A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Life and Times of a Survivor by Marie Sweeney Heath

The Life and Times of a Survivor: Before, During, and after Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 40 pp., $12.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is Marie Sweeney Heath’s self-described “brief autobiography” of her life before, during, and after she served in the Vietnam War. Short chapters describe how she survived nursing school, Army Basic Training, the war, and life after coming home.

The author’s father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. After a few years as a firefighter in Boston, he rejoined the army at the start of the Korean War. This time he would stay in for twenty-eight 28 years.

After graduating from high school Marie Sweeney entered nursing school, then went into the Army Student Nurse Program. Following Basic Training, she worked for a short while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before receiving orders for Vietnam. She told her family she wanted “to go where I can do the most good for my country and where I can provide medical care for those who need it.”

She landed in Saigon in early 1966. Being assigned to a base camp in Qui Nhon she volunteered to serve for six weeks in a small tent hospital in An Khe. Getting back to Qui Nhon she ended up marrying Bob Sweeney, an Army officer stationed there. For their honeymoon the couple went to Okinawa for a week.

During the war Marie Sweeney found it helpful to use “inappropriate humor” as a way of dealing with the daily stress. She says you couldn’t survive if you couldn’t laugh. It’s a technique she continues to use today.

Part of her time was spent helping treat Vietnamese patients in a leprosarium. Returning to the United States, she worked in obstetrics while stationed with her husband at Fort Ord. The couple resigned their commissions in September 1967, moving to Wisconsin then to Missouri and Virginia.

Her on-going story of survival has her dealing with the loss of a son and the death of her husband. She would be widowed for more than twenty-five years before remarrying in 2017.

Marie Sweeney Heath’s personality comes through in reading her book. Clearly she would be fun to talk to and you feel she has a lot more stories she could tell.

Having served as a nurse in Vietnam puts her in a group that every Vietnam veteran I’ve known places at the top of the list of people they love, honor, and respect the most.

Two dozen photos are crammed into this brief book.

–Bill McCloud

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

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