Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

The Night Fire by Michael Connelly

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Reading the new Michael Connelly Harry Bosch/Renee Ballard detective procedural, The Night Fire (Little Brown, 416 pp., $29), you’d have to be a good detective to know that Bosch is a Vietnam War veteran. This is Connelly’s 32nd detective procedural, the 22nd featuring Harry Bosch. I’ve been a big fan since I read the first one, the brilliant Black Echo, in 1992, and have devoured (and reviewed) every one of them. Before this, each Bosch book included details of Harry’s service in the war (he was a tunnel rat) and its impact on his mercurial law-enforcement career.

In some of the books Connelly offered but a few sentences here and there about Harry and the Vietnam War. In others, including The Black Echo, there was much more. This time the word “Vietnam” is not mentioned. Late in the book, Harry tells Ballard that he served in the Army—but that’s it.

Which is fine, although a tad disappointing because in my view Harry Bosch (along with James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux) is by far the best-drawn fictional Nam vet detective out there. And it’s always a good thing to encounter admirable Vietnam War veterans in fiction. Harry is street-smart, dedicated, courageous, and stubborn. He’s also brusque and often cranky and doesn’t easily suffer fools, frauds, or criminals. He regularly gets into deep trouble at the office and often runs into life-threatening situations on cases.

In The Night Fire, Bosh and Ballard—both of whom are dedicated, driven, high-maintenance detectives (he’s retired from LAPD and working part time; she’s active duty) —work on two different cases alone and together. As usual, Connelly tells a tale with red herrings galore and more than a few plot twists—sometimes a bit too many. But Connelly’s a master at spinning an exciting yarn that gets more exciting as it goes along and he does exactly that in this book.

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As always, Connelly creates fully flushed-out characters, especially Bosch and Ballard. And, in the end—well, no spoilers here. I will say that Connelly offers some veiled references to what might come next in Bosch’s life, mostly dealing with age-related physical problems.

My advice: Read this excellent detective novel and follow the clues to find out for yourself whodunit, how the detectives figured it out, and what might become of Harry Bosch.

–Marc Leepson

The Aviators by Rex Gooch

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Rex Gooch writes about what young men do when they are carefree and voluntarily go to war. In their world, life becomes simply us-against-them and survival equates with victory.

Gooch, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells all about that in The Aviators: Stories of U.S. Army Helicopter Combat in the Vietnam War, 1971-72 (Lighthorse Publishing, 316 pp. $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). The book consists of stories Gooch has collected from fellow helicopter crewmen in the Lighthorse Air Cavalry, the 17th Aviation Group, 18th Aviation Company who served during the Vietnam War in IV Corps at Vinh Long and Can Tho.

Kevin Kelly, “the best Cobra pilot in the troop,” as Gooch puts it, perfectly summed up their attitude. In control of a weapons system with overwhelming firepower, Kelly said, “I felt invincible.” But after being shot down twice, a shaken Kelly felt his “invincibility had been replaced by a more experienced outlook.”

These young men—mostly in their late teens and early twenties—endured a baptism of fire that revealed their mortality, Gooch says. Simultaneously, it bonded them for life.

The Aviators has two themes. First, the book records a short period of combat by an organization with a long history. Second, it describes Gooch’s progression from new copilot to aircraft commander. After a year of flight training, ROTC-graduate Gooch—nearly fearless and eager to fly in combat—went directly to the war zone.

Gooch tells stories with a style that puts the reader in the boots of pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. Detail is his forte, but it can grow tiresome when Gooch repeatedly walks men through mundane activities such as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, and performing pre-flight chores.

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Rex Gooch

In describing the flight phase of missions, however, Gooch provides details that turn war stories into vivid teaching lessons. He slows the chaos of combat to an understandable speed and examines events from multiple angles. His account of the shoot-down of Chris Rash exemplifies how Gooch weaves interviews with fellow flyers into in-depth analyses. His stories about coordination within crews and between aircraft provide classic examples of teamwork.

Gooch explains topics such as Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive, and Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia with indented paragraphs jammed into the middle of the text. Old timers might see this as distracting because it slows the flow of a story, but young readers should appreciate the information and will learn from views into the past.

Chapters conclude with short biographies of men cited in the stories. Many pilots pursued post-war flying careers in and out of military service. As for Rex Gooch, he left the Army in 1974 and attained executive rank in Industrial Engineering and Human Resources corporations until retiring in 2001.

The Aviators is Gooch’s second contribution to Army helicopter history. His first book—Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio—was a 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal recipient.

Rex Gooch’s website is www.fifthcavalry.com

—Henry Zeybel

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

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Daniel H. Weiss’s In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 192 pp., $26) is a stunning book. It contains only 176 pages of text, but is well written and presented.

Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell, a helicopter pilot whose chopper was shot down by enemy fire in Cambodia while extracting a secret reconnaissance team on March 24, 1970. The crew and passengers went down in flames in dense jungle surrounded by the NVA.

Weiss follows O’Donnell and his family from birth to his loss. Then he shows how his parents, sister, and girlfriend dealt with the fact that he was officially missing in action. O’Donnell’s remains were not identified until 1995. He was buried in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in a common grave with the remains of the five men he tried to rescue and his 170th Attack Helicopter Co. co-pilot John Hosken,

His story is told in conjunction with a very compact presentation of the history of the  Vietnam War. Though not a member of the Vietnam War generation, Weiss, a former college president and author, is a proven researcher. His Vietnam War history is dispassionate and un-cynical—even clinical.

His telling of Mike O’Donnell’s short life story is special, mainly because of the fact that he was a poet. During O’Donnell’s teen-age years and his short foray at college, music and poetry were driving forces for him. He enlisted in the Army with the draft breathing down his neck. He made it through OCS and helicopter flight school and in Vietnam served a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot with 170th ASC at Pleiku and Dak To.

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During his time in country O’Donnell wrote a good number of poems (and some song lyrics) that he wanted to assemble under the title “Letters from Pleiku.” One of his poems came to be known after his death by its first line, “if you are able.” It has been widely published, including on the home page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website run by the 4th Battalion/9th Infantry Association, and on the Fallen Warriors page on the Blue Star Mothers’ website.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson