Jumping from Helicopters by John Stillman and Lori Stillman

Jumping from Helicopters: A Vietnam Memoir (Turtle Creek, 242 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a paean by a loyal and thankful veteran to his unit in the Vietnam War. John Stillman, ably aided by his daughter Lori, takes the reader through his 1967-68 year in-country with the 1st of the 502nd in the 101st Airborne Division.

This book is presented in a unique format. Following an engaging story, well written and edited, there are a few chapters designed to encourage conversations that might be developed for a high school AP English class. This book could be a useful tool for today’s students who typically get little historical exposure to the Vietnam War or the stories of its veterans.

For 50 years Stillman did not talk to anyone about his war experiences. He also put up with daily—and nightly—hidden struggles with post-war traumatic stress. An invitation to address a few classes following a high school reunion and his daughter’s sensitivity to his demons convinced him to break down the walls and write this book with her.  

He begins at the beginning, with his birth in Chicago and rearing in the Saint Louis area, noting his desire to be a soldier from an early age. Stillman enlisted in the U.S. Army after high school and describes being inducted, and what it was like going through Basic Training, AIT, and jump school. He leavens the narrative with wry humor and anecdotes.

Before his departure for Vietnam, Stillman’s father gave him a journal “to record [his] thoughts.” Those journal entries are sprinkled throughout the book, providing insights into Stillman’s experiences.

Despite the book’s title—and although he was with an airborne unit—Stillman and his fellow 101st troopers didn’t make any parachute jumps helicoptes. They did, however, make countless plunges from helicopters before the before the skids hit the ground. Stillman writes that the times he felt the most free in Vietnam were when he was sitting in choppers, his feet on the skids, riding the wind.

This is a worthy offering–a good read and one I recommend.

The book’s website is jumpingfromhelicopters.com

–Tom Werzyhnf

It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave by Emerson Gilmore

Emerson Gilmore’s book of Vietnam War poetry, It Looks Like What I’ll Take to My Grave: Viet Nam Fifty Years Later, a Memoir in Verse (106 pp. $15.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), moves beyond the borders of the war to consider the effects of armed conflict in general and the unfortunate fact that war is apparently a consistent part of human existence.

Gilmore served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam from January 1970-February 1971 as an interpreter and interrogator. The book’s title refers to the fact that his war memories will stay with him for his entire life.

The book gets off to a great start with the first line of the first poem: “None of us was meant/to war.” Gilmore writes that Basic Training at Ft. Jackson taught him how to “guard empty buildings/with empty rifles.”

On his way to Vietnam, he writes, “I stopped in to fill my stomach with beer,/drank for nearly a year/and landed in Bien Hoa, Vietnam.” That was not Gilmore’s last beer, as he admits, “I drank the war.”

He also tells us through his poetry that he “never fired or was fired upon” and he spent much of his time in “the clubs of Saigon/where the whores/knew my name.” Gilmore sometimes writes disparagingly about street prostitutes calling out offers of sex, “Their breath tainted with rat and dog.”

There’s a great poem about both sides during the war singing “the ageless G.I. blues,” with a nod to the 1960 Elvis Presley song and the lyrics to a similar song in James Jones’ great World War II novel, From Here to Eternity, as well as the Hollywood movie version of the book.

Gilmore’s poetry gives us much to think about. Such as: “I will never fight another war/even if God says.” And:

“History without wars bores,

shortens the books,

drains the blood from professors’ careers,

and politicians’

cuts the balls from

man after man

Why Adam and Noah

if not for war?”

Several of the poems are written with a rhythm that would make them especially interesting to be read out loud. Some, if you read carefully, are love poems to lost buddies. Some are straightforward in their story telling; others make creative use of symbolism. A few are fairly light-hearted, but most are as serious as the idea of endless war.

I admire Emerson Gilmore’s poetic efforts to reduce the numbers of American casualties in the war: “If I turn on the radio,/sons will die. The man/will say so. I have not/turned on the television for/months, saving countless lives.”

There’s also serious PTSD at work here, along with occasional glimpses of possible redemption.

I read through this volume three times and different things jumped out at me each time. This book of poetry is alive and I encourage you to engage with it. It’s one of the good ones.

–Bill McCloud

Saigon To Pleiku by David Grant Noble

David Grant Noble’s Saigon To Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-1963 (McFarland 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) is a compelling memoir about his work in Vietnam during the Kennedy years. With candor and humility, Noble illustrates the challenges of gathering usable intelligence and realizing the true nature of the war. Drawing from detailed letters to family and friends, Noble has created an engaging, often dreamlike, account of what he saw when the facts were not always clear. 

In 1961, David Noble trained at the Army Counterintelligence Corps school at Fort Holabird.  When he received his orders to go to Saigon, he had no idea what country it was in.

Arriving in May, 1962, Noble found himself poorly prepared for his assignment. He was a tall, blonde kid with a Yale degree in French Literature. Speaking no Vietnamese, he was stunned to learn that no else in his department did either. That situation reflected the low status the war in Vietnam warranted at the time in the U.S. 

Despite this, Noble’s resolve was firm. Committed to the ideal that South Vietnam was a young democratic republic struggling to survive, he would see that it did. The issues seemed clear, and to suggest otherwise was heresy.

Even though he was a Private, Noble enjoyed the privileges of an officer with the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in Saigon. After months of barracks living, Noble found himself quartered at the Continental Palace, one of the city’s finest hotels. The ironies abounded, with more to come.

Posing as a civilian worker for the Army, Noble began traveling around Saigon, then to Pleiku in the Central Highlands, gathering information simply by talking with South Vietnamese and foreign officials. He became a good dinner companion and a respectful guest in their homes. 

Gradually, and reluctantly, Noble realized that America’s perception of the Ngo Dinh Diem administration was false. Far from helping the people of South Vietnam, Diem cared only for his family and friends. While ruthlessly suppressing the Buddhist and Montagnard populations, Diem ordered every report sanitized, declaring every operation successful, and every one of his actions just.

The façade weakened for Noble after a carefully planned Viet Cong attack on a Central Highlands village. With help from collaborators, the VC drew away Montagnard defenders and several Green Berets. With the village left poorly defended, the Viet Cong overran it, killing many villagers, burning houses, and seizing stocks of weapons and food.

The next day Montagnards suspected of collaborating were arrested, but getting useful information from them was difficult. Interrogations required three translators to convert questions from English to French, then to Vietnamese, and then to the tribesmen’s dialect. Often the questions were incomprehensible to the prisoners, and their answers were opaque. 

Having never used maps, calendars or clocks, they couldn’t provide specifics about the Viet Cong. They had collaborated simply because they were treated better by the VC than by their own government. They had never heard of Ho Chi Minh or Ngo Dinh Diem or the principles each professed to uphold. 

David Noble

Noble came away deeply shaken. It was the bitterest example of the absurdity of his nation’s cause. The implications were anathema to his superiors, but for Noble the conclusions were clear.      

By the end of his one year tour of duty he had become a valuable asset to the Army. Because of the many skills he learned and contacts he made, Noble was offered a reserve commission. But he refused it.  The gulf was too vast between what Noble was told to believe and what he had learned.

Wistful, bittersweet, at times despairing, Saigon to Pleiku is a sobering meditation on the dawn of America’s entry into the Vietnam War. For readers seeking a personalized insight into these formative years, Noble’s memoir is well worth the read.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

–Mike McLaughlin

In Good Faith by Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller’s In Good Faith: A History of the Vietnam War, Vol. I: 1945-65 (Osprey, 448 pp. $35, hardcover; $21, paper; $9.99, Kindle) a useful reference volume on the war and its origins for today’s readers who are removed from the Vietnam War by a half century. Miller, a former British Army Special Forces officer, has stitched together the war’s roots starting with the long French colonial phase, through the final years of the World War II, and into the Cold War when the fate of Vietnam had a minimal role in America’s national security concerns. The book ends with the beginnings of the full-blown American War.  

Miller includes a synopsis of U.S. national security policies starting with the 1930s in an attempt to answer the unending question: How did the United States end up in a conflict that was so costly for all parties and damaging in the long term to America’s prestige? To answer that, he analyzes the impact that communist takeover of China in 1948 and the 1950-53 Korean War had on America’s post-World War II role as leader of the so-called Free World, as well as on U.S. domestic politics.

This book does not focus on the failure of America’s senior civilian and military leaders during the Vietnam War and their deceitfulness in misleading the public. Instead, Miller takes a broader approach by examining the war primarily through its political context. Many personalities who played important roles along the path leading eventually to the American war in Vietnam appear as book moves along.

Of parallel importance, Miller revisits decisions made in the White House and the Pentagon that reveal confused policies and diametrically opposed positions held by senior leadership and their principal lieutenants. He also reports on the seemingly endless American fact-finding missions to Vietnam and their often misleading and politically motivated findings and recommendations. There’s also a full account of the Kennedy Administration’s complicity in the November 1963 coup and subsequent murder of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem (about which Ho Chi Minh supposedly said, “I can scarcely believe that the Americans would be so stupid.”), and the downward spiral of the South in its aftermath.

JFK and his Defense Secretary, Robert S. McNamara

What was particularly interesting to this reader was to once revisit the arguments for U.S. military escalation in Vietnam and against commitments that would entangle the country in an almost certain disastrous war in Southeast Asia. Central to Washington’s inexcusably poor decision making were the Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson’s top foreign policy advisers who made supposedly well-informed arguments to take the fight to the Viet Cong North Vietnamese Army. The few voices who unequivocally stated that involvement in the war would be a monumental mistake with grave consequences for both the United States and Vietnam were all but ignored

The single most important event discussed in this book is the August 4, 1964, Gulf of Tonkin Incident, after which the Johnson Administration reported to Congress that North Vietnamese torpedo boats made two attacks on two U.S. Navy destroyers: the Maddox on August 2, and the Maddox and the Turner Joy on August 4, in international waters with no provocation. The resulting Tonkin Gulf Resolution is important for two reasons: First, the second attack never took place; second, Congress’ passage of the resolution amounted to a de facto Declaration of War, authorizing the Johnson to conduct combat operations against North Vietnam. Thus began an unnecessary war that America would come to deeply regret.

Reading this book, you might conclude that the wrongheaded arguments leading to the catastrophic U.S. war in Vietnam—what was essentially a war of choice, not necessity—were so transparently fallacious that no president would ever ignore the lessons learned in that war and repeat such a costly error in judgement. Yet, that is exactly what happened just thirty-five years later in the Persian Gulf when, once again, “wise men” who should have known better pushed for a president to go to war. 

–John Cirafici

Who Will Go by Terry Buckler

There have been more than a dozen books about the November 1970 U.S. Special Operations raid on the Son Tay POW camp outside of Hanoi in North Vietnam. The latest is Terry Buckler’s Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp (360 pp. $39.90, hardcover; $28.90, paper; $8.99, Kindle), which came out last November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that famed mission.

Buckler, who was an Army Special Forces E-5 radio operator, offers a unique account of the training that went into the raid, as well as the raid itself. He wasn’t an officer who helped plan the operation. His perspective as an involved NCO—and the youngest man who took part in the mission—makes for an interesting story.

In this book, Buckler, with the help of Cliff Westbrook, takes us through his military training and describes volunteering at Fort Bragg for a secret mission that could prove to be “moderately dangerous,” as it was described. Buckler was selected to be included on the raid because he was aggressive enough to ask what was going on, and wanted to be included. 

Buckler describes the three intensive months of training that the Green Berets went through at Eglin AFB in Florida in areas that had been used as training sites for other classified missions. Of the 500-odd who men volunteered for the mission, about a hundred took part in the actual raid, including the USAF personnel who supported the 56 men on the ground.

Terry Buckler

The prison camp was reconstructed in the Florida wilderness from intel photos and information gleaned from myriad sources. Buckler presents a view of the training—some of which included live fire—that could only come from a man-on-the-ground, and he tells his story well.

He and Westbrook interviewed scores of raid participants, and have fleshed out the story from many angles. We hear from guys who got their hands dirty, as well as those who sat on the platform at the briefings.

The book contains 190 pages of appendices, along with photos, charts, maps, lists of personnel and material, and a list of equipment carried by each man into the field.

The planning, execution, assessment of the Son Tay Raid will continue to be studied by military planners. Terry Buckler’s book adds to the trove of useful information about it and is very well worth the read.

The book’s website is thesontayraid.com

—Tom Werzyn

A Bend in the River by Libby Fischer Hellmann

A Bend in the River (The Red Herrings Press, 406 pp. $17.99, paper; $6.99, e book) is a meaty, satisfying historical novel set during the Vietnam War by crime fiction writer Libby Fischer Hellmann.

The plot hinges on the aftermath of an incident in Vietnam in the spring of 1968. Two teenaged Vietnamese sisters helplessly see their family killed by American troops who then massacre the rest of the people in the village. The girls flee to Saigon, joining streams of refugees following the Tet Offensive heading to South Vietnam’s capital.

While living in a refugee camp they find jobs at a restaurant. The younger sister, Mai, finds work as a hostess in a Saigon lounge that caters to Americans. Tam goes off to join the female fighting forces of the Viet Cong known as the Long Hairs. Mai, fourteen, wears makeup to appear to be seventeen, having been told that is the “perfect” age for the business. She works at the Stardust Lounge, named after the Las Vegas hotel. It’s one of the few air-conditioned bars in the city.

Tam goes through a two-week training camp, then is encouraged to use her sister to collect information from loose-lipped Americans. But she refuses to involve the younger girl in that dangerous activity. After Tam kills a man in battle, she realizes she “could no longer accept that she was more principled than the enemy.”

We learn through Mai that many Vietnamese people in Saigon fearfully followed the first manned landing on the Moon, concerned that the gods were being tempted and might decide to punish people on Earth. Her VC sister, virtually unaware of such things, is busy recovering unexploded bombs, driving a supply truck, and exploring the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Whenever Tam is asked what village she’s from, she refuses to name it, simply saying it’s “not there anymore. The Americans destroyed it.”

As the war begins winding down the sisters are affected in serious but different ways. Though they are estranged we feel as though destiny may bring them back together. The story goes back and forth, a few chapters at a time, telling each girl’s story. It’s an efficient way of keeping the reader’s interest.

Libby Fischer Hellmann

Hellmann says she was driven to write this book because “Americans still see the war through a strictly American lens.” In an effort to learn more about the Vietnamese during the war, she read novels such as Nguyen Phan Que Mai’s The Mountains Sing, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.

The results of that research are obvious in the book, but this story, and the telling of it, are strictly Hellmann’s own. Part popular fiction and part literary fiction, this deftly written book is well worth reading.

The author’s website is libbyhellmann.com

–Bill McCloud

Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster by Fred Herrin

Former U.S. Navy Seabee Fred Herrin’s Tour of Duty 1967: The Paymaster (332 pp. $14.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), is a highly entertaining, fast-paced novel about the American war in Vietnam in 1967.

As a Marine, when I looked at the title, I thought, “Yikes! Someone has written a war story about how rough Navy disbursement clerks had it in Vietnam.” That made it difficult for me to open the book. But when I did, I found Tour of Duty 1967 to be a well-written and thoroughly engaging war story. I must admit, this old Marine (when I say “old,” I mean my seven-eighty- deuce gear was a short sword and a shield) was totally engaged in the intricate tale that Fred Herrin has written.

When I read the book’s description, I thought Herrrin used the same blurb writer that half the people writing books about the Vietnam War seem to have used. After reading Tour of Duty twice, though, I saw that the blurb was accurate—and an insightful survey of the novel: “This fast-paced story will take you to the jungles of ‘Nam whether you’ve been there or not. You will reel with the realization of what our young men endured. The daily shelling, the constant threat of attack, the fear and shock and noise, making even the silence deadly.”

Tour of Duty is a brilliantly written, almost lyrical, tale of fiction. Herrin has crafted a story of intrigue and espionage involving Russians, the CIA, the Vietnamese, and a payroll clerk. It is a fantastic story written with a sense of humor that involves a wit so dry it makes the Sahara Desert look like Central Park.

Fred Herrin in country in 1967

In one scene, for example, the CIA is trying to find an excuse to remove the protagonist, Brad Scott, from his duties for a few weeks and go on some undercover operations. The CIA agent (disguised as an ensign) tells Scott’s LT that he has been sent to the hospital ship Repose to recover from an accidental gunshot wound. When the lieutenant asks what happened, the CIA agent says, “Left testicle, it’s gone, sir.”

The lieutenant responds, “Not self-inflicted then?”

The witty dialogue hides the fact that you are often being led into a complex mental ambush.

Tour of Duty is a rollicking adventure told by someone who was there, and is a book that is pretty much impossible to stop reading. Fred Herrin writes prose of clarity and wit.

If you are looking for an entertaining read, look no further.

–Charles L. Templeton

Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror by Geoff Widders

Geoff Widders’ Kurt Langer: Nemesis of Terror (313 pp. $11.91, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction that tells the amazing story of Kurt Langer through the eyes of the main character, Jimmy Greer. Like old pulp novels, this book it tells a tale of a larger-than-life hero in an exaggerated manner.

As a reminder, Geoff Widders is the author, Kurt Langer the hero, and Jimmy Greer tells the story.

In 1968, Langer is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam. For two years, he tries to stay sane by singing a Creedence Clearwater Revival song to himself that he remembers from basic training. A tiny bit of research reveals that that’s not possible, though, because that song was released in late 1970.

Langer frequently fantasizes about escaping. But each morning, Widders writes, he wakes up “from the world of nightmare into a nightmarish world.”

Finally, his chance to escape comes when a female VC falls for him. She realizes that something sets Langer apart from the other men. In a way, it was as if he is “other-worldly.” We learn that Langer becomes “a legend” the night he and the woman escape, then later directs an assault on the POW camp resulting in the release of all of his fellow captives.

We now move to 1976 and learn a little of narrator Jimmy Greer’s background, including how he wound up in Turkey where he met a beautiful older woman who reminds him of a Rider Haggard action-adventure-novel heroine. They hook up and then he is forced to go on the run with a different woman. That’s when he runs into the legendary Langer. After learning only that Langer had served in the Vietnam War, Greer thinks: “This guy may have killed tens or even hundreds of the enemy.”

Greer goes on to describe Langer as a man with “a classic thousand-yard stare,” the kind of guy who was “able to parachute, alone, into enemy territory” and “had seen events and had experiences that we should not see or feel.” Widders adds that Langer’s experiences in the war sent him “loop-de-loop.” On the other hand, he portrays Langer as the kind of guy who makes people braver just by being around him.

Geoff Widders

Moving again into the future we learn that Langer gets involved in a criminal act and is incarcerated for decades. Once he’s released, it’s just in time for him for the 74-year-old Vietnam vet to shut down a gigantic planned Islamic attack on San Francisco.

Once that was resolved, Widders writes, “The whole world came to know the name Kurt Langer.”

This is a pulp adventure with a larger-than-life hero and lots of exaggeration. When writing about a murder, for example, Widders mentions that there are “tens of thousands of homicides each year in California,” when, in fact, there’s only been one year that reached 4,000.

So, perhaps it’s best while reading this book to think of it as a story set in an alternate place and time. That way it works pretty well.

–Bill McCloud

Company Grade by Henry “Rocky” Colavita

The back-cover blurb on Henry “Rocky” Colavita’s Company Grade: Memoir of an Angry Skipper (Hellgate, 276 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells us to expect an “engaging, often funny memoir.” And that’s what Colavita came up with in this well-written book, beginning with his earliest memories of wanting to join the Army and to be a police officer.

His father’s Army career as a transportation officer took the Colavita family to many duty stations and assignments. As a student at Virginia Tech, Rocky Colavita joined Army ROTC, and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated.

The book includes lots of reminiscing about college life and early ROTC training. Colavita went through Infantry AIT, Ranger and Airborne Training, and Vietnamese Language School.

During his first tour in Vietnam he was assigned to an Airborne Advisory Team with MAAG, the predecessor of MACV. While working with a Vietnamese Airborne unit, Colavita was wounded and medevaced stateside for treatment and recuperation.

After recovering from his wounds he did a stint at the Army War College, then went back to Vietnam for a second tour, commanding Delta Co, 2nd/8th in the 1st Cavalry Division. Colavita’s call sign was Angry Skipper-6. He provides lots of good war stories about his second Vietnam War tour. After that, he finished a 20-year career as an Army officer.

Colavita joined the Fairfax County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office after he retired, rose to the rank of Major, and retired a second time. Colavita devotes only five pages to his law enforcement career. After enjoying what came before, I expected more great stories and anecdotes.

–Tom Werzyn