Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers

Last Summer Boys (Lake Union Publishing, 285 pp. $14.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel by Bill Rivers. An outstanding student, Rivers went into public service after college. He worked in the Senate and then was a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A prized memento from his childhood, a part from a crashed jet he found, is the genesis for this book about four boys in the summer of 1968.

The story takes place in rural Pennsylvania. The Eliot family lives in a two-hundred-year-old house. Pete is the oldest of three boys. Will is the middle child, and the youngest is Jack, the who is focus of the story, as we see that fateful summer through his eyes. 

The brothers are joined by their bright cousin Frankie because the big city he lives in is being roiled by the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the novel involves introducing the city boy to life in the country. Frankie is game and bonds especially with Jack. 

In 1968 Jack knows from watching the nightly news that South Vietnam has become a dangerous place. Pete is going to turn 18 on the 4th of July and Jack has nightmares about his brother being in the “murderous jungles.” He gets it in his head that if his brother becomes famous, he can’t be drafted. So Jack decides that Pete should find the wreck of a jet fighter that went down in the area.

All the boys go on the quest. Besides this adventure, the book describes other incidents in a summer to remember. They tangle with a motorcycle gang. They go to a drive-in movie where Will impresses the local beauty. A camping trip becomes perilous. They go to a cemetery one spooky night.

The book contains a lot of nostalgia for Baby Boomers. Hell, the boys even catch fireflies. A fire that threatens their home. It’s not the only example of the role Mother Nature plays in the story.

Bill Rivers

I use the word “nostalgia” because it best describes the book, not just because the boys have adventures that many will be able to relate to. If you grew up in the suburbs or the country in the 1950 and 60s, chances are you will be able to relate to at least one of the incidents. If you are a Boomer or older, you will smile at all the things the boys do that the later generations’ parents would have heart attacks over. 

Nostalgia also covers some of the characters as Rivers includes stereotypes like a greedy land developer, a motorcycle gang leader, and a creepy boy who likes to start fires. All the characters are so well-drawn, though, that you won’t cringe over any of them. The adventures are also familiar, but the results are often unpredictable.

Rivers is a polished writer. He had me from page one when he described a man’s temper as “like coals glowing in the hearth late at night.” The book is full of such deft analogies. The exposition connecting the adventures fleshes out the characters and keeps the book flowing at a brisk pace. 

The boys manage to cram in a lot in one summer. The book reads like a series of short stories, all of which are interesting.  

The book’s website is lastsummerboys.com

–Kevin Hardy

Bravo Troop by William Watson

In William Watson’s Bravo Troop: A Forward Observer’s Vietnam Memoir (McFarland, 278 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle), actions explode out of nowhere without a visible enemy as vehicles and men detonate mines; RPGs blast tanks and APCs; napalm and flame baths obliterate the landscape; and Lt. Watson is in the midst of it all.

Watson served as an artillery forward observer with armored Bravo Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division from January 10 to July 18, 1969. The book deals with his six months in Vietnam without referencing the rest of his life, although Watson tells us he received a commission through ROTC at Princeton and earned a law degree from Harvard prior to going on active duty.

Bravo Troop primarily conducted road sweeps of highways used by convoys that hauled supplies from Cu Chi near Saigon north to Tay Ninh City and points between. That task included finding mines and protecting trucks from ambushes by NVA and VC troops. Bravo also searched out enemy soldiers and bunkers in surrounding forests and inserted and extracted LRRP teams.         

In recounting what he saw and did, Watson tells enlightening stories about large battles. He writes in a style that coolly reports vivid actions with minimal emotion. In describing his first full-scale firefight, for example, he says, “It was a noise that I had never imagined.”

At times, the narrative held my attention because Watson used an authoritarian voice that said, “Here is what we did and what you should know. Take it or leave it.” Units Bravo operated with suffered heavy casualties and were grossly undermanned. The NVA usually set the pace for encounters.  

Watson’s recalling of events from each and every day of his tour of duty risks boring a reader with details of unproductive exercises and mundane activities. As he puts it: “The real ratio of routine to excitement involved much more routine than I have reported.”

But those short descriptions create a strong feeling for his overall adventure—good and bad. For example, he says, “At the morning briefing Headley said today would be a lot like yesterday, and it was,” and later admits that it “is clear now that I was often unaware of much that was going on around me.”

Personal notes, maps, and cassette tapes from back in the day combined with newly found copies of the Squadron Duty Officer’s Log from the National Archives provided the material for the day-by-day accounts. Although Watson received a Purple Heart and eight Bronze Stars (five for valor), he downplays his heroics.

I don’t know how much information about the Army has slipped my mind during the past fifty years, but Watson taught me more than I thought I knew about being a soldier in the Vietnam War. His recollection of an in-country 25th Infantry new-guy course is eye-opening and excellent. His flowing accounts of maneuvers in the field taught me new knowledge. I frequently referred to the book’s excellent map of Bravo’s operating area.

The young lieutenant’s behavior and subtle reactions to war in general emphasize the shortcomings of the entire Vietnam War effort without a word of preaching. 

—Henry Zeybel

Chinatown by Thuận

Chinatown (New Directions, 184 pp. $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by the acclaimed Vietnamese novelist Thuận (translated by Nguyen An Ly) is a compact story that encompasses worlds of time. This post-post-modern story is written in one continuous paragraph with no breaks of any kind, emphasizing that it’s a collection of words packed between two covers.

Chinatown is a breathless stream-of-consciousness story that speeds along although the narrator remains sitting in one place as we become aware of her thoughts. Thuận (Đoàn Ánh Thuận) was born in Hanoi in 1967 during the height of the American war, and lives in Paris. This is her twelfth novel and the first to be translated into English. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Union Prize, the highest award in Vietnamese literature.

The story begins with a Paris Metro train stopped at a small station sometime in the early 2000s. An abandoned duffel bag is found that could be a bomb and has brought all movement to a halt.

A middle-aged Vietnamese woman on the train begins to think back on her life. She recalls a past love, Thuy, who remains a constant memory. He was her friend during their early school years. Born in Vietnam, his “slanted eyes” and Chinese ethnicity made him an outcast in school and the village.

Although the two became close, her parents never mentioned his name during her three years of high school and five years at university in Russia. They were married for a short time and had a son. They’ve been apart for twelve years. He works as an architect in the Cholon section of Saigon, known as Chinatown.

Thuận

As her thoughts bounce around, the narrator realizes how stressful her life has become in France. She teaches at a secondary school in a Paris suburb and speaks French with a jumbled accent. Aside from memories of her past love, she ponders a son and a male friend she refers to as “the guy.” But Thuy is always on her mind. While her greatest fear is that she will never see him again, she also thinks she “can’t imagine” meeting him again.

Her thoughts stray to her hairdresser and how to cook a snake. She also inserts short sections of what may become a chapter in a novel she’s writing. She occasionally recalls memories of a dreamed-of future.

There are frequent repetitions of a single thought, both within a page and from one page to another. My first look at this book, with its unbroken pages of text, led me to fear it might be difficult to read. It turns out I shouldn’t have been concerned because the lack of chapters and other page breaks led naturally to a nonstop reading experience, and the book flows as the story unfolds.

Chinatown is an interesting story told in a most interesting way.

–Bill McCloud

Her Father’s Land by Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1968 with the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote about it a 2001 memoir, DMZ Diary. Kelly has now produced a novel, Her Father’s Land (Booklocker.com, 418 pp., $22.02, paper; $2.99,Kindle), which is inspired by his experiences in Vietnam.

He served at a fire base built on the site of a razed hamlet. The gravestones caused him to wonder what it must have been like for the villagers to abandon their homes there, along with the graves of their ancestors. So Kelly has set Her Father’s Land at Fire Base Alpha-3, the closest American base to the DMZ, and interweaves the stories of U.S. Marine, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong characters into the novel.

With Alpha-3 within range of North Vietnamese artillery, the new battalion commander, Col. Favors, is not thrilled about being a sitting target. He feels Marines are best used in an aggressive manner. One of his best men is Lance Cpl. Tim “Monk” Montgomery.

An NVA officer named Huang Van Nhu is in charge of operations against Alpha-3. He and the main character, a female Viet Cong cadre named Tran Xuan Ha, are a couple. Ha goes undercover to get information from an incompetent, cowardly Marine lieutenant named Jones who uses connections (his uncle, a U.S. Senator) to transfer to USAID. 

Getting himself out of Alpha-3 gives Jones chance to go after the beautiful Ha and—like most lotharios—he thinks she really digs him. To get her in bed, he’s soon blabbing secrets that get Marines killed.

The love triangle of Nhu, Ha, and Jones is the core relationship in the book. The second half follows the trio as Ha and Nhu attempt to get the kidnapped Jones to the North so he can be used as a political pawn. Meanwhile, battles rage around Alpha-3.

Kelly tries to avoid the flag waving in many Vietnam War novels and movies by being evenhanded. Since he limits himself to a few main characters, he is able to develop them well. Jones comes off as a stereotypical ugly American, but the others are all good examples of combatants sincere in their dedication to their side. Favors and Nhu are worthy adversaries and anyone would want Monk or Ha in their squad. 

Jeff Kelly

Kelly writes well with few flourishes. This is not a romance novel. He walked the walk so he is able to get into the heads of his Marine characters. Monk, for example, processes a buddy’s death in less than a minute. He goes from shock to acceptance, eliminating the denial and grief phases, “a skill they all mastered well,” as Kelly puts it.

He goes on to describe combat and weapons like someone who has seen the elephant. The noise from an AC-47 Spooky, Kelly writes, is like “a wail of banshees, a choir of tortured souls, a technological song of megadeath.” On the other hand, Kelly’s choice of not dumbing things down might cause not well-versed in Vietnam War military lingo to have Google handy.

Jeff Kelly has seemingly read Vietnamese memoirs because Nhu and Ha are not stick figures. You won’t root against them. I hope.

The main theme of the novel is that the war was a conflict of American technology and firepower versus the enemy’s zeal—an elephant trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer.    

–Kevin Hardy

Heart Shots by Bob Lantrip

Heart Shots: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Troubled Heart (Friesen Press, 156 pp. $27.22, hardcover; $15.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Lantrip is a short novel about a young Marine’s experiences in Vietnam and how he deals with the effects of PTSD after coming home from the war. Lantrip, who holds a retired Chiropractor, served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.

In the novel, main character Damon Lee Lane joins the Marine Corps because he likes the uniform. Graduating from his training in San Diego he knows he is joining “a brotherhood that would last a lifetime.” After Boot Camp at Camp Pendleton he finds himself thinking that “the most fun part of preparing for war was that the Marines were taught how to blow up stuff.”

His thinking sobers up as he finds himself developing “the mindset of surviving Vietnam.” Pondering the question of how one really prepares for war, he decides that “perhaps the best way to survive a war was to have a reason to.”  With that in mind, Damon gets married a few weeks before he leaves for Vietnam.

He arrives in Da Nang at the end of 1969 and is sent to Chu Lai. He engages in a great deal of combat action during his first few days with men wounded and killed all around him.

We read of air strikes being carried out by “angels from heaven.” There are times when orders are given to burn all the structures in Vietnamese villages. There are poisonous centipedes and attacks by the near-mythical rock apes who throw huge rocks at the Marines from the jungle trees before swinging away to safety.

One of the book’s heroic characters, squad leader Wild Wit, serves two tours in heavy combat, then returns home, as many others did, with “No Purple Heart, no Medal of Honor—just the pride within that he had done his job. One day he was there, then gone the next.” Damon returns only to spend the rest of his life dealing with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Along with an interesting story, Heart Shots includes information aimed at helping those who still carry emotional scars from the war. Heart Shots is a useful PTSD handbook with a religious emphasis.

–Bill McCloud

The Immaculate Inception by Mike Sutton

The Immaculate Infection (War Zone Press, 354 pp. $53.95, hardcover; $25.99, paper; $10.99, Kindle) is VVA member Mike Sutton’s fourth novel. At age 18, Sutton was given the choice by a judge of prison or the Army. He chose the Army and served three tours in Vietnam between 1964 and 1970. 

After his discharge, Sutton graduated from college and went to work for IBM. He was a success, but was miserable. His life changed when he made contact with a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center where he was encouraged to write. His first novel, No Survivors, based on his war experiences, featured a Vietnam veteran named Hunter Morgan. 

The Immaculate Infection was inspired by three cold cases in New York called the Alphabet Murders to which Sutton adds a terrorism plot. The novel weaves several plot threads and many characters.

Now retired from the Baltimore PD, Hunter Morgan co-owns Last Resort Investigations, which specializes in cold cases. One involves a girl killed more than thirty years earlier. It turns out there are similar unsolved cases.

Meanwhile, Iran is chafing over economic sanctions, and the son of the Iranian leader hatches an intricate plot to bring pain to America. It starts with sky divers flying into taxiing airliners. Hundreds are killed. LRI is brought in to find proof that Iran is behind the terrorist acts. 

The next stage involves drones. Then sabotage by terrorist squads. The last stage will make use of jet packs for kamikaze-like attacks. These and other elements sound like science fiction, but they are either here now or will in the near future. The Swedish jet-pack inventor is kidnapped and forced to build them in Iran. This escalates into a rescue and retaliation that is the book’s big payoff.

Sutton did a lot of research for his novel. There is an excellent description of Air Force 1, for example, focusing on its defenses against attack. This comes up because the President is a major character in the book. We go inside the White House during a crisis. With lots of agencies and weapons, get ready for a lot of alphabet government names and acronyms. Sutton helps out with a glossary of 140 abbreviations.

Mike Sutton

The novel jumps around between locales and characters. The different threads are divided up within the chapters so you know the novel has jumped. Sometimes a thread is just given a paragraph to move it along. This gives the novel a fast pace. It reads like the screenplay for an action movie and is often edge-of-your-seat. The story will leave you concerned about whether these kinds of attacks could actually happen.

Sutton writes in a terse style appropriate for a thriller. A multitasker, for example, is “wearing more hats than Dr. Seuss’ Bartholomew Cubbins.”  One character stands out “like a hobo at a royal wedding.”

The Immaculate Infection hooked me from the beginning and held my attention throughout. The multiple threads are juggled efficiently. If you wonder what the next wave of terrorism might be like and how America might respond, this book is an eye-opener.

Sutton’s website is mksutton.com

–Kevin Hardy

Operation Embankment by Michael Trainor

Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.

Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.

Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.

On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.

The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.

Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.

The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.

Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.

Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.

–Bill McCloud

Follow the Gold by Timothy I. Gukich

If you read enough novels about the Vietnam War, you eventually will find one in which a REMF is the hero. One of those rarities is Timothy I. Gukich’s Follow the Gold (303 pp. $15.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle). Gukich was working for the IRS when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The same is true for his protagonist, Timothy Gardner. It’s safe to assume the book is at least partly autobiographical. 

The novel begins with Gardner’s last day in country. It then flashes back to his arrival in Vietnam where “[e]very place looked like something bad had happened.” It’s October 1969, so that is only a mild exaggeration. 

Gardner is assigned to CMAC (Capital Military Assistance Command) as a lowly clerk.  However, since he was an IRS agent, his commanding officer quickly takes advantage of Gardner’s skills as a forensic accountant to investigate black marketeering involving MPCs. It seems like a boring assignment, but with the help of his roommate Sharpe, Gardner turns sleuth.

Sharpe is a Special Forces operator and seemingly the opposite of Gardner, yet they quickly become friends. When Sharpe is not working with the Phoenix program, he is happy to help Gardner navigate the shadier side of Saigon. 

Gardner’s ferreting uncovers a connection to some C.I.A. “snoops” who are using Air America for shady business dealings. Much of the digging takes place during Gardner’s off hours, so a good bit of the book has him doing typical REMF tasks, such as guard duty. Along the way, he befriends an ARVN sergeant and a general.

I know I had you at IRS agent turned REMF, but here’s why you might want to read the book even if that doesn’t lure you. Gukich is a good writer. He is sincere in his desire to teach a little about the war to the point where he includes a bibliography, which is very rare in a novel. He did his research and adds information to this memoir disguised as a novel. He gives good descriptions of the M-14, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Agent Orange, among other things. And, of course, you’ll learn probably more than you want to about military payment certificates, aka “funny money” or “monopoly money.”

I enjoyed the book, but in some ways it was unfulfilling. Although Gukich warns that some embellishment occurred, the problem for me is that he does not embellish enough. Without giving away the ending, it’s another clue that Gukich was writing about his own experiences and I wondered if Sharpe’s story might not have been more exciting. 

That said, Timothy Gardner is an appealing nerd who does not avoid danger and his relationship with Sharpe is intriguing. Plus, you’ll learn who the names of the seven generals who died in Vietnam.

–Kevin Hardy

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

Dinosaur on an Island by Walter McAuliffe

Dinosaur on an Island (BookBaby, 238 pp., paperback) is a novel by Vietnam War veteran Walter McAuliffe. The title refers to a person who is orphaned, has to survive on his own, and is not at home in this technological world.

McAuliffe, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, opens with a warning that the book may be funny, scary, and aggravating. The first chapter revolves around a social worker helping a veteran named Greg, who is disabled and has PTSD. 

What follows are Greg’s stories. They have the common theme of “brutal reality,” including a list of the “Brutal Reality Rules of Life.” One is, “Don’t put a loaf in the oven, unless you own the bakery.” The rest are equally meme-worthy.

The first half of the novel tells Greg’s story. Being from a fractured family, Greg becomes a member of several of his friends’ families. The core group has adventures that are sometimes fueled by alcohol and fall in the category of juvenile delinquency. 

The second half of the book starts with Greg getting drafted and arriving in Vietnam. Then, suddenly, McAuliffe switches to commenting on what he sees as America’s social and political ills. McAuliffe is particularly incensed about “unauthorized military actions,” wars such as the one in Vietnam that were not approved by Congress. He’s also unhappy about government bailouts.

This unusual novel reads like a long civics lesson from an old man sitting on his porch. The first half contains fairly interesting vignettes about teenagers doing naughty things. The second, though, half took me by surprise. I was expecting to read about Greg’s tour of duty. But we mainly get McAuliffe’s thoughts and opinions about political issues.

He’s not clearly a conservative or a liberal, and seems to understand the issues well. But most of his solutions, even if sensible, are not doable. And his opinions will turn off a large segment of the population. Others might be turned off by his breaking the fourth wall to address teenagers.

Despite the book’s obvious passion, some of it is diluted misspellings and grammatical errors. McAuliffe, for examples, misspells “cavalry” and “lightning.” He capitalizes “war” and doesn’t capitalize “White House.”  He uses “misconstrued” when he means “confused.”   

He also is hazy on history. He writes that George H.W. Bush said, “Watch my lips.” He says that America invaded Korea at the beginning of that war. He overuses slang terms like “pant load,” “dirt nap,” and “bed bug.” The funniest and most-informative part of the book is the glossary of his slang.

The first half of Dinosaur on an Island is imaginative, but what you’ll think about the second half depends on whether you believe America has the problems that McAuliffe writes about. Readers will find some red meat here, but might also do some head-scratching.

–Kevin Hardy