Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman

Conscientious Objector by Wayne R. Ferren, Jr.

The words “conscientious objector” are at once are a label, a category, a frame of mind, a belief—and a designation that can well cause a wounded war veteran to stiffen his spine. Conscientious objector status, classified 1-O by the Selective Service System during the Vietnam War, was granted to tens of thousands of  American men during the war. Nearly 55 percent of them completed alternative civilian service.

Wayne R. Ferren, Jr., the author of the memoir, Conscientious Objector: A Journey of Peace, Justice, Culture, and Environment (Archway, 538 pp. $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle), is a self-described hippie. Ferren writes that he has “a firmly professed primal faith, neo-pagan, and new-age bases for my beliefs, as well leanings toward Buddhism and Transcendentalism,” although he was raised as a Methodist.

His book contains more than 425 pages of text, along with 60 pages of endnotes. It follows Ferren from his 1948 birth to the present, and seems at times to be a peripatetic ramble through his life. An early interest in geology propelled him to study the interconnectedness of the earth and its systems. He takes us through his school years, where he began to form his anti-conflict beliefs, and his future involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement in the late 60s and early 70s.

Throughout the book Ferren regales the reader with his thought processes and how he went about securing his much-sought-after CO designation from the Selective Service. He even includes copies of copy of the paperwork involved, intertwining those passages with the story of his life and times as a “hippie activist.” There are a few factual errors, but the writing and editing of this book are well done.

As a Vietnam War veteran, I found myself reacting to Ferren’s story with a much kinder eye than would have been possible for me to do 50 or so years ago as the ensuing years have both blunted and sharpened my perceptions of the antiwar movement and those who took part in it.

Which is why I recommend this book as maybe it’s time to see the other side of the coin.

–Tom Werzyn

War and the Arc of Human Experience by Glen Petersen

Glenn Petersen ran away from home at 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after turning 17. By 19, he was flying combat missions from the U.S.S. Bennington in the Vietnam War in 1966-67. Peterson, a research anthropologist and City University of New York professor, tells his story with wonderment and vigor in War and the Arc of Human Experience (Hamilton Books, 290 pp. $24.99, paper; $23.50, Kindle), an autobiography that should touch the soul of most people who served in the military.

In the first half of the book Petersen describes his emotional growth under a domineering father and wartime conditions; in the second half, he reveals his challenging ascent through alcoholism, antiwar civil disobedience, and parenthood.

Youthful exposure to movies, TV shows, books, and songs that emphasized duty to fight and to kill for our country (and to die for our faith) imbued him with the belief that dedication to duty was the primary trait of a warrior. This dedication reached its pinnacle when Petersen flew as an intercept controller and flight technician in E-1B Tracer early warning aircraft. On the aircraft carrier’s deck, he also maintained radar systems in an undermanned and under-equipped unit. He ranked his job ahead of his wellbeing, and the earnestness of his work brought recognition and promotions.

In the book Petersen skillfully recreates the dangers of aircraft carrier operations: the on-deck and inflight rigors of maintenance; the emotional and physical toll of catapult launches and arrested recoveries; and the absolute absence of free time. All of this fortified his aggressiveness as a warrior. When his crew mistakenly overflew China’s Hainan Island and barely evaded intense antiaircraft fire, Petersen reached a new heroic level in his mind.

After separating from the Navy and returning to school Petersen began to rethink his role in society. He tells extremely interesting stories about those years, showing how, in class, he worked as hard as he had in the Navy. He also drank a lot and totaled three cars in two years. He became an antiwar protester. He made what he calls the “bizarre decision to become an anthropologist” and live in exotic places, including Micronesia.

As the book progresses, Petersen disassembles his psyche with surgical-like precision. For him, it is open season on every aspect of his thoughts and behaviors, primarily involving marriage and fatherhood. He reduces war to an intellectual topic and simultaneously analyzes the emotions of the world at large from a hardcore anthropologist’s perspective, which involves neurobiology, guilt, just-war theory, and moral injury.

Peterson’s discussion of PTSD far exceeds what you’ll find in most Vietnam War memoirs. He repeats himself by bringing up the topic several times, but on each occasion, he digs deeper into the problem, and finds greater revelatory reasons for his PTSD and its resulting behavior. His thoughts about PTSD stretch to the end of the book.

Glenn Petersen has led a tough life—one I wouldn’t want. (He names Yossarian of Catch-22 as his role model.) His willingness to write about what he suffered induced me to look at my own self-destructive shortcomings that I could have prevented. Too late, though, in my case.

Anyone with an open mind will have it opened wider by reading this book.

—Henry Zeybel

Running Toward the Guns by Chanty Jong

Running Toward the Guns: A Memoir of Escape from Cambodia (McFarland, 167 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a sleeper. At first glance it seems to be a pleasant little book that recounts, in almost transcription-from-interview prose, an eight-year-old girl’s escape from Cambodia in 1975. But soon the reader realizes that nothing pleasant happened to Chanty Jong after she was taken by the murderous Khmer Rouge and forced to endure what became a holocaust against the Cambodian people.

Jong’s father was an elementary school principal in Phnom Penh. She was in the third grade and just learning to read. That meant she was on the way to joining a learned family in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge, who were wreaking havoc on the Cambodian people during the infamous Pol Pot regime.

The descriptions of her tribulations written by Jong with the help of her American family physician, Lee Ann Van Houten-Sauter, are graphic in their details of the violence and the jungle camps where she was forced to work as child slave laborer, building roads by hand, as well as the areas she fled through as she made her way to a refugee camp in Thailand. She survived there for months until an interview with a UN aid official afforded her the opportunity to emigrate to America.

During her captivity, the Khmer Rouge camps were overrun by Heng Somren fighters, supported by the Vietnamese. During one raid Jong ran toward the oncoming troops through a hail of bullets in an effort to escape the Khmer Rouge, a act that gives the book its title.

Learning English was always one of the her goals, yet she arrived in the U.S. with the barest knowledge of vocabulary or grammar. She began studying the language in earnest after she arrived. Jong came to the realization, through meditation and self-examination, that all was not right within her psychologically. She describes the best self-diagnosis of intense PTSD I’ve ever read.

In the last 50 pages of this book, Jong takes the reader through the memories and mental jungles that have populated her sleep—and nearly every waking moment. She also describes her therapeutic use of deep meditation, grounding techniques, identifying triggers, compartmentalizing, and memory confrontation.

Even with a few grammatical and punctuation errors, this book offers a true, self-help opportunity for struggling survivors of most traumatic events—not just the horrors of war. This small book also was a pleasure to read—and to experience.

–Tom Werzyn

Saigon Kids by Leslie Arbuckle

Saigon Kids: An American Military Brat Comes of Age in 1960’s Vietnam (Mango Media, 308 pp. $19.95, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is a tell-all book about the adventures of some self-proclaimed military brats, the sons and daughters of the American military service members, Foreign Service officials, and civilian families who lived in South Vietnam in the early 1960s. The book is an amalgam of accounts of teen-aged antics, along with a bit of gunfire, mortar fire, oppressive heat and humidity, Saigon traffic, and Buddhist Monk self-immolations.

Arbuckle, the second oldest of four sons of a U.S. Navy Chief Journalist who managed the Armed Forces Radio Station in Saigon from 1962-64, takes us along with his posse of friends as they navigated the heat, sounds, and smells of Saigon before the big buildup of American troops. His narrative toggles among angst-filled teenage dialogue, contemporary commentary about the U.S. war in Vietnam, and general philosophical impressions of what it was like living in the South Vietnamese capital at the time.

Arbuckle also regales us with tales of his family’s dealings with “just another duty station” in a “very hot place.” We get descriptions of his high-strung mother, his stern and demanding father, his two younger brothers, their Vietnamese maid, and how they interacted.

Some of Arbuckle’s stories about his social life—such as his quest for cigarettes and his visits to brothels and bars on To Do Street—border on the tedious. His stories of the goings on at the American Community School, however, enliven the narrative.

Arbuckle, who joined the Army in 1968 and was assigned to the 50th Army Band at Fort Monroe, Virginia, went on to became a professional musician. He played the saxophone and had a successful career. He writes about this talent in the book, but not to a great extent. We hear more about that in his author’s note at the end of the book.

Interestingly, in the Epilogue Arbuckle speaks of his own “struggles” with what we have come to recognize as post-traumatic stress. Some of what he has experienced does not differ from what those who fought in the war have gone through emotionally.

This is a well-written book with a cast of interesting characters.

Arbuckle’s website is lesarbuckle.com

–Tom Werzyn

Thank You, America by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s Thank You, America: Autobiography of a Naval Career (Wheatmark, 178 pp. Paperback and Kindle) is a one-or-two-sitting read. It’s a delightful autobiography written by a retired Navy Chief Warrant Officer, with an emphasis on his unbridled love for his country, his career choices, and his wife and family. 

The book is an assignment-by-assignment journey that details, often with touches of wry humor, the places Rotruck has seen and the jobs he’s performed in a series of almost stand-alone chapters.

Rotruck starts in his home town, Gaithersburg, Maryland, and his decision to forgo college and join the Navy after graduating from high school in 1959. He takes us through Boot Camp, after which he came home to marry his high-school sweetheart. He then trained in repairing and maintaining Avionics and RADAR equipment. He goes on to explain that the rank of Chief in the U.S. Navy is one of merit and responsibility, and spells out the Chief’s Charge in the book’s appendix.

As the book progresses, Bob Rotruck goes through the each of his deployments during his twenty-year Navy career, describing his duties during air operations and his dealings with civilian contractors and their less-than-sterling knowledge about the products they were trying to sell to the U.S. Navy. Many of his assignments were aboard large carriers. He served as air squadron support on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (CV-63) on Yankee Station in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, and later aboard the John F. Kennedy (CV-67).

This is a very positive book without any of the blood, guts, glory, and pathos in many military memoirs. It’s well worth the read.

—Tom Werzyn                                                               

Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm

Although Edward F. Palm titles his book Tiger Papa Three: Memoir of a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 213 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), it includes stories from his first seventy years of life told in an existential, nonlinear narrative. The subtitle for a self-published edition of the book more closely describes it: The Illustrated Confessions of a Simple Working-Class Lad from New Castle, Delaware.                      

Ed Palm started life as the child of a selfish mother in a broken home. He overcame that, and went on to earn a doctorate in English, appointments as a dean of two colleges, a fifty-year marriage, fatherhood, and a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. At eighteen, with barely an inkling about the war in Vietnam or the realities of life, he ran away from home, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Along with many detours that recall other phases of his life, Palm includes descriptions of two distinct periods of his 1966-67 tour in the Vietnam War. During the first half the young Marine performed menial supply duties, which he loathed. So he volunteered for the Combined Action Program (CAP), a counterinsurgency plan that supplemented search-and-destroy tactics with self-help projects and better security to raise living standards for villagers—in Palm’s case, between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers from the DMZ.

Led by a sergeant, thirteen enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman comprised the Tiger Papa Three CAP in which Palm served. The men worked with forty members of the Vietnamese Popular Forces, soldiers analogous to U.S. National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement, Palm says. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

With a bow to Tim O’Brien, Palm says he tells it “the way it mostly was, which “could sometimes be fine.” His stories of fellow soldiers, combat, difficulties in working with the PFs, and attempts to win the hearts and minds of civilians provide entertaining and informative reading. His Tiger Papa Three teammates are his heroes.

When discussing life’s problems, Palm frequently finds support for his solutions by citing quotes from world-famous novelists and playwrights. He is critical of himself and analytic about his past. At the same time, he displays a restrained sense of humor. Logic, challenged by unpredictable and unexpected events, is his forte as both soldier and civilian.

Beyond reminiscences of the Vietnam War, Palm delves into common controversial aspects of life, particularly those related to women and the different forms of intercourse between the sexes. He also strives to clarify connections between politics and war.          

Ed Palm

An excellent collection of photographs, mostly shot by Palm, supplement the text.

Palm has written three other books—two about coming of age and one a very short political treatise. Anyone with even a vague interest in military matters or life in general should enjoy his insights in Tiger Papa Three.

The book’s website is edwardfpalm.homestead.com/TigerPapaThree.html

—Henry Zeybel

My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Letters in a Helmet by Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno

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Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno became friends in the late 1960s as members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. They explain how friendship evolved into a “bond that remains intact for ever, despite the lapses in communication or the frequency of visits,” as Tierno puts it in Letters in a Helmet: A Story of Fraternity and Brotherhood (455 pp. $19.95, paper: $2.99, Kindle).

In the book Sorter and Tierno alternate chapters that chronologically tell their individual life stories. The most dynamic parts of the book recreate Sorter’s Vietnam War duties as a platoon leader and company commander with the Americal Division in 1970.

A tense realism permeates Sorter’s combat narrative. Amid the uncertainties of Vietnamization, he took undiminished responsibility for his men and their fourteen-day search-and-destroy missions. He anguished over every injury they sustained.

After five months in the bush, Sorter suffered his first wound and spent ten days in a hospital. “Thirty-two stitches was all it took,” he says. Four months later, he stepped on booby-trapped 81-mm mortar round. Shrapnel riddled his entire body. Eventually, doctors amputated his right leg.

Sorter’s account of his physical and psychological recovery is spellbinding. He never spells out the exact list of his injuries, but he does mention a continual shedding of shrapnel from many parts of his body throughout his life. Stoicism and a sense of humor carried him through the roughest times. Bob Tierno and other Dekes provided moral support.

In 2018, Tierno temporarily defeated death by having his cancerous prostate removed, statistically giving him ten more years of life. A year later he published The Prostate Chronicles—A Medical Memoir: Detours and Decisions following my Prostate Cancer Diagnosis, an irreverent examination of the condition.

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Beyond the two major episodes, the autobiographies of Sorter and Tierno largely describe their business lives and marriages. Sorter enjoyed a long career helping other wounded veterans with prosthetics in VA facilities across the United States. Tierno served many years with the Bureau of Prisons in Colorado, North Carolina, and California, and later bought and ran a Bed and Breakfast in California.

The two men have kept in contact for fifty years, sharing ups and downs.

Sorter and Tierno close the book with seventeen interviews of University of Oklahoma Dekes whose memories validate the benefits of finding brotherhood in fraternity. Their story clearly illustrates how friendship can significantly alleviate life’s harshest situations.

—Henry Zeybel