Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.

Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.

Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.  

Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.

After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”

In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”

André Carter

Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.

The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.

Carter’s website is andrelewiscarter.com

–Bill McCloud

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

The Sentinel Papers by Robert Espenscheid, Jr.

Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.                     

This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”  

Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”

Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.

After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.

The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.

Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.

—Henry Zeybel

Finding Father by Peter S. Glick

In his strikingly compelling novel, Finding Father: Vietnam Fifty Years After (Sixty Degrees Publishing, 330 pp. $18.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Peter S. Glick invites the reader to accompany not one but two men—an American and an Australian—as they set out to learn who their fathers truly were.

The American’s father died, leaving the son with a home filled with books, photos, and mementos he brought home from Vietnam, yet with no context for the son to appreciate how his father came to the possess them. The Australian’s mother was Vietnamese and had fled the country at the end of the war. But she never revealed to her son who his biological father was—only that he was an American serviceman. Seeking answers from opposite sides of the world, hoping for enlightenment of any kind, both men make their way to Vietnam.

Writing in a metaphysical, often haunting, style, Glick grabs the reader and never lets go. Half the story is told in the first person, so the reader, for example, is inside the American’s mind as he sifts through his father’s past. “I have found the old study,” he says, and that inspires a kinship with the first man, JJ, whose plight is more pronounced because he never knew his father.

Every step of each man’s journey is told in the present tense so readers experience each event, thought, and perception as the protagonists do. And while the two men do not meet until well into the story, the message is clear from the start: they have a connection and they will meet in Vietnam.

Peter Glick

Glick had a construction business Vietnam from 1965-75, before being forced to leave shortly before the war’s end. His time in Vietnam him the opportunity to learn the language and the history and culture of the country in a way few Americans have.

A French speaker, he became fluent in Vietnamese. So fluid, that once in a gathering where he was the only American present, someone told a joke at America’s expense, then blushed with embarrassment until someone else gestured toward Glick and said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s Vietnamese!”

Because JJ grew up in Australia and his mother wished to acclimate to her new home as much as possible, he speaks only a few words of Vietnamese. When he arrives in Vietnam, security forces take him for a spy and detain him for hours, abusing and humiliating him before finally letting him go. The American, however, quickly finds that his father’s commitment to learning about the people and the land during his tour opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Despite the two men’s differences, the sobering fact remains that—as Glick shows very well in the book—even five decades later, wounds from the war remain deep, and because of this, the goal the men seek may come at a cost too high to pay.   

–Mike McLaughlin

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud

Run Run Cricket Run by Tom Thompson

Tom Thompson’s Run Run Cricket Run: America’s Secret Wars in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper; $13.95, Kindle) is an interesting, exciting, and educating book.

This book is presented as historical fiction, but mirrors Thompson’s actual service as a USAF Forward Air Controller in Thailand, Laos, and North Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The main character, Capt. Ted Thatcher—who, in reality, is the author, Tom Thompson—narrates the tale.

During the Vietnam War the U.S. news media blasted articles, pictures, statistics, and exposés of the fighting taking place in South Vietnam. Little or no mention was made of what American troops were doing clandestinely in Laos on the ground and in the air. Those “secret wars” were carried out to try to stem the flow of men and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam to equip the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam.

North Vietnam continually violated the 1954 Geneva Accords by creating and using the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos and Cambodia. The U.S. maintained a public policy of not entering Laos or Cambodia.

A major component of those covert operations was the Air Force’s Forward Air Controllers. Run Run Cricket Run gives an insider’s view of this group of brave men. The FACs controlled the aerial battlefield over the Trail. They engaged the enemy, located and marked targets, and directed American fighters and bombers onto targets such as trucks, tanks, and antiaircraft gun sites along the Trail. The FACs also worked with helicopters rescuing ground troops and downed pilots.

Thompson graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1966 and went on to earn his wings. He served in Laos in 1970. Run Run Cricket Run begins in December 1969, with Thatcher (Thompson) arriving at the Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand.

What follows is almost daily aerial combat action. I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Korean Odyssey by Dale Dye

If you don’t recognize the name Dale Dye, whose latest book is Korean Odyssey: A Novel of a Marine Rifle Company in the Forgotten War (Warriors Publishing Group, 353 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $9.49, Kindle), you’ll almost certainly recognize his face. Dye served twenty years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising from the enlisted ranks to retire as a Captain. That included three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, during which he took part in 31 major combat operations. Today he runs Warriors, Inc., the leading military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry.

Dye has acted in or worked in some way more than 40 movies, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, as well as the acclaimed the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. He has a degree in English Literature and has written twenty books, including the novelization of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

His new novel starts in the summer of 1950 with Marine Capt. Sam Gerdine trying to build a rifle company around him at Camp Pendleton. Gerdine is a career Marine and Silver Star recipient of WWII action in the Pacific. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the cry goes out at Pendleton: “From now on it’s double-time all the time in this camp.” With most of the rifle companies being short-handed it is not uncommon for NCOs to search for available men and add them to their companies. The result is a command “manning up with raw recruits, malcontents, shanghaied clerks, and a few brig-rats,” Dye writes.

The war news meanwhile, is “dismal. Doggies were getting their asses handed to them. The gooks were raising hell.” Training becomes more intense.

With training complete, the Marines land in South Korea, and soon find themselves in the thick of the action—an “ugly reality check,” as Dye notes.

Dale Dye in Platoon

Then comes No Name Ridge and hand-to-hand fighting. Before long, it’s winter, and the Korean cold envelops the battle space. The firefights and hand-to-hand fighting continue, but this time in blinding snow. Then comes the Chinese offensive.

Dale Dye writes with an authenticity that cannot be denied. His writing expresses a warrior spirit that is a constant no matter what war he’s dealing with.

I could almost hear his voice when reading sentences like: “How about you people stand back and let a real rifle company show you how to take a hill.”

This is an important addition to the literature of ground-level-view fighting in America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.

–Bill McCloud

Shadebringer: Book One by Grayson W. Hooper

Grayson Hooper’s Shadebringer: Book One: The Land of Irgendwo (River Grove Books, 300 pp. $15.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), is a work of high fantasy with a strong Vietnam War theme. Hooper is an active-duty Army Major and a physician.

In this, Hooper’s first novel, main character Clyde Robbins is killed during the war, then wakes up in another world. If you can buy that premise—as I had no trouble doing—then you will most likely enjoy this story.

Robbins was a baby-faced teenager in Philadelphia when he enlisted in the Army and, after attending NCO school “in hot-as-balls Georgia,” he rose up the ranks quickly, eventually becoming an E-6 Staff Sergeant. In February 1969, less than two weeks after he arrives in-country, Robbins gets his first kill.  

After six months of fighting, Robbins thinks, “War did not make sense to me. So why am I here? Why do I thrive? Is my sole purpose to engender pain and chaos? Can I bring nothing else to those around me besides suffering?” In response, he hears a disembodied woman’s voice say, “We will give you purpose, Clyde.”

Robbins wakes up as if from sleeping not knowing where he is. Before long, he’s running from danger, possibly monsters, and wondering if he is dreaming. Being told that he’s in a totally different reality, “in a different world now,” he has flashes of memory involving a hunt for a downed pilot and running into a ferocious, deadly ambush.

After making a long climb up a mountain he thinks, “My legs burned over the final step, and I wheezed like a wheelchair-bound vet with a tank of oxygen on my ass.” He learns this new world is based on continuous conflict and thinks, “Funny, the similarities of this world and the previous one.” Robbins becomes the long-prophesized Shadebringer, who will help the good guys win.

Hooper

Hooper presents this book in the first-person so we’re constantly aware of what Robbins is thinking. One time it’s, “Prayers meant nothing on Earth, and I assumed they fell on deaf ears here, too.” Other times, it’s, “What exactly happens after death in a place after death?” and, “I’m done fighting for other people over things I couldn’t care less about.”

When Robbins asks what the people want from him, he is told, “Become hope. Become even the smallest candle in this darkness, and you will have our eternal gratitude.” When a short sword is placed in his hand, we realize this interesting story is about to get even more exciting. Bring on the re-animates and the “dreadicans.”

I enjoyed this novel, which put me in mind of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ work. I highly recommend Shadebringer for fantasy fiction fans, and encourage all adventure-minded readers to give it a try.

The author’s website is graysonwhooper.com

–Bill McCloud

Fighting the Bad War by Angelo Presicci

Angelo Presicci’s Fighting the Bad War (Night Horn Books, 232 pp. $24.95, paper) is a collection of seventeen autobiographical linked short stories that take place during the war in Vietnam and the immediate post-war years. Presicci served in Vietnam with the 11th Armored Cavalry in 1966-67. His writing style kept my interest as I went from one story to another.

In the first story, “The Tunnel,” we witness “a few men in one of those futile military chores like shifting dirt.” One guy likes to show off Polaroid pictures of “rotting, bloated bodies.” Two men, much to their dismay, are told to check out a tunnel.

The NCO giving the order says, “Take my word, it’s gonna be OK down there.” When asked how he knows that, he replies, “I don’t goddamn hafta to know. My job is giving orders.” In the tunnel the men encounter “tropical roaches the size of Arizona.”

In “Countdown” we read of a man who enlisted with the hope of avoiding combat. He is pleased to be given a job working on generators until he is told, “If you can take a generator apart and reassemble the damn thing, why not a machine gun?”

“All the Undecorated Heroes” features a pet monkey and a commanding officer who sees the war only as “dots and coordinates on maps and grids.” He says things like, “Charlie’s out there. Today’s our lucky day.” No surprise that talk of fragging inevitably comes up.

“Graveside Etiquette” consists almost entirely of Catch-22-type dialogue.

In my favorite story, “A Day in the Life of Sen Wah,” focuses on an 18-year-old Vietnamese girl in Xuan Loc. “She backed away out of the crowd and watched the Americans, some of them handsome and rugged, and bigger than their Vietnamese counterparts,” Presicci writes. “Wasn’t that what made them feel superior?”

Sen Wah is unsure about her father’s loyalties as she helps him serve water buffalo burgers to the Americans. We learn she wanted to teach, but U.S. bombs destroyed her school, killing some of the children in the process. “We were once normal innocent students,” she says, “and now we are normal with being at war.”

That story is followed by my second favorite, “Poker Night,” in which a poker game ends up providing more action than anyone anticipated.

Angelo Pressici

The stories in the second half of the book take place in the U.S. between the years of 1970 and 1986. They include some of the characters in the first group of stories and involve flashbacks, troubled attempts to return to school, the guilt of a man who avoided service, and the effects of the war on those who remained home.

This book can be read as if it’s a novel divided into two parts. It’s to Angelo Pressici’s great credit that both halves are equally well done. I hope to read for more stories from him.

–Bill McCloud