D.A.S.P.O. by Ronald B. Fenster and Jerold A. Greenfield

Ronald B. Fenster and Jerold A. Greenfield’s D.A.S.P.O.: An Unhinged Novel of Vietnam (Creative Book Publishers International, 360 pp., $14.95, paper), we are told, is “the M*A*S*H* if the Vietnam War.”  We also are told that the book was “based on the adventurous tour of duty of Lt. Ronald B. Fenster.”  D.A.S.P.O. stands for Department of the Army Special Photographic Office.

This is a book of fiction. “The historical facts and dates relating to the events of that war are accurate,” the authors say, “but some characters are compilations of people who served in D.A.S.P.O. units in the time and place described.”  So what we have is a historical novel.

It begins on June 17, 1970, in Saigon. The main character is Lt. Leon Foster, a director and film maker. We soon learn a lot about films shot in Vietnam during the war. That includes “Genital Warts and You” and a three-part film about the challenges faced at the largest and biggest mortuary on the planet, at Tan Son Nhut.

I used to eat lunch with the guys who worked there. Due to the aroma that clung to them, there was always space at their lunch table. Less romantic subjects also were filmed, including “The Hazards of Vehicle Operation.”

Fenster

Ron Fenster

In the section of the book about the mortuary, we hear the old legend about aluminum coffins full of dope being sent home to America by the crooked folks who had access to them. One of the subplots deals with the attempt of the military to stem the flood of heroin into the country. Another motif that recurs in Vietnam War books—the idea that LSD was used in Vietnam to soften the enemy—shows up when an enemy colonel gets that treatment with the usual results.

For readers interested in helicopter warfare in Vietnam, there is a lot of that in this book, too. The helicopters on the cover made that promise and it was kept by the authors.

The reader encounters references to the song “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and to Agent Orange, which the troops are told is harmless, “aiding greatly in our war effort.”  The cultural differences about public urination are noted. Old John  Wayne movies get credit for their importance in American culture.

Jerry Greenfield

The main point I got from this phantasmagorical novel is that “maybe half the people in the Army are either doing drugs, selling drugs, recovering from drugs, thinking about drugs, stealing drugs, or some damn thing.”

The novel makes the point that in 1965 (the year I was drafted) “the military didn’t even have a single jail in Vietnam. Nobody was committing crimes and those that did were shipped to Okinawa for court-martial.”

When I got to Vietnam, things had changed, but the war portrayed in this novel—the war of the early ‘70’s—was one I did not see.  I highly recommend this novel for its picture of how it was in the American war’s last years for D.A.S.P.O. and other related Army groups, the so-called “other” war in Vietnam.

For more info, go to www.daspothenovel.com

—David Willson

Darker Than Dark by John Admire

Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. John Admire in his novel, Darker Than Dark (Yorkshire Publishing, 412 pp., $19.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), wanted to pay special tribute to the men with whom he served in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967. He more than accomplished his mission by creating four main characters to tell the story of courage and compassion of young Marines in the Vietnam War. In this book we see the darkest side of war, and hear the thoughts and discussions that took place away from the battlefield.

These young Marines formed a very effective fire team, but they also formed a family that shared suffering, support, and good-natured bantering. Thanks to Admire’s writing skill, I could sense the fear of ambushes and nightly patrols. The heat, the cold, and seemingly constant rain were almost palpable on the pages. At one place, I found myself blinking to clear my eyes in the dark jungle. Only a man who had been there could bring such realism to the page.

This story contains more than action-packed scenes. The fire team holds bunker talks on a regular basis to discuss the war and events back home. Through these chats, we get a much clearer picture of what was on the minds of the Marines as they tried to make sense of a limited war.  One PFC says it best:  “It seems we gotta use enough power to make the NVA know we’re serious, but not so much power that the war goes too serious on us.”

Admire begins each chapter with a quote from one of the main characters. I found the quotes worthy of being placed in a separate addendum to the book. They keep the reader in touch with the thoughts of the men, and—amazingly—they also ring true about today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I was impressed at the complexity and strategy involved in routine patrols and ambushes. A corporal would call the men together after an action and discuss what went right and what went wrong. To a battlefield veteran, this may have been normal procedure, but this noncombatant gained greater respect and appreciation for the Marines.

John Admire

The team operates in several areas near the DMZ, taking part in, among other fights, the Battle for Con Thien (the “Hill of Angels”). The story climaxes with the intense fighting for the hills surrounding Khe Sanh. Along the way the reader is exposed to firefights, river crossings, and deaths by friendly fire.

Admire includes the severe problems with the introduction of the M-16 rifle. It malfunctioned so easily and so often the men would look for AK-47s on the bodies of killed NVA soldiers to use.

The description of fighting at Khe Sanh was the most vivid this reader has ever seen in print. The horrors and heroism seemed unending. If the author wanted his readers to understand the sacrifices of men at war, he clearly succeeded.

To bring this book to its conclusion, Admire gathers the main characters in a reunion thirty years later. They still don’t understand everything that happened in Vietnam, nor why the American people turned against the war. But they still believe freedom is worth fighting for—and sometimes is the only way to keep it.

Thank you, John Admire, for this great read.

For more info, go to https://darkerthandarkbyjohnadmire.wordpress.com

—Joseph Reitz

Windfalling by Paul J. Nyerick

Paul Nyerick served in Vietnam as a Marine Corps forward observer. He began writing poetry with his multiple sclerosis support group. Windfalling (Outskirts Press, 302 pp., $17.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is an action adventure novel which pulls from Nyerick’s imagination and from flashbacks to his experiences in the Vietnam War and firefighting in California.

The book starts off with a bang. By page ten there’s been“a plane crash, a wildland fire, a mine collapse, “ex-KGB thugs with automatic weapons.”  And a poisonous snake.

In almost every way, Windfalling reminds me of dozens of boys’ adventure books I read in the 1950s. All the main characters are larger than life, and they have amazing talents with language, derring-do and technology, both ancient and modern. There’s even a larger-than-life dog hero, a malamute named Nakai.

A book like this has to have a bad guy who is worth doing battle with, and it does: Harlan Diamond, a megalomaniac billionaire who wants to be immortal and take over the world.  He makes Daddy Warbucks seem a piker. Diamond was a Marine company commander in 1969 Vietnam. Two other main characters were in his company, and were screwed over by him.

“Jerry, E. D. and a couple of Marine Corps buddies who fought together in Vietnam, along with two renowned anthropologists, scramble across southern California and Baja, Mexico,” Nyerick tells us, “searching for an Aztec Pyramid and the Crown of Knowledge.” They get some serious help from a 500-year-old Spanish priest, Father Diego Della Vega.

Paul Nyerick

At one point a character states, “This place reminded me of a Tarzan movie.” I’d just been thinking that myself. The whole book, in fact. reminds me of a Tarzan movie.

Late in the book I read: “This trip has been filled with unfathomable mysteries none of us could possibly explain.”  No kidding.

The main event the book leads us to is the total eclipse of the sun. What happens to the evil Harlan Diamond.? Does he get his just desserts?  “The Crown of Knowledge has its ways to get even,” Nyerick writes. “He needs to marinate in that cosmic stew for a while longer.”

Readers looking for a book in which there is a lot of Vietnam War action, along with a lot of mind-blowing action adventure, should read Windfalling. There is not another quite like it.

—David Willson

Harley Tracks by Mike Rinowski

 

If you like motorcycles, Harley Tracks: Across Vietnam to the Wall (Tracks Press, 263 pp., $29.95) has to be your next book. True to his subtitle, author Mike Rinowski describes practically every mile of an amazing journey he took on a Harley Fat Boy.

Over four years beginning in 2008, Rinowski traveled 41,000 miles on a solo pilgrimage to honor those who fought in the Vietnam War—or, depending on your viewpoint, the American War in Vietnam. He visited most of the battle sites, including those from the French War, including Dien Bien Phu.

Despite the author’s intent to honor warriors from the past, Fat Boy steals many of the scenes. The Harley “added a new tune to the atmosphere” and attracted attention everywhere, which helped Rinowski meet many people, including veterans from both sides. Hotels frequently gave Fat Boy privileged parking—inside their lobbies.

Fat Boy and Rinowski conquered all: close calls, treacherous roads, monsoons, overzealous police, mechanical difficulties, collisions and spills, along with other unpredictable problems. Every day was an adventure.

The writing is crisp, detailed, and flawlessly edited. Rinowski can turn a phrase for the rare sight, such as: “I passed a flea-sized girl about five years old who carried a swoosh stick to command a giant ox and its calf along the trail.” For grandeur: “Dark rock towered to snow and glaciers that disappeared in a blanket of clouds. Avalanche remnants stuck in crevices, and fallen sheets of snow froze, as if to reach and claw back to the top.”

And for danger: “I leaned harder into the turn, and before the front tire hit sand, I cranked on the throttle. In a blink of time, the rear tire slung sand and spun the back of the bike through the turn. My right foot shot down for a quick step and push, while my hands pulled for a bit of lift.”

Forty pages of colored photographs are flawless. They show people, cities, and landscapes with vividness and clarity seldom found in a memoirist’s photography.

Rinowski also rode across Kashmir and through the Himalaya Mountains on a rented machine. As he traveled, Rinowski occasionally updated the status of his business ventures as a golf course builder and superintendent.

Mike Rinowski

Rinowski presents pro and con history lessons about the war. He offers his opinion of the war’s necessity and discourses on the casualties still caused in Vietnam today by unexploded ordinance, as well as birth defects from American defoliation tactics. His brief analyses tend toward broad conclusions. He excuses these shortcomings by saying, “The nature of combat lay beyond my imagination.”

Born in 1953, Rinowski entered the Army and ended up serving in Germany as the fighting in Vietnam wound down.

Rinowski fulfilled the promise of the book’s title after returning to the United States. In 2013, Fat Boy and he joined the Memorial Day rally that ended at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When a stranger asked where the essence of Rinowski’s travels originated, he said, “It comes from my free-spirited nature.”

Mike Rinowski’s preference to travel alone—the most dangerous way to ride—distinctly confirms that essence.

The author’s web site is http://harleytracks.com

—Henry Zeybel 

Bac Si by Tom Bellino

Tom Bellino served as a Navy psychologist during the Vietnam War. The main character in his novel, Bac Si (Outskirts Press, 188 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), is Navy Lieut. Thomas Staffieri, a psychologist assigned to the hospital ship Repose off the coast of Vietnam.

The novel begins on December 22, 1968, in the Neuropsychology Unit of Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. We are introduced to an eight-year-old girl named Quynh, a patient in Pediatric Neuropsychology for a brain disorder. Quynh suffers from mutism, initially. Later she manifests PTSD. Lieut. Staffieri’s relationship with this little girl—and learning Vietnamese to communicate with her—becomes important later in the novel.

Staffieri does not spend his Vietnam War tour of duty quietly on a hospital ship. Instead, he is sent on a special mission due to his language skills and his training in psychological interrogation. Staffieri lands in Da Nang, and is then taken to the Repose. In short order, he is on a mission to locate and capture an enemy general and to sedate and interrogate him in the field—in the famed tunnels of Cu Chi. His team brings along a “medical box,” which contains a secret something to be used on the general and on his soldiers. It turns to be LSD.

All transpires as planned. The general is given LSD and his troops’ water is spiked with the stuff. The upshot is that the general tells all and the troops are confused and disoriented. Troop movements and offensive plans are revealed by this Manchurian Candidate. The hero ask at one point, “Didn’t they know that we were there to liberate them from the evils of communism?”

Mostly the book moves right along and seems well researched. We get mentions of Agent Orange, napalm, Bob Hope, and pho. The men munch on Hershey bars, which I had trouble believing, as my Hershey bars in Vietnam fell prey to the heat or red ants.

Lieut. Staffieri is awarded a Silver Star and comes home in one piece. He encounters antiwar protesters who ask, “How many babies did you kill today?”  He comments that he was not spat upon. He lives with PTSD for years, having nightmares. He grapples with thinking of himself as “a monster, a killer, a baby killer.” One of his friends dies from Agent Orange exposure.

The title, means “doctor” in Vietnamese, which is what the hero is called by little Quynh at the beginning of the book. I hope that Bellino writes a memoir of his time off the coast of Vietnam on that hospital ship. I’m sure that would be worth reading.

—David Willson

Twin Marines in Hell by Jerry Byrne

Jerry Byrne’s Twin Marines in Hell: From Grade School to Vietnam (CreateSpace, 204 pp., $14,95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), is dedicated to his twin brother, John, who died at age 58 of cancer resulting from exposure to Agent Orange.

Jerry and John Byrne, identical twins, grew up in a family of four boys in Queens, New York. They learned to be good at fisticuffs, being raised in a tough neighborhood. Right after high school graduation in 1963, the twins joined the Marine Corps, and went through boot camp together. Jerry Byrne’s description of the harsh treatment they received at the hands of the drill instructors makes the reader truly comprehend the tough and unforgiving Marine Corps basic training at Parris Island back then.

In March 1966, Jerry Byrne, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, arrived in Vietnam and was assigned to 3rd Platoon, Kilo Company, 3rd Bn., 7th Marines in the Chu Lai area. Within days of his, the FNG went out on Operation Texas with his battalion. The author captures the intense loneliness and fear that a Marine new to his unit experiences in his first exposure to combat. He eventually attained the rank of corporal and became a squad leader.

U.S. Marines at Chu Lai in 1966

After five months, just when he began to think he had a good handle on being a squad leader, Byrne was transferred to the Chu Lai Defense Command along with fifteen other Marine “volunteers.” They were part of a newly formed CAP Unit (Combined Action Platoon) that worked with Vietnamese Popular Force soldiers to defend a village.

This is where Jerry Byrne’s growing disenchantment with the war really took off. He describes in detail the rampant corruption among the village leaders and his PF “buddies.” He even ran into his twin brother in the village one day, and the two of them managed to keep each other out of trouble.

Before Jerry Byrne got into official trouble due to his contempt for his PF allies, he was transferred to Camp Hansen, Okinawa, and served the rest of his overseas tour there. His welcome home from the war was nonexistent, even hostile. Like the rest of us, Jerry wasn’t prepared for the shoddy coming-home treatment he received. His writing captures the anger and disappointment he felt very well.

On the plus side, the book has nineteen pages of quality photographs. One negative is that more proof reading should have been done to insure that typos and misspelled words would be caught before the finalized manuscript went to press.

This powerful memoir is a bluntly told account of identical twin brothers growing up together, then facing their challenging journey together into the U.S. Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.

—Jim Coan

Sorry About That by Dick Denne

Dick Denne is a man who can think for himself, an ability that caused him a lot of trouble.

Halfway through Sorry About That: A Story from A Soldier’s Heart (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $15.95 paper, $2.99, Kindle), I almost stopped reading because I thought I saw what was coming: a my-country-right-or-wrong teenager who fights valiantly only to be punished for figuring out that the Vietnam War is totally wrong and for teaching that message to his fellow soldiers. But I continued reading, discovering that Denne’s punishment was worse than anything I imagined.

Dick Denne writes about his 1966-67 experience in Vietnam, which consisted of eight months in the jungle as an RTO and four months as a Huey door gunner, surviving four helicopter crashes. He goes on to describe years in and out of military prisons. His story is exceptional and well told.

Denne grew up as somewhat of a prodigy. His life’s goal was to become a standup comedian, and he started developing routines at age three. Along with performing in high school revues and plays, he studied history on his own. At age twelve, he learned to parachute and made it a weekend sport.

Expecting to be drafted, at seventeen Denne enlisted in the Army and signed up for duty with Special Services as an entertainer. Personnel demands detoured him into an 11 B infantry slot with the 327th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Denne’s quick wit and sense of responsibility made basic, AIT, and jump school easy.

Dick Denne

Denne managed to land a gig as an entertainer on his second night in Vietnam. During in-processing a sergeant recognized Denne’s misassignment and arranged for him to perform at the NCO club. He bombed.

At the same time, the 327th and a superior-size NVA force were locked together in battle near Trung Luong. On his third day in-country, Denne joined that fight and remained in the field for the next eight months. His accounts of using humor to break the tension while waiting for combat to begin are memorable.

The transformation from model soldier to model protester is at the core of the book. Denne’s conscientious attitude made him a highly reliable infantryman and door gunner. It also made him speak out passionately after determining the war was wrong. The upshot: he was sent to prison within five months after returning from Vietnam.

For two years, until he received an honorable discharge, Denne alternated between military prison life and going AWOL. The abuse and torture he and his cellmates suffered matched the atrocities that took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Undoubtedly, Denne was a victim of PTSD, but nobody recognized the problem at that time.

He credits his change in belief to thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and the mysterious Tiger Man, whom he met while fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. Denne lightens his philosophical sections with references to movies, television and radio shows, novels, songs, and poems. And he shares his conversations with Harvey, his six-foot-tall Pooka.

“What is the personal cost of war?” Denne asks. His answer is that combat influences every day of a soldier’s life that follows. Consequently, a nation must have an irrefutable reason for prosecuting war; otherwise, the nation betrays the citizens who do the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel