With Schwarzkopf by Gus Lee

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The latest book from author Gus Lee, a character-based leadership authority, is With Schwarzkopf: Life Lessons of the Bear (Smithsonian Books, 312 pp., $27.95). Lee also has written two other bestsellers: China Boy and Courage: the Backbone of Leadership.

Gus Lee was in his junior year at West Point in 1966 when he learned he was in danger of failing. He then came under the personal tutelage of instructor Norman Schwarzkopf who, in addition to academics, mentored Lee on character, leadership, and the need to do the right thing, no matter how difficult. Even though Lee failed to graduate from West Point, his many hours spent in the company of then Maj. Schwarzkopf created a bond between the two men that lasted more than forty years.

Lee gives the reader a close-up account of life at West Point through his own experiences, both positive and negative. He reveals a little-known side of Schwarzkopf—as a wise, insightful intellectual with unwavering personal values of honesty, courage, and commitment. Affectionately known as “The Bear,” his mentoring of Gus Lee helped Lee deal with his struggles at West Point and, years later, as a legal officer in the post-Vietnam War Army.

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Gus Lee

Lee relates then Schwarzkopf’s experiences as an advisor to a Vietnamese Airborne unit. He earned Vietnamese Master Parachute wings, but in the process suffered a back injury that plagued him for years.

Lee writes that Schwarzkopf wondered back then if he could succeed with an Army career–if he could “keep his damn mouth shut with rear-area types who never got muddied or bloodied and never lost a man.” Schwarzkopf managed, despite his legendary temper, to rise to stardom as the celebrated general who led the way to victory in the first Persian Gulf War, aka Operation Desert Storm.

In 1991, the Bear declined the offer to become Army Chief of Staff. He retired after 39 years in uniform.

Gus Lee has written an inspiring story about one of America’s greatest post-World War II generals. We can all learn from the life lessons and personal values passed along from The Bear to Lee.

The author’s web site is www.guslee.net

—James Coan

 

 

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Primary Candidates by Mike Sutton

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Mike Sutton’s experiences in the Vietnam War are the basis for his first novel, No Survivors (2004). Henry Small Deer was a primary character in No Survivors and returns in Primary Candidates (War Zone Press, 308 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper) as an authority on armaments.  All of the characters of Sutton’s second novel, High Order (2009), also have returned. The author informs us that the novel is inspired by historical events.

As the title implies, this novel is about politicians who want to be president. Three senators are featured doing what senators do when they think they should have their party’s nomination to the nation’s highest office.

The poisonous worm in this political apple is a shipment of Stinger missiles from Arizona to Fort Hood, Texas. At this point the book becomes a hijack novel in which law enforcement agencies scramble to retrieve the missiles and kill the hijacking criminals. Something serious always goes wrong in a scenario of this sort. If it doesn’t, there is no story to hold our attention.

Detective Hunter Morgan is one of the law enforcement people who goes after the missiles. Naturally, he did three tours in Vietnam. One is never enough for a character of this sort. He’s a glutton for punishment.

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Mike Sutton

Many more things go awry in this thriller: snipers in Baltimore, railroad catastrophes, terrorist strikes on major American airports. Then one of the senators “turns up missing.”  That’s one of my favorite all-time clichés.

This book is a rouser, though. I highly recommend it to those who enjoy thrillers and to those who enjoyed Sutton’s previous novels.

Sutton, a witty author, also provides my favorite Jane Fonda quote out of many hundreds I’ve read in Vietnam War books. In this case the words come from a senator speaking to the President:

“Jane Fonda,” the senator says, “has a better chance of becoming the National Commander of the Vietnam Veterans of America than the Desert Fox does winning in November.” This caught me by surprise so late in the book, and caused me to laugh aloud, something I rarely do when I read Vietnam War thrillers.  Congrats to Sutton for his wit and wisdom.

—David Willson

Whispers in the Woods by Richard Kraft

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Richard (Doc) Kraft served twenty-two years on active military duty—half of it as a Navy Corpsman—and eight years in the Fleet Reserves in Vietnam and elsewhere.  He is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America.

Whispers in the Woods: A Compilation of Poetry (CreateSpace, 182 pp., $9.99, paper, $3.98, Kindle) is a sizable collection of verse on a variety of subjects.  Kraft divides the book into six sections:  Enlightenment, Love and Family, War and Soldier, Nature, Silly and Lighthearted, and Inspiration. Doc Kraft writes nonspecific rhyming verse of an old-fashioned kind.

Even though there is a section called “War and Soldier,” war images appear elsewhere. In his poem “Now I Lay Down to Sleep’” Kraft goes to  “A place of cordite hell and fret-full fear.”  He goes on to say that “Sleep carries him away to a scary place,/ A place I’ve been before.”  I don’t doubt that place is wartime Vietnam.

I thought I might encounter specific imagery from Kraft’s experience in Vietnam in his poem, “A Firefight in Hell in Vietnam,” but there was more about Hell and Satan than there was about the war. It brought to mind John Milton’s poetry rather than the work of many Vietnam War poets.

To wit: “Satan appeared and with smoke and fire he roared/And showed his ugly face.”  Later in the poem we find out that “Our blood that night was very light,/As God was on our side.” The poem ends: “We faced the devils,/One on one,/And sent them straight/To hell.”

“Two-Nine on the Line—Hell in a Helmet” begins: “Hot and steamy was the day,/When through the jungle,/We found our way./Our mission was simple,/or so they say./But we knew that/Some would die that day.”

And: “In the bush, we forced our push/V.C. we did find./A fire fight ensued the night,/With the corpsman on the line.”

Some of the members of that little group of seven ended up with their names on The Wall. Some were rewarded with “Purple Hearts and Stars of Bronze.” Kraft writes: “I was that corpsman at the rear/And felt the sting of steel.” He “stopped the blood from bleeding/But with death it was a ride./I did my best but will never rest,/With this horror deep inside.”  Kraft dedicates this poem to the Ninth Marines.

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A Navy Corpsman ministering to a wounded Marine in Vietnam

More typical of Kraft’s poems is “The Last Patrol” in which men die after fighting well. “We carried them home where the buffalo roam/And people live without fear.”

I hope I’ve given a strong taste of this book so that those readers who take pleasure in reading verse of this sort can buy it and support a veteran who has worked hard for years to help other veterans and their families. That includes his program, The Ground Pounders, which provides financial help to veterans.

Doc Kraft also creates and sells decorative key fobs, which represent past and current wars. After he retired as a Chief Corpsman he went on to serve twenty-years with the U.S. Postal Service.

—David Willson

Vigilance by Ray Kelly

 

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Reading Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City (Hachette, 328 pp., $28.00, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is like reviewing New York City’s crime files from the mid-1960s to today. Kelly served forty-three years with the NYPD. He provides insight into fighting crime from the perspectives of the street cop up to the commissioner.

A lifelong New Yorker, Kelly was born in Manhattan and earned bachelor and law degrees from colleges in the city. His book ties together his efforts to improve the police force with various mayors’ ambitions to make New York City safer and more livable.

During the summer following his junior year at Manhattan College, Kelly earned a second lieutenant’s commission through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. His three older brothers had been Marines. Soon after, he also qualified to attend the police academy. So, on graduation from college, he “put the NYPD on hold” for three years to fulfill his military obligation.

Kelly became an artillery forward observer and fire-support coordinator after completing infantry warfare training. Newly married to Veronica Clarke, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton until he shipped out aboard the USS Gunston Hall to Vietnam in 1965.

Kelly underplays his role as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Initially, he led a team on amphibious-assault landings in amtracks. “We’d take modest sniper fire,” he says. He also writes that he enjoyed working with men from all parts of America, which refined his leadership skills. “Virtually everything I know about being a leader, I learned in the Marine Corps,” he writes.

“I spent most of my tour in the valleys near Hue and Phu Bai,” Kelly says. He took part in day and night helicopter assaults and Operations Harvest Moon and New York. His details of encounters with the enemy focus on other people as the performers of extraordinary actions.

Kelly felt pride in his young men for their dedication. His primary regret is that he and his men never had a “full understanding of the endgame.” Confusion, he says, “was a constant part of the Vietnam experience. He and his men often ran around in what he calls a “fog of war.”

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Ray Kelly in Vietnam

 

With the NYPD, Kelly frequently moved from one part of the city to another because of his ability to improve the efficiency of problem precincts.  Promotions came rapidly. He helped remove sex businesses from Times Square and reduced the city’s homicide count after it reached rampant proportions. That hard work led to his first appointment as police commissioner in 1992.

For the next twenty years, Kelly continued to lead police organizations in NYC, the federal government, and even overseas. From 2002-13, during his second appointment as commissioner following 9/11 , he determined his mandate to be “counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.”

Ray Kelly, who retired to the private sector in 2014, carried a tremendous burden. I doubt anyone could report that trying period of police work with more accuracy and authority than he does.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Man Who Walked 3,500 Miles to Kill Me by William Zoesch

 

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Sometimes a passage in a book gets ingrained in a reader’s mind. That happened to me with the following words from William Zoesch:

“His brain was not going to tolerate an insult like this, I thought having seen enough head wounds of all types to last me for the next fricking millennium. His CT scan showed the bullet track through his brain, bone fragments lay where his personality once was, and then exited out through his right motor sensory strip.”

The patient bled out on an operating table.

Dr. Zoesch (rhymes with “flesh”) spent four years (1969-73) in the Army, with one year in Vietnam. Then he returned to college and studied Emergency Medicine. From 1984-92, he was a doctor in the Air National Guard. And from 2003-07, he doctored for the Army Reserves, with a year in Afghanistan. His separations from the services include two honorable discharges and a resignation of his commission.

Zoesch records his combat zone experiences in The Man Who Walked 3500 Miles to Kill Me: Reminiscences from Vietnam and Afghanistan (Lulu, 378 pp., $18.95 paper; $9.95 Kindle). The book evolved from diaries he wrote thirty-two years apart.

He incorporates the two diaries into one storyline and thereby deals with both wars simultaneously. Zoesch intersperses his life as a captain in Vietnam from June 1971 to April 1972 with his time as a colonel in Afghanistan from September 2004 to September 2005. We leap back and forth between the two countries, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. But every entry is dated.

Initially, the book’s organization works and similarities between the start of the author’s two tours are comparable. But once Zoesch reaches his units, his jobs differed so greatly that they lack relativity. Nevertheless, the book abounds with enlightening and entertaining stories.

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Operating room at the 24th Evac Hospital in Vietnam

In Vietnam, Zoesch ran TOCs at Long Binh and Xuan Loc. In Afghanistan, he ministered to the wounded and sick at Bagram Air Base and Kabul. The common core of Zoesch’s two combat tours was long working hours and fatigue brought on by too little sleep.

Zoesch’s Vietnam War memories offer new twists to old facts. For example, he explains how a Claymore mine works to illustrate the damage one did when a Thai soldier used it to assassinate another soldier over a woman. In Zoesch’s world, the unit mascot is a dog named Roach who kills other dogs on sight, even other mascots. And in the tiny Bearcat officers’ club, a barmaid with self-induced catatonia is allowed to pass out on the floor for hours at a time. Most interesting, Zoesch’s running battle with finance concerning back pay ends in a “High Noon”-type showdown.

As a TOC boss at Bearcat, Zoesch worked closely with his Thai and South Vietnamese counterparts. He developed great respect for the Thais and believed their combat skills were under-appreciated and under-publicized.

When President Nixon reduced in-country troop strength in 1972, Zoesch moved to Xuan Loc. Shortly after he arrived, a  South Vietnamese battalion took heavy losses, something he had not experienced. Later, Zoesch became aware of additional problems such as heroin trafficking and the use of torture and murder as interrogation techniques. After the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, however, he focuses on the war.

In remembering Afghanistan, Zoesch’s recitations of treating wounds and illnesses resembles a medical textbook. He uses words such as beta-agonist, auscultation, and rhabdomyosarcoma, which might confuse the average reader. But he clarifies them with detailed and lucid explanations. As the months roll by, his diary fills more and more with descriptions of unusual medical cases, one involving an illness that doctors claimed “had not been seen in forty years.”

The doctors at Bagram worked twenty-four hour shifts and tended to Afghanis as well as to GIs. The breadth of costly medical aid and transportation provided to the civilian population, including life support, surprised me.

At age fifty-seven, after four months of eighty-plus-hour work weeks, Zoesch grew deeply depressed. Then he moved from Bagram to Kabul, which he likens to going from a penal colony to a city. An R&R to Doha coupled with his appointment to command the clinic in Kabul rejuvenated him. He continued to treat patients while becoming an administrator involved in policy making and politics until finishing his tour.

In both wars, as he neared the end of his tours, Zoesch reflected on what he had seen and done and philosophized about what the future held for America. His book’s Epilogue presents a sound case against the rampant use of American power to democratize the world.

The book’s title refers to a Mongolian Muslim soldier who said he had walked all the way to Afghanistan (3,500 miles) to kill infidels—Americans in particular. He made the pronouncement as a POW while Zoesch treated his battle wounds.

Here’s one more passage ingrained in my mind:

“Along the north side of our tiny airfield, there was a scene there etched into my memory ever since—twelve black body bags covered by swarms of flies. Squatting about five meters away were three Vietnamese soldiers eating their lunch from bowls with spoons. That to me was Viet Nam in one cataclysmic blink. I have seen filled body bags in Viet Nam and Afghanistan but that one moment in time survived and summarized all of the rest.”

—Henry Zeybel

Adventures of Point-Man Palmer in Vietnam by Betsy Grant

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Vernon Grant began drawing birthday cards at age three. His wife Betsy has compiled some of his writings and cartoons in  Adventures of Point-Man Palmer In Vietnam: Cartoons and Writings by Vernon Grant (Little Creek Press,  156 pp., $15.95,paper). Grant’s drawing of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Betsy Grant’s dedication set the tone for this biography and introduction to the cartooning of this “artist and soldier.”

Enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1958 launched Vernon Grant’s military and cartooning careers. He went through OCS at Fort Benning in 1960.  “Vernon was the artist for the Classbook for this 50th Company Officer Course,” Betsy Grant writes. “Vernon was one of the 4.6% of the class graduates that were Black.”

Several small problems: The book’s timeline is not consistently chronological; it is not always clear whether quotes are Vernon’s or Betsy’s; the drawings are not dated; and some caption typography can be difficult to read.

In 1964, while a Communications Officer at Ft. Carson, Colorado, 1st Lt. Grant—who died in 2006—presented his Commanding General with a uniquely prepared request for more field radios. It was in the form of a comic strip. The general responded: “Please accept my thanks for the brochure which I have looked through several times with a chuckle.”

Grant had been encouraged in his artistry by his father. He was also inspired by comic books such as Little Lulu, Donald Duck , and Buck Rogers and by encouragement from fellow soldiers.

Cpt. Grant  received his Army discharge in 1968 after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. That’s when he began publishing his cartoons and graphic novels. “Stand By One,” published in 1969, presents combat life in panels in which Grant occasionally inserts himself in his depictions of a soldier’s routine in the field, off duty, and on stand down. That includes humorous scenes such as a lineman atop a pole observing a North Vietnamese Army patrol passing below and reporting, “Course I’m no Intelligence Expert, but if I was you I’d rate this ‘Current and Fairly Reliable!'”

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Betsy and Vernon Grant on their wedding day in 1978

This entertaining compilation features Grant’s tour de farce of Point-Man Palmer and Invisible Peppermint, the protagonist’s girlfriend and guardian angel. When they first set foot on the tarmac in Vietnam Palmer’s helmet proclaims ” SHORT! 364 DAYS 23 HOURS 59 MINUTES.” The adventures take this soldier and his unseen buxom girlfriend through the boonies until Palmer is captured. The surprise ending has Peppermint swimming in the Saigon River trying to save her soldier boyfriend.

Like the comics Grant read as a child, the last page announces in bold type:  “DON’T MISS BOOK TWO! OF POINT- MAN PALMER.”
The entire collections are out of print, but copies are available at www.bvgrantstudio.com
—Curt Nelson

A War of Logistics by Charles R. Shrader

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Historian Charles R. Shrader borrows a quote to describe the First Indochina War between Viet Minh and French Union forces as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” His research backs up the quote in the sense that poor logistical support can defeat an army.

There’s no doubt about the depth of Shrader’s research; it’s evident in the seventy pages of notes in his book,  A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 (University Press of Kentucky, 488 pp., $60, hardcover and Kindle).

 
The book is based on “declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material,” as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies, Schrader says. Viet Minh sources are limited to contemporary documents captured by the French, POW interrogations, and the writings of Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap. Maps, tables, figures, and photographs abound to support the text.

 
The book’s first half explains the influence of Vietnam’s terrain on troop movements. Most of the fighting took place in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin. The rugged terrain stymied the development of a system of highways, railroads, and waterways capable of supporting large-scale military activities such as those used in World War II.

Shrader goes on to discuss the disproportionate sizes of the opposing combat forces, then explains how their logistical systems were organized and operated, and compares the opposing transportation systems. He presents detailed summations of the dependency for war supplies that the Viet Minh had with what was then known as Communist China and the French Union with the United States.

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Viet Minh fighters during the French Indochina War

Helicopters were scarce and used primarily for medical purposes. Poor weather conditions, widely scattered airfields, limited numbers of aircraft and aircrews, and constantly improving Viet Minh antiaircraft capability minimized the effectiveness of the French Union air force. The Viet Minh had no air support.

 
The book’s second half describes the war itself and how logistical factors influenced the outcome of combat operations. Initially, a series of political and military actions forced the Viet Minh to find refuge in the countryside while the French occupied the cities. From there, differing military philosophies pitted the mobility of the self-sufficient individual Viet Minh soldier against the mobility of the technologically dependent French Union army.

What began as mere ambushes by the Viet Minh grew into head-on collisions with the French. The titles of Shrader’s chapters tell the war’s story: “The Campaign for the Lines of Communication,” “The Limits of Aerial Resupply,”  “The Triumph of the Porters.”

 
Logistically the French relied on mechanized transportation and awaited air and sea supply shipments from France, which were often four months away. Meanwhile, day by day, Viet Minh porters carried supplies on their backs from the border with China.

 
Shrader presents a continuous string of eye-opening stories and facts. For example, the French Union employed a third of its infantry forces in Indochina keeping roads and waterways open to traffic. Both sides had about ninety battalions in Tonkin, but the French assigned sixty-four of theirs to protecting lines of communication and rear areas, leaving only twenty-five battalions for mobile offensive operations.

Basically, the French Union’s logistical effort went mainly toward resupplying posts where the troops protected trucks and boats from ambush in order to resupply themselves. Meanwhile, dispersed groups of Viet Minh porters moved nearly unopposed along trails hidden in the jungle.

 
Accounts of the Viet Minh invasion of Laos and of the battle of Dien Bien Phu are as fresh and interesting as if they occurred yesterday. “The Viet Minh refused to recognize the theoretical limitations on their logistical capabilities,” Shrader says, “and they frequently surprised the French by their rapidity of movement, their ability to concentrate men and supplies undetected, and their logistical stamina.”

 
The Viet Minh proved decisively , he says, that “even in the mid-twentieth century, a lack of superiority in material could still be overcome by the intelligent application of sheer manpower and a determined will.”
Reading this book saddened me—again. Much of what Shrader tells us reminded me of the American war in Vietnam.

Every fact in his book was available before the United States committed itself to the Vietnam War and then more or less duplicated the French Union’s effort. What more is there to say?

 
—Henry Zeybel