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

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle by Jack Whitehouse

The subtitle of Jack Whitehouse’s From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle (McFarland, 267 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), Memoir of a Naval Officer in the Cold War, is a reminder to those of us who served in-country during the Vietnam War that much of the rest of the world continued to be embroiled in the Cold War. 

Whitehouse has created a nicely crafted book. It begins with his high school years and includes how he choose a naval career. With a family history of military service, it was an easy decision.

As his memoir unfolds, there seemed to be almost an On The Road urgency to it as the pace of the writing picked up markedly as Whitehouse moved into the details of his Navy tour of duty. To do so required good notes and a yeoman’s effort at research. Whitehouse gives credit to his wife Elaine for reviewing and correcting the manuscript “numerous times.”

Beginning in 1968, Whitehouse served on the USS Buck, a World War II era destroyer, for two tours on Yankee Station in South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. In 1971 he became the commanding officer of a gun boat, the USS Chehalis, which operated out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. Later he became the first U.S. Navy exchange officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Whitehouse tells many stories involving all of his duty stations, on the water and behind a desk. It seems as though there was always something going on worth writing about. Of particular interest was his time with the Royal Norwegian Navy; his stories of cruises and patrols above the Arctic Circle are well told and quite interesting.

At the end of the book, as he resigns from the Navy, Whitehouse moves on to a second career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA.

The book includes an Appendix titled,  “Soviet Socialism and its Influences Today.” It alone is worth the price of the book.

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle is a good read. I highly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

Vector to Destiny by George W. Kohn

Vector to Destiny: Journey of a Vietnam F-4 Fighter Pilot (Koehler Books, 274 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $18.49, Kindle) fits comfortably inside the age-old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. In this war memoir, George W. Kohn writes about his rise from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse to flying USAF F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War in 1969. To his credit, Kohn climbed the ladder of his dreams on his own God-given initiative.

While still a child as a Wisconsin farmer’s only son, Kohn rose well before school hours to perform demanding chores. On several mornings while milking cows, he heard a low-flying B-58 Hustler bomber’s “earth-vibrating, thunderous boom that drowned out all the other sounds,” he says. The noise also heralded a message: the farm boy’s destiny would be to fly an airplane like that one.

In telling his story, Kohn—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—sets out in great detail the many difficult tasks required to overcome the conventions of farm life and the hardship of an inferior education. He became a self-made man in order to find a path through his high school’s pecking order and through University of Wisconsin classes beyond his learning skills, as well as the trials of ROTC and summer camp, pilot training, survival school, and F-4 familiarization. It all culminated in his assignment to fly with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Danang in November 1969.

Along the way, he records his thoughts about the Vietnam War era, lauding the good and castigating the bad within America’s political structure and among his peers. His war stories do not begin until well into Part Five of the book.

In 201 missions as an F-4 back-seater, he bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, supply depots in Cambodia, and the city of Vinh when the Nixon Administration resumed attacks on North Vietnam in 1970. In most cases, his combat action centers on problem-solving in which logic dominated emotion. He got pissed off, but practiced restraint by repeatedly reminding himself how lucky he was to be where he was.

Vector to Destiny will appeal to readers with limited knowledge of Air Force activities, in other words, those who would benefit from Kohn writing about military tasks step by step—everything from classroom demands to test flying an F-4 at Mach two. Old timers might view those details as overkill.

To me, Kohn’s boyhood farm activities are as interesting as his combat stories, maybe more so. They definitely fulfill the book’s rags-to-riches theme. Of course, I reacted to the country scenes as a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh and who once believed that vegetables grew in plastic crates at Kroger.

Kohn’s website is hgwkohnauthor.com

—Henry Zeybel

Mekong Medicine by Richard W. Carlson

In Mekong Medicine: A U.S. Doctor’s Year Treating Vietnam’s Forgotten Victims (McFarland, 222 pp. $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), Richard Carlson offers an extremely sobering account of his efforts to provide the best possible medical care under Spartan conditions at a civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war.

In 1966, two years after completing medical school at the University of Southern California, Carlson was drafted into the Army. After basic training at Fort Sam Houston, he received orders for Vietnam. Posted in Bac Lieu Province, sixty miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta, he spent a year at the provincial hospital where he led the American team of military and civilian personnel in the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program.

The contrast between American hospitals and a rural Vietnamese facility was shocking. Set in one of the world’s poorest countries, and one at war for years in a relentlessly hot and humid climate, the hospital resembled a farm in many ways, with animals wandering across the grounds–and often into the buildings.

Supplies of medications, equipment, clean water, and electricity—the hallmark of any modern hospital—were inconsistent at best. This was especially problematic as the staff dealt with endless numbers of patients that increased as the war dragged on. Despite the shortages, and because he had to view medical problems as objectively as possible, Carlson’s voice remains that of a doctor throughout his book, no matter how dire the condition of his patients.

He and his team brought heartfelt compassion to their work in caring for patients struggling with illnesses or grievously wounded. Their compassion, though, was too often tempered by the grim knowledge that there was only so much they could do. Some patients succumbed to their injuries or illnesses, while others deemed themselves well enough to leave on their own. Many children died, and their grieving parents simply took their bodies away and disappeared into their private darkness in ways completely unheard of in an American hospital.

Dr. Carlson

Throughout the book Carlson repeatedly praises the dedication of his co-workers, Vietnamese and American, as they tried to accomplish the most while working with so little. He gives the highest praise of all to the hospital’s director, Dr. Vinh.

Initially appearing reserved, even solemn, Vinh displayed extraordinary depth of feeling and candor when he mused about his country’s future, as well as dismay when he witnessed the results of the Viet Cong’s treatment of the people they claimed to love.

Dr. Vinh also provided insights that were slow to come to many American newcomers, particularly why change occurred so slowly in Vietnam. After centuries of foreign occupation and countless years of war, the country’s capacity to improve itself, especially in the rural interior, was strained to breaking point.

Despite the bleak conditions in which he was compelled to work, Richard Carlson finished his tour—and he ends his memoir—with a note of hard-earned optimism.

“Despite the horror,” he writes, “confusion, and the war’s conclusion, my odyssey reaffirms individuals will aid those in need despite overwhelming odds. And that is a reason for hope.”

–Mike McLaughlin

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

There It Is by Jim Talone

The title of Jim Talone’s memoir, There It Is: A Helicopter Ride and a Purple Heart  (337 pp. $25, hardcover; $20, paper; $10, Kindle)  a flat-voiced phrase that rings scary-true to virtually every Vietnam War veteran, refilling the memory with images, places, people, and things from long ago.

This is an excellent book by a talented wordsmith, a former high school English teacher. In the book Talone covers his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a young Marine lieutenant leading B Company of the 1st of the 9th Marines in the 3rd  Marine Division in I Corps.

The story moves along rapidly with short, frugal, and crisp sentences telling a compelling narrative of “his men, his Marines,” and their lives in combat. Talone’s unit, known as the “Walking Dead,” earned that nickname after taking heavy battlefield losses early on in the Vietnam War.

Each of the months Talone served in Vietnam is a chapter in the book and each is filled with vignettes—some mere paragraphs long, others several pages in length. This is a pleasantly different format than most Vietnam War memoirs. The rather short Glossary could have been broader, but the main items of interest are covered.

The book contains a four-page “Reflections” sections in which Talone sets out his thoughts about his part in the war. There’s also a very powerful three-age soliloquy, “Khe Sanh Remembered.” And the poetic Preface alone is worth the price of admission.

This books is a great read by a talented author I’d love to see more from. There it is.

–Tom Werzyn

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunner and The Grunt by Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank

In their joint memoir, Massachusetts natives Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank give a compelling portrait of America’s role in the Vietnam War in 1965. The Gunner and The Grunt: Two Boston Boys in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division Airmobile (King Printing Company, 216 pp., paperback) traces the paths Kelley and Burbank took starting with growing up in neighborhoods a dozen miles apart and illustrates their hopes and expectations upon joining the U.S. Army.

Enlisting in 1964, Kelley chose Army aviation; Burbank aspired to be a paratrooper. The two boys from Boston met in Vietnam shortly after their arrival at the 1st Air Cav base at An Khe in the Central Highlands. 

Inspired by a friend who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Burbank decided, to the great distress of his parents, to leave high school and pursue his dream. For his part, Kelley finished high school, then put in for a posting in Germany where he hoped to work as an aviation mechanic and become a helicopter crew chief, as well as to enjoy the company of beautiful women and the limitless range of German beers.

To his dismay, Kelley received orders to join C Troop C the 1st Squadron in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Upon learning he was going to Vietnam, Kelley was filled with dread. His sense of impending doom became a certainty that he was a dead man and powerless to prevent it. By contrast, Burbank was ecstatic knowing he would soon be in combat. 

Their training began during the advisory years of America’s commitment to Vietnam. In 1964, the number of U.S. troops in the country was a tiny fraction of the more than 550,000 who would be there four years later. By the end of 1965, the build-up was well underway. On arrival, Burbank and Kelley found themselves in the shadow of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that was fought by 1st Cav troops only days before. Losses on both sides were shockingly high, and the message was sobering—an American victory in Vietnam would neither be easy nor swift.

Michael L. Kelley

The authors’ accounts of their daily lives during their tours are vivid. For Burbank, minutes drifted into months as he and his friends fought the elements as much as the enemy. Heat and humidity, insects and leeches, and snakes of every kind were constant companions. Every day resembled the one before. The only way he knew it was Sunday was when he was told to take his weekly malaria pill. The war turned into a blur of movement and action, fear and endurance.

When Michael Kelley began the book decades later and invited his friend to participate, Peter Burbank was reluctant. Kelley, however, was insistent, saying, “History untold is history unremembered.”

Burbank agreed, and together they have created a joint narrative of their Vietnam War tours that is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

No Strings Attached by Jimmy Nowoc

Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.

Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.

In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.

Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.

He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.

This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.

–Tom Werzyn