Operation Embankment by Michael Trainor

Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.

Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.

Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.

On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.

The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.

Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.

The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.

Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.

Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.

–Bill McCloud

Follow the Gold by Timothy I. Gukich

If you read enough novels about the Vietnam War, you eventually will find one in which a REMF is the hero. One of those rarities is Timothy I. Gukich’s Follow the Gold (303 pp. $15.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle). Gukich was working for the IRS when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The same is true for his protagonist, Timothy Gardner. It’s safe to assume the book is at least partly autobiographical. 

The novel begins with Gardner’s last day in country. It then flashes back to his arrival in Vietnam where “[e]very place looked like something bad had happened.” It’s October 1969, so that is only a mild exaggeration. 

Gardner is assigned to CMAC (Capital Military Assistance Command) as a lowly clerk.  However, since he was an IRS agent, his commanding officer quickly takes advantage of Gardner’s skills as a forensic accountant to investigate black marketeering involving MPCs. It seems like a boring assignment, but with the help of his roommate Sharpe, Gardner turns sleuth.

Sharpe is a Special Forces operator and seemingly the opposite of Gardner, yet they quickly become friends. When Sharpe is not working with the Phoenix program, he is happy to help Gardner navigate the shadier side of Saigon. 

Gardner’s ferreting uncovers a connection to some C.I.A. “snoops” who are using Air America for shady business dealings. Much of the digging takes place during Gardner’s off hours, so a good bit of the book has him doing typical REMF tasks, such as guard duty. Along the way, he befriends an ARVN sergeant and a general.

I know I had you at IRS agent turned REMF, but here’s why you might want to read the book even if that doesn’t lure you. Gukich is a good writer. He is sincere in his desire to teach a little about the war to the point where he includes a bibliography, which is very rare in a novel. He did his research and adds information to this memoir disguised as a novel. He gives good descriptions of the M-14, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Agent Orange, among other things. And, of course, you’ll learn probably more than you want to about military payment certificates, aka “funny money” or “monopoly money.”

I enjoyed the book, but in some ways it was unfulfilling. Although Gukich warns that some embellishment occurred, the problem for me is that he does not embellish enough. Without giving away the ending, it’s another clue that Gukich was writing about his own experiences and I wondered if Sharpe’s story might not have been more exciting. 

That said, Timothy Gardner is an appealing nerd who does not avoid danger and his relationship with Sharpe is intriguing. Plus, you’ll learn who the names of the seven generals who died in Vietnam.

–Kevin Hardy

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Dinosaur on an Island by Walter McAuliffe

Dinosaur on an Island (BookBaby, 238 pp., paperback) is a novel by Vietnam War veteran Walter McAuliffe. The title refers to a person who is orphaned, has to survive on his own, and is not at home in this technological world.

McAuliffe, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, opens with a warning that the book may be funny, scary, and aggravating. The first chapter revolves around a social worker helping a veteran named Greg, who is disabled and has PTSD. 

What follows are Greg’s stories. They have the common theme of “brutal reality,” including a list of the “Brutal Reality Rules of Life.” One is, “Don’t put a loaf in the oven, unless you own the bakery.” The rest are equally meme-worthy.

The first half of the novel tells Greg’s story. Being from a fractured family, Greg becomes a member of several of his friends’ families. The core group has adventures that are sometimes fueled by alcohol and fall in the category of juvenile delinquency. 

The second half of the book starts with Greg getting drafted and arriving in Vietnam. Then, suddenly, McAuliffe switches to commenting on what he sees as America’s social and political ills. McAuliffe is particularly incensed about “unauthorized military actions,” wars such as the one in Vietnam that were not approved by Congress. He’s also unhappy about government bailouts.

This unusual novel reads like a long civics lesson from an old man sitting on his porch. The first half contains fairly interesting vignettes about teenagers doing naughty things. The second, though, half took me by surprise. I was expecting to read about Greg’s tour of duty. But we mainly get McAuliffe’s thoughts and opinions about political issues.

He’s not clearly a conservative or a liberal, and seems to understand the issues well. But most of his solutions, even if sensible, are not doable. And his opinions will turn off a large segment of the population. Others might be turned off by his breaking the fourth wall to address teenagers.

Despite the book’s obvious passion, some of it is diluted misspellings and grammatical errors. McAuliffe, for examples, misspells “cavalry” and “lightning.” He capitalizes “war” and doesn’t capitalize “White House.”  He uses “misconstrued” when he means “confused.”   

He also is hazy on history. He writes that George H.W. Bush said, “Watch my lips.” He says that America invaded Korea at the beginning of that war. He overuses slang terms like “pant load,” “dirt nap,” and “bed bug.” The funniest and most-informative part of the book is the glossary of his slang.

The first half of Dinosaur on an Island is imaginative, but what you’ll think about the second half depends on whether you believe America has the problems that McAuliffe writes about. Readers will find some red meat here, but might also do some head-scratching.

–Kevin Hardy

The Patriarch by Larry Freeland

Larry Freeland’s new novel, The Patriarch (Publish Authority, 390 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99 e book), is the first volume of Legacy of Honor, a proposed trilogy. The three books will contain the military experiences of Sam McCormick in the Great War, his son in World War II, and his grandsons in subsequent actions, including the Vietnam War.

Freeland served in Vietnam with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot. His previous book, Chariots in the Sky, is a riveting look at air combat during the Vietnam War.

The Patriarch begins in early August 1918. Sgt. McCormick is in trench in Europe getting ready to lead his men over the top and engage Germans at the other end of a 300-yard killing field. As he and his men advance through no man’s land, McCormick says, “I’m in Dante’s seventh circle of hell: violence.”

McCormick’s troops are frequently shelled; they suffer a “truly terrifying” gas attack; and McCormick is wounded. While recovering in a field hospital McCormick falls in love at first sight with a French nurse.

Freeland does a good job painting the picture as we move from scene to scene. One example is the excellent transition McCormick goes through starting with a flirtation in the hospital, a few days of recuperation with baths and a clean uniform, a truck ride back to his unit, and then: “Jumping from the back of our truck, I land in mud almost up to the top of my trench boots.” Freeland takes us immediately back to the front and all that entails.

We follow McCormick’s story until the war ends. He survives, comes home, has difficulty finding work, and then struggles during the Great Depression. The book ends with McCormick’s son entering the military after Pearl Harbor.

Freeland writes in nearly encyclopedic fashion as he includes background information about the World War I trenches, the history of the nursing corps, the big increase of cigarette use among American military personnel, the history of “Reveille,” and the meaning of “buying the farm,” among many other things. He also takes the reader on a 30,000-foot overview of a battle about to take place before dropping us down into the action.

Freeland’s aim is for his trilogy to explore how this country treats its warriors and veterans during and after our wars. With Book One, The Patriarch, he’s off to a good start.

Freeland’s website is http://larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud