In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

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The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Hotel Constellation by David L. Haase

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David L. Haase is a former journalist who got his start in the business in Vietnam covering the war. After getting tossed out of Vietnam, he went to Laos and spent many months there struggling to learn how to write about war and how to deal with the often extreme discomfort that westerners encounter in hot, humid Southeast Asia.

Much space is devoted in his memoir, Hotel Constellation: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos (C. Lawrence, 280 pp. $16.99, paper; Kindle, $6.99), exploring the serious problems h encountered in Laos. That includes crotch rot, hemorrhoids, and other afflictions brought on by bad water and bad food.

Haase was very young when he arrived in Southeast Asia, twenty. His 4-F draft status prevented him from having the opportunity that about 2.8 million other young Americans had serving in South Vietnam in an American military uniform.

This memoir is engaging and well-written and more honest than Haase had to be about how callow and inexperienced he was with just about everything. He uses a journal he kept at the time and the long letters home he wrote to loved ones to summon up the small details of his life in Laos that inform his memoir and make it accessible and intimate.

I found it fascinating to be with him through his diary entries as he witnessed the destruction of the small, landlocked country of Laos as the CIA used it as the place to stage its so-called “secret” war.

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As the book’s blurb says, we watch a “young innocent abroad growing older and cynical.”

Haase evokes the special atmosphere of the Hotel Constellation, the place everyone in Laos eventually stumbled through looking for whatever it was that brought them far away from home to this tiny country that was at the center of the biggest war going.

The author’s website davidlhaase.com

—David Willson

Racing Back to Vietnam by John Pendergrass

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If you want to know about flying in F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and competing in triathlons years later, you must read John Pendergrass’s Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace (Hatherleigh, 256 pp. $22, hardcover; $7.99, Kindle).

In the book, former U.S.A.F. flight surgeon John Pendergrass writes about his Vietnam War tour of duty with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in 1971-72. Much of what he relates has been well reported. However, when a writer presents the drama of war from a highly individualized perspective as Pendergrass does, that type of storytelling does not grow old.

Pendergrass’s prose is easy to read. He nicely turns many a phrase, including “checking out a slow learner in a fast mover.” Honesty is his forte. When he does something beyond the ordinary, Pendergrass explains why he did it, especially if it benefits him. He is free of pretense and rich in enthusiasm.

Like most doctors with whom he served, John Pendergrass did not want to go to Vietnam, but after he got there, he voluntarily flew fifty-four missions over Laos, Cambodia, and both South and North Vietnam in the back seat of the F-4 Phantom. He recalls the post-mission feeling of being “more alive than when I took off, anxious to go again.” At the same time, the fear he experienced is palpable.

His squadron’s basic assignment was to interdict trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He describes virtually every step of preparing for and executing flights that dropped lots of bombs.

He also devotes chapters to life as a prisoner of war and to complications involved with being shot down and rescued, situations that he luckily avoided. On his final mission at the battle for An Loc, Pendergrass  witnessed events that altered his perspective of the war.

He includes observations about air power that I had not read before, but with which I concur. His conclusions ended his combat life on a down note.

Pendergrass’s account of his war makes up only half of this memoir. In 2016 he returned to Da Nang at the age of seventy and participated in an Ironman Triathlon. He did it partially to satisfy “a mixture of nostalgia and reflection,” Pendergrass, an eye surgeon in Mississippi, says.

The triathlon took only one morning. He then drove to Laos with a guide to exolore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He worked his way to Hanoi and shuffled through Uncle Ho’s tomb. Next, he visited battlefields in the South and ended up in Saigon.

Having experienced my share of flying in the Vietnam War, I found Pendergrass’ peacetime travel to be the most enlightening part of the book. I learned a lot I would not have on my own. Pendergrass talked to everyone who gave him time. As a result, he offers insights about today’s Vietnamese and their lifestyles. Farmers work unobstructed, except for uncovering unexploded ordnance. The tourist trade flourishes and most people have forgotten the American War.

Pendergrass speaks of the “absurdity of war,” and in the same breath he recalls combat as “the great adventure of [his] life.” This paradox reminds me of returning to the scene of an old crime, intrigued by questions that should have been resolved half a lifetime earlier. Seeking justification for what one did in war is unnecessary. No guilt should be associated with adrenaline rushes related to acts a person performed practically in childhood.

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Recently I reviewed  another flight surgeon’s account of the war, Sharkbait by Guy Clark. He flew eighty-six combat strike missions in back seats of Phantoms.

His six-hundred-plus-page memoir offers readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about Vietnam War Phantom and Air Force operations.

Both Clark and Pendergrass extol the skill and courage of pilots with whom they faced death.

—Henry Zeybel

 

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel