Yesterday’s Soldier by Tom Keating

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After graduating from Stonehill College’s Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but denied further advancement to ordination as a Catholic priest, Tom Keating surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered for the draft in 1968. Army Basic Training and Infantry AIT, along with his superior skill with weapons, overpowered Keating’s semi-monastic religious life style. And he began to concentrate on “how to survive and kill in battle,” Keating writes in his memoir, Yesterday’s Soldier (153 pp., $16.99, paper), and he moved on to Officer Candidate School.

As his infantry training continued, Keating re-evaluated this character transformation, and once again followed his religious training. Not wanting to kill people or order others to do so, he sought conscientious objector status.

In the first half of Yesterday’s Soldier Tom Keating does an excellent job explaining the dynamics of attaining conscientious objector status as an active-duty soldier during the Vietnam War. His recollections provided me with new knowledge and insights about a punishing, tedious, and sinister process. How sinister? Keating’s best friend became an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent assigned to evaluate the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

Although a Defense Department policy limited the number of conscientious objectors serving in the armed forces, Keating won his case: He would not be assigned a combat role or issued a weapon for the rest of his tour in the Army.

Nevertheless, he owed the military one more year of active-duty service. Without a job specialty, he was sent to Vietnam. On his arrival, Keating lucked out when a college friend classified him as an administrator and assigned him to a job with the 1st Logistical Command at Long Binh.

Keating’s writing style flows smoothly. I enjoyed reading his stories about the Vietnam War. But his book offers little new information about life behind the lines.

There are descriptions of surviving close calls during rocket, mortar, and sapper attacks on Long Binh. He tells of giving up his “seminarian virginity” in a Saigon bathhouse. Issued a Jeep, he chauffeured officers and performed other minor chores. He befriended a housemaid who was Catholic. R&R in Australia was a highlight of his tour. And then he came home.

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Tom Keating

Tom Keating found a different world than the one he had left two years earlier, especially within the Catholic Church. As part of a continuing evolution of character, his limited exposure to death had magnified his perception of the past. He determined he “could never return to that world, not after Vietnam. That world had collapsed.”

So he began a new life, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching high school for eight years before starting a long career in corporate communications.

The author’s website is tomkeatingwriter.com

—Henry Zeybel

Weapons of War by Robert E. Wright

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Weapons of War: A Compilation of Letters Recounting a Soldier’s Story of Service, Love, and Faith (AuthorHouse, 212 pp. $23.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) tells a love story far greater than a war story. In it, Robert E. Wright gives us letters he sent to Barbara Hampton during his two years in the U.S. Army, which included a 1969-70 tour in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles.

The book works as a love story because Wright’s weapons of war were his M-16 to fight the NVA and Viet Cong; his pen to fight the loneliness and separation he felt; and his faith in God to fight fear and doubt. The power of the latter two exceeded that of the first. His letters concentrated on convincing Hampton that she was his one-and-only love forever.

As a grunt, Wright repeatedly walked point on lengthy search-and-destroy missions; turned a VC defector into a Kit Carson Scout; and cleared remote landing zones. His awards included the Bronze Star, two Air Medals, and the Army Commendation Medal.

I enjoyed reading his accounts of military life, but wanted more. That’s because Wright’s desire not to upset his high school sweetheart and their families with his combat experiences made him temper what he wrote. I respected his deep love for Hampton, which he pledged for eternity in every letter, but the memoir would have greater appeal for military history fans if, between letters, he had injected detailed notes about the actions that he otherwise quickly passes over.

The Army drafted Wright while he was still a teenager, and he quietly answered the call. He says military duty made him into “a mature man who is not afraid to make decisions and take on responsibility.” His personal motto of “Stay Focused on the Future” carried him through the war.

I admired Robert Wright’s integrity, particularly denying himself R&R to avoid temptations of the flesh. Best of all, his commanders appeared to respect his certitude about life by assigning him leadership roles above his rank.

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Robert E. Wright

Barbara Hampton and Robert Wright married in 1972 and raised two daughters, who like their mother graduated from Ball State University. Barbara died in 2002 at the age of fifty-two. Robert worked twenty-six years for the Indiana Bell Telephone, followed by twenty-one years of full-time ministry with the Eastern Star Church in Indianapolis.

His memoir teaches excellent lessons in self-restraint and perseverance. It includes photographs with many of the letters.

Wright’s website is weaponsofwar-indy.com/home

—Henry Zeybel

Crooked Bamboo by Nguyen Thai

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Thank God for young historians who work with aged diplomats on their memoirs dealing with important world events. A short while ago, I read Japanese ambassador Saburo Kurusu’s The Desperate Diplomat, an account of his dealings with Americans in Washington during the weeks immediately prior to World War II. His book might never have been available for Western eyes without help from Masako R. Okura, a professor who finished editing it after a much-older historian died on the job.

Which brings us to Crooked Bamboo: A Memoir from Inside the Diem Regime (Texas Tech University Press, 272 pp., $29.95) written by ninety-year-old Nguyen Thai and edited by Texas Tech University history professor Justin Simundson. Thai was something of a favorite adopted son of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and was privy to a deep-inside look at his government. The book confirms that Diem’s regime overflowed with problems and should have collapsed after the first coup against it in 1960, rather than survive to 1963.

Simundson accepted the task of studying hundreds of pages of free-flowing thoughts and observations Thai made over many decades. As the Vietnam War historian Larry Berman notes in the book’s forward, Simundson’s prodigious editorial skills give shape to insights on crucial points in history. He is exceptionally helpful in introducing personalities and explaining their roles. 

Thai’s recollections fill gaps in the history of Diem’s misdirected leadership, and they also recreate Thai’s personal life. Simundson closely consulted with Thai while editing his notes and frequently relied on facts from Thai’s Is South Vietnam Viable?, a 1962 anti-Diem book published in a limited edition in the Philippines and nearly inaccessible today. Crooked Bamboo contains only two pages of end notes.

By 1959, corruption and authoritarianism in Diem’s government was overwhelmingly evident. The gross mismanagement had started within two years of his election in 1955. As Vietnam Press’s Director General, Thai’s close relationship with Diem compelled him to compromise the truth behind political maneuvers. 

Three chapters constitute the heart of the memoir. “The Convincing Test—Elections of 1959” shows how a rigged count kept Diem and his cronies in office. “The Aborted 1960 Coup D’etat” analyzes the political implications of in-fighting between Diem and high-ranking military officers that brought only minor changes to the government’s structure. Diem learned nothing from the unsuccessful coup, Thai says.

“Diem’s Overthrow” and assassination caused the most-bitter disappointment in Thai’s life. Thereafter, it was every man of rank for himself.

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Justin Simundson & Nguyen Thai

The book leaves many questions unanswered. For example: Who—Vietnam or America—was responsible for the war’s outcome? How important was democracy to the Vietnamese? Who should have replaced Diem?

Thai’s inconsistencies reveal the difficulty of resolving the Vietnam War dilemma even today. Simundson intensely examines these issues and others.

Crooked Bamboo is a great source for young people to begin studying South Vietnam’s early tragic political unrest—and for old timers to recall a once-familiar past.   

—Henry Zeybel

363 Days in Vietnam by Michael Stuart Baskin

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Michael Stuart Baskin, who was drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War, classifies himself as among the large majority of troops who served in country who weren’t “grunts” but “have ALL kinds of stories to tell, even if they’re not ‘war’ stories, per se.”

Boredom and solitude filled the first 130 days of Baskin’s time with the Americal Division, as he recreates it in 363 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Howitzers, Hook-Ups & Screw-Ups from My Tour of Duty, 1968 to 1969 (Primedia eLaunch, 215 pp. $13.75, paper; $3.98, Kindle)

Wandering around LZs Cherry Hill and Fat City near Chu Lai, he had no official job and made no friends. He occasionally served as a “man Friday” to a supply sergeant, frequently stood guard duty, and often endured KP, which he calls “cruel and unusual punishment.”

On Day 130, he volunteered for, and began a job in, the Fire Direction Center (cinched by his high AFQT math score). Life among howitzer personnel pleased him, and he writes about nearly everything he learned within that environment. His group rotated among LZs: Fat City, Dottie, back to Cherry Hill, and Buff.

On Day 303, Baskin survived a large-scale Viet Cong attack on LZ Buff that killed eight Americans and wounded twenty. Afterward, Baskin and two other men buried 27 Viet Cong in a mass grave.

A week of R&R in Singapore, which he describes at length, provided Baskin’s other unforgettable main event in Asia.

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Michael Stuart Baskin

In a quiet manner, he portrays himself as a victim made to serve in the war. He felt as if “the powers that be were simply keeping us busy.”

He notes that countless men similar to him are examples of how the United States government needlessly stole a year from too many young men’s lives. He learned a moral:  Don’t send American troops to fight for a country unless that country is fully committed to helping itself.

I say, Amen to that.

Photographs shot by Baskin support every part of his story.

—Henry Zeybel

Letters in a Helmet by Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno

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Ron Sorter and Bob Tierno became friends in the late 1960s as members of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (Deke) fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. They explain how friendship evolved into a “bond that remains intact for ever, despite the lapses in communication or the frequency of visits,” as Tierno puts it in Letters in a Helmet: A Story of Fraternity and Brotherhood (455 pp. $19.95, paper: $2.99, Kindle).

In the book Sorter and Tierno alternate chapters that chronologically tell their individual life stories. The most dynamic parts of the book recreate Sorter’s Vietnam War duties as a platoon leader and company commander with the Americal Division in 1970.

A tense realism permeates Sorter’s combat narrative. Amid the uncertainties of Vietnamization, he took undiminished responsibility for his men and their fourteen-day search-and-destroy missions. He anguished over every injury they sustained.

After five months in the bush, Sorter suffered his first wound and spent ten days in a hospital. “Thirty-two stitches was all it took,” he says. Four months later, he stepped on booby-trapped 81-mm mortar round. Shrapnel riddled his entire body. Eventually, doctors amputated his right leg.

Sorter’s account of his physical and psychological recovery is spellbinding. He never spells out the exact list of his injuries, but he does mention a continual shedding of shrapnel from many parts of his body throughout his life. Stoicism and a sense of humor carried him through the roughest times. Bob Tierno and other Dekes provided moral support.

In 2018, Tierno temporarily defeated death by having his cancerous prostate removed, statistically giving him ten more years of life. A year later he published The Prostate Chronicles—A Medical Memoir: Detours and Decisions following my Prostate Cancer Diagnosis, an irreverent examination of the condition.

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Beyond the two major episodes, the autobiographies of Sorter and Tierno largely describe their business lives and marriages. Sorter enjoyed a long career helping other wounded veterans with prosthetics in VA facilities across the United States. Tierno served many years with the Bureau of Prisons in Colorado, North Carolina, and California, and later bought and ran a Bed and Breakfast in California.

The two men have kept in contact for fifty years, sharing ups and downs.

Sorter and Tierno close the book with seventeen interviews of University of Oklahoma Dekes whose memories validate the benefits of finding brotherhood in fraternity. Their story clearly illustrates how friendship can significantly alleviate life’s harshest situations.

—Henry Zeybel

Up-Close & Personal By Robert C. Bogison

71fyhgjx9llUp-Close & Personal: In-Country, Chieu Hoi, Vietnam 1969-1970 (415 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a gritty memoir, a very personal account of what the Vietnam War was like for Robert C. Bogison.

To me, the purpose of the book is to document the unique role of the 720th Military Police Battalion, or the “Bushwackers” as they were known in Vietnam. Bogison enlisted in the Army in 1968, went to MP school, and was assigned to the Bushwackers in Vietnam in July 1969. This unit performed many of the ambush and reconnaissance duties of infantry troops and their contributions have never been recognized. His company, Bogison says, was the only combat infantry company in the history of the U.S. Military Police Corps.

Bogison, a retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective and life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is an excellent storyteller. I found his descriptions of firefights and friendly fire incidents very vivid and real. He especially shows how difficult living conditions were in the wet, muddy, insect-infected Mekong Delta.

One memorable incidence Bogison describes in great detail began when his squad retrieved the remains of GIs killed on the Mekong River after a helicopter crash. The MPs ignored orders and stayed on their boat as they figured out how to fish the bodies from the river. When they finally achieved their objective, Bogison and company were threatened with courts martial for disobeying orders and were told they were going to the stockade for 99+1 years. This ended up never happening.

Aside from stories about the horrors, pain, and discomfort experienced in Vietnam, Bogison recounts several humorous incidents. For example: He describes a rash he had on his arms not caused by jungle rot; it came from putting his ammo bandoleers on backwards. He also tells of losing a bet dealing with whether or not his unit came upon pink elephants. They did—the pachyderms had rolled around in red clay.

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Robert Bogison

Then there was the time his squad was attacked by stone-throwing apes throwing who were unhappy because the men disturbed their sleep. They also developed a method to ride surfboards between waves created by their river boats’ wakes.

What is remarkable to me is how fifty-plus years later Bagison could write such a detailed and moving account of his tour in the Vietnam War.

I recommend it to anyone who wants an accurate account of what it was like to serve in an MP unit in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

–Mark S. Miller

Appalachian Free Spirit by Duke Talbott

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Irwin D. “Duke” Talbott says that his 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War amounted to a prolonged nightmare. He encountered increasingly inhumane and intolerable situations that separated him from normal behavior. Those traumatic experiences included seeing naked prisoners locked in bamboo cages cowering in the fetal position; consoling a witness to the murder of women and children at My Lai; and surviving sustained bombardments of LZ Bronco.

Talbott’s Vietnam War experiences are the centerpiece of his memoir, Appalachian Free Spirit: A Recovery Journey (Balboa Press, 266 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle), which also includes his account of salvaging his life from PTSD and addictions. Talbott also includes letters he wrote to his parents from Vietnam and earlier from Somalia where he was a Peace Corps volunteer.

His stories about Somalia are entertaining and meaningful. Heading a school building project provided profound self-satisfaction. On the other hand, his exposure to war’s violence began during his Peace Corps days in Africa when he went to Yemen and found himself in the midst of several gun battles during a period of civil unrest.

Talbott sandwiches his Vietnam War stories between detailed accounts of his West Virginia upbringing and his college-oriented, post-war life. Describing his first “big gulp” of whisky in his mid-teens, he says: “My whole being glowed in the aftermath.” He also fondly recalls memories of Darvon. It was in Vietnam, he says, that he “first learned to mix alcohol, grass, and pills for maximum effect.”

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Duke Talbott

The Twelve Step Program was Talbott’s compass to finding emotional freedom, and he details every step he took. He explains that his escape from self-destruction followed a path available to everyone. He bases his message on logic and inspiration from God.

Our society overflows with people willing and capable of helping addicts, he says, and finding them is infinitely rewarding. He clearly convinced me that one’s strongest enemy in a battle for emotional independence is one’s own ego.

After earning a Ph.D. in history from West Virginia University, Duke Talbott taught at several colleges, including his alma mater, Marshall University in Huntingon, West Virginia, and West Virginia Weslyan. He is a Professor Emeritus of History at Glenville State College in West Virginia. His expertise focuses on Africa. From 2009-13 he served as the mayor of Elkins—West Virginia, of course.

—Henry Zeybel