Chariots in the Sky by Larry A. Freeland

Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.

The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”

The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.

St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.

Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.

St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.

Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”

On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.

St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”

In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.

Freeland’s website is larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud

Inhuman by Eric Leland

Inhuman (RTNY Publishing, 571 pp. $13.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) by Eric Leland, is a military action/adventure and a horror novel. It should find fans in both genres. During his time in the Army after the Vietnam War Leland saw duty as an MP before becoming a Special Agent with the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division.

His book starts with a very exciting Prologue, and then we meet a young Vietnamese girl and her grandmother who live in the northern part of the country close to China. We quickly learn that the people in their village have been guarding an evil secret for hundreds of years and it appears that the two women have special powers, including the ability to craft dreams in other people. The girl, Jara, also can apparently understand other people’s memories and dreams.

It’s 1969 and a CIA program assigns inexperienced captains to Special Forces units to keep the enlisted men honest and to make sure they undertake their missions using CIA-approved methods. The program is not received very well by senior NCOs, and the Americans frequently butt heads with each other while fighting North Vietnamese troops—and supernatural evil forces. When the men go into the field they wear unmarked uniforms, carry suicide pills, and do not have to follow any rules of engagement. One soldier says he’s excited about the concept of being able to “break things and hurt people.”

Recon Team Florida has gone missing and Recon Team New York is sent to find them. They encounter a village where more than a dozen Vietnamese civilians were killed while apparently trying to escape from something that had terrified them. They find claw marks indicating that some of the dead had tried to climb trees. There’s also a rope bridge, a hand-dug cave, and a deep pit.

On what the author describes as a “piss-colored morning,” the unit encounters Jara, who is wearing a mysterious vial around her neck and wielding a large sword. Then comes a storm of helicopter crashes, friendly fire, and a man who “mouse-trap snapped.” Afterward, one of the men, when asked if he is okay, replies, “I’ll be fine. I just need to forget everything that happened in the last five minutes.”

Before long, the members of recon Team New York are running for their lives. Extraction by air seems impossible, and they can’t safely cross the border into China. So they decide to fight their way out.

Eric Leland

The book is filled with evocative writing such as : “Dark clouds reached up over the mountains and strangled out the fading light”; “The jungle greedily absorbed the morning coolness;” and the men enjoying the “blue quiet” until “the light came screaming into the valley.”

Despite a couple of places where the writing seemed unintentionally humorous, I came away from reading Inhuman with the idea that there may have been many people who lost their souls while serving in Vietnam during the war.

This is a great work of military action combined with horror; Leland seems to be well-versed in writing about both.

–Bill McCloud

Never Forget by Andy Adkins

Never Forget: A Veteran’s Journey for Redemption & Forgiveness (282 pp. $9.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel about how discussions about a war that led to dividing a family may later be the very thing that brings them back together. The author, Andy Adkins, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy from 1973-77.

The book opens in 2001 and we find Tom Reilly, a single dad, in a troubled relationship with his son. Worse, he’s also estranged from his father; they have not spoken in decades. Then Riley gets a phone call from a retirement community, saying they need to speak to him about his father’s care now that he’s been diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s. The two had had a big falling out over the war in Vietnam.

Tom often chain-smokes and sometimes smokes in public places even though he knows he shouldn’t. He drives a ’67 GTO and his favorite band is Creedence Clearwater Revival, although he has to listen to them on an Oldies radio station. He’s not a reader and doesn’t know anything about computers or the Internet—and is not bothered by any of that.

He’s not sure if he even wants to reconnect with his father, but he drives to the facility. To his surprise, the two seem to hit it off pretty well and he decides to begin making regular visits. Father and son start communicating again, but avoid talking about their fallout.

Reilly begins taking his son, encouraging him to meet the grandfather he has never known. A man who has never spoken about his World War II infantry experiences. Not coincidently, Tom Reilly has never talked to his son about his infantry experiences in Vietnam. But the fact that both men served in a war seems to have a positive effect on the old man’s memory.

He says: “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning, but I can tell you what I ate on Christmas Day, 1944.”

Andy Adkins

The grandson decides to do school projects based on interviewing the two older men. Over time, Tom Reilly finds himself being drawn closer to both his father and his son. While the two men visit the boy learns about how different their personal wartime experiences were—and the many ways the two wars were different from each other.

Andy Adkins has created a “small world” novel in which Tom Reilly encounters several Vietnam War veterans, including a man who is a part-time preacher and a healthcare worker, as well as the son of one of his father’s friends, and the former husband of another healthcare professional.

In addition, the boy’s history teacher is a Vietnam vet, and a prominent attorney in the story lost his son in the war. At the very least, these different voices provide more perspectives on the war.  

Adkins pulls these parts together in a manner that is ultimately satisfying. This book should be shared by members of different generations who have an interest in learning about the Vietnam War and its continuing effects on those who were involved.

–Bill McCloud

Andy Adkins is offering his book free of charge to all veterans and their families via a downloadable PDF or an eBook on his website, https://www.azadkinsiii.com/book_never.html

The First Stone by Lynn Underwood

The First Stone (High Tide Publications, 293 pp. $12.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a debut novel by Vietnam War veteran Lynn Underwood, who served with the 1st Marine Division as a radio operator and forward observer. The book’s main theme is the meaning of the word “family” in all of its configurations and ramifications. It’s a story in which a tragic secret carried home from the war in Vietnam may not even be a family’s biggest one.

This is a multi-generational story of several families spreading their influence throughout New Mexico from the 1940s through the 1970s, although the story moves into Mexico, Greece, Vietnam, and Southern California, and ends in 2004.

It begins in the mid-1930s when a teenage Mexican girl, Conchita, crosses the border from Juarez with her young child hoping for a better life. Going to work cleaning people’s homes, she gets into a secret relationship with Simon Kouris, who is making a name for himself in the construction business. Her second son, Ray, Jr., is told he will receive a family inheritance if he completes a hitch with the Marine Corps and receives an honorable discharge.

Bartolome Valles is a serious competitor of Kouris’s company. Their rivalry leads to a night of violence. Out of that night comes three deaths and a dark secret.

Zachary Martin grows up working on a farm. In 1969, he’s a Marine corporal in Vietnam. He frequently takes part in search and destroy missions, and after the death of a buddy, receives a Bronze Star for valor. But along with that medal comes a secret he carries that haunts him. Ray Kouris witnesses much of it the incident. In 1973 Martin marries Jordon Valles, a college student and the daughter of Bartolome Valles. This threatens to expose secrets that have been held for years. Redemption and forgiveness play major parts in this story and are embodied in the character of Padre Juan.

This is a novel that Underwood tells by narrowing the story until the midway point, then widening it out after that. It requires the reader to pay attention to keep up with the plot lines, but that’s not a bad thing.

The author’s website is lynnunderwoodauthor.com

–Bill McCloud

If You Walk Long Enough by Nancy Hartney

Nancy Hartney’s new novel, If You Walk Long Enough (Wild Rose Press, 282 pp. $16.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), centers on returning war veterans and the loved ones they are returning to.

Main character Reid Holcombe is on his way home to Beaufort, South Carolina, after a couple of tours in the Vietnam War and the completion of his military service. He takes his time getting home. He winds up hanging out in airports because he’s in no hurry to return to his estranged wife and the family tobacco farm that his sister runs. Mainly, he’s just not sure what he wants to do.

When Reid finally calls his wife, she says, “Come home. I need to make sure you’re not a ghost.” She also says she’s concerned because she can no longer picture him or “smell his essence.”

But instead of returning to the house he shares with his wife, Reid decides to move into a nearby family farm and go to work helping his sister get the tobacco in. Still, he’s not happy about getting back to the fields; he’d joined the Army because he saw it as his ticket off the farm. His sister tells him she knows he didn’t write home because of all the stuff he was dealing with, but then tells him: “Hard stuff happened here, too.”

Hartney writes that even though Reid was far away from the war, he “ate fast, gobbling before the next mortar round hit.” He learns that Big Tobacco companies are trying to squeeze out small farms. At the same time, his neighbors—a Black family whose son also served during the war—are facing increasingly serious racial harassment. Reid begins thinking of South Carolina and Vietnam as “two places, different and the same.”

He continues to stay away from his wife, considering himself to be divorced in all but the strictly legal sense. For her part, Hartney writes, his wife sometimes “wished him dead in Vietnam—only to wither from guilt at the thought.” She also flirted with having a relationship while he was gone, while he has his own wartime secret.

Nancy Hartney

Feeling a sense of crushing guilt from what he did in Vietnam and the secret he still carries from it—while at the same time wrestling with new relationships with family and neighbors—Reid finds himself fighting Big Tobacco and the sickening racism he had not faced before going to Vietnam.

The book is divided into 62 short chapters with most of the story taking place in 1970. Hartney’s novel expresses beautifully the reality of veterans returning home from Vietnam to a world that had not stood still while they were gone. 

(Full disclosure: I am thanked on the Acknowledgments section of this book based on a few conversations I had with the author and my early reading of the manuscript.)

Hartney’s website is https://nancyhartney.com/

–Bill McCloud

Bloodline by Jess Lourey

Jess Lourey’s Bloodline (Thomas & Mercer, 347 pp. $15.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a mystery/thriller set in the small town of Lilydale, Minnesota, in the peak Vietnam War years of 1968 and 1969.

If you are looking for a good mystery, Bloodline may not be for you, as it’s a thriller than a mystery, with nearly all of the elements of a Gothic horror story. The only thing missing is a spooky castle. The suspense is there, though, along with aspects of a well-crafted psychological thriller.

Joan Harken, the protagonist of Bloodline, is a journalist in Minneapolis where she lives with her boyfriend, Deck Schmidt. After she is mugged on her way home, Joan (who is pregnant) agrees to move with Deck to his hometown of Lilydale. If Joan thought that only big cities like Minneapolis were dangerous, she is in for some big surprises in little Lilydale.

Right from the start, we know that something isn’t quite right with the town and a group of its most influential citizens. Lourey—a prolific author of mysteries, short stories, and nonfiction books—pays homage to both The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby as Joan is expected to comport herself like the loving and automaton wives in her new social circle. She soon begins to suffer PTSD symptoms as a result of the attack in Minneapolis.

Desperate to regain a modicum of independence, Joan gets a job with the local newspaper and decides to investigate the unexplained disappearance of young Paulie Aandeg, who went missing in Lilydale in 1944. This part of Lourey’s story is based on actual events that took place in Paynesville, Minnesota. 

Jess Lourey

As Joan tracks down leads, she becomes more and more paranoid about her husband, his family, and their friends keeping tabs on her. As the story unfolds, Joan believes she is about to discover something of importance, but is then derailed. Multiple times.

Lourey brings up the Vietnam War several times in the book. Early on, she mentions that one reason Deck wanted to take Joan back to Lilydale was because “his dad was head of the county draft board and had the power to save Deck from Vietnam.” Later, Joan reflects on her life in peaceful Lilydale while American troops are dying in Vietnam, thinking “how ashamed she is to tune out their pain, halfway across the world.”

I enjoyed Bloodline. I am a night owl and love immersing myself in a story that will keep me up and make me jump when I hear things late at night. The parts of the book I did not like are not worth mentioning, except to say that it appeared to me that Lourey overused her Thesaurus—a noble effort to keep the reader engaged in the story, but one that was not needed. 

For those who enjoy thrillers, Jess Lourey has crafted a story that will keep you on the edge of your seat and guessing until the last page. And God help you if a stray pecan falls on your roof late at night while you are buried in the depths of this book.

The author’s website is jessicalourey.com

— Charles L. Templeton

The reviewer is the author of Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam

Arlen’s Gun by Edgar Doleman

Prepare to lose some sleep over Edgar Doleman’s Arlen’s Gun: A Novel of Men at War (Authorhouse, 338 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper; $5.99). Of the many books written about the Vietnam War, few have been as entertaining and informative as Arlen’s Gun, the story of an AC-47 Spooky gunship crew. The majority of the novel takes place after the aircraft is forced down and the crew, with one of its miniguns in tow, finds its way to friendly forces. Along the way, they experience the Vietnam War novelty of fighting the enemy face-to-face, as opposed to looking down on them from the sky.

Doleman served two Vietnam War tours during his 20-year Army career as an infantry officer. As you start to read his book, you will experience a growing dislike for his antihero, Arlen, whose intent to steal a minigun and mount it in a limousine back in the States is not only fanciful, but indicative of an extremely sick mind. It isn’t until he experiences sorrow over the death of his companion that you begin to think there might be something worthwhile about this guy.

The most admirable of the book’s characters are the NCOs who manage to keep level heads amid the chaos around them and provide stability and much-needed advice to the young officers in their units. The novel does them justice.

I’ve done a lot of reading, but have seldom finished a novel of this length in three days. When you can hold the interest of an old geezer like me and get him wrapped up in a story that is fact-based and exciting, you have really accomplished something.

 –William J. Wright

Vietnam War AC-47 Spooky gunship, aka “Puff the Magic Dragon”

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Floater by Martin Robert Grossman

Floater (Koehler Books, 246 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is former Green Beret Martin Robert Grossman’s third action-thriller featuring Jerry Andrews, a retired police detective who was a Special Forces sergeant in Vietnam during the war.

The idea driving this novel is conveyed in the dedication, which is to the men and women of our armed forces who fight and sometimes die to protect our freedom, “even in the face of protest.” The dedication goes on to say that antiwar demonstrations by hippies and other war protesters “crushed the morale of the American soldier!” And that “the idle rich and famous played the most demoralizing role.” So, in this story, which takes place 20 years after the communist takeover of South Vietnam, justice against what Grossman calls “turncoats and traitors” is “dispensed by those betrayed–REAL JUSTICE!”

Several characters feel they were betrayed while at war and again after returning home to an ungrateful nation, and they have not been able to terms with that. They “quickly found that civilian life for a Vietnam vet was a nightmare,” Grossman writes. The men—Claymore, Meat Cleaver, Short Arm, Super Mex, Terminator, and others—are drawn into a plan to take out a “who’s who of war protestors.”

One of their main targets is the movie star Brandy Forester. She began as a child of privilege and wealth, becoming an acclaimed actress who always seemed to be in the shadow of her more famous father. She then began protesting the war and, in 1972 traveled to North Vietnam where she “sat for photographs with the enemy.” She’s described as having a “small chest,” in contrast to Army nurses with their “big racks.” The men don’t want to just kill her; they aim to send her straight to hell.

A rival group may be going after the same targets, including Sen. John Kershaw, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and served in Vietnam on a brown-water Navy patrol boat. Grossman writes that after intentionally wounding himself in order to get a Purple Heart, Kershaw then denigrated American troops when he testified before a congressional committee. Grossman says “he became hated by all soldiers” who were fighting for their country and their lives.

The leader of the group of enraged vets lives on a large ranch in Arizona and feels increasingly isolated from a world he thinks has rejected him. His goal is to put together a new A-Team, drawing men from VA clinics. He thinks of them as his “band of merry men.” Meanwhile, former detective Jerry Andrews volunteers to help law-enforcement with the cases.

I suggest reading this novel about murdering prominent people who protested the war as a fantasy. If that sounds like your thing, the story is well written and moves fast.

–Bill McCloud 

The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover by Jack Tucker

Jack Tucker says his novel, The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover (220 pp. $24.95, paper), which is set in California, Thailand, and Vietnam in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is based on people he knew, things he did, and stories he heard. It’s a wild story centered on film editing and the sexual adventures of a young man turned loose on the world.

Tucker himself is an accomplished Hollywood film editor  who joined the U.S. Air Force at 19 and served in the Vietnam War at Korat Royal Thai AFB and Tan Son Nhut Air Base analyzing bombing and gun camera footage taken by cameras on U.S. aircraft. In his spare time, Tucker and another airman made a short film called The Hunter.

Here’s a summary of the plot of The Ballad of the Three Dollar Lover: Frank Jones serves four years as a film editor in the Air Force (as his creator did), including months at bases in Thailand and South Vietnam. After coming home, he goes to work in southern California making porn movies. While he’s at it, he has sex—lots of sex. We get many descriptions of the physical attributes of the women he has sex with, as well as descriptions of many sex acts.

While in the Air Force he learns filmmaking, focusing on editing. He’s taught that “every cut should show something new,” and “you’re telling a story with pictures.” He volunteers to serve in the Vietnam War to get off of Vandenberg Air Force Base. When he meets a young woman who tells him she is in the Peace Corps, he replies: “Really? I’m with the War Corps.”

He describes Bangkok as a city constantly emitting a “sickening smell of rotten garbage,” he’s quickly taken by Thai women, deciding he will “try them all.” He becomes aware of a popular saying, “You know anyone can be a great lover here for three dollars,” which inspired the book’s title. He is not ashamed to drive the price below that on occasion.

Once at his duty station at Tan Son Nhut he starts each day with a shot of Jim Beam in his coffee. His job is to review, and occasionally make prints of, film footage from bombing runs and other flights. The book includes details about film editing.

Jack Tucker

As for Jones’ thoughts about the Vietnam War, Tucker writes: “I didn’t want to be here. I didn’t hate this place, but I hated our being here. History and politics had conspired to place us at the wrong place, at the wrong time and on the wrong side.”

Jones’ adventures are told in a crude manner, as if Tucker were sharing them with his buddies at a bar after a few beers. I imagine this was intentional.

The book does include insights into what it was like to serve in a support unit during the Vietnam War. It has value as presenting one slice of the U.S. Air Force’s role in the Vietnam War.

–Bill McCloud

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos by C.L. Hoang

In the Shadow of Green Bamboos (Willow Stream Publishing, 196 pp. $10.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), by C.L. Hoang is a delightful collection of a half dozen short stories, all of which contain brief but penetrating glimpses into the lives of a cross section of people, Vietnamese and American, who were affected in significant ways by the American war in Vietnam. Hoang was born in Vietnam and came to the United States in the 1970s. This is his third book; all three deal with the country of Vietnam and the wars that took place there.

The opening story, “In a Land Called Honah-Lee,” involves a chance meeting at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a stuffed toy dragon and a connection made between children in both countries. But then there is fatal anti-aircraft fire and the story becomes one of survivor’s guilt.

By the time I was half-way through the next story, “Flowers in the Sky,” I saw that Hoang’s method of storytelling makes his words come alive, consistently—almost like watching a movie. All of my senses were engaged. This story takes place in Saigon in late 1972 and features a six-year-old boy, a red lantern, a harvest moon, and an exciting parade.

It’s a time when the Americans are withdrawing, the boy’s father is away from home fighting, and his mother’s hair is noticeably turning grey. This is a good example of Hoang’s writing at its best and shows off his ability to tell stories in a very moving manner.

In the title story, a Vietnamese woman living in Washington, D.C., thinks back over almost fifty years of marriage to the American she met in Saigon. Her memories stir up secrets, including one about a “mysterious crying woman.”

The title of the fourth story, “Of Crickets and Dragons,” should be enough to entice you into wanting to read this tale of two young boys killing time in 1968 Saigon.

“When Swallows Return” begins with pleasant memories of college life in the early sixties, including with love poems written on fancy stationery. The war then brings a time of separation that becomes permanent when a plane is shot down. But then, almost fifty years later, a mysterious phone call changes everything.

As I prepared to begin to read the final story, “A Cup of Love,” I wished there were a dozen more in this book. Then this one begins with an older Vietnamese woman saying to her young granddaughter, “Do you want to hear a story?” And the voice in my mind drowned out the voice of the young girl as I may even have said out loud, “Yes, Mr. Hoang, another story, please.”

But what I really want is another book full of stories by C.L. Hoang.

The author’s website is mulberryfieldsforever.com

–Bill McCloud