Welcome to “Books in Review II,” the online-only column that complements “Books in Review,” which runs in The VVA Veteran, the bimonthly print magazine published by Vietnam Veterans of America.
That column and this site contain book reviews by writers who specialize in the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Our regular Books in Review II reviewers are John Cirafici, Dan Hart, Bill McCloud, Bob Wartman, Harvey Weiner, Tom Werzyn, and Henry Zeybel. The late David Willson wrote hundreds of reviews for Books in Review II from its inception in 2011 through the spring of 2021.
Our goal is to review every newly published book of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that deals with the Vietnam War and Vietnam War veterans. Publishers and self-published authors may mail review copies to:
Lima-3 and the Mustang Grunt (FriesenPress, 300 pp. $35.99, hardcover; $17.53, paper; $8.99, Kindle) is a Marine Corps love story that chronicles Frank McCarthy’s military career through his medical evacuation after being twice wounded in the Vietnam War as a platoon leader in L Company of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marine Regiment. McCarthy’s first tour with Lima-3 from late 1966 to early 1967 took place in in I Corps in Thua Thien Province (Hué, Phu Bai, Khe Sanh), which was among the most dangerous sections of the country.
McCarthy says that he began the book intending to write about himself for his descendants, but expanded it to focus on his young Marines. He researched battalion command chronologies, which didn’t always agree with his recollections of what happened.
It would have been helpful if he included footnotes, as well as an index, a timeline, and a glossary, even though McCarthy defines terms the first time they are used. That said, his unquestioning love of his men and the Marine Corps needed no references. His pride in the Corps is also evidenced by his favorable comparison of Marine Vietnam War combat statistics with those of the other services and even with those of the Marines during World War II.
Readers, including some Vietnam War veterans, will find some of McCarthy’s war stories jarring. That includes his account of the troop ship he came over on being hit with a devastating 80-hour typhoon. And the account of one of his men who had a leech crawl inside his penis with cringeworthy consequences.
And the dehumanizing actions perpetrated on him during Parris Island boot camp, some of which would be subject to criminal prosecution now—or even then, if known. There also was the propensity of the new M-16 rifles to jam in combat, which cost many American lives in the war. And, of course, the horrible weather, fatigue, intense and sustained combat, ever-present booby traps, and the constant stress inflicted on McCarthy and his men, who averaged 18 years of age.
That you can’t use insect repellent to deter the brigades of malaria-carrying, insanity-inflicting, persistently buzzing mosquitoes for fear that the enemy could smell it does not seem far fetched since McCarthy contends he could actually smell the enemy.
I have two nitpicks. First, McCarthy refers three times to the Medal of Honor as the “Congressional Medal of Honor.” This is a common misconception because the MOH is presented by the President “in the name of the United States Congress,” but it is one a career Marine should not make, since it is a purely a military, not a congressional, award.
Secondly, McCarthy calls Vietnam civilians “the Indigenous population.” The use of that expression slightly diminishes those people because it omits their nationality. McCarthy clearly did not intend any disrespect and he indicates that his guilt for killing enemy troops persists to this day.
How can a decent man and a good Catholic who became a godfather to one of his sergeants at the latter’s conversion to Catholicism in Vietnam kill another human being (even in war) and not be affected? The answer is, he cannot, even after being subject to dehumanizing treatment at Parris Island.
Joe Murphy’s The Last Vietnam Veteran (222 pp. $7.99, paperback; $4.99, Kindle) is a very readable, semiautobiographical novel centered on the diverse stories of the last living eleven (perhaps thirteen) Vietnam War veterans. Murphy tells his tale through the eyes of the narrator, who eventually becomes the last man standing. No spoiler alert is necessary since the reader is told who the sole survivor is at the beginning of the book.
If you are a Vietnam War veteran, reading this novel will seem like listening to and relating to the war stories Murphy spins out as if you were at a VVA chapter meeting or sitting belly-up to a bar, without having to buy a round of beers. Readers who are not Vietnam War veterans can eavesdrop and wonder if these stories are true. As one of the characters says: “When the facts and the legend collide, go with the legend!”
Some are Murphy’s vignettes are funny, some are implausible, but almost all are poignant. A few of the characters went to school with the narrator or lived in his hometown. However, most were from different units, different backgrounds, and served in the war at different times.
Several themes permeate the book. One is survivor’s guilt on many different levels. Another is the guilt rear echelons who did their jobs and went home felt since they were not in combat. Then there’s the guilt of those who were in combat but believed they should have done more. Finally, the guilt of those who never went to Vietnam while many of their compatriots did.
Another theme is the existence—and value—of Vietnam Veterans of America. Murphy, who joined the Army in 1966 and served in Vietnam with 64th Quartermaster Battalion at Long Binh, presents VVA as a forum where Vietnam War veterans help their fellow veterans and talk about their war experiences with men and women who are interested and will understand. The book is a great advertisement for VVA, which—among other things—helps preserve the national and personal memories of Vietnam War veterans’ sacrifices and stories.
The additional themes of nicotine addiction (unfiltered!), alcoholism (“Mr. Beer”), and PTSD and reoccur throughout the novel. The narrator, for example, has built a bunker in the garden of his house and keeps an extensive survivalist cache in his root cellar.
But it is survivor’s guilt that leads to his belief that “we owe” and “I did not do enough.” This accounts in part for the desire of almost all of the book’s characters to help other veterans. The narrator also reflects on how one year of a long life would dominate the remaining years of so many lives.
The answer may be contained in the cliché that although a veteran may have left Vietnam, Vietnam has never left the veteran. That that experience, in other words, cannot be left behind.
As Murphy writes: When two Vietnam vets met, one of the most common questions they ask of each other is, “When were you there?” Many a vet will pause… and reply “Last night.”
Murphy’s book posits the many reasons why this is so. Although legend, for many it is fact and it is why you should read this book.
The Road Ahead and Miles Behind: A Story of Healing and Redemption between Father and Son (Morgan James Publishing, 152 pp. $12.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle) is a book about a road trip taken by a two-tour Iraq War veteran and his father. Although neither is a Vietnam War veteran, the book’s messages are meaningful to all who served in uniform.
The two drove cross country in a van to attend the Sebring 12 Hours race in November 2020. Mike Ligouri and his father James were quite dysfunctional and close to estranged. James Ligouri had caused the divorce by cheating on Mike’s mother. This caused a lot of bitterness.
Plus, Mike and his dad had never connected. Mike felt that his father was never there for him. “It’s an awful thing to admit you dislike someone you love,” he writes.
His father was a race car fanatic and Mike was not interested. Suddenly, out of the blue, his father called him about accompanying him on his annual road trip to Florida to see the race. Mike decided to go, even though his father had a track record of letting him down.
The eleven-day trip allowed the two to mend fences and find common ground. Mike worried that all that time with his father would exacerbate their problems. That didn’t happen, and the good news is that the book is not about eleven days of silence—or yelling. The two ended up discussing a wide range of topics. God and the afterlife, for instance, which gets an entire chapter. The trip does not turn Mike into a racing fanatic, but it’s successful in bridging the gap between father and son.
Early in the book, you will start thinking of your father (or son) and by the end of it, you will be pondering a road trip with him. The book is not bittersweet. However, it could create bittersweet memories in its readers.
Although Mike is a war veteran and alludes to PTSD issues, his book is not about a troubled veteran dealing with his inner demons.
Mike and his dad have a fairly common relationship. Many will relate to being on a different wavelength than their father. “Our parents want what’s best for us,” Mike observes. “We want to discover on our own what’s best for us.”
The book has a few themes that will stick with you. “Life is not meant to be done alone,” for example, and “Life is a race anyway. Might as well run it.” Father and son buy matching t-shirts that read, “It’s all about the ride.” The book shows that a ride, if it’s hours with your dad (or mom), can totally change a parent-child relationship.
I suppose that could be for the worse, but this book concentrates on the positives. If you take a similar trip, you may find that you are more like your father than you think or want to admit.
The Road Ahead and Miles Behind is a book that I highly recommend if you have a less-than- ideal relationship with your father (or son). By asking why your fatther did things that had a negative impact on your life you may learn that he was sheltering you from things that were bothering him.
In the case of Mike and James Liguori, it was job problems. If your father has died, you might find comfort in realizing that any coldness you felt may have been his way of sheltering you from the grim realities of life.
The Erawan War, Volume 3: The Royal Lao Armed Forces 1961-1974 (Helion, 68 pp. $25, paper) by Ken Conboy departs from the two volumes that preceded it, which concentrated on the CIA’s clandestine operations in Laos from 1961-74. In this volume we learn about the different units that collectively comprised the Royal Lao Armed Forces in that time period.
It very quickly becomes apparent that many of the units were also tools of the political factions vying for control of the country or functioning as regional centers of power. As a result, chain-of-command was often driven by allegiances and personal loyalties. Reading about the convoluted politics will make readers cynical about the war and question why the United States invested so much in this remote country and its military.
It’s difficult in hindsight to believe that President Eisenhower, concerned about what was then called the Domino Theory, warned incoming President Kennedy in January 1961 about Laos, advising him that events there—rather than in South Vietna,—should have his full attention.
Maj. Kong Le, a well-known personality in Laos in the early sixties (he was the cover of Time in 1964), and who at one point promoted himself to general, is highlighted in this volume. He was an important player in Lao politics and the military, and a highly competent commander of one of the best Lao units in the war—the 2nd Parachute Battalion.
When not leading coups against the government, the nominally neutralist leader would switch sides when it suited him. At one point he joined with the communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese and received military assitance from the Soviet Union. In the end, he became irrelevant and departed Laos.
Kong Le was not alone in staging coups. Rightists were keen to overthrow Laos’ Geneva Accords-directed coalition government and pursued that end through repeated coups. Because political allegiances were the driving factor in the Lao military you have to pay close attention when reading this book to follow who was doing what to whom at any given time.
Only when the war ended in 1975 and the communists took total and vindictive control did it become clear how tragic it was that the Lao military failed to unify and focus its energies on defeating the true enemy.
The book’s title, Erawan, is a mythological three-headed elephant common in Thai, Lao, and Khmer culture. It prominently appeared in the center of the red Lao national flag that was used until the end of the war.
This concise book is rich in photographs and illustrations. Careful reading will reveal the tragedy that befell Laos despite all the aid that the United States provided. From that perspective it is an important read.
Landing at Inchon, advancing to Seoul, fighting at the Chosin Reservoir, slogging through 189 days of combat, making seven narrow escapes from death, frostbite and wounds; providing leadership during the siege of Khe Sanh in Vietnam, flying 204 F-4 and C-117 interdiction and close air support missions, and receiving a Distinguished Flying Cross and 16 Air Medals. Those are the highlights of the 38-year military career of Richard Carey as recounted in Alan Mesches’ new biography, The Flying Grunt: The Story of Lieutenant General Richard E. Carey, United States Marine Corps (Casemate, 240 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle).
In 1945 at the age of 17 Carey enlisted in the Marine Corps. Four years later his leadership skills earned him a direct commission to second lieutenant and the command of a platoon.
In more than 100 hours of interviews Carey guided historian Alan E. Mesches through his life and military career. In telling Carey’s life story, Mesches, an Air Force veteran, includes summations of world events occurring at the same time.
Carey’s war actions well beyond normal. At one point in Korea, for example, he tackled Gen. Douglas MacArthur to save him from a line of fire. Their subsequent exchanges became historic. Carey also recalls people such as Marine Corps legend Chesty Puller with whom he interacted.
Carey’s recollections of battling Chinese communist forces at Hagaru-ri, abutting the Chosin Reservoir, are especially dynamic. Half of his platoon died during that vicious fight in November and December of 1950. “A lot bled to death,” Carey says. Since then, he has championed the Marines who fought in that battle, known as The Chosin Few.
Shortly after Choisin Reservoir, a mortar round wounded Carey and he returned stateside for treatment. Following rehabilitation, he received the assignment he had wanted since he was 17: flight school. He then began flight training and won his pilot wings.
Carey went to Vietnam three times. In 1963, he spent two weeks there gathering intelligence as a major advisor. In 1967-68, he had charge of base support activities at Chu Lai and Da Nang as a lieutenant colonel and volunteered to fly combat missions.
In 1975, as a brigadier general, he coordinated evacuation plans in Cambodia and South Vietnam as the North Vietnamese Army overran the South. That task included political and personality conflicts and diplomacy.
The chapters dealing with the evacuation of Saigon are especially enlightening. Carey and Mesches offer arguments for readers to reach personal conclusions about the rights and wrongs of the withdrawal procedures.
In combat and administrative roles Carey vigorously pursued and solved large and small problems. He demonstrated a wide-angle view of leadership techniques while scaling the levels of command from platoon leader to Commanding General of the Marine Corps Development and Education Command before retiring at age 55 in 1983.
In civilian, among other things, he worked with the Metroplex Marine Coordinating Council in the Dallas-Fort Worth area helping veterans and their families. His efforts helped build a Dallas-Fort Worth veterans cemetery, provide housing for homeless veterans and accommodations for families of hospitalized veterans, and instituted a VA shuttle service.
Most importantly, Carey–who is 95–worked to fund and erect an eight-panel monument in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery with seven panels containing battle scenes in tribute to The Chosin Few.
Brothers & Sisters Like These: An Anthology of Writing by Veterans (Redhawk Publications, 185 pp. $15, paperback) is a collection of 77 very short stories and poems by 36 North Carolina veterans, with a Preface by Dr. Richard Kelly and an Introduction by Elizabeth Heaney.
“Writing programs for veterans have existed since the Second World War to help veterans make sense of their military experience and honor the voices inside needing to be heard,” Dr. Kelly notes. The selections in this book come from one such program.
Some notable entries include:
“A Good Place,” in which Mike Smith visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, climbs a ladder, and as he reaches “toward Larry,” the names on The Wall start to come to life.
“Shiva’s Dance Card” by Pete Ramsey, which deals with American troops trying to negotiate with a Vietnamese woman to make up for the loss of her two ducks.
Steve Henderson’s “Tribe,” in which he writes that “To meet and share all of our stories and understand the times, the dangers, the emotions, has been uplifting and therapeutic for me.”
“What I Brought Back” in which Ted Minnick writes that he returned from Vietnam with “an appreciation for brotherhood, a deeper appreciation for spouse and family, and a sneaky hidden disease called Agent Orange.”
Renee Hermancek, who served during Desert Storm, writes: “Being a woman, the uniform carried more for me and others. M.W. Whore. Bitch. Marine. Teammate. Job title. At any moment I can fulfill any one of those titles or all of them depending on who I’m speaking to.”
“The Pillowcase,” by Midge Lorence, which deals with her husband dying in hospice, leaving her with feelings of anger and his pillowcase that she doesn’t want to remove from its pillow.
“One of These Boots” by Gabriel Garcia, a poetic tribute to the men and women who perished during her nine months in Afghanistan.
“No Escape,” in which Vietnam War veteran Ray Crombe is trying to get away from PTSD. Here’s his last paragraph: “It was a long road back, and for so long, I thought the suffering was deserved – the warranted consequences of poor choices. I instinctively knew that Justice is getting what we deserve. Then found out that Grace is getting God’s Goodness – which we don’t deserve. But for which I – for one – am eternally grateful.”
Frank Cucumber’s poem, “I Used to Be,” is about how his Drill Instructor at Fort Gordon made him into who he is today. It’s not something he’s proud of.
This isn’t the type of anthology you judge on its literary merit. The work here is about honesty and truth and the courage to dig deep down into yourself and have the willingness to bring what you find out into the light.
Brothers & Sisters is one of the few books that nothing negative can be said about. It’s a literary powerhouse.
The history of the Vietnam War grows more complete and accurate as veterans, journalists, and historians continue to research and write about the conflict. Today’s authors gain the advantage of supplementing their research by studying what other writers have learned and written about the war. Organizations that help veterans offer opportunities for prospective authors to share information and work on their craft. Improvements in access to after action reports and other documents continually expand the information base.
All of those factors significantly helped Hubert Yoshida in writing Operation Utah:The Die Is Cast (Luna Blue, 356 pp. $29.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper), which centers on a four-day March 1966 Vietnam War battle in which he participated. His extensive research has uncovered facts not previously published and identified errors made by other authors.
Lt. Yoshida commanded a rifle platoon in H Company, 2nd Battalion, of 7th Marine Regiment based at Chu Lai. As a child of Japanese American citizens, he and his family spent World War II interred in a prison camp. He earned a math degree from the University of California, then enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was commissioned from Officer Candidate School. He survived the Vietnam War with no traumatic aftereffects but is physically disabled from exposure Agent Orange.
Operation Utah matched three undermanned 2/7 Marine battalions and one South Vietnamese Airborne battalion against the North Vietnamese Army’s 21st Regiment and local Viet Cong forces. The Marines prevailed, but only after paying a heavy price of 101 killed in action and 278 wounded. Enemy losses totaled 600 KIA and an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 WIA.
Yoshida’s account of the fighting includes a look at the buildup of the Marine battalions and questions the intel underlying the operation. He breaks the combat into three phases and describes maneuvers from the perspective of the combatants. In this thoroughly researched account, Yoshida highlights Marine helicopter crews and artillery and Navy corpsmen. He also includes a chapter based on the diary of a KIA North Vietnamese soldier. His account of how one American family coped with the death of a young son and brother is universally true.
Yoshida offers four “obvious” lessons learned from Operation Utah. He also attempts to “connect the dots” regarding the war’s influence on the lives of the surviving young men.
The crowning tribute of the book is a photo gallery with short biographies that pays fond farewell to the 101 men killed in action during Operation Utah. Hubert Yoshida’s heart and soul are intrinsic in the biographies, a tone similar to his story telling.
Overall, Yoshida expresses sadness for the losses of young lives in this battle and the Vietnam War in general. Operation Utah easily could be retitled Tragedy in Victory.
Herman J. Viola’s Warrior Spirit: The Story of Native American Heroism and Patriotism (University of Oklahoma Press, 168 pp. $19.95, paperback) is a unique and informative book. Aimed at young adults, the book is a quick-and-easy but fact-filled read. Viola, Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution and his four contributors—Debra Kay Mooney, Ellen Baumler, Cheryl Hughes, and Michelle Pearson—present a well-researched and illustrated history of the positive contributions Native Americans have made in all of the major U.S. military conflicts since the Revolutionary War.
When many people think of Native Americans efforts during wartime, they tend to focus on the Code Talkers during World War II. In Warrior Spirit, we learn that that that unique communications effort was first used during in Europe during the First World War,
There is a lot of other revealing information in this book, including stories of Medal of Honor recipients and little-known contributions made by Native Americans in the heat of battle.
Viola and company explain the warrior ethos of Native Americans, as well as their deeply held religious beliefs, and their respect for warriors and for other war fighters around them.
Warrior Spirit is a well-written and edited book from an author who has devoted much of his career to studying, teaching and writing about American Indian history and culture.
My Country Is the World: Staughton Lynd’s Writings, Speeches, and Statements Against the Vietnam War (Haymarket Books, 400 pp. $65, hardcover; $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the historian Luke Stewart, is an extensive look at the antiwar movement of the late 1960s, concentrating on the leadership of one man, Staughton Lynd.
Lynd (1929-2022) actively opposed America’s involvement in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970, especially in New York and Washington. His efforts peaked in the months after a December 1965 trip he made to Hanoi with Tom Hayden, founding member of Students for a Democratic Society, and Albert Aptheker, a historian and member of the Communist Party of the United States.
A professor at Yale University, Lynd believed that the U.S. went to war in Vietnam because of a foreign policy established by a group of privileged people who felt their manhood threatened by any challenge to American power.
Lynd’s wife Alice, who often worked beside him, seemed most comfortable being involved in draft counseling. Those who took part in that work were well aware of the painful irony that for every young man they helped avoid conscription, another one would be drafted and likely be sent to Vietnam.
Lynd started working for Civil Rights in the South before moving to opposing the war in Vietnam. From 1965-67, many considered him to be the leading American voice against the war. This volume collects his major writings, speeches, and interviews during this time.
In February 1965 the Lynds wrote to the IRS stating they would stop paying the percentage of their income taxes that went to the Defense Department. Lynd said he instead favored the U.S. paying massive reparations to the Vietnamese people.
Lynd considered the fighting in Vietnam to be the result of a civil war, and not a question of foreign aggression that should be stopped by military intervention. He moved from opposing the war to trying to end it and called for the creation of a War Crimes Tribunal.
“This country is presently waging an undeclared war so evil and so dangerous that the imagination can hardly comprehend it,” Lynd declared at a protest meeting in Carnegie Hall. He went to Hanoi in an effort to encourage peace talks. While in Vietnam he said the war was “immoral, illegal, and antidemocratic.” The trip resulted in having his passport revoked, losing his job at Yale, being marked by the CIA as “the notorious national peace leader.”
Lynd later became a critic of the antiwar movement’s tactics and strategies. That resulted in a permanent split with his good friend and another leader in the movement, David Dellinger. Lynd then began to move away from national antiwar activity, becoming more involved in the labor movement.
The records gathered here are an important accounting of the early years of the American antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. Just as important to me is editor Luke Stewart’s lengthy, informative essays that make up the book’s chapter introductions.
This book will help to balance out many a Vietnam War library.
Arnold Sampson, Jr., takes an exploratory journey into the past in Dustoff: More than Met the Eye, Reflections of a Vietnam Medevac Pilot (BookBaby, 200 pp. $19.69, paper). This war memoir is exceptional because, in examining his role as a UH1-H medevac (Dustoff) helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, Sampson admits to not remembering significant portions of what he did.
As he puts it: “Time has sopped up and blotted out some of the observations I thought I would never forget.” The events Sampson does remember add up to an in-depth appraisal of the ups and downs (pun intended) of a Vietnam War Dustoff pilot.
Sampson, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, joined the 68th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in 1969, six months after the unit deployed to Chu Lai. As a newbie lieutenant and one of only a few commissioned officers in the unit, all of the non-combat administrative duties were dumped on him. He still flew missions, but it took seven months for him to reach an aircraft commander’s seat.
Flying in the Vietnam War proved to be both exceptionally rewarding and extremely dangerous, Sampson says. He tells stories about situations for which he had no training or inadequate information. He learned from mistakes that often began as creative ideas but failed in practicality, and continually calls himself to task for them.
His conflicted feelings about extreme situations such as rescuing a fellow pilot who accidentally shot himself did not finally resolve themselves until decades later. His acts of kindness such as doctoring a badly injured Vietnamese child who died practically in his arms took a heavy emotional toll. That child’s death still haunts his dreams.
Sampson creates a nightmare of terror with his accounts of days of flying through rain, clouds, and zero visibility during the monsoon season. For a time, all aircraft were grounded except for Dustoff choppers. In the midst of that chaos, an extraordinary close call caused his crewmen to face him down with a mini-mutiny; Sampson merely walked away from them and the war continued. During that period, his crew saved lives on every mission.
A loner who did not drink or hang out at the club, Sampson was not particularly sociable. His overall view of the 68th is a group of skillful but self-centered warrant officers who did nothing but fly. Sampson’s piloting skill and willingness to help others improve their abilities earned him respect.
He challenges the necessity for the war and criticizes its execution. In closing, he honors the dead and recognizes the post-war suffering of survivors.
Arnold Sampson writes in an enjoyable, conversational style. Although many of his stories emphasize his shortcomings, the fact is that he flew 878 combat missions that evacuated 2,200 people, saving the lives of hundreds of them.