America’s war in Vietnam was very, very good to John W. van Kleeff. In Turbulence (Xlibris, 192 pp.$29.99, hardcover; $19.99. paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells how, as an Army enlistee, he volunteered to be liaison officer of his unit and used the position to promote himself in both legal and illegal businesses.
Upon arriving in Vietnam in 1963, van Kleeff answered an NCO’s call “to stay behind in Saigon” and coordinate resupply and logistical aid for the rest of the men in his unit (which he never identifies). Said unit deployed seventy miles to the north in “jungle country.”
Although van Kleeff says he did not know it at the time, that decision turned out to be the best thing he ever did. He understood that “Vietnam was just a shitty place to serve,” and that a soldier in the field “left the modern world behind.” He says, “The only way I can describe my experience in the Vietnam War is pleasant.”
Van Kleeff does not mention his winning any medals in Vietnam. But he deserves one for his depth of honesty in revealing what he saw and did.
After taking possession of his personal jeep, he began a Milo Minderbinder-type of existence. He found corruption among people in positions of power and quickly mastered the art of bribery, a skill that enabled him to cut deals that benefited his unit—and himself.
Several shady transactions with civilians led to a friendship with Henry Mucci, a WWII hero who managed million-dollar government programs for the Calabrian Corp. Van Kleeff soon took charge of a portion of the corporation’s overseas mission, which allowed him to enjoy the upscale life of a civilian executive living in Saigon. He continued, however, to devote an hour a day to his military duties–as much time as the job required.
“To me,” van Kleeff says, “the Vietnam War smells of rich steak and dark red wine, of delicate French pastries, and the perfume of women.”
I have read more than fifty Vietnam War memoirs, but only Napalm and Filet Mignon by John Jennings comes anywhere close to describing a tour as cushy as John van Kleeff’s. Jennings worked as a waiter in the opulent Fourth Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mess. But for five fearful months before that he lugged a machine gun over hills and rice patties with an infantry company.
Shortly before leaving Vietnam, van Kleeff accepted Calabrian’s offer to start a USAID mission in Thailand. The new program resembled the corporation’s work in Vietnam, aimed at building and sustaining the host country’s economy.
“Depending on the tone, the Thai word suai can mean beautiful, bribe, or bad luck. That one word sums up my entire experience in Thailand,” van Kleeff says. Corruption was so rife that even van Kleeff was overwhelmed by it. “Almost every business transaction had its accompanying bribe,” he says, but he doubts that Thais thought of the practice as corruption.
Calabrian’s business turned out to be a “total sham” that “was never intended to last,” van Kleeff says. His two years in Thailand left him frustrated, disillusioned, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
In 1969, van Kleeff moved back to Saigon “where the pay was pretty good.” He worked for U.S. construction companies—Knudson, Brown and Root and Jones—for a year and a half. He saved enough money to attend flight school in Oklahoma, with help from the GI Bill.
Three months before turning thirty, he fulfilled a lifelong desire by earning his wings. He got his first flying job as an instructor pilot in Germany.
Van Kleeff’s account of his life before and after his Southeast Asia experiences comprise the beginning and ending of Turbulence. Both sections contain many interesting stories about his life.
He survived a childhood shattered by his father’s decision to have him raised by a foster family in Holland beginning at age six. As a result, his education was far more eclectic than most Americans received. He and his father never established a friendly relationship. Nevertheless, van Kleeff was devoted to his mother, particularly later in life.
As a pilot, he worked hard to establish himself as a teacher and business manager in Germany. His reputation for hard work and dependability gained him a job as a pilot for Saudi Arabian royalty and businessmen with whom he traveled the world for four years. “The wealth floating around the Kingdom made the experience surreal,” he says.
The emotional peaks and valleys of van Kleeff’s experiences convey the book’s primary message: Good things can turn bad and therefore nothing is certain—but life can still be fun.
Throughout the book, van Kleeff provides snatches of history and his opinions on topics such as religion, war, and crosswind landings. He also records memories of marriages and romances that bloomed and faded, leaving vestiges of pleasures and sorrows, but mainly pleasures.