Arrow Moon by James V. Ventresco

James V. Ventresco’s Arrow Moon: Reflections of the Sixties (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $11.50, paper) follows four college friends as they deal with the challenges of the sixties. Ventresco is enlisted in the Army to avoid being drafted. He served in Vietnam and received the Bronze Star, an Army Commendation Medal, and a Combat Infantryman Badge.

The four main characters seem to be there for every important event of the 1960s. And if they are not actually present, it is made clear that the events had a mighty impact on them. Probably the event that is presented most stirringly, and one that most of them experienced, is the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Matt Santorri seems destined for Vietnam, but the book quits before he gets there. I’d like to read a sequel in which he makes it to the war zone.

Dave, his slacker friend in college, never applies himself to his studies, so I thought he might get grabbed by the draft, but no such luck. He has bad eyes, and his trigger finger is damaged in Chicago by the police in the park.

AJ spends the novel busy making money selling rolling papers and marijuana. He already has served in the military, so he is home free as far as the Vietnam War is concerned.  Johnny, the boy from Texas, seems also headed for Vietnam at the end of the book.

Many of the minor characters have served in the Vietnam War or actually are there during the length of the book, so the novel has an important Vietnam War component. The war lurks on every page.

One character, for example, remarks, “he was sure the big capitalists and bankers were doing everything they could to keep the war going.”  Another says: “I’m really getting worried about that fucking Vietnam War.” He has reason to worry.

Iwo Jima gets a mention from a priest at the funeral of a Korean War veteran. The priest served as a chaplain during World War II and spent time with the Marines on Iwo.  “If Christ has wanted to remind us that there was a hell, Iwo Jima was his way of showing it,” he says. “Today we are sending our sons to Vietnam to fight godless communism. At what cost?”

I enjoyed this novel, but I believe it could have benefited from a few thousand more commas—not to mention more glue in the binding. By the time I finished it, I had a bundle of loose pages.

That being said, it is an enjoyable primer to the main events of the sixties and the impact they had on young men. I was a young man during that period, and most of the things covered in the book resonated with me.  If you missed the sixties, this would be a great place to start catching up.

—David Willson

Year of the Rooster by Ben Wanderin

Larry D. Goodson served two years in the U. S. Army and then returned to his home in the Pacific Northwest in 1970. The cover blurb of Year of the Rooster (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $15.95, paper) tells us that it is “mostly a short story collection from the memories of a combat veteran of the Vietnam War mingled with present day thoughts and actions ”  This book—written under the pseudonym “Ben Wanderin”—didn’t read like any short story collection I have in my collection.

In 1969 the main character is nineteen years old and is from the Pacific Northwest—somewhere near Seattle, perhaps, which is where I was living when I was drafted into the Army and where I returned when my war was over. I feel a kinship with this author for that reason and quite a few others.

I part company with the main character when he says, “the last thing he wanted was to feel like he had avoided the draft.”  I would have been okay with that.

Goodson uses a progression of emotion-distancing names for his main character. He starts as Cherry Boy. Next he is called Rifleman. Soon he is Gunner. Eventually he becomes Survivor. And also REMF.

Our hero describes his arrival in Vietnam in familiar terms. As he “stepped from the air-conditioned freedom bird into the blast furnace of the dry season, the stench had hit his nose like a fist.” Soon after that he gets a detail during which he burns shit in a steel drum. He says, “If you’ve never stirred burning shit with a stick…”  Thank you, I have done that.

At Cu Chi, our hero joins his unit, then heads for Trang Bang, then Fire Base Pershing, and then Firebase Stuart or Stewart. Both spellings are used.  “Cherry Boy would come to believe that the squad he joined was made of the greatest guys in Viet Nam, maybe in the world.”

As Rifleman, his main assignment is to be part of a squad that clears mines. “The idea was to find the mines in the road and keep the convoy from being ambushed while bringing supplies to the little sandbag fortress called home to some 105 howitzers, plus 4.2 and 81 MM mortars.”  With less than three months in the field, our hero becomes the machine gunner and senior man of his squad.

He becomes disillusioned and thinks that perhaps he wasn’t in Vietnam to “protect the people of South Vietnam from those evil communists he had been hearing about since the day he could hear anything at all.”  It seemed likely that we were, instead, “creating enemies every day out of neutral or friendly people.”

The Gunner is transferred to Cu Chi where he has a better chance to survive. This is when his name is changed to Survivor. And then he becomes a REMF.

“They were a part of the ten to one ratio of people in support of the one to ten outside the wire being referred to as combatants.” He becomes a combat correspondent.  For “a healthy person with all his marbles the job would have been a dream come true.”  He wasn’t that person.

Our hero’s time in Vietnam hits him hard.  “By now about the only things he really felt were fear or rage and most of the time he couldn’t tell the difference.”  He goes on to say, “Killing people is a fucked-up business to be in, but if it’s the job you’ve got, you’d better pay attention or you’ll be the one not telling your friends anything.”  I appreciated that piece of wisdom.

On the plane home, the so-called Freedom Bird, Survivor thinks, “people would respect him for what he had survived.” Think again, Survivor.

This novel reads like an elegy—an elegy for lost innocence, lost youth, and lost lives—both American and Vietnamese. While reading this book, I kept thinking of The Red Badge of Courage. Year of the Rooster has more in common with that classic than with any Vietnam War book I’ve read—both in tone and in distance.

Year of the Rooster is well-written and accessible. I would like it to be required reading in high schools, especially by those who think that joining the Army will result in a happier life.

—David Willson

 

Dear Mom and Dad, Love From Vietnam by Joe Abodeely

Every Vietnam War story has value, even the ones you have heard before. Repetition produces truths. Recently, I read three autobiographies by soldiers who experienced combat in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. The best book was whichever one I was reading—the most recent being Dear Mom and Dad, Love from Vietnam (282 pp., $20, paper) by Joe Abodeely, a lieutenant back in the day.

Abodeely’s memory relies heavily on daily journal entries he wrote in-country and long letters he sent to his parents at least weekly. In this memoir he reflects on that material.

He led a platoon in the 1st Cav for five-and-a-half month before transferring to a staff job. Abodeely recorded his proudest achievement in his journal: “Well, I did it. I went through my tour in the field and never lost a man. None killed.”

Abodeely and his always-undermanned platoon engaged in air assaults, sweeps, patrols, ambushes, search and destroy, and search and clear missions, and one time escaped after being surrounded. They “walked in on Highway 9, where no one before could travel because of ambushes” as the first replacements for besieged Marines at Khe Sanh. Shortly thereafter, his platoon was airlifted into the A Shau Valley to support Operation Pegasus.

Often in Vietnam War books, the big picture tends to repeat itself; therefore, vignettes and turns of phrase fascinate me. Abodeely nicely filled those squares. For example: “In a firefight, you did not see a person shooting at you—bushes shot at you. It was ominous. It was as if the NVA were ghosts.”

And: “My point man was a guy we called ‘Hippy.’ He was a lanky guy and had a peace symbol on his helmet. He found the machine gun and an NVA helmet and a bag of raw opium. The NVA used opium for medicinal purposes. I told Hippy to take the bag to turn it in. I never checked to see if he did.”

Abodeely watched an operations officers carrying a dead NCO and reported: “Before he set the dead soldier down on the ground, the body started regurgitating—the involuntary action of the body after death. I had never seen that before. That was another reminder of my mortality.”

Regarding prisoners, Abodeely noted: “First and third platoons captured some VC. The interrogators beat the hell out of the VC who confessed.”

Joe Abodeely at the Arizona Military Museum

Yet he also felt compassion. After an ARVN soldier tortured a young mother suspected of being a VC by kicking her in the face, crushing her milk-filled breasts, and rubbing chili peppers into her eyes, Abodeely took control and returned the baby to the woman. “We moved out with 38 refugees interspersed with the troops,” he writes. “The ‘VC’  girl was falling behind, my platoon sergeant yelled to me that she was: I just let it go. I don’t know if she was a Vietcong, but I thought she had suffered enough.”

Life changed significantly for Abodeely after he switched to S-4 Logistics. He describes his job as “requisitioning, scrounging, and stealing” to obtain material for new buildings at Camp Evans in I Corps. He spent his last two months at Quan Loi, a III Corps hot spot near the Cambodian border. Working on S-3 base defense and landing zone duties, he experienced the war from a new perspective. When half of his former company became casualties in one afternoon, he developed a hint of a political conscience.

The other books about 1968 in Vietnam I mentioned are reviewed on these pages: Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers by Charles Baker (a major) and My Story: Vietnam 1968, 196th Light Infantry Brigade by Gary Lyles (a sergeant).

–Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but my two absolute favorite detective fiction series feature main characters who are Vietnam War veterans. That would be Dave Robicheaux, the flawed Cajun detective hero of twenty smashingly good procedural/thrillers by James Lee Burke, and Harry Bosch, the complicated Los Angeles Police Department detective at the center of nineteen thriller/detectives by former L.A.Times police reporter Michael Connelly.

Which brings us to Connelly’s latest, just-published Harry Bosch, The Burning Room (Little, Brown, 388 pp., $28). It’s been two years since the last Bosch, The Black Box (Little Brown, 416 pp., $27.99). I was more than ready for the latest installment in the adventures of the smart and dedicated—but sometimes ornery and emotionally fragile—former Vietnam War tunnel rat, now nearing retirement working in the LAPD cold-case division.

I devoured the rapid-reading Burning Room as I had its eighteen predecessors. Once again I was impressed by Connelly’s story-telling abilities. The plot hummed along with plenty of twists (maybe one or two too many). The characters were well drawn and believable. The physical landscape of the greater Los Angeles area sketched vividly and convincingly.

The plot follows Connelly’s main Bosch formula: working with a new partner, Harry uses his brains and experience (and stretches legal limits a tad) to solve a perplexing crime. There are plenty of roadblocks, including the fact that the case is ten years old and it leads him to a related, second heinous crime to investigate. Harry runs into trouble from self-serving bureaucratic higher-ups and has to juggle work vs. family responsibilities, namely being the single father of a high-school-age daughter.

Michael Connelly

This is a police procedural with thriller elements, so we more or less know who the bad guys are fairly quickly. But that doesn’t hamper the page-turning quotient. Connelly keeps things moving quickly to a conclusion that including a surprise element.

Bosch’s service in the Vietnam War plays a very small part in the book. The first mention doesn’t come until about a third of the way in.

He’s discussing interrogation techniques with his young partner, whose grandfather (!) served in Vietnam. The topic of “enhanced” methods and “tools of interrogation,” Connelly writes, “threatened to trigger Bosch’s own memories and he didn’t need that now. He brought the discussion back on point.”

Later, Bosch comes across a Vietnam War-era M60 machine gun. “Those who carried the M60 through the Vietnamese jungle had a love/hate relationship with it,” Connelly writes through Bosch’s eyes. “They called it ‘the pig’ whenever they had to lug the heavy weapon out on patrol. But heavy or not, it was the best gun to be holding in your hands in a firefight.”

As usual, Connelly, who was in middle school during the height of the Vietnam War, does very well in the accuracy and verisimilitude departments when dealing with the Vietnam War and Harry’s service in it.

Connelly’s website is www.michaelconnelly.com/novels/burning-room

—Marc Leepson

Never Left Behind by Jim Miller

We are told that Jim Miller’s Never Left Behind (RichLife Publishing, 334 pp., $20.99, paper) is a work of fiction. “The characters are either vestiges of my memory or products of my imagination,” Miller says. “My time in Vietnam was too historically unremarkable to bother with.”

He goes on to say that he “came home angry, too. I couldn’t hear the name Jane Fonda without foaming at the mouth.” Miller got home “just before Christmas of nineteen sixty-seven,” which was five years before Jane Fonda went to Hanoi. At that time Fonda was a pin-up in Vietnam due to her film work, especially in Barbarella.

So Miller was foaming too early—and wrongly—when he head Fonda’s name. On the other hand, he seems to have no problem hearing the names Kissinger, Westmoreland, LBJ, or Nixon. Which makes me wonder why he doesn’t put the blame where it belongs, rather than displacing it to Fonda.

After I read the author’s note about Fonda, I had little hope the book would be worth much. However, I plodded onward, hoping that I would be wrong.

The author also says, “It was still early in the national turmoil that the end of the sixties brought, but showing up at my parents’ front door felt like arriving from Mars.”  Many Vietnam veterans shared that experience, including me.

The central character of the book is Edgar Allan Jollar, a Navy SEAL who is left behind through no fault of his shipmates, all of whom died in an attack in which Jollar took two bullets to the head, leaving him near death and with total amnesia. He is nursed back to health by loving Vietnamese people, one of whom becomes his wife.

The novel jumps back and forth in time and takes place on several continents. The book is held together by amazing coincidences of the sort that I last encountered in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. These coincidences are communicated to the reader in prose that varies from workmanlike to cliché ridden.

This reader encountered the cliche “as tough as a two dollar steak” twice. I admit I’d never heard the phrase “as ugly as homemade soap,” but I won’t be using it in my own writing.

Characters say things like, “No speakee gook,” and Asians are often called “Orientals. “Vietnam is referred to as “this shithole.”  Also, “Gook names all sounded the same to Jenkins.” We are also told that “Vietnamese are superstitious people who live in the present.” 

When the characters venture into Vietnam, one of their big fears is that they will be fed pets at dinner. One of their hosts actually makes fun of this fear by serving them a platter of food and making a mewing noise. I laughed at that. 

It’s hard to place some of the dates in the novel, but my interpretation is that Jane Fonda is castigated for going to Vietnam in 1969. The reader learns that Hollywood actors went to Hanoi, “desperately trying to pump up sagging careers.”  Antiwar protestors are characterized as “dirty rabble marching in the streets and singing old songs,” and as “wild-eyed liberal radicals.”

Audie Murphy is mentioned, as is Agent Orange. This book also tries something few attempt, to create a Vietnamese character who is not just a walk-on. Phung Tu is presented to us early as he tries and fails to kill Jollar. The back and forth of the narrative shows us the progression of his life. I didn’t find him to be a sympathetic or believable character, but the author deserves credit for trying.

As the back cover blurb notes: “middle age has found both Tu and Jollar; their lives have settled into a routine that has left the war behind.  But unbeknownst to either man, they [sic] lives would continue to enmesh in ways neither man could fathom.”

For the reader who cannot get enough about the heroism of Navy SEALs, perhaps this book is for you.

—David Willson