Vietnam War veteran Jack McCabe is a good writer and determined investigator. In 2016, he heard about the crash of a CH-47A Chinook helicopter named “Love Craft” on July 10, 1970, near Cu Chi in which two crew members and seven passengers lost their lives. The survivors and the families of those who perished, he later learned, felt the effects for the rest of their lives.
That story and its aftermath fill the pages of McCabe’s new book, Those Left Behind (366 pp. $19.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), which is based on extensive interviews with the survivors and the wives, girlfriends, and friends of men who died, as well as archival research.
We first meet these men as children turning into adults from the time they leave high school and shortly thereafter enter the military. They know they are going to end up fighting in a war, more than likely as infantrymen.
Facing a second tour, Elroy Simmons answers his wife Barbara’s questions, “Why are you going? Why do you have to go?” by saying, “I just have to go,” and walking away. He kisses his five-year-old daughter goodbye and tells her, “See you when I get back.” She replies, “You’re not coming back.” That exchange reflects the mood of the entire book and every thought in it rings true.
McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served two tours with the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade in Vietnam in 1970-72—shifts from telling one man’s story to another’s with short accounts of their lives, including their tours in Vietnam. The grunts who perished, who served in the 14th Infantry Regiment, came to realize that there was no way they were going to change things in Vietnam, so their focus shifted to taking care of each other—and coming home alive.
Midway through the book, three men who are part of a helicopter crew join the story. By then it is July 9, 1970, and the reader has developed a relationship with the seven enlisted men who would climb aboard as passengers on “Love Craft” the next day.
McCabe describes the destruction of the helicopter with grim detail in a chapter titled “Inferno.” The aircraft carried twenty men and had just been refueled to capacity. North Vietnamese soldiers attacked it with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. Nine Americans were killed, and the survivors suffered severe injuries.
The second half of the book focuses on what happed after the crash with the dead and wounded. McCabe discusses every step in the process of treating casualties during the Vietnam War. His details transcend anything I have read about the casualty system.
He covers multiple duties expected to be carried out with precision: mortuary activities related to identifying remains of shattered and burned bodies; evacuation of the critically injured to Japan for stabilizing treatment; casualty notification of next of kin (“probably one of the most difficult assignments in the service,” McCabe says); transportation home; funerals; returning to duty; and living with loss. In doing so, McCabe fills over a hundred pages with respect, sadness, and grief.
Those Left Behind bluntly reminds the reader of the high price of war paid by combatants and those dear to them on the battlefield and afterward. The book should be on library shelves in every American high school—even in Texas where I live.
McCabe’s website is jackmccabe.net