Facing the Dragon by Philip Derrick

Phillip Derrrick’s Facing the Dragon: A Vietnam War Mystery Thriller (Sunnyslope Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction. In the preface Derrick tells us that the war in Vietnam was seen differently by every veteran who was there between 1964 and 1973. Events in this novel take place primarily in 1970 at the Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Derrick is an Air Force brat who joined the Army and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. He later earned a PhD in history and had a career in higher education.

The main character of this novel scams his way into the Army at the age of fifteen, which was not unknown to happen. Our hero, who has several names throughout the book but is known as Jim Peterson at the beginning, had witnessed the murder of his family while they are touring Carlsbad Caverns. He escaped and sought sanctuary in the Army, which he entered through an elaborate ruse involving stolen records. Derrick makes these events believable because he knows how the Army worked back in the day.

The book has an elaborate back-and-forth structure, due to the murderer having been a German soldier and a criminal his past life. That’s why part of the novel takes place in 1945 in Germany as well as in Vietnam in 1970.

Much of this is a semi-standard Army infantry novel fare, with our hero gradually learning Army lore even though he did not go through Basic Training. The story is filled with many of the usual Vietnam War fiction references such as a “fuck-you” lizard who speaks some English, Donut Dollies, ring knockers, Project 100,000, John Wayne, jungle penetrators, LBJ, Vic Morrow in Combat the TV show, shit burning, and elephants. To his credit, Derrick also mentions other stuff that is not so usual such as Karl May, the German author of Western novels; laterite; and the riots at Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.

Philip Derrick

We also get the usual funny names that soldiers in Vietnam War novels are saddled with; in this case, Prophet, Big Red, Dimes, Peddler, and the Project. The LBJ riots are handled well, which makes this novel unusual.

I recommend Facing the Dragon to those looking for an unusual Vietnam War infantry yarn. It is well written and well edited, and the narrative moves right along with no boring patches.

The author’s website is https://philipderrick.com

—David Willson

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The Butterfly Rose by Dick Stanley

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Rarely these days are readers granted an opportunity to enjoy an offering so well constructed and presented as Dick Stanley’s novel, The Butterfly Rose (Cavalry Scout Books, 252 pp. $13.08, paper; $.99, Kindle), a three-generation story of an American and a Vietnamese family’s involvement with each in Vietnam.

Stanley, a former journalist who served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, wordsmiths the English language to an almost lyrical presentation.

One example: “It is a valley of flowers but none is more beautiful than the silken, five petal roses that turn many colors in their brief lives, as ephemeral as butterflies fluttering on a green bush.”

The Butterfly Rose centers on a young, Confederate Army officer, Sean Constantine, a large man with a glowing mane of red hair and a beard to match. After participating in The battle of Manassas, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of events involving his brother, father, black servant, and a stay in Paris, Constantine is posted to a colonial French garrison in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

His love of roses, developed over the years of his Mississippi youth and his worldly travels, finds a like-minded individual in the 1860s in Vietnam: a village shaman, an old woman skilled in naturopathic and herbal medicines and remedies. She also is a conjurer who converses with the many gods and deities roaming the Vietnamese jungles.

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Dick Stanley

Fast forward a century to a team of American advisers working with an ARVN combat team in that same Central Highlands valley near Que Son. Neal Constantine, a red-headed grandson of Sean, is a member of that American team, working as a historian. He possesses his grandfathers’ 1860s diary and flower guide. And he meets the great granddaughter of the village healer, without knowing about the earlier family connection.

The story toggles back and forth between the centuries, chapter by chapter. Parallels are drawn, including the weather, expectations of higher commands, tactics, ideologies, as well as the relationship between the big, red-headed American and the old healer and their shared interest in the roses that populate the valley.

This novel artfully spans nations, generations, wars and people, and it ties all those strands together with a shared love of flowers and of the short gift we all share with each other—that of life.

—Tom Werzyn

Down Along the Piney by John Mort

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John Mort, one of America’s premier storytellers, served in the Vietnam War with the First Cavalry Division. His story, “Hog Whisperer,” received the 2013 Spur Award for best short story from the Western Writers of America.  Mort writes edge-of the seat fictional masterpieces, presenting characters for us to root for and cherish, as well as the other kind. They are all-American people who breathe on the page—people we wish we knew, people we do know, or people we are happy we have yet to encounter.

Mort’s latest collection, Down Along the Piney: Ozark Stories (University of Notre Dame Press, 186 pp., $50, hardcover; $20, paper) contains thirteen fine stories, including “Hog Whisperer.” Some of these tales are so lively and dense that it’s difficult to believe they aren’t novels as so much happens in the course of each story. “Hog Whisperer” is one of those stellar stories.

Another one that is rich and full of the intent and accomplishment of a novel is “Pitchblende,” the first in the collection. We are introduced by the narrator to his father, known as “the Colonel,” in the first paragraph. He is a larger-than-life character who intends to run the lives of his entire family. His wife is not up for that, so she departs.

The Colonel was gone during most of that family’s life, serving in various wars around the planet. He disgraced himself—or thought he did—in the Korean War, after which his career was as good as over due to events that were beyond his control. That is often the nature of war. No more promotions were there, so the old man left the military and spent the rest of his life trying to strike it rich finding uranium in the form of pitchblende.

He dug big holes in the ground with his Cat, which was as close to his old Sherman tank as he could get on his property, which becomes known as Bald Mountain because of what he and his Cat do to the surface of the land and to the trees.

My favorite sentence in this story is: “That’s because they ain’t no uranium in Missouri.” Just sticky, old soft coal that’s worthless.

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John Mort

The story’s hero graduated from high school, joined the Army, and learned to fly helicopters.

“I was a warrant officer,” he says. “I was a pilot, and twice I was shot down. Who knows why, but the bullets flew all around me, and I was never touched.”

There’s lots of war in the stories in this fine book, including the Vietnam War. “Take the Man Out and Shoot Him” alone is worth the price of admission.

If you have even the vaguest love of fine short stories or want to read great stories about people and war, buy this book. It will not disappoint.

—David Willson

Moscow Airlift by Marc Leibman

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Marc Liebman retired as a U.S. Navy Captain after a twenty-four-year career that included serving in the Vietnam War and in Iraq. During his military career, Liebman flew helicopters and fixed wing aircraft and worked with the armed forces of more than a half dozen countries.

Liebman’s latest career is as a novelist writing political thrillers, of which I am a great fan. If you have read any of the books, you’ll be eager to read his latest opus, Moscow Airlift (Penmore Press, 522 pp. $22.49, paper: $2.99, Kindle).

You’ll encounter many of the same characters in these books, including Josh Haman, which is why this group of books is referred to as the Josh Haman series. The new book starts in 1971 in Laos, but most of it takes place in 1991.

In 1991 Russia was suffering from a shortage of food. On the face of it, Josh Haman arrives in Russia to feed the starving. But why him? He is a warrior and well known for derring-do, such as stealing a helicopter and flying it out of a place that was supposed to be escape proof. So Russians are suspicious of Haman from the get go. What is he up to?

They are right to be suspicious, because he is in Russia to steal or incapacitate some suitcase A-bombs, among other things of that nature. In short order, Haman is on the ground, scrambling to evade truckloads of soldiers who are after him.

Not only are foreign soldiers after our hero, but an evil American REMF general is out to ruin Haman’s career by framing him for a bunch of bullshit infractions that he had to commit in order to save the world from nuclear doom. But Haman failed to dot some “i’s” and cross some “t’s,” which were important to that evil general.

We are left hanging until the last moment on whether Josh Haman hangs onto his career, but we’re told there is a sequel to this book, so I suspect that the informed reader will not be too afraid for his career.

I am eager for the sequel.

The author’s website is https://marcliebman.com\

–David Willson

Letting Go by Abe Aamidor

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His grandfather served in an engineering unit in France in World War I. His father was a paratrooper badly wounded in World War II. But Indiana native Dwight Bogdanovic didn’t follow family tradition and join the military. A 1-Y deferment for scoliosis kept him from being drafted during the Vietnam War.

Bogdanovic is the narrator of Abe Aamidor’s new novel, Letting Go (The Permanent Press, 192 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle). Aamidor, a former journalist, is the author of a novel, short stories, and nonfiction works including Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History.

After dropping out of Indiana State University in 1968, Bogdanovic sold encyclopedias. He shared a house for three years with two other guys, one of whom was a Vietnam War veteran named Hank who became a security guard and sped around in a Harley in his free time. Hank was “seemingly uncomplicated,” Aamidor writes, but also would “sit up suddenly in bed in the middle of the night and look around, demand to know who was out there, even call out to his buddies to get their guns.”

Bogdanovic moves from address to address, and job to job, winding up as clerk at a sporting goods store. Relatively late in life, he and his wife, Thetis, have a son, Bertrand, who carries on the family’s martial tradition. The seventeen-year-old enlists in the Army following the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“I knew all along he’d be going in,” his father says. “It was in the way he’d discuss famous battles in history and in some of the books he’d read, such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien, although neither was a gung-ho, go get ’em, John Wayne flag waver. Quite the contrary. It was just that Bertrand always took the side of those who would stand tall.”

Bertrand conducts covert operations in Afghanistan and receives several medals. On the first page of the novel we learn that he died overseas. The manner of his death remains a mystery: “The government,” Aamidor writes, “would only say he was KIA, killed in action, the bare outline of a dagger by his name in all the official documents.”

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Abe Aamidor

The American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are just one concern of Letting Go—to an extent, they represent all combat. Throughout, Aamidor refers to both world wars and the Vietnam War, as well as the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, and Korean War.

Ultimately, the book examines life in general, and Bogdanovic is an Everyman who reflects on his experiences in a self-effacing way, providing no more than tentative answers to questions that have perplexed philosophers for centuries.

What makes for a rewarding day-to-day existence? Being attentive to one’s thoughts, perhaps—honesty, too, and showing appropriate gratitude. But Bernard’s relentless pursuit of results? Perhaps not.

The author’s website is aamidor.com

–Angus Paul

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

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The late Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1988 Young Adult Vietnam War novel, Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 336 pp., $9.99, paper), is today being featured as assigned reading in high school English, history, and social studies classes across the nation.

While written in the first-person and appearing at first glance to be autobiographical, the story is actually a tribute to Myers’ brother, Thomas Wayne “Sonny” Myers, who died in Vietnam in 1968 and to whom the book is dedicated. It’s told through his eyes.

In the book, names have been changed to protect the innocent. But we easily understand the stories of main character Richie Perry and his comrades who serve in an unidentified unit in Vietnam. Though there are a few mechanical and continuity errors—including weapon caliber and nomenclature—Myers gives us a compact, easy-to-read book.

It’s a story told by a young black man in a predominately black unit in a decidedly racially mixed war. Yet it is a story free of the angst, bitterness, hatred, and racism so often found in other novels dealing with the same theme

Meyers begins as Perry finishes high school and realizes that there is no money in the family for college and that the mean streets hold no future. He believes that the military just might be a way out of town. His adventures through the selection and training processes are chronicled with quite readable dialogue.

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We get almost half way through the book before “fallen angels” are referred to. Myers uses the phrase as a metaphor for the random and senseless loss of life and innocence suffered in the war zone.

Some of Perry’s friends and some new guys are wounded, some go home, some stay and re-up. The story contains a balanced mix of experiences and recollections.

As a high school classroom exercise, the novel provides a suitable exposure to the battlefield and its denizens on both sides—as well as a platform for student discussions, conversations, and learning about family war experiences.

There is the potential for healing and sharing, as well as for enjoying a good story about a bunch of young men caught up in a nasty war.

–Tom Werzyn

Men Come Home From Work… Late by Galen Hobbs

The plot of Galen Hobbs’ Men Come Home From Work…Late  (AuthorHouse, 364 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) involves two men escaping from two POW camps twenty years after the end of the American war in Vietnam War. Jake, who is in the Air Force, and Crow, a Navy SEAL, meet by chance and join forces to try to evade the Vietnamese Army.

When they arrive in Laos, they are joined by a Marine named Ed and by a woman named  Michelle, who appears to have no military affiliation.

They are pursued by a drug gang who are trying to kill them. The United States Embassy also wants them dead. They head west with many obstacles to deal with, harboring the hope in their hearts that they might link up with their families.

The book begins with an author’s note that the novel takes no position on the question of whether Americans were left behind “knowingly or unknowingly” in Vietnam as prisoners of war. Hobbs says he made up all characters’ names, places, and incidents.

Before the story begins, there are two pages of the something called “19 Rogers’ Rules.” The first rule is, “Don’t forget nothing.” The book does give the appearance of having included everything necessary to make the story move right along.

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This is a complex tale which seems somewhat muddled, but it held my interest.

The book, in essence, does make a case that the Vietnamese kept Americans after the war. However, it failed to convince me that there were any good reasons to do so.

Readers eager for another Vietnam War POW book could do much worse than to read this one.

I read it in one long sitting.

The author’s website is http://www.ghobbsauthor.com

–David Willson