Blades of Thunder by W. Larry Dandridge

Blades of Thunder: The True Stories of Army Helicopter Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and Door Gunners in Vietnam, Book One (TVV Publishing, 428 pp. $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of love, admiration, and respect for men that author W. Larry Dandridge served with in the Vietnam War.

Initially published Blades of Thunder in 2015, Dandridge updated the book late in 2017 partly to earn money to support Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves families of veterans undergoing treatment at the local VA Medical Center. He also voluntarily fills several advisory roles at the Center. For the retired Army lieutenant colonel, life has no dull moments.

Dandridge is an old-school raconteur who finds interest in personalities as well as events. His stories revolve around friends he made while learning to fly helicopters and then going to Vietnam together. During an assignment with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang in 1968-69, Dandridge flew Hueys.

The book’s opening chapter describes his crash in a helicopter, his severe injuries, and his physical reconstruction. The chapter is a stunning opening for a long series of flying stories about chaotic situations and other adventures.

Amid the war scenes, Dandridge includes an award-winning leadership speech he presents that sets standards for any leader, military or civilian. This demanding kick-ass address puts everyone and everything in place. He counterbalances his authoritarianism with clever jokes.

The book’s many images include detailed captions that give the reader an on-the-scene feeling. Among the book’s eleven appendices, a collection of forty-four “Lessons Learned and Lessons Perhaps Not Learned” is the most noteworthy. In it, Dandridge evaluates warfare in thought-provoking lessons that cover issues from grand strategy to day-by-day tactics.

On the higher level, he suggests an isolationist approach by America to military intervention overseas. He summarizes many lessons at this level by labeling them “only partially learned.”

Most lessons for everyday tactics, which constitute the bulk of the appendix, conclude with “learned but…” and require “today’s aviators [to] benefit from reviewing such lessons.” Others focus on people and projects deserving special recognition.

As a fan of helicopter crews, I look forward to Book Two, which Dandridge indicates will be published by the end of this year.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines  by Michael J. McCormack

Michael J. McCormack, the author of Between the Sheets Behind Enemy Lines: A Life Story of a Decorated Vietnam Veteran (CreateSpace, 396 pp., $19.99, paper; $19.99, Kindle), served as a Marine in the Vietnam War.  He “was born into a poor family in the Irish slums of Chicago and still went on to become a self-made worldwide journalist,”  McCormack tells us.

His father and grandfather were both Marines, but growing up McCormack was a screw-up and always in trouble with the law. He thought there was no hope that he could be a Marine. But a Marine recruiter thought differently.

Mack McCormack had to stand in front of a judge to get into the Marines. Luckily for him—or perhaps not so luckily—the judge had been a Marine. “Where you are going, you won’t have time for this nonsense,” he told McCormack. “You’ve got to grow up quickly, son.”

With a main character called Clancy and lots of dialogue, the book reads more like a novel than a memoir. In it, McCormack explores the extremes of his life, often using extreme and frowned-upon language. His references to people of color are mostly phrased in ways that would cause eyebrows to be raised in polite society.  He makes the point throughout the book that he is not a person who came from polite society, nor does he seek to occupy a place there.

Jewish women are invariably referred to as “Jew bitches” and African Americans are usually referred to by the “n” word. Those of us who occupied positions in the rear echelons in the military are referred to as “military fairies,” a phrase I had not previously heard. The New York Times is referred to as the “Jew York Times” and liberal ideas are called “left wing bullshit.”

PTSD is often discussed, usually as it relates to the behavior and failings of the author. He was also plagued with eczema for which he had expected to be forgiven military service. That did not happen and caused him much resentment.

john_world_war_ii_draftJohn Wayne gets discussed way beyond the usual mentions and the phrase “baby killers” is used more often than in any book I’ve read. Agent Orange is discussed, as is Bob Hope and the Vietnamese custom of using their feet to wipe their butts after defecation.

That’s another new one on me.

The book is not well proofread. “Land mines,” for example, appears as “land minds.”  According to McCormack, African Americans can’t swim and flak jackets are “flat” jackets.

It’s a strange world.

The author’s website is clancy21.com

—David Willson

We Shot the War edited by Lisa Nguyen

It’s not that the photos in We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam (Hoover Institution Press, 214 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), aren’t first rate. They’re really good and provide a clear look at everyday life of American troops in the Vietnam War. That said, the photos are a letdown after the big build-up from the publisher.

The Overseas Weekly is described as a trail-blazing, anti-establishment rag that was the GI’s voice: “The least popular publication at the Pentagon,” we’re told. The people who put it together must have been real rabble-rousers.

The book’s Foreword tells us that the images used in the book were culled from 20,000 photos in the Hoover Institution Library’s Archives. National Geographic also liked to trumpet how many rolls of film were shot, but I always thought the greatest boast would be getting the greatest number of unforgettable images from the fewest rolls of film.

The book is edited by Lisa Nguyen, an archivist who organized an exhibit this summer of Overseas Weekly war photos at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Overseas Weekly was founded in Germany by Stanford graduates in 1950 to cover military affairs in a less-official manner. As the war in Vietnam escalated, a Saigon office was established. A young, Texas journalist, Ann Bryan, its editor-in-chief, was the only female editor in Southeast Asia.

The Overseas Weekly irritated the brass by covering such sensitive topics as drug use and racial strife among the troops. It was noted, too, for its “Man in the Street” column, which gave enlisted men the opportunity to sound off—and for running lots of photos of pretty girls.

Ann Bryan in Vietnam in 1967

The paper had a small, dedicated staff and a shoestring budget. The first issue went to press in 1966 and by 1970 it was all but washed up. But in that four-year period its writers and photographers (often one and the same) scattered across South Vietnam and Cambodia, documented the war from the GI’s perspective. Unlike better-known media covering the war, its readers were those fighting the war.

Subsequently, the coverage became more nuanced, providing a gentler portrayal of the war’s combatants. It wasn’t pandering; it’s because the editor would be called on every error of fact and tone. Reaction was immediate because the audience wasn’t half a world away.

–Michael Keating

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From the Overseas Weekly archive, South Vietnam, 1967

Tributaries by Tim Ralston

When Tim Ralston died in 2010, his wife Mary Kay Keller Ralston and daughter Mariah Ralston Deragon went through his thirty-plus years of poetry, which he often scribbled on the backs of receipts or on other scraps of paper. They chose a group of poems for a book of his work, often needing a magnifying glass to read the words.

That book, Tributaries (Buffalo Commons Tavern, 106 pp. $16, paper), is a labor of love.

Tim Ralston enlisted in the U. S. Air Force in 1970. He served as an English language instructor in South Vietnam, and received his honorable discharge in 1974. He wrote poems during the long period of time between his service in the Vietnam War and his death.

There are many poems in this book, a few of which deal with the Vietnam War. Early in the book, I encountered these lines:

Not in the ample list

But in the crossing outs

By a rougher, awkward hand

(Were they what was

Bought, or what

Couldn’t be afforded?)

Perhaps the last gasp

Of a dying world

Being medevaced far away.

These words made me hopeful that I would encounter much more in the book about—or at least flavored by—the Vietnam War. But I found very little more that dealt with the war.

Still, there was a lot well worth reading, including a poem with Norwegians eating lutefisk and lefse, and folks eating “Gooseberry pie/Puckered with rhubarb sauce.”  My poetic hunger was more than satiated by these references and many more that were equally powerful.

Buy this beautiful little book and savor the many flavors of poetry that Tim Ralston engraved on scraps of paper—and left for us lucky readers.

For ordering info, send an email to Buffalo Commons Tavern.

—David Willson

The Game by George Howe Colt

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George Howe Colt was inspired to write The Game: Harvard, Yale, and America in 1968 (Scribner, 400 pp., $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) after watching “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29,” a terrific documentary film made in 2008 by Kevin Rafferty. The documentary and book focus on one of the most improbable football comebacks imaginable—so improbable that the tie felt very much like a victory for the underdog Harvard team.

Colt was fourteen years old in 1968, living what he calls “a Harvard-saturated childhood.” He went to The Game in 1968 with his father and brother—and, in fact, still has his game ticket.

There are many interesting story lines in The Game, and the writing is generally engaging. With the subtitle, “Harvard, Yale and America in 1968,” the book’s scope is ambitious. I wonder, though, whether Colt would have given us a better book if he’d concentrated in more depth on fewer stories lines. He writes about so many players, coaches, and others that I needed a cheat sheet to keep track of who everyone was.

The first 125 pages drags a bit. But the book picks up speed midway, and ends with a bang. The book takes off when Colt gets to the story of John Tyson. Tyson, an African-American football player at Harvard, is an admirable figure who allows Colt the opportunity to weave in a several Civil Rights stories.

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Pat Conway

The war in Vietnam is a constant presence in the book, though Colt doesn’t provide many specifics. The most Vietnam War-related compelling story involves an older Harvard player, Pat Conway. The defensive back had dropped out of Harvard, enlisted in the Marines, and ended up at the Khe Sanh.

Conway then made his way back to Harvard—and to the football team—in time to take part in the 1968 season. Colt’s descriptions of Vietnam War battle scenes are memorable. But I wish he had spent more time on Conway’s time in Vietnam.

Colt does a lot of name dropping—(Do we really need to know that one of the players dated Meryl Streep?)—with some names having no context for readers unfamiliar with the 1960s. That said, there are many interesting folks who make their way into the book, including Harvard roommates Tommy Lee Jones and Al Gore, and fledgling Yale cartoonist Garry (“Doonesbury”) Trudeau. Jones played offensive guard in The Game.

11111111111111111111111111There is a double epilogue of sorts, with a chapter on antiwar activities on the Harvard campus in 1969, followed by a true epilogue with updated info on the book’s main players. The mature reflections of a few players are startling in their vulnerability.

Even with the attempt to capture so many different stories, there are some gaps. There is nothing on the dramatic and contentious 1968 presidential election, for example, which seems strange.

In a nutshell, the book is kind of history-lite, but with enough stories and odd bits of information to keep you entertained—and to make you want to learn more.

I just might go out and read a biography of the Yale’s noted antiwar chaplain, William Sloane Coffin.

–Bill Fogarty

Ten: Five Five by Royal Hettling

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Sappers, rockets, and stress comprised the enemy forces that Royal Hettling faced from practically “sunset to sunrise” while guarding the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in 1970-71 during the Vietnam War. His closest ally was Thunder, a one-hundred-pound purebred German Shepherd who walked a nightly beat with him.

An Air Force enlistee at eighteen, Hettling relates his time in-country in Ten: Five Five: Chronicles of the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit (Create Space, 158 pp. $25, paper; $8.99, Kindle). “Ten-five-five” is radio code for a K-9 alert indicating the presence of a threat.

Despite its subtitle, Hettling’s book offers limited details about guard dogs beyond noting their keen eyesight and sense of smell that helped handlers distinguish real from imagined threats.

Squadron 483 protected Cam Ranh’s ammunition dump and POL storage areas from Viet Cong sappers. Firefights were frequent. A week after Hettling arrived on base, sappers blew up part of the POL area, their only big success of the year.

Most of Hettling’s fellow K-9 handlers were also on the cusp of ending their teenage years. Their stories differ from the usual Vietnam War memoirs in that the men’s war-time lives existed in distinctly different light and dark worlds. By day—except for unpredictable in-coming rocket salvos—they lived like college guys. They went to the beach, played football, and drank beer.

But nights provided lifelong frights. Isolated on the base perimeter, the dog handlers were vulnerable to sneak attacks at any time. Hettling sums up this schizophrenic atmosphere as follows: “Some nights you will never forget. It is as if they happened last night.”

War touched Hettling in several ways. The first casualty was his loss of innocence. He felt ambivalence about hating sappers and also worrying that they looked so much younger than he was. Additionally, he recognized that his hootch maid was a Viet Cong sympathizer. She confirmed that, and he tolerated it. His analyses of sapper activities provide a respectful tribute to the enemy occasionally outmaneuvering American guards.

At times, Hettling radiates a mood that reflects how a bunch of young Americans performed tasks that they would rather not have been doing while wondering how and why they had ended up in a position to do them. The men did not fight the system, however. They admired their commander, Lt. Col. Carl W. Roy, a World War II veteran. Other officers seldom appear in the book.

Cam Ranh Bay was a closed base, which meant GIs could not go into nearby My Ca village. Considering their confinement to a peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, the dog handlers maintained a positive attitude and worked well together.

Camaraderie in the squadron emerged in ways unlike anything that had ever happened to them before, Hettling says. Interdependence led to friendships in which they “felt each other’s pain, joy, and rejection” such as “the dreaded Dear John letter. The bond we established in Vietnam still exists today.”

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Royal Hettling

In several ways, the book’s format reminds me of a high school yearbook disturbed by a war. Hettling presents eight pages of photographs of his comrades labeled “Then and Now.” He also devotes eight pages to wild animals that lived on or near the base.

Interspersed with photographs of facilities, equipment, and weapons, he includes accounts of combat action undertaken by his squadron and describes his own close calls. He presents declassified after-action reports that confirm the stories.

Hettling is donating all proceeds from the sale of Ten: Five Five to the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, Minnesota. He operates the Center along with his brother Charlie who also served in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel