From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle by Jack Whitehouse

The subtitle of Jack Whitehouse’s From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle (McFarland, 267 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), Memoir of a Naval Officer in the Cold War, is a reminder to those of us who served in-country during the Vietnam War that much of the rest of the world continued to be embroiled in the Cold War. 

Whitehouse has created a nicely crafted book. It begins with his high school years and includes how he choose a naval career. With a family history of military service, it was an easy decision.

As his memoir unfolds, there seemed to be almost an On The Road urgency to it as the pace of the writing picked up markedly as Whitehouse moved into the details of his Navy tour of duty. To do so required good notes and a yeoman’s effort at research. Whitehouse gives credit to his wife Elaine for reviewing and correcting the manuscript “numerous times.”

Beginning in 1968, Whitehouse served on the USS Buck, a World War II era destroyer, for two tours on Yankee Station in South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. In 1971 he became the commanding officer of a gun boat, the USS Chehalis, which operated out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. Later he became the first U.S. Navy exchange officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Whitehouse tells many stories involving all of his duty stations, on the water and behind a desk. It seems as though there was always something going on worth writing about. Of particular interest was his time with the Royal Norwegian Navy; his stories of cruises and patrols above the Arctic Circle are well told and quite interesting.

At the end of the book, as he resigns from the Navy, Whitehouse moves on to a second career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA.

The book includes an Appendix titled,  “Soviet Socialism and its Influences Today.” It alone is worth the price of the book.

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle is a good read. I highly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Love Found and Lost by Kim Vui

Love Found and Lost: The Kim Vui Story (Texas Tech University Press, 260 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle), is an interesting and important autobiography by a Vietnamese actress and singer who was the most glamorous—and famous—star in the South Vietnamese entertainment industry in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the story of Saigon’s nightlife and film scene during the American war years.

Kim Vui was six years old in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the United States near the end of World War II, which led to chaos in and around Saigon as the French tried to regain control of their former colonial capital. Amid the uproar, Kim Vui fled with her family to the Mekong Delta to begin a new life in the countryside. The next year she saw French forces murderously rampaging through her village. The family subsequently returned to Saigon.

With fond memories of singing in her Catholic church, Kim Vui began performing in theaters in Saigon at an early age. In spring of 1955, after France had lost all its Indochinese colonies, the sixteen-year-old Vui was pregnant by a young man she would only see once more in her life.

After her first child was born she finished secondary school and returned to singing in restaurants. Kim Vui also worked in a government program taking music, dance, and propaganda into the countryside to support the noncommunist South Vietnamese regime during the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

South Vietnam was developing a small film industry and Kim Vui starred in her first movie in 1957. Ten years later, with Saigon now “a capital in the midst of war,” she had become a popular entertainer, known as a singer of “tragic love songs.” But having failed to find true love, Kim Viu writes, “I made myself ignore the past, live in the present, and always look to the future: to forget the illusion of love and think only of my children.”

In 1968 she took part in an Asian ensemble that had a few gigs in Las Vegas. Returning to Vietnam, she starred in two films with anti-communist themes. After marrying an American civilian, she moved to the U.S. with her children and parents. After that “marriage of necessity,” she wrote, “I would learn that one can survive, even in the absence of happiness.”

The actress and singer Kim Vui was known as “the Sophia Loren of Vietnam.”

She would eventually find herself taking one final stab at finding true love. Despite multiple marriages and occasional other relationships, Kim Vui was doing all that she thought she could to make a safe, successful, life for herself and her six children.

In Love Found and Lost, Kim Vui presents a rare and satisfying glimpse into the social life of upper-class Vietnamese citizens in South Vietnam during the war. Her strengths and maternal influences shine throughout this story—a story of a woman, herself, full of love.

–Bill McCloud

I Refuse to Kill by Francesco Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci’s I Refuse to Kill: My Path to Nonviolent Action in the 1960s (Sunbury Press, 294 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is an interesting, informative look at one man’s lengthy battle with his Virginia draft board in the sixties. Da Vinci is an L.A.-based journalist and speaker. Over the years his photographs have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Time.

In telling the story of his efforts to be accepted by the Selective Service System as a Conscientious Objector Da Vinci relies on journals he wrote in between 1960 and 1971. He writes that he remembers when he was 15 hearing President Kennedy’s call “for my generation to become active citizens and make the country better.” Inspired by JFK, he became interested in politics.

Da Vinci says his family would appear outwardly to be an all-American one, yet he can’t remember either of his alcoholic parents ever hugging or kissing him. A third-generation pacifist, he writes that he believes war is “never justified, no matter how glorified and propagandized.”

A politically precocious teenager, Da Vinci wanted to take part in the 1963 March on Washington, but his parents didn’t allow him to go. He dutifully registered for the draft at eighteen, a time when he was becoming interested in the Civil Rights movement and the protest music of the time “with its messages of social justice and peace through nonviolence.”  

As he prepared to begin college, he showed up at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, and soon began studying the Vietnam War in depth. In college he began thinking about giving up his student deferment and officially becoming a Conscientious Objector because of his moral beliefs about war. He realized that if his request was not approved it would mean he likely would go to prison.

Sickened by the war’s “relentless violence shown on TV,” he applied for C.O. status guided, he writes, “by a non-religious but spiritual philosophy.” After he graduated from college Da Vinci’s draft board rejected his claim. He felt very strongly that he was not dodging the draft, but was facing it in his own way. He went on to fight with the draft board over his classification for the next three years.

Da Vinci

Francesco Da Vinci seems to be almost a Forrest Gump-like character as he meets or comes close to raft of celebrities, including Neil Armstrong, Joan Baez, Bob Hope, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Paul Newman, and Rosa Parks. He includes an amazing collection of “you are there” photos in the book, mostly ones he took.

In his book, he also sets out the history of the concept of declaring oneself a Conscientious Objector. He uses his own experiences to try to explain why some people are willing to place their freedom in jeopardy in order to live a life based strictly on what their conscience tells them is right. This is an important story, and one that should be neither ridiculed nor ignored.

The author’s website is irefusetokill.com

–Bill McCloud

Dark Horse by Larry O. Spencer

Larry Spencer’s Dark Horse: General Larry O. Spencer and His Journey from the Horseshoe to the Pentagon (Naval Institute Press, 182 pp. $24.95, Hardcover; $18.99, Kindle) is aptly named. A dark horse is a little-known person who succeeds in an unlikely situation. In 1971, at age 18, Spencer joined the U.S. Air Force. In 2015 he retired as the USAF’s 37th Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He had risen through 15 pay grades—from E-1 to E-5 and O-1 to O-10—to become a four-star general.

Dark Horse is an autobiography that took me on a spectacular ride. It begins with growing up in an inner-city area of Southeast Washington D.C., takes us through his enlistment, career, and retirement, and into his post-military years. During the Vietnam War Spencer served at Pope AFB in Fayetteville, Norther Carolina, and at the Taiwanese Ching Chuan Kang Air Base. H

Spencer writes about the peer pressures he faced while growing up in the hood and the life lessons he learned from his father and his grandfather and while serving in the Air Force. Spencer’s military journal began when he enlisted as an Airman Basic. After seven years and rising to Staff Sergeant, and after earning a BS in industrial engineering technology, a mentor recommended that he apply for OTS. 

Throughout his career, Spencer accepted many different positions, sometimes as a seemingly underqualified candidate (a dark horse). He enjoyed and excelled at the challenges of succeeding in difficult situations, including his final assignment as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force.

As for his lofty rise, Spencer quotes the author Coleman Cox, who once said: “I am a great believer in luck. The harder I work, the more of it I seem to have.”  Although Spencer sees himself as a dark horse, I see him as a workhorse, a hard-working man with a very supportive wife and family.

Reading Spencer recounting the backstories of his life was enjoyable and inspiring. While he knows he worked hard to reach a high level of success, he gives much credit to his family and to military support personnel, mentors, and the Air Force itself.

I highly recommend Dark Horse.

–Bob Wartman

A Soldier’s Heart by Raynold Gauvin

A Soldier’s Heart: The 3 Wars of Vietnam (Friesen Press, 192 pp.) is Raynold Gauvin’s accounting of his life from birth to today. Much of the book consists of details about his Army training, his year in the Vietnam War, and the challenges he faced for decades after returning home.

“Soldier’s Heart” is a term used to describe men who suffered from what is now known as PTSD after coming home from fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Gauvin’s three wars are the one he fought on the ground in Vietnam, his post-war battles with PTSD, and the with effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Gauvin was born in northern Maine and grew up with family on both sides of the Canadian border. His family spoke French at home, even though English was required at school. This, along with being dyslexic, created considerable problems. The family suffered a major blow when his father died, leaving his mother the bread-winner for six children.

After his first year of college Gauvin registered for the draft, not worrying about a war that seemed very far away. Shortly after realizing he did not have the money to return to school he received his draft notice, or, as Gauvin puts it, “a love letter from Uncle Sam.” This spurred him to enlist in the Army, hoping he’d be able to avoid the infantry. As his job choice he picked X-ray Technician.

After basic at Fort Dix, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston for combat medic training, then to x-ray school. He did a residency at Fort Lewis, and then went to Vietnam.

Landing in country in 1968 he was surprised to find that he had been chosen to become a member of a small, elite team. Not the kind that hunted down the Viet Cong. He would be working in a mortuary in Saigon and taking part in a study to evaluate the causes of death of combat casualties. The hush-hush work involved performing autopsies in the name of research. It would last only the year Gauvin was in Vietnam when 8,000 combat fatality cases were studied.

The rest of the story involves Gauvin’s decades-long efforts to deal with PTSD and then cancer that was likely caused by exposure to the highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Every Vietnam War veteran has a personal story to tell. We’re fortunate that Raynold Gauvin chose to share his with us. It’s truly inspiring.

–Bill McCloud

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