Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel

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Pilgrim Days by Alastair MacKenzie

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Born in the U.K., Alastair MacKenzie spent most of his childhood in the Far East before his family settled in New Zealand at the end of his father’s British Army career. At the age of 18 in 1966, MacKenzie joined the New Zealand Army—AKA, the Kiwis. He arrived in Vietnam in May 1970.

The first half of MacKenzie’s memoir—Pilgrim Days: From Vietnam to the SAS (Osprey, 224 pp. $25, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle)—recalls his year commanding platoon out of Nui Dat on search-and-destroy missions to protect Route 15 that linked Saigon to the port city of Vung Tau.

In Vietnam, MacKenzie says, “We operated differently [than] the Americans, South Vietnamese, Thai and Korean forces, who would go and find the Viet Cong and once they found them would ‘pile on.’” Because of their reduced numbers, the Kiwis, “like the Australians,” MacKenzie writes, were “more subtle.”

He goes on to describes field operations that, except for greater respect for mines and booby traps, resembled American tactics that heavily relied on artillery and ground-attack aircraft in encounters with North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong. He emphasizes, however, that his men moved slower and much more quietly in the field than the American troops did.

His unit took part in major operations but fought no large-scale battles. As expected, his men suffered casualties. MacKenzie says he was “disappointed” that his platoon “and I were not able to kill more than we did.” In his eyes, the Kiwis were “small in terms of manpower,” but “big in terms of operational efficiency.”

His account provides evidence of the universal nature of infantrymen who work to avoid unnecessary exposure to danger and complain about unrealistic upper-echelon expectations. Those sections of the book make for good reading.

MacKenzie also writes about a long line of military contemporaries. Their stories occasionally stand alone. Citing the men’s pros and cons, he often uses only a first name and an initial to identify them.

Upon returning home from war, PTSD temporarily alienated MacKenzie from his wife, Cecilia, but he received no counseling—much like Americans.

In 1973, MacKenzie resigned from the New Zealand Army to join the British Army Paras and eventually the British 22 Special Air Service Regiment, with whom he patrolled Northern Ireland. Later, he contracted with the South African Defense Force. On Pathfinder Brigade missions in Angola, he had “moments of excitement” similar to those he felt fighting in Vietnam, he says. His list of esoteric jobs also included counter-terrorism duty in Oman with the Sultan’s Special Forces.

The pace of Pilgrim Days slows when MacKenzie discusses training, which throughout his career was the core of his temporary assignments in Germany, Italy, Sudan, Belize, and Hong Kong. On the plus side, he includes explanations of training exercises that were as dangerous as combat was.

`11111111111111111111111MacKenzie switched to civilian employment in 1989 as a salesman for the Royal Ordnance Ammunition Department. Within a few years, he visited “almost every country in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe,” he says.

Thereafter, he served for ten years with the Duke of Lancaster’s Territorial Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel. MacKenzie also started an independent security consulting company, which he sold in 2005 before settling down in New Zealand.

Pilgrim Days gave me a clearer view of men and parts of the world that were somewhat vague to me. I admire MacKenzie’s independence and his ability to move between organizations based on his expertise in counter-terrorism and security. As a soldier, he was a man for all seasons.

As is the case with all Osprey Publishing books, Pilgrim Days contains excellent graphics. That includes enough color photographs to produce a television documentary.

—Henry Zeybel

Hard to Kill by Joe Ladensack and Joseph A. Reaves

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Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.

Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.

“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”

His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.

Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.

A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to HideA Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.

Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.

Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.

He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.

He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.

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Father Joe 

Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:

“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.

“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.

“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”

Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.

Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.

All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.

Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com

—Henry Zeybel

Witnessing the American Century by Allen Colby Brady

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Being injured and at the mercy of a hate-filled enemy is a fate equal to death. Retired Navy Capt. Allen Brady experienced six years, one month, and thirteen days of such an existence as a prisoner of war after being shot down during a bombing mission over North Vietnam.

That period composes the core of Brady’s Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida (Kent State University Press, 242 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle), written with Dawn Quarles.

With vivid clarity, Brady recalls the torture inflicted on him and other American POWs by North Vietnamese interrogators. Much of what he relates has been written about by other prisoners in their memoirs, but Brady’s ordeal nevertheless serves as testimony to a human being’s determination to survive life’s harshest conditions with honor.

His career as a U.S. Navy fighter pilot followed the cutting edge of America’s military actions from 1951-77. Furthermore, Brady’s pre-teen years included traveling the world with his father, a Navy officer who eventually retired as a rear admiral. The family spent time in Germany while Hitler consolidated power and in Honolulu when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—details of which are engraved in Brady’s mind.

After graduating from Annapolis and earning his wings at Pensacola, Brady flew fighters for peacetime aircraft carrier operations and nuclear bomb tests in the Marshall Islands. He took part in both the April 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba and the October 1962  Cuban Missile Crisis.

Although he played limited roles in these operations, Brady presents a good big-picture view of them. In particular, his memory and introspection of the bomb tests and Bay of Pigs fiasco provided details new to me.

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Capt. Brady in 2013

Unfortunately for Brady, however, all roads led to Hanoi. He describes North Vietnamese practices that violated the 1949 Geneva Convention protocols on humane treatment of prisoners of war. He characterizes Ho Chi Minh as a “merciless tyrant,” citing the fact that prison conditions improved after Ho died in 1969. Brady solidifies his point by describing prolonged torture sessions, many of which ended with the killing of a prisoner. He devotes a chapter to the “Outer Seven,” the POWs who cooperated with the North Vietnamese.

Brady has not forgiven our former enemy. “America,” he says, “should never have a relationship with any country that once abused our citizens.”

Still, Brady calls the Vietnamese people “very peaceful,” blaming their aggression on their history of being invaded by the Chinese and the French, and on Ho Chi Minh’s leadership. He also forgives the Outer Seven, expressing disappointment rather than vengeance.

Quarles helped Brady write the memoir by organizing his many good stories. In them, he shows himself as both hero and goat.

Strategically placed photographs enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Zero to Hero by Allen J. Lynch

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Allen J. Lynch’s Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior (Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 370 pp. $25) is a well-crafted, well-edited, and well-presented book.

In it, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Allen Lynch takes us from his childhood in industrial South Side Chicago, through multiple high schools he attended in Illinois and Indiana, and to a memorable Army experience. While life at home growing up was good, Lynch also went through many school-bullying episodes, causing low self-esteem and loneliness issues that haunted him for decades.

After high school graduation in 1964, college was not in his future, so after a few no-growth jobs, Lynch decided that the military offered the best way out of the neighborhood. He joined the Army and in the book tells of his military schooling and deployments. In Germany he decided that an assignment to Vietnam would realize his objective of becoming a warrior.

Lynch takes us through his moves in-country and then to his permanent assignment with the 1st Cav in the Tam Quan area of Binh Dinh Province in the Central Highlands. There he recounts his combat activities, including what happened during a December 15, 1967, firefight when his courageous efforts under fire rescuing fellow troopers resulted in Allen Lynch being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Upon returning to the States, Lynch’s planned Army career was truncated by family circumstances. With his father’s health declining, he stepped away from the military. He met, courted, and married the love of his life, Suzie. They had three children and remain together to this day.

Lynch later rejoined the Army through the Reserves, rising to the rank of 1st Sergeant. In a series of civilian jobs he worked as a Veterans Benefits Counselor for the VA, and later counseled veterans on employment opportunities.

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Allen J. Lynch

In his book Lynch does not shy away from describing what he calls “the dragon,” post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has had since returning from Vietnam.

He mostly dismissed the symptoms when they first appeared, but later realized he had PTSD, sought therapy, and received “the tools first to keep PTSD in check and then to defeat it when it reared its ugly head.”

In short, this is a very readable offering from a very humble—and ultimately successful—Vietnam War hero.

–Tom Werzyn

Sketches of an Earlier Time by Scott O. Ferguson

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For Scott O. Ferguson, memory lane stretches from horizon to horizon—and then some. He served with the U.S. Navy in World War II and with the Air Force in the American wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Ferguson recollects his combat experiences in Sketches of an Earlier Time: A Three-War Combat Veteran Recounts a Twentieth Century Life of Duty and Adventure (Merriam Press, 149 pp. $9.99, paper). His stories cover the middle half of the 20th century—from his birth in 1925 to 1975 when he retired as a colonel from the Air Force.

Alongside his look at warfare, Ferguson spells out the difficulties of a childhood during the depression and of family life amid a USAF career. Barbara, his wife, often single-handedly raised four children during long separations caused by the call of duty.

Having lived through most of the same years, I vouch for the accuracy of Ferguson’s remembrances. His accounts provide touches of insight about the times and moods of society in decades gone by.

During World War II, as soon as he was old enough, Ferguson dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served nearly four years as a seaman. His adventures in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands provide unusual views of a young man’s reaction to unpredictable events, along with dilemmas he created. To me, this was the most revealing part of the book.

In 1949, after marrying, Ferguson completed Aviation Cadet training and found assignments in fighter/interceptor aircraft. He flew the F-84G (in the book he refers to aircraft only by letters and numbers) in Korea and performed “all types of missions with all manner of purpose,” he says. Ferguson’s biggest concern was the presence of “flak traps everywhere.” His memories of the Korean War are a continuous flow of anecdotes about his squadron’s successes and failures.

During the Vietnam War Ferguson supervised the covert Task Force Alpha/Igloo White electronic warfare activities at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand in 1967-68. He flew many missions into Laos with O-2 Cessna FACs and in the back seat of F-4s. His stories from this time are as interesting and informative as earlier ones.

Excellent photographs ranging from Ferguson’s childhood to recently accompany each section of the memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

Standing Up After Saigon by Thuhang Tran with Sharon Orlopp

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In practice, communism betrays itself when, under the guise of “reeducation of the masses,” party leaders treat their own citizens as slaves. The communist theory of equality among people vanishes amid the chaos of culling the “un-trainables,” a situation that prevailed devastatingly when communists took control of Russia, China, Cambodia—and Vietnam.

In Standing Up After Saigon: The Triumphant Story of Hope, Determination, and Reinvention  (Brown Books, 190 pp.; $17.21 Hard), Thuhang Tran, with the help of Sharon Orlopp, describes what happened in Vietnam after the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong communists took control of the nation in 1975.

A dual memoir, the book studies the resilience of one family fractured by the ending of the Vietnam War. The family’s youngest child, Thuhang, and her father, Chinh, take turns in narrating life in Vietnam under communist rule for the family members who could not leave in 1975. They also describe Chinh’s determination to make a new life in America for his family. Their recollections are inspirational.

A polio victim reduced to crawling and squatting, Thuhang—along with her mother, brother, and sister—survived fifteen years of fragile existence in Vietnam until they were reunited with her father, a South Vietnamese Air Force air traffic controller who fled as the North Vietnamese Army entered Saigon. Chinh ended up in the United States. For five years, the family believed he had been killed in a helicopter crash. Eventually, he found them. It took ten more years for him to fulfill the requirements of America’s Orderly Departure Program and get his family out of Vietnam.

Although Thuhang is the principal subject of the book, the actions of Chinh and his wife Lieu read like a manual for protecting children. Lieu guided the children through war, forced farm labor, homelessness, famine, and stark poverty. She used bribes and other ruses to keep her son out of the army, including during the 1979-89 war with Cambodia. From America, Chinh provided a flow of money and other help.

Initially, Thuhang’s life in the United States consisted mainly of surgery and lengthy physical rehabilitation that enabled her to stand and walk. She then attained American citizenship and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio. She has spent many years as a software engineer in Texas and Arkansas.

Thuhang also has organized and worked with groups that aid needy Vietnamese children. Chinh has helped Vietnamese refugees ease the transition after moving from an Eastern to a Western culture.

Thuhang’s brother and sister started businesses and raised families in America. They also they have endured their share of hardship.

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Thuhang Tran as a child in Vietnam

Standing Up After Saigon provides a great amount of information about the assimilation of Vietnamese into America. It also addresses the plight of refugees and the increasingly controversial acceptance of immigrants into the United States.

Co-author Sharon Orlopp is an editor and author who retired as Walmart’s Global Chief Diversity Officer and Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Part of her job was teaching the world about different cultures.

The authors’ website is standingupaftersaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel