Dark Horse by Larry O. Spencer

Larry Spencer’s Dark Horse: General Larry O. Spencer and His Journey from the Horseshoe to the Pentagon (Naval Institute Press, 182 pp. $24.95, Hardcover; $18.99, Kindle) is aptly named. A dark horse is a little-known person who succeeds in an unlikely situation. In 1971, at age 18, Spencer joined the U.S. Air Force. In 2015 he retired as the USAF’s 37th Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He had risen through 15 pay grades—from E-1 to E-5 and O-1 to O-10—to become a four-star general.

Dark Horse is an autobiography that took me on a spectacular ride. It begins with growing up in an inner-city area of Southeast Washington D.C., takes us through his enlistment, career, and retirement, and into his post-military years. During the Vietnam War Spencer served at Pope AFB in Fayetteville, Norther Carolina, and at the Taiwanese Ching Chuan Kang Air Base. H

Spencer writes about the peer pressures he faced while growing up in the hood and the life lessons he learned from his father and his grandfather and while serving in the Air Force. Spencer’s military journal began when he enlisted as an Airman Basic. After seven years and rising to Staff Sergeant, and after earning a BS in industrial engineering technology, a mentor recommended that he apply for OTS. 

Throughout his career, Spencer accepted many different positions, sometimes as a seemingly underqualified candidate (a dark horse). He enjoyed and excelled at the challenges of succeeding in difficult situations, including his final assignment as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

As for his lofty rise, Spencer quotes the author Coleman Cox, who once said: “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”  Although Spencer sees himself as a dark horse, I see him as a workhorse, a hard-working man with a very supportive wife and family.

Reading Spencer recounting the backstories of his life was enjoyable and inspiring. While he knows he worked hard to reach a high level of success, he gives much credit to his family and to military support personnel, mentors, and the Air Force itself.

I highly recommend Dark Horse.

–Bob Wartman

A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories by Philip Kraske

Anguish. There is no better word to describe the emotion inspired by the title piece in Philip Kraske’s A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories (Encompass Editions, 224 pp. $12.50, paper; $4.99, Kindle). In each of his stories Kraske deftly creates a sense of place and time, as well as a unique character. Far more than a backdrop, the context of each story is a living presence within the tale.

The most powerful onw is the title story. A work of plausible fiction, “A Legacy of Chains” is set in a near-future America sliding into civil war. With domestic terrorism rampant and vast regions of the country breaking away, a few friends gather for respite from it all.

After dinner, the protagonist reflects on an experience a few years earlier when he suddenly received evidence that American prisoners of war were being held in Vietnam, nearly forty years after the war’s end. Then a State Department officer in Spain learns of a group of American refugees, all men in their seventies, in a town along the Straits of Gibraltar. Within hours he is standing face to face with the group and speaking with their leader, a U.S. Army surgeon captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965.

Staggered that these men are alive decades after they were reported missing, Klippen is further shocked to learn that the American government is determined to kill the men and those who helped them escape from Vietnam. As Klippen hurries to help, a third blow hits when he realizes that Milner has an agenda of his own.

The story “Pirates” also deserves attention for its haunting account of a woman’s life after escaping Vietnam in the 1980s to settle in Minneapolis with her family. Weary after years of enduring fraud, discrimination, and worse, she struggles with the consequences of a burglary at her flower stall in the city center. This unusual Christmas tale takes a surprise turn when the thieves return for second visit.

Philip Kraske

Highly effective overall, the book is occasionally uneven. Now and then characters recount what others have said and leave the reader uncertain about who is actually speaking. Certain words are deliberately misspelled to underline a character’s accent, stupidity, or both. These are minor points, though.

Kraske, who has lived and taught English in Spain since the 1980s and did not serve in the military, has created otherwise exceptional stories and some great writing, especially his detailed descriptions of the beauty of Spain, a country he clearly loves.

Lean and compelling, unsettling and inspiring, A Legacy of Chains and Other Stories is worth the read.

Kraske’s website is philipkraske.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Frenchy’s Whore by Vernon Brewer II

Vernon Brewer’s Frenchy’s Whore: A Teenage Paratrooper Goes from High School to the Point of the Spear (BookBaby, 242 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), first published in 1994, is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with Alpha Company in the 4th Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It contains snappy dialogue and Brewer shows off a camera’s eye for war action. From beginning to end, the book made me hold my breath, waiting for more.

The title appears to be a loose metaphor for the French and American wars in Vietnam. The plot includes the U.S. stepping into the political vacuum following the 1954 French defeat, and deals with the illegitimacy of the French and American efforts to force democracy upon the people of Vietnam.

As Brewer begins to weave his story, he offers a disclaimer regarding “language-of-the-day” and the widespread use of marijuana by most of the enlisted men in the book. The dialogue borders on the theatrical, including pronunciations and the nicknames of nearly all of the characters. 

The book develops around its subtitle as the main character goes from a home town loser to an Airborne trooper who longs for battle, enemy contact, war souvenirs, and a way to prove himself and come home a war hero.

One of the troopers in the story, nicknamed Frenchy, has an ongoing relationship with a Vietnamese prostitute. After he is gravely wounded, losing both legs in a rocket attack, she wants nothing to do with him, as he no longer represents a way to escape to America.

Brewer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote his book seemingly from his faultless memory for dialogue and the details of daily life of a group of Sky Troopers. This is a well-written book, though using the same font size for the footnotes and the text was a bit jarring.

Still, Frenchy’s Whore is a worthy effort and a good read.

–Tom Werzyn

The Battle of Hue 1968 by James H. Willbanks

The 1968 Tet Offensive was the Vietnam War’s watershed moment. Only months before MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland had told Congress that victory could be just two years ahead. In the aftermath of Tet, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election and sought the means to extricate America from an unwinnable war.     

North Vietnam was equally frustrated on the eve of Tet 1968 by the direction its struggle had taken following the big American troop building began in 1965. The longer the war continued on American terms the less likely victory could be achieved. Hence, the North was willing to take a huge gamble by fully committing to a general offensive.

With initial success, so the plan went, a general uprising would be sparked against the Saigon government. A key part of the plan was to seize the city of Hue and then, while firmly in control there, proclaim a revolutionary government in the South. That’s how the stage was set for one of the most important battles of the war.

In the summer of 1967 the North Vietnamese Politburo planned a major offensive that would attack provincial capitals and Saigon during the 1968 Tet truce when many South Vietnamese troops would be on leave. A series of attacks would be launched in the fall in remote regions to draw U.S.and ARVN forces away from the population centers. On the eve of Tet the largest feint was a sustained attack on the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh that drew away sizeable U.S. and ARVN forces. The General Offensive began on January 30 with the ancient imperial capital city of Hue seized the following day by a large North Vietnamese force.

In The Battle of Hue 1968: Fight for the Imperial City (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $19.20, Kindle) by the veteran military historian James H. Willbank gives the backgrounds of all the key players on both sides of the fighting. We learn that the NVA established a command structure (The Hue City Front) dedicated solely to taking and holding Hue and the surrounding area, as well as the avenues of approach. Initially the Front including 10,000 troops; it grew to some 20,000. They faced a large force of U.S .Marine and Army units and ARVN troops, including elite airborne and Marine units.  

U.S. Marines outside the Citadel in Hue, February 13, 1968

This concise, very well written and informative account carefully walks the reader through the battle from the moment that NVA soldiers, dressed in ARVN uniforms, took control of one of the city gates and opened it to advancing troops. Once inside, the North Vietnamese tenaciously held onto Hue for 25 days, the longest sustained fighting of the war.

Willbanks goes on to describe in detail the difficulties involved in urban street warfare and house-to-house fighting and the costly engagements that finally forced the NVA out of the city. During the occupation, the NVA and Viet Cong rounded up thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and executed them.     

This book is an outstanding account of one of the Vietnam War’s major battles. It is supported by detailed maps and by many excellent photographs. It is well worth reading.

–John Cirafici

The Erawan War by Ken Conboy

The events that Ken Convoy covers in The Erawan War: Volume 1: The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos, 1961-1969 (Helion & Company, 64 pp. $29.95, paper) take place at a time when the Domino Theory was a key factor in American national security policy. That theory, which President Eisenhower first explained publicly in 1954, held that a communist takeover of one nation would inexorably lead to communist takeovers in nearby countries, which would “fall” like dominoes.

In 1961 the Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos was seen as a key nation under threat from communism as it bordered two communist countries, China and North Vietnam, as well as noncommunist Thailand, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Consequently, the Eisenhower Administration placed remote, landlocked Laos squarely on the Cold War chessboard.  

To thwart a communist insurgency in Laos the United States in 1961 became clandestinely involved in its largest-ever paramilitary covert operation (code-named Erawan) amid a civil war between Lao factions including the communist Pathet Lao. Convoy’s concise, heavily illustrated book—nicely supported throughout by photographs and maps—describes the CIA’s efforts to reverse the advances that the Pathet Lao and its ally, the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN), made throughout much of northern and central Laos.  

Similarly, important missions were conducted to counter the PAVN’s use of the Ðuong Trường Sơn (known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern and southern Laos, and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia, which the communists used to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.    

Demonstrating incredible initiative, a handful of CIA field officers, working with Thai Special Forces, successfully imbedded themselves in Lao tribes, including the Hmong, and built a formidable fighting force to counter the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.     

Equally impressive were the efforts to maintain trail-watching teams that collected intelligence on PAVN movements and assessed the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign.    

One of the most audacious operations—Codename Fox—inserted teams into the People’s Republic of China to tap phone lines. Another trained a team of Nung—Chinese tribesmen from Vietnam—to conduct direct action ops against the PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA operations in Laos also included superb air support provided by Air America and BirdAir, and a secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in 1964.  

The story of CIA operations in Laos, one of America’s longest-running Cold War engagements, as Convoy recounts it in this book, is a fascinating one.

However, I found it odd that U.S. Army Special Forces, although not central to this story, were barely mentioned even though they conducted parallel operations in Laos from 1959-62. Although this book is clearly about the CIA in Laos, you can’t give the complete picture without mentioning in some detail the Green Berets’ Operation White Star.   

Otherwise, The Erawan War is a great military and military intelligence history book. 

–John Cirafici

Mended Wings by Colin P. Cahoon

Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.

Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.

Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.

As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.

Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war. 

I highly recommend Mended Wings.

The author’s website is colinpcahoon.com

–Bob Wartman

So Frag & So Bold by Randy Brown

Randy Brown’s So Frag & So Bold: Short Poems, Aphorisms & Other Wartime Fun (Middle West Press, 76 pp. $9.99, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a brief collection of short, experimental wartime poetry. Brown served in the Iowa Army National Guard as a civilian journalist in the war in Afghanistan in 2011. He is the author of the acclaimed Welcome to FOB Haiku: War Poems from Inside the Wire, and is a co-editor of the 2019 Military Writers Guild anthology Why We Write: Craft Essays on Writing War. Full disclosure: I know Randy Brown and admire his work.

Some of the poems in his new collection have appeared in two veteran-and military-oriented literary journals, Collateral Journal and The Wrath-Bearing Tree. There are 55 pages of poems, some of which contain poems within poems. I found it interesting to read a few of the poems backwards for a new jolt of understanding.  

The outstanding poems include “frag out!”, which reads in toto:

every poet

has a heart filled

with shrapnel  

Sometimes one of Brown’s titles is also part of the poem, as in “timing”:

the line between a poem

and a joke

One of my favorites is “Clausewitzian nature poem”:

the only thing

war ever changes

is the uniform

Then there is “Catch-23”:

If you want peace,

prepare for war.

If you want war,

prepare for war.  

Some are mind-blowing, such as “pauses, for effect”:

Why do you hate America?

Why do you hate, America?

One of the poems that almost physically grabs and shakes you is “tell me how this ends”:

what happens when your war

is old enough to enlist?

what happens when your war

is old enough to leave home?

what happens when your war

is old enough to vote?

Another outstanding one is “defensive driver”:

I never understood

why some Joes startled

at every blowing grocery bag

until I came home myself

and found the camels hiding

in cornfields

behind bridges

everywhere

The best personal war poetry, no matter what war it’s written about, will basically ring true for all other wars. That’s what Brown’s work does. There is a place in the world for very short poetry and Randy Brown has found himself at home in that place.

Here is the book’s final poem, “all this will be yours”:

‘all this

has happened before’

&

‘all this

will happen again’

–Bill McCloud

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman

Legacy of Evil by Ed Marohn

With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.  

Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.

Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.

Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”

The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the twenty-four-hour-light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.

At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.

The author’s website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud