When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.
Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.
Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.
For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.
Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.
Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.
The Five O’clock Follies (Critical Communications, 306 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a comic novel that looks at the Vietnam War through the experiences of three close friends. Co-author Richard Brundage served two tours in Vietnam; the first with D Troop of the 17th Cavalry, and the second conducting daily press briefings as an Operations Officer at the Da Nang Press Center. Co-author Billingsley is a novelist and meteorologist.
In a story that plays like a buddy movie (but with three guys), three GIs—Brunell, Donovan, and Hosa—bond while going through jungle warfare training together in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. A year later, after having served apart in Vietnam, the three wind up at Fort Knox learning to command tank units. They love to clown around and there’s lots of wisecracking and shenanigans going on in the book. At the same time, the men know they would give their lives for each other.
The three receive separate assignments for their second tours in the war zone in 1969, but all end up in the far northern part of South Vietnam. Brunell, the main character, monkeys with his orders to get himself assigned to a cushier job with Armed Forces Vietnam Network, and takes over the press center at Phu Bai. He and his buddies continue to run into each other during the following year. Hosa is a pilot in Da Nang; Donovan’s work is so secret he can’t even say that he can’t talk about it.
This humorous novel consists of many skit-like comic moments, some involving pranks. The buddies concoct fake orders. They have drag races with Army trucks down an airfield runway at night without lights.
Hosa takes part in the most dangerous missions. Donovan remains secretive. He’s the thinker in the group, the straight man, the voice of reason. Brunell settles in at the press center, and then gets reassigned to Da Nang. “Five O’clock Follies” is the term that war correspondents came to use for the military’s daily briefings, considering them basically to be foolish, untruthful, and repetitive.
This is an enjoyably humorous look at men at war with the enemy, as well as with their own military bureaucracy. But it’s mainly a double love story: a traditional love affair between a man and a woman, and the love three men have for each other as they share wartime experiences.
That kind of love is one of the few positives that can come from war. It is worth celebrating.
Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”
The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”
Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.
Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.
It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.
A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.
Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.
While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.
Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.
Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.
Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.
In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.
Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.
He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.
This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.
What could be more blandly benign than an organization called the Studies and Observation Group? As anyone familiar with the history of the American war in Vietnam knows, though, SOG, which came into being in January 1964, did much, much more than just study and observe. SOG was a top-secret, multi-unit, special warfare MACV operation that mounted countless undercover missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
That included disrupting enemy activities primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; undertaking prisoner snatches and other types of rescue operations; and mounting psychological ops. SOG teams were made up of U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Warfare Units, South Vietnamese Special Forces, and Montagnard volunteers.
SOG was “the only U.S. military organization [in the Vietnam War] operating throughout Southeast Asia with its own aircraft, raiding forces, recon units and naval arm,” retired Army Maj. John Plaster writes in SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars (Casemate, 456 pp., $49.95), a revised and updated examination of SOG with more than 700 photos, maps, charts, and sidebars.
First published in 2000, the book is a companion photo history to Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, but could very well stand on its own as a history of SOG. Plaster—who served three years with SOG, leading intelligence-gathering recon teams behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia—writes about many operations and the men who took part in them, a group that includes eight Medal of Honor recipients.
Although Plaster doesn’t include footnotes or a bibliography, he has his facts straight throughout the book, including in his accounts of operations such as the Son Tay prison raid and Bright Light rescue missions of downed American flyers in enemy territory in North and South Vietnam.
Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.
The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.
As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.
The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.
The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.
This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.
In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.
“Happy families,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I couldn’t help think of that famed aphorism while devouring Craig McNamara’s stunning, deeply personal new book, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today (Little Brown, 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).
It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of words have been written by and about Craig McNamara’s father, the late former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in scores of books and in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and other publications—including The Pentagon Papers. But amid that avalanche of written material relatively little has been revealed about McNamara’s personal life. As for his son Craig, he has been little more than a footnote to a footnote in that avalanche of material, if he’s mentioned at all.
With this revealing autobiography, Craig McNamara reveals a great deal of hitherto unreported details about his controversial father’s family life and how McNamara senior’s hubris, lies, and obfuscations about the Vietnam War led to his estrangement from his father.
We learn in often painful detail about Craig McNamara’s decidedly unhappy experience growing up in the McNamara household and how that has molded him since he dropped out of college and escaped his nuclear family’s stifling cocoon.
On the surface, Craig McNamara had an ideal childhood. His father made a fortune as he rose up the corporate ladder to become the first non-member of the Ford family to head the Ford Motor Company in 1960. He grew up in a family (with his mother Margaret and his two older sisters, Kathleen and Margaret) of affluence. Think country club memberships, family skiing vacations, mansion-like houses, top–drawer private schools.
But underneath the success was a family dominated by the hard-charging, emotionally distant father. An Eagle Scout who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley in 1937, Robert S. picked up an MBA from Harvard Business School two years later. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a logistics whiz during World War II, analyzing and developing bombing raids and implementing sophisticated, statistical-based troop and supply movement systems. He left the military in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel, then went to work for Ford with a group of other “Whiz Kid” WWII veterans.
As a child, Craig, who was born in 1950, was devoted to his old man, even though McNamara senior was often absent and not exactly a model father when he was at home. By his early teens the boy suffered psychologically and physically. “After I failed most of my exams in the tenth grade,” he writes, the head of his boarding school “suggested to my parents that I be sent to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for psychotherapy every Wednesday afternoon.” The man “had a theory that I suffered from test-taking anxiety, and they thought a shrink could cure it. Years later I would be diagnosed with dyslexia.”
Craig McNamara came of age during the sixties when his father was basically running the increasingly costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. In high school he turned against the war with a vengeance. He hung an upside-down American flag in his bedroom and actively and took part in antiwar activities.
His father’s “refusal to speak publicly and to pressure his successors to get out of Vietnam was a primary reason that I started to protest the war,” Craig McNamara writes. “If he wouldn’t tell the truth, I would do it for him.”
One day the son asked his father, “Tell me the truth, Dad—why are we there?” Looking back, Craig McNamara writes, “the thing I remember most from our conversation is talking about football.” As with “so much about my father’s life,” Craig McNamara learned about his father’s role in the Vietnam War “by reading other people’s words—the words of journalists, historians, and essayists.”
Over the years, he writes, “I had thought about Dad every day with a mixture of love and rage. Whenever we spoke and I asked him about Vietnam, he deflected. There was never a big confrontation between us. I remember my life at that time as being defined by an absence of truth and honesty in our relationship.”
As every male member of his generation did, Craig McNamara came face to face with the military draft. When called up for his physical, he was classified 1-A, even though he reported that he had stomach ulcers. Later, his doctor wrote his draft board confirming the diagnosis and he was medically disqualified.
“Not going to Vietnam as a soldier still causes me overwhelming guilt,” he says. “It’s like a gap in my soul. On some level, I believed that serving would pay a debt for my father’s involvement in the war.”
The pressure of academics, his mother’s serious illnesses (she died in 1981, 27 years before her husband’s death at 91) and his father’s starring role in prosecuting the Vietnam War came to a head in college. Craig McNamara dropped out of Stanford in 1971, and went into self-imposed exile in South America.
“I’ve lived my life through the lens of the Vietnam War,” he says, and tells his life story from the unique viewpoint of the son of the war’s architect. He reveals a man who was, at once a “caretaker, loving dad, hiking buddy,” and an “obfuscator, neglectful parent, warmonger.” As a result, living with his father turned into “a mixture of love and rage.”
In Because Our Fathers Lied, (the words are from a poem by Rudyard Kipling about who is responsible for deaths in warfare) Craig McNamara has revealed an unmatched depth of understanding of his father in a clearly written and deeply introspective book that measurably adds to our understanding of the person most responsible for prosecuting the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
p.s.: Memo to David Kissinger, Henry’s only son (born in 1962): Your turn.
Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.
For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.
Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.
Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.
This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.
Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.
This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.
From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.
During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.
Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.
A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.
I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.
I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.
“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.
A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.
If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.
While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.
Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.
Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.
After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.
Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.
Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.
Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”