Chasing Charlie by Richard Fleming

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War veterans are people who wrote a blank check payable to their nation for any amount, up to and including their lives. In this regard, Richard Fleming says that those who close with the enemy rank above support troops. He admits that men behind the lines sometimes endured bomb, mortar, and rocket attacks, but that exposure did not equate to facing an enemy.

Fleming makes his case in a memoir, Chasing Charlie: A Force Recon Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 242 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, e book). Operating primarily from Da Nang and An Hoa during his post-Tet 1968-69 tour in the Vietnam War, Fleming took part in twenty-seven patrols, the most among his 1st Force Reconnaissance company.

Some men can tell you things you have heard before and make them sound brand new. Richard Fleming is one of them. His 20/10 vision exposes small details in the big picture. He sees inside men and situations. He portrays heroes and screw-ups.

Assigned to intelligence gathering missions, eight-man Force Recon teams helicoptered into areas controlled by the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Their ultimate goal was to kidnap an NVA soldier worthy of interrogation, a feat they seldom accomplished.

Far too often, the team encountered superior-sized enemy forces. When they did, in an instant the hunter became the hunted. The unit did what they were trained to do: briefly engage, then run to the nearest landing zone for extraction or die. Fleming explains how the NVA slowly adjusted its counter-tactics to intercept recon teams.

Force Recon patrols lasted for indefinite periods, but usually stayed out for at least a week. In one instance, prolonged bad weather prevented helicopters from picking up Fleming’s team and the stranded men starved to exhaustion, barely able to walk.

Fleming’s most dynamic combat encounter occurred when his team joined with a contingent of grunt Marines and went head to head with NVA forces in a long and bloody battle that nobody won.

For Force Recon, fighting did not stop when team members returned to base. At that point, they encountered desk-bound leaders who, Fleming says, did not appreciate the recon units’ work in the field. The pettiness of officers and senior NCOs became tiresome and difficult to endure—even reading about it fifty years after the fact.

Fleming is particularly cogent in recalling his relationships with officers in the rear. He writes that he became a target for abuse because, while on guard duty, he accidentally embarrassed a drunken captain. Most of the staff officers sided with the captain and harassed Fleming with endless extra duties.

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A 1st Force Recon Marine unit in Vietnam

The book’s only flaw is that it contains too many typographical errors such as missing words, repeated words or phrases, and misspellings. I blame the publisher for this problem because it appears that editing changes were entered improperly. Otherwise, I enjoyed reading Chasing Charlie and learning about the idiosyncrasies of Force Recon operations from the perspective of an enlisted man.

“My knowledge of the war was limited to what I could see a few hundred feet in front of me,” Fleming says.

Within that range, he saw more than enough.

—Henry Zeybel

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Happiness is a Warm Gun by Cheryl Breo

Cheryl Breo’s memoir, Happiness is a Warm Gun: A Vietnam Story (Tellwell Talent, 68 pp., $20.99, hardcover; $10.99, paper; $3.99 Kindle), starts with a sentence about her husband that is typical of much of this small book: “He would grab me by the neck with one hand wrapped around my throat and lift me straight off the ground, my feet dangling as he pushed me up against a wall, banging the back of my head against it until it nearly cracked.”

The book, Breo tells us, is “a personal account of my life. It bears no endorsement or authorization from the Beatles or Apple Corps.” The spine of this heavily illustrated little book is made up of quotes and references to the Beatles and their songs. The book focuses on the aftermath of Cheryl’s husband Ed’s  tours of duty in the Vietnam War,  something that brought “that war home to our front door.”

The Vietnam War “and all its hell,” Breo writes, “took the man I married and made him its victim, and in turn, he made me his victim.”  In the Breo household the refrigerator was almost empty, the bills were all past due, and eventually the couple lost their house and their pets and were forced to live in sketchy neighborhoods.

“Even my Liverpool lads reminded me that ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’” Breo writes. And then things got worse. Her daughter had a breakdown and Breo contemplated suicide before she took the Beatles’ advice, “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride,” and she used that ticket.

So this blackbird took her broken wings and flew into the light of the dark black night of freedom. Ed Breo finally resigned himself to acknowledging that he needed help and went to the VA. But the VA didn’t help him enough. The “stigma” of being a Vietnam War veteran, Breao writes, lingered “like the stench of the treatment they received from this country when they returned home.”

Cheryl Breo

A walk through the airport, she writes, “became a war zone of its own, as complete strangers yelled vulgar obscenities at him; calling him a ‘baby killer,’ a ‘murderer.’ “

In the dedication, Cheryl Breo writes that John, Paul, George and Ringo “saved my life many times over.”

She was friends with her husband until the day he died after the book was published in 2017.

How they did that, I don’t know, but buy this book and read it and find out how the Beatles were a big part of the therapeutic treatment that enabled them to survive being treated horribly.

—David Willson

And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes by Johnny F. Pugh

Johnny Pugh was drafted into the Army when he lost his college deferment. He went on to serve in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division beginning in the sweltering heat of July 1966. It was just the first of many shocks for the young biracial New Mexican. Those shocks that took place during his twelve months in country took over his mind and body in ways Pugh never could have expected. He survived combat with only two Purple Hearts, but his soul was destroyed.

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes: The Vietnam War I Fought (iUniverse, 293 pp., $21.95, paper; $3.99, e book) is a wonderfully written narrative of Pugh’s twelve months as an infantryman. It is heart-breakingly honest as Pugh brings the reader into his hooch and lives and walks you with him as he goes through the horror of combat with his unit, Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment.

The writing flows as Pugh leads the reader into the killing zones of Operation Attleboro. You cringe at the brutality of war, along with the insidious nonsense that follows it. Pugh tells of his exposure to the black market and other moral challenges he faced with his buddies. There is little humor and a fair amount of Chicano street language that is easy to follow, but what comes through above all is the honesty of the man as he coped with the ghosts he encountered.

Pugh began writing this book as his health declined. He went back to letters his family had saved from those days and the reader can see him take the words from paper and into the reality he faced. Pugh died in 2011 before finishing his book from the all-too-common ills of the Vietnam War: PTSD, Agent Orange, denied VA treatment, alcohol, drugs, and the hardships our nation put on the backs of its Vietnam War veterans.

The book is a testament to his sheer determination and will to write his story for others to see. Pugh’s third wife and young daughter took on the task of getting the book ready for publication—a labor of love.

The book is important for several reasons. First, it is a written window into just one of the millions of kids our nation’s leaders sent to war under false premises and with false promises. Johnny Pugh was strong enough to write his story. He could easily have been one of thousands who were unable to write it. It is a book that needs to be sent to every politician as they consider sending young people to kill and maim in the name of freedom.

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For some, the book will be a hard read because it exposes many unpleasant truths. The truth of officers, poorly trained, and foggy missions leading to the deaths of friends for no apparent reason. The truth of fear of dying, fear of losing friends, fear of betrayal by those you think are friends. The fear of cowardice or defining courage. These are all in question as one reads Pugh’s story.

Through it all, you see the mind of a young and innocent man grappling with the brutal reality of day-to-day living in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

In the end this is eulogy for Johnny Pugh all of his fellow infantrymen who served in the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

Lessons in Leadership by General John R. Deane Jr. – Edited by Jack C. Mason

I  believe that Army generals are cut from the same khaki cloth. Young officers find mentors and devotedly follow them until it’s their time to lead; then they collect followers and mentor them. In that way, generals maintain their version of what Kipling called “the thin red line.” Generals live in a world unto themselves.

Lessons in Leadership: My Life in the U.S. Army from World War II to Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 261 pp.; $50, hardcover; $40, Kindle) by Gen. John R. Deane Jr. and edited by Jack C. Mason validates my belief.

Deane graduated from West Point in 1942 and served in the Army until 1977. He fought in World War II and in Vietnam. His father was a well-liked major general, a fact that opened many doors for John Junior, a situation he frequently acknowledges.

John R. Deane, Jr., West Point, Class of 1942

True to its title, Lessons in Leadership provides guidance from Deane accumulated as a staff officer and a commander who attained four-star rank. He often cites his teachers. For example, Gen. James Gavin taught him, Deane writes, to “inspire people to outdo themselves” and then he tells how he built on that idea. Deane also preaches that “substance is more important than form,” words that should be tattooed on the forearms of PowerPoint-crazed staff officers.

He tells stories in a conversational style that flows from topic to topic. He narrates combat experiences in a nonchalant, nearly emotionless, voice. He underplays them and yet delivers the full impact of what took place.

Deane’s writing allows a reader to experience vicariously what he did and to understand exactly why he did it.  In World War II Deane and his men entered combat in October 1944 and engaged in all-but continuous fighting for two hundred days. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and received many decorations as a battalion commander in the 104th Timberwolves Infantry Division led by Gen. Terry Allen, a boyhood idol who became a friend.

Deane’s account of time in the Vietnam War sets new standards for leadership. With the 1st Infantry Division commanded by Gen. William E. DePuy, Deane shared deputy commander duties with Gen. James E. Hollingsworth, whose life is recounted in the new James Willbanks biography, Danger 79er.

The three generals flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside their men in combat. After taking over as the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Deane jumped with men (first man out the door) in February 1967 during Operation Junction City to form a blocking force for two hundred fifty follow-on helicopters with five thousand soldiers.

The three generals ignored criticism of their unconventional behavior. Each man saw himself as “a soldier’s general” and set positive examples at every opportunity. Deane’s troops called him “Uncle John.”

Deane imparts thought-provoking lessons he learned during that time. Eyewitness accounts from soldiers interviewed by Mason support Deane’s recall of many events.

On Feb. 22, 1967, Gen. Deane led the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry out the door of a C-130 north of Tay Ninh City in the first U.S. combat jump since the Korean War, and the only mass jump of the Vietnam War.

Beyond the two wars, Deane commanded forces in Germany, Korea, and the Dominican Republic. He also worked in research, engineering, and force development. Based on these jobs, particularly those in Washington, D.C., he recalls encounters with senior officers and career managers. He explains how to make sound decisions while working with senior people, as well as uncovering weaknesses without getting everybody mad at you.

When you do your job well, he says, you can make enemies. The solution is to do what best meets the objectives of the organization. His discussions of several events in his life read like pages out of Catch 22. A couple of his encounters made me laugh out loud. At the same time, his teaching is priceless.

When describing other men, Deane details not just their actions, but also blends in their personalities and brings them fully to life. He ties together stories, recollections, and rumors to explain controversies about leadership such as Terry Allen’s loss of command of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II. In these passages, his storytelling resembles a Vanity Fair exposé. He ends each account by explaining how it influenced his leadership style and the behavior of his subordinates. He repeatedly credits subordinate commanders for his units’ successes.

With authoritative certainty, Deane categorizes leaders into four groups largely based on a willingness to commit oneself to a task. Category One contains fearless people—beyond a physical sense—who make decisions without fearing personal consequences. Category Two’s people know and feel fear but have a characteristic that drives them onward, such as pride, religion, or family. Category Three is composed of followers of the leaders in the two other categories who need help to conquer their fears. People in Category Four will quit, no matter what happens. These categories apply to civilian as well as military leaders, Deane says.

Credit for the book’s readability must include its editor Jack C. Mason. A few years before his death in 2013 at the age of ninety-four, Deane provided manuscripts to Mason that documented his career. After that, the two men communicated nearly daily.

“When I asked him to explain or expound on something, he replied in detail,” Mason writes. Mason also researched information that broadens Deane’s stories and includes these findings as italicized paragraphs in the text.

A recurring theme is the clash of egos between generals. Deane does not hesitate in naming those he considers worthy of star rank and those who were unworthy. In the latter case, he reduces the image of one general to that of a sobbing infant.

Which is one reason that reading Deane’s book provides more lessons about Army generals than some people might want to know.

—Henry Zeybel

Blood in the Hills by Robert Maras and Charles W. Sasser

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Co-written by Robert Maras and Charles Sasser, Blood in the Hills: The Story of Khe Sanh: The Most Savage Fight of the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 288 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is a memoir of Maras’ Marine Corps service before, after, and primarily during his experiences when he took part in the April-May 1967 hill fights around Khe Sanh.

The book is organized into forty-six chapters; each is a stand-alone story. The reader gets immersed in virtually non-stop, down-and-dirty, grunt fighting directed at killing the enemy—and surviving long enough to go home.

Combat often has been called interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Khe Sanh hill fights were more like interminable terror punctuated by moments of boredom.

Maras produces some great thoughts and gallows humor in the midst of this interminable terror. To wit:

  • “When the shells exploded, they seemed to blast a hole in the universe through which you caught a glimpse of eternity.”
  • “For those who fight for life, it has a special flavor the protected shall never know.”
  • “It was shooting and killing for breakfast, shooting and killing for lunch, shooting and killing for dinner.”
  • “Golf’s Corpsmen had more guts than a gut wagon in a slaughterhouse”

Maras knew that back in the World, higher-up strategists were moving colored pins around maps. As they did, Maras’s commander would move his troops to mirror the pins. Maras asked himself: “I wonder if God has a map of the universe with colored pins.”

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The Khe Sanh hill fights concentrated around Hills 861, 881N and 881S.

The malfunctioning M-16 is covered at great length throughout this book. Despite their desperation and anger, and knowing the M-16 was defective and unreliable, Maras and his fellow stalwart Marines followed orders and without hesitation assaulted the enemy as if they themselves were kings of the hills—which, in the end, they proved to be.

Blood in the Hills is a must-read.

—Bob Wartman

To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel