A War Away by Tess Johnston

Tess Johnston is an amazing woman with amazing stories to tell. A native of Virginia, Johnston worked for the U.S. Government in various capacities for more than thirty years. She has lived abroad for nearly half a century, with seven years in Germany (both East and West), and forty years in Asia (thirty-three in Shanghai and seven in Vietnam.)

After a  stint in Berlin with the U.S. Foreign Service, the Charlottesville native enrolled in the graduate program at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in 1958, as did many other women prior to 1970. Women were barred from the males-only undergraduate programs at U-Va., but were allowed in the graduate schools.

Johnston went on to complete a master’s degree in German in 1963, and then taught German at Virginia and the College of William and Mary. In 1967, Johnston went to Vietnam to work for USAID, and stayed for seven years.

This experience inspired her to rejoin the Foreign Service, which sent her to Frankfurt, Berlin again, New Dehli, Tehran, and then to Shanghai. After thirty-three years in the Foreign Service, she faced mandatory retirement in 1996. Johnston stayed in Shanghai, and has written several book since then, including a coffee-table book,  A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai. Her other books include Shanghai Art Deco, and Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half A Century.

Tess Johnston returned to the United States in 2016, and has now published a new book, A War Away: An American Woman In Vietnam 1967-1974 (Earnshaw Books, 236 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) It’s an interesting memoir that is in need of a good editor.  Johnston took good notes while she was in Vietnam, but her writing style consists of plugging away with much too much detailed information.

There are two photos on the cover of her book. One shows her firing a gun at a practice range wearing a dress; the other is of the infamous John Paul Vann.

Vann was a military and civilian adviser in Vietnam until 1972 when his helicopter crashed while he was assessing damage after the Battle of Kontum.  Vann’s life is the focal point of Neil Sheehan’s National Book Award-winning 1988 biography, A Bright Shining Lie, a detailed portrait of the man—and an incisive history of the Vietnam War.

A War Away provides a different picture of Vann, albeit in only two of the fourteen chapters. Vann comes across as demanding and charismatic, feared and loved by those whose lives he touched.  Johnston provides some interesting anecdotes, though Vann is not a central character in the book.

Tess Johnston

The problem with A War Away is that there seems to be no central theme. Instead, we encounter a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, with too much focus on mundane details.

If you have the patience to sift through descriptions of the furniture in Johnston’s apartment and the phone system in her office, you will be able to find some items of interest. Her chapter on the 1968 Tet Offensive during her time at Bien Hoa, for example, is very interesting, as are her stories of other close calls with the Viet Cong.

Tess Johnston was clearly a level-headed, competent office assistant to Vann and others, and her story could have been be a compelling one if she pared it down a bit.

—Bill Fogarty

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True North by Roger Rooney

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The hero of Roger Rooney’s novel True North (Volcano Mountain, 296 pp., $19.95, paper; $0.99, Kindle), Jack Burns, is one of the few Australians serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. As much as he hopes it will provide him some distinction, Burns’ path seems destined for disappointment. Or worse.

Burns arrives in country with energy and ambition. But there’s heat and chaos and the frustration of working as an adviser in a place where advice is the last thing anyone wants to hear.

Rooney tells of Burns’ growing disenchantment with the war, along with the story of a young North Vietnamese woman who is with a detachment of NVA troops heading south to make war on the Americans. She, too, is disenchanted. Readers will wonder whether their paths will cross.

Burns wants to remain optimistic, but he cannot escape the conflicting directives of the war. The ARVN’s track record suggests that its objective is not winning the war, but preventing another next coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s American-backed leader. Before being installed as Prime Minister, Diem was a religious mystic in Bruges, Belgium. His only qualification for the job was his staunchly anti-communist views.

Burns isn’t on the ground long before someone sets him straight: The apparent truth he sees isn’t real.

“Charlie owns the night and has damn near paid off his mortgage on the day,” Rooney writes. “That little man is on the march straight to this very room. He’d be here in a few days if it wasn’t for our airstrikes and choppers. The South Vietnamese don’t go on search and destroy missions. They go on search and avoid missions.”

Nevertheless, Burns is eager to get to the front. Too soon, he gets his wish.

As Ryan “launched himself into the water, he saw a yellow fireball explode and flames suck high into the air and spray burning jelly across the paddies,” Rooney writes. “He gulped down a huge breath as small tornadoes whipped amongst the rice stalks, caught in the rising heat like satanic spears intent on puncturing the heavens. He hurled himself into the water, grabbing frantically for a fistful of rice stalks. His only hope was to anchor himself as deep as possible underwater.”

Later, as the battle rages on and monkeys shriek in the branches above, the young NVA woman is captured. She will try to warn Burns away from a booby trap. But it’s too late.

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Rooney

Burns is badly wounded. He’ll land in the hospital and, from there, descend into a hell of opium and despair. We are left wondering, and perhaps hoping, that we’ve seen a glimpse of a connection that may yet take place.

Both he and the young woman, Tran, are characters we care about. Rooney’s development of their stories is smart and well-told. There are taut, wonderfully descriptive passages that carry us through to an ending that is as hard and desperate as the war itself.

Readers will forgive occasional inconsistencies in the writing, although there are a disconcerting number of typographical errors in the book. Nevertheless, True North is well worth a read.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

‘My Brothers Have My Back’ By Lou Pepi

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Lou Pepi’s “My Brothers Have My Back”: Inside the November 1969 Battle on the Vietnamese DMZ (McFarland, 225 pp., $35, paper; $18.99, Kindle)  tells the story of one of the biggest battles in the Vietnam War. It took place in November of 1969 and was known as the battle for Hill 100 and also as the Battle of Gallagher Ridge.

Pepi has done an impressive amount of research. There are after action reports, citations, journal accounts, and interviews with fifty men who took part in the fight.

The battle was fought less than two miles from the DMZ where four Fifth Infantry Division rifle companies (around 600 men) met 2,000-3000 NVA troops and battled it out for three days. A Viet Cong document captured near Saigon showed that the NVA attack was timed to coincide with the large Vietnam War Moratorium antiwar demonstrations in the United States planned for November 15th.

Pepi, who was drafted into the Army in March of 1968, served as a 21-year-old  infantryman with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion/61st Infantry Regiment in the Fifth Infantry Division. Four months after he arrived in country, Pepi found himself on the last helicopter that delivered troops into the battle.

He offers unique insights into the story of the men who fought those three days in 1969.

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Pepi in Vietnam

I found the account difficult to follow in some places as Pepi mixed many individual accounts of the battle with full citations. The large number of images, however, added greatly to the book.

I would recommend this book to Vietnam War historians and to anyone who was involved in this action.

—Mark S. Miller

French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent by Martin Windrow

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In 1954, Penn State ROTC instructors taught me that France had been wrong to attempt to maintain its colonies in Indochina following World War II.  Thereafter, the writings of Bernard Fall and Jean Larteguy influenced my thinking about the warfare between the French Army and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Their books made me sympathetic toward the French, while at the same time I admired the determination of the Vietnamese.

Then I took part in the American war in Vietnam and stopped caring about what had happened to the French because we had our own problems in Southeast Asia.

Now, Martin Windrow has revitalized my thinking on the topic with French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent: North Vietnam, 1948-52 (Osprey, 80 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book). Windrow is an authority on the French Foreign Legion and has written other books on Indochina. This slim volume is packed with facts. Oddly, though, the bibliography does not include any books by Fall or Lartéguy.

In France, Windrow says, a legal bar prevented most conscripts from being deployed to the colonies. Therefore, volunteers from “some 40 nationalities bore the main burden of the war.” In Indochina, the Legion was “about 50 percent German—men with no skills to sell except military experience from World War II.”

He characterizes the Viet Minh as “a general revolutionary organization of the civilian population.” Motivated toward patriotism by communist indoctrination, “mostly illiterate 18-20-year-olds” who lived “among the rice paddies” served with the Viet Minh, as Windrow puts it.

In other words, a Legionnaire felt allegiance toward his fellow soldiers, and a Viet Minh fought for his nation’s independence.

Windrow also compares French and Viet Minh leadership, communications, training and morale, logistics, armament, and tactics. The two armies slogged through jungles and rice paddies trying to outwit each other, much like the U.S. Army’s search-and-destroy strategy against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, but without helicopter support and significant airborne firepower.

The French were “hamstrung from the outset by a failure either to recognize the type of enemy they faced or to formulate a coherent plan for defeating them,” Windrow says. With most fighting occurring in remote areas, expediency prevailed. Legionnaires with serious head or gut wounds routinely received a “merciful overdose of morphine.” The Viet Minh leaders ruthlessly “regarded the individual as cannon fodder.” The French aimed to win with firepower while the Viet Minh relied on manpower.

In the book Windrow highlights three battles fought in Tonkin, the far northeast region of Vietnam: Phu Tong Hoa (July 25, 1948), Dong Khe (September 16-18, 1950), and Na San (November 23-December 2, 1952).

Although the Viet Minh breached the Legion defenses at Phu Tong Hoa, the French retained control of their base. The following month they abandoned the site, which ceded almost the entire northeastern part of Vietnam to the Viet Minh.

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French survivors of the 1948 Battle of Phu Tong Hog  (photo: Musée de la Légion)

At Dong Khe, the Viet Minh fielded 10,000 men against 267 Legionnaires and captured the Citadel. Viet Minh casualties numbered perhaps 2,000 with 500 killed, Windrow says. Twenty Legionnaires escaped, but all the others were killed or taken prisoner. After the French tried but failed to recapture Dong Khe, they suffered repeated defeats and retreated from the area. Of 7,409 Legionnaires, 5,987 were killed or went missing, Windrow says.

The Viet Minh attack on Na San resulted from a haphazard decision by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and failed because of logistical mistakes. The well-fortified French positions and the length of the encounter demanded more supplies than Giap had anticipated. The loss taught him lessons that paid dividends at the pivotal May 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

It appears that Windrow selected these battles to illustrate how Giap learned strategy on the job. Giap’s basic maneuver of employing massive numbers of men required greater logistical support—particularly with artillery and ammunition—than he had anticipated before Na San.

Based on this book, one might wonder how much Giap’s realization about logistics affected the decision to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam.

Following Osprey’s classic design, Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent contains excellent artwork, photographs, and maps. Illustrator John Shumate rendered his vivid work in Adobe Photoshop using a Cintiq monitor.

—Henry Zeybel

JFK: The Last Speech edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, & Jan Worth-Nelson

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October 1963 was a tumultuous month for John F. Kennedy. Contentious negotiations over Civil Rights and tax-reform legislation occupied the president, as did the increasingly troublesome war that was brewing in Vietnam. High-risk plans to overthrow South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem were gaining momentum.

Not surprisingly, on October 26, 1963, when Kennedy spoke at Amherst College at the groundbreaking of the Robert Frost Library, he said: “The problems which this country now faces are staggering, both at home and abroad. We need the service, in the great sense, of every educated man or woman.”

The text of that convocation address is included in JFK: The Last Speech, edited by Neil Bicknell, Roger Mills, and Jan Worth-Nelson (Mascot Books, 363 pages. $27.95).

The book—along with a film of the same name—is the 50th reunion project of Amherst’s class of 1964. The book is made up of remembrances by members of that class who were on campus when JFK visited, along with a wide range of other material. That includes the typescript of an early version of the speech (drafted by the scholar and White House adviser Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.) with Kennedy’s handwritten edits; and articles by the literary critic Jay Parini, the actor/director and environmentalist Robert Redford, and the historian Jon Meacham.

The October 26 address gained resonance in the wake of the earth-shaking events of November 22, 1963. The president’s assassination, his Frost Library remarks, and his famed Inaugural Address (“Ask what you can do for your country….”) melded in the minds of Amherst students, many of whom chose various ways to serve to their country.

Rip Sparks, for example, who joined the Peace Corps, writes that people would tell him that that was “a good way to avoid the draft,” but “it wasn’t that at all.” Gene Palumbo became a conscientious objector and worked with the Urban Action Task Force in Harlem.

Thomas P. Jacobs, Jr. contributes an essay about his service in the war, “My Year in Vietnam with MILHAP Team 20.” In it, he writes: “I received my [draft] notice from the Army toward the middle of my second year of residency in internal medicine at Columbia University, early in 1970. According to the Army, I would be going to Vietnam that summer.”

JFK-at-State-Dept-cropped-1Jacobs opposed the war, but volunteered for the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program. Posted to the Central Highlands, he treated patients at the Kontum Province hospital. Especially gratifying was the chance to work most evenings at a second facility, a large mission hospital that treated Montagnard villagers who, Jacobs notes, “were usually victims of discrimination at the Vietnamese-only province hospital.”

Today Dr. Jacobs wonders if he may have played a small role “in prosecuting and perhaps prolonging the war.” On the other hand, he believes that he is a better person for his Kontum experience and that he saved many lives.

“Best of all,” he concludes, “I recall on an almost daily basis the warmth and welcome of the Montagnards, who may have been the last people on earth to love all Americans.”

The book’s website is jfkthelastspeech.org

–Angus Paul

The Philosophy of War Films edited by David LaRocca

David LaRocca is a university professor specializing in the philosophy of film. When I opened his book, The Philosophy of War Films (University Press of Kentucky, 538 pp., $30, paper; $45, hardcover), I hoped it would have an essay on the large number of films dealing with the Vietnam War. I scanned the table of contents and soon discovered this book did not.

The closest it came was a long, scholarly article on the war films of Werner Herzog, the most important living film director my age or older. So that made me happy. There are essays on Iraq war films, Israeli war films, and World War II films. And one on Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Vietnam War movie, Apocalypse Now.

I found the prose turgid and hard to struggle through. In fact, most of the book seemed that way to me. I decided that this was not a book written for folks like me. This is a serious book.

The article on Werner Herzog, “Profoundly Unreconciled to Nature:  Ecstatic Truth and the Humanistic Sublime in Werner Herzog’s War Films,”  runs forty-five pages and includes five pages of footnotes. David LaRocca, the editor of this book, is the author.

All the criticism you’ll ever need about Herzog’s war films is well-covered in this essay. I highly recommend it—and this book. Of course, there is lots of information on the Vietnam War films of other directors scattered throughout this big, thick book. The excellent index will help you locate that information by searching the titles of the films, the names of the directors, or the name of the war.

I found some great quotations about the Vietnam War in an essay entitled “General Patton and Private Ryan: The Conflicting Reality of War Films and Films about War” by Andrew Fiala, who chairs the Philosophy Department at Fresno State University. The eternal question about whether or not a war film is intrinsically antiwar because of what is shown on the screen is debated. Because the Vietnam War cannot be easily viewed as a just war in the way people look at World War II, it makes it difficult to see a Vietnam War film as antiwar. But folks persist in doing just that.

If you are interested in reading about the concept of apocalypse as it applies to the Vietnam War, read Bard College Philosophy and Aesthetics Prof. Gary Haagberg’s essay, “Apocalypse Within: The War Epic as Crisis of Self-Identity.”  And then there’s “Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,” by Robert Pippin,  a Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought in University of Chicago’s Philosophy Department. This is a pip of an essay on Terry Malick’s excellent movie.

Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall), the man who loved “the smell of napalm in the morning” in Apocalypse Now

I believe the essay that tops them all is D’Youville College English Professor Joshua Gooch’s “Beyond Panopticism: The Biopolitical Labor of Surveillance and War in Contemporary film.” Things in that essay will give you pause.  If you’re like me, you’ll read some sentences three or four times and you might scratch your head.

Robert Bugoyne’s essay, “The Violated Body: Affective Experience and Somatic Intensity in Zero Dark Thirty” will cause you to reflect on what the deeper meanings of “somatic” really are. I had to rethink my opinion of that film. It’s a brutal one, so it should have been no surprise to me that it provoked a brutal essay from Burgoyne, a University of St. Andrews Honorary Professor in Film Studies.

I didn’t get any “blood satisfaction” from the essay, no more than I did from the film itself. I feel a need now to see the film again to take further stock of it. I guess that’s a tip of the hat to the power of the essayist.

This paperback edition is much cheaper than the hardcover, which I suppose is meant to make this collection of essays available to the average person in the street. That is, if he or she has ready access to a copy of Webster’s Unabridged.

Good luck with this valuable book of essays.

—David Willson

335th Assault Helicopter Company by Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino

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Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino’s 335th Assault Helicopter Company: What We Did after the Vietnam War. (Deeds Publishing, 296 pp., $19.95, paper) is an interesting look at the post-Vietnam War lives of the members of the Cowboy Company, a stand-alone Air Assault Helicopter company created in September 1966 to work with a variety of infantry units.

The unit, a company of lift ships and their personnel, fitted the needs of the Army in Vietnam to provide the flexibility for ground troops who did not possess their own transportation onto the battlefield.  As such, the 335th provided service to the leg units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from 1965 until its stand down in November 1971.

The book is a compilation of the post-war biographies of the men who served with the unit. Knowing the pilots and crew members’ propensity for quick, accurate verbal communications, the book surprises with some lengthy personal biographies, along with some extremely brief ones that let the reader fill in the spaces between comments.

Some of the men went on to lead rich and colorful lives. Some of the biographical sketches show the pain and heartaches that others bore during their time in the war.

What comes through clearly in all of them is the brotherly bonds created by the camaraderie of their time as Assault Helicopter men. The pride of their service is evident in all the stories.

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A particularly heartbreaking biography submitted by the widow of Ed Eget tells of a lifetime of hard work punctuated by lingering health problems related to his service in Vietnam. It is easy to see the effects of combat on each person in every story—including Agent Orange and PTSD.

Dominic Fino, one of the co-authors, tells of his struggles with bits of sarcastic humor and honesty.

The book shows Vietnam War veterans as we returned home, put on civilian clothes, and went about making productive lives. It also shows the resiliency of the American citizen soldier who faced extreme danger in war, yet overcame that to grow into substantial contributing members of society.

–Bud Alley

A former First Cavalry Division LT, Bud Alley is the author of The Ghosts of the Green Grass, which looks at the fighting at LZ Albany during the 1965 Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley