Black Cat 2-1 by Bob Ford

It’s refreshing to read a memoir by a Vietnam veteran who underwent an action-heavy tour of duty and came home to live a full, successful life. That’s what happened to Bob Ford, who flew Hueys with the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company out of Da Nang. Ford, in fact, also had a happy upbringing before the war.

As Ford tells us in his memoir, Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew (Brown Books, 288 pp., $24,95), growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he had “stern but loving parents,” liked “all of [his] teachers,” and “was blessed with a high school sweetheart.”

He took ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and proudly wore his Class-A uniform to his June 1966 graduation ceremonies—the only graduated to wear a military uniform at the event. During OCS, Ford’s weekends were “filled with athletics and all-around fun.” He excelled in helicopter training (“I had a knack for flying”), becoming one of the first in his class to solo at flight school. After flight school, Ford married his girlfriend Diane (“I couldn’t have been happier”), and then volunteered for Vietnam.

After he came home from the war, Ford put in a stint as an instructor pilot at Fort Wolters, an experience that was “the best year of [his] life.” When he got out of the Army in 1969 Ford, his wife, and new-born daughter moved back to Oklahoma and he began working for his father’s company, the Shawnee Milling Company. Today he runs the company’s flour mill in Okeene, Oklahoma. “It’s rewarding work,” he says.

In the four decades since Ford came home from Vietnam, he writes, “I’ve been able to enjoy school, community, and church activities,” and “have filled a leadership role in each.” An active athlete (“I played every sport available”), Ford has participated in hundreds of races, including marathons and triathlons, where he has excelled, winning state championships in his age group in “ten separate years.” Ford also enjoys “hunting, fishing, and raising cattle, as well as growing wheat and canola.”

Bob Ford today

In between growing up and coming home came an eventful 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, which Bob Ford describes well and in detail in his memoir. He arrived in country in July of 1967 and took part in much combat, including the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

His book offers often many evocative descriptions of combat flying, replete with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue.

For Bob Ford, the Vietnam War was a positive experience, “flying at its most satisfying and thrilling,” as he puts it, and serving “with honor and dedication to our country as an army helicopter pilot with America’s best.”

The author’s web site is http://blackcat2-1.com

—Marc Leepson

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Uniforms by David G. Duchesneau

“This book speaks from the heart and mind of everyone who has ever had the experience of attending a Catholic school with nuns, all those who were ever so fortunate to be a member of a drum and bugle corps, and all those combat veterans who served in Vietnam and experienced the rigors and sorrows of that war,” David Duchesneau writes in the Introduction to Uniforms (Xlibris, 150 pp., $22.70, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

As the title suggests, uniforms were the key to Duchesneau’s early life. He dressed in the slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer of Catholic schools and a bugler’s glittering attire before graduating to the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

Duchesneau is graphic. He delivers his memoir in the vernacular of an eighteen-year-old Boston wise guy. His fuck-all attitude is what kept me reading.

His blow-by-blow description of a 1968 Marine boot camp should have been titled The Theory and Practice of Hell. (I know—that title has already been used.) Two sentences perfectly summarize the rigor of the training: “We had three marines who committed suicide in the latrine. Two hung themselves, and one boot cut his wrist and bled to death.” At that time, boot camp had been reduced from thirteen to nine weeks to shorten the pipeline between induction and Vietnam.

Hard times were nothing new for Duchesneau. Physically abused and bullied by his father, Catholic nuns, and his grandmother, he survived childhood by learning to go his own way. Duchesneau found freedom after his father forced him to join a drum and bugle corps at age eight. As a teenager, he became the bugle soloist in a corps invited to perform across the Eastern United States and Canada. He also worked part-time after school and became night foreman in a shoe factory.

David G. Duchesneau

His Marine Corps life included AIT before going to Vietnam, where he served from March 1969 to August 1970. Duchesneau says that this book is his first “recollection of the Vietnam War as [he] experienced it as a marine infantryman, a grunt. The dates and locations may be out of sequence, but the events are factual and actually occurred.”

He spent March to mid-September 1969 in combat, operating out of Vandergrift Firebase north of Con Thien. His company conducted operations mainly along and into the DMZ. The enemy was primarily NVA, the best fighters from the North.

Duchesneau’s squad was mostly guys drafted into the Marine Corps who couldn’t believe that he had enlisted. With them, he participated in walking point as an FNG; search-and-destroy missions; day patrols; night patrols; ambushes; manning listening posts; getting in skirmishes; destroying villages; blowing up bunker complexes; surviving heat, bugs, and snakes; humping and sleeping amid monsoons and mud; and enjoying a three-day R&R at China Beach.

On one mission, he and his buddies were issued their own body bags. “Now that was a real morale booster,” he writes. The large number of American deaths caused by friendly fire or by accidental shootings and detonations upset him as much as anything else.

Reward for his combat came mainly from a sergeant major who admired Duchesneau’s “sweet-sounding sound of those twenty-four notes of taps.” The book ends with Duchesneau turning down an opportunity to become a member of The Commandant’s Own Drum and Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C. Instead, he returned to civilian life.

Uniforms contains about thirty pages of photographs without captions. The pictures of Duchesneau speak for themselves, but readers might benefit from captions for the many pictures of otherwise unidentifiable landscapes.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Road Gang by H. V. Traywick, Jr.

H.V. Traywick, Jr.’s Road Gang: A Memoir of Engineer Service in Vietnam (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 218 pp., $20, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a classy book. Traywick ranks as a four-star raconteur. His self-deprecating sense of humor enlivens his story.

Traywick sets the stage by writing about arriving in Vietnam, then smoothly flashes back to his life at Virginia Military Institute and his training as a Ranger and parachutist. He arrived in-country in 1969 as a captain and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Phu Loc. When the 82nd rotated home, he transferred to the 34th Engineer Battalion at Phouc Vinh.

Because he had a degree in Civil Engineering, Traywick was given command of a road construction company, the “Dusty Delta Road Gang.” His primary mission was to rebuild Highways 1A and 2A to an all-weather capacity. The roads were critical to supplying units along the eastern edge of the Iron Triangle, north of Saigon. The task had to be accomplished within the six-month dry season.

At that point, the book almost becomes an engineering text. In detail, Traywick describes how his unit built Fire Base Lobo, including its berms and bunkers, along with roads and culverts outside the wire. He explains the use of Rome Plows, sheep’s foot rollers, Clark 290 scrapers, graders, and D7E Caterpillar bulldozers. He also names seemingly every man who worked for him.

Traywick’s tongue-in-cheek writing keeps the narrative lively. He finds humor in his cautious improvisation of using a tractor as a minesweeper. While he and his men crept along a road, a column of APCs drove straight at them; the column’s colonel blistered Traywick with “very creative Angle Saxon,” demanding to know why he was “tooling along like that behind a funny looking rig running backward up the road.”

Later, when the VC sprang a mid-day attack on the Road Gang, Traywick rushed to the scene. His instincts told him “to do like Stonewall Jackson did at Cedar Mountain, and not shilly-shally around.”

The greatest danger to his men were mines and booby traps hidden in construction sites at night by the VC.Traywick did everything possible to protect his men, even when he was criticized for overreacting. When things went wrong, Traywick accepted the blame.

The book’s finest lessons are accounts of decision-making incidents that showed the dynamic differences between management and leadership. Zealous to meet deadlines, Traywick found flaws in a construction plan. Consequently, to save their reputations, at least two senior officers betrayed him. He was unaware of their treachery. As a result, Traywick’s battalion commander publicly insulted him and took away his command. “At this date I look back in wonder at how innocent of guile I was,” he says. The episode still rankles him.

H.V. Traywick

Following a rotation of leadership, working for a new battalion commander, Traywick redeemed himself and earned a Bronze Star. Nevertheless, he was disillusioned by the doubts surrounding his honor, and resigned his commission upon returning to the United States.

Throughout the book, Traywick repeatedly questions the norm. He is a man of traditional values predicated on a strong Southern background. He talks about seeing a staged version of the rock musical Hair while on R&R in Australia. That triggered him to discuss “freedom versus responsibility” and “self-denial as opposed to self-indulgence” for several pages. He also says: “No one in his right mind can advocate mixing men and women in the same military unit—unless his agenda is to undermine and demoralize it.”

Often while reading his book, I felt that Traywick would have been a most-perfect soldier in World War II—or, perhaps, in a war against Union aggression.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Died on the Fourth of July by John F. Schlatter

Died on the Fourth of July: Remembering the Men Who Gave Their Lives in Vietnam on America’s Birthday (CreateSpace, 362 pp., $17, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is John F. Schlatter’s second book that pays tribute to veterans. His first was Postcard Memories From World War II. As an aggressive collector of postcards, I will seek out that book.

Schlatter served as an Army officer from 1974-76. He makes it clear that he does not claim to be a Vietnam veteran. He mentions that three of his mother’s cousins were Marines who fought at Iwo Jima. A modest disclaimer: My father was a Marine who fought at Iwo Jima.  So I was predisposed to like and appreciate Schlatter’s book. The book did not disappoint.  

First, Schlatter organized his book sensibly: beginning with July 4, 1965, and proceeding year by year to the Fourth of July 1973.  It hit home with me that the Fourth of July on which the most Americans in died in Vietnam was July 4, 1967, the only Fourth of July that I was in-country. Forty-nine American service personnel died that day.

At the time I was oblivious to that. What was I doing that day? I checked my binder of letters home to my wife and found that on July 4, 1967, I attended a barbecue put on by the section I worked in: USARV-Inspector General. I ate steak and prawns.

Schlatter’s section on July 4, 1967, is informative and moving. Troop strength in Vietnam was almost a half million. “The death toll stood at near 14,200,”  he writes. Forty one of those who perished that day died as the result of hostile fire. Schlatter includes a photo of the section of The Wall containing those 49 names. It’s a tiny photo on my Kindle, but looking at it brought tears to my eyes.  

His essay informs us that of the forty nine Americans who died that day, thirty five were Marines. That’s 71 percent of the total deaths in a war in which 25 percent of those who died were Marines. One of the Marines who was killed that day was a chaplain’s assistant who was hit by shrapnel from a North Vietnamese Army rocket. He was serving Mass at an altar at the moment of his death.

Schlatter

Schlatter tells the stories of eight of the Marines who died that day. One of them was Lance Corporal Dwight David Eisenhour (no relation.)  He was killed by friendly fire.

The author provides a wealth of information on the eight, including one who received a Medal of Honor for his actions that day. He was the only American serviceman who died on the Fourth of July in Vietnam who received a Medal of Honor.

Each chapter brings alive the Americans who died too young in Vietnam. The honesty of the reporting elevates this book from being a mere record. The author’s research is thorough, painstaking, and what he reports is sometimes disturbing.

Schlatter has researched and written an important book. The specificity of detail, the photos, and the reproduced news articles go a long way to remind us of the great loss America suffered with the deaths of these young men.

Every library should buy a copy of this book, especially high school libraries. Young people need to read this book. The old people who send young people off to war should read this book, too, as a reminder of the huge butcher’s bill of America’s wars.

—David Willson

 

First Light by S. Elliot Lawrence

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S. Elliott Lawrence’s First Light: A Novel of Close Combat (CreateSpace, 444 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) closely follows the 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of Lieutenant Kenneth McKenzie. The lieutenant serves with the First Cavalry first as an platoon leader. He fills out the second half of his one-year tour as the Division Protocol Officer. McKenzie grew up in Oregon and the novel often alludes to the Pacific Northwest and his boyhood there.

Lawrence shares the above biography with his character. A Vietnam veteran, he is a retired trial attorney who can write and how knows how to tell a story. His main character is the lowest of Army officers, a second lieutenant. That was rare in Vietnam since most newly minted officers chose extra training before they left the United States, which resulted in them being first lieutenants when they arrived.

Our hero was in a big hurry to get to the First Cav, so he volunteered to go to Vietnam right out of OCS, with no jump school or other foot-dragging exercises.  That’s why he was not highly valued when he arrived in country.

Lt. McKenzie fooled the powers that be, though, by surviving his first few weeks and then months in the field and doing a good job as an infantry platoon leader. His priority was to keep his men alive while also following orders. When orders placed his men at serious risk for no apparent reason, McKenzie butted heads with his commanders. This led to quite a bit of drama in the novel and to the young LT’s reassignment.

Lawrence brings his characters alive—the lieutenant and the enlisted men and officers he served with, both good and not so good. When they die, this reader felt their loss, and believed that the lieutenant felt their loss as well.

Lawrence, center, in Vietnam in 1969

The filth and suffering of being in the field for weeks at a time without clean water, clean clothes, and decent food is well communicated. We encounter such oft-told horrors as ham and lima beans and worse. John Wayne is meantioned, but Audie Murphy surprisingly also is name-checked. REMF’s are also encountered.

Our hero becomes a REMF in the second half of his tour, but that part of the book is not as long as the combat section. The emphasis is the hero’s combat experience, but Lawrence also presents a good, solid representation of the life of a Division Protocol Officer.

I enjoyed this well-told story from beginning to end. My only carping remark would be about some lamentable editing: “heals” for “heels”; “people” for “purple”; and on and on. For those who lack training and experience as an Army stenographer (which I was), perhaps the lack of proofreading will not trouble you, and the excellent story will carry the day. I hope so.

—David Willson

When It Rains in Hell by Harry R. McCoy

Harry R. (Randy) McCoy served in two recon platoons in E Co., 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army;s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. In his memoir, When It Rains in Hell (CreateSpace, 300 pp., $15, paper), McCoy writes eloquently about that experience.

McCoy has throat cancer, “which debilitated [my] voice and ability to eat food,” he writes. He was often exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, and his book includes some powerful writing about that poison. “We grunts suspected the chemical was bad for our health,” he writes, “but the Army maintained it was perfectly safe and only affected vegetation for a while.”

McCoy’s recounting of walking through a desolate area that had been hit by Agent Orange is a dystopian vision that chilled my blood—blood, by the way, that is currently under attack by Agent Orange-caused Multiple Myeloma.

McCoy started his tour assigned to road-clearing trips every morning as well as pulling convoy escort duty, bunker guard and listening posts. This might sound fairly safe and harmless, but it wasn’t; it involved dealing with booby traps of high explosive. His unit then went out in the jungle “looking for Charlie.” Often McCoy and his fellow infantrymen found him. The book is filled with well-written descriptions of close combat.

Randy McCoy is not the typical grunt, if there were such a thing. He quotes John Donne from memory: “any man’s death diminishes me.” His facility with the English language and his philosophical pondering about what he terms “vexing questions” elevates this infantry memoir. He often tells the reader that our leaders in that ill-fated war failed to heed the edict to “know thine enemy,” and because of that we were doomed to lose the war.

McCoy arrived in Vietnam in early 1968. He is clear about his dedication to the M-16. He says that the bugs had been worked out of it by then and it was a fine weapon for use in the jungle. It had to be pried out of his hands when he left combat situations.

There is no racist ranting about the inferiority of the Vietnamese people in this book. McCoy makes it clear that he liked and respected the Vietnamese. He also thanks the Boy Scouts for training him and preparing him for survival in Vietnam.

Randy McCoy

My great respect for this memoir slipped a tiny bit at the end when McCoy indulged in a brief rant about Jane Fonda. He went  on to say, though, that he no longer hates protesters and war activists of the 1960’s.
“I can now quite clearly see they were right in their actions,” he writes. “Their efforts ended the war quicker than it would have happened otherwise.  However, I am still not ‘fonda Jane.’”

This memoir moves back and forth in time—from Vietnam to the future. It reflects on how McCoy’s tour of duty affected his later life, especially his first marriage. This literary device works well.

The book does not stop when he boards the “Freedom Bird” to go home. The reader finds out where McCoy’s life goes next and what demons tormented him in his post-war life. He dealt with these demons by isolating himself in his garage working on restoring cars—a pursuit that was solitary and had clear parameters, unlike the challenges of being a husband and father.

McCoy’s ability to summon up stark details of long-ago combat in Vietnam makes this memoir stand out as one of the best. His thoughtful reflections about that time held my interest throughout.

I highly recommend this memoir to those interested in the infantry experience in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Hope by Richard Zoglin


Richard Zoglin’s Hope: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 565 pp., $30) is a very well written, all-but-authorized biography. With the “generous help and cooperation” of Bob Hope’s daughter Linda, Zoglin has done a fine job telling Hope’s personal and professional stories, offering a good mix of narrative and analysis. Zoglin,Time magazine’s theater critic, does not shy away from pointing out the unpleasant parts of Hope’s life in a book that makes a strong case that he played a seminal role in the development of stand-up comedy.

Zoglin devotes a good amount of the book to Bob Hope’s long and honorable service to the nation by entertaining the troops in World War II and in the Vietnam and Korean Wars. These sections contain much praise, but also highlight the controversial nature of Hope’s work in Vietnam. Hope—who died in 2003 at age 100—never grasped the enormous differences between the American war in Vietnam and the two preceding conflicts, nor did he understand the vast differences in the generations of Americans who fought in those wars.

Hope, a close friend and strong supporter of President Richard Nixon, was a fervent Vietnam War hawk. He “had little understanding of the nuances, say, of whether the United States was trying to repel aggression in Vietnam or intervening in a civil war,” Zoglin writes. Hope, a friend said, “never really discussed the war with anyone below a five-star general.” Yet, Zoglin notes, “Hope wouldn’t temper his hard-line views or stop speaking out about the war.”

His standard reply letter to those who wrote to him criticizing his hawkishness was: “The servicemen over there believe they are doing a necessary job, and they can’t understand the draft-card burning and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations. They wonder if patriotism and love of one’s fellow men have gone out of style.”

Bob Hope, Cu Chi, 1971

By 1970, Zoglin writes, Hope’s “jokes about the counterculture were sounding increasingly smug and out of touch.” After emceeing the Miss World pageant in November of that year, for example, Hope spoke about the women’s liberation activists who disrupted the event, saying, “You’ll notice about the women in the liberation movements, none of them are pretty, because pretty women don’t have those problems. I don’t get it.” To which Zoglin adds: “He clearly didn’t.”

Zoglin describes an almost surreal episode during Hope’s 1971 Christmas trip to Southeast Asia: a secret, private meeting set up by the U.S. Ambassador to Thailand in which Hope and North Vietnamese envoy Nguyen Van Tranh met in Vientiane, Laos, to discuss the POW issue. The two men had cordial talks and agreed to meet again in North Vietnam.

Hope’s effort, Zoglin writes, “came to naught,” after his application for a visa to go to North Vietnam was denied.

—Marc Leepson