Purple Sunshine by Bob Calverley

 

Bob Calverley was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 and served for a year in the Vietnam War with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh. Calverley spent most of his tour in Vietnam as company clerk, but occasionally flew as a helicopter door gunner. After the war, he worked in journalism and public relations.

Purple Sunshine: Sex & Drugs, Rock & Roll, Peace & Love (Stone Thread Publishing, 416 pp., $6.95, Kindle) is a work of fiction but seems to be informed by the author’s familiarity with the sixties music scene and the sixties Vietnam War scene. Calverley presents the knowledge that comes from being an insider in both areas.

When Private Jimmy Hayes, a talented guitarist and a band leader back home, gets off the Boeing 707 in Vietnam he comments on the heat and humidity, and “then the smell hit.” He goes through the Repo Depo and is assigned to the 99th Assault Helicopter Company in the fictional Nui Binh, where he soon encounters the smell of shit burning.

Nui Binh is “probably not far from the Tay Ninh Base Camp where the 187th was stationed,” we are told. Jimmy should be assigned as a prop and rotor repair specialist, but that does not happen as damaged parts are thrown away and replaced with new ones, so he becomes a door gunner.

Our hero has left behind his pregnant fifteen-year old girlfriend, Gloria, known as Sunshine. She is being pursued by the Mafia, her wicked stepfather who abused her, and by the police who connect her to a murder she did not commit.  She is also musically talented and writes and sings and plays guitar wherever she can. Much is made of how talented and physically lovely she is. The book’s cover shows us her attributes.

The ARVN are presented as “cowardly bastards,” but the South Vietnamese Rangers receive high praise. The book presents Jimmy’s wartime experiences and Sunshine’s adventures at home in alternate chapters. They both have it rough, with Sunshine sleeping in steam tunnels, cadging food, and playing for her supper on street corners, and Jimmy dealing with war-zone dangers. This is effective in showing the war at home counter-pointed with the war in Vietnam.

Calverley “tried to make these events and all of the settings in my story as realistic as possible,” he says. He gets high marks for that, and also for being a gifted storyteller.

Bob Calverley

Jimmy happens to be in-country for Tet 1968. I was anticipating that time to approach, as I figured there would be lots of action. I was not disappointed. A VC assault on the bunker that houses Jimmy and some malcontent friends is excitingly rendered.

Because of the alternating chapters, home and war, this is not the usual infantry novel, for which I am grateful. The home-front chapters are every bit as interesting and exciting as the war chapters are, and there is plenty of violence in both. There are believable villains in both places, too, and a novel like this benefits from having bad guys.

The author makes the point that the bad guys he portrays in Vietnam are not based on the men with whom he served. He has high praise for American officers, non-commissioned officers, and enlisted men.

This novel does not disappoint in touching bases with the familiar motifs of in-country Vietnam War novels. John Wayne, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” Agent Orange, baby killers—all that stuff and more is worked into the novel deftly and in a manner that enriches it.

If you are in the mood to read a novel of the late sixties that gives equal time to the home front and to the Vietnam War—and has a lot of violence and even some sex—this might be the book for you. It is well-written and well edited and moves right along.

I liked it so much that I read it on my Kindle in one sitting.

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

—David Willson

Bob Calverley in Vietnam

ASA Trilogy by Robert Flanagan

Bob Flanagan served sixteen years in the Army Security Agency, which is the focus of his ASA Trilogy from Connemarra Press and AuthorHouse: Involuntary Tour (324 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $22.99, paper, 2009), Dragon Bait (336 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper, 2011), and Fall Off (392 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper).

Prior to his Army service, Flanagan had served in the Marines for seven years. “Though neither protagonist is Flanagan, the characters must, of necessity, embody much of his life, philosophy, experiences, and biases,” his publisher says.

Flanagan began keeping a journal in Vietnam in the spring of 1964, he says, “with the intent of producing a novel.” He continued that practice until late fall of 1969. I believe that his novels benefit from that journal keeping because he has come up with pages packed with telling details of military life. Other readers might disagree, as they might find the thicket of military jargon daunting.

Robert Flanagan

Flanagan anticipated that potential problem and addresses it: “If there is one element for which I feel some explanation is due, it is the heavy use of slang, military jargon, acronyms, and other terminology more familiar to military and military veterans than to the general public,” he writes. Flanagan says he wanted to portray “events and characters within a military world as truly as possible.”

He has done that. In fact, no one has done it better, not even James Jones in From Here to Eternity or his other masterworks. I was thrilled to read this trilogy, which is close to a thousand pages and deals with the life, loves, and military career of David Winter.

Flanagan presents us with three thick novels filled with memorable characters. Some we see off and on again throughout the entire length of the trilogy. Others we meet briefly and they are gone forever. I became so attached to the recurring characters, especially WO David Winter, that I was sad when I finished reading the third volume.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Flanagan’s writing. He is not writing for junior high school students—far from it. His writing is demanding, but rewarding. For instance: “The demand for bodies for that distant conflict was insatiable, swallowing them whole, ingesting, assimilating all into its bowels, converting into waste, vomiting out others in a partially consumed state, forever changed.” I’ve never read a better description of what the Vietnam War did to those of us it gobbled up.

David Winter is described as not being “a war junkie, a militant groupie,” and he wasn’t. But in the course of almost one thousand pages his part in the Vietnam War changes him in many painful ways—especially painful to those of us who have grown to love him. We root for him, and it is hard when he seems about to be crushed by the War Machine.

Winter is often on the edge of cataclysms that destroy others, but which spare him, or seem to. Winter’s dear friend Brenner at one point states his mantra: “There is no God but irony.” There is plenty of irony in these three novels. So if you are born deaf to irony, these books will be a challenge.

For those who don’t like to get your Vietnam War history by reading historical novels, I recommend that you read Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 by Lonnie M. Long and Gary Blackburn. That book offers an organized history of the ASA.

Flanagan’s books are not chronological and sometimes seem to be written to deconstruct any possible logical view of the military.  Also, Flanagan offers episodes of apparently supernatural events, or at least magical realism, in which the reader butts up against people who cannot be explained scientifically. I enjoyed those occurrences, but I can see where some might be hornswoggled or nonplussed by them.

Flanagan does a better job than most  in showing what he calls “the barricaded worlds” of Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Plei Ku and other U.S. military installations in Vietnam. I spent a lot of time in three of those barricaded worlds, and attest to the truth of what he writes about life in those special military worlds.

Flanagan also does a brilliant job evoking the world of the sneakers and peepers of ASA, whose endemic motto was, “In God we trust; all others we monitor.” The world of military monitoring is nowhere more fully explored than in this trilogy. Probably the thing Flanagan does best is to show the effect on his main character of “what it would be like to suddenly know all you had believed in was a shopworn joke.”

We get references to John Wayne, Indian Country, My Lai, Terry and the Pirates, Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange, Graham Greene, Sergeant Rock, Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Isak Dinesen.  Because I spent thirteen months in Vietnam working for the Inspector General, I especially enjoyed the rant about the “persnickety ways” of the I.G. Funny stuff.  Yes, we were a chicken-shit outfit; I don’t deny it. We reveled in it.

I loved these three books, “the whole phantasmagorical magilla,” to steal a phrase from Flanagan. If you loved Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and John Ashmead’s The Mountain and the Feather, Flanagan’s books are for you.

If you want a challenge, if you want to immerse yourself in this military world, read these books. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

—David Willson

Basic Airman to General by Pete Piotrowski

It’s not easy to become a four-star Air Force general, especially if you start as a basic airman. But Pete Piotrowski did it while giving thirty-seven years and eight months of his life to military service. Anyone who aspires to wearing even one star—or simply to becoming a better leader—should read Basic Airman to General: The Secret War & Other Conflicts: Lessons in Leadership and Life (Xlibris, 717 pp.$26.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper) by General Pete.

The book is a chronological account of the author’s life. The General concludes each chapter with a short list of “Lessons Learned.” (He also provides photos at the end of most chapters.)

The advice reflects many principles taught at Maxwell Air Force Base’s Air University and other advanced military schools in the United States and England—places where Pete Piotrowski studied, along with Harvard. Fundamentally, he writes, “life is a continuum of learning,” and “higher education is essential in the professions.”

That, however, is not the primary message I gleaned from the book. As I see it, General Pete’s secret to success was threefold. He put Air Force needs first in his life. When he saw a problem, he solved it. And he fought for what was best, even if a new way contradicted “how we’ve always done it.”

Along with following those three active attributes, the General practiced an important passive one: He suffered the idiosyncrasies of fools who outranked him. Which leads to the conclusion: “If you won’t follow, you can’t lead.”

General “Pete”

General Pete served in the Air Force from 1952-1990. I served from 1955-1976. I was awed by how perfectly his book captured USAF practices and manners of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s, the time period when our services overlapped. For old readers, the book is a walk down memory lane; for young people, it teaches a history lesson about the pre all-volunteer military.

The book’s first half centers on Captain and Major Pete. As a pilot and munitions officer, he became the First Combat Application Group commander’s go-to-guy in the Jungle Jim program. For three years, he labored over the nuts and bolts of armament and aircraft performance, made two trips to Vietnam, and flew B-26 combat missions that turned theory to practice.

In a follow-on assignment with the Fighter Weapons School, he innovated Walleye delivery tactics that he later validated by busting North Vietnamese bridges. This portion of the book contains a wealth of excellent flying stories.

Following a tour at the Pentagon and below-the-zone promotions, Colonel Pete became commander of the 40th TFG at Aviano. In a down-to-earth style, he explains mistakes he made—and success he achieved—as a rookie commander.

From there, the book focuses on his ever-expanding responsibilities and earth-bound duties. Another below-the-zone promotion started him on fifteen years as a general officer, culminating with Commander in Chief at NORAD and USSPACECOM.

General Pete’s recall of people and actions from long ago is virtually limitless. He must have kept a copy of every piece of paper that crossed his desk. Memory alone seems inadequate to explain the depth of recollections. But his stories are fascinating. And he writes like a pro.

—Henry Zeybel

War Dogs by Rebecca Frankel


Rebecca Frankel earned the nickname “Chief Canine Correspondent” in 2010 at serious-minded Foreign Policy magazine where she works after she began writing a weekly blog feature called “Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week.” Frankel, the magazine’s senior editor for special projects, had just put together a photo essay called “War Dog” in the magazine. Researching and writing that article opened her “eyes to the wide world of war dogs,” Frankel writes in War Dogs: Tales of Canine Heroism, History and Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 251 pp., $26), an engagingly written look at dogs and their handlers in the U.S. military.

Most of the book deals with today’s military and the nation’s most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But Frankel also weaves in the history of the use of dogs in wars. That includes the American war in Vietnam where dogs did valuable work in many areas, most significantly in helping detect “booby traps, land mines, trip wires, and the enemy’s intricate tunnel system,” as Frankel notes.

“From the beginning of their use in VIetnam, these canine teams gave patrols negotiating the froth and fray of the jungle an advantage against the guerrilla tactics used by Vietcong,” she writes. “Within a year of scout dogs’ arrival in Vietnam, they are reported to have saved over 2,000 lives.”

Rebecca Frankel and friend

Frankel devotes part of one chapter to telling the story of Ron Aiello, who served as a scout dog handler in the Vietnam War. Former Marine Aiello “still beams with pride for Stormy, the dog who accompanied him to Vietnam,” she writes. “From the way Aiello talks about her—immediate, vivid, and joyful—it’s as if Stormy is somehow at his feet or dozing in the next room, instead of a memory from a lifetime nearly half a century old.”

Vietnam War scout dog team

Stormy, a German Shepherd mix, “was a lovable, friendly dog,” who performed extremely effectively in Vietnam. The story of Ron Aiello and Stormy, though, has a sad ending. Stormy stayed behind when Aiello rotated home in 1967. Aiello slept on the ground next to Stormy his last night in country to be with her “until the very last moment.” He spent years trying to find out what became of his beloved dog, but as was the case with “the majority of the some 10,000 handlers who served in Vietnam, Aiello never saw his dog again.”

Frankel says that some 5,000 dogs served in Vietnam from 1964-75, and only 204 came home to the U.S. Those left behind “were either euthanized or turned over to the South Vietnamese Army, which likely meant death.”

This book is written with strong empathy for war dogs, dogs in general, and military dog handlers. It’s sure to appeal to dog lovers of every stripe.

The author’s web site is www.rebecca-frankel.com

—Marc Leepson

Vietnam War Elegy by G. Lowell Tollefson

G. Lowell Tollefson served in Vietnam as a Marine civil affairs interpreter attached to an infantry battalion. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Washington and has taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico’s Valencia campus.

The long poem that makes up the book Vietnam War Elegy (LLT Press, 34 pp., $5.50, paper) “was born on a hilltop over forty-five years ago in Vietnam,” Tollefson tell us. “Time and the loss of this war have shown America that it was politically wrong in prosecuting it.”

Tollefson takes to task the use of H & I (harassment and interdiction fire) as he saw many innocent people die from that indiscriminate use of heavy ordnance. He says that it is time we owned up to it. “Let us admit the full measure of what we have done and learn from it,” he writes. “This is the reason I have written and am now publishing this elegy.”

Tollefson

There are some great lyrics in this elegy. Chapter 6, I believe, is the strongest example of Tollefson’s poetic gifts and moral sensibilities:

 

Along the copses of trees, the dense

jungle, beside the corn fields,

honeycombed like the damp-rooted rice

we set out ambushes and waited.

 

In the morning after the killing, we

washed the night away with sunlit

patrols.  The people were smiling, over-

joyed they could see us and to know

where we were.  They brought us

their broken-skulled, infected, rancid corpses.

 

We gave them candy, placebos, the stone

silence of force.  Fractured and folded in flat

fields under bombs, this peasant nation

endured, drawn to closure in a rhythm of

wounds, shadowed in movement like a snake come together,

come out of an old skin into one.

 

C. Lowell Toleffson is a new, strong voice in Vietnam War poetry. I look forward to his next work.

—David Willson

A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary by Dominick Yezzo

By page six of Dominick Yezzo’s A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself (iUniverse, 94 pp., $11.95 paper) I was totally hooked

The story: A week after he arrived in Vietnam in August of 1968, draftee Yezzo hiked several klicks outside of Camp Evans on an orientation patrol and did a hilltop night observation exercise. In the morning on the way home, the guy next to him screwed up a grenade-throwing drill, killed himself, and wounded Yezzo. Doctors in Quang Tri failed to remove shrapnel from his shoulder, and for the remainder of his tour Yezzo suffered recurring pain.

While recuperating on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, he met a childhood friend—a man completely paralyzed by shrapnel in his spine. Yezzo was like a G.I. Joe Btfsplk: If it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

As property of 1st Cav’s PSYOPS, Spec4 Yezzo ended up in Phouc Vinh where he found himself adrift in routine, dropping surrender leaflets from helicopters, chauffeuring a major who directed him into an enemy fusillade, guarding prisoners, pulling CQ and KP, and surviving rocket and mortar attacks that killed people around him.

As he put it: “I often wonder if Washington knows about rockets, mortars, bullets, life, death, and this tremendous suffering.” His topmost desire became surviving.

As a short-timer, Yezzo received little consideration from his career-minded superiors who “imposed their ills” upon him. Two months after Yezzo got a puppy from a friend, for example, an MP captain shot the dog to death. Yezzo confronted the captain and called him a “goddamn bum,” but avoided an insubordination charge.

Off duty, Yezzo spent more time with Vietnamese—fluctuating between loving and hating them—than he spent with Americans. A Vietnamese sergeant named So became his confidant. Yezzo’s insignificance was confirmed when he milked a short medical leave for extra days and “Nobody seem[ed] to care.”

Dominick Yezzo

After seven months in-country, Yezzo’s fear for his life led him to smoking dope. “Marijuana,” he writes, “is readily and very easily obtainable to every G.I. in Vietnam.” He also drank to escape from reality. Recognizing his weaknesses, he thought a lot about God and family. Years later, Yezzo’s “journey through himself” culminated in becoming a college literature professor and lawyer.

Yezzo, a VVA member, originally published this ultra-thin memoir of diary entries in 1974, and reprinted it this year. However, his experiences have a timeless quality.

A few of his accounts flashed me back to forgotten events. For example, Yezzo anguished over escorting the body of a Vietnamese boy killed by a booby trap to the boy’s mother. He wrote, “She hated the sight of me and the other Americans with me.” That made me recall airlifting a dead Vietnamese lieutenant to Dalat. His mother and father met our C-130 but refused to look at or speak to anyone on our crew. So it goes.

The book’s most revealing parts are Yezzo’s preoccupation with women: pen pals from home, platonic Vietnamese girlfriends, prostitutes, and bed partners from leave and R&R–particularly an Aussie woman to whom he devotes two full pages. He delighted me by asking, “How can I ever possibly marry one girl? I love so many of them, each for different reasons too.”

Dominick Yezzo’s long-ago immaturity reminded me that once upon a time all of us were equally as young. Yes, so it goes….

–Henry Zeybel

Kill for Peace by Matthew Israel

Matthew Israel’s Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War (University of Texas Press, 278 pp., $29.95, paper) fills the space that was left by Lucy Lippard’s A Different War:  Vietnam in Art and the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum’s Vietnam: Reflexes and Reflections.

Much of the art in those two books is antiwar; in his book Matthew Israel focuses on that art to great effect. Israel is a New York art historian and author who has taught at New York University and the Museum of Modern Art. No information is given in the book on his military service.

The “baby killer” motif is prominent in Israel’s presentation and analysis of antiwar art. I’ve read hundreds of books by Vietnam veterans who say they are tormented by that appellation. This book has many references to the “baby killer” theme, although when I went to the otherwise fine index, that term was not there.

Korean War and World War II veterans got a free pass on the issue of killing innocent civilians, but Vietnam War veterans are held to account in a way that veterans of those wars were not. Was it that no women and children were killed in previous wars?  We know that is not true. Previous wars also drafted civilians to be soldiers, so that isn’t the variable either.  So what is it?

Israel addresses this question in a chapter entitled “AWC, Dead Babies, Dead American Soldiers.”  It contained an epiphany for me. First, Israel doesn’t say it straight out, but most home-front  Americans believed that all soldiers in Vietnam were in the infantry. Americans still tend to think this. But something like ninety percent of us were support troops who had little or no access to weapons—and if we had them, we would not have chosen to kill women and children with them.

The visuals in this chapter clearly show that the posters disseminated after the My Lai massacre focused on the notion that American soldiers were baby killers—that that, in fact, was their mission.

The most scurrilous image in the book is of a 1970 poster, Jeff Kramm’s “My Lai,” displaying a naked ROTC soldier as a muscular, smug rapist and murderer. The caption is “My Lai—We Lie—They Die.” As if young men were joining ROTC motivated by the urge to kill. Most men were in ROTC either as a way to get a college education or because we attended Land Grant colleges that required ROTC. That’s why I was in ROTC—no choice at all, just like when I got my draft notice in late 1965.

Leon Golub created a lot of art about the war: the Vietnam Series and later, the Napalm series. He later recanted. “I couldn’t blame the G.I.’s for the guys who were initiating all this,” he said. “The soldiers weren’t assassins. I became ashamed.”  Golub then destroyed most of those demonizing art works, but it was too late, the damage was done.

Tens of thousands of posters showing Vietnamese civilians—including the iconic photo taken by Ron Haeberle of My Lai (below)—did their work in demonizing American troops in Vietnam. That includes a poster that showed a Vietnamese mother holding her burned child with the words:“Would you burn a child? When necessary.”

These images became the defining visual myth that ruled the minds of most Americans, convincing them that we were all “baby killers.” The idea that Golub presents—that those who sent us to Vietnam are the real “baby killers”—escapes most Americans.

The entitled elite who used the term “baby killers” against us re-purposed the term from World War I, when the English used it to refer to what the German use of zeppelins did over English cities.

Matthew Israel

The World War II generation—the so-called “Greatest Generation”—punished Vietnam veterans for this sin when we returned home by not giving us much of a G.I. Bill, by not giving us jobs, and by not allowing us to join the VFW and similar old-line veterans organizations because we weren’t “real” war veterans.

Reading this book reminded me again and again of the questions I had in the eighties when I taught Vietnam War classes at a community college.  In a nutshell, students would ask, “Why did you go?  If you’d just refused to be drafted, there would have been no war, no dead Americans, no dead Vietnamese.”

My answer was: You are right, but young men don’t get to decide. Also, they don’t know what they knew later, and they don’t know what you know now. They just know that America was in a war against communism and that their dads wore the uniform and saved the world, and they now had the opportunity to do the same. Later, they know stuff that changes their point-of-view, and makes them very bitter at how they were taken advantage of. They knew then that if they hadn’t served, prison and infamy awaited them, and their families would disown them.

Anyone curious about how American soldiers who served in Vietnam became stereotyped as “baby killers” should read this fine book. Matthew Israel has done a brilliant job demonstrating the power of the media, both television and art. He shows how they worked together to foster the myth of American soldiers running amok in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.matthewisrael.com

—David Willson