About vvaposted

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

There Was a Time by George H. Wittman

There Was A Time (Casemate, 312 pp. $24.95, paper; $11.49, Kindle) by George H. Wittman is a work of historical fiction dealing with the last few weeks of World War II in Southeast Asia. The hook is that we follow the exploits of a handful of Americans working closely with communist Vietnamese forces against invading Japanese troops. Wittman served in the U.S. Army during and after the Korean War.

The novel centers on a handpicked OSS team led by Maj. John Guthrie and his second in command, Capt. Edouard Parnell, both veterans of combat in the European theater. The team is parachuted into Tonkin, in far northern Vietnam, to lead the effort on the ground working directly with Ho Chi Minh’s rag-tag Viet Minh guerillas against the Japanese for control of what was then known as Indochina.

They’ve been told to get the Vietnamese to start “kicking some Jap ass.” One problem is understanding the complex Vietnamese political situation. Another big issue is dealing with the French who want to regain control of their Indochina colony, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Among the complicating factors is that the British were supporting the French because the Brits wanted to regain their own colonies, primarily India, after the war. Ho Chi Minh wanted the French and the Americans to be fighting the Japanese.

Guthrie, a labor lawyer in civilian life in Gary, Indiana, had been considered a “hard charger” after being awarded a Silver Star. He suffered from occasional nightmares, and even more frequent stomach ulcers.

Wittman

Both Ho Chi Minh and the head of the Viet Minh military forces, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, end up meeting these Americans. Giap is depicted as dour man mainly because of his hatred for the French.

Ho is impressed by the American plan to give the Philippines independence after the war and believes the best chance for independence for Vietnam lies with cultivating a close relationship with the U.S. What he wants from Americans in the near-term are supplies, military equipment, and weapons.  

After a night-drop, the OSS team gets lost and is ambushed by a Japanese squad before encountering friendly Vietnamese who, as part of Ho’s Viet Minh guerrillas, have been helping rescue shot-down U.S. in pilots in northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh promise to help this small American group in return for receiving better weapons.

The title is a reference to this very short period of time in 1945 during which the U.S. and the communist nationalist leadership of Vietnam fought together as allies. During that time key decisions were made that would have a big impact on the Vietnamese and American people for generations to come.

George Wittman drops us into the middle of this chaotic time and place with a book that is nothing short of a riveting read.

The author’s website is georgehwittman.com

–Bill McCloud

Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

Love Found and Lost by Kim Vui

Love Found and Lost: The Kim Vui Story (Texas Tech University Press, 260 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle), is an interesting and important autobiography by a Vietnamese actress and singer who was the most glamorous—and famous—star in the South Vietnamese entertainment industry in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the story of Saigon’s nightlife and film scene during the American war years.

Kim Vui was six years old in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the United States near the end of World War II, which led to chaos in and around Saigon as the French tried to regain control of their former colonial capital. Amid the uproar, Kim Vui fled with her family to the Mekong Delta to begin a new life in the countryside. The next year she saw French forces murderously rampaging through her village. The family subsequently returned to Saigon.

With fond memories of singing in her Catholic church, Kim Vui began performing in theaters in Saigon at an early age. In spring of 1955, after France had lost all its Indochinese colonies, the sixteen-year-old Vui was pregnant by a young man she would only see once more in her life.

After her first child was born she finished secondary school and returned to singing in restaurants. Kim Vui also worked in a government program taking music, dance, and propaganda into the countryside to support the noncommunist South Vietnamese regime during the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

South Vietnam was developing a small film industry and Kim Vui starred in her first movie in 1957. Ten years later, with Saigon now “a capital in the midst of war,” she had become a popular entertainer, known as a singer of “tragic love songs.” But having failed to find true love, Kim Viu writes, “I made myself ignore the past, live in the present, and always look to the future: to forget the illusion of love and think only of my children.”

In 1968 she took part in an Asian ensemble that had a few gigs in Las Vegas. Returning to Vietnam, she starred in two films with anti-communist themes. After marrying an American civilian, she moved to the U.S. with her children and parents. After that “marriage of necessity,” she wrote, “I would learn that one can survive, even in the absence of happiness.”

The actress and singer Kim Vui was known as “the Sophia Loren of Vietnam.”

She would eventually find herself taking one final stab at finding true love. Despite multiple marriages and occasional other relationships, Kim Vui was doing all that she thought she could to make a safe, successful, life for herself and her six children.

In Love Found and Lost, Kim Vui presents a rare and satisfying glimpse into the social life of upper-class Vietnamese citizens in South Vietnam during the war. Her strengths and maternal influences shine throughout this story—a story of a woman, herself, full of love.

–Bill McCloud

F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars by Joe Copalman

Joe Copalman is an expert on aviation history. F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle), his first work for Osprey, is a thorough rundown of an aircraft that was hitherto unfamiliar to me. Along with accounts of its role in two wars, Copalman includes views of the Skynight’s activities throughout the Cold War. Jim Laurier provides the book’s artwork, the usual first-class Osprey combination of drawings and photographs.

The Douglas F3D Skyknight was in action with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as a night fighter jet from 1950-70. A pilot and radar operator manned the plane. Copalman calls the aircraft “the most unsung hero of its two major wars.”

In Korea, twelve F3Ds Skyknights (nicknamed “Nightmares”) replaced the F4U-5N Corsair and F7F Tigercat in August 1952. Copalman describes missions of crews inexperienced in combat against both Korean and Chinese aircraft and high caliber antiaircraft fire. The pilots developed complicated maneuvers and struck ground targets of opportunity. Lacking formal training in tactics, they learned by doing.

With detailed accounts of air warfare, Copalman explains Nightmares’ difficulties tryin to avoid becoming bait for MiGs and searchlight traps, as well as the rigors of escorting outdated B-29s. The Nightmare pilots were pragmatic and understood that their jamming was effective when tracking AAA began firing erratically as their aircraft broke enemy radar locks. The Nightmares’ confrontations with slow-moving North Korean “Bedcheck Charlie” biplanes steal the Korean War show.

Two years after the Korean War, the F3D upgraded to the F3D-2Q, re-labeled the EF-10B in 1962. In the Cold War the plane performed photographic and electronic surveillance against Soviet-designed radar in North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Far East. The EF-10Bs and MiGs looked each other over, but never fought.

The Vietnam War required a full-scale array of new tactics by EF-10B crews. They deployed as squadron VMCJ-1 to Da Nang in April 1965 and operated over South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Copalman offers a full picture of the squadron’s actions during five years in-country. Renaming the aircraft “Whale” and “Super Whale,” crewmen again basically learned the best tactics for themselves through on-the-job training.

The men’s primary task was hunting and jamming North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception sites electronically or with chaff to outwit surface-to-air missile launch teams. In support of fighter-bombers, EF-10B crews were the first on target and last to leave. Overloaded with jammers and carrying maximum fuel, Whale pilots could barely get airborne and often shut down an engine to save fuel and lengthen their time over targets.

Whale and enemy SAM crews both developed new tactics. SAM crews tended to improve slightly faster because Soviet technical advisers helped them; at the same time, Pentagon rules restricted EF-10B attacks on SAM sites for fear of killing Russian advisers and escalating the war.

EF-10Bs escorted Navy A3Ds on straight-and-level, slow-speed bombing missions that one Skyknight pilot likened to World War B-17 raids on Germany. Every day offered a new experience.  

Copalman describes almost unimaginable highlights of the EF-10B’s flying from aircraft carriers. More than likely, he could write an entire book about the uniqueness of that potentially self-destructive practice.

I enjoyed F3D/EF-10. Like every Osprey book, its research uncovered new facts about warfare—in this case, the work of an aircraft unfamiliar to me. Heroics also are part of the drama.

Copalman portrays the resilience of American flyers by showing how they had to learn for themselves the best ways to execute their mission.

They relearned old lessons that hadn’t been passed down by people in similar dilemmas. Copalman clearly shows that the pilots came up with tactics that helped others more than themselves.

–Henry Zeybel

The Gunner and The Grunt by Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank

In their joint memoir, Massachusetts natives Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank give a compelling portrait of America’s role in the Vietnam War in 1965. The Gunner and The Grunt: Two Boston Boys in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division Airmobile (King Printing Company, 216 pp., paperback) traces the paths Kelley and Burbank took starting with growing up in neighborhoods a dozen miles apart and illustrates their hopes and expectations upon joining the U.S. Army.

Enlisting in 1964, Kelley chose Army aviation; Burbank aspired to be a paratrooper. The two boys from Boston met in Vietnam shortly after their arrival at the 1st Air Cav base at An Khe in the Central Highlands. 

Inspired by a friend who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Burbank decided, to the great distress of his parents, to leave high school and pursue his dream. For his part, Kelley finished high school, then put in for a posting in Germany where he hoped to work as an aviation mechanic and become a helicopter crew chief, as well as to enjoy the company of beautiful women and the limitless range of German beers.

To his dismay, Kelley received orders to join C Troop C the 1st Squadron in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Upon learning he was going to Vietnam, Kelley was filled with dread. His sense of impending doom became a certainty that he was a dead man and powerless to prevent it. By contrast, Burbank was ecstatic knowing he would soon be in combat. 

Their training began during the advisory years of America’s commitment to Vietnam. In 1964, the number of U.S. troops in the country was a tiny fraction of the more than 550,000 who would be there four years later. By the end of 1965, the build-up was well underway. On arrival, Burbank and Kelley found themselves in the shadow of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that was fought by 1st Cav troops only days before. Losses on both sides were shockingly high, and the message was sobering—an American victory in Vietnam would neither be easy nor swift.

Michael L. Kelley

The authors’ accounts of their daily lives during their tours are vivid. For Burbank, minutes drifted into months as he and his friends fought the elements as much as the enemy. Heat and humidity, insects and leeches, and snakes of every kind were constant companions. Every day resembled the one before. The only way he knew it was Sunday was when he was told to take his weekly malaria pill. The war turned into a blur of movement and action, fear and endurance.

When Michael Kelley began the book decades later and invited his friend to participate, Peter Burbank was reluctant. Kelley, however, was insistent, saying, “History untold is history unremembered.”

Burbank agreed, and together they have created a joint narrative of their Vietnam War tours that is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

Oklahoma Odyssey by John Mort

Oklahoma Odyssey (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 332 pp. $24.95, paper), by Vietnam War veteran John Mort is a work of historical fiction bringing to vivid life the place and times of the largest land run in U.S. history. The so-called Cherokee Outlet, more commonly known as the Cherokee Strip, consisted of lands bought from the tribe that would later make up much of northern Oklahoma.

John Mort, who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam from 1968-70, has written 11 books. That includes the Vietnam War-heavy novel, Soldier in Paradise (2013), and Don’t Mean Nothin’, a collection of a dozen Vietnam War short stories (2012).

Oklahoma Odyssey, which is set in 1892, centers on three characters, two of whom are “sort-of brothers” and one a “maybe-sister.” Eddie Mole, an outlaw bad-guy, murders the father of Ulysses (“Euly”) Kreider, one of the “brothers,” in the main street of Jericho, Kansas. Twenty-year-old Euly, a Mennonite, struggles with whether or not it’s appropriate to use violence and seek revenge.

There’s a lot going on in Euly’s life. His father is killed; he’s planning to get married; and his best friend, a member of the Osage tribe, keeps telling Euly that they should track down and bring Mole to justice one way or another. The two young men share a love of Homer’s The Odyssey, which they see as “akin to certain Osage stories with its fantastic adventures.”

The federal government is preparing to open former Cherokee Nation land bordering central Kansas for settlement. Euly plans to make his fortune by moving closer to that area and establishing a hardware store. It’s a time, he declares, when “the three items with the highest markup, the things men couldn’t do without, were horses, liquor, and rifles.” Though Euly keeps trying to push Eddie Mole into the back of his brain, destiny has the two of them racing toward a confrontation that will rival the Oklahoma land rush.

Oklahoma Odyssey includes a lot of interesting details based on a significant amount of research Mort undertook. It’s what I consider “quiet research” because the facts never slow down or interfere with Mort’s great storytelling.

At its heart, this is a story about family and how even the strongest of bonds can be tested in stressful times.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam War Refugees in Guam by Nghia M. Vo

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.

I highly recommend Vietnam War Refugees in Guam.

–Bob Wartman

The Five O’clock Follies by Richard Brundage and David Billingsley

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.

–Bill McCloud

Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

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.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud