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

The Hunter Killers by Dan Hampton

Dan Hampton is a retired USAF F-16 pilot who flew in the Iraq War, the Kosovo conflict, and the first Gulf War during his twenty-year military career. He also is the author of—among other books—the best-selling 2012 memoir Viper Pilot. Lt. Col. Hampton turns his attention to the Vietnam War in his latest book,The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, the Band of Maverick Aviators Who Flew the Most Dangerous Missions of the Vietnam War (Morrow, 352 pp., $27.99)

Hampton offers up two related stories in The Hunter Killers: his in-the-trenches air combat chronicles of the titular Hunter Killer Wild Weasel flyers in the Vietnam War (“an elite group of men”), and his detailed and opinionated analysis of the history of the Vietnam War.

The air-combat sections zero in on pilots who flew the U.S. aircraft known as Wild Weasels. These were most often F-105 and F-100 jet fighter bombers with new, secret electronic countermeasure equipment that detected, suppressed, and destroyed North Vietnamese missile and anti-aircraft sites. In these sections, Hampton uses the words of surviving Wild Weasel aviators to creatively recreate often dramatic and dangerous missions over enemy territory.

In his extensive sections on the history of the Vietnam War, Hampton focuses on the use of American air power, but also offers his opinions on the war’s origins and the policy making of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  Hampton places the blame for outcome of the war on both civilian political leaders and the top military leadership, especially Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland.

It is “simplistic,” he writes, to blame civilian amateurism alone since professional military officers expect this from any administration. However, those in uniform who fail others in uniform are more culpable.” He then points his finger directly at Gen. Westmoreland, accusing him of ignorance and incompetence. If the MACV commander “didn’t now how to better conduct the war,” Hampton writes, “he should have known. Others did.”

Hampton says the war’s “most significant strategic error” was “neither recognizing nor admitting that the conflict was a civil war.” He also deals with the issue of how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home from the war. Some “were welcomed home and others, to our national shame, were not,” he notes.

Hampton goes on to praise the effectiveness of the Hunter Killers–“they did win,” he says. “The Vietnam War might have been ambiguous, but the courage of those who fought it was not. Certainly as long as America has men like this then it shall remain America. Their legacy lives on today, and when we once [again] go to war against those would destroy us, then we will know what to do—men like the Hunter Killers showed us how.”

The author’s website is www.danhampton.org
—Marc Leepson

The Hidden History of America at War by Kenneth C. Davis

Maybe I take things too literally, but I expected to find both hidden and untold information in Kenneth C. Davis’s The Hidden History of America at War: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette, 416 pp., $30). Davis, the author of the best-selling “America’s Hidden History” book series, in this book offers up his interpretations of six pivotal battles in U.S. history. In addition to Yorktown and Fallujah, he discourses on the Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War; the Balangiga Massacre in the Philippine War; Berlin in World War II; and Hue in the Vietnam War. Each entry is well written, decently researched, and cogently analyzed.

In the Vietnam War chapter, however—and this is a big “however”—there wasn’t anything “hidden” or “untold” in Davis’s dissection of the 1968 Battle of Hue and its impact on the course of the Vietnam War. During the last four decades there have been many examinations of that pivotal battle. Davis, in fact, leans heavily on two of them: Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1971, and Stanley Karnow’s classic one-volume history of the war, Vietnam, A History, which was published in 1983. He also makes use of Neil Sheehan’s brilliant A Bright, Shining Lie, a biography of John Paul Vann and a history of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1988.

These and other secondary sources are the only works that Davis cites as sources in this chapter, another strong indication that nothing new, hidden, or untold appears on these pages.

Even the title of this Vietnam War chapter—“The ‘Living-Room War’”—is not new. “Living-Room War” was the title of an article by Michael J. Arlen that appeared in the October 15, 1966, New Yorker magazine and the 1969 book of the same name. In the article and book Arlen examined the impact of the barrage of nightly TV coverage of the Vietnam War on American TV.

In his introduction, Davis infers that the 1901 Massacre at Balangiga took place during the Spanish-American War, which began and ended in 1898. Ironically, a lot about the 1899-1902 Philippine War—which Davis never mentions by name—can be considered hidden, if not untold.

Few Americans today can remember the barest details of that conflict, in which some 4,200 U.S. military personnel perished fighting a guerrilla-type insurrection in the Philippines after we handily defeated the Spanish there.

Around 126,000 Americans fought in that controversial guerrilla war, which history books today treat as little more than a footnote to the short, bombastic Spanish-American War that preceded it.

The author’s website is http://dontknowmuch.com/books/the-hidden-history-of-america-at-war

—Marc Leepson

2nd Platoon: Journey of the Pack by Billy W. Smith

Billy W. Smith (in the photo above, donating a copy of his book to the Elba, Alabama, High School library)  served as an infantryman with Alpha Company, 1st of the 27th, the “Wolfhounds” of the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. His memoir, 2nd Platoon:Journey of the Pack (297 pp., $15, paper) “is about the facts and the experiences of a foot soldier’s life,” he writes. “Try to picture in your mind a group of 20-year-old men in jungle warfare and combat, in a foreign country engaged in battle with a very well seasoned enemy.”

Smith, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, notes that there “was no glamour of a Hollywood movie” in the Vietnam War. There were, he says, “plenty of horrors, death, seriously wounded men, burned, disfigured, mentally scarred, total exhaustion, men’s lives changed forever. There were no John Wayne’s, Rambo’s or other super heroes that were bulletproof and could whip an entire unit all by himself.”

The book follows Smith’s tour of duty and is based on the many letters he wrote to his sister Vivian Fuchs and a journal he kept in Vietnam. Smith also offers his thoughts on how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home and what factors influenced the outcome of the Vietnam War.

This book will appeal to those who are interested in Smith’s wartime activities and those of his fellow Wolfhounds.

To order a copy of the book, contact Smith at 629 Co. Rd. 409, Elba, AL 36323 or email firstwolf48@gmail.com

—Marc Leepson