Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN by Ric Murphy

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Ric Murphy’s Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN: First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier  (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017, 220 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells the story of a poor African American boy who grew up in segregated America and through sheer determination and incisive decision-making advanced to the highest ranks of the United States Navy.

Murphy is an award-winning author and an avid genealogist and historian who specializes in African American history. Born in Boston into a family with lineage dating to the earliest colonial period in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia, he lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN presents the powerful story of Larry Chambers’s climb to the top, as well as the sociopolitical and global and military history surrounding his life. Reading this book raised my level of admiration, respect, and gratitude for Adm. Chambers, his family, his mentors, and for the author for his impeccable book.

Thanks to Adm. Chambers’s widowed mother and his grandparents, his school administrators, teachers and his other role models, he received a solid and formidable foundation and went on to live his life and make decisions supported entirely by that foundation.

More than once during his military career, Adm. Chambers realized that a decision—while being the correct one—might result in his court-martial. But these instances resulted instead in commendations and promotions.  Adm. Chambers’s dedication to his core beliefs and his devotion to protecting his men and assets far outweighed his desires to succeed.

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Ric Murphy

The results of these decisive actions are legendary and a part of U.S. Navy history. His crowning achievement after being the first African American to captain a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, was his stellar, heroic participation in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon during the final hours of the Vietnam War.

Whether you’re into military, global, or social history—or you just enjoy a very good read—I highly recommend Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN be placed high on your reading bucket list.

The author’s website is ricmurphy.com/

— Bob Wartman

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Vietnam 365 by Karen Angelucci

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In Vietnam 365: Our Tour Through Hell (Acclaim Press, 224 pp., $26.95, hardcover) Karen Angelucci presents a complex narrative based on the Vietnam War tour of former Army Spec 5 David J. McCormack, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. Angelucci identifies his unit as “the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 5th Battalion, 2nd Artillery Automatic Self Weapons group located on Duster Compound, attached to 30th ARVN Rangers and a Navy Seal A-Team of 5th Special Forces.”

Angelucci presents the Vietnam War story of McCormack,  a “greenline” guard and master mechanic. In Vietnam he acquired the sobriquet “Billy the Kid,” by which he became widely known both to allied leaders and—according to the book—to vengeful, high-ranking members of the NVA and VC.

This honorary title was bestowed on him due to his legendary coolness and lethality in several encounters with the enemy during his time in III Corps.

Angelucci also describes McCormack’s repeated confrontations with those who outranked him. She writes that NCOs and officers usually backed down in deference to his incredible courage and in-country experience.

In one chapter he karate punches a sleazy chief warrant officer in the nose, then intentionally runs his Jeep over the guy, breaking his kneecap and smashing his foot. In the next chapter McCormack punches a Long Binh Hospital nurse in the chest, knocking her to the floor.

Despite these and other assaults and threats of time in Leavenworth or worse, McCormack always escaped serious punishment. Angelucci writes that he even outsmarted the CIA when agents sent him on a suicidal decoy mission.

She says he also worked with a Vietnamese spy in Cu Chi who informed him of enemy movements in the area. When the spy was captured by the enemy, she identified him to her torturers.

Before leaving for The World, McCormack was debriefed by a friendly master sergeant, who told him: “Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi had [sic] each put up five hundred dollars for your young ass dead or alive. Go home and crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after you. There, no doubt, will be a Soviet Special Forces operative inserted into the U.S. to kill you.”

Readers might raise an eyebrow at some of these tales, but still find the narrative rings true in several of its specifics, primarily those concerning military vehicles and weaponry.

McCormack, who became an auto mechanics instructor in a technical college after serving in Vietnam, offers intricate details of his work as an in-country mechanic. For example:

“So I thought, ‘These military vehicles are literally ‘de-tuned.’ I took string and measured around the crankshaft pulley. I used a tape measure and calculated eighteen degrees before top dead center. That was the factor specification for the ’61 Corvette fuel injection that was what I used on my ’57 Chevy I called the ‘Grey Ghost’; it ran best changing gears at full power shift at 7,200 revolutions back on the street.”

In another passage, he and a fellow Southerner discuss at length and with sentimentality the specifications of their cars back home. It is a believable and poignant moment of escape from the grinding craziness of the war into which these “good old boys” have both been thrust.

McCormack seems to have an unusual story to tell. Perhaps a direct autobiography or a better-documented account would have been more effective in telling it.

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Karen Angelucci

The book includes McCormack’s own in-country photographs and several excellent photos taken by Robert W. Griffin during the war.

One final note: Angelucci quotes McCormack who quotes an Army dog handler who claims he would put black gunpowder into the raw meat of  his “German Shepard hunting dogs.” Then, according to the handler, the dogs, now super-aggressive and with a taste for human flesh, would be set loose to slaughter the enemy.

During this period this reviewer served in III Corps with a unit that had guard dog handlers. He never heard of this bizarre practice.

Is this another in a long and still-growing list of Vietnam War myths?

—Paul Kaser

Hotel Constellation by David L. Haase

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David L. Haase is a former journalist who got his start in the business in Vietnam covering the war. After getting tossed out of Vietnam, he went to Laos and spent many months there struggling to learn how to write about war and how to deal with the often extreme discomfort that westerners encounter in hot, humid Southeast Asia.

Much space is devoted in his memoir, Hotel Constellation: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos (C. Lawrence, 280 pp. $16.99, paper; Kindle, $6.99), exploring the serious problems h encountered in Laos. That includes crotch rot, hemorrhoids, and other afflictions brought on by bad water and bad food.

Haase was very young when he arrived in Southeast Asia, twenty. His 4-F draft status prevented him from having the opportunity that about 2.8 million other young Americans had serving in South Vietnam in an American military uniform.

This memoir is engaging and well-written and more honest than Haase had to be about how callow and inexperienced he was with just about everything. He uses a journal he kept at the time and the long letters home he wrote to loved ones to summon up the small details of his life in Laos that inform his memoir and make it accessible and intimate.

I found it fascinating to be with him through his diary entries as he witnessed the destruction of the small, landlocked country of Laos as the CIA used it as the place to stage its so-called “secret” war.

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Haase

As the book’s blurb says, we watch a “young innocent abroad growing older and cynical.”

Haase evokes the special atmosphere of the Hotel Constellation, the place everyone in Laos eventually stumbled through looking for whatever it was that brought them far away from home to this tiny country that was at the center of the biggest war going.

The author’s website davidlhaase.com

—David Willson

The Ashes of War By MH Murphy

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M H Murphy’s The Ashes of War: The Plight of the Vietnamese People at the End and after the Viet Nam War (CreateSpace, 434 pp. $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) deals with what happened to—as the book’s subtitle notes—Vietnamese people after the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. The author served with the U.S. Marines in Vietnam in 1965-66.

Murphy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, became interested in the South Vietnamese refugees when he wrote an introductory guide for people who had relocated from Vietnam to the Chicago area. He did years doing an extensive amount of research in compiling The Ashes of War.

In the book, Murphy alternates between telling the stories of two South Vietnamese refugees. One is a former Saigon police officer who escaped by boat. It was surprising to learn that there were 2.5 million refugees who fled Vietnam, causing a humanitarian crisis and coining the term “boat people.” The stories of boats capsizing, pirates attacking, and starvation and suicide among the refugees were very powerful.

The second thread tells of a tea-shop owner who chose to stay in Vietnam after the communist takeover. The new regime closed his family business and sent the owner to a reeducation camp. Murphy writes that more than 300,000 people were sent to these camps. Conditions were terrible and reminded me of stories of concentration camps during World War II.

The tea-shop owner was released after a year when his family bribed the guards. He did find love among the hardships and ended up getting married before fleeing.

I wish the author would have written briefly about where the two main men ended up. Was it Chicago? Did they ever go back to Vietnam? Were they reunited with their families?

That said, I highly recommend this book.

—Mark S. Miller

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

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Kristin Hannah has published a long list of well-received, best-selling novels, most with strong female characters. Her latest, The Great Alone (St. Martin’s Press, 448 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is no exception. Two people, a mother and daughter, are at the center of the novel. They revolve around the main male character, who is one of the most dangerous and seriously damaged Vietnam veterans in modern popular American fiction.

He beats his wife; he beats his lovely, thirteen-year-old daughter. These were hard scenes to read for this Vietnam veteran, damaged to an extent by my time in the military and having been raised by a Marine Corps veteran of Iwo Jima.

The Allbright family becomes convinced—or at least Ernt, the damaged veteran, does—that moving to Alaska will be the way for him to deal with his demons. Or to leave them behind in an America that he no longer wants to be a part of—and that seems to want no part of him.

It’s said repeatedly in the novel that Vietnam changed Ernt or that it broke him. He needs to be fixed, but there is no program set up to fix him. He refuses to deal with the VA, even to try to get a disability check. He’s too proud and haughty for that. He received medals during his tour in Vietnam, but Hannah makes little of that.

Hippies and peace freaks have taken over America and Ernt is characterized as a “baby killer.”  In a speech early in the novel, he says:  “I just want… more, I guess. Not a job. A life. I want to walk down the street and not have to worry about being called a baby-killer.  I want…” Hannah does not give Ernt the ability to state what he wants or needs, except that he is convinced that Alaska will be the place for him to have freedom and peace of mind.

The Allbright family arrives in Alaska completely unprepared for coping with the situation they find themselves in, unskilled in all the ways they need to survive. They find danger at every turn: bears; cold, deep icy rivers; not much food; and even less money.

People try hard to help them, but Ernt is not the sort who does well with getting help, nor with asking for help. His way of dealing with frustration is to anoint the problem with alcohol. He self-medicates at the slightest provocation.

His wife Leni and daughter Cora begin to wonder if they will survive in Alaska with Ernt as part of their family. They struggle for years, but eventually choose an extreme solution to their problem.

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Kristin Hannah

I found the novel engrossing and in some parts so tense that I had to close the book and catch my breath before continuing to read. Ernt is a realistically drawn Vietnam War veteran, one very much like several I have known well.

He is a veteran I avoided becoming, but if my circumstances had been different during my tour, I could imagine becoming that sort of veteran. Even having worked a rear-echelon job failed to prepare me to re-enter America effortlessly and with any kind of grace or equanimity.

Read this book and see if you recognize yourself or a friend in the character of Ernt. It could very well be the case.

The author’s website is kristinhannah.com

—David Willson

Long Journeys Home by Michael D. Gambone

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Michael D. Gambone proposes that Americans should raise the status of Korean and Vietnam War veterans to the legendary height of those who fought in World War II. He makes that case in his latest book, Long Journeys Home: American Veterans of World War II, Korea, & Vietnam (Texas A&M University, 275 pp. $45.00, hardcover; $45.00, Kindle).

Gambone examines those who played a role in the three wars from multiple angles: class, race, gender, age, education, and region. Much of what he says is not new, but Gambone uses this information—such as how draftees were selected, the composition of forces, and post-war economic trends—to make his points persuasively.

He delves into the post-war lives of the three groups of veterans to show that Vietnam War veterans were not monsters as identified by many in Hollywood and the news media during that era. He also makes a case for boosting public appreciation for veterans of the so-called “forgotten war” in Korea.

 

Gambone, a history professor at Kutztown University, points out that many  novels, television shows, and movies laid the groundwork for countless authors, journalists, and film directors to build World War II veterans into the “Greatest Generation,” which won a “good war.” He notes, though, that those troops did not fight any harder, nor did not die in greater agony, than other combatants did throughout modern history. Nevertheless, the idea that World War II warriors saved the entire world from dictatorship placed a halo effect on them.

The public disliked and basically ignored the Korea War because it too soon renewed the fight against the Asian hordes, he suggests. In other words, public emotions overrode facts concerning combat to the detriment of American veterans from the wars in Vietnam and Korea.

Gambone strives to separate myth from fact and thereby reduce the impact of the nature of a war on the public’s perception of the value of its veterans. He contends that “armies cannot escape the societies from which they are drawn,” but he asks the public to accept veterans who deviated from the norm in crisis—rather than to condemn them.

Overall, Gambone shows that the quality of life beyond the battlefield deteriorated from World War II to Vietnam. Upon returning home, Vietnam War veterans experienced increasing difficulties with mental problems, job placement, racial issues, and educational opportunities.

At the same time, veterans from the three wars shared a commonality about the “basic nature of military service,” according to Gambone. To prove this point, he cites evidence that supports consistencies in patriotism, dealing with trauma, and assimilation into civilian life, along with much more.

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Michael Gambone

Gambone, the author of The Greatest Generation Comes Home: The Veteran in American Society (20015), served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1985-88. He spent 2006 in Iraq as an Army contractor.

I would have liked to see Gambone compare the veterans he writes about in Long Journeys Home to veterans from today’s all-volunteer military forces.

When describing the post-World War II period, Gambone says, “There was no shared burden to link the public with [the nation’s] military effort. Education, income, and race became important cleavage points with respect to service, sacrifice, and recognition.”

To which I say: “That’s still America today. Tell us how to change it.”

—Henry Zeybel