The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

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A Different Face of War by James G. Van Straten

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James G. Van Straten served as a U.S. Army senior medical advisor with the South Vietnamese Army throughout I Corps in 1966-67. During that period, he wrote three hundred fifty-two letters to his wife and six children in Texas. Forty-five years later, he has assembled the letters into A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 497 pp.; $34.95 hardcover; $15.99 Kindle). The book takes the reader through Van Straten’s year, nearly day by day.

American advisors had no power of command within the Vietnamese military hierarchy; their leadership depended solely on persuasive talent. Advisors worked under the authority of Vietnamese commanders who made the final decisions on policies and actions. Nevertheless, advisors were accountable to their American regional commanders for overall results.

Recently, I read Bob Andretta’s Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force, which describes how an American lieutenant immersed himself in the Vietnamese culture to influence the Vietnamese regional commander’s thinking. Maj. Van Straten employed a similar strategy. Both men, despite working long hours, including occasional around-the-clock days, attended countless Vietnamese town meetings and social functions to build relationships. Open hostility between Buddhists and Catholics complicated Van Straten’s task of remaining politically neutral.

Andretta’s experience centered on Navy combat actions. Van Straten performed Army medical service tasks. Their introspection about how to deal with cross-cultural differences makes these books valuable.

Under the supervision of Maj. Pham Viet Tu, the head doctor of Da Nang’s Duy Tan hospital, Van Straten constantly traveled across I Corps. The United States provided much of the material medical support, and Van Straten performed many minor miracles to ensure that its delivery was timely and in adequate quantity for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. He faced the endless task of suppressing rampant outbreaks of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, malaria, cholera, rubella (measles), lice, dysentery, and diarrhea.

He also supervised movements of the wounded. Sometimes hospitals had to handle double the number of patients they could handle. During his time in Vietnam, I Corps suffered more casualties than the rest of the country combined. He helped to sort the wounded from the dead and the Americans from the Vietnamese.

In his ten-year Army career before the war, Van Straten had never been assigned to a hospital of any type. “The number of civilian casualties produced by the war was appallingly high,” he writes. “As a younger man, I had so wanted to become a physician, but exposure to trauma of that magnitude convinced me that I was not equipped to handle it. Sometimes I got mildly depressed. I was encountering heart-rending trauma almost on a daily basis.”

From this experience, Van Straten developed an overwhelming compassion for the Vietnamese people. In 1967, to counter the high civilian casualty rate, he helped relocate eighteen thousand civilians away from the DMZ to safer homes southward.

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A civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war

In their occasional free time, he and American surgeons corrected deformities, such as cleft palates and clubfeet among civilians, mainly children.  Dr. John Henry Giles was the prime motivator for this program.

Beyond describing his everyday activities, Van Straten tells stories about revelatory encounters with a  long list of people, from the famous to the unknown. He explains nuances of Vietnamese culture overlooked in many other Vietnam War memoirs. He provides memorable word pictures of scenes such as the differences between American and Vietnamese casualty wards. He editorializes against the tactic of search-and-destroy.

He also subtly argues that the NVA won the war in I Corps while he was there and that an NVA final victory was inevitable. Many photographs, mostly taken by the author, supplement the text.

For James Van Straten, remorse for events that ended unsatisfactorily transcends the long interval since they occurred. He repeatedly apologizes for his mistakes—mainly minor and unavoidable—and wishes that any outcomes he left unresolved have had no negative repercussions on the people involved.

His conscience and wartime experience have locked the Vietnamese people in his mind forever.

—Henry Zeybel

The Dark Side of Heaven by Robert G. Lathrop

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Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the  1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.

We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.

Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities.  “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.

The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942.  He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960.  This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.

His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses.  The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.

After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have  been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”

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An A-4 Skyhawk in the skies over Vietnam

Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy.  “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”

This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include  “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.”  It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.

“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”  Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.

The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.

—David Willson

 

 

Red Blood, Yellow Skin by Linda L.T. Baer

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This coming of age tale begins with the birth of the author, Nguyen Thi Loan, in a village sixty miles from Hanoi in 1947. Her trials, tribulations, and rare triumphs straddle the French and American wars in Vietnam. She vividly describes them in Red Blood, Yellow Skin, A Young Girl’s Survival in War-Torn Vietnam by Linda L.T. Baer (formerly Nguyen Thi Loan) (River Grove Books, 330 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle).

A cast of characters worthy of a Charles Dickens novel runs through this story of Loan’s extended family, both the loved and the hated. Loan was often left to provide for herself and her siblings,  encountering and sometimes eating crabs, water bugs, scorpions, buffalo leaches, snakes, and tigers, as well as being caught in crossfires and bombings. Loan’s father was killed in the French war, leading to her dependence on uncles, neighbors, strangers, corrupt officials,  an abusive dtepfather, and deceitful cousins.

Chapter titles such as “Mountain Of Broken Glass” and “Saigon Tea” signify milestones during Loan’s tumultuous childhood. A close friend is killed in “Tiger’s Paw.” “Concrete Pillow” refers to Loan being homeless in Saigon.

The family moved often in search of safer villages and for opportunities for the author’s stepfather’s medical practice. He was very strict with little patience. Loan was often whipped and once even buried in a hole for allowing a baby to fall out of a hammock. She was rescued by neighbors. “Everyone saw the way my stepfather mistreated me, but there were no rules or laws against spousal or child abuse at that time.”

Loan and family joined some 900, 000 other refugees from Northern Vietnam relocating to the south in 1954 after the country was divided. Operation “Passage to Freedom” took Loan and family to Saigon from Haiphong aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Thirty-eight babies were born on the voyage, including Loan’s step-sister Nho. The family settled in Long Phuoc. It was there that 13-year-old Loan decided to go out on her own since her family was too poor to care for her.

“I’m going to Saigon to look for a job,” she writes. “Don’t worry, I’m thirteen years old, and I can take care of myself.”

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Linda L.T. Baer (Nguyen Ti Loan)

Arriving in Saigon with no money, no job, and one bag of clothes, Loan thought: “I’ve reached my destination. Now what am I going to do? I left home because of the treatment I received there and I quit a job because I had been taken advantage of. I made up my mind that things had to be different.”

The sixteen year old made this declaration in 1963. She soon met 28-year-old Lynn and finally Loan’s life appeared to be on a sustainable path. She and Lynn lived on Le Loi St., a familiar street to many Americans who served in Vietnam. The two women operated a successful bar and dance club until Lynn’s child was killed and the club was sold.

Loan’s determination to succeed, along with her stepfather’s  transformation, provide welcome respite from her calamitous childhood. Her mother and stepfather moved to Vung Tau, about 50 miles from Saigon.

In the chapter “Cicada Shell” she is eighteen years old and five months pregnant and approaching this gripping memoir’s finale.  The chapters titled “Garden Of Love” and “Dancing Rainbow” reveal how Loan’s long-suffering saga concludes. I look forward to the release of the sequel.

—Curt Nelson

 

The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

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Robert F. Curtis’s The Typhoon Truce, 1970: Three Days in Vietnam when Nature Intervened in the War (Casemate, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a most unusual story of humanity in the middle of war. It is a story about heroism, skill, and soldiers’ abilities to put their missions first despite any personal dangers they encountered. This book is a report of the kind of activities that seldom happen in war, but when they do, history deems it important to remember them for posterity.

In October 1970 in the area between Da Nang and the DMZ , the names “Joan” and “Kate” took on a sinister meaning. Joan proved to be the name of a ferocious typhoon that flooded northeast Vietnam. Less than a week later came Kate, another devastating typhoon. Due to the unceasing, torrential rain that accompanied the storms, untold numbers of Vietnamese were left stranded in the valleys surrounded by rising floods.

The heart of this book is the story of how American Chinook pilots risked their lives to airlift endangered Vietnamese citizens to higher ground. While the flying was extremely difficult and dangerous, the pilots and crews—as in much of the Vietnam War—were never quite sure who the enemy was.

This book is not a rush-to-the-climax kind of read. The author takes the reader into the middle of the activities almost to the point where you can feel the rain and tension. The gradual movement from the beginning of the rain to the actual rescue missions seems to take quite a while. At first, this can be rather disconcerting, but waiting is also the name of the game in awaiting the approach of a typhoon.

Several chapters describe daily life in a helicopter unit. Readers who have had similar experiences in Vietnam will have an easy time relating to the author’s vivid descriptions of the men and their equipment. Great detail is given to the capabilities of the pilots. Many former pilots might recall that helicopters are sometimes called “a collection of various loose parts flying in close formation.”

The men of C Company, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division were given the call sign “Playtex” prior to leaving the United States. Curtis explains that while most of the men involved did not know the origin of this name, it was because they gave such good support.

The Typhoon Truce was unspoken and unplanned. It came about because people were in trouble and other people saw a way to help. The author does a great job explaining the mindset of the flying crews who never knew if they would face appreciation or gunfire from the people they were trying to rescue.

2015125669cec98b33dCurtis—the author of Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond—has a unique way of moving sideways as well as forward in telling his story. Many times he interrupts the action to fill in personal details of the men involved to bring a greater depth of understanding.

I believe this story will stimulate much conversation among former Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crews. I would be surprised if it did not elicit similar examples of kindness from other veterans in the midst of a devastating war. Reading this book is a mission strongly recommended.

—Joseph Reitz

Dead Dog Tales and Devil’s Breath by William Fick

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Fick served with the First Marine Air Wing in Da Nang and Chu Lai in Vietnam in 1967-1968.  Dead Dog Tales and the Devil’s Breath (CreateSpace, 268 pp., $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is Fick’s first novel, and is quite experimental in narrative.

How experimental? For one thing, large parts of the novel are told by Conan the Wonder Dog. The main character is Garbot Fastman. We are introduced to him by finding out about his childhood as an overprotected asthmatic who needs an inhaler and shots to keep breathing.

Even though he has a childhood that seemed designed to preclude service in the military, Fastman ends up serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War, assigned to an A-6 squadron. Lance Corporal Fastman works twelve hours on, twelve hours off, doing drudge work.

“Once, Garbot and one of his favorite crane drivers laid down, fuzed and racked 84-500 pound bombs in thirteen minutes, a record he could never match again.”  That quote gives an idea of his military job and the attitude he brought to it.

Fastman is transferred to Chu Lai in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive . I encountered in this novel something unnerving that I have seen before in Marine Corps books, that Marines often liked to fly as door gunners in Army helicopters during what time off they could find. They did it for fun.

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Lots of other usual Vietnam War novel stuff enriches this book: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place, “it’s the only war we got,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” the smell of Vietnam being “jet fuel, garbage and human waste,” John Wayne, Iwo Jima, the concept of avoiding the draft by joining the Marines, and being spat upon in airports by hippies.  Garbot also gets accused of being a baby killer.

Garbot comments about missing the 1967 “Summer of Love.”  I missed it, too.  Many of us did.

The VA is never mentioned positively. The VA policy in the late 60s—that a veteran student had to be in college for three months before any money was sent—is criticized, and for good reason. One more bad thing our fathers, veterans of WWII, did not have to deal with.

The question actually gets asked: “Hey, what are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?” After Garbot is home, the novel becomes an adventure tale of sorts involving drug smuggling, diamond smuggling, and other escapades.

This statement that sums up this interesting book: “Just as the Depression and World War II had defined his father, so Garbot slowly came to understand that, like it or not, he was defined and dominated by Viet Nam. He thought about it every day.”

Like Garbot, I think about Vietnam every day, too. I hope that war has not defined and dominated my life. If you think it has, please don’t tell me.

—David Willson

Behind the Wire by James Stoup

 

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The word “paradoxical” perfectly describes the thoughts and actions of James Stoup as related in his “nonfiction novel,” Behind the Wire: A Story about Life in the Rear during the Vietnam War (Page Publishing, 318 pp., $17.95, paper: $9.99, Kindle). A member of the 25th Infantry and 1st Air Cavalry divisions in 1970-71, he gained the credentials of an Army war correspondent without covering combat. Furthermore, he called himself a war protester, but excelled as a reporter for the military establishment. While reading the book, I occasionally wondered if any of us fully understood what was going on back in the day.

Stoup, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America,  wrote a first draft of this book in 1994 and rewrote it in 2014. Surprisingly, his youthful emotions and opinions prevail, which makes the book valuable because it shows the contradictions felt by young men who supported the Vietnam antiwar movement. Stoup provides a wealth of stories about constructive and destructive behavior among rear echelon personnel, also known as REMFs.

Mainly, Stoup relies on personal observations and opinions to prove his points and seldom offers references to authoritative sources. His arguments usually rest on generalizations such as his friends’ estimate that sixty-five percent of enlisted men in Vietnam used drugs.

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Jim Stoup

 

His favorite topics are marijuana, marijuana, marijuana, and other drugs; incompetent lifers;  fragging; the quest for medals; and profiting from the war.

This paragraph perfectly reflects the heart of his REMF sentiments about the Army:

“There was still the occasional Army bullshit to put up with, like formations, police calls, inspections, starched fatigues, and polished boots. But those of us who escaped the stress and danger of combat figured we were lucky to be where we were, so we just put up with the lifers and the bullshit. And after the recent series of fraggings and tear gas incidents, the ‘off-the-record’ protocol that had been observed between the lifers and the EMs had now become more like a truce. After hours, they didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. They didn’t come into our living areas, unless necessary, and we stayed out of theirs. In other words, the troops could drink their beer, smoke their pot, and do their drugs in their haunts without fear of harassment or being busted. And the lifers could get falling-down drunk in their clubs without our snickering at them as they tripped and fell on their way back to their quarters.”

Frequent observations such as this show that for Stoup and his friends, protest against the war manifested itself as a schism between the ranks. In other words, protest among REMFs focused on daily living conditions.

In 1968 Jim Stroup brought Abbie Hoffman to lecture at Saint Joseph’s College. Stoup was president of the student body, and the FBI interviewed him about his intentions. He says, “Even though I never looked into it, I’m sure the FBI had a file on me.”

Stoup graduated from college in 1969. Certain to be drafted and fearing a sure trip to Vietnam as an infantryman, he enlisted in the Army as an officer candidate, even though commissioning required an additional year of service. Assigned as an infantry officer trainee, he resigned from OCS because he did not want responsibility for “the lives of young men drafted into the Army.”

From that point, he found other detours that bypassed the battlefield. Yet he grooved on meeting “seasoned-looking” soldiers who fought the war. He draws colorful pictures of men he admired for their courage. I especially liked Stoup’s description of one such group displaying “a blatant aberration of military discipline.”

Upon arriving at the 25th Division at Cu Chi, he sold his college education, writing skills, and ability to type ninety words a minute to an NCO and got a job in the Public Information Office.

Although he avoided combat situations, Stoup did go into the field and got in trouble for reporting exactly what he saw. His desire to tell the truth paralleled an incident described by correspondent Jim Smith in his memoir, Heroes to the End.

For one of his first stories, Jim Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of the Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget it; otherwise, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

When Stoup wrote the truth about building a new bridge and its dedication ceremony, his commander told him: “I want you to cut the peace shit out of this story and rewrite it the Army way. And this better be the last time this happens, or you’re going to be spending a lot more time in the field.”

From then on, Stoup followed the party line and received commendations for his writing, along with increased responsibility. True to his contradictory nature, however, he simultaneously became a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Because his editor restricted him from writing about problems such as poor leadership and drug use, Stoup secretly passed privileged information to television network correspondents. Often, it is difficult to understand Stoup’s motivation for his actions, which requires separating his hatred for the war from his hatred for his military superiors.

When the 25th Division rotated home in 1970, Stoup transferred to the 1st Cav at Phuoc Vinh, which was a total contrast to Cu Chi. For example, the Phuoc Vinh division information officer wore shorts and flip-flops to work. Stoup used his “portfolio of writing samples and press clippings” to secure an information specialist MOS.

In that job, his writing earned him a “direct field promotion to Specialist 5th Class (E-5),” and he became honorary editor of the division newspaper. Talent and a cooperative spirit made him a valued member of the Army establishment, although I doubt that he viewed himself in those terms.

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25th Infantry Division HQ at Cu Chi

Throughout his time at Cu Chi and Phuoc Vinh, Stoup and his friends used drugs—mostly pot—practically every night. Stoup describes how other men frequently overdosed on harder drugs. At that stage of the war, the problem was not a “problem” because nobody seemed to care.

A confessed member of the counterculture, Stoup nevertheless accepted two Army Commendation Medals, and on one occasion, filled a foursome for bridge at the Officers’ Club. Furthermore, he credits his leaders with teaching him everything he knew about journalism, which helped him in his post-military career. Most surprising of all, he turned down a forty-one-day drop during a force reduction.

His finest anti-war action took place during his last month in-country at Bien Hoa: he initiated Article 138, UCMJ action that brought positive changes of unexpected magnitudes to REMFs. In the midst of this activity, he questioned his behavior and attitude for the first time: “Was I out of my fucking mind? After all, without proceeding with this action, I’d be on my way home in less than ten days, with little chance of anything happening to me from the dangers of the war to, well, anything else. Was I out of my fucking mind!”

Although Jim Stoup might not agree, I believe he used the military system to benefit himself equally as much as the lifers he detested, which was, of course, justifiable behavior for anyone who did not want to be there in the first place and who was determined to avoid combat.

It takes great strength to row against a ceaseless tide. I admire those who do so. Therefore, I enjoyed Stoup’s story and classify him as a clandestine fighter.

By the way, James, here’s the deal regarding medals: You don’t have to accept them. That type of rejection is a protest. At the end of my twenty years, my boss offered me a Meritorious Service Medal. I wrote to him: “Don’t bother. I’ve already been compensated for my work.”

Or should you and I have said, “I don’t need no stinking medal for doing my everyday job”? Oh well, I must confess that insubordination had already wrecked my “lifer” career.

The author’s website is www.behindthewire-vietnam.com/home.html 

—Henry Zeybel