Women Vietnam Veterans by Donna A. Lowery

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This encyclopedic volume is a valuable in-depth  history told in the words of women who served in the Vietnam War from 1962-1972. A book team of twenty members collaborated in producing  Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories (AuthorHouse, 733 pp., $36.99, hardcover;  $25.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Donna A. Lowrey, who served in Vietnam in 1967-69. 

The book contains the words of enlisted women and officers—other than nurses—who served in Vietnam during the war. The extensive databases and indices in this work are guides to this historical cornucopia containing the contributions of hundreds of female veterans.

The Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy are all represented. I recommend a close look at the lists prior to reading the oral histories and biographical sketches, which are arranged chronologically according to when the veterans served in Vietnam. The entries would have been better had they included the homes of record of the veterans. I found connections to my own service in the extensive lists.

Readers will discover a wide spectrum of jobs and combat zone tales,  from humorous to tragic. Women served as physical therapists, switchboard operators, clerk typists, journalists, nutritionists, comptrollers, and staff Judge Advocates, among many other jobs. Many of the accounts recall the same February 18, 1968, night attack when the Viet Cong blew up the ammo dump at Long Binh.

Spec. 5 Sonia Gonzalez, a clerk typist, was new in-country when the attack woke her and she scrambled to the safety of the first floor of her barracks. “I managed to get my issue [clothes] on,” she said. “We stayed there until the next morning. A formation was called and as roll was being taken, everyone started laughing. My pants were on backwards; my uncomfortable boots pointed outward with the left boot on the right and the right boot on my left.”

Several veterans share other memories of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Some marked their arrival in Vietnam by the length of time until Bob Hope’s Christmas Show. Maj. Betty Jean Stallings recalled the Hope show being broadcast on Armed Forces Vietnam Television: “Once when I had to walk down the hall, I realized the same TV show was coming out of every office. The next day, it was easy to see who had seen the show in person and who had watched on TV. Those who had watched in person were quite sunburned.” I might add that I was there photographing the show that hot day.

 

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Donna Lowery

 
Geckos, bats, cockroaches, rats, and mosquitoes are described by many of the contributors—along with hot, wet, and humid weather, hygiene matters, living quarters, clubs, and Post Exchanges.

 

Morale is  the subject of many of these recollections. Spec. 5 Ida Colford wrote to the governor of Maine in November 1967 asking for a fresh Christmas tree. A month later, a Pan Am jet delivered a nine-foot Maine Balsam to Saigon. “It lifted the spirits of all of us so far from home,” Colford said.

So did the formation of a quintet in 1966 called “The Bootleggers of Old Long Binh.” The group wrote songs and performed at their base. There was also a 27-member Women’s Army Corps Drill Team that performed at the WAC Detachment.

Today’s parlance could be used to describe the typical women’s work schedule as 24/7. After their twelve-hour days, many volunteered at jobs such as visiting children in orphanages. Marine Sgt. Ermelinda Salazar worked at St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage, home to 75 children.”This whole orphanage is taken care of by two Catholic sisters,” she said. “The two sisters are Vietnamese who speak no English at all.”

 
Many of the reports describe combat situations such as what the late Mary Van Ette Bender experienced. She served as an Army Chief Warrant Officer and found herself guarding her hotel billet during the 1968 Tet offensive in Saigon. “The MPs guarding the building had been killed almost immediately,” she said. “I was then asked by a male officer to guard the stairwell to the third floor. He then gave me grenades and instructed me to blow up the stairwell in the event that the Viet Cong were able to take the bottom two floors.” CWO Bender was awarded two Bronze Stars for  defending her billet and the women inside. 
 
There are too many poems, songs, letters, and opinions pro and con on the Vietnam War to include here. I found a veteran who worked in the same Engineer Command building where I served at Long Binh in 1970. Sgt. Maryna Misiewicz served as Administrative NCO/ Attache Specialist to Gen. A.B. Dillard, our commander. 
Tragically, he and serveral others were  killed in a helicopter crash. When Sgt. Misiewicz returned home she attended Gen. Dillard’s funeral.
 
—Curt Nelson

Dragonfly Edited by Frederick D. Long

 

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Reading Dragonfly: The Smallest Fighter… The Fastest Gun… A-37s Over Vietnam (A-37 Association, 311 pp.; $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper) is like sorting a stack of lottery tickets and finding every one is a winner. Dragonfly presents a collection of attention-grabbing history lessons. I initially opened the book, edited by Frederick D. Long and Lon Holtz, to a story titled “Sir, I’m on Fire,” and was amazed by how in the heat of the moment (pun intended) pilots perform illogical actions and survive whole. It only got better from there.

The book is packed with first-hand accounts of Dragonfly pilots’ combat missions in Vietnam from 1967-72. Some other chapter titles are “I’ll Never Do That Again,” “Hanging By A Thread,” and “How to Kill a Water Buffalo.”

Arranged chronologically, the flying events parallel the course of the war. Pilots talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. They recall dangerous and heroic deeds; they explain the utterly stupid ones. Honesty prevails.

The nine-by-eleven-inch book is a work of love and art. Its large format includes hundreds of photographs, maps, and illustrations. The A-37 Association published Dragonfly in 2014, with a second edition in 2015.

Editor Fred Long’s Introduction records the transformation of the T-37 from a trainer into an attack aircraft.  He also explains the development and deployment of other A-37 squadrons, starting with the 604th Air Commando Squadron up to the time when the USAF turned the fleet over to the South Vietnamese Air Force.

“The A-37 was called on to take out missile sites, artillery and supply sites, bunkers, trucks, sampans, buildings and support ground troops while under attack,” Long says. “They flew day and night, dropped napalm, bombs, fired rockets and the minigun under every conceivable condition. They went on FAC missions, dodged antiaircraft fire, and performed escort operations. A successful mission was the rule, not the exception.”

Associate Editor Lon Holtz, the President of the A-37 Association, adds historical perspective with “Prologue 1945-1966: The Beginning of an Unpopular War.” Holtz flew the Dragonfly in Vietnam during his 1968-69 tour of duty.

The editors included a section that honors thirteen Dragonfly pilots killed during the war. Appendices include a Vietnam War Photo Album, Dragonfly Combat Pilot Roster, and Glossary, along with an extensive Bibliography and Index.

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Books of this type are important because they fill voids in military history. Combat is a highly personalized and relatively spectatorless endeavor. Rarely are people standing around to watch and report it. Mainly, the people that see it are those engaged in it. Consequently, John Q. Public relies on guys from the arena to tell it like it was. This book performs that duty through the voices of a specialized group of warriors.

The same logic applies to any war memoir. I made four trips to Southeast Asia in four different jobs and thought I knew a lot. But since August of 2014, I have read and reviewed nearly seventy Vietnam War memoirs and each one has taught me something new about that conflict.

For more info, go to www.a-37.org/news/news_page.html

—Henry Zeybel

 

Calm Frenzy by Loring M. Bailey, Jr.

 

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Deploring the deep-seated dependency of Vietnamese on American aid, Loring M. Bailey Jr. wrote: “I’m enough of a youthful socialist to admit that not everybody can pull themselves up two hundred years by the bootstraps, but there’s such a thing as burdensome assistance. Enough. As the oriental sun sets gently over the snipers and touches its last golden rays to the olive Claymore mines, we bid adieu to Vietnam, land of mystery and mangled civilians.”

A booby trap killed Bailey on March 15, 1970, five months after he arrived in Vietnam at LZ Liz, near Chu Lai, and joined the Americal Division. Spec 4 Bailey had been a radio-telephone operator for both his platoon leader and company commander during what was to be an eight-month tour to finish his enlistment. Under the battalion’s policy, companies spent three weeks in the field and then one week at Liz.

Loring “Ring” Bailey died at the age of twenty-four, but his spirit lives on in Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War (Red Barn Books, 175 pp., $15.95, paper). The book is a collection of letters that Bailey wrote to his wife, parents, and three best friends. Chip Lamb adapted the letters into a stage play before they became the basis for this book.

Bailey was a literary magician—a man who plucked the right words from thin air at exactly the right moment, often as a grunt in mud and rain. His sense of humor was enviable. For example:

“Just a dreary way to spend a hot, moist night, sitting, listening to your rifle rust.”

“I have a new fantasy—I pretend that I’m a Belgian mercenary and this isn’t my war, I just work here.”

After he adopted a duckling: “When he made his pitiful little squeaks, I agreed with him.”

To his wife, Maris: “You’re  nice to love and hard to be away from, better than Dinky Toys and bigger. You must be real.”

Through Bailey’s eyes, we see a Vietnam War in which the American quest was futile, yet he persevered. He found a close parallel between the Americans in Vietnam and the British in the Revolutionary War. To wit: “We’re really having asses made of ourselves and paying well to have it done.”

Bailey’s reflections on his activities contained a philosophical tone mixed with touches of poetry and surrealism. His crisply written, sometimes convoluted, scenarios challenge a reader’s imagination and lead to unexpected conclusions.

He seldom spoke directly of combat. His greatest concern was for civilian casualties, particularly women and children. Yet Bailey foreshadowed his own death by noting: “Three of our third platoon people were killed by a booby trap while setting up for an ambush; one lived nearly a whole, precious, peaceful day, afterwards.” And soon thereafter: “More booby traps and such in evidence now.”

The book provides no account of Bailey’s death.

When I turned the final page, I grew teary eyed. I believe Ring Bailey would agree that he qualified as a poster boy for “The Waste of War.” He died just when he was beginning to live—like all the other young KIAs of Nam.

The author’s website is www.calmfrenzy.com/book.html

—Henry Zeybel

Nixon’s Nuclear Specter by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball

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William Burr, a senior analyst at George Washington University’s National Security Archive, and Jeffrey P. Kimball, an emeritus professor of history at Miami University in Ohio, did extensive research (mainly by conducting interviews and researching declassified documents) for their book, Nixon’s Nuclear Specter: The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy, and the Vietnam War (University Press of Kansas, 445 pp., $39.95).

The book looks at the initial effort by President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam by trying to win concessions from Hanoi at the negotiating table through coercive diplomacy. This when the Madman Theory came about, with Nixon threatening excessive force, including possible nuclear strikes, to try to convince Hanoi and Moscow to end the war sooner rather than later.

Nixon started with verbal threats, then authorized bombing NVA and VC bases in Cambodia. Next came a ruse that the U. S. was planning to mine Haiphong Harbor. Planning for the nuclear option also started. That drastic step had been considered several times since World War II, including during the 1954 disaster at Dien Bien Phu when the French were begging for U.S. air support; during the 1958 Lebanon crisis; and during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

This book covers the Vietnam War year of 1969 month by month in almost mind-numbing detail. It focuses on what our nation’s leaders said to whom, and when and why they did.  The key players are Nixon,  Kissinger, Russia’s Anatoly Dobrynin, Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense William Laird, and JCS Chairman Earle Wheeler.

What the authors reveal is the intense, behind-the-scenes plotting and planning that Nixon and Kissinger carried on in 1969 as they desperately tried o find a way to move the Vietnam War peace talks with Hanoi to fruition. Nixon and Kissinger resorted to playing “good cop–bad cop” with Dobrynin. Yet, always in the back of their minds was what they could do to make Moscow put pressure on Hanoi—but not go so far as to put the Soviets on the alert and escalate tensions between the super powers.

This book reveals Nixon’s negotiating strategy: talk tough, make threats, rattle sabers, then think better of the risks involved and back down. The reader or researcher hungry to know every last detail of the interactions between the aforementioned players will find this book satisfies that need and then some. The notes alone cover eighty pages. The bibliography runs sixteen pages.

Some sobering realizations came about as a result of the authors’ research. By 1969, Nixon and Kissinger—as well as the majority of Nixon’s inner circle—had decided that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable. The overlying principle motivating Nixon and Kissinger therefore was not how to win the war, but how to get our forces out without appearing to have lost. The aim of the North Vietnamese was to drag out negotiations until the American people tired of the war sufficiently to demand that we throw in the towel. So, while this “unwinnable” war dragged on from 1969 until 1973, more than 21,000 Americans died.

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Another disturbing revelation is that long before the Saigon government collapsed in 1975, America’s exit policy had already been set. The term was “decent interval.” That meant getting U.S. troops home first, then blaming Democrats and the antiwar movement when Saigon was defeated by the North Vietnamese. With a “decent interval” we could also blame the South Vietnamese for losing “their” war. Nixon and Kissinger used the word “Vietnamization” in conjunction with “peace with honor.”

Nixon’s “Madman” strategy failed. His ruse of preparing to mine Haiphong Harbor and to set SAC B-52 bomber “readiness” exercises and  6th Fleet maneuvers failed to get Moscow sufficiently worried about what we were up to. It was not until 1972 when Nixon authorized Operation Linebacker II, unleashing B-52 bombers over Hanoi, that they decided to sign a peace treaty.

That’s how Nixon  wound up having  his “decent interval” to disengage from the Vietnam War and claim “peace with honor.”

—James P. Coan

Proud to Be edited by Susan Swartwout

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I wish I was a little bird

So I could fly away;

I’d go to all the far off places

Where my daddy has to stay.

—Ashley Williams

The “far off places” in this anthology are battlefields from Sharpsburg, Maryland, to Kanduhar, Afghanistan, and many American wars in between. Stories and photographs from veterans are collected in the fourth volume of Proud To Be: Writing by American Warriors (Missouri Humanities Council/Southeast Missouri State University Press, 270  pp., $15, paper) edited by Susan Swartwout, who worked on the previous three volumes.

Swarthout selected the short fiction, poetry, interviews, essays, and photography with the help of a six-person panel of judges. “The War Within” is the only screenplay in the volume. It succinctly and cleverly presents a cast of character in two versions, one a proud Marine and one dealing with PTSD.

PTSD is also covered in an essay by David Chrisinger, who teaches veteran re-integration at the University of Wisconsin. This well-researched essay centers on Marine Brett Foley’s service in Afghanistan, where he witnessed an IED explosion that killed two and wounded several others.

Dealing with the horror two years later, Foley said: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to the fact that at times I wished desperately that I could simply erase parts of my memory so that I could just be normal again.” In addition to counseling and his wife’s support, “what helped Brett’s resilience was talking about his trauma and remembering the good men he served with.”

The essay, “Korea 1951–Marines Don’t Cry,” predates the study of PTSD and describes how trauma can be dealt with on the battlefield. To wit: “I slowly walked out into the woods. Alone, I couldn’t stop the tears. I reached into my holster and took out my .45. Self-pity turned into anger. I lifted the gun, holding it in both hands and aimed at the sky. I shot it over and over. A couple Marines came running out yelling, ‘What’s going on?’ I pulled my cap down over my eyes so they couldn’t see the tears, turned to them and said, ‘Just practicing.'”

The irony of war could almost be the theme of this compilation. One account describes an action in Sicily during World War II in which German soldiers captured a group of American medics despite the fact that red crosses were on their helmets. They were imprisoned because the Germans had heard a rumor that American generals hid howitzers in ambulances.

“Best Revenge” is a stunning piece of short fiction in which a Marine corporal and a staff sergeant meet during the corporal’s last days in Vietnam. The surprise ending made this standout my favorite.

Another must-read is the essay “My Vietnam Nightmare” written by a former Navy Corpsman. He writes: “Terrified, I think this could very likely be the last day of my life. This suicidal waltz is known as ‘doing your duty.'”

The final section of Proud To Be is devoted to poetry. I recommend taking quiet time to read these poems, especially the well-crafted “Dead Man’s Cap” and “The Flight of the Liberty Belle.”

I would be remiss not to mention the photography category. “Remembering Home” and “Iraqi Boy Sitting” are two I particularly enjoyed.

Finally, here is the poem “Proctors” by Kanesha Washington:

You signed your names on the front lines of war

Susan Swartwout

Susan Swartwout

You packed your duffle bags with manhood
Many only teenagers yet you knew what you were fighting for.
while putting away your adolescence
You left behind family, children and even friends
to become a protector of our nation
Adorned in a uniform of freedom and pride
you marched with bravery on the battlefield of uncertainty
By land, ship, or sea
you proudly and selflessly carried out your duty
You are the stars represented on our flag
America salutes you

for your future, present and especially your past

—Curt Nelson

Not Forgotten by Gregory Hall

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Gregory Hall’s father served as a paratrooper in the U. S. Army Airborne division that liberated the Japanese Internment Camp at Los Banos in the Philippines where more than 2,000 American, Australian, and British civilians were being held.

Not Forgotten (Trafford, 504 pp., $37.25, hardcover; $31, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel about this event—“a compilation of a number of years of research and the cooperation of numerous individuals who deserve recognition,” Hall, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells us.

The author is a former Army 82nd Airborne paratrooper.  Not Forgotten “has been a work of passion” for him. The desire to write it, he says, goes back to 1976 when he was stationed at Fort Bragg. His father, like many World War II veterans, rarely talked about the war. Hall took advantage of being in an airborne division and began researching his father’s unit. The day that the prisoners were rescued was February 23, 1945, the same day the American flag was raised on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima by the U. S. Marines.

This enthralling novel carefully introduces the reader to the characters we’ll get to know much better in the next few hundred pages. These people come alive on the page. Most are clueless that war with Japan is a few days away and that they will be heavily involved in it. The author well communicates the security and entitlement of Americans in the Philippines—the women caught up in the excitement of shopping for dresses, for example, just a short time before the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor—and then the Philippines.

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Gregory Hall 

I’ve read many accounts of how the Japanese treated prisoners of war during World War II. This novel does a good job with that. There are many beheadings and other unnecessary acts of cruelty by the Japanese. The novel also shows that all the Allied prisoners were not ennobled by being captives. There was some compassion and kindness along with much cruelty on their part, too.

The book leads up to the liberation of the camp, done in just the nick of time, as the Japanese were preparing a site for a mass grave for the prisoners. The heroic rescue is well-portrayed and exciting. There is a History Channel documentary on the liberation. I hope to get to see it one day. Gregory Hall was much involved in preparing that doc, so I am certain it is well worth seeing.

I enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to those interested in a historical depiction of the cruelty of war, leavened with some small kindness.

The author’s website is www.notfogottennovel.com

—David Willson

Snapshots from the Edge of a War by John Buquoi

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John Buquoi was trained as a Vietnamese linguist at the Army Language School in Monterey, California, and then assigned to the Army Security Agency’s 3rd Radio Research Unit, a military branch of the National Security Agency in Saigon and its Detachment J in Phu Bai in Vietnam from 1963-65.  After separation from the Army he returned to Vietnam where he worked as a civilian for defense contractors for more than five years. During that time Buquoi traveled to virtually every province in South Vietnam.

Snapshots from the Edge of a War (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $9.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a book of poems, written fifty years later—or, as Buquoi puts it: “This is a work of fiction.”  The back cover has a photograph of the author in the aftermath of the Brinks Hotel bombing in Saigon on Christmas Eve 1964. The photo and the poems demonstrate strongly that John Buquoi was a man who was there, “in the shit.”

The back cover blurb says it well: “The poems in this volume are, after fifty years, echoes of that experience in a series of reflective narrative vignettes which one critic has called, ‘first rate in every respect, resonating on all levels—emotional, personal, factual, historical, literary.'”

Buquoi’s six-page story poem, “The gifts of Christmas,” is the best piece of any kind I’ve read on the bombing of the Brinks Hotel, which served as a Bachelor Officers Quarters in downtown Saigon. Buquoi writes of “Mr. Xuan, the sapper santa” who  sat across the street and sipped coffee after the bombing, “Satisfied as he watched his plastique work explode.”  His 200-pound car bomb killed two and wounded more than 200 Vietnamese and Americans, civilian and military alike.

This story poem brings home the reality of a war that could kill you anywhere. You didn’t have to be “out in the shit.”  The shit could come to you—anytime, even on Christmas Eve.

This book also contains one of the best things written on Gen. William Westmoreland, whom Buquoi calls by his nickname, “Westy.” He was the general who seemed designed for photo ops and little else. He showed up after things calmed down for the heroic pictures that appear in most books and articles about him. Certainly the Westy I knew was a photo op general.

“Get a haircut,” he once told me.  I felt like asking, “Why?” since nobody was taking my picture.  I just said, “Yes, sir.”

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John Buquoi (in steel pot, center right) outside Saigon in 1963

The language of this poetry seems written to be read aloud, what this poet calls a “talkie poem.”  We encounter Terry Southern, Jack Kerouac, “john fucking waynes without no brains,” Wile e. Coyote, Bob Dylan, and in person, Raymond Burr, who shows up to buoy up the troops by out-drinking all of them.

I loved every page of this book of poems and highly recommend it to everyone not just to poetry fans.

—David Willson