When We Wore the Uniform edited by Barry Hugh Yeakle

 

10917801_370410826493601_5675899735985768310_oFor years, a bunch of former Marines calling themselves the Leatherneck Coffee Club sat down together in Northern Indiana, drank coffee, and swapped stories about their active duty days. One guy kept insisting on putting the stories together in a book and sharing them with the rest of the world. Another guy asked around and got help from writing professionals. That led to finding support from the Indiana Humanities and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

That effort created a printed book rather than one written in crayon, according to Barry Hugh Yeakle who edited When We Wore the Uniform: The Collected Stories of the Leatherneck Coffee Club (Leatherneck Coffee Club of Northern Indiana, 188 pp.). The book spans the years 1950-2001.  Marines of different ages, ranks, and specialties talk about their experiences in training, in garrison, at sea, and overseas. A a few reflect on it all.

The book contains about a hundred stories. Barry Yeakle, Monte Hoover, John Purcell, Ron Stefanko, Sr., and Carl Johnson III contribute multiple times.

The storytellers are veterans with a strong sense of pride in the Marine Corps, but who also find humor in its flaws. Their ambivalent feelings about first sergeants provide images that nicely fill the traditional mold. And beating-the-system stands out as a favorite endeavor. The section titled “It Happened Overseas” contains stories about the Vietnam War.

The accounts of combat are recollected with little embellishment. Facts pertaining to life-or-death situations are told indirectly. For example, the casualty rate is described as follows: “Attrition was so bad that you might be a rifleman one day, the fire team leader the next, and a squus_marine_corps_mugad leader by the end of the week.”

“We were dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and furious at the enemy” summarizes a day that ended with a unit lost and outnumbered. The straightforward and unpretentious style of the former Marines makes it easy to find commonality with them.

Books like this are enlightening because a reader is privy to a what amounts to a bitch session in which participants are no longer under anyone’s jurisdiction. No holds are barred. Yet reflections made during the years since the events occurred temper complaints and things past are seen more accurately.

The book’s gem of a glossary of “naval lingo” provided a few definitions that made me laugh out loud.  The highly distinctive art style of Claudia Viscarra illustrates many of the stories.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Box by Lynne Lorine Ludwick

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The Box: A Memoir (Lockwood and Ludwick, 182 pp., $10, paper) by Lynne Lorine Ludwick is a tribute to the author’s uncle who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968. Ludwick looked up to her “Uncle Eddy” Schultz, who was three years younger, as a friend, playmate, and schoolmate. He was “more like a brother,” she writes. She idolized him as “the good cowboy. The one who saves the day.”

Along with recalling happy memories of growing up with Eddy in California, Ludwick also describes the life of an unidentified Vietnamese man born at the same time as her uncle. The difference in the two men’s lives from birth until their confrontation on a battlefield were as opposite as peace and war. Eddy Schultz grew up in idyllic farming surroundings. His counterpart endured the turmoil leading to Vietnam freeing itself from French colonial control. At the age of fourteen, he joined the Viet Cong.

Ludwick’s writing about the Vietnam War, particularly antiwar protests, is different than anything I have read on the topic. Her prose reflects undercurrents of innocence, wonderment, anger, compassion, subdued outrage, sorrow, puzzlement, and revelation. At times, her mood takes command of the story, which makes the book both refreshing and enjoyable.

In describing combat action, she relies heavily on recollections of men who served with Eddy and saw him die. She met them at his unit’s reunions. She quotes from letters Eddy wrote to his parents, which do not speak of combat.

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Lynne Lorine Ludwick

Eddy Schultz’s story is sadly familiar. Drafted into the Army in August, he completed basic and infantry AIT arrived in Vietnam in January 1968. Assigned to Dau Tieng, he served as an RTO on search and destroy operations. In response to the 1968 Tet Offensive, his battalion operated at an accelerated pace. The unit engaged in a six-day battle at Tan Hoa in mid-February, and soon after was ambushed at Hoc Mon where Eddy was killed.

The “box” of the title contained a gift indirectly sent to Ludwick from a Viet Cong soldier who had fought in the battle for Hoc Mon—more than forty years earlier. The gift prompted Ludwick to write the book.

—Henry Zeybel

The Emperor of Water Clocks by Yusef Komunyakaa

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The Emperor of Water Clocks (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 128 pp., $23, hardcover; $15, paper), Yusef Komunyakaa’s new book of poetry, contains no mention of the poet’s service in the Vietnam War. The only clue that Komunyakaa is a Vietnam veteran is that his book  of Vietnam War-themed poetry, Dien Cai Dau, is mentioned in the front of this book.

I have a copy of Dien Cai Dau (“dinky dau”) on my shelf. Yusef Komunyakaa signed it for me back in 1990. He dedicates that book to his brother Glenn, “who saw The Nam before I did.”

There are many allusions to war in The Emperor of Water Clocks’ almost sixty poems. But only one long poem confronts and dwells on the Vietnam War, and it’s buried under the title “Torsion.”  The poems in Dien Cai Dau don’t have to be ferreted out—they have straightforward titles such as “Tunnels,” “Sappers,” “Tu Do Street,” and “Saigon Bar Girls.”

nov-banner_03Some of the titles in the book under review are also straightforward. For instance, “The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems” is precisely about that. Even “the haze of Wall Street” gets a mention in this two-page poem. From Pussy Riot to Grand Master Flash, to the Great Ooga-Booga, Komunyakaa ranges through high, low, and popular culture to forge fine poems dealing with all aspects of life.

Komunyakaa has long since moved on from being the Vietnam War poet of Dien Cai Dau. He received a Pulitzer Prize of his book, Neon Vernacular. His fellow Vietnam veterans must resist trying to contain a poet who “soars to dizzying intellectual and poetic strata.”

Yusef Komunyakaa cannot be contained or stunted. He will go where he will, and his journey will always astonish the reader, yet carry him along in the momentum of music that he hears and puts down on the page with language we will never encounter elsewhere.

I highly recommend this latest volume by our finest poet.

—David Willson

Pointman II by Robert L. Owens

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Robert Owens served as a U.S. Army medic in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam and in the Cambodian Invasion with the 9th Infantry Division in 1970. When the 9th was transferred back to the U. S., Doc Owens (a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America) was sent to the First Cav.

His novel, Pointman II: Out of the Darkness (Delizon, 270 pp., $$13, paper; $5.90, Kindle), begins with sappers invading a bar, the White Dragon, detonating satchel charges, and killing a lot of people, including the pregnant girlfriend of the hero, Mike Brooks. After her death, Brooks thinks of nothing but revenge.

The novel contains a bit of the philosophical notion that the U.S. won the war and that we were stabbed in the back by politicians and hippies back home. But that is not the major thrust of this excellent book.

We read about some “damned REMF’s”, too.  But Sgt. Brooks is soon out of the Army and back home in an America he barely recognizes—and which does not recognize him. At this point, Brooks’ real struggles begin. This is mostly a book about a Vietnam veterans’ return to America, but it is enriched by many interlarded chapters about his friend who is still in Vietnam and who is still a point man. Until he is shot in the chest.

Back home, Brooks gets in a bar fight, and ends up in court in front of a judge who sentences him to work in a VA Hospital and Nursing Home. The place stinks of urine. During the chapters about his service in the hospital, I often found myself in tears. Part of the reason is that I’d just been to the VA for treatment for the cancer I have that was caused by frequent exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Also, I took ten dexamethasone, which hit me hard emotionally. That said, the spiritual transformation of Brooks, due to his time spent with Mr. Buckner, a dying World War I veteran, are a powerful message of hope in an otherwise bleak novel.

They are the most powerful and moving chapters in the book. When Mr. Buckner lists all of his close friends who died young after their war, he counsels Brooks to “Remember, your time is coming, too and life goes by too quickly. Make the most of it ‘cause doors open and then they slam shut.”

At the very end, it looks likely that Mike Brooks heard what Mr. Buckner told him. The narrator says that in the VA Hospital the World War I veterans were the most enjoyable to be around. It is a great regret of mine that they were all dead by the time I ended up in a VA Hospital.

When I reviewed Pointman, the first book in this series, I highly recommended it. I recommend this one even more highly. It is a great book about the return to America of a Vietnam veteran and how he is spiritually redeemed through service to others.

—David Willson

 

A Snowman in Hell by Doug Berg

Doug Berg’s A Snowman in Hell: Christmas in Vietnam: A Collection of Photos and Stories, which we reviewed when it came out in 2012, is now available in a second edition (Independent Publishing Corp., 109 pp., $24.90, paper). The book came about after VVA member Doug Berg found a picture he took in Vietnam on Christmas night of 1969 in a bunker at an artillery base at VO Dinh in the Central Highlands.

Berg then went about collecting bits of reminiscences and in his book paired them with photos of scraps of Christmas trees, too much booze, and GI Santas distributing toys to Vietnamese children.

Marine Sgt. Major Daniel Bott playing Santa for Vietnamese children book

 

As our reviewer, Michael Keating, said four years, ago, the book is “a bittersweet tour of wartime Vietnam during Christmas, with big dollops of machismo and melancholy, and one that captures the surprising innocence of young men in danger. The quality of the photos is sometimes good, other times terrible—just like the times.”

Many of the book’s contributors are VVA members. That’s not surprising, since Berg’s most important resource was the Locator column in The VVA Veteran.

To order, go to ipcbooks.storenvy.com/products/654749-a-snowman-in-hell-2nd-edition

—Marc Leepson

 

The Wages of War by Richard Severo and Lewis Milford

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The Wages of War: When  America’s Soldiers Came Home: From Valley Forge to Vietnam, written by Richard Serevo and Lewis Milford and edited by Mark Crispin Miller (Forbidden Bookshelf/Open Road Media, 495 pp., $14.99,  E book), presents an intriguing history of American veterans’ post-war struggles through the Vietnam War. The common theme is how the United States has gone to war without a viable plan to take care of returning veterans

Part one of the book—first published in 1989 and now available in a new electronic edition—introduces Daniel  Shays, whose name is forever attached to a rebellion of veterans turned farmers in the Early Republic petitioning for their pay from a nation without a hard currency or the desire to give enlisted veterans their due. Twenty-five years after the end of the Revolution the most enlisted soldiers attained was land they acquired cashing in certificates at less than face value and little of their overdue wages. Commissioned officers, supported by Gen.Henry Knox and profiteers and bankers, fared much better.

Renewed debates over military pension followed the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. President James Monroe favored veterans benefits, but many politicians opposed them. North Carolina Sen. Nathaniel Macon, for example, described military pensions as “like sweet poison on the taste; it pleases at first, but kills at last.” Congress passed a Continental Army pension bill in 1819 over the objections of some southern Congressmen who looked on pensions as the purview of states rather than the federal government.

The peaceful years between the War of 1812 and the war with Mexico saw the standing army reduced to 6,000. But an unofficial survey found that of fifty-five recruits “nine-tenths enlisted on account of some female difficulty, thirteen changed their names and forty-three were drunk, or partially so, at the time of their enlistment.” The Mexican War ended in 1848 with veterans “given enthusiastic homecomings but little else.”

In 1862 American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote what could also apply to Vietnam War veterans. He predicted that after Union soldiers returned from the Civil War, “the quiet life of the New England villages would be spoiled and coarsened.” Elaborating on Hawthorne’s view, the  authors note: “For in the Civil War, as in Vietnam,  it was the youth of the poor and the working classes who dominated the ranks, constituting the cannon fodder and produced the survivors who would sully the quiet.”

The Civil War national rift was wide as veterans on both sides faced unemployment “amid parades and bounteous praise.” Gen. Grant’s election as president in 1868, coupled with the founding of the first powerful veterans’ organization, the Grand Army of The Republic, helped make the nation aware that veterans were rising as a political force.

Regardless of the politics leading to wars, this well-documented study establishes the fact that veterans’ pensions were always negotiable in post-war years. The late 1800s was a good time for Union veterans and their lawyers. The 1885 veteran pension budget was the government’s largest budget item.  In 1897 Union veterans received some $150 million in pensions and Confederate veterans just over $1 million.

The authors suggest that the cry “Remember the Maine” that led to the war with Spain mirrors the lack of credibility surrounding the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in Vietnam in 1965. One senator likened sending the ship to Cuba to “throwing a match into an oil well for fun.”

The troops arriving in Cuba in 1898 faced an unexpected triple threat : malaria, typhoid, and Yellow Fever. In August troops returning were quarantined in New York. Officials claimed that these diseases were not war-related and rejected many veterans’ claims, blaming their problems on “homesickness.” One War Department general opined: “Soldiers do not like sympathy; Sympathy is for women and children.”

The section on the Philippine War differs from the others. The authors provide vivid descriptions of the guerrilla tactics used against the Americans and the torture (water interrogation) and racism attributed to American soldiers. This seems to be off the subject of veterans’ benefits. Perhaps the authors meant to show the effect these grisly reports would have on veterans’ pensions after the war ended in 1902.

There are four chapters on the aftermath of World War I. They include reports on how African American and Italian veterans were treated in the racist atmosphere of the 1920s. The American Legion, founded in 1919, did little or nothing for black veterans. In 1930, the authors note, “Gold Star Mothers were offered a trip to Europe to see the graves of their sons. The black mothers were to travel separately.”  Most of them declined to go.

 
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The 1989 dust jacket

 

One chapter centers on how six million veterans were dealt with by the corrupt Charles Forbes, the first Veterans Bureau Administrator. Another examines the Bonus Expeditionary Force (Bonus Army) encampment in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1932. President Herbert Hoover had the World War I veterans who were demanding their promised bonuses evicted at gunpoint, vetoed the veteran bonus bill, and lost that year’s election to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

World War II victories in Europe and Japan in 1945 brought 16 million veterans home. Civilians who suffered through the Great Depression feared the return of the soldiers. The section on WWI vets focuses on the Servicemans Readjustment Act, also known as the World War II G.I. Bill, which Roosevelt signed into law over the objections of some economists, politicians, labor unions, and news purveyors.

Before moving on to the Korean War the authors examine women veterans, including testimony from Lynda Van Devanter, the first national womens director of Vietnam Veterans of America. In 1982 Van Devanter told the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that in VA hospitals “qualified gynecologists are not available and old retired physicians are doing the exams instead, in some cases in full view of men passing through the exam area.” As to whether women veterans were “actually military,” Van Devanter told the committee: “Some sixty-five women were held on Corregidor for the duration of WW II.” She asked, “Where are the studies of those women?”

The authors have presented a clear explanation of why “35 years after the end of the Korean War Washington remained without any memorial to honor the memory of those who served in Korea.” They reveal how Korean War troops were suspected of treason while held captive in North Korea. Two chapters,” Scapegoats” and “Scapegoaters,” succinctly describe how the red scare of the early and mid 1950s led to veterans being labeled as weak when they had succumbed to torture and brainwashing in captivity.

The Vietnam War chapters cover the health and political consequences resulting from 12 million gallons of Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants sprayed during the war. The human costs of the Vietnam War are well documented. This study also estimates that the war cost from $140-676 billion, with an additional $233 billion for veterans benefits.

Veterans benefits, especially Agent Orange compensation, are shown to be a budget buster and political football from the end of the war in 1975 through the Reagan Administration in 1988. The authors report that the Centers for Disease Control did not study the Agent Orange issue because accurate records of where troops served and when they were in areas that were defoliated were unavailable. The VA, as virtually all Vietnam veterans know, spent many years resisting responsibility for Agent Orange treatment.

A veteran went to the VA for “an Agent Orange health test,” the authors note, “only to be told by a VA doctor that he was simply trying to get more money from the VA.” A VA official is quoted saying, ” Part of my job is to say no. Absolutely nobody had an Agent Orange disability.”

VVA founder Bobby Muller is quoted, recalling his enlistment: “I remember joining the Marines and standing in my dress whites and hearing ‘The Star -Spangled Banner’ and crying like a baby.”

Muller came home from the war in a wheelchair and fought the VA, legislators on Capitol Hill, and the old-line veterans service organization for years before they started to recognize the physical and psychological problems unique to American veterans of the Vietnam War.

—Curt Nelson

Fighting the Cold War by John R. Galvin

 

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Gen. Galvin’s highly interesting and informative autobiography, Fighting the Cold War: A Soldier’s Memoir (University Press of Kentucky, 517 pp., $39.95), easily could have been titled Winning the Cold War. While serving as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe from 1987-1992, Gen. Galvin proved himself to be a master of high-stakes diplomacy with the Soviet Union’s leaders as they were coming to terms with the breakup of the Warsaw Pact, as well as the Soviet Union itself.

The book’s Foreword by retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus describes the high regard and respect that he and other military professionals and statesmen had for Gen. Galvin and his 40-plus years of service to his country. The son of an Irish bricklayer from a small town outside Boston, Jack Galvin—who died last September—loved working with a plasterer’s trowel alongside his father. One day, much to his dismay, his father forbid him to touch those tools, insisting that Jack attend college.

So he enrolled in college, but soon dropped out to become an artist and laborer. To avoid the draft in 1948, Galvin joined the Massachusetts National Guard and trained as a medic. He was selected for U.S Military Academy, and accepted the challenge, graduating in 1954. What followed were diverse assignments that preceded his service in Vietnam: Ranger training; leading a platoon  in Puerto Rico; serving with the U. S. Army Mission in Colombia, at Fort Campbell with the 101st Airborne Div., and at Fort Knox Armor School; and as an English instructor at West Point. While working on a Ph. D. in English, Galvin opted to forgo that goal to attend Command and Staff College at Leavenworth prior to leaving for Vietnam.

Gen. Galvin’s first of two of tours in the Vietnam War was from 1966-67. He was a major initially assigned to the 1st Brigade, 1st Infantry Div. at Phuoc Vinh as operations officer. Less than two months later, he was replaced because he and the Brigade CO were “not a good combination.” He was transferred to U.S. Army Headquarters in Saigon as a logistics officer.

What could have been a setback to Galvin’s promising military career soon turned around. After much persistence and arm twisting, Galvin wrangled an assignment at the 1st Cavalry Div. headquarters at An Khe, where he worked in the G-3 shop, Division Operations.

His next assignment was at the Pentagon, as the Military Assistant to the  Secretary of the Army. This is where Galvin really came into his own and proved that he had the right stuff to become a general. In 1969, Lt. Col. Galvin started his second tour in Vietnam, again with the 1st Cav. He went on to command the 1st Bn., 8th Cavalry, 1st Brigade  near the Cambodian Border.

From there, Galvin was given increasingly more challenging assignments. He was the commanding general of the 24th Infantry Div. at Ft. Stewart, Georgia. Then he was given command of the VII Corps in Germany, the largest unit in the U. S. Army at the time. He achieved his fourth star and was assigned to Southern Command in the Panama Canal Zone from 1985-87.

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Gen. Galvin when he commanded U.S. and NATO forces in Europe (Galvin family photo)

The zenith of Gen. Galvin’s career came with his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, from 1987-92. He saw the Warsaw Pact dissolve, the Berlin Wall come down, and the Soviet Union’s sphere of domination begin to fragment. Gen. Galvin was the head of NATO, dealing with Mikhail Gorbachev and his high-ranking Russian generals, determined to facilitate that historical transformation without a war breaking out. He was the right general in the right place at the right time.

Upon his retirement, Gen. Galvin became dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He wrote three other books: The Minute Men: The First Fight; Air Assault: The Development of Airmobile Warfare; and Three Men of Boston: Leadership and Conflict at the Start of the American Revolution.

Those who knew Gen. Galvin have described him as a teacher, scholar, diplomat, statesman, and  warrior. He has even been called a true Cold War hero. President George H. W. Bush said: “General Gavin is one of the greatest soldiers this country has ever had.” This reviewer is in total agreement.

—James P. Coan