Eleven Months and Nineteen Days by John Bowen

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.

By John Bowen

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

And What Was I Doing There? by William B. McCormick

William B. McCormick has put together a rather untypical war story in What Was I Doing There? (Hellgate Press, 132 pp., $13.95, paper). This young soldier began his tour of duty in Southeast Asia on September 22, 1968, near Cam Ranh Bay. He was part of the 174th Ordnance Detachment, a support unit that supplied ammo to artillery units in Central Vietnam during the war.

The title of the book describes much of what Bill McCormick felt during his tour of duty. A read through the table of contents gives an immediate overview of wartime activities not often mentioned in Vietnam War memoirs. Routine “Guard Duty” and “Ambush Patrol” take on different meanings when performed in rear areas.

Daily work of the 174th ran the gamut from boring to dangerous—and from humorous to tragic. McCormick’s writing brings the reader right into the heart of it all. I was impressed by how clearly he described his arrival in Vietnam. You could almost feel the heat, sense the fear, and smell the odor of burning feces and urine mixed with diesel fuel.

Living in an ammunition depot is uniquely dangerous, and as in any war, mistakes were made regularly. Soldiers with no infantry training were sometimes moved to line units just to fill a quota, and sometimes infantryman found themselves handling ammunition in the rear.

One example of nonsensical activity: McCormick and his buddies found themselves building flowerbeds for beautification. Then he tells us that in all of his time in Vietnam he never saw one flower.

McCormick’s description of the local people is invaluable to readers who were not in Vietnam during the war. It becomes very clear that poverty was the state of affairs for many Vietnamese. Young women were hired to do laundry, sweep the barracks, and do other domestic chores. McCormick’s house girl had the peculiar habit of throwing away his handkerchiefs after he had used them one time.

William B. McCormick

Prostitutes were ubiquitous in Vietnam anywhere near the troops. McCormick pulls no punches describing the frequently detrimental results.

He describes a night-time phantom that had many of the group on edge at night as “it” moved around the sleeping GIs fondling their genitals. Humorous, perhaps, in the telling today, but not so funny in the war zone in 1968.

The dangers of living on a base surrounded by mountains of high explosives takes on a surreal effect. While the men had practice alerts, they knew that if one enemy shell exploded in the right place all of them would have been blown into very small pieces. According to McCormick, getting used to that danger often led to carelessness.

Just as McCormick memorably recalls his arrival in Vietnam, so too does he describe his leaving. “When it came time for me to go home, all I had thought about was leaving,” he writes. “I was unprepared for the pangs of regret that surged to the surface when the truck pulled out of the company area. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that I would never see these men again. I remember several men I had forgotten to say goodbye to, and almost jumped off the truck to do it.”

A Vietnam War forward ammunition supply point

This excellently written, readable narrative speaks volumes. I am grateful to William B. McCormick for sharing his story and leaving this reader with a greater appreciation for the support troops in the Vietnam War.

—Joseph Reitz

Common Valor by S.T. Simms

I spent an entire day reading S.T. Simms’s slim Common Valor: Ambush at Srok Rung, November 7, 1967 (Little Miami, 103 pp., $14. paper), and I ain’t a slow reader. But I read many paragraphs more than once, fascinated by the battle scenes Simms recreated. His topic is the beating taken by the 1st Battalion, 26th Infantry on November 7, 1967, near Srok Rung in South Vietnam.

Steve Simms was there. He talks about his participation, but the day’s drama comes primarily from eyewitness accounts of thirty other soldiers. Simms spent eight years finding and interviewing his fellow soldiers and researching the 1st Infantry Division’s Blue Spade Archives.

On that morning, with Alpha Company in reserve, Charlie and Delta companies of the 1/26 set out to find a North Vietnamese regiment believed to be in the area. The men knew that it would not be as easy day. As Chaplain John Talley, who accompanied them, put it, “Everybody was aware that this could be deep stuff.” Battalion Commander LTC Arthur Stigall reminded the men to travel with their “fingers on the triggers.”

Despite the warnings, that afternoon inside a rubber plantation the Blue Spaders walked into a U-shaped ambush by camouflaged NVA soldiers hidden high in trees and in ground-level brush. With an initial barrage of rocket propelled grenades, the NVA killed the entire 1/26 command element, including Stigall.

Valor was the order of the day for the men of the 1/26. On page after page, Simms describes the intensity with which they fought for their lives. Eighteen Americans were killed and thirty wounded before artillery and airpower drove off the NVA.

For unknown reasons, the Americans did not sweep the battleground or count enemy bodies. They recovered no documents and only a few enemy weapons.

Simms makes a strong case that the ambush never should have happened. He blames it on errors in judgment and training. For example, firepower was not employed early enough as the Americans chased NVA soldiers on foot rather than with artillery, which was waiting to be called. The Americans also failed to deploy cloverleaf patrol and withheld fire because they were unfamiliar with NVA uniforms and thought approaching troops might be ARVN soldiers.

On a broader scale, Simms faults the policy of rotating officers and NCOs between six months of combat and six months of off-line duty. “These policies led to dangerous mediocrity on the battlefield [and] to [poor] tactics, techniques, and procedures,” Gen. Paul Gorman said.

1st Infantry troops in Vietnam in 1967

Simms looks at the policy of using American troops as “bait” to entice the enemy to battle. Simms and Gorman condone using that tactic in the guise of search-and-destroy missions, noting that it was a good plan when executed properly. But Simms fails to examine how frequently offensive search-and-destroy missions became defensive nightmares as a result of NVA ambushes and countless well-placed booby traps.

Vietnam veterans who write autobiographies about their combat experiences these days tend to give greater recognition to the leadership and fighting skills of the North Vietnamese Army. Common Valor reflects that thinking. Simms notes that the NVA had the advantage of “concealment and surprise” and were “masters at camouflage and tunneling.” He also recognizes their ability to “hold on to the Americans by the belt,” which “rendered our artillery and air strikes useless.”

Unlike Simms, many writers often overlook the NVA’s fighting experience on their own terrain and their ability to design tactics that neutralized better-armed but less-determined opponents. Additionally, writers often ignore the fact that the NVA fought for posterity; while most Americans fought to survive for a year and return home.

Steve Simms found merit in NVA planning. Every maneuver made by the enemy in October and November of 1967, he says, was designed to help the Tet Offensive succeed a few months later. Attacking Loc Ninh was a rehearsal for the Tet attack on Saigon, seventy miles to the south.

In Simms’ skinny book, the pages are few, and the print is small, but the ideas are huge.

—Henry Zeybel

Letters Home by Leon Bly

Leon Bly served twenty-one years in the U. S. Army as a Special Forces enlisted man, a Green Beret. Letters Home: Diary of a Green Beret (Aegina Press, 126 pp., $19.70, paper) is a small book based on “letters “written to my aunt over a 21 period,” Bly writes.

Bly organized the letters to tell the story of Army career, with some focus on his time in Vietnam. “During my tour of duty in Vietnam, as I traveled through the Mekong Delta, with Viet Cong behind every bush, I escaped injury,” he writes, “only finding out on returning to the Alpha detachment camp that the air boat was riddled with machine gun holes.”

Bly’s book begins at Fort Meade, Maryland, on October 21, 1952, and proceeds to Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Camp LeJeune, and to Camp Hale, Colorado, back to Fort Bragg, and then off to Bad Tolz in the former West Germany. His letters to his aunt give a good sense of what it was like to be in the Army in the 1950s. He also often offers comments on the situation in the world as it relates to protecting America from communism and other evil forces.

In his discussion of  “the new era of warfare,” Bly writes: “These are brush fire wars, new in intensity and ancient in origins. These wars are won by ambush instead of combat.  They’re won by infiltration instead of aggression. Victory is gained by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of direct engagement.”

After Bly’s time in Germany, he returned stateside to Fort Devens, Mass. Then it was on to Fort Richardson, Alaska, via the Alcan Highway, “one thousand miles of bad road,” he calls it.

Bly finally gets to Vietnam in Chapter nine. He calls it “The Tarnished Goddess: Vietnam.” There are only ten pages dealing with his time in the war, which ran from June 9, 1967, to April 12, 1968. That encompasses the 1968 Tet Offensive, which Bly comments on. This chapter also contains his observations on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the racial violence that erupted after that. Bly is African American, so when he describes the day as “the grimmest day in the history of black people” his comments hit home.

Memoirs and diaries by African American Army enlisted men are rare, which makes this volume even more precious for readers who seek first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in the Army of this long-gone era. I recommend this book for those who are interested in the evolution of the Green Berets and for collections specializing in African American contributions to America’s military.

—David Willson

Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—Henry Zeybel