As Leaves are Prey to Wind by John F. McGowan

John F. McGowan’s novel, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind (Grace O’Malley, 512 pp., $24.99, paper), looks at one Australian soldier’s experiences in the Vietnam War.

The novel’s protagonist, Brian Fronton, volunteers for the Australian Army. As he and two buddies are about to fly off to Vietnam, his father tells him, “Be a man son, like your uncles, be strong and take care.” He then shakes hands with his typically unemotional dad who says, “Come on son, man up for Christ’s sake, give me a firm handshake, you’re not holding a limp dick in your hand. are you?”

This is one of those novels that pretty well drops you right into the action. The young men arrive in Vietnam on page eight of the is 500-plus page book, flying into Tan Son Nhut on a QANTAS Boeing 707 commercial jet. They are then flown to Nui Dat in a C-130. The big plane lands, slows, turns around, and the men jump out the back while the plane begins rolling for takeoff.

Fronton decides to write regularly in a journal. He hopes to use the material later to help him become a “great novelist.” He’s assigned to a relatively safe base camp, but his job as a radio operator means he frequently goes out on patrol. After a few weeks, he writes, “My life is an adventure” in his journal. One night a buddy of his says, “I bet 99 out of every 100 Gooks are no different from me. Just poor dumb pricks in the hands of fanatic wankers.”

At one point he is dropped into the jungle to replace an injured signaler and is welcomed to what he’s told is the real war. But it’s not the one with the Viet Cong. Instead, it’s about being “tired, sore, wet and feckin miserable.” The mission is pretty single-minded: Seek out the enemy, track them, hunt them down, and kill them.

After talking with buddies about Australia’s World War I experience at Gallipoli, followed up with reading some Kipling, he notes to himself: “I had never thought about my possible death in war, but suddenly I am afraid. I do not want to die because Australia needs to keep trade relations with America.”

McGowan

On another patrol he’s told again that the real war is not the one with the “Feckin Gooks,” but the one with spiders, carnivorous ants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and tigers. And leeches. Soldiers around him stop removing leeches from their bodies knowing they’ll eventually drop off.

Fronton writes in his journal that actual combat is not as bad on the nerves as dreading the constant possibility of contact.

“It’s the knowledge,” he writes, “that at any moment the world around you could erupt into death and destruction.”

The novel’s title, As Leaves Are Prey to Wind, refers to how little control humans have over what happens in our lives. That sense of helplessness becomes even more vivid during times of war. It is well expressed by John F. McGowan—who served in Vietnam with the Third Battalion Royal Australian Regiment—in this solid Vietnam War novel.

McGowan’s website is johnfmcgowan.com

–Bill McCloud

Fun, Fear, Frivolity by Ian Cavanough

Ian Cavanough’s, Fun Fear Frivolity: A Tale of the Vietnam War by an Aussie Grunt (352 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is a very interesting look back at his months of training in the Australian military and his year of service in South Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

With a high-school education, Cavanough volunteered for National Service, similar to the American draft. He reported for training at Kapooka Base, near Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales in July 1969. He then went through several months of basic training, followed by infantry and jungle training.

Traveling in Australia he was expected to wear civilian clothing “because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War,” Cavanough writes. Some days during training he and fellow soldiers were not even allowed to go into the nearest town because of demonstrations against the war.

In South Vietnam he was based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province as a member of the Second Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand Battalion. Their general area of operations seemed to be in a pretty swampy region between Saigon and Vung Tau.

Cavanough points out that the Australian military’s experience in South Vietnam was quite different than that of the Americans. The Australians mostly confined themselves to one province, Phuoc Tuy, and did not throw lots of resources into the war, nor engage in large battles.

The self-described “dumb grunt” tells most of his stories from the infantryman’s level. There’s no big-picture description of the war here, nor would I expect there to be. Cavanough writes his story in a conversational manner, as if his readers were circled around him holding on to every word.

Since his platoon spent more than 300 days out on operations, he seems to take great pleasure in detailing his few days of in-country R&R at Vung Tau. He devotes an entire chapter on Vung Tau, which he titles “Rest in Country and the Bar Girls!” During my year in Vietnam I was based at the airfield at Vung Tau where I worked alongside Australians on almost a daily basis. Cavanough insists on noting in his book that the Australians stationed in Vung Tau were “not involved in actual combat,” as he and his buddies frequently were.

As for his combat experiences, Cavanough writes: “It’s a strange feeling being shot at. You can hear each round as it passes overhead … crack, crack, crack, crack, crack. You then hear where the rounds are coming from as a thud, thud, thud, thud, thud. You know exactly where the shooter is even though you can’t see him.”

 

Australian troops landing at Vung Tao in 1965

Cavanough uses a great deal of humor in relating the experiences he shared with mates, such as guys he refers to as Digger, Johnny Three Fingers, Killer, Moon, and Wooly. He peppers the story with quite a bit of Australian slang. That required this American reader to pay closer attention and to engage more with the author and the book. That’s never a bad thing.

The book includes a few operational maps from the time and a great many interesting photographs. I enjoyed reading it.

Cavanough is offering an emailed version of the book to Vietnam Veterans of America members at no cost. Email him at iancavanough@gmail.com and when you do please mention you read about his book on The VVA Veteran‘s Books in Review II page.

–Bill McCloud

My Grandfather’s War by Glyn Harper and Jenny Cooper

My Grandfather’s War (EK Books, 32 pp., $17.99), tells a moving story (for six-to-nine year olds) that centers on a conversation between an eight-year-old girl and her grandfather after the child learns that he had been wounded in the Vietnam War. This picture book with minimal text is beautifully written by Glyn Harper, a post-Vietnam War veteran who is one of New Zealand’s best-known military historians. Jenny Cooper provides gentle, moving illustrations.

“Why did you go to fight in Vietnam?” the little girl asks. The grandfather’s answers are pitch perfect:

“My father and both my grandfathers had fought in a war and I thought that the war in Vietnam was my turn to go,” he says. “I thought the war would be exciting and that nothing bad would happen to me. I didn’t think I would get hurt.”

Those words capture the feelings that tens of thousands of young Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders had when contemplating what do do about the draft during the Vietnam War.

Grandfather did get hurt in Vietnam. The war he goes on to say, was “horrible.” The Vietnamese people “did not like us. They wanted us to leave. We were not really fighting the war for them. And we all knew we couldn’t win this war.”

He goes on to say that when the troops came home “no one thanked us for going to the war. They just wanted us to go away. Then a lot of us started to get sick from all the chemicals that had been used. Not just us; but our families, too. Some people have been so sick they can’t walk any more. Some have even died.”

Grandpa hits the nail on the head. And so does this gentle book, which has a post-script containing a very short and very good factual summary of the Vietnam War, concentrating on its legacy among Vietnam War veterans in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.

—Marc Leepson

Jellybeans in the Jungle by Bob Whittaker

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When Bob Whittaker was a student in the sixties, his sympathies were with the antiwar movement. He was working as a primary school teacher in western Queensland in Australia when he was drafted into the Aussie army in 1969.

In his memoir, Jellybeans in the Jungle: From Teacher to NASHO and Back (EIEIO, 165 pp., $32, AUD, hardcover; $7.50, AUD, e book), we learn the details of recruit training, after which Whittaker was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which deployed to Vietnam in 1970.

Whittaker describes his service in Vietnam which included deadly encounters with the enemy as well as humdrum service in the rear where he worked as a projectionist—a job he’d learned as a civilian teacher on a similar Bell and Howell machine. We also learn a lot about R & R in Bangkok.

Whittaker writes about his re-entry problems after coming home to Australia. He encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Americans did when they returned home from the Vietnam War. He had no brass band waiting for him in Toowoomba.

Whittaker says that in the book he focuses mostly on the lighter aspects of his tour of duty. But he also describes incidents of friendly fire and includes a discussion of the effects of carpet bombing on the indigenous population, as well as details about Agent Orange and what it did to the people and environment in Vietnam—and what it did to him personally. He is convinced that one of his offspring was born dead due to his extreme exposure to the highly toxic defoliant.

“More than thirty-five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of the rumbling sound of B-52s carpet bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations,” Whittaker writes.

Whittaker in the jungle

I was especially interested in the comments he makes about the ARVN being not good soldiers and that there were “some very good American units.” He goes on to say, though, that he didn’t “trust the Americans after witnessing a live-fire demo” during his first week in-country.

The jellybeans of the title (and featured on the cover) do appear in the book, but how they appear is too complicated to explain here. Buy this fine book and read more about jellybeans than anyone needs to know.

For ordering info, go to the book’s website, jellybeansinthejungle.blogspot.com

—David Willson

A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe was born in 1984 in Rockhampton, Australia, and lives in Tasmania. I wouldn’t be surprised if her father served during the Vietnam War. Certainly the way she characterizes the people in her novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult, 176 pp., $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), indicates she knows about Vietnam War veterans. Or she is a damned good researcher. Either way, her characters ring true.

I was relieved to read that the characters in the book are fictitious as I would hate to blunder into any of them in real life. Or in my dreams, for that matter.  Especially Uncle Les “who seems to move through their lives like a ghost, earning trust and suspicion.”

The backbone of A Loving, Faithful Animal (the only book I’ve read that presents the Australian ruins of the Vietnam War) is the fact that Ru’s father, an Australian conscript during the Vietnam War, has turned up missing, this time with an air of finality. This makes Ru think “he’s gone for good.” Or for evil.

One blurb writer says the book’s “astonishing poetic prose left me aching and inspired.”  I got half of that—unfortunately, the aching part.

I don’t know if the greeting, “Have a few bottles of Tiger Piss and get defoliated,” was invented for this book, or if it is a common one in Australia’s legacy of their involvement in the Vietnam War. I hope it is just particular to this novel.

A character cuts off both trigger fingers to avoid being drafted. That seems extreme to me. But the book reminds me that a prevalent attitude during the war was that if you were drafted you would be sent to Vietnam and if you were sent there, you would die there. I never understood that, but I did encounter it.

John Wayne does get a mention, so do Audrey Hepburn, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, LBJ, and Ho Chi Minh. One of the comments a character makes about being the offspring of a Vietnam veteran is that she’s spent her life “trying to lead [her] father out of the jungle.”

The question gets asked, “Why are we in Vietnam?”  The answer is that Ho Chi Minh kicked over LBJ’s trike. I’d say that’s as good a reason as any.

Josephine Rowe

Early in the novel we are told that all chemical agents used in Vietnam “have been fully exonerated from causing veterans’ subsequent ill health, with the partial exception of the antimalarial drug Dapsone, whose status has not been resolved.”

That makes me feel better about the Multiple Myeloma that is killing me by degrees. The question about how many Vietnam vets it takes to screw in a light bulb gets asked. No answer is given.

If you feel the need to read a book about the impact of the Vietnam War on the people of Australia, start with this one.

You could do worse. I did.

—David Willson

Rescued from Vietnam by Michael Hosking

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Michael Hosking’s Rescued from Vietnam: A Veteran’s Recovery from PTSD (Xlibris, 258 pp. $32.25, hardcover; $21.77, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a friendly reminder that Americans did not singlehandedly fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. Hosking’s memoir is based on his Vietnam War 1967 tour of duty with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

Operating from Nui Dat as an infantryman, Hosking took part in many futile search and destroy missions that paralleled American operations. Friends were killed and wounded. He felt great concern for the upheavals and disrespect inflicted upon the civilian population.

The first half of the book deals with Hosking’s military service, including training. By citing a string of episodes about manly confrontations that morphed into friendships during the rigors of training, he convincingly shows how strangers can became brothers. These friendships fortified the men’s performance in combat.

In arguing against war, he made a point new to me: Australians had to be twenty years old before they were drafted into the military. He faults America for sending men as young as eighteen into battle, contending that two years constitutes “a big difference in emotional and physical maturity.” It makes the younger man significantly more vulnerable to psychological problems, Hosking says.

His writing style raises the book above the level of just another story about a soldier screwed up by war. Hosking’s voice is entertaining because he uses a lot of Aussie slang, with some words and phrases derived from Cockney. Although he includes a Glossary of Aussie Slang, he occasionally uses words not in the glossary, which requires a touch of interpretation by the reader. Nevertheless, reading him is far easier than listening to a Scotsman.

Hosking has a talent for blending stories from the past with the one he currently is telling. For example, when writing about events in Vietnam, he unobtrusively recalls pertinent moments from his youth. Similarly, when traveling around the world, he enhances what he sees by interjecting regional history from centuries earlier.

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Elizabeth & Michael Hosking

The second half of Rescued from Vietnam deals with Hosking’s chaotic return to civilian life when, he says, “I had forgotten how to think straight.” Initially, every relationship ended in turmoil.

He found temporary happiness as a stage performer, but then wandered aimlessly throughout Europe and Asia. Along the way, he studied the Bible and, in 1975, accepted Jesus, which made him “feel like [he] was engaged in life again.”

Hosking married, earned a degree in theology, and fathered three children. When his business career faltered in 1997, he found his true calling by going to Africa to work with orphans.

Michael Hosking’s willingness to reveal the pros and cons of his suffering and recovery from PTSD sets an example for everyone to follow. The lessons he learned still apply today.

The author’s website is rescuedfromvietnam.com

—Henry Zeybel

Beyond Dark Clouds by Glen D. Edwards

Glen D. Edwards, who served as an Australian Army medic in the Vietnam War, called on thirty-eight Vietnam veterans and family members to produce historical capsules of what he calls their pre-service, service, post-service, and next chapter experiences in Beyond Dark Clouds (Digital Print Australia, 404 pp., $79.95).

What follows is a look at a few of these interesting and varied case studies.

Bruce Shanks began his Australian Army apprenticeship in January 1966 soon after learning that, as he puts it, “you are paid to do as you are told, not to think for yourself.” Shanks did not heed this, and his antiwar sentiments soon landed him in the brig.

“I had to do everything on the double,” he says. “While sitting on the toilet I had to mark time. This was the Army’s last desperate attempt to make me conform to the system.”

While Shanks was facing the Viet Cong in villages near Vung Tau, his wife Veronica was in Australia “marching for peace,” she says. “Wives of warriors see stories in each others’ eyes silent reflections of compassion and courage.” Spousal testimony in this volume offers a unique expression of the impact of the Vietnam War.

Another woman’s viewpoint is provided by Australian Army Nursing Corps Officer Patricia Ferguson. Freguson’s basic training recollections will ring true with most veterans. “The Sergeant Major, who tried to teach us military drill,” she says, “would throw his hat on the ground and say ‘This is a march, not a waltz.'”

Ferguson was assigned to the First Australian Field Hospital at Vung Tau. Her brother Peter was fighting with Australian units in Nui Dat and he visited his sister occasionally, but, as she says, “I couldn’t take him to the Officers Mess, even though he was my brother.”

Patricia Ferguson had many intense moments dealing with the trauma of war in her Operating Room. One example: “I sat on one side of the bed. Michael died at 8:10 pm. Much of me died that night. I kept it all inside. My feelings were always suppressed. With time the tears were replaced with feelings of anger.” She shared many of her wartime memories with high school students after her discharge.

George Baker had an uncommon in-country arrival as a U.S. Marine .His unit made a beach landing at DaNang. “The night before we made our amphibious landing we were issued ammunition and were told to expect heavy resistance once we hit the beach,” he says. “When the landing craft reached the beach and the doors opened, we raced ashore and fought our way through women selling their bodies and kids selling ice pops.”

The segment on Baker’s post-service—as with many of the book’s essays—includes dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. “The problem I had was that no one knew how to treat PTSD,” Baker says. Once [his therapist] had mastered the skills, I asked him to debrief me.” That may be a first in PTSD therapy.

Paul Thomas of New Zealand, with a Maori tribal ancestry, had twelve siblings. “Saying goodbye to my family was difficult,” he says. “The excitement of joining the New Zealand Regular Force Cadets tormented me, as I bit hard hard on my bottom lip and tried to look sad as I waved goodbye.”

William Healey from Wakefield, Massachusetts, recalls that in high school “Vietnam War propaganda was really kicking in. We would have a history quiz every day and would have to know the numbers of troops in Vietnam that day.” The history lessons and a trip to Europe led to Healy’s rejection of the Domino Theory. Despite his antiwar feelings, though, Healey volunteered for the draft.

He became a clerk in Phu Bai until a dispute led to his reassignment to a hot firebase near the DMZ. “The longer my tour went on,” he says, “the less I cared about others because I had to concentrate on my own survival. Many around me were being killed, so I tuned out. I am not going to die here.”

Glen Edwards

PTSD, combined with Healey coming out as gay, complicated his life, but today he and his partner have celebrated sixteen years together. I urge readers to take a look at Healey’s next chapter segment for the rest of his story.

Ulysee ” Skip” Williams was raised  in an all-black neighborhood in Florida where, he say,s he “always felt I was being watched by mom and neighbors.” Graduating from high school in 1968, Williams wanted to join the Marines but his mother objected so he enlisted in the Air Force.

She was fully aware that many Americans had been killed in the 1968 Tet Offensive and didn’t want to lose her son that way. After two years in the Air Force, he says, “I felt I wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam.”

But he was, and was stationed  nine miles from the Laotian border near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Williams worked on a flight line but had many interactions with the Vietnamese people. “The physical characteristics of Vietnam were rich in color and beautiful like the people who always seemed to be smiling,” he says. “It was nothing like America. At home people were stone-faced because of racial tension.”

Williams says he didn’t want to leave Vietnam because he felt he “had an obligation to the people still in Vietnam. As the freedom bird soared away, I felt guilty leaving them behind., and for the first time in a year, a tear or two rolled down my cheek.”

This extensive case-study-like compilation of the Vietnam War experiences covers a multitude of emotions generated by war. I recommend this as a reference book with something of interest to all.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.beyonddarkclouds.com

—Curt Nelson