Vietnam War Helicopter Art, Volume II by John Brennan

heliart2222222222222222222

John Brennan’s Vietnam War Helicopter Art, Vol. II (Stackpole, 200 pp., $20.39, paper) is a masterpiece of photo-collecting artwork. Warning: If you don’t already own Volume I, you’ll rush to buy it as soon as you finish this new one.

By gathering photographs from more than 300 contributors, Brennan has put together a memorable collection of helicopter titles and nose art. This coffee-table sized book contains large and vividly clear pictures, along with short anecdotes from crew chiefs and crewmen that describe their aircraft and service records, as well as reminiscences about life in the field.

In a Forward, Michael Veronica eloquently sums up the book’s purpose when he writes: “Machines take on a personality of their own and gain names of endearment or names commemorating people, places, and actions relating to the war or to popular culture of the time. Through these names comes artwork, a way to make a visual and emotional connection with the craft that takes a crew into harm’s way—artwork like UH-1H Proud Mary for the Creedence Clearwater song; UH-1D Little Annie Fannie for the cartoon character in Playboy magazine…and Easy Rider for the Peter Fonda movie of the same name.

My favorite helicopter in the book is a UH-1C crewed by Jesus Mota with a painting of an open-mouth snake spitting out a missile. Written below is DIE BASTARDS, DIE COPPERHEADS, JESUS IS ABOARD AND WE IS SOME MEAN SUMBITCHES.

The delight generated by the book comes from the fact that, as often as not, the men fighting the war were guys drafted off the streets, children of the counterculture doing their duty. Brennan looks back in a way that makes everything exactly right—even though it wasn’t.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Foreign Correspondent by H.D.S. Greenway


H.D.S. (David) Greenway’s new memoir, Foreign Correspondent (Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., $26), looks at the nearly forty years he spent reporting for Time magazine, The Washington Post, and the Boston Globe from ninety-six foreign countries. That includes Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia during the American War.

Greenway arrived in Saigon in 1967 where “life was pleasant and safe enough for the moment.” That soon changed drastically with the 1968 Tet Offensive. In February Greenway hustled off to Hue to cover the action. At at one dicey point he wound up picking up an M-16 and firing at the enemy.

Soon thereafter, he was hit by rocket-propelled grenade fragments as he, two other civilian journalists (Charlie Mohr of The New York Times and Al Webb of UPI), and Marine combat correspondent Steve Bernston carried a severely wounded Marine out from under enemy fire. The Marine Corps later awarded the three civilians—Mohr, Webb, and Greenway—and Sgt. Bernston the Bronze Star for their courage under fire.

Greenway

You would expect an experienced journalist to present a well-written memoir. Greenway comes through on that score. His writing is crisp and his insights are often telling. That includes this assessment of the Vietnam War:

America “came to save the Vietnamese from Communism, not exploit them economically as the French, and there were many, especially among the propertied classes, who feared Communism and appreciated our effort. As for the peasantry in the countryside, they just wanted to be left alone.”

And this on the American military’s handling of corespondents: “The U.S. military was always upbeat, and if you stayed in Saigon you might think the war was being won. If there was one trait that trumped all the others during the long war, it was American self-delusion. As Sebastian Junger would later write about Afghanistan, it wasn’t as if American officials were actually lying to you about the progress of the war. They were just inviting you to join in a conspiracy of wishful thinking.”

Greenway also gives us a good deal about his fellow correspondents in Vietnam, including Michael Herr, Gloria Emerson, David Halberstam, Dick Swanson, R.W. Apple, and Stanley Karnow. He writes about hanging out with the photographers Sean Flynn and Dana Stone in Cambodia in April 1970, days before they rode their motorbikes toward Khmer Rouge positions and were never seen again.

—Marc Leepson

Uphill Battle by Frank Scotton

Frank Scotton’s Uphill Battle: Reflections on Viet Nam Counterinsurgency (Texas Tech University Press, 376 pp., $85, hardcover: $39.95, paper) is an odd—though entertaining and insightful—account of a USIA and foreign service officer’s work during the Vietnam War.

It’s odd, because Scotton was a difficult, headstrong young man who didn’t like to follow orders. He arrived in Vietnam in 1962 under the supervision of a man he came to respect deeply, Everet Bumgardner. But Scotton liked to go it alone in the bush, playing Rambo and embarrassing his superiors, even getting himself kicked out of his AO through the combined protests of his Vietnamese counterparts.

Early on, his exploits were not only reckless, but pointless, and he came within a whisker of being ordered home. In the early part of the book, the reader will be reminded of Alden Pyle, the over-confident fictional CIA operative in Graham Greene’s acclaimed novel, The Quiet American.

Early on also Scotton’s wife, serving with him in Vietnam, demanded a divorce.

Scotton gained fluency in the Vietnamese language, and made some Vietnamese friends. He learned that loyalties could shift among the Viet Minh, the ARVN, the Vietcong, and the South Vietnamese government. In other words, you could never understand Vietnam as well as the Vietnamese, and you needed always to be a student.

U.S. Army medical personnel treating South Vietnamese civilians in 1970

In 1963, for instance, it was important to understand who was Catholic and who was Buddhist. The so-called pagoda raids of Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem—and his overall bungling of the Buddhist crisis—eventually led to his assassination.

Scotton’s reckless early experiments fostered his ability to organize small groups that operated in the same, village-level spheres as the Viet Cong. Though he retained a slightly rogue modus operandi, Scotton became effective at the grassroots level. He maintained that “Any American (or Australian) assigned to the program should be imbued with an irregular spirit, abjure creature comfort, and risk going native.”

Scotton became an advisor to senior staff, and an important leader in his own right, rising to the post of USIA Assistant Director for East Asia. He spent time in Vietnam from 1962-75, and retired from USIA in 1998.

Scotton doesn’t have anything very startling to say in this book about the failure of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia. As he notes: “We all know how the story ends.”

Scotton’s book is nevertheless fascinating for its portraits of famous and influential people who passed in and out of view in Vietnam during the war: Maxwell Taylor, William Westmoreland, John Paul Vann, and many others. His book could have used some maps, and the photos are not very useful.

But otherwise Scotton documents his assertions thoroughly, and educates as well as entertains.

— John Mort

The Siege of LZ Kate by Arthur G. Sharp

In the March/April 2013 print edition of The VVA Veteran we ran a feature story by Arthur G. Sharp that looked at 21-year-old Army Special Forces Captain William Albracht and his heroic actions in late October and early November of 1969 at Firebase Kate in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border. More than 5,000 NVA troops mounted a ferocious assault on the precariously situated firebase and its 150 American and South Vietnamese troops, primarily Montagnard special Civilian Irregular Defense forces.

“Albracht’s troops suffered a growing number of deaths and injuries,” Sharp wrote. “Morale plummeted as food, water, ammo, and medical supplies dwindled drastically. Albracht had taken shrapnel in his arm on October 29 as he directed a medevac helicopter attempting to land at the firebase. He was given the opportunity to leave with the other wounded, but refused—choosing to stay at Kate to lead the remaining besieged troops.” After more intense bombardment, Albracht led the men to safety through a long, treacherous trek through NVA lines under withering enemy fire.

The article went on to explain that Albracht, an active member of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Quad Cities Chapter 299 in Iowa, received a Silver Star for his actions that day. The men who served under him, though, began pushing in 2011 for him to be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions. That action is still pending.

Albracht receiving the Silver Star—his third—at a ceremony at the Rock Island Arsenal, Ill., on December 15, 2012 

Sharp’s new book, The Siege of LZ Kate: The Battle for an American Firebase in Vietnam (Stackpole: 256 pp., $24.95), tells this story in expanded form. It focuses on details of the escape and also looks at broader issues, such as the newly implemented Nixon administration’s Vietnamization policy.

Another book is due out on the same subject next February: Abandoned in Hell: The Fight for Vietnam’s Fire Base Kate, written by Albracht and William J. Wolf, with an introduction by Joe Galloway

—Marc Leepson

Red, White, & True by Tracy Crow

Red, White, and True: Stories from Veterans and Families, World War II to Present (Potomac Books, 288 pp., $21.95, paper), edited by Tracy Crow, is an anthology of nonfiction. Crow is a former Marine Corps officer and the author of Eyes Right: Confessions from a Woman Marine. She served in the Marines for ten years.

Many of these thirty-two true stories deal with how lives have been affected by military service, either the service members or those close to them. The most powerful—and also most sad—are the stories that deal with the Vietnam War. That includes “The Thirty-Day Project,” in which Chrystal Presley tries to understand her father’s Vietnam War experiences. Those experiences traumatized her childhood and left her barely able to function.

Her father was a type very familiar to many members of the Vietnam Generation. In fact, I had a father similar to Presley’s. But my father had never been to Vietnam. He was a World War II Marine veteran of Iwo Jima.  I expected from the title that the story would progress through thirty days of conversation with her father. But no conversation happened. Presley made one effort and that was that.

Tracy Crow

Not all the stories in this large collection deal with the Vietnam War, but a surprising number do relate to America’s most controversial overseas conflict.  Ronald Jackson, Tracy Kidder, Stephen Wilson—all are Vietnam veterans with worthy stories to tell.

Children of Vietnam veterans also speak out. In addition to Chrystal Presley, there also is Lorrie Lykins with “Panel 30W, Row 15,” and Leah Hampton, with “Above and Beyond.” Read these stories and you may weep, as I did.

These fine stories remind us of the residual cost of America’s wars. They do so in a relentless and involving way.

In a country made by war, there’s nothing special in having a jumpy, sometimes violent father, one who wants his children to be neither seen nor heard. No loud noises permitted, not unless you want to court disaster. Lots of fathers of this sort figure in these stories—men who were called to war and who did their duty to this fine country, and who did not come back as the men they left. Nor did they return to the country as it was when they departed.

Most of this is sad stuff. Did I read a story in this anthology that made me happy, made me laugh? Not that I recollect. Still, I highly recommend this collection for libraries—especially young adult libraries—and as a gift to any young person who is hot to join up and go off to war. These stories might cause him or her to reconsider.

—David Willson

lThe Silence of the Fallen by David DeChant

David DeChant served two tours in Vietnam, the first from 1966-67 as a U. S. Marine Combat Intelligence NCO assigned to battalion scouts, and the second from 1968-70 as an Embassy Courier flying throughout Vietnam on Air America flights. DeChant says very little in his new memoir, The Silence of the Fallen (Sanhedralite Editing and Publishing, 298 pp., $2.99, Kindle,) about his second tour; the emphasis is on that first tour.

The point of view of the book is different from many Marine Corps memoirs. We do get some of the usual stuff, such as “Eat the apple, fuck the corps—The Crotch.”  And DeChant playing “John Wayne with a friend throwing a K-bar.”

However, when DeChant details the first casualty in his unit, he points out that it was friendly fire, “one of the expendable millions in the folly of Vietnam.”  We do encounter yet another reference to a VC barber, but it turns out that this guy only looks like DeChant’s unit’s barber, in the sense that “all Asians resemble each other.”

DeChant makes it clear that his life was pleasant compared to that of many. For one thing, he never fired his rifle while in Vietnam. “We lived like animals in the bush; however life at Dong Ha was relatively nice: hot chow, cots, mail, clean laundry, calls home, and even movies in an open-air theater. Most of the time, we could even get a nice hot shower.”

He includes the oft-stated complaint of this era about the M-16, calling it “absolute garbage. A piece of shit.” He supports this contention with many details. DeChant notes that the Marines asked for, but did not get, their M-14s back.

M16 edited...............“We should have been at home chasing pussy, going to college, starting careers,” DeChant writes. It’s difficult to argue with that.

The story is told in stark and hypnotic prose. “Move out, slow down, keep your interval, pick up the pace, slow down, take a break. Dry land, rice paddies, rivers, streams, rolling hills, open areas, 12 foot high elephant grass, (find the chopper above), sweat, bugs, leeches, vipers, heat, thirst, and the ever present fear of sniper attack, ambush, booby traps, wounds and death.”

Then there’s this brilliant rant in this very quotable book: “We were trying to stay alive and survive the insanity of this war perpetrated by America’s so-called Best and Brightest (worst and dumbest)—immoral, treasonous, cowards, merchants of death and treacherous war-lovers, most of them!”

As you might guess, DeChant does not hold back his feelings and his facts. I loved this memoir and highly recommend it to those who have the stomach for it.

—David Willson