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

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