John Bowen’s Eleven Months and Nineteen Days: A Vietnam Illustrator’s Memoir (Middle River Press, 264 pp., $24.95, paper) is a unique book. It documents his experiences as the only U.S. Air Force illustrator assigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon from 1967-68.
Bowen was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. He began working in the commercial art field after high school, then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961 as an illustrator. Six years later, he was a staff sergeant and received orders to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit.
As the only illustrator, his primary duty was documenting airlift resupply operations by drawing and painting what he observed. His many sketches and drawings placed liberally throughout this book enhance the reader’s ability to visualize what the author is writing. Some of his works are on display at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
A large majority of those who served in the Vietnam War were support troops. This is one of their stories. Bowen aptly describes the transformation in his unit from an almost state-side quality of day-to-day life—living in a barracks, sleeping in a bed, taking a warm showers, watching full-length movies, and dining in a mess hall—to life after the 1968 Tet Offensive.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base and nearby Saigon were in the thick of it. A good friend of Bowen’s was killed by an enemy rocket inside the civilian terminal while waiting in line to board a plane back to The World.
While security forces from the U.S. Army and ARVN Airborne moved through the area responding to enemy attacks, Bowen and his men were on placed on alert, ready to respond. Enemy rocket attacks continued night and day through February and into March, concentrating on the flight line and housing areas. The base control tower even sustained a direct hit. Bowen includes many sketches of the destruction in his book.
Especially poignant was Bowen comforting another airman who was on a sandbag-filling detail when they were bracketed by a salvo of rockets, killing and wounding several men.
The enemy’s May 1968 Spring Offensive saw more attacks on Tan Son Nhut. Again, the combined U.S. Army, Air Force, and ARVN units prevented the base from being overrun.
The author’s unit, the 834th Air Division, received two Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding performance during the Tet Offensive and the Spring Offensive. After reading John Bowen’s well-written and profusely illustrated book, you will have a new appreciation for the troops who kept our supplies coming, no matter what.
For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.johnbowenwatercolorist.com
—-James P. Coan