The Healing by Richard Jellerson

Once upon a time, Pan American Airways sold a special ticket for something called Flight One. It was akin to a magic flying carpet ride. Good for a year, a Flight One ticket entitled its holder to circle the earth, stopping in major cities as often and for as long as desired.

Back in that long-ago time during the Vietnam War—contrary to good reasoning—Richard Jellerson flew back-to-back tours with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi. After each tour he bought a Flight One ticket.

Jellerson’s first earth orbit lasted only a month, the duration of his leave time between tours. His second trip took time enough to stabilize his mind for re-entry into society—and the onset of adulthood.

Jellerson’s The Healing: Pan Am Flight 001 (Outskirts Press, 148 pp. $15.95, paper) is an account of those journeys. The book is exceptionally well written. For that, Jellerson thanks screenwriter Todd Mattox, a cousin who brainstormed with him about the book, and “then acted as muse, editor, [and] occasional re-writer.”

Jellerson writes about truths that are evident, but unrecognized, in military life. For example, combat demands obedience to the desire for self-preservation, but the need disappears once the shooting starts.

He explains these types of things with lucidity filled with innocence, as if he had heard such truths in the past but only much later began to understand them. Paradoxically, one’s heightened senses reduces concern for one’s self, he says. “Through the war I had become a different person and still didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he admits.

He had to overcome contradictory thoughts to return home and establish a workable relationship with America, a nation that had betrayed him, he believed. Traveling to sixteen countries, Jellerson encountered a variety of people with whom he discussed life—people who “pulled him back from the edge,” he says. That includes:

  • A young Thai woman selling soda and telling him her dreamy vision of America
  • A news correspondent eagerly seeking war
  • Men and women in Australia, Italy, England, and Greece accepting him at face value
  • Jellerson himself pondering atheism and the certainty of no afterlife, thereby placing the burden of living on here and now.

At times, I felt the people he met were simply Jellerson’s alter egos, and he was talking to himself, straining to evaluate horrors that the war had revealed to him. He frequently flashed back to combat experiences—particularly rescuing the wounded—to build a foundation for his rehabilitation needs.

He sums up a turning point in his life with an observation that occurred in 1969 on his “second or third day of flying a combat assault” as a nineteen-year-old copilot:

“The enemy below this day was a wonder to see. They ran at full speed through the jungle in those light brown uniforms and pith helmets carrying all their weapons. These North Vietnamese Army regulars were fully committed to get to our landing zone ahead of us. They ran through the humid, deep green, overheated jungle with only one thought: shoot down the helicopters.”

His conclusion: “Until then I had only intellectually embraced even the concept of enemy.”

In those moments, Jellerson discovered a foe and surrendered his individuality to American politicians. Flight One helped him find it again. People of the world taught him a major lesson—that “no one hated me, and I hated no one. I had friends everywhere I went. And only had enemies in one small beautiful country in Southeast Asia by political mandate.”

I rank The Healing alongside my favorite books written by the youngest of men at war: A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself by Dominick Yezzo and Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War by Loring M. Bailey Jr.

The three books tell more about the Vietnam War than a roomful of generals or overflowing stacks of Pentagon documents.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Capture of the USS Pueblo by James Duermeyer

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The Capture of the USS Pueblo (McFarland, 209 pp. $39.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by James Duermeyer is an efficient and instructive review of one of the all-but forgotten events of 1968. As with many books these days, there is a longish subtitle which, in this case, is a helpful summary: The Incident, the Reaction, and the Aftermath.

It is important to remember that in January 1968 (when the Pueblo was captured) the Korean War was a recent memory in the American psyche. When you add to this the nation’s turmoil in 1968 over the Vietnam War, then the possibility of this series of foreign policy and military blunders involving a poorly designed spy ship was, in retrospect, almost inevitable.

Within a week after the capture of the ship, the Tet Offensive was unleashed. By the time the crewmen were released in December, Richard Nixon had been elected president, after LBJ chose not to run for re-election. The Vietnam War was a constant presence in the Johnson Administration’s deliberations about how to respond to the capture of the Pueblo. Military options were considered. But in the end, negotiations assured the release of the crew.

Duermeyer. who has master’s degree in U.S. History from the University of Texas, served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. After the war, he continued his Navy career in the Reserves, reaching the rank of Commander. Duermeyer has written five historical novels she he retired from the Navy. In this book, he writes about a time and a subject (naval history) for which he seems well qualified.

The Capture of the USS Pueblo comes in at a compact 172 pages of text, with an excellent preface, introduction, and epilogue. These short sections book-end six chapters, which are a bit over-analytical. What’s more Duermeyer does not provide a compelling narrative arc in the book.image090

On the other hand, he includes several interesting facts and stories, including some dealing with the negotiations. However, one wishes that he humanized the main players a bit more, especially the Pueblo’s captain, Cmdr. Lloyd Bucher. The book jumps around chronologically, with many references to post-release reviews and findings that disrupt the flow of the story.

North Korea remains a mystery, but Duermeyer does shed some light on North Korean political thought. He devotes an entire chapter to “Juche,” an ideology that demands independence and “self-sustainability” in foreign policy.

Duermeyer also provides interesting background and analysis of the Korean leader, Kim Il-Sung, which could inform our nation’s thinking as we continue to struggle in our relations with North Korea.

—Bill Fogarty

All Present, Unaccounted For by Robert Flanagan

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Robert J. Flanagan was born in Mississippi in 1936. He entered the Marines in 1953 and served seven years in the U.S., Panama, and on the Caribbean and Mediterranean Seas. He left the Marine Corps in 1960, joined the Army Security Agency, and put in sixteen additional years of military service. He retired from the Army in 1976 as a Chief Warrant Officer.

From 2001-12 Bob Flanagan published six books, including a trilogy of novels based on his ASA service. His nearly five decades years of journal-keeping has influenced much of his published writing. Flanagan, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is currently assembling a new collection of non-war-related poetry. His recently released poetry collection, All Present, Unaccounted For (Connemara Press, 126 pp. $22, paper), on the other hand, is heavily war-related.

The book’s first poem is entitled “Vacation in Vietnam, 1964.”

Small brown sappers, hard core

Of the VC Three-Ninety-Fifth Battalion—

And equally vulgar aspirants to the title—

Dash ashore in the night wash of the South

China Sea at Vung Tau

Orchestrated, choreographed…not a ballet:

A quiet time-lapse jitterbug.

They don’t know that alien planners

Will name this place in-country R-and-R.

This poem gives a fine taste and sample of the selections in this collection. There are more than a hundred pages of such poems, all of them worth reading and all of them beautifully written—and related to the American war in Vietnam. They deal with topics such as heat rash, immersion foot, and crotch rot, as well as Operation Ranch Hand, Agent Orange, John Wayne, Tarzan, and Graham Greene.

This fine book ranks right up there at the top with W.D. Ehrhart’s recently published poetry collection, Thank You for Your Service. With these two poetry books on your shelf, you will have a good start on understanding the totality of Vietnam War poetry.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, connemarapress.org

—David Willson

Captured by Alvin Townley

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As the fourth highest-ranking officer among the prisoners held in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton set a standard of behavior virtually beyond imagination in fulfilling the rigid expectations of the official Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Denton’s seven-and-a-half years—from July 1965 to February 1973—as a prisoner have been well chronicled. That includes When Hell Was in Session, Denton’s 1982 memoir. The latest recreation of Denton’s POW experience is Alvin Townley’s Captured: An American Prisoner of War in North Vietnam (Scholastic Focus, 256 pp. $18.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), a book for Young Adults. The two men were friends until Denton’s death in 2014 at age 89. Captured captures the bravery of the American POWs’ resistance against North Vietnamese torture.

Of the Code of Conduct’s six Articles, Denton—who was promoted to Rear Admiral during his captivity—concentrated on two: First, he took a leadership position among prisoners when he was the senior officer of a group. Second, he emphasized providing the enemy with only name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

“And if you say more,” Denton ordered, “make them beat it out of you.” He stressed that a prisoner’s ultimate goal was to maintain personal integrity in order to return home with honor.

“[Jerry] defined leadership with a fearless sense of bold, almost unthinking, self-sacrifice,” Townley says. He “took the punches and the rope first. If he didn’t, how could he expect others to follow his orders?”

The North Vietnamese favorite (and most effective) type of torture was to bind a prisoner in ropes that compressed his body and drastically reduced blood circulation and breathing, and then leave him in that position for hours. Other tortures included long stretches of solitary confinement, often in darkness; imprisonment in a four-by-four-foot concrete cell; a parade through Hanoi that allowed the public to abuse the prisoners; feeding the men soup laced with human feces; and bombarding them with propaganda.

Denton advised his subordinates to “take torture and before you lose your sanity, write something harmless or ludicrous.” At the same time, he believed “a prisoner should not make any statement disloyal to the United States.”

Although he advocated a hard line, Denton understood that no one can hold out forever in the face of torture. During periods of unrelenting, brutal torture, all prisoners “signed the apologies, the confessions,” Townley notes.

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The North Vietnamese viewed American prisoners as political tools whose confessions could validate the United States as an aggressor nation in the eyes of the entire world.

In my mind, the degree of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is incalculable. From that premise, I attempt to quantify the degree to which political, racial, and economic differences affect a jailer’s treatment of his prisoners. I often have wondered if the men who originally wrote the Code of Conduct ever had even an inkling of similar thoughts.

Retired Navy Capt. Allen Colby Brady spent more than six years as a prisoner in Hanoi during the time Denton was there. He recently published an account of that experience in Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida. His attitude and actions as a prisoner slightly differed from Denton’s. Still, considering the intensity of their environment, even the slightest differences provide extremely interesting comparisons.

—Henry Zeybel

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Pilgrim Days by Alastair MacKenzie

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Born in the U.K., Alastair MacKenzie spent most of his childhood in the Far East before his family settled in New Zealand at the end of his father’s British Army career. At the age of 18 in 1966, MacKenzie joined the New Zealand Army—AKA, the Kiwis. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1970.

The first half of MacKenzie’s memoir—Pilgrim Days: From Vietnam to the SAS (Osprey, 224 pp. $25, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle)—recalls his year commanding platoon out of Nui Dat on search-and-destroy missions to protect Route 15 that linked Saigon to the port city of Vung Tau.

In Vietnam, MacKenzie says, “We operated differently [than] the Americans, South Vietnamese, Thai and Korean forces, who would go and find the Viet Cong and once they found them would ‘pile on.’” Because of their reduced numbers, the Kiwis, “like the Australians,” MacKenzie writes, were “more subtle.”

He goes on to describes field operations that, except for greater respect for mines and booby traps, resembled American tactics that heavily relied on artillery and ground-attack aircraft in encounters with North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. He emphasizes, however, that his men moved slower and much more quietly in the field than the American troops did.

His unit took part in major operations but fought no large-scale battles. As expected, his men suffered casualties. MacKenzie says he was “disappointed” that his platoon “and I were not able to kill more than we did.” In his eyes, the Kiwis were “small in terms of manpower,” but “big in terms of operational efficiency.”

His account provides evidence of the universal nature of infantrymen who work to avoid unnecessary exposure to danger and complain about unrealistic upper-echelon expectations. Those sections of the book make for good reading.

MacKenzie also writes about a long line of military contemporaries. Their stories occasionally stand alone. Citing the men’s pros and cons, he often uses only a first name and an initial to identify them.

Upon returning home from war, PTSD temporarily alienated MacKenzie from his wife, Cecilia, but he received no counseling—much like Americans.

In 1973, MacKenzie resigned from the New Zealand Army to join the British Army Paras and eventually the British 22 Special Air Service Regiment, with whom he patrolled Northern Ireland. Later, he contracted with the South African Defense Force. On Pathfinder Brigade missions in Angola, he had “moments of excitement” similar to those he felt fighting in Vietnam, he says. His list of esoteric jobs also included counter-terrorism duty in Oman with the Sultan’s Special Forces.

The pace of Pilgrim Days slows when MacKenzie discusses training, which throughout his career was the core of his temporary assignments in Germany, Italy, Sudan, Belize, and Hong Kong. On the plus side, he includes explanations of training exercises that were as dangerous as combat was.

`11111111111111111111111MacKenzie switched to civilian employment in 1989 as a salesman for the Royal Ordnance Ammunition Department. Within a few years, he visited “almost every country in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe,” he says.

Thereafter, he served for ten years with the Duke of Lancaster’s Territorial Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. MacKenzie also started an independent security consulting company, which he sold in 2005 before settling down in New Zealand.

Pilgrim Days gave me a clearer view of men and parts of the world that were somewhat vague to me. I admire MacKenzie’s independence and his ability to move between organizations based on his expertise in counter-terrorism and security. As a soldier, he was a man for all seasons.

As is the case with all Osprey Publishing books, Pilgrim Days contains excellent graphics. That includes enough color photographs to produce a television documentary.

—Henry Zeybel

Twilight of the American Century by Andrew Bacevich

Reality demands pragmatism. Idealism too often is illusion or delusion. In Twilight of The American Century (University of Notre Dame Press, 504 pp. $125, hardcover; $25, paper; $10.99, Kindle) Andrew Bacevich makes the case that U.S. foreign and military policy has been flawed since before the Cold War, with mistakes accelerating since 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

He argues for a conservative, pro-American, non-interventionist foreign policy—while at the same time being sharply critical of President Trump and his “America First” and “Make America Great Again” policies. Still, Bacevich believes that the President is the embodiment of what millions of Americans believe about U.S. foreign policy today.

Bacevich supported Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election. But in this book the former Army officer, author, and Boston University history and international relations professor criticizes the Obama Administration for not a foreign policy vision. “Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance,” he writes.

Those sorts of wry comments are peppered throughout the book.

Bacevich graduated from West Point in 1969 and served for a year (1970-71) in the Vietnam War as the “misguided and unwinnable” war, as he puts it, was winding down. He saw his mission as doing everything possible to prevent the men under his command from being killed.

“It did not pay to reflect too deeply about the predicament into which the Army and the nation had gotten itself,” Bacevich writes. “The demands of duty were enough.”

He remained in the Army for two decades before becoming a senior professor at B.U. in 1998. Twilight of the American Century is a broad collection of essays Bacevich has written since 2001. They deal with “American imperialism, militarism, civil-military relations and the changing meaning of freedom.”

He acknowledges two deeply personal influences. His wife’s brother—his closest friend since high school—who “never got his life on track” after he was badly wounded in Vietnam.” And his son, Andrew Bacevich, Jr., who was killed in Iraq in 2007.

The book is organized in four sections. The first, “Poseurs and Prophets,” dissects diverse thinkers such as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gen. Tommy Franks, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and the novelist Tom Clancy.

Essays in the second and third sections—called “History and Myth” and ”War and Empire”—critique the nation’s foreign policy and military doctrines. The fourth, “Politics and Culture” maintains—without celebration—that that the “Age of Trump” will endure long after the president retires.

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Andrew Bacevich

Even so, Bacevich offers what he terms “a new conservative agenda” that includes making common cause with “tree-hugging, granola-crunching liberals” to preserve Earth and—potentially—with “the impassioned antiwar left,” abandon the “conceit” that the United States should exercise “global leadership.” That term, he says, has become “a euphemism for making mischief and demanding prerogatives allowed to no other nation.”

Weighing in at more than 450 pages of text, Twilight of the American Century is a profoundly intellectual, provocative work. It will leave a bitter taste in the mouths of both Democrats and Republicans.

The book is a tough-minded call for liberals and conservatives to come together to “repair our democracy” in the post-Vietnam War, post-Cold War, post-9/11 era.

—Bob Carolla

Sherman Lead by Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.

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With the exception of compassion for the deaths and disappearances of fellow flyers, Gaillard R. Peck Jr. presents a lighthearted insider’s view of his Vietnam War experience in Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam (Osprey, 304 pp.; $32, hardcover; $22.40, Kindle).

As a pilot in the 443rd Tactical Fighter Squadron—aka Satan’s Angels—at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1968-69, Peck flew 163 combat missions into North Vietnam and Laos to destroy the enemy transportation system, day and night. He describes many close calls with disaster, some caused by North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft defenses, and others by his mistakes. He recounts several dangerous misadventures with humor and wonderment about his youthful good luck.

Although the book is Peck’s memoir, he includes a few long passages describing bombing missions written by his pilot systems operator Steve Mosier. For his part, Peck unhesitatingly names names. Occasionally, his appreciation of his crew members’ and buddies’ advice, friendship, and devotion to the mission nears adoration.

When citing a few incompetent individuals, Peck—whose nom de guerre was “Evil”—graciously hides their identities. He expresses intolerance for their ineptitude, especially those who jeopardized his safety simply to qualify for monthly flying and combat pay.

His thoughts on offensive tactics following Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 bombing halt of North Vietnam appear throughout the text. For example:

  • “We roamed the area looking for lucrative targets for our ordnance. By this point in the war there weren’t many.”
  • “Lack of feedback on effectiveness [from intelligence sources] added to our cynical attitude about these missions.”
  • “We joked about the fact that we seldom caused much apparent damage. The results didn’t seem to amount to much—especially given the risk involved in making the attacks.”
  • “It was just the continuation of another mind-numbing mission attacking an unseen target that would be defended with a lot of aggressive AAA.”

Peck convincingly shows the difficulties of flying the F-4D under the often-combined challenges of enemy gunfire, clouds and rain, and using the wrong weapons against, as he puts it, “whimsical” targets selected by higher-ups.

Several times, Peck assumes a teaching role and, in great detail, explains techniques of visual, radar, and laser-guided bombing. He taught me a lot with these and other interludes.

The first third of the book deals with Peck’s education at the U.S. Air Force Academy, pilot training, and preparation for deployment to Vietnam. His descriptions of POW, water, and jungle survival training closely parallel my memories of attending the same courses. Similarly, his accounts of off-duty activities at Ubon—on base and downtown—perfectly coincide with what I saw and did there in 1970-71.

Peck refers to letters he wrote and received while with the 443rd. His writing style has a casual conversational tone, and he often repeats facts to refresh a point. This is his second book, following 2012’s America’s Secret MiG Squadron, based on his flying and evaluating captured and stolen Soviet aircraft as part of a twenty-six-year military career, from which he retired as a colonel.

Significant overlap exists between Sherman Lead and other memoirs by USAF Vietnam F-4 jocks such as David R. “Buff” Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War. Each book reveals dedication and camaraderie within the fighter pilot trade that was unequaled anywhere else in the Air Force at the time—for good and bad.

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Peck’s USAF views with those of Navy pilot Don Pedersen in his recently published Top Gun: An American Story. Both books cover the same times and events.

—Henry Zeybel