One for the Boys by Cathy Saint John

11111111111111111111111111-2.jpg

Cathy Saint John’s One for the Boys: The Poignant and Heartbreaking True Story of SGT John W. Blake, a Newfoundlander from Canada who Volunteered and Served in the Vietnam War (Sinjin Publishing, 457 pp. $22.95, hardcover; $9.95, Kindle) is a tribute to the author’s brother, John W. Blake, who joined the U.S. Army and served eighteen months in the Vietnam War.

The book is made up of five main parts, each of which could stand on its own. The first covers Blake’s time in the Vietnam war, from January 1970 to August 1971. Serving with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Sgt. Blake received a Bronze Star and suffered wounds from grenade shrapnel three different times.

Using her brother’s journals, Saint John says he “witnessed atrocities that were horrid, criminal behaviors and actions completely against his training as a soldier and as a human being that shocked him to his inner core.”

Blake estimated that he took part in 70-100 incidents in which he had a high probability of being killed, and that at least fifteen of his buddies were killed in combat. He also wrote of experiencing “airport assaults from protesters” when he returned home.

Once Blake was in Canada, he wouldn’t speak to family about his war experiences, though his sister writes that it quickly became clear he had “died spiritually and emotionally in Southeast Asia.”

Blake moved to the United States in 1976 thinking he would find more “understanding and acceptance” here than he had in Canada. He also hoped to find some meaning from his war experiences.

The book’s second part deals with John Blake’s seven-month solo walk across the United States to draw attention to the service of Vietnam War veterans. He wore out six pairs of boots walking in uniform and carrying an American flag from Washington state to Washington D.C.

That 3,200-mile trek was planned to coincide with the November 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He called his the walk, “Mission at Home 1982, One for the Boys.” He also described it as his “long journey home.”

The third part describes Blake doing volunteer work as an advocate for Vietnam War veterans that ends with him fighting his own losing battle with PTSD. He took his own life in 1996. A note he left behind said, in part, “I’ve always been wondering where the boys went—I think I’ll go looking for them now.”

11111111111111111111111111

The fourth section of the book covers his family’s five-year struggle to have his cremated remains accepted for burial in a military cemetery in Newfoundland. The final part describes Saint John communicating with, and meeting several, of the men who had served alongside her brother in Vietnam.

John Blake often expressed his feelings through poetry and hoped someday to write a book about his experiences. The task ended up falling to his younger sister. She has served him well.

Cathy Saint John wrote this book for family members too young to have known John Blake. It also serves, more generally, as an exploration of the general causes and effects of post-traumatic stress disorder.

–Bill McCloud

Advertisements

The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

9781612006659_1_2

Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

1616b32c327674cf94e629423804afbe

Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Delta Sierra by Larry R. Fry

41hoengtwel._sx322_bo1204203200_

Delta Sierra: A Novel of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 410 pp., $19, paper) is Larry R. Fry’s first novel, but he sharpened his skills having written two nonfiction books dealing with family history, a textbook on computer programming, and Cowboys and War, a worthy book of poetry.

Delta Sierra is described as “a novel of air combat over North Vietnam.” It concentrates on the price paid by the men who flew those missions. Gary Bishop Deale, the novel’s protagonist, flies daily bombing missions over North Vietnam and Laos.

The point is made that both of these countries are heavily defended by modern weapons supplied by Russia and China. So in a sense, he is at war with Russia and China, but this fact is not confronted.

While Gary is fighting this war, his wife, Allison Faith Deale, is in graduate school in North Carolina working in a marine lab. She is aware of the dangers that Gary faces on a daily basis and tries to wait patiently for his return—if that happens.

The novel deals with real events, such as what happened to Col. Jack Broughton when he stood up for his men in an incident that should not have led to his being punished. Broughton is the author of Thud Ridge, a classic 1969 memoir about air combat in the Vietnam War.  That is still the book to read for information on this subject.

Delta Sierra covers the same territory. I recommend it highly to those who cannot get enough of this subject.  It’s written in short chapters and is easily enjoyed in short bursts.

–David Willson

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by Philip Bigler

cover

Anyone with the slightest interest in military tradition should find Philip Bigler’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier: A Century of Honor, 1921-2021 (Apple Ridge, 400 pp. $24.95, paper) an entertaining historical read of the highest caliber.

This informative treasure is a work of love. Bigler’s association with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began in 1983 when he served for three years as one of the official historians at Arlington National Cemetery. The contacts he established there led him to write a history of that famed cemetery. The approach of the Tomb’s hundredth anniversary impelled Bigler to do extensive research on every aspects of its history.

Some sections of the book include an abundance of photographs. Reading those pages is akin to watching a television documentary with detailed subtitles.

Bigler explains each step in resolving controversies about the Tomb’s design, along with determining the why, how, and who of selecting unknown soldiers. He also shows how other nations have paid tribute to their war dead.

He reviews the histories of America’s wars and their influence on expanding a monument for a single World War I Unknown Soldier into a resting place for unknown warriors from World War II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The turmoil surrounding the Vietnam War Unknown Soldier takes up a third of the book.

His voluminous and exceptionally informative endnotes reflect the depth and meticulousness of his research. Bigler showed me more about the Tomb than I ever could have anticipated.

An account of the duties of the ever-present Tomb Guards wraps up the story. Five appendices add to the picture of America’s dedication to its fallen warriors.

yqzsruvuyzgodbzexqh4dzbhgy

November 11, 1921: The first burial at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Bigler taught history and humanities in Virginia public schools for 23 years and later was an assistant professor at James Madison University. In 1998 he was named National Teacher of the Year. He has written ten other books: six on American history and four on teaching and education.

A companion piece to Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is Michael Lee Lanning’s The Veterans Cemeteries of Texas, which explains the procurement and development of burial ground for military veterans; procedures for interment; and practices for continued honoring of the deceased. What applies to Texas cemeteries applies to the rest of the states—or it should.

The book’s website is www.tomb2021.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

418jpvwojll._sx331_bo1204203200_

Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

4759d5125dae9889f885be535ceafc1f

The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud

Cowboys and War by Larry R. Fry

41o2pkns6wl._sx331_bo1204203200_

Cowboys and War (CreateSpace, 64 pp., $15, paper) is a poetry collection written by Larry R. Fry, who served as in the U.S. Air Force in Vietnam in 1962-63. The poems are written from the point of view—and in the voice of—USAF Lt. Gary Bishop Deale. Lt. Deale also is a protagonist in Delta Sierra, Fry’s companion novel which tells the story of Deale’s Vietnam War tour of duty as an F-105D Thunderchief fighter pilot.

The poems in Cowboys and War deal with Deale’s thoughts about the war, as well as his hopes, what was accomplished by the missions he flew, and how he and his fellow pilots coped with the frustrations of combat flying—as well as how they coped with the every-day stress.

When Deale is in Thailand, his wife remains in North Carolina. A major part of the book involves Deale’s thoughts about her and about their marriage.

This small book contains fewer than two dozen poems. They are rarely longer than one page and are often much smaller than that. They are powerful and pack a punch much greater than their size.

Here’s “Pickle the Load,” an example of the fine poetic art in this collection. It was written on June 30, 1967, which happened to be my 25th birthday.

 

Pickle the Load

Rolling

His plane

Upright

Following smoke trails.

Stooping

Down the chute

Like

A bad-assed bird.

Flaming

Telephone poles

Blast

By seeking death.

Drifting

Off target then

Centering

His pipper true.

Punching

His red button

Pickling

The bomb load.

Flashing,

Six orange bursts

Explode

Behind and below.

Slashing

Hot iron shards

Shred

Life from limb.

Thanks to Larry R. Fry—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—for this inadvertent birthday poem.

—David Willson

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field Edited by Robert M. Craig

412bp1l9ns9l

Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

A new Vietnam War memoir fulfills that want on a large scale. Vietnam War veteran Robert M. Craig’s Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era (Hellgate Press, 526 pp. $29.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) contains autobiographies of thirty-four Principia College graduates from the sixties who served in the war. Only one woman contributes her experience: Elizabeth Pond, a journalist captured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rogue.

The book evolved from conversations at a 50th high school reunion. Craig, a professor at Georgia Tech for forty years, took charge as editor of the project with support from the Principia staff.

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field is exceptional because it highlights the effects of a civilian education that guided people to behave positively in war or in peace. The graduates willingly served in America’s armed forces with deep dedication to duty. Many easily transitioned into successful marriages and business dealings.

Half of the thirty-four Principia grads filled combat roles in Vietnam. Their first-person shoot-’em-up reminiscences are revelatory and spellbinding. The veterans coolly speak about combat—which is to say, they faced ultimate dangers with determination and poise. The actions they describe reflect unselfish heroism.

The variety of their duties—platoon leader, swift boat commander, helicopter pilot, among others—provides insightful views of the inner workings of the war. Slightly more than half of the graduates served in the Navy; the rest were in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. By far, the majority were officers. In Nam, they often met by chance, and shared tight bonds.

Tradition significantly influenced the men’s decisions. Nearly every one of their fathers had served in World War II or Korea, with several family histories extending back to earlier American wars.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of Principia College, which Craig describes as “an independent kindergarten through college school for Christian Scientists; the K-12 campus is located in a suburb west of St. Louis; the college overlooks the Mississippi River, about forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.”

It is not unusual for students to attend both campuses for sixteen years of education. Many family members attend either or both campuses generation after generation.

“[Principia’s] founder Mary Kimball Morgan held the firm conviction that the purpose of education is to develop self-discipline, character, and the ability to think vigorously, fearlessly, and accurately,” Craig says. He credits dedication to Christian Science for the graduates’ ability “to accomplish whatever was their duty to do, without being harmed or fatigued, and to stay healthy under all conditions.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is not mentioned by anyone of them as a problem.

principia_college_sign

The school’s graduates were not robots, however. Some who served during the Vietnam War declined to contribute to the book for “both universal and personal” reasons, Craig says. Their resistance reminded others of the war’s “full picture,” he adds.

As a man without a favorite religion, I admire the Principia graduates portrayed in Red Rivers in a Yellow Field. They met every intention of their school’s training and their familial backgrounds to serve our nation to the fullest.

—Henry Zeybel