Inheriting the War edited by Laren McClung

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Laren McClung is a poet and the author of a book of poetry,  Between Here and Monkey Mountain  (2012) Her father served a 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with the 173rd Airborne.

In Inheriting the Wind: Poetry and Prose by Descendants of Vietnam Veterans and Refugees (Norton, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) McClung has included the work of a fair and balanced assortment of forty-four veterans’ descendants. The list of familiar and non-familiar Vietnam War veteran writers and poets’ surnames includes Lily Katherine Bowen, Linh Dinh, Heinz Insu Fenkle, Adam Karlin, Elmo Keep, Ada Limon, Bich Minh Nguyen, Andrew X. Pham, Monica Sok, and Hanh Nguyen Willband.

The book—with a Foreward by the acclaimed poet (and Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa—is arranged alphabetically by author’s last name. McClung gives a brief bio at the beginning of each section, providing just the right amount of information iabout the authors and translators. McClung does a commendable job digging up new and different writers representing all the groups that made the Vietnam War possible by their participation and those who now have a life of suffering due to that war.

We’re told early in the introduction that the United States sprayed 5.5 million acres of land in Vietnam with Agent Orange. This toxin sickened both Western troops and Vietnamese, and is a theme throughout the book in poems and stories.

Hoa Nguyen, for example, writing after Emily Dickenson in “Agent Orange Poem”:

 

What justice foreigns for a sovereign

We doom in nation rooms

Recommend & lend resembling fragrant

Chinaberry spring

Here we have high flowers  a lilac in the nose

“The Zeroes—taught us—Phosphorus”

and so stripped the leaves to none

Thanks to Hoa Nguyen for this fine poem. The quality of work in this book is always high and always thought provoking, as this poem was to me.

This isn’t a book to read a bedtime.  At least it wasn’t for me. I found it seriously disturbing on almost every page.

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Laren McClung

My favorite prose piece is “The Gangsta We Are All Looking For” by Le Thi Diem Thuy. My favorite sentence in the essay is: “When we moved in, we had to sign a form promising not to put fish bones in the garbage disposal.”

I laughed, out loud, when I read that sentence.

The author’s family had moved into old Navy housing in Linda Vista, California. I thought about the tales the garbage disposal could tell if it could talk. I guess it’s just as well it can’t.

A huge amount of work went into the success of this book, and I thank Laren McClung for it.

—David Willson

 

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The Rest Is Small Potatoes by James Gannone

James Gannone does not speak at length about his 1966-67 tour of duty with the motor transport company of the Third Battalion of the Third Marine Regiment at Dong Ha in Vietnam in his autobiography, The Rest Is Small Potatoes (SeaGrove, 230 pp. $15, paper; $8.99, Kindle). “My tour in Vietnam was, for the most part, unremarkable,” he says. “I never got a scratch.”

Of course, located only six miles south of the DMZ, Dong Ha took its share of rocket and mortar rounds. But, Gannone says, “I was in the rear with the gear and the beer—although beer was hard to come by.”

Gannone says he “didn’t go to Vietnam with any kind of moral purpose or agenda. I just wanted to see if I was tough enough to be a Marine and they turned me out.” A two-year enlistee, he left the Corps at age twenty after celebrating two birthdays in Vietnam.

Although he downplays his war experiences, Gannone tells all about USMC basic and infantry training. He sets the tone for basic by describing his drill instructor in one sentence: “This was man as I had never seen him before.”

DIs persuaded Gannone’s platoon “to agree to being trained in the old school fashion, as opposed to by the book,” he says. Old school meant hands-on training: punches, slaps, or other physical forms of punishment.  In defense of the cruel spirit of it all, Gannone says, “I don’t recall anyone getting roughed up by drill instructors unless that recruit had made a mistake.” He then adds, “It didn’t have to be a big mistake.”

Gannone next completed infantry training, which he describes as “very different from Parris Island, even fun at times.”

Only the first quarter of his book is devoted to military days. Nevertheless, Gannone’s account of training at Parris Island and Camp Lejeune is worth the price of the book.

For him, life beyond the Marine Corps focused on flying airplanes. He describes learning to fly as humbling and fright-inducing. To build experience and earn a living when he first started flying, Gannone mainly worked for Flight Express, which pilots called Fright Express because it operated with old, poorly maintained, and overloaded aircraft flown on instruments mostly at night.

In the course of his progress, he got tripped up by drugs in several ways. His aviation career included agricultural work in the form of crop spraying (dusting) and fighting forest fires, as well as flying a Sabreliner for the President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2002-06.

Interspersed with flying, Gannone married Chris, who earned a law degree. They had a son and a daughter; owned and ran a restaurant; and single handedly built a twenty-three-hundred-plus-square-foot house over ten years.

His enthusiasm for whatever he does infuses his life story with interesting insights.

The book includes more than a hundred photographs assembled in a forty-three-page chronological scrapbook: Parris Island, Vietnam, Family, Planes, and Africa.

Gannone is a self-made man and The Rest Is Small Potatoes proves it.

By the way, the book’s title hinges on his belief that family is all that matters to him.

—Henry Zeybel

Proud to be a Marine by C. Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer

Brian Kelly and Ingrid Smyer’s Proud to be a Marine: Stories of Strength and Courage from the Few and the Proud (Sourcebooks, 416 pp. $18.99, paper; $9.99 Kindle) is replete with Marine Corps historical accounts from before the Revolutionary War through today’s struggles in the Middle East. Some stories are well-known; many are not.

Kelly—a former editor of Military History magazine who teaches newswriting at the University of Virginia, and his wife Smyer, a free-lance journalist—are superior storytellers. Their writing is further enhanced by their dogged, in-depth research and their attention to detail. They also are the authors of the Best Little Stories series of history-based books.

Proud to be a Marine contains nearly eighty well-indexed short essays about Marines and the Marine Corps, arranged mainly in chronological order. It can be read leisurely, one story at a sitting, but I couldn’t put it down and read the book in record time.

To help new recruits build esprit de corps and self-confidence Marine Corps boot camp includes the mandatory study of USMC history. This training, plus a lifelong attachment to “Our Corps,” causes most Marines to believe we have a good handle on Marine Corps history. In this book, you are sure to expand your knowledge of that history.

Here are a few examples:

* Two Marine Corps officers who had fought side by side storming the Halls of Montezuma in 1847 found themselves fighting against one another in 1861 at the Battle of Bull Run.

* Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, a veteran of World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars, was a true visionary and possibly the most important officer in the history of the Marine Corps.

* Capt. Michael Capraro, Information Officer for the 1st Marine Division in Korea, proved the doctrine that “All Marines are, first and foremost, 0311 Riflemen.”

* Canadian-born Capt. Bill Dabney, a Vietnam War infantry officer, married the daughter of the legendary Gen. Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller (in photo below). How intimidating would that be, stopping by Chesty’s house to pick up his daughter for a date?

* Sgt. Dakota Meyer received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in Afghanistan. In this book we learn how he handled his call from the White House.

The final chapter, “And Never to be Forgotten,” contains abbreviated biographical sketches of twelve famous (and infamous) Marines, including John A. Lejeune, John H. Glenn, and even Lee Harvey Oswald.

Proud to be a Marine is an easy, enjoyable, and educational read for Old Salts and non-Marines alike.

—Bob Wartman

Going Home by Scott E. Raymond

Scott E. Raymond served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Constellation during two WESTPAC/Vietnam War combat cruises in 1972 and 1973. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy in 1977.

Going Home: One Sailor’s Inner Search during the Turbulent Early 1970’ (Wise Publications, 224 pp., $14, paper) is a father/son novel. The main character, Ben Bradford, is a twenty-two year old struggling with a fraught relationship with his father, a decorated World War II veteran. This relationship is examined against the international backdrop of the American political scandal we know now as Watergate.

As the back cover blurb claims, the book has a powerful message dealing with “faith, family, comradeship, and love.” There also are elements of the supernatural, as Ben serves on the same ship that his father intersected with during World War II.

Ben has dreams and visions that had no rational explanation that I could see. Those dreams and visions move him closer to being the son his father wants him to be. Ben falls in love with a girl of a different race, which is a test for a conservative Republican family, but she conveniently falls ill, so the final test is evaded.

With his Filipino girlfriend out of the picture, Ben is free to focus on his Navy life— and his life after the Navy.

If you are curious about life on an aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War, this novel has the wealth of details that will satisfy that curiosity. The novel avoids most of the clichés that afflict Vietnam War novels like fleas on dogs. However, one of Ben’s fraternity brothers, Larry, does ask him, “So you’re heading back overseas to kill more babies?”

Scott Raymond

Somebody, Ben tells Larry, “has to do the dirty work to protect people like you who stay home and use their college draft deferments while the war rages on.”

That sums up the politics of this Navy novel.

I enjoyed reading Going Home and highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Vietnam War era U.S. Navy.

To order, go to the author’s website,  scotteraymond.com

—David Willson

Red Stick Two by Kenneth Kirkeby

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U.S. Marine Corps veteran Kenneth Kirkeby’s novel, Red Stick One, received got a ton of positive reviews, including one from this reviewer. So I was eager to read a second Red Stick novel, Red Stick Two (Sharp Printing, 307 pp., $15.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle). I was not disappointed, and wound up agreeing with cover blurb from Kirkus Reviews: “Kirkeby’s talent for riveting suspense shifts into high gear.”

Red Stick Two is set twelve years after Red Stick One. The main character, Virgil Clary, has settled down on his Wyoming ranch with his wife Michelle and their two children. He’s been struggling to make a go of it, so when a lucrative offer comes his way from his former intelligence chief, Virgil is ripe to accept. He’ll also be serving his country.  That’s a plus for Virgil, a true-blue patriot.

There are risks involved. He must venture to South America, to Peru, a country on the brink of civil war, where he and his partner, Agent Richard Creole, will have to rescue a kidnapped American engineer held captive by a group of violent Maoists. Do I need to warn you that things might not go smoothly?

In fact, things go very wrong, as they often do in international political thrillers, and the action shifts into high gear. Red Stick Two more than held my attention, with both the nonstop action and the raft of details that kept my mind full engaged.

Virgil is a warm, engaging character who has been away from the game for many years, but who has stayed in shape by being a hands-on rancher at a high altitude, a big help in mountainous Peru. Readers will root for Virgil and their suspension of disbelief will not be too seriously tested.

I’m already eager for the next novel in the Red Stick series. Bring it on!

—David Willson

Racing Back to Vietnam by John Pendergrass

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If you want to know about flying in F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and competing in triathlons years later, you must read John Pendergrass’s Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace (Hatherleigh, 256 pp. $22, hardcover; $7.99, Kindle).

In the book, former U.S.A.F. flight surgeon John Pendergrass writes about his Vietnam War tour of duty with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in 1971-72. Much of what he relates has been well reported. However, when a writer presents the drama of war from a highly individualized perspective as Pendergrass does, that type of storytelling does not grow old.

Pendergrass’s prose is easy to read. He nicely turns many a phrase, including “checking out a slow learner in a fast mover.” Honesty is his forte. When he does something beyond the ordinary, Pendergrass explains why he did it, especially if it benefits him. He is free of pretense and rich in enthusiasm.

Like most doctors with whom he served, John Pendergrass did not want to go to Vietnam, but after he got there, he voluntarily flew fifty-four missions over Laos, Cambodia, and both South and North Vietnam in the back seat of the F-4 Phantom. He recalls the post-mission feeling of being “more alive than when I took off, anxious to go again.” At the same time, the fear he experienced is palpable.

His squadron’s basic assignment was to interdict trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He describes virtually every step of preparing for and executing flights that dropped lots of bombs.

He also devotes chapters to life as a prisoner of war and to complications involved with being shot down and rescued, situations that he luckily avoided. On his final mission at the battle for An Loc, Pendergrass  witnessed events that altered his perspective of the war.

He includes observations about air power that I had not read before, but with which I concur. His conclusions ended his combat life on a down note.

Pendergrass’s account of his war makes up only half of this memoir. In 2016 he returned to Da Nang at the age of seventy and participated in an Ironman Triathlon. He did it partially to satisfy “a mixture of nostalgia and reflection,” Pendergrass, an eye surgeon in Mississippi, says.

The triathlon took only one morning. He then drove to Laos with a guide to exolore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He worked his way to Hanoi and shuffled through Uncle Ho’s tomb. Next, he visited battlefields in the South and ended up in Saigon.

Having experienced my share of flying in the Vietnam War, I found Pendergrass’ peacetime travel to be the most enlightening part of the book. I learned a lot I would not have on my own. Pendergrass talked to everyone who gave him time. As a result, he offers insights about today’s Vietnamese and their lifestyles. Farmers work unobstructed, except for uncovering unexploded ordnance. The tourist trade flourishes and most people have forgotten the American War.

Pendergrass speaks of the “absurdity of war,” and in the same breath he recalls combat as “the great adventure of [his] life.” This paradox reminds me of returning to the scene of an old crime, intrigued by questions that should have been resolved half a lifetime earlier. Seeking justification for what one did in war is unnecessary. No guilt should be associated with adrenaline rushes related to acts a person performed practically in childhood.

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Recently I reviewed  another flight surgeon’s account of the war, Sharkbait by Guy Clark. He flew eighty-six combat strike missions in back seats of Phantoms.

His six-hundred-plus-page memoir offers readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about Vietnam War Phantom and Air Force operations.

Both Clark and Pendergrass extol the skill and courage of pilots with whom they faced death.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Hal Moore on Leadership by Mike Guardia

Mike Guardia’s Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned (CreateSpace/Magnum Books, 168 pp., $14.95, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is part biography and part a recounting of leadership lessons developed over a lifetime by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. The late Gen. Moore is best known for his stellar leadership at the pivotal Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in 1965, and for the epic book he and Galloway wrote about it, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. In that widely praised book—and in Moore and Galloway’s We Are Soldiers Still—many of the Moore’s leadership points are explored.

Guardia begins with a narrative of the fight at Landing Zone X-ray at the Ia Drang. He then introduces the reader to Hal Moore, concentrating on the principles of the man and the leadership traits he developed during more than thirty years as a military leader.

Over time, Moore crystalized his philosophy of leadership into four main principles.

First: Three strikes and you are not out.

Second: There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor, and after that there is one more thing.

Third: When nothing is wrong, there is nothing wrong—except there is nothing wrong. That is when a leader has to be the most alert

Last: Trust your instincts.

Guardia illustrates each of the principles with real-life examples. Perhaps none of them is more touching than the story of Rick Rescorla, one of Moore’s platoon leaders in Vietnam, and one of the heroes of the September 11 attacks in New York City.

Throughout the biographical narrative, Guardia intersperses the leadership points and attributes Moore developed over a lifetime of service and later in his work in the business world. In addition to a generous collection of photographs, Guardia includes several of Moore’s speeches to the business and professional sports communities he often advised.

The book reveals the man and the circumstances that helped him develop his principles. It also  touches on the role Moore’s faith played in developing his character. One of the more revealing stories Guardia tells is that of Hal Moore’s courtship and subsequent marriage to Julia Compton, the daughter of a professional artilleryman.

 

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Then Lt. Col. Hal Moore at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley.  

The book is a profile of the man and his development into the dynamic leader he was. Moore’s leadership points are well placed amid the biographical details.

This is a good book, a blueprint for leaders of all sorts, military as well as business.

The author’s website is mikeguardia.com

—Bud Alley

Editor’s note: VVA member Bud Alley served under Hal Moore in HHC of the 2/7 in the 1st First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66. He was a close friend of Rick Rescorla. Both men, he says, “were dynamic leaders of the highest magnitude.”