-130s in Operation Ranch Hand. His recollections of the nasty, oily stuff blowing back into the airplane and saturating his clothes, hair, and skin is chilling.

 

The author in Vietnam

Those who want more chopper adventures should read both of these books and spend an afternoon living the life of a Huey crew chief, but without the life-long nightmares and PTSD that are the likely benefits of the actual experience.

 

 

I’m going to order the books by Stephen Menendez, who has a fine piece in the Chopper Warrior book. I’m eager to read of the exploits of a man who was under five feet tall and who weighed less than 100 pounds and spent his tour as a tunnel rat. I hope to have reviews of his books—Into the Darkness and Battle at Straight Edge Woods—in this space one of these days.

Peterson’s website is http://missionsoffireandmercy.com

—David Willson

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Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang

Nothing in the title of Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang (Willow Stream, 392 pp., $15.95, paper) signals that this is a book dealing with the Vietnam War. Scrutiny of the cover reveals a tiny helicopter silhouetted against a setting sun. In the lower left hand corner, a woman with long black hair clad in a white dress faces away from us. She probably represents the heroine of the novel, the beautiful Vietnamese widow, Lien.

The back cover  tells us: “From the jungles of Vietnam, through the minefields of the heart, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, follows one man’s journey to self-discovery.” This man is Roger Connors, an American.  C.L. Hoang, the author, was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war, and came to the United States in the 1970s. He is an electronics engineer. This is his first novel, and it is a project from his heart.

Roger Connors, “fresh out of medical school,” gets his Air Force commission, and arrives at the 3rd Tac Dispensary at Bien Hoa Air Base as a general medical officer during “the sweltering summer of 1967.” I was at Bien Hoa that summer and it was no more or less sweltering than usual. Connors goes on to tell us that this “unexpected” event “had conspired to drop me here at the heart of a brutal conflict I wanted no part of.”  Few of us did.

This book was a frustrating read for me, but not because it was badly written or that Hoang got the details wrong. In fact, he fully inhabits the American doctor he created as his main character. He also is pitch perfect with details, both about military life and about life in America.

Hoang’s’description of street traffic in 1967 Saigon, for example, is spot on, and his comment that “the uneasy feeling of death is on the lurk” captured the tone of that time and place.

Hoang includes references to Gen. William Westmoreland, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and John Wayne. Bob Hope’s Christmas Show and a visit by LBJ are alluded to, and the short timer calendar is explained. There also is this about American military superiority: “With such superior technology at the disposition of our well-trained and disciplined troops, does anyone doubt we can wrap up this nasty business in a timely fashion?”

C.L. Hoang

 

Antiwar protestors are castigated—something of a trend in the current crop of Vietnam War memoirs and novels. The protestors are said to harass returning troops because the have gone crazy with anger and frustration at the war. The protestors boo and hiss the troops and call them Baby Killers. They hurl rocks, spit on them, and even throw red paint on the hapless returnees.

Which leads to the question: Was our military not able to protect Vietnam veterans from antiwar protestors acting with impunity at our nation’s airports and other public places? I doubt that anything like this happened, but according to this book, all of these things did happen to returning soldiers after they spent a year in Vietnam working toward supporting a “fledgling democracy.”  Is that what we were doing? You could have fooled me.

What also bothered me was that the characters never tell each other what’s on their minds or what’s really going on with them. Assumptions are made, usually the wrong ones given the cultural gap between Roger Connors and the young Vietnamese woman he has fallen in love with.

She is pregnant by him, never tells him, disappears, and leaves him to a life without her—the love of his life—and without their child, too. Does it all work out in the end? Not in my opinion.

If you want to read a tormented love story of star-crossed lovers set in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive and after, this novel is for you.

The book’s website is http://mulberryfieldsforever.com

—David Willson

From Nam to Normal by Richard A. Price

From Nam to Normal: Battle of the Demons (CreateSpace, 182 pp., $8.99, paper) by VVA member Richard A. Price is a passionate, practical, well-organized handbook for Vietnam veterans dealing with PTSD.

Price makes no claims to be a psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist. But in 170 pages he describes a lifetime’s worth of suffering with PTSD. He also includes a variety of useful techniques to help veterans back to normal. But he warns the reader: “Don’t kid yourself; the journey isn’t easy. But what has ever been easy for the Vietnam veteran?”

Richard Price spent many years teaching secondary school and college-level courses at Ohio State and Kent State Universities. His true passion surfaced when he began dealing with his fellow Vietnam War veterans and their PTSD. He credits Vietnam Veterans of America with providing him much-needed support in his work with Vietnam veterans.

In his book Price uses an impressive style in setting out his experiences and journey to normalcy. Each of the twelve chapters compares an aspect of the battlefield with a similar situation back home. The chapter titles include “The Firefight: My Symptoms Surface,” “A Friend in the Foxhole: The Value of a Buddy,”  “Search and Destroy: Attacking PTSD.”

Price spent two tours in Vietnam as a Seabee. He arrived on the first day of the Tet Offensive in 1968 and led a machine gun squad defending the Gia Le perimeter. Following Tet, he began working on Seabee construction projects. At the end of his tour Price flew home on a cargo plane that turned out to be a full of caskets.

“No one can expect a veteran returning from combat to be the same person he was before,” he writes. “That was expected of us, and for that matter, we somehow had that expectation of ourselves.” Price compares his home-front reception to an ambush that destroyed his dreams, and also set the stage for his PTSD demons.

Price explains that veterans often are unaware that their personal reactions often stem from wartime experiences, and that damage can be done to familial relationships as well is to self and property. The results often lead to escape through alcohol and drugs. Self-awareness and wartime buddies can help a veteran navigate this minefield on the road to recovery.

“The majority of people think of intervention as a positive thing,” he writes. “They couldn’t be more wrong.” This statement can be confusing, but Price makes it clear that it is necessary to be very selective in using intervention methods. Interventions in his own life have helped him overcome depression, but Price says that he still deals with depression and is always on the lookout for the triggers that send him down that road.

The chapter titled “Operation Normal II: My Continued Quest for Normal” is both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Price tells of his love and pride for his family, but he also writes about how his PTSD hurt his family. He admits that instead of working to repair and strengthen his relationship with his wife, he immersed himself in work, a common symptom of PTSD.

In “Cans on the Wire: Triggers and Depression” Price explains “triggers” and their role in PTSD. He notes that there are many kinds of triggers, and that can make the identification of PTSD difficult. To a Vietnam veteran, dreams, the comments of a friend, or even a path through a forest can be triggers that bring on the fight-or-flight syndrome.

Nam to Normal discusses the role of movies in creating the image of a returning soldier. World War II movies produced heroes on the screen, while Vietnam War movies typically created a very different kind of image.

Price says that in writing this book he often suffered writer’s block. Anyone who reads his book will appreciate that he worked through the blocks. His book will help many war veterans on the long march to normalcy for a long time.

—Joseph Reitz

Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War by David F. Schmitz

David F. Schmitz, a Whitman College history professor and U.S. foreign relations expert, bores into the first three years (1969-72) of Richard Nixon’s presidency in Richard Nixon and the Vietnam War: The End of the American Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 161 pp., $38), a concise examination and analysis of how Nixon ran the Vietnam War. In this well-written, well-researched, and well-argued book Schmitz makes a convincing case that Nixon—contrary to his public assertions at the time and after he resigned from the presidency—did not come to office to end the war by withdrawing American troops, but instead pursued what Schmitz terms “escalation and victory.”

Schmitz shows that Nixon—like President Johnson before him—was strongly motivated by the fact that he did not wish to go down in history as the first American president to preside over a losing war. So while he publicly espoused “peace with honor,” in reality, Nixon let loose the dogs of war.

There “was no grand design for detente that guided all of his decisions as president as [Nixon] and his supporters have claimed,” Schmitz says. “Rather, his priority upon taking office was victory in Vietnam.” Nixon, furthermore, “turned to deception and covert policies to escalate and expand the war while creating the appearance that he sought peace.”

David Schmitz

Things changed drastically in 1971, Schmidt notes, when Nixon was forced to draw down the American presence in Vietnam significantly and to step up the pace of peace negotiations. The result was the ignominious end of American participation in Vietnam in 1973 and the communist takeover two years later.

Nixon’s “decision to continue the war in 1969,” Schmitz writes, “had devastating consequences for Vietnam and the United States. The seven years of additional fighting incurred millions of casualties, further destruction of the land and infrastructure of Vietnam, and expansion of the fighting into Cambodia and Laos.”

At home, Schmitz notes, Nixon’s Vietnam War strategy “meant deeper political and social divisions, a worsening economy, and the political crisis of Watergate culminating in” the first and only resignation of a U.S. president.

—Marc Leepson

No Good Like It Is and Dog Soldier Moon by McKendree Long


VVA member McKendree “Mike” Long III served two tours in the Vietnam War as an advisor to South Vietnamese Army units, earning a Silver Star and Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry in the process. After retiring, he began writing historical fiction. His books, Long told us, “don’t have a damn thing to do with Vietnam, but have everything to do with veterans.”

Mike Long

Long’s first novel, No Good Like It Is (332 pp., CreateSpace, $12.08, paper; $2.99, Kindle), published in 2010, follows two Confederate cavalrymen through the Civil War and their postwar adventures in Texas.

In the sequel, Dog Soldier Moon (Goldminds Publishing, 260 pp., $12, paper; $2.99, Kindle), published in 2011, Long brings back his Texas Ranger heroes Dobey Walls and Jimmy Boss Melton, who get involved in a series of adventures in the Texas Panhandle in the late 1860s.

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

—Marc Leepson

Drafted by Andrew Atherton

Andrew Atherton tells us that his book, Drafted: The Mostly True Tales of a Rear Echelon Mother Fu**er (Treehouse Publishing, 294 pp., $14.95, paper; $4.39, Kindle), is a novel. The pseudonymous Atherton was drafted and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 with the 554th Engineer Battalion at Cu Chi and Lai Khe. Any details of his tour of duty in Vietnam must be extrapolated from this novel in which the main character shares the author’s name as well as personal details such as the name of his wife and education.

We have encountered novels of this sort before in the small literature of REMF service in the Vietnam War. I wrote three of them—including REMF Diary—myself. So I am not casting stones, simply describing what a reader will encounter in this book.

Atherton trains as an 11-Bravo, an infantryman, but when he gets to Vietnam is luckily assigned to the 182nd Engineer Battalion at Cu Chi, the place that was built on ground honeycombed by miles of VC tunnels.  Atherton ends up pushing paper as an office clerk at battalion headquarters.

How did that happen? Atherton had a college degree, for one thing, as well as typing and writing skills. Plus, the colonel had recently lost his awards clerk and needed a new one ASAP.  Atherton filled that bill.

The book begins in basic training, proceeds to AIT, and then to Vietnam. Our hero’s basic training was worlds different from what I underwent at Fort Ord. At the time, I wished I had been sent from my home in Seattle to nearby Fort Lewis to be basically trained. After reading this book, I no longer wish that. The narrative is composed of lightly edited letters Atherton wrote home to his wife and commentary that is almost like a series of essays.

Noted Vietnam War REMF David Willson

Atherton has a philosophy degree from a small Christian college, and is further set apart from the others around him by his serious reading material. I won’t list the books; if I did, it would be daunting. During basic training and AIT Atherton is with mostly marginal people—guys more or less drafted as cannon fodder. Their fates are clear from the get-go—carrying a weapon and humping the boonies as infantrymen in Vietnam.

Andrew Atherton’s job in Vietnam is quite different. It consists of typing condolence letters to family members of men who died in action, many of them due to friendly fire. He also processes awards for Purple Hearts and recommendations for Bronze Stars and Army Commendation Medals.

The essays on how and why medals are awarded are fascinating and smart. He was often given the job of writing letters of recommendation for those men who were being put up for awards. This often involved going out to the field to find the men nominated and interviewing them so he could write up the kinds of letters most likely to be accepted. Atherton’s disdain for the process and for most of the awards comes through loud and clear.

Atherton also makes it clear more than once his “low opinion of this ridiculous war.” This opinion does not evolve only from his being tied to a desk. Atherton’s duties as a writer and reporter for “The Road Paver” get him into the field where he sees some action.

REMFs in Vietnam

          REMFs in action in the Vietnam War

He also reports on MEDCAP missions in villages. There is lots of great stuff about asphalt, paving, and road building while the builders are under the threat of taking fire, and facing the ever-present chance of running over a booby trap that could blow them sky high.

Atherton also acted as a courier, taking documents from one base camp to another, which involved many helicopter flights. On one he saves an arrogant newby officer who would not fasten his seat belt from falling to his death.

This book deals with subjects we find in many Vietnam War novels and memoirs: The Bob Hope Christmas show, shit burning, John Wayne, IG inspections, corrupt South Vietnamese government officials, ARVN troops with no stomach for war, and throwing suspected VC from helicopters. But the book is totally free of the clichés that tarnish so many other books. It also contains a long, detailed, and useful glossary.

I highly recommend Drafted for those who wish to learn what the majority of us did in Vietnam, the 80 to 90 percent who were in the rear with the beer and the gear.

Drafted is one of the best of the small heap of REMF books that have been written about that part of the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Chita Quest by Brinn Colenda

The publisher tells us that Chita Quest (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 288 pp., $14.95, paper) is a novel about “one man’s search for his POW/MIA father.”  Actually, two sons have serious involvement in this search for their long-missing father. VVA member Brinn Colenda is the author of the earlier book in this series, Cochabamba Conspiracy, a thriller we reviewed here last year. If you loved that book, you will also enjoy this one. It is more of the same.

The story again involves the Callahan brothers. This time they are on a quest to find their fighter-pilot father who was shot down in Vietnam.

In the book’s Introduction, William B. Scott castigates “political elites who broke faith with those in uniform and intentionally left American POWs behind.” That is the crux of this fast-moving thriller, which is filled with enough plot twists to keep any reader tied in knots of suspense. The heroes are intrepid; the lily-livered bad guys lack any redeeming qualities.

Brinn Colenda

Chita Quest will hold your attention and provide the escape you need for an afternoon—that is, if you wish to devote your time to having your paranoia stoked about patriots being stabbed in the back during the Vietnam War, about fighting a war that was being won by superior fire power and massive air power but was “lost” by self-serving political hacks and the liberal news media.

A warning to sensitive readers: This is the sort of book in which a chubby lieutenant with the common sense not to want to fly in seriously bad weather is nicknamed “Minnesota Fats” by a bullying pilot and put in jeopardy by the bad judgment of that same pilot who then has to eject when their plane is about to crash.

That scene takes place in 1972 near the border of South Vietnam and Cambodia. The mission is to locate a downed pilot. The plane crashes, and I was pleased later to meet Fats again. He and the pilot survived the ejection from the plane. When Fats is ushered in to interrogate the hubristic pilot, the chubby guy punches him in the nose. This was my favorite moment in the book.

Colenda knows what he is writing about, and writes with great authority. He is a graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy. He served in a variety of assignments around the world, including in Southeast Asia. He had a post-graduate fellowship at the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

The book’s Epilogue, set in a Siberian forest, seems to indicate that there will be another volume in this series, one in which our heroes rescue a very old man living alone in a one-room log cabin. He many be very old, but the man still has the moxie to recite “the American Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct” and to salute “a small, crudely made American flag.”

Readers can only hope.

The author’s website is http://brinn-colenda.com

—David Willson