An American Atrocity by Mike McCarey

Mike McCarey served as the First Marine Division’s chief prosecutor for most of 1968 when that unit was in Vietnam. McCarey’s office prosecuted all felony cases in the division.

Captain Conners is the main character in American Atrocity (J-ALM Publishing, 288 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), a military/legal novel.  “On a rainy night in January 1968, several days before Tet, a squad of Marines on a mission to gather information is attacked by a large force of North Vietnamese regulars,” the back-cover blurb notes.

“Only six Marines live through the assault. The following day, the half-dazed and exhausted survivors capture three Vietnamese dressed as farmers. The captives are put on ‘trial’ for being the enemy, sentenced to death and executed. One of the captives—a teenage boy—is tortured and hanged.”

The plot brings to mind the real-life story told in Casualties of War, the book and the movie. Many of the same issues are presented and debated in this book. That includes questions such as:

  • Is it realistic to expect our soldiers and Marines to follow the rules of war when the enemy does not follow them?
  • Are rules for war realistic? 
  • When fighting an enemy who adheres to only guerrilla war methods, can we beat them if we stick with Geneva Convention rules?
  • All war is hell, but when does war become war crimes?

Captain Conners deals with all of the above. Things get complicated when Conners realizes that he had met and spoken to the three murder victims, and he knew for sure they were farmers, not Viet Cong. The six Marines who murdered them, however, did not know that. To them, all Vietnamese were alike, all were the enemy.

Mike McCarey

This is an engrossing book, with a well-told story. We encounter Bob Hope, people sniffers, a media that is against the war, and Marines being spat upon in airports back home and being baby killers.

Fragging is also featured. The Phoenix Program is mentioned as a defense as it involved murdering civilians whose crime was to be included on a list for perhaps no more serious a reasons than insulting a neighbor.

It is good to read a Vietnam War novel in which the hero spends most of his time behind a desk, not out in the field. It also is good to read a book in which justice is done, although it doesn’t resurrect the dead Vietnamese farmers. They are gone; their hearts and minds are beyond reach.

I highly recommend An American Atrocity to those who who wish to read a nuanced novel about the moral and ethical issues that infantry soldiers deal with.

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

—David Willson

The author in Vietnam

Vietnam Convoy Trucker by William Patterson

Xulan, a Christian-based press, guided Bill Patterson through the process of writing his memoir, Vietnam Convoy Trucker (202 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). He could have benefited from a bit more guidance.

The book is slowed down by much repetition. Patterson tells the reader several times about his triple extra-large uniform and how he had a Long Binh tailor cut them down for him and what a good job she did and how he wore them for the entire time he was in Vietnam. He also mentions fifty-five gallon drums of Peneprime many times. It is a black, tarry substance that was applied to the roads to deal with the red dirt and dust, which Patterson, as a truck driver, did battle with every day in the Vietnam War.

Patterson enlisted in the U. S. Army Reserves during the summer of 1964. He was assured that by doing so he’d serve out his six years in the United States. In early 1968, he and his many friends in the 319th Transportation Company in Augusta, Georgia, were called to active duty status. Other reserve units who received this call fought the legality of it, but the 319th did not.

“We served honorably, won our medals, and commendations and came home,” he writes. “We did the right thing. I am proud to have been part of the effort.” Only one man from his unit died in Vietnam. “We acted in good faith,” he says. “We also made terrible mistakes.”

Unlike the overwhelming majority of those who served in the Vietnam War, Patterson went there with friends and neighbors, men he had known for many years back home. When their war was over, the men returned to Augusta, and remained in contact for the following decades. This experience is well-described and brings home how vastly different it was for most of us who were brought to that war individually. It is easy to see the advantages of being surrounded with old friends in a war zone.

The 319th arrived in Vietnam September 1968. “The next day we immediately began riding with another company on convoy runs to learn the routes and procedures,” Patterson writes.  Later, he takes stock of the war, seen from his front seat in the five-ton cargo truck he drove nearly 15,000 miles through South Vietnam, delivering troops, barrels of Peneprime, apples, oranges, ammunition, supplies, equipment, and canned food on pallets.

Patterson’s book describes the life of a convoy trucker so well that I see no need for another book on this interesting subject.  “The work was hot, dirty, and dangerous,” he writes. “I ate mostly C-Rations and drank water from my canteen. Our workdays were long and we did not get enough sleep. I saw and was near combat, ambushes, aircraft bombing and road mines, and was exposed to toxic chemicals and mental worry.”

Patterson’s unit logged over a million miles. When they returned home to the Bible Belt they encountered a cordial welcome, with little of the war protesting that others of us ran up against elsewhere. Patterson thanks President Nixon for enabling his unit to shave six weeks off their commitment and get home early.

He also complains bitterly about Jane Fonda. “While MS Fonda was enjoying herself consorting with our country’s enemy, hundreds of thousands of patriots were returning from war duty,” he says. “Her action and those of others caused some real disrespect to be shown towards these soldiers who had endured so much.”

I don’t think poor Jane Fonda can be blamed for the fact that when I tried to return to the state job I’d been drafted out of, I was told they didn’t want me back. It didn’t occur to me she was responsible at the time, and I don’t buy it now.

Patterson’s low-key narration and deadpan style makes this book an easy and pleasant read. He has a gift for understatement that I enjoyed. I highly recommend this book to those who have been jonesing for more information on Vietnam convoy trucking. This is the book.

—David Willson

 

 

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson

Defiant by Alvin Townley

Alvin Townley’s Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned, which was published last year, is now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne/Griffin, 432 pp., $17.99).

In focusing on telling the stories of about a dozen captives, this well-written book draws heavily on the previous body of POW literature. It also goes over the story of the POW wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbied the government on their husbands’ behalf.

You can read our review in the January/February 2014 print issue of The VVA Veteran.

—Marc Leepson

 

Surprised at Being Alive by Robert F. Curtis

It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.

Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.

Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.

As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.

He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”

The book solidly supports Curtis’ claims and reinforces opinions held by other Vietnam helicopter pilots such as Bill Collier and Jim Weatherill in their recently published memoirs.

Robert F. Curtis

Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.

The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”

After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.

During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”

I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.

On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.

—Henry Zeybel

Those Who Remain by Ruth W. Crocker


On May 17, 1969, a North Vietnamese booby trap killed Army Captain David Rockwell Crocker, Jr., the commander of Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry, and three of his men. Although Dave Crocker’s wife Ruth had his body cremated, she also held a full military burial for a casket filled with her husband’s dress uniforms, her wedding gown, and letters he had written to her during their four years together.

A few months later, Ruth Crocker went to Switzerland and scattered her husband’s ashes at the foot of the Eiger’s North Face, his favorite spot on earth. After that, as a war widow at the age of twenty-three, Ruth tried to forget Dave. Forty years later, she had the casket exhumed “to excavate [her] deep love for this young man who transformed [her] world.”

Ruth Crocker’s story in Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War (Elm Grove, 283 pp., $18.95 paper; $5.39, Kindle) is a tribute to the power of young love and the depth to which it bonds people. Ruth Crocker tells of her recovery from losing her husband: basically, she had to overcome suppressing her grief.

Burying his letters was a defense mechanism: “I’ll never look back. I cannot look back,” she writes. “I don’t want to remember how much he loved me.”

Prior to meeting Dave, Ruth was part of a family closed to outside influences. Her parents owned and ran a Mystic, Connecticut, nursing home. The young couple married the day after he graduated from West Point. He introduced her to the world at large through travels across the United States for military training and while in Germany as an infantry platoon leader and aide-de-camp. They even scaled an “easy” level of the Eiger’s west side.

Ruth Crocker

Dave Crocker died two weeks before Ruth was to meet him for R&R in Hawaii. Death was not new to her, except that she had seen it as a process that took time among old people. Instead, her young husband was gone instantly. The Army’s mismanagement of notification, condolences, and information regarding how he died compounded Ruth Crocker’s confusion and helplessness. Her only solace came from her and her husband’s families.

The story jumps from when she spread the ashes on Eiger to 2006 to when she first attended an Alpha Company, 22nd Infantry reunion. The men of the company taught her that “fallen friends are ageless, frozen in time.” Their memories of their Captain were as vivid as hers and validated her feelings for him. Since then, she has attended all of the company’s reunions. Encouragement from men at the reunions led her to dig up the gravesite.

Opening the casket produced shock and disappointment along with enlightenment. The uniforms, gown, and letters had dissolved into a soggy clump. Ruth Crocker remembered that she had delivered Dave to the Eiger: that part of the story was perfect—and perhaps enough.

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

—Henry Zeybel

One Man’s Story by Michael Clark

For Michael Clark the road to Vietnam was as twisty and convoluted as a walk through the forest: stunning and green with its richness, covered with underbrush and sticker bushes in other areas, smooth and flat and compacted where it should be.

In One Man’s Story: Memoirs of a Vietnam Vet (Lulu, 176 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) Clark takes us through the four phases of his life, focusing on the most traumatic event of his life.

We get details of his childhood and youth; his draft induction, training, and misdirection in the Army; his 1970-71 tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division as a medic attached to the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai, and his prolonged struggle to come to terms with what he endured in the war.

Clark’s childhood in Michigan gives way to outdoors as a youth, hunting, fishing, the Boy Scouts, high school, love, marriage, and the dreaded menace of a faraway war breathing on his neck. There is a not-so-funny recounting of how an Army trains, assigns, and mis-assigns people into military occupations. Clark wanted to be a Light Vehicle, Wheeled Mechanic, so they sent him to schools to be a medic and a physician’s assistant. When he arrives in Vietnam, there is no ‘open slot’ for him to fill.

Yet, as war heats up, choppers full of dead and dying men are medevaced and he is plunged into the nonstop gore: triage, eighteen-hour days, hideous wounds, burn casualties, blast injuries, limbs that cannot be re-attached or saved, shrapnel wounds, and the stress of doing everything, then losing more men than he can count. It’s a routine of ultra-long days, nights without food or rest, a dogged effort to survive, and memories seared into his soul.

Clark comes home in 1971 to an indifferent America, and begins the struggle to maintain a marriage, find work, and pay bills. He struggles with alcohol. The precision, the care, and the dedication of his work in Vietnam leads him to rebuild all of himself and his shattered psyche in slow measured steps.

During the next forty years Clark polishes his skills as a PA in operating rooms and emergency rooms. He also moves, changes jobs, restarts, and build houses, cabins, retaining walls, and wells–and he still feels the loss, anguish, and the isolation. He is blessed with a strong wife who struggles with him. It is clear that the cancerous growth that was his Vietnam experience eats at his psyche before he wrote his story and purged his soul of his war memories.

Throughout the book, we get Clark’s reluctance to serve, his opposition to the war, his reluctance to be drafted and be moved around for a disjointed mix of training and stateside military bureaucratic mistakes. Yet, when ordered to report for Induction, Michael Clark did his duty.

Michael Clark

Michael Clark’s post-war demons were not unlike those of many other veterans. In his last chapter, Clark goes into excruciating detail about the many repair, remodeling, and building projects he undertook, including what seems like details on every nut, bolt, and screw he used to rebuild homes, cabins, garages, wells, septic systems, and retaining walls to shore up his Wisconsin properties.

It is also clear that the detail, the precision, and the struggle to find and keep work—and to keep putting things in order–is Clark’s way to try to make sense his war experiences.

As the book closes, he gains a sense of how precious and fragile life, war, and devotion to family can be—and how lucky he is to have survived utter hell itself.

The book again proves how precious and fragile our allegiance to our great nation can be during very confusing and trying conditions. And it clearly demonstrates how a decent and honorable man earned the right to be called a citizen-soldier and a patriot through his courage, skill, determination, and will to survive.

The author’s website is www.vietnamvetmemoirs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik