It Wasn’t Like Nothing by Thomas J. Hynes

Clearly the double negative in the title is a clue to expect a no-nonsense chronicle about the hazardous realities of Vietnam War combat through the eyes of a United States Marine. It Wasn’t Like Nothing: One Marine’s Adventure in Vietnam by Thomas J. Hynes (iUniverse 270 pp., $20.95, paper; $3.49, Kindle) covers the author’s path from enlistment to fighting the Viet Cong and and NVA.

Hynes’s rapid change of venue after graduating from Georgetown Law School in September 1966, then taking the Marine Basic Course and Officer Candidate School and his subsequent assignment to Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines near Da Nang all happened in less than a year. 2nd Lt. Hynes even somehow managed to fit in his marriage during a two-week leave.

A Catch 22-like assignment was the new Lieutenant’s introduction to Lima Company. Introducing himself as Captain K, his CO said, “Lieutenant, we have a problem. I already have three platoon commanders, and I don’t have a place to put you except as weapons platoon commander.” Captain K then told Hynes that there wasn’t a weapons platoon. A temporary mortar team was created and Hynes began “learning the hard way.” Talking to experienced members of Lima Company was more valuable than most stateside training.

This OJT often took place during platoon sweeps, patrols, and battalion-wide operations. Calling in artillery strikes and air support requires full knowledge of where your unit is and where the enemy is. “Just as the rifle was the basic tool of the infantryman, the map and compass were the basic tools of the platoon commander,” Hynes writes.

Responding to a firefight, another platoon commander “intentionally called in the mission on top of us. He thought we would get out of there in time and we would catch Charlie sneaking in behind us. He didn’t give us enough time to clear the area before the artillery came in.”

Hynes offers his opinions on the South Vietnamese military and civilians. “We went from village to village,” he writes. “The reaction of the villagers was one of studied indifference. The peasants were caught in the middle of this war. All they wanted was to tend their fields in peace. Regardless of who ruled their country, they had to raise enough crops to survive another year.”

One battle in which a Marine platoon advanced on a treeline responding to small arms fire from Viet Cong inside the forest did so without support from the the ARVN squad they were working with. The Vietnamese later explained, “we do not attack treelines.”

Although the book’s photographs are of poor quality, the author’s descriptions of his platoon’s combat actions are as vivid as any images on film. One such account describes a ground action that could have caused many friendly casualties.

A battalion operation was winding down as two companies were returning to their base camps. Lima Company detected incoming fire from the woodline in front of them and laid down a field of fire into the woods. Delta Company, advancing on the other side of the woods, returned fire toward Lima Company’s position. Miraculously, none of the thousands of rounds fired resulted in friendly fire casualties. The din of rapid firing drowned out cease-fire commands until radio transmissions halted the gunfire.

Operation Swift was among the most critical enemy engagements Second Platoon was involved in during Hyne’s year in country. His report on this series of battles reveals a startling action that had the Marines and their lieutenant thinking about the futility of such operations over a few kilometers of The Que Son Valley.

Marines ready for action during Operation Swift

Official reports often conflicted with what the grunts actually experienced. Lt. Hynes recalled: “I later read the after-action report on the operation, and it was my opinion the official version of Operation Swift was suspect.”

Hynes has written a remarkable personal journal enabling readers to appreciate the work of a group of brave Marines.

—Curt Nelson

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Shandar: @killcongress.com by Wrigley Brogan

In Shandar @KILLCONGRESS.COM (Ink and Lens, 218 pp., $10, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Richard Baker, writing as Wrigley Brogan, offers up a noir-ish detective novel with a hard-boiled cop, Walter Checkers, at the center of the action. Most of the characters are Vietnam veterans (as is the author). A group of young Vietnamese women who work as prostitutes also are a big part of the action.

Somebody is blowing up bad people using C-4, making quite a mess in the city, and Detective Checkers is asked to figure out what’s going on. As the detective puts it, people are being blown to bits and there are no leads, nothing to go on, except a woman must be involved.

The book is filled with philosophical asides, many of which seemed priceless. For instance, “Anyone that believed we were fighting for American freedoms around the world was a fool at worst, and naïve at best.”

Later, Doc, a Vietnam veteran medic, says, “Don’t forget what we learned in the war.  Every decision we make in life is wrong. Do you shoot this person or that person?  Do you go down this trail or that one?  Do you save Bill or Jerry?  The decision is always wrong.”

There are many other references to the Vietnam War. The novel is permeated with the them. Keeping track of them was like trying to register snowflakes in a snowstorm. This is done with wit and intelligence, however, and is never cumbersome.

I highly recommend this mystery novel to all readers, especially Vietnam veterans who are hungry for a good read that is a salute to that dirty little war that most of us can’t seem to get out of our systems.

There’s lots to love in this book. At one point, it is said that the most worthy candidate for political office is the one who raises the least money. I immediately thought of Jim Webb.

Baker has respect for the American teenagers who trudged through the Vietnamese jungle during the war. Books that demonstrate that respect are needed in our literature.

—David Willson

Memoir of Vietnam by William S. Fee

A memoir normally has a purpose beyond simply recounting what the writer did over a given period of time. William S. Fee follows this pattern in Memoir of Vietnam 1967 (Little Miami, 122 pp. $15) by describing how military training and combat turned his infantry squad into a family.

Fee took part in search and destroy missions as a member of Delta Company, 1st of the 18th in the 1st Infantry Division from July to November of 1967 in the Iron Triangle. During the battle for Loc Ninh, he suffered a crippling shoulder wound that led to an early discharge from the Army after four complicated operations.

At age nineteen, Fee gave up the “inanity” of college and enlisted as an infantryman. He felt obligated to serve his country because, he says, “So many young men were drafted against their will to fight this war.” Fee believed his participation would “make a difference” and influence “friends who seemed not to care about the war.” He also sought the “intoxication of a dangerous adventure.”

Fee found himself in an unusual situation. The men he trained with in basic at Fort Knox and Infantry AIT at Fort Polk and Fort Lewis remained together after schooling. Aboard the USNS Geiger, they sailed to Vietnam and formed a new company in the Big Red One.

Fee fondly recalls all of his squad members, living and dead. He describes the high level of camaraderie that evolved from spending so much time together. The climactic event for him was the fighting at Loc Ninh during which a rocket propelled grenade nearly tore off his right arm. He credits his survival to the special care he received because his squad mates were long-time friends.

Based on his experience, Fee believes that the practice of sending single replacements to rifle companies in the field in the Vietnam War was a major cause of PTSD. Men treated in this manner were victimized by being alone, both during and after the war, he believes.

In the post-war world, Fee faced survivor’s guilt and his life lost purpose. He married but soon divorced his sweetheart—Sally—who had waited for him throughout his time in the Army and in hospitals. Psychiatrists and the VA were unprepared to deal with PTSD in the mid-1970s and provided no help in curing his illness.

By talking to himself in mirrors, Fee overcame his disorders on his own, but retained residues of fear. He tells us that in battle he developed “the sensation that an enemy soldier had me trained in his rifle sight. It is a fear I carry with me to this day.” Regarding death in combat, he still frequently wonders, “Why not me?”

Following his rehabilitation, he and Sally remarried. Fee began a long career in the television industry. And had children. He also had a second family— the men from Delta Company who periodically hold reunions and remain close.

A 1st Infantry Division soldier cleaning his weapon in the field

Fee pays great tribute to his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Richard Cavazos, who later became a four-star general. Cavazos fought shoulder to shoulder with his men on the battlefield. Today, he still maintains friendships with Delta’s veterans.

Fee presents a viewpoint new to me related to search and destroy strategy. He says: “Colonel Cavazos was a conservative war tactician. As soon as our patrols were ambushed, he ordered our retreat back to the perimeter, and immediately called in air strikes and artillery on our positions as we withdrew” (italics added).

In other words, Cavazos did not require his undermanned units to duel with superior forces while awaiting massive fire support, as virtually everyone else did. Overall, Fee shows that Cavazos’ tactics saved many lives, including the author’s.

—Henry Zeybel

Retreat from Cao Bang by Richard Baker

Richard Baker’s Retreat From Cao Bang: A Short History and Guide for Tourists (Ink and Lens, 92. pp., $8.50, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is just what the title and subtitle claim: a short—pithy, even—guidebook. Baker, who served in Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Band, packs a lot of information into fewer than a hundred pages. There are many photographs in this small book, and they give a good sense of the history of Cao Bang in far northern Vietnam, where the Viet Minh defeated the French in a large battle in 1950.

Baker’s information is detailed and helpful. For instance, when he tells the reader about a war memorial worth visiting, he says, “Do not arrive between noon and 2 pm. Like everything in Viet Nam, the entire country shuts down at this time causing great frustration to tourists who are most active during these hours. Not even a bottle of water can be bought.”

If you are a collector of hand-woven fish traps, this book tells you where such an item can be obtained. Baker also offers details on a park where you can see twenty species of bats and forty species of reptiles. I pictured those beasts peeking out of my boots.

Baker cautions the reader that few relics of the French and Viet Minh era remain visible along any route. This materiel has long since been melted down “for more useful purposes even as the bomb craters from the American war have been ploughed under.”

The point is made more than once to not drink the water. One of the reasons the French lost their war in Indochina, he says, was due to thirst that drove them to drink the water, which caused dysentery and other stomach and intestinal ailments. “Viet Nam is flooded with water, none of it potable,” Baker tells us.

The racism of the French that helped lead to their defeat is discussed; it reminded me of my time in Vietnam. “They never imagined the Viet Minh were capable of hauling guns through the jungle and into the hills,” he writes of the French, “so they had not prepared for such an attack.”  We did not learn from the failures of the French.

NVA Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap (pointing) following the Battle of Cao  Bang in 1950

The French wanted “set-piece battles” from the Viet Minh, who failed to oblige them, preferring to fight using hit-and-run tactics. Many memoirs and novels I’ve read by Americans complain bitterly that the enemy would not stand and fight like men. But, as Baker shows, the Vietnamese communists knew that fighting a European-type war would result in disaster. So they avoided it.

There is lots to appreciate in this little book.  I highly recommend reading it before you embark on a tourist journey of battlefields in Vietnam.

The author’s website is www.asiaoncall.com

—David Willson

A Stranger in My Bed by Debbie Sprague

I finished reading Debbie Sprague’s A Stranger in My Bed: Eight Steps to Taking Your Life Back from the Contagious Effects of Your Veteran’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder  (Morgan James Publishing, 360 pp., $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) late at night. It had been a worthwhile, red-eye learning experience.

Sprague, a certified life and career coach, begins her book with a painfully raw narrative of life with her Vietnam War veteran husband. The reader is taken into a world of darkness and chaos, confusion and fear, anger and hopelessness. The possibility of financial disaster is always on the front burner, and infinite frustration grows with the turn of each page.

The most serious PTSD symptoms of the author’s husband began in earnest thirty years after he came home from Vietnam. It was as though he were pushing some kind of envelope, unconsciously crying out for help. Many will be able to relate to the author’s inclination to ignore small aberrations of behavior, hoping  they would go away.

The chapters describing the gradual dissolution of the couple’s marriage were heartbreaking. Little by little, Sprague’s husband would spend more time with friends where everything was fine, and less time with his wife where their marriage was one continual conflict. His purchase of guns added a serious threat. Daily life became so traumatic that the author herself was diagnosed with PTSD.

Why didn’t the couple simply divorce and start their lives over?  The answer to that question is what makes this book so different from other PTSD books I’ve read.

Sprague loved her husband deeply despite his faults, and she was very committed to her marriage vows. Her courage and tenacity to stick has similarities to what a soldier in combat goes through in order to not turn and run.

Perhaps it was prophetic that the couple’s turnaround began while they were on their way to church on June 6, 2010, the anniversary of D-Day. Her husband read aloud a warning sign telling of a dead-end street by saying, “Debbie’s a dead-end.” As the words echoed through her ears, Sprague said she silently screamed, “NO! I am not a dead-end! I am not a quitter.”

Thus began the turnaround in the life of a true heroine, and the fodder for an excellent PTSD reference book. Perhaps the most important thing Spraque explains is that while it is often impossible to change the actions of another person, it is always possible to change one’s own reactions to those actions. She also shares the sage insight that we can only make progress when we deal with reality and not illusions.

Debbie Sprague

Sprague’s use of biblical verses becomes more frequent as the book goes along. She uses sacred words in a realistic, practical way, though, and does not pontificate.

The final two thirds of the book consists of a well-organized PTSD textbook. It contains information on developing support systems and coping with fear and anger, shame and guilt, and sexual dysfunction, among other things

Were Debbie Sprague’s efforts to pull her much-loved husband back from the abyss worth it? Readers will undoubtedly concur with his response:

“I will be eternally grateful for Debbie and her commitment, not only to me, but to veterans, their spouses, and their families everywhere. God bless her, and God bless our veterans and their families.”

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

—Joseph Reitz

Fearful Odds by Charles W. Newhall, III

Throughout his life Charles W. Newhall, III has engaged the world with ferocious intensity. The son of a World War II Army Air Corps colonel, Newhall was raised to uphold his family’s military tradition, which extends back to the Civil War. That guidance and his reading as a student at military schools instilled an ethos encompassed by warriors from all of history.

Before reading his book—Fearful Odds: A Memoir of Vietnam and Its Aftermath (Bibliotheca Brightside, 260 pp.; $34.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle)—I studied its nineteen pages of photographs. They provided background that better prepared me to understand commitments far deeper than the accommodations that have guided me from day to day. The book is complex because Chuck Newhall continually poses provocative questions about values and leadership in war and peace.

As a platoon leader with 1/327 of the 101st Airborne Division, Newhall spent six month patrolling the ridge lines of the A Shau Valley in 1968-69. His normal order of march was “point man first, slack man (M-60 machine gun), me.” That was Newhall’s way of setting an example as a leader.

Helping to fulfill their part of America’s search and destroy strategy, his men were minnows on a fishhook to attract NVA forces camped in Laos. They often came under fire from, Newhall says, “Russian artillery guided by Russian and Chinese advisers located a mile away.”

When they did engage the NVA in South Vietnam, his platoon did not always get the firepower they needed to complete the destroy part. Instead, they shared air support with Marines at Khe Sanh. “The net result is that whoever is losing the most men gets air support,” Newhall says. The Americans were always outnumbered due to the proximity of NVA camps to the border. Air power, Newhall concludes, “is great when you have it.”

Despite Chuck Newhall’s superior military education and his strong desire to engage the enemy, twice within a week his platoon was decimated. The first time came on his third day as a leader. His Prologue describes this action, a lifetime worth of death and destruction. But Newhall seeks no solace and accepts responsibility for all that befell his men and himself.

Newhall does not filter what he saw and did. He admits that his men paid back for what they suffered. He speaks of mutilating, scalping, eating flesh, and bowling with a heads of the NVA dead. He himself cut the throat of a wounded enemy soldier.

Charles W. Newhall, III

The author candidly discourses on good and bad relations with superiors and subordinates. In the field, he learned and he taught. He recalled feats of historic figures such as Hannibal and Crazy Horse to guide his behavior. Like King Henry V, he strove to form a band of brothers within his undermanned platoon.

He overcame wounds and other hardships and rhapsodizes over love for battle: “Whoever has lived the life of a warrior can love no other; war becomes the incomparable mistress of your heart, an addiction of unimaginable intensity.”

During the last half of his one-year tour Newhall served as a staff officer. His highly personalized value system created difficulties in civilian life, including in his marriage. That dilemma is the crux of book’s last section.

Newhall earned an MBA from Harvard and attacked the world of venture capital as zealously as he entered combat. Living in Boston amid beautiful gardens, artfully decorated mansions, and upper-crust friends, Newhall’s nights were haunted by ghosts from the A Shau Valley. He enjoyed big business success, but it soon was negated by the transformation of his wife’s personality, the collapse of their marriage, her suicide, and the unraveling of his psyche.

Newhall has spent thirty years fighting PTSD. His closing chapters aim at helping others with the disorder. He emphasizes the necessity of having expert guidance—in his case, a noted psychiatrist. Most touching, he includes passages from his wife’s diary and her final note, which deal with his failures as a husband and father.

Beyond all else, sharing those stunning revelations shows the depth of Chuck Newhall’s courage as a man devoted to improving the lives of others.

The author’s website is www.fearfulodds.com

—Henry Zeybel

A Long Way Back by J. Everett Prewitt

J. Everett Prewitt was drafted into the Army, completed Officer Candidate School, and served in a supply battalion in Vietnam from 1968-69. He’s the author of the novel, Snake Walkers (2005).

The Introduction to his fine novel, A Long Way Back (CreateSpace, 388 pp. $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), Prewitt sums up what takes place between the covers: “Anthony Andrews, a reporter for the Washington Post, watches as a group of bedraggled black soldiers believed to be missing or killed in action mysteriously reappear in Cu Chi, Vietnam, in 1969.  Andrews uncovers an Army conspiracy to conceal a story of soldiers ill-prepared for battle, yet sent on an illegal mission and not expected to return.”

The author thanks the late Vietnam War correspondent Wallace Terry (the author of Bloods) for the help he provided. This novel takes an important place on the small shelf of African-American Vietnam War novels.

When Andrews arrives in Saigon on June 25, 1969, he’s assaulted by the sewer smell and the blast furnace heat, the first two things mentioned in most Vietnam War memoirs and novels. He’s there to write for the Post about the positive experiences of black troops. Experiences like that are thin on the ground at that time and place.

The men sent off to Cambodia on an illegal mission are clerks, cooks, truck drivers, and other support troops. There is one warrior in their midst, a sergeant who tries his hardest to give them a crash course in how to survive against the enemy. These rear echelon soldiers were sent on a mission they were told would take three days. They were in the field for eleven days.

The section of the book that deals with their attempts to become field soldiers is very strong and hit home with me, a Vietnam veteran who is glad he was never sent away from his typewriter at USARV Headquarters and into Cambodia. 

The book contains some of the usual stuff of in-country Vietnam War novels: returning soldiers being called baby killers and being spat upon; cold ham and lima beans C-rations; Vietnam being a stink hole of a country. But this book avoids going overboard with such images.

These black soldiers acquit themselves pretty well in Cambodia. It turns out that they were sent there with a one-way ticket because they were considered troublemakers. In part, this novel reads like an homage to Going After Cacciato, as the men wander in Cambodia encountering troubles they are ill prepared for.

J. Everett Prewitt

At some point, one of them thinks, “And with all the firepower in America’s possession, we can’t defeat a small, backward country like Vietnam? Was it some Supreme Being’s way of telling us we shouldn’t be there?” Good question.

The seven black soldiers who make it back alive are given other-than-honorable discharges and sent home in disgrace. They try to settle into life in the United States and forget about their Cambodian adventure. Andrews, being an intrepid reporter, does not allow this to happen. He keeps pestering away, trying to get to the bottom of what was done to these men.

I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that the book is well worth reading, as these African American soldiers get treated better than most did in real life.

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

—David Willson