Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).

Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.

Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.

Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.

She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.

What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.

Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.

The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.

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Chia Youyee Vang

Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.

Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).

Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Shooting Vietnam Dan Brookes & Bob Hillerby

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Network television captured the lightning and thunder of the Vietnam War and gave a new dimension to war reporting. Same-day combat action appeared on evening news programs as correspondents presented graphic footage of death and destruction in color. In comparison, Americans at home saw World War II and the Korean War mainly through black-and-white still photographs, primarily in the widely read weekly Life magazine.

Shooting Vietnam: The War by Its Military Photographers (Pen & Sword, 251 pp.; $32.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) by Dan Brookes and Bob Hillerby recreates the 1966-67 world of black-and-white news photography, along with accounts of the lives of military combat photographers in the Vietnam War. Both authors served with the 69th Signal Battalion.

Bob Hillery fills the first half of the book by explaining how some in-country photographers were really infantrymen with cameras. He took part in more than a hundred air assault missions with the 1st Cavalry Division and says, “I’d come to think of the danger, fear and adrenaline rush as being normal and couldn’t understand why some of the shooters tried to avoid going to the field.”

Attached to the 1st Cav’s B Troop, 1/9th, he describes working side-by-side with American soldiers at their best. The unit’s nickname was “The Headhunters,” and it was considered “the Cav of the Cav,” he says.

Dan Brookes then describes the jobs of behind-the-line photographers stationed at Tan Son Nhut and Cam Ranh Bay. Certain to be drafted, he enlisted to get a Lab Technician assignment, which he calls “a million dollar experience (that I wouldn’t give a nickel to do over).”

Brookes and his fellow “lab rats” developed and printed film and produced slides for highly classified briefings. Working regularly scheduled eight-hour shifts, they had free time to explore Saigon and its environs and photograph people and places. Occasionally, they manned the base perimeter when the VC attacked nearby—but they did not experience combat.

Separated by three years, the older Hillerby faced the war like a half-mad avenger. Brookes, on the other hand, wandered through the war zone partaking in coming-of-age experiences. Their slight age difference clearly reflects the distinctive moods of the time.

The book wraps up with two thought-provoking articles. Brookes revisits the My Lai massacre to discuss the responsibilities of photographers who encounter and record these kinds of dire events. Tony Swindell confirms Bob Hillerby’s account of the grunt-like existence of combat photographers, a situation that was not fully evident to Swindell until he found himself continually under fire in the hellhole of LZ Bravo near Duc Pho during 1968-69.

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Army photogs CPT Roger B. Hawkins, SFC Harry Breedlove, & Spec5 Ken Powell

Swindell offers a passage that, to me, clearly summarizes a grunt’s existence: “I used to lay on top of our bunker and look into space, wondering if aliens were watching us. If so, they probably figured we were packs of violent apes and turned their attention elsewhere.”

His spellbinding stories and photographs are the best part of the book. They raised question after question in my mind. His analyses of the Pacification and Phoenix programs thoroughly exemplify the misdirection and futility of the war.

Shooting Vietnam‘s importance lies in its examination and explanations of duties about which I had limited knowledge. I suspect many readers will feel the same.

The book is enlightening.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

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Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

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Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson

 

Arabic with a Redneck Accent by Aaron D. Graham

Aaron Graham, an assistant poetry editor for The Tishman Review, is a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where he served as an analyst and linguist.  He is working on a PhD in literature at Emory University and teaches English Lit and writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

His chapbook, Arabic with a Redneck Accent (Moonstone Press, $10, paper), contains twenty-six pages of poetry, much of which has been published in small magazines and journals such as Grist, Digging Through the FatThe Seven Hills Review, and The Taos International Journal of Poetry.

These are short poems, mostly about one page in length. They are all very powerful. Here’s one, “Mohave Viper,” an example of Graham’s fine work:

The nearest civilization

The world’s

Biggest thermometer

Is a palm tree

On our horizon

Approaching the plywood MOUT town

The first seconds of light

Breached the horizon—

The silence of darkness

What exploded before us

Was not shrapnel, prosperous

Or tetanus-seeping Philips-head screws,

Explosions were

Refracted light bouncing from

Microfilament spindle silk

Strands left by Tarantula-legions

Covering their cacti overnight

Like a police tape perimeter

Made of muslin

A crystalline kingdom of perfection

So delicate only the infant

Rays of sun would hold in focus.

 

In predawn hours

The Mohave sand

Already instructing—

The cost of invasion is

How something beyond

Fathom is lost—

Or, rather

Comes to end

 

under retread souls—

Issued combat boots.

Fine stuff and well worth savoring at great length while—as I did—drinking my morning cup of mint tea with honey. No better way to start my day.

Aaron Graham

Reading a poem in the morning is a great way to jump-start a day in Maple Valley, Washington, or anywhere for that matter.  It’s better than reading a chapter in a war memoir, which tends to be a downer.

For ordering info, go to squareup.com/store/moonstone-arts-center/item/arabic-with-a-redneck-accent-1

–David WIllson

On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Rene J. Francillon

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In 1988, Rene J. Francillon’s fascination with Navy aviation led him to publish a comprehensive account of U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the Vietnam War. Now a 30th anniversary edition of that book—Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975 (Eirl Aerosphere Research, 256 pp. $69.99: $5.99, e book)—presents an expanded version of his original work.

Francillon began writing about air power in 1958. His experience in the aerospace industry served him well in the fifty-eight books he wrote, the twenty he edited, and more than four hundred-plus articles he penned about current and historical military and civilian aircraft. His writing won awards worldwide.

The new version of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is fifty pages thicker with scores of photographs of aircraft and their carriers. The original book contained merely black-and-white photographs, all of which are included in the new edition. Every image has a caption that complements information in the text.

Best of all, Francillon includes data about virtually every aspect of aircraft carrier combat operations. For example, he lists every war cruise for each of seventeen attack carries, including squadrons and aircraft involved, victories and losses by names of fliers, and periods on line. He does the same for four antisubmarine carriers. Suffice it to say that the information that Francillion consolidated from a wealth of Navy sources comprises a statistician’s dream.

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Rene Francillon

Naturally, Francillon provides a history of American strategy and tactics employed during the years under discussion. Furthermore, he highlights the life story of the U.S.S. Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any aircraft carrier deployed in the Vietnam War.

Rene Francillon—who was born in Italy in 1937, raised in France, educated in Switzerland, and lived most of his life in the United States—died shortly before publication of this anniversary edition of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.

His wife Carol completed the project. For e-book ordering info, go to bookshout.com/publishers/eirl-aerosphere-research

—Henry Zeybel

A Genuine American Citizen Soldier by Al Navarro

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The heart of a citizen soldier contains non-militarized republicanism filled with a sense of public duty and civic virtue, according to historians. American Revolutionary War soldiers typified that ideal. World War II warriors solidified the image because the citizen soldiers in that conflict fought for international freedom. The Vietnam War might have been the citizen soldier’s final endeavor with the ending of the draft in 1973.

Alberto (Al) Navarro assumes the mantle of a citizen soldier in A Genuine American Citizen Soldier (362 pp. $25, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an autobiographical novel in which he becomes Arcadio Polanco, a Panamanian who enlists in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War summer of 1966 to qualify for American citizenship. At the urging of his wife, Navarro wrote the book as a history lesson for his children.

Navarro’s novel primarily deals with 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War at the age of 21 when he was stationed at Hoi An with the 37th Signal Battalion. He admits to taking liberties with his descriptions of combat action and characters. As a result, Polanco’s insights into leadership, strategy, and combat go beyond a grunt’s point of view. For example, his description of action during the 1968 Tet Offensive has depth that reflects research. In particular, he lauds the battle skills of Republic of Korea soldiers.

Most emphatically, Polanco/Navarro understood his destiny. He earned promotions and medals by seeking and performing duties beyond his pay grade. Disappointment did not daunt him. Promised a non-combat assignment upon enlisting, he became an outstanding citizen soldier when sent into the war zone.

Navarro’s style of writing contains conversations and accounts of routine activities that occasionally slow development of the story line. Otherwise, he clearly delivers his true-to-life message of how a person must repeatedly overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.

Al Navarro—the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 343 in Houston—completed active duty in the Army after completing his three-year enlistment. He went on to serve in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from 1972-2002, retiring as a Sergeant Major.

Following his naturalization process in December 1969, Navarro proudly says he became “a GENUINE AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

—Henry Zeybel