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

Saving Bravo by Stephan Talty

By now, the story is well-known. Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton, a 52-year-old USAF navigator, assigns himself at the last minute to fly on a bombing run below the DMZ in April 1972.

He’s shot down behind enemy lines. And Gene Hambleton might just be an intelligence gold mine for the NVA—and for the Russians and Chinese.

A former missile squadron commander for the Strategic Air Command, Hambleton knows stuff, lots of it. And so, a rescue operation begins. And not just any rescue op. It will become what author Stephan Talty calls the greatest SEAL rescue in history—and one of the deadliest.

This mission was the subject of the book Bat-21 and the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. That fictionalized drama captured some of the essential information.

But now we get the full story. In Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp, $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), Talty has interviewed fliers, survivors, families, friends, and reviewed previously unpublished documents, as well as published secondary sources. And he’s pulled together a thrill ride.

Hambleton is sitting behind and just to the right of the pilot of an EB-66 electronic countermeasures aircraft on what’s expected to be a fairly routine mission. His flight suddenly finds itself under a staggering artillery and missile attack.

There’s a protocol for evading SAMs, risky but useful. But the missile that takes down Hambleton’s plane is sent up under optical control, without radar guidance until the last moment, so it’s nearly impossible to detect.

Iceal “Gene” Hambleton

A huge explosion. Hambleton bails out into a dense, life-saving fog, hides in the underbrush and then is stunned by the rumble of mechanized vehicles, infantry, and the clash of mortars. The only survivor, he has landed in the midst of an enormous ground invasion force.

The NVA called it “red fiery summer,” but it soon would earn another name, the 1972 Easter Offensive, an invasion of South Vietnam. Hundreds of Soviet tanks, 30,000 NVA troops, artillery, and missile batteries. To Hambleton, it looks like Stalingrad.

One of the first rescue aircraft on the scene, a Cobra, immediately encounters a thundering barrage, thousands of tracers stretching upward. In seconds, the chopper pitches nose-up and plummets to the ground.

Hambleton calls in airstrikes on the invasion force that surrounds him, believing rescue is no longer an option. The sky above him is a curtain of shrapnel. It will be eleven days before he escapes. During that time, in a single day, the NVA will launch 83 missiles at American pilots.

Ultimately, five branches of the service will be involved in the rescue effort. Hundreds of officers and airmen—and millions of dollars. All for one guy. Hambleton thinks they don’t have a chance.

Talty does a masterful job of building tension throughout this suspenseful tale. Yet he takes time to paint subtle images.

“Flying above Vietnam at night was magical: the wandering sliver glint of the rivers, the black foothills folded back on one another in serried, ghostly rows gripped by thin fingers of mist. The country was lush even in darkness. The only signs of war from this distance were the innumerable bomb craters, now filled up with rainwater. The pilots looking down would see them flash with moonlight as they flew over.”

And Talty offers savvy acknowledgement of the conflicting emotions of Americans who weren’t sure what they were fighting for, whether they had support back home, which way their leaders were leaning, or whether they were even talking to each other.

To protect Hambleton, a huge swath of the invasion area was marked off-limits for U.S. counterattacks. As the NVA assault pushed on, there was ignorance–and denial–that resources that might have been used in battle were committed to the desperate rescue of one man. For some troops, it seemed their leaders had gone completely crazy.

Eleven men and five aircraft would die trying to reach the navigator.

After days of failure, the Air Force finally realized an air rescue was out of the question. At this point, no one south of the DMZ knew that two downed fliers also had been taken prisoner.

Enter the guys who slip behind the lines to bring someone back. Navy Lt. Tommy Norris, a SEAL who looks “like a mongoose that had just spotted a brown water snake,” volunteers.

Lt. Tommy Norris, in the background at center, as just-rescued Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton (on stretcher) is evacuated. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The NVA may not know precisely where Hambleton is hiding, but they are listening to his radio communications. To connect him with his rescuers, the Division team develops an incredible code that must be read to be believed.

Norris, along with a Vietnamese commando, will make a daring trip into the bush, repeatedly evading enemy patrols, to bring out another flier. Remarkably, they will go back once again, to bring out Hambleton, sick and delirious after his ordeal.

Hambleton will win a bucket of medals and live until 85. Norris will be awarded the Medal of Honor. Talty has put together a great read on a remarkable moment in history.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

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Circus of the Absurd by James O’Leary

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In Circus of the Absurd (Focused Publishing, 375 pp. $15.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle),  James O’Leary definitely reigns as ringmaster. Based on the cover or the title page, the book’s contents are either “Notes from the Clown Car, Vietnam 67-68,” or “A Novel Look at our War in Vietnam.” In both cases, “absurd” rings true.

The novel also serves as Jim O’Leary’s war memoir. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he says he had input from “several fellow Vietnam veterans” at an Orlando VFW post.

The book’s stories live up to the “circus” in the title: Practically everyone Leary describes had an act. Usually it was a scam to make money or to abuse power. O’Leary himself tried illegal money exchanging and ghost writing before settling on black market PX Courvoisier cognac. That income financed his acting-out desires. Along the way, he met many interesting people with clever schemes, such as manufacturing and selling counterfeit war souvenirs.

O’Leary’s storytelling has no boundaries. His ability to embellish events reminded me of Carl Hiaasen‘s talent for amusing readers. He examines whatever trips through his mind. At one point, he resolves the arguments surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, I tuned him out, but his determination to entertain soon won me back. The humor often hides within irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and ridicule.

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O’Leary’s main desire centered on carnal pursuit of women. His success in this quest proved formidable and made me recall the escapades in Tom Jones. Sexually, there was no such thing as too much, but friendship also counted.

Trained as an armor crewman, O’Leary’s bachelor’s degree in journalism earned him a job as an Army information specialist USARV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut and, later, Long Binh. He worked days and met his obligations, but his nights were free and Saigon’s women called. A twenty-three year old draftee with no real responsibility, he behaved more like a man on vacation than a soldier in a war zone. He describes one day as “doing my perpetual tourist thing.”

Not unexpectedly, the war intruded on his pleasure and O’Leary witnessed the deaths of friends and foes, along with being a target himself. Defending a base perimeter constituted his major contribution to the war, and that too turned farcical. He finished his tour by returning to Saigon from a Bangkok R&R amid the 1968 Tet Offensive, a tale that could stand alone as a novella.

O’Leary’s wartime journey followed a path well worn by others, but his approach was highly personalized. Here’s his summary of the Vietnam War:

“I had to hand it to LBJ. If you’re going to hold a war, do it somewhere warm, with an abundance of beautiful women, a low cost standard of living, and a very benign attitude toward unbridled sex, smoking dope, and other assorted hedonistic pursuits.”

Even a one-way ticket to Hell might possibly provide first-class seating.

—Henry Zeybel

Wizard and Me by Gary Gill

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Gary Gill’s Wizard and Me: Or How We Survived Vietnam and Evolved into Real Human Beings (AuthorHouse, 230 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, e book) is fictional, but the events are not. Gill is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in a tank battalion—as do his two main characters. Gill’s real-life unit took part in the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

His small, readable, and engaging novel covers some familiar territory. It features the 2/34th Armor and a battalion of M-48 tanks. The familiar Vietnam War novel (and memoir) territory includes mentions of John Wayne, Rambo, shit-burning , newbies, dapping,33 beer, the fog of war, and “Indian country.”

There is a character called Sgt. Rock who thinks that Vietnam should be bombed back into the Stone Age. The characters listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” They chew Red Man and when fear strikes, they experience puckered assholes.

We are informed that 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on the war zone and that Rome plows took care of the rest of the jungle. The Bob Hope Show makes an appearance and the troops are labeled baby killers, rapists, and murderers. The wizard of the title is Spec 4 Merlin James Hogan, who receives a Silver Star for courageous actions under fire.

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The novel is written in the language of the time and the place. Here’s a sample:

“Demetry had come in country not long after I was assigned to 2/34th and, as it turned out, he ended up replacing me on the back deck when Red made me the loader for Double Deuce.”

Gradually the reader gets used to the special language and can easily figure out what is happening.

This is a novel easily read in one sitting, and most people probably will rip right through it.  I recommend it to those curious about American tanks in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Firebase Tan Tru by Walter F. McDermott

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After listening to the problems of war veterans for thirty years as a licensed clinical psychologist, Walter F. McDermott has written his own memoir: Firebase Tan Tru: Memoir of an Artilleryman in the Mekong Delta, 1969-1970 (McFarland, 218 pp.; $29.95, paper; $15.99. Kindle). McDermott served in Vietnam as an enlisted man with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Brigade of the 2nd Field Force attached to the 9th Infantry Division. His book’s main themes are fear of being killed and incompetent leadership by officers.

For McDermott, fear of dying in combat emerged simultaneously with the realization that he would be drafted. He attributes a similar reaction to most other draftees. He attempted to beat the system with ploys such as claiming conscientious objector status and volunteering for officer candidate school, but abandoned those ideas, opting to serve two years as a draftee.

In the opening chapter, McDermott expresses disgust with the military’s authoritarian culture. One reason: His psychology degree made him feel superior to the high school graduates commissioned by completing OCS. Later, though, he says that the Vietnam War “is where I received my real education.” During Basic and AIT, McDermott challenged officers and NCOs, and suffered punishments that confirmed their authority over him.

McDermott deplored the certainty of rank that prevailed when questionable issues arose in the war zone, and he provides excellent examples of poor decision-making based on that certainty. For example, during a search and rescue operation, a captain pulled rank and overrode an artillery solution that McDermott and two other enlisted men drew up. The resultant misdirected fire killed fourteen Vietnamese civilians and four water buffalo. According to McDermott, families of the dead received compensation of forty dollars for each human and seventy dollars for each animal. The captain received a written reprimand.

Working primarily in the Tan Tru tactical operations center, McDermott plotted targets and took pride in his duties. He helped draw up more effective patterns of firepower. Despite forming friendly working relations with a few forward observer captains, McDermott says, “Negative encounters with our officers prevented me from ever developing a firm respect for our officer class.” Above all, irrational ranting by colonels disillusioned him about the purpose of the war.

McDermott experienced combat in the field humping with infantrymen as a radio telephone operator for artillery forward observers. On Tan Tru, he endured frequent enemy rocket, mortar, and small arms attacks. He vividly describes an advancing string of 107-mm rockets that utterly terrified him and his bunker mates. In this and other passages McDermott unhesitatingly shows both up and down moments in his life.

As men close to him were killed, McDermott’s attitude toward the war transitioned from a self-survival and anger against the enemy to unadulterated hatred for them. As a result of self-analysis, he says, “I cannot forgive the Vietnamese communists for the despicable inhuman violence they displayed against American and ARVN soldiers, as well as toward Vietnamese civilians.”

The intensity of McDermott’s feelings is meaningful considering that his negative emotions still persist fifty years later. It led him to graduate studies in clinical psychology. In 2012, he wrote a book called Understanding Combat Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He calls his effort to help veterans and their families as “more than a job… a crusade.”

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McDermott at Brigade HQ, Tan An

McDermott’s writing is easy and enjoyable to read even when he covers everyday routines, such as eating C-ration, living alongside rats, and burning shit, which are part of every grunt memoir that I have read. He also examines issues of greater complexity: the Vietnamese mentality, North and South; religion; weddings; drinking; and the news media.

McDermott filled gaps in my education with detailed recollections about fragging attempts that never were investigated and the permissive drug use that permeated Firebase Tan Tru.

Point of information, however. McDermott writes: “Spooky gunships proved so successful that after the war our Air Force expanded and updated the concept of ground attack aircraft by heavily arming the C-130 Hercules transport airplane.”

The fact is that AC-130 Spectre gunships supported troops in Cambodia and Vietnam and destroyed thousands of trucks in Laos during the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

The Other Side of Rock and War by Billy Terrell and Rich Podolsky

As the reader begins to be drawn into Billy Terrell’s The Other Side of Rock and War: One Man’s Battle to Save His Life, His Career, His Country, and the Orphans He Left Behind (National Foundation of Patriotism, 234 pp., $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) it feels as if the book is simply a transcription of a long stream-of-consciousness interview with co-author Rich Podolsky. There are repeated references to the same occurrence, the same people, and the same author’s reaction—often within the same few paragraphs.

On the positive side, we get to accompany Terrell through a hardscrabble upbringing in and around Philadelphia and Newark and Asbury Park, New Jersey. He introduces us to a decidedly and interestingly dysfunctional group of family members, as well to a less than optimal childhood. He also nominally covers his family’s entry into this country and their progression to the time frame of the story.

Born William Torsiello, Billy Terrell shares with us his early sense of isolation from friendships, in and outside his family, and his turn to music and comedy as a means to counter those feelings. His developing music career was cut short by an invitation from his local draft board during the Vietnam War.

Torsiello wound up in Vietnam in Tuy Hoa, near Phan Rang, as a member of an Army Quartermaster Unit.  A few chapters take us through his deployment. He also tells of his involvement with local orphanage, working with other GIs working to assuage some of the misfortunes that befell civilians in the Vietnam War.

On his return to the States, William Torsiello became Billy Terrell, a man who went through a long roller coaster of successes and failure in the music business. His up-and-down life also was punctuated with alcohol abuse, failed marriages, and health challenges.

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Billy Terrell

Throughout the book, Terrell describes interactions with greats and near-greats in the popular music and stand-up comedy scenes from the fifties to the eighties. Terrell has a remarkable discography. He wrote, sang, and produced much music from 1965-2017, and later worked as a successful stand-up comedian.

At the end of the book Terrell takes us with him on a 2013 visit back to the Mang Lang Orphanage at Tuy Hoa, and notes the closure it brought for him as he provided funds to help assure the institution’s future.

Billy Terrell’s story is at once one of self-promotion and of measurable success—a good outcome from bad circumstances.

–Tom Werzyn

 

Charlie Company’s Journey Home by Andrew Wiest

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A first produces a milestone for life: A first kiss. A first job. A first child.

Arguably, the dynamics of these experiences pale in insignificance compared to events related to war. Andrew Wiest examines this relationship in Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Boys of ’67 and the War They Left Behind (Osprey, 400 pp. $28).

Wiest teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Two of his previous four books about the Vietnam War have won awards. His new book is a follow-up to The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, which was the basis for a National Geographic documentary.

Charlie Company fought in the Vietnam War, but the effects of battle also had a strong impact on their wives and girlfriends back home. “War [became] a part of their lives, and that of their families, forever,” Wiest writes. The women’s reactions to war are the focus of the book.

Wiest bases the book on nearly one hundred original interviews; corresponding documents from personal collections and national archives; and large letter collections. He identifies twenty-four Charlie Company wives and forty-six men of Charlie Company as his “cast of characters.”

The clarity and certainty of Wiest’s writing produces a highly personalized look into the long-distance interactions between overseas troops and their families back home. At its core, the book is a love story—as well as a war story.

We see the women go through various stages of maturity. Initially, they are young, vulnerable, and in love with men destined to go off to war in Southeast Asia. When that happens, without the benefit of electronic communications, they become dependent on letters and an unpredictable mail service as a lifeline. Uncertainty rules their worlds and Wiest explains how they contended with trying situations far beyond what they expected.

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Andrew Wiest

Within the framework of the women’s lives Wiest also describes bloody search-and-destroy missions in which Charlie Company battled the Viet Cong. Sharing “firsts” engendered by these encounters produced life-changing psychological upheaval, Wiest says.

Reading Charlie Company’s Journey Home might provide an eye-opening lesson for the average American. Today’s society often overlooks or takes its all-volunteer armed forces for granted.

In comparison, the men of Charlie Company were almost entirely made up of draftees whose lives were involuntarily disrupted by military service. The difference in self-sacrifice is incalculable and Wiest shows it.

—Henry Zeybel

Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla