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Arts Editor and Senior Writer, The VVA Veteran at Vietnam Veterans of America

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes by Johnny F. Pugh

Johnny Pugh was drafted into the Army when he lost his college deferment. He went on to serve in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division beginning in the sweltering heat of July 1966. It was just the first of many shocks for the young biracial New Mexican. Those shocks that took place during his twelve months in country took over his mind and body in ways Pugh never could have expected. He survived combat with only two Purple Hearts, but his soul was destroyed.

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes: The Vietnam War I Fought (iUniverse, 293 pp., $21.95, paper; $3.99, e book) is a wonderfully written narrative of Pugh’s twelve months as an infantryman. It is heart-breakingly honest as Pugh brings the reader into his hooch and lives and walks you with him as he goes through the horror of combat with his unit, Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment.

The writing flows as Pugh leads the reader into the killing zones of Operation Attleboro. You cringe at the brutality of war, along with the insidious nonsense that follows it. Pugh tells of his exposure to the black market and other moral challenges he faced with his buddies. There is little humor and a fair amount of Chicano street language that is easy to follow, but what comes through above all is the honesty of the man as he coped with the ghosts he encountered.

Pugh began writing this book as his health declined. He went back to letters his family had saved from those days and the reader can see him take the words from paper and into the reality he faced. Pugh died in 2011 before finishing his book from the all-too-common ills of the Vietnam War: PTSD, Agent Orange, denied VA treatment, alcohol, drugs, and the hardships our nation put on the backs of its Vietnam War veterans.

The book is a testament to his sheer determination and will to write his story for others to see. Pugh’s third wife and young daughter took on the task of getting the book ready for publication—a labor of love.

The book is important for several reasons. First, it is a written window into just one of the millions of kids our nation’s leaders sent to war under false premises and with false promises. Johnny Pugh was strong enough to write his story. He could easily have been one of thousands who were unable to write it. It is a book that needs to be sent to every politician as they consider sending young people to kill and maim in the name of freedom.

Pugh

For some, the book will be a hard read because it exposes many unpleasant truths. The truth of officers, poorly trained, and foggy missions leading to the deaths of friends for no apparent reason. The truth of fear of dying, fear of losing friends, fear of betrayal by those you think are friends. The fear of cowardice or defining courage. These are all in question as one reads Pugh’s story.

Through it all, you see the mind of a young and innocent man grappling with the brutal reality of day-to-day living in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

In the end this is eulogy for Johnny Pugh all of his fellow infantrymen who served in the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

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Lessons in Leadership by General John R. Deane Jr. – Edited by Jack C. Mason

I  believe that Army generals are cut from the same khaki cloth. Young officers find mentors and devotedly follow them until it’s their time to lead; then they collect followers and mentor them. In that way, generals maintain their version of what Kipling called “the thin red line.” Generals live in a world unto themselves.

Lessons in Leadership: My Life in the U.S. Army from World War II to Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 261 pp.; $50, hardcover; $40, Kindle) by Gen. John R. Deane Jr. and edited by Jack C. Mason validates my belief.

Deane graduated from West Point in 1942 and served in the Army until 1977. He fought in World War II and in Vietnam. His father was a well-liked major general, a fact that opened many doors for John Junior, a situation he frequently acknowledges.

John R. Deane, Jr., West Point, Class of 1942

True to its title, Lessons in Leadership provides guidance from Deane accumulated as a staff officer and a commander who attained four-star rank. He often cites his teachers. For example, Gen. James Gavin taught him, Deane writes, to “inspire people to outdo themselves” and then he tells how he built on that idea. Deane also preaches that “substance is more important than form,” words that should be tattooed on the forearms of PowerPoint-crazed staff officers.

He tells stories in a conversational style that flows from topic to topic. He narrates combat experiences in a nonchalant, nearly emotionless, voice. He underplays them and yet delivers the full impact of what took place.

Deane’s writing allows a reader to experience vicariously what he did and to understand exactly why he did it.  In World War II Deane and his men entered combat in October 1944 and engaged in all-but continuous fighting for two hundred days. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and received many decorations as a battalion commander in the 104th Timberwolves Infantry Division led by Gen. Terry Allen, a boyhood idol who became a friend.

Deane’s account of time in the Vietnam War sets new standards for leadership. With the 1st Infantry Division commanded by Gen. William E. DePuy, Deane shared deputy commander duties with Gen. James E. Hollingsworth, whose life is recounted in the new James Willbanks biography, Danger 79er.

The three generals flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside their men in combat. After taking over as the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Deane jumped with men (first man out the door) in February 1967 during Operation Junction City to form a blocking force for two hundred fifty follow-on helicopters with five thousand soldiers.

The three generals ignored criticism of their unconventional behavior. Each man saw himself as “a soldier’s general” and set positive examples at every opportunity. Deane’s troops called him “Uncle John.”

Deane imparts thought-provoking lessons he learned during that time. Eyewitness accounts from soldiers interviewed by Mason support Deane’s recall of many events.

On Feb. 22, 1967, Gen. Deane led the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry out the door of a C-130 north of Tay Ninh City in the first U.S. combat jump since the Korean War, and the only mass jump of the Vietnam War.

Beyond the two wars, Deane commanded forces in Germany, Korea, and the Dominican Republic. He also worked in research, engineering, and force development. Based on these jobs, particularly those in Washington, D.C., he recalls encounters with senior officers and career managers. He explains how to make sound decisions while working with senior people, as well as uncovering weaknesses without getting everybody mad at you.

When you do your job well, he says, you can make enemies. The solution is to do what best meets the objectives of the organization. His discussions of several events in his life read like pages out of Catch 22. A couple of his encounters made me laugh out loud. At the same time, his teaching is priceless.

When describing other men, Deane details not just their actions, but also blends in their personalities and brings them fully to life. He ties together stories, recollections, and rumors to explain controversies about leadership such as Terry Allen’s loss of command of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II. In these passages, his storytelling resembles a Vanity Fair exposé. He ends each account by explaining how it influenced his leadership style and the behavior of his subordinates. He repeatedly credits subordinate commanders for his units’ successes.

With authoritative certainty, Deane categorizes leaders into four groups largely based on a willingness to commit oneself to a task. Category One contains fearless people—beyond a physical sense—who make decisions without fearing personal consequences. Category Two’s people know and feel fear but have a characteristic that drives them onward, such as pride, religion, or family. Category Three is composed of followers of the leaders in the two other categories who need help to conquer their fears. People in Category Four will quit, no matter what happens. These categories apply to civilian as well as military leaders, Deane says.

Credit for the book’s readability must include its editor Jack C. Mason. A few years before his death in 2013 at the age of ninety-four, Deane provided manuscripts to Mason that documented his career. After that, the two men communicated nearly daily.

“When I asked him to explain or expound on something, he replied in detail,” Mason writes. Mason also researched information that broadens Deane’s stories and includes these findings as italicized paragraphs in the text.

A recurring theme is the clash of egos between generals. Deane does not hesitate in naming those he considers worthy of star rank and those who were unworthy. In the latter case, he reduces the image of one general to that of a sobbing infant.

Which is one reason that reading Deane’s book provides more lessons about Army generals than some people might want to know.

—Henry Zeybel

We Leave the Safety of the Sea By Art Elser

Art Elser’s We Leave the Safety of the Sea (Finishing Line Press, 64 pp. $12, paper) is a tiny book that contains a dozen and a half small poems that deal with the American war in Vietnam. There’s lots of pain in these poems and swallowing two aspirin won’t alleviate it. When Elser, for example, follows his shrink’s instructions to chase away nightmares by trying to remember something pleasant in his life, he wakes up with a body next to him that “has bloody stumps where legs should be.”

Art Elser retired from the Air Force in 1979 after serving for twenty years as a pilot, including a 1967-68 tour of duty as as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. Elser’s war experiences left him with powerful memories that have ended up in his poetry,

Walter McDonald describes Elser’s poetry as “fierce.” McDonald, a former Vietnam War USAF pilot and an acclaimed poet, ought to know. Hell—he does know. Most of Elser’s poems have” flashbacks so intense they don’t let me go. And isn’t that the point?” McDonald asks. Yes, that is the point.

“Helicopters carrying memories” could have been written by me about my life here in Maple Valley, Washington—if I were a better poet.

As I write on the patio, I hear the whine

of an approaching helicopter.

It doesn’t have the quiet whoosh

of a Jet Ranger carrying executives

to a business meeting downtown,

And it doesn’t have the noisy

wop wop wop of the ancient Huey,

a sound that carries me back to Vietnam,

and to painful memories I can’t forget.

It has the heavy, straining sound

of a Blackhawk the kind that hauls grunts

into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Years from now that sound

will carry them back to fire fights,

explosions, loneliness, fear and

painful memories they can’t forget.

Some days it seems as though helicopters of one sort or another spend all day flying over my house in Maple Valley. You’d think I was in the flight path of an airport in a major war zone.

Elser’s poetry summons up my war memories as effectively as those noisy helicopters do. More so.

                     **********

Elser’s A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie (Walker Doodle Press, 91 pp., $12.95, paper) is proof that he can write excellent non-war poetry. Still, the poems in this collection are also filled with images of sadness and loss.

I guess I should have expected that from a man who spent two decades as a pilot, including a combat-heavy tour in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag by D. F. Brown

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The poet D.S. Brown served as a medic with Bravo Company in the 1st Battalion of the 14th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1969-70. He is the author of three poetry collections: Returning Fire, The Other Half of Everything, and Assuming Blue. His poetry also has been anthologized in American War Poetry, Carrying the Darkness, and Unaccustomed Mercy. 

In his latest collection of poetry, Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag (Bloomsday, 88 pp., $16, paper), the text is augmented with appropriate photographs. This beautiful book—with cover art by Randy Twaddle and interior photos by T. J. Amick, a 196th Light Infantry Brigade vietnam War veteran—is filled with one damned fine poem after another.

Brown starts off with a bang and does not let up. This is the first poem, “Ghost of a Person Passing in Front of the Flag”:

 

When I was king in Vietnam

they loved us for the body count.

We choppered everywhere

searching for some peace with honor

These four lines pack a hell of a punch. “Fractured Fairy Tale,” which comes next, presents words that have resonated in my head ever since I first read it:

“teenagers posing johnwayned

them in fucking salad suits

hand to hand in syllables

and no bread crumbs

11111111111111111111111

Brown

These fractured lines and invented words communicate the madness of the Vietnam War better than any well-ordered, regimented format ever could do. W.D. Ehrhart, the poet and Vietnam War Marine Corps veteran, seconds that thought.

“War is chaos,” Ehrhart says about this book. “Combat is an incoherent jumble of grunts and screams and shards and fragments and flashes and fears. It is not linear.”

Thanks for that comment.

I served in Vietnam, but never saw combat as Brown and Ehrhart did. This book gives a taste of the confusion and chaos of battle that would have gob smacked me.

Read D.F. Brown to experience the disorder of war. Prepare to be disturbed.

—David Willson

Blood in the Hills by Robert Maras and Charles W. Sasser

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Co-written by Robert Maras and Charles Sasser, Blood in the Hills: The Story of Khe Sanh: The Most Savage Fight of the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 288 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is a memoir of Maras’ Marine Corps service before, after, and primarily during his experiences when he took part in the April-May 1967 hill fights around Khe Sanh.

The book is organized into forty-six chapters; each is a stand-alone story. The reader gets immersed in virtually non-stop, down-and-dirty, grunt fighting directed at killing the enemy—and surviving long enough to go home.

Combat often has been called interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Khe Sanh hill fights were more like interminable terror punctuated by moments of boredom.

Maras produces some great thoughts and gallows humor in the midst of this interminable terror. To wit:

  • “When the shells exploded, they seemed to blast a hole in the universe through which you caught a glimpse of eternity.”
  • “For those who fight for life, it has a special flavor the protected shall never know.”
  • “It was shooting and killing for breakfast, shooting and killing for lunch, shooting and killing for dinner.”
  • “Golf’s Corpsmen had more guts than a gut wagon in a slaughterhouse”

Maras knew that back in the World, higher-up strategists were moving colored pins around maps. As they did, Maras’s commander would move his troops to mirror the pins. Maras asked himself: “I wonder if God has a map of the universe with colored pins.”

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The Khe Sanh hill fights concentrated around Hills 861, 881N and 881S.

The malfunctioning M-16 is covered at great length throughout this book. Despite their desperation and anger, and knowing the M-16 was defective and unreliable, Maras and his fellow stalwart Marines followed orders and without hesitation assaulted the enemy as if they themselves were kings of the hills—which, in the end, they proved to be.

Blood in the Hills is a must-read.

—Bob Wartman

Sagahawk by the Sea John F. Bronzo

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The Vietnam War figures in John Bronzo’s latest novel, Sagahawk by the Sea: A Love Story Changes History (Archway, 270 pp., $34.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper’ $3.99, e book), but it comes along relatively late in the story. This is a novel of time travel, so the story moves anywhere and anytime the author wants it to go.

This time travel novel begins in 1961, then proceeds in sections to 1967. Bronzo—whose previous book was Mary Bernadette: Secrets of a Dallas Moon: A Young Vietnamese Girl’s Tale from the Grave about the Killing of JFK—dedicates this new book in part to his high school classmate, Peter E. Sipp, know as “Dude.” Sipp “was killed in Vietnam when he threw himself on a grenade to save his buddies,” Bronzo writes, “sacrificing his life so they could live out theirs.”

This novel includes the author’s explanation of what really happened on July 7, 1947 in Roswell, New Mexico, with that mysterious crash of a so-called flying saucer. One of the characters in this novel is sent there to investigate.

“At first it was said to have been a flying saucer, but later it was identified as a weather balloon,” Bronzo writes.

This novel jumbles up time so that unexpected things happen to those who are affected by the mutants that show up in Roswell with a warning to Americans related to Russian missiles in Cuba and God knows what else.

“If 1965 is the year that Vietnam first invaded my consciousness, 1966 is the year that Vietnam caught the nation’s attention in earnest,” Bronzo writes. “Protests against the war became a commonplace occurrence on college campuses, in cities across the country, and on everyone’s television screen.”

That’s true as far as it goes, but this book, as most books do, makes it seem as though everyone in this country was talking and thinking about the Vietnam War. But most of us were not searching our souls.

The National Guard and the Reserves get a mention as refuge for “the savvy” and the well connected draft evaders and that others were fleeing to Canada. Most draft age men, just hoped for the best and went along with whatever came their way. That included your reviewer.

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Bronzo

For those who enjoy conjecture about the options available in history, including during the Vietnam War, Sagahawk by the Sea might be the novel for you.

As the subtitle has it, “A Love Story Changes History.” Read the novel and see if you agree that that really happens.

Bronzo’s website is johnfbronzo.wordpress.com

—David Willson

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson