Can the mystical Jewish demon, the Golem, save the lives of two Army medics in the jungle during the Vietnam War? Did you know that there were Jews living in India for many centuries? Or about people known as “Conversos” who, since the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, have lived outwardly as Catholics but secretly observe Jewish rituals in private, including in communities in the Southwestern United States?
If you read David Hirshberg’s novel, Jacobo’s Rainbow (Fig Tree Books, 352 pp. $15.49, hardcover; $1.99, Kindle), you will find the answers to all of these questions.
In the book the pseudonymous Hirshberg tells how the Jewish people have had to be resilient in resisting anti-Semitism for millennia. The novel is set in Vietnam during the war and at fictional university in New Mexico where a student free speech movement and antiwar protests converge.
The anti-Semitism of a student leader affects some Jewish students who are part of the movement. One thing leads to another and then one of the young Jews is arrested and a judge gives him a choice of going to jail or getting drafted. He chooses the latter and is sent to Vietnam where he undergoes heavy combat. I served in the rear in that war, so I can’t address the accuracy of the book’s combat scenes, but they seem a bit out of sync with the real deal.
In addition to the in-country action, a lot happens on campus as students face off with the college administrators and the police. Plus, we get tepid romances between some of the characters. Ultimately, there is an answer to the question of whether justice will prevail among the book’s characters.
As someone who is Jewish, who served in the Army in Vietnam, and also was involved in the antiwar movement, I found the depictions of both to be interesting, but not riveting. It is likely that this book will appeal to some Jewish readers. Whether it will be attractive to a broader audience remains to be seen.
Fred Yager’s, The Asian Queen (Hannacroix Creek Books, 195 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a delightful homage to the book and classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film, The African Queen. Yager, a poet and novelist, served in the U.S. Navy, including an eighteen-month tour of duty as an embedded journalist and designated war correspondent in the Vietnam War.
The novel is set in 1977 with Monty Tipton living aboard his 32-foot refurbished Navy PBR while he motors up and down the rivers of Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Tipton’s a veteran of the Vietnam War who has decided to stay in Southeast Asia. His boat has been his home for the last eight of his 32 years. He has a reputation for being a loner with a weakness for booze and young Thai girls.
Tipton has been making his living—enough to keep him in fuel and cans of Foster’s beer—by smuggling Cambodians out of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at a hundred bucks a head. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous, though, and Tipton tells himself that he might just make one last trip into Cambodia.
He typically takes his human cargo to a refugee camp in Thailand. A young woman, Esther Brafford, has recently begun working at the camp, which is sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Commission. She would like to go into Cambodia and treat people. She’s also heard of atrocities on a mass scale being carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Since the U.N. and the U.S. government seem to be ignoring the atrocities, she wants to bring back photographic evidence that would push the Western world to step in.
Esther recruits our reluctant, antihero to take her into Cambodia by telling him she knows the location of some buried treasure. After a couple of days on their way to a country that Tipton says “smells like death,” Esther learns that the boat’s engine is on its last legs and her companion typically drinks ten beers a day, then has to drink Jack Daniels at night to stave off nightmares of the war.
They dodge mines, fend off frightening water rats, and evade gunboat blockades. The two are constantly bickering. She calls him a “disgusting degenerate alcoholic.” He counters with: “Of all the boats in the Delta, why’d she have to come aboard mine?”
Writing an homage to a classic work is not as easy as you might think. You don’t just copy the work; you tell a similar, recognizable tale while maintaining the spirit of the original one. Fred Yeager has done that—and more—and in the process has created a love letter to the original film.
Nghia M. Vo’s The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam (McFarland, 269 pp. $39.95, Paper; $17.99, Kindle) contains a heavyweight history lesson. Vo has written widely on Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture.
As he notes in the book, Vietnam has been at nearly continuous war with both foreign and domestic forces since its earliest history. The 1954 Geneva Accords that ended French colonial rule did not divide Vietnam into two separate countries (North & South), he says; it merely formalized the north-south division that Vietnam had almost always known.
America’s involvement in Vietnam following France’s departure was intended to help South Vietnam defend itself from North Vietnam’s attempt to overrun and dominate the South. In 1964, Gen. William Westmoreland decided, Vo contends, that only American forces could effectively fight the VC and NVA, so he relegated the South Vietnamese forces to a supporting role. In this inferior position, the South Vietnamese military did not learn to command and execute on the division level.
When the Americans left, the ARVN had to learn to stand alone in the fight against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. The American decision to drastically scale back its support and what Vo contends was a failure to hold North Vietnam accountable for violations of the 1954 Geneva Accords and the 1972 Paris Peace Accords, in essence, he says, handed victory to North Vietnam.
The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam gives a South Vietnamese perspective of history, politics, religion, war, military successes and failures, reeducation camps, and much more. Vo devotes much of this book to chronicling heroic feats of his fellow countrymen in the face of overwhelming odds. He also writes about the atrocious conduct of the communist North Vietnamese after the South’s 1975 surrender.
Having served a tour in Vietnam in 1966-67 and since then having read many books on the subject, I thought I knew about most aspects of the American war. Learning about what transpired in South Vietnam after 1975 made this an immensely sad book to read. But having read it, I feel I have a better understanding of what happened.
I highly recommend The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam for anyone wanting to learn about what Vo calls the Fourth (1954-75) Vietnam War.
“It doesn’t take long to ‘saddle up,’” Bruce Bastien writes in his memoir, 13 Months: In the Bush, In Vietnam, In 1968 (iUniverse, 121 pp. $43.98, hardcover; $32.63, paper: 99 cents, Kindle), “when you’ve been sleeping on the ground in your clothes, wearing your boots, and all your gear has been packed tight waiting right next to you. So we got up and strapped on the backpacks, weapons and ammo, and everything else we owned. Off we went down the road.”
With a style that ranges from sobering to haunting, Bastien recounts his 1968-69 tour as a Marine mortarman with Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment in Quảng Nam Province, just southwest of Danang. He was one of countless Marines fighting during mini-Tet against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in the months following the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive.
Bastien describes compelling, sometimes poetic, scenes of men in action and at rest. He illustrates each with modest detail and invites the reader to visualize the rest. Especially striking is his recollection of the effects of going without water in a combat environment in 100-degree heat. He writes of exhaustion, misery and fear, as well as hallucinations. During one, he watched as—unable to endure the weight of his backpack anymore—his arms fell off.
Through the spring and summer of 1968, Bastien’s unit fought its way across Go Noi, an island in the Thu Bồn River. Heavily fortified by the NVA, rife with enemy bunkers and tunnels, Go Noi was the scene of three U.S. military operations.
Reflecting on the first, Operation Allen Brook, Bastein conveys the bleak challenges faced by every man there:
“From then on, we swept, searched, and destroyed. We looked to contact the enemy, and when it was made, we engaged, fought, and called in artillery or air strikes until they were killed or retreated—and then we pressed on and did it all over again. We covered the same territory again and again. This might go on for weeks. We did not know. In fact, we didn’t know what later that day would bring, let alone how long this would last.”
With no way of knowing, Bastien and his buddies did what men in war have done forever: They watched out for each other and they endured. Many of his buddies’ stories are shared here, which is to Bastien’s credit. His book is proof of his commitment to preserve his recollections and those of his fellow Marines after the website they had made for their unit came to an end.
The many stories Bastien gives us and actual book itself deserve praise. Larger in size than most books, the text is well laid out, with good spacing between letters and lines. There are also many photos. The images are large, in color, and starkly show how young these men were. The pictures also testify that, despite the brutal conditions in which the Marines lived and fought, they were still capable of good cheer—and could still feel hope.
You might need a note pad to keep track of the characters and acronyms in Ken Conboy’s Spies on the Mekong: CIA Clandestine Operations in Laos (Casemate, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle). Be prepared, for one thing, to find names such as Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong, and Phoumi Nosavan in the same sentence.
Despite those potential obstacles, Conboy has written a mind-boggling, yet pleasingly informative, account of the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations in Laos before and during the American war in Vietnam. Conboy writes with a certainty that made me feel as if he had been present at all the many events he describes.
An expert on South and Southeast Asia, Conboy has written more than 20 books on military and intelligence operations in those areas. A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, he has lived in Indonesia since 1992.
After World War II the U.S. saw the Kingdom of Laos as the key to stopping communism’s westward spread into Thailand—and beyond. In 1950, communist Pathet Lao forces deployed into Laos; the CIA followed in 1953.
CIA agents—and there were hundreds of them—centered their activities in Vientiane, the capital. Most of the agents were World War II veterans with Ivy League educations and previous foreign postings. Despite that commonality, they had differing approaches to intelligence surveillance.
People in the book—friends and foes—come through clearly in Conboy’s thoughtful vignettes about them. He presents backgrounds of many men and a few women in a manner that personalizes each—for good or for bad. Some of them practically walk off the page and greet the reader.
Through this chronicle of the CIA’s surveillance activities in Laos, Conboy offers an insider’s look at the country from the 1950s to 1970s. He shows us the nation’s leaders and their interactions with a multitude of opponents attempting to outwit the prime minister and gain control of the nation: agents, diplomats, and ambassadors from the U.S., North and South Vietnams, China, and Russia.
Conboy’s history lesson offers more intrigue than violence. The book begins with the 1954 Geneva Accords that “foisted a mantle of diplomatic neutrality upon Laos, theoretically exempting it from the Cold War rivalry,” Conboy says. But nobody abided by the Accords. The Lao National Army was not up to the task of defending the Royal Lao Government against communist Viet Minh and Pathet Lao forces that refused to leave the country as agreed. The most heinous pitfall, according to Conboy, was the International Control Commission’s failure to adjudicate ceasefire violations.
With so many nations working on contradictory goals, failures took center stage. As Conboy puts it: “The Lao soap opera irrevocably veered off script.” In his telling, events such as a tribal peasant leading a coup that temporarily controlled Vientiane played like a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
Conboy writes in detail about the long and arduous ploys and counter ploys that pitted the CIA against the communists right through the signing of the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. He shows the problems of underwriting the Lao government’s budget, which often included bribes; as well as how the CIA promoted civic-action programs for rural development; resolved leadership strife; monitored elections; armed the Hmong hill tribe; enlisted Thai surveillance teams; coped with Japanese activists opposing the war; oversaw commando raids against the North Vietnamese; attempted to subvert foreign agents; dealt with the opium trade; challenged misinformation; helped to form a coalition government; and dismantled a vast paramilitary network.
Everything tumbled down with the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge and of Saigon to the North Vietnamese in 1975. At that point, “communist morale across Indochina began to skyrocket,” Conboy says. Laotian students and workers stormed U.S. facilities in Laos. Teens with guns controlled the countryside. Americans fled the country by air; Lao Royal Army soldiers and American cohorts evacuated the nation by boat across the Mekong River to Thailand. The Lao king abdicated, the Pathet Lao established the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, and the last domino of Indochina toppled, Conboy says.
Based on what Conboy tells us, the CIA’s productivity in Laos boiled down to a delaying action. Similar to what happened in Vietnam and Afghanistan, the ending was always in sight. The defeat and exit of the French in 1954 and the positioning of Pathet Lao forces provided an unconquerable homefield advantage for the communists. Conboy’s book shows that spy-world operations are limited in scope, and that its practitioners understand that situation.
Along with 16 pages of photographs, Spies on the Mekong contains maps, a bibliography, and endnotes. I enjoyed reading the endnotes. For me, they were like a final chapter because they linked minor details about a few open questions. In that way, the endnotes provided a surprise package of gee-whiz facts.
Veteran military historian Peter E. Davies’ UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/VC Forces: Vietnam 1962-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the book for anyone who wants to know just about everything about the UH-1 Huey helicopter in the Vietnam War. Rich in photographs and illustrations, this concise book examines and explains virtually every detail about that famed helicopter, from its inception to its war-fighting variants. The Huey, formally named the Iroquois based on the Army’s use of American tribal names for its helicopters, was the backbone of U.S. air mobility warfare in Vietnam.
In this tightly focused study of only eighty pages Davies—aided by illustrators Jim Laurier and Gareth Hector—takes the reader from the first use of helicopters in combat to the development of the gunship as an assault helicopter. Davies goes step-by-stop from concept through design innovation, evaluation, and the emergence of a new capability on the battlefield. He then discusses air mobility in the Vietnam War and how tactics and weapons evolved to meet a changing battlefield.
He also addresses the counterstrategy the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese developed to try to neutralize the challenges of air mobility. In doing so, Davies examines NVA and VC tactics and weapons systems and how they evolved to meet the air-assault threat.
The limits of the helicopter in fighting in the Vietnam were exposed during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 when the NVA set up an intensive anti-aircraft artillery defense in Laos, taking a heavy toll on the assaulting helicopter force.
Although this book is well researched, I found a few minor errors. Davies writes, for example, that the 1st Cavalry Division’s fixed-wing aircraft (the CV-2 Caribous and OV-1 Mohawks) were turned over to the U.S. Air Force in 1966. In fact, the Mohawks remained with the 1st Cav.
That said, UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/ VC Forces is an outstanding reference book. For anyone looking for a well-informed examination of Hueys in the Vietnam War, this is it.
Gary Henderson’s Memoirs of a Grunt: On The Ground In Vietnam 68/69, (117 pp. $19.95, Paper; $3.99, Kindle) is not a story-telling book but a cut-and-dried memoir that reads much like a journal or diary. Reading it, I learned a lot about what Henderson did during his tour of duty in Vietnam, but struggled to visualize much of it. Henderson arrived in-country on August, 13, 1968. Three days later we was assigned to C Company in the 1st Brigade, 1/327th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Base Bastogne west of Hue. He was immediately given the nickname “Tennessee,” and thrown into the mix of daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes. Throughout this memoir Henderson shows us much of what many U.S. Army grunts experienced in the Vietnam War.
Memoirs of a Grunt has a useful glossary and a list of items (including their weight) regularly carried by most infantrymen. It also has an annotated map identifying some of the places where Henderson saw action—and pics, lots of pics. You can find more of Henderson’s pictures on his website. memoirsofagrunt.smugmug.com
It’s a truism that war is often made up of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In his book Henderson writes mostly about that boredom. But don’t let that scare you away from reading it. He is so open and honest that some of what he reveals is downright embarrassing, including things that many of us have done, but elect not to discuss.
He writes about career soldiers’ penchant for volunteering for combat duty for the sole purpose of building their resumes—and receiving rank and decorations. What happened in Vietnam was that many of those who had rank didn’t have the experience or competence needed to lead men in combat or to make good life-and-death decisions.
On March 23, 1969, Henderson was badly wounded and medically evacuated. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering in hospitals in Japan and at Ft. Campbell undergoing five surgeries and then was medically discharged.
I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Grunt. I now feel that I know Gary Henderson. I believe others will enjoy reading it as well.
From its first to final page, 100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival (Koehlerbooks, 321 pp. $19.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) deals with a conscientious man’s everyday trials living in war and peace. It focuses on retired Army Lt. Col. Joseph F. Tallon’s Vietnam War tour of duty flying OV-1 Mohawks for the 131st Aviation Company, operating out of Marble Mountain Army Airfield in 1972.
The Tallon family’s military service reflects dedication to the nation far beyond the norm. Joseph Tallon’s father served at Normandy as a Navy gunner on D-Day in World War II. His two sons became Army officers.
His account of his flying duties in Vietnam covers only half of the story of Tallon’s war service. He flew missions in Mohawks mostly at night, accompanied by a single observer seated alongside him. They primarily performed side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) surveillance parallel to the coast of North Vietnam in search of targets of opportunity. Unarmed, they radioed sightings to ground controllers. Harassed by antiaircraft artillery rounds although over water, Tallon once had to outfly an NVA SA-2 missile.
As a lieutenant, Tallon caught nearly all of his company’s extra duties on the ground. He spent daylight hours supervising the unit’s motor pool, an endless task that he accomplished with small bribes to contactors and by performing the same labor as the recalcitrant enlisted men who served under him. Discipline was lax and morale low in mid-1972 because the comparably few service members in Vietnam expected the war to end any day.
On his 95th day in-country Tallon’s Mohawk lost an engine on takeoff and crashed. He ejected but did not escape the fireball that engulfed the crash site. Severely burned and injured internally, he endured medical treatment—best described as torturous—in overseas and stateside hospitals.
Tallon’s storytelling relies upon handwritten letters he sent to his new wife Martha Anne, letters and transcriptions of cassette tapes she sent to him, and excerpts from contemporary newspaper articles. Tallon fills the role of a newlywed with daily letters to his young wife that overflow with promises of eternal love and the sorrow of being separated.
Joseph Tallon’s son Matthew adds a lengthy afterward to the book by describing his success gaining recognition for his father’s fellow crewman who died in the Mohawk crash. Forty years after the fact, Matthew Tallon’s effort secured a Purple Heart medal for the family of Spec.5 Daniel Richards.
100 Days in Vietnam is filled with honesty about everything Joseph Tallon saw and did, pro and con, during the war, throughout his recovery, and beyond. All is relevant. His relationship with the Army fluctuated as he dealt with unpredictable acceptances and rejections of him as an individual. Confronted by overwhelming injuries and subsequent bureaucratic turmoil, Joseph Tallon has repeatedly proved his worth as a warrior and citizen.
Russell Pettis’ Mohawk Recon: Vietnam from Treetop Level with the 1st Cavalry, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 158 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, e book) is an interesting account of an unusual Army mission in Vietnam. Pettis, who served as an OV-1 Army Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft crewmember, has an easy-going writing style that takes the reader along on his one-year tour in the Vietnam War.
The OV-1 Mohawk was unusual. It was a state-of-the-art, fixed-wing reconnaissance platform equipped with side-looking airborne radar, infrared target detection systems, and cameras. Unlike other Army aircraft, the Mohawk was equipped with ejection seats. At a time when the Air Force was taking possession of almost all of the Army’s fixed wing aircraft, the Mohawk remained in Army hands. However, the Air Force insisted in 1966, and the Army agreed, that Army Mohawks would operate only in an unarmed configuration.
Pettis, flying as one of a two-man crew, was the enlisted operator of the onboard detection systems employed while the pilot flew at low levels on day and night recon missions over hostile territory. He ended up flying 315 missions and put in more than 1,000 hours in the air.
Anyone who served on operations in Vietnam is going to feel right at home with Pettis’ experiences as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He writes about sharing a shoddy GP Medium tent with rats, subsisting on C-rations, enduring frequent torrential rainfalls, being shot at, and enduring a bout of dysentery. He also enjoyed the company of Australian and New Zealand troops drinking the Vietnamese beer we called “Bah-me-bah.”
The author’s missions were varied, and included flying parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking for truck traffic and water sorties seeking out enemy sampans. He flew “down in the weeds,” as low as sixty feet, and on higher-altitude missions looking for enemy troop movements.
When Pettis described his first combat sortie I felt a shared moment with him. His pilot flew the Mohawk across the A Shau Valley at the same time when I was on the ground there during Operation Delaware. When he described his OV-1’s frequent exposure to ground fire, I recalled the time I saw a Mohawk land at Tay Ninh with bullet holes stitched across its fuselage.
It was particularly interesting to read about a mission in which Pettis’ Mohawk’s navigational system failed while over featureless terrain and the pilot unknowingly flew into Cambodia. Then discovered a North Vietnamese airfield with MiGs on the ground. Two enemy fighters then launched and pursued the Mohawk into South Vietnam until F-4s were scrambled to intercept the MiGs.
Another amazing incident came to mind as I read the book. I had learned of a Mohawk pilot who engaged a MiG-17 at approximately the same time in 1968. In this case, the aircraft was configured with weapons in violation of the 1966 Army-Air Force agreement and the pilot shot down the MiG. Because of the weapons violation, the Army didn’t officially acknowledge that aerial victory until 2007.
I immensely enjoyed reading Russell Pettis’ account of his exciting missions, along with his descriptions of day-to-day grunt life in Vietnam. I highly recommend Mohawk Recon.
Incident at Dak To (257 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Louis Edward Rosas is a very enjoyable military-procedural science fiction story that brings to mind pulp novels of the Vietnam War era. If this book had been serialized in a monthly science fiction magazine 50 years ago it would have been well received.
In the book, we learn that Army Capt. Jay Swift wrote his Vietnam War story in a pocket journal in 1967, making it possible for him to relate it to us today. Swift and his buddy Fred Mason apparently worked for the CIA in Vietnam. They experienced combat in the war and still occasionally wore their Army uniforms, but mainly worked in civilian clothes. When asked what they did they said, “We are field analysts.” Their official job was to “locate and acquire exotic foreign technologies,” meaning things the Soviets and Chinese may have been ahead of the U.S. on, with the goal of reverse-engineering the stuff to our nation’s advantage.
They get called off an assignment in the Middle East to go to Vietnam to investigate an object of unknown origin that’s been recovered from a crash site near Dak To. The site, Rosas writes, “is smack in the middle of an enemy tunnel complex that was nearly overrun by combined NVA and Viet Cong forces. Whatever crashed there is of deep interest to them.” The recovered object was placed in a supposedly secure vault in the basement at the American Embassy, but then disappeared.
There had been reports of a fast-moving aircraft that “appeared as a glowing light in the night sky.” The object seemed to carry a “radiation signature,” and Swift’s initial thinking was that his assignment probably didn’t have anything to do with the war, and that whatever the object was had just dropped into the war zone. The two men are put up in an air-conditioned room with bulletproof windows in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel where they worked day and night trying to get to the bottom of the mystery object.
The fun kicks in when Swift is told of “a blue-white fireball,” a “large impact crater,” a weird fog that suddenly appeared, and M16s that were strangely disabled. Then come missing witnesses, dissolving bullets, and encounters with Men in Black who walk through walls and always seem to be one step ahead of Swift and Mason.
This fast-moving story is told sometimes in third person, other times in first person, in cinematic-like form. Louis Edward Rosas, whose father served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, never gets in the way of his storytelling as he takes the reader on a wild ride.