The Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel

Other Streets by Mark F. Erickson

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Born in Saigon in 1972, Mark Erickson was evacuated as part of Operation Babylift in April 1975 and adopted by an American family. He returned to Vietnam in 1993 to photograph the country of his birth that he hardly knew.

The result, Other Streets (194 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is both a photographic achievement and a cautionary tale about self-publishing. Erickson graduated from Harvard with a keen understanding of Seventies street photography personified by Bruce Davidson, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. His photos are black and white with the characteristic black border that results from a filed film carrier.

“This book is not about the war or famous people or infamous places,” Erickson writes in the preface. “Instead, it is about the beauty that I found in ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places.” After “carrying this film around for over a quarter of a century,” he says, he put together his book.

It is a fine documentation of Vietnam at a particular time—long after the war concluded but before the economy lurched into overdrive.  Mark Erickson lovingly depicts men and some women working and relaxing in a small and still-simple country. Many of the images are quite striking and one gets the feeling that his subjects were as interested in him as Erickson was in them.

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Mark Erickson

Erickson is the book’s photographer, its author, its designer, and its publisher. This may suggest the book’s problem. It includes 90 duotones. A sharper, better presentation would have pared them down to perhaps 75.

The reproductions in the paperback version are not very good. This makes the photos overly dependent on the captions and the book easy to dismiss. That’s a shame because this volume contains some lovely photographs full of hope and a wistful longing.

A hardcover version of the book (with better-quality images) is available at the author’s website, markferickson.com

The e-book version (on Kindle) is available on line at this page on amazon.com

–Michael Keating

 

 

 

 

The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War by Dennis G. Pregent

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Posterity needs men like Dennis Pregent who look back and examine life to determine what they and people like them have accomplished. A Vietnam War veteran, Pregent wrote a memoir about his role in the war. Then, encouraged by his wife, he found and interviewed ten other war veterans with whom he had graduated from high school: seven soldiers, two Marines, and one sailor. They served from mid-1965 to late 1972. He tells their stories in The Boys of St. Joe’s ’65 in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 246 pp. $39.95, paper: $19.99, Kindle).

Pregent served in I Corps near Da Nang. On his first tour, he was a Marine supply clerk and MP who patrolled at night and set ambushes. “We never killed anyone,” he says. Five months into his second tour as a comptroller, Pregent volunteered for temporary duty with the 1st Marine Air Wing as a CH-46 Sea Knight gunner. The unit rescued the wounded, carried the dead from battlefields, inserted and extracted recon teams, and resupplied Marines under fire.

Grisly events connected to saving wounded civilians (especially children) and Marines deeply affected him, but that exposure to the war did not satisfy his curiosity. For the last three days of his helicopter duty, Pregent volunteered for night medevac missions. That short span provided him with unforgettable memories about the frailty of the human body. Thereafter, he “was relieved to be back in the rear” for the remainder of his tour, he says. Pregent does not preach; he simply reports what he saw and did.

Pregent’s book also includes his own his pre- and post-war life, and he uses the same format to tell his Vietnam War story as he does with the ten men he interviewed. They all grew up in Adams and North Adams, Massachusetts. It was a mid-twentieth-century Americana environment: Households had two parents. Most fathers had served in World War II and worked responsible blue-collar jobs. Women kept house and sometimes had jobs outside the home. Children obeyed their parents and teachers. Families honored the Catholic Church and the nation. Boys pursued healthy outdoor activities. At all levels, misbehavior stayed within acceptable boundaries.

The men who went to Vietnam also shared a remarkable commonality in their military service: mostly they enlisted; within six months they arrived in Vietnam; and they usually fought as infantrymen—mechanized, airborne, or whatever. Search and destroy was the order of the day, and that was what they did—repeatedly. But, despite the many similarities the men share, Pregent uncovered ten distinct personalities.

Their stories are filled with heroics and selflessness. One man was killed in action, one paralyzed for life, and another suffered only slightly less horrendous wounds. Each endured a year filled with combat ops, air assaults, and skirmishes—and postwar PTSD. They usually fought outnumbered. They humped for stretches of twenty-eight-days, with two rest days in between, a schedule that lasted month after month. Fifteen-hour workdays, seven days a week were the norm for support personnel.

To round out his view of the era, Pregent includes a chapter on Carol Bleau Boucher—a war protestor and ’65 St. Joe graduate. Although her grandfather and father served in World War I and II, Boucher opposed the Vietnam War. The combat deaths of a family friend, a classmate, and then her long-time boyfriend within a year triggered her to join protest marches, antiwar discussions, and other forms of demonstrations. At least, as Pregent tells her story, Boucher’s protests eventually helped to disenchant some town citizens with the war.

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St. Joe’s High, North Adams, Massachusetts

Each chapter includes well-chosen photographs that mostly came from private collections and perfectly align with the topic of the moment.

I have read other books that examine small groups of men from the same community. The Boys of St. Joe’s is the most interesting. One chapter subtitle, “Too Many Close Calls,” comes close to describing the life of everyone in the St. Joe clan.

Pregent portrays young men with unquestionable devotion to nation and family, a small part of a generation we probably never will see again. His subliminal message (intentional or not) made me smile: It’s a short step from obeying a nun to following a sergeant.

—Henry Zeybel