Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

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“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

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Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

White Water, Read Hot Lead by Dan Daly

In 1967-68, Dan Daly served as the skipper of a fifty-foot-long Swift Boat in Vietnam. He delivers a highly personalized account of that experience in the new edition of White Water, Red Hot Lead: On Board U.S. Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam (Casemate, 413 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which was first published in 2015.

Swift Boats worked relatively unfettered by assignments from headquarters. Daly and his five crewmen primarily intercepted trawlers carrying supplies to NVA units in South Vietnam.

Daly describes Swift Boat life starting with training in California. In country, he and his men encountered frequent firefights, ferocious weather that once capsized their boat, and harassment from superiors who considered Swift Boaters too independent and macho. Daly also recollects the onset of his lasting love for a Navy nurse from the U.S.S. Repose.

His crew’s combat action mainly took place offshore near Da Nang. To fill out the Swift Boat picture, Daly describes in detail an operation in which one of his friends picked up Special Forces troops at the southern tip of Vietnam near the Cambodian border.

Daly holds a lasting fondness for his crewmen and fellow Swift Boat skippers. Through his eyes, his men saw themselves as elite sailors working hard to maintain that status. His book makes a strong case for an overwhelming sense of teamwork and dedication to duty among Swift Boat crews.

Daly and crew

Throughout the book, Daly has blended an excellent collection of photographs, most of which he shot, with the text.

The author’s website is whitewaterredhotlead.com 

The book is available for a 50 percent discount for members of Vietnam Veterans of America. To order, call 610-853-9131, or go to casematepublishers.com, tell them you are a VVA member, and provide the code VVA-50. The offer is good through September 30, 2017.

—Henry Zeybel

Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is short, but well-written. Leone is a master of understatement, which serves to enhance his sharp wit. This nonfiction book is about four men who became friends fifty years ago after serving together in the Army: Leone, Martin Alexander, Tom Lovetere, and Don Garceau. They remain friends today.

Leone calls this a “scrapbook.” He says the stories in the book are not momentous, nor do they deal with calamities. They are about everyday things. There’s something poignant about everyday activities, though, when they are surrounded by war. The stories fasten on small transactions between different cultures in the war zone, memories, and experiences.

The four guys helped start the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, but were sent to different units when they arrived in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Leone talks about each man in individual chapters; there also are contributions written by each guiy

Leone has the ability to tell sharp, detailed narratives, most of which are funny. In the section about the Dominion of the Golden Dragon—the unofficial Navy award given to people on ships that cross the International Date Line—he writes: “To be sure, King Neptune was there with a beard looking astoundingly like a mop from the mess hall, as was Davy Jones, similarly regaled.” The rest of the story had me laughing out loud, as did the photo of the men and an official-looking crossing certificate.

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John Leone

There are other photos of the guys, past and present, as well as images of helicopters, Vietnamese markets, and beaches.

Photos of Vietnamese coins and paper money at first appeared to be a yawn. But as I looked at them, I was transported to Vietnam. Handing a coin that has scalloped edges and exotic engravings to a person whose language you don’t know can last in the mind forever. Proust with coin, you might say.

Leone is offering discounted copies of the book (for $20) to veterans. For info on ordering directly from the author, email Johnleone1@verizon.com

His website is johnleonebooks.com

— Loana Hoylman

 

 

Rescued from Vietnam by Michael Hosking

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Michael Hosking’s Rescued from Vietnam: A Veteran’s Recovery from PTSD (Xlibris, 258 pp. $32.25, hardcover; $21.77, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a friendly reminder that Americans did not singlehandedly fight the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong in the Vietnam War. Hosking’s memoir is based on his Vietnam War 1967 tour of duty with the 7th Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment.

Operating from Nui Dat as an infantryman, Hosking took part in many futile search and destroy missions that paralleled American operations. Friends were killed and wounded. He felt great concern for the upheavals and disrespect inflicted upon the civilian population.

The first half of the book deals with Hosking’s military service, including training. By citing a string of episodes about manly confrontations that morphed into friendships during the rigors of training, he convincingly shows how strangers can became brothers. These friendships fortified the men’s performance in combat.

In arguing against war, he made a point new to me: Australians had to be twenty years old before they were drafted into the military. He faults America for sending men as young as eighteen into battle, contending that two years constitutes “a big difference in emotional and physical maturity.” It makes the younger man significantly more vulnerable to psychological problems, Hosking says.

His writing style raises the book above the level of just another story about a soldier screwed up by war. Hosking’s voice is entertaining because he uses a lot of Aussie slang, with some words and phrases derived from Cockney. Although he includes a Glossary of Aussie Slang, he occasionally uses words not in the glossary, which requires a touch of interpretation by the reader. Nevertheless, reading him is far easier than listening to a Scotsman.

Hosking has a talent for blending stories from the past with the one he currently is telling. For example, when writing about events in Vietnam, he unobtrusively recalls pertinent moments from his youth. Similarly, when traveling around the world, he enhances what he sees by interjecting regional history from centuries earlier.

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Elizabeth & Michael Hosking

The second half of Rescued from Vietnam deals with Hosking’s chaotic return to civilian life when, he says, “I had forgotten how to think straight.” Initially, every relationship ended in turmoil.

He found temporary happiness as a stage performer, but then wandered aimlessly throughout Europe and Asia. Along the way, he studied the Bible and, in 1975, accepted Jesus, which made him “feel like [he] was engaged in life again.”

Hosking married, earned a degree in theology, and fathered three children. When his business career faltered in 1997, he found his true calling by going to Africa to work with orphans.

Michael Hosking’s willingness to reveal the pros and cons of his suffering and recovery from PTSD sets an example for everyone to follow. The lessons he learned still apply today.

The author’s website is rescuedfromvietnam.com

—Henry Zeybel

Valentine’s Day by Charles A. Van Bibber

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Charles A. Van Bibber’s Vietnam War memoir, Valentine’s Day: A Marine Looks Back (The Covington Group, 402 pp. $16.95, paper), uses his remembrances, the recollections of his fellow Marines, and official records to present his 13-month tour of duty chronologically. Van Bibber and his fellow members of the 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines left Camp Pendleton, California, on February 14, 1968. “At Da Nang, our C-141 landed near a hot LZ. At the time the airfield was being rocketed and mortared,” he writes. “We are in combat. This was real! Welcome to Vietnam.”

Van Bibber was impressed that unlike other units, the members of Fox Company used family names rather than nicknames. He was “Van,” he writes in this pleasantly readable book. In addition to the NVA and Viet Cong, his enemies included red dust, idleness, daytime flies, and nighttime mosquitoes.

In late February Van Bibber wrote to his family about how difficult life was for the South Vietnamese villagers and their children and how he offered them food and felt sorry for them. In March his newbie status suddenly changed after one of the men in his company was killed. Then the loss of three squad members changed the tone of his letters

Van Bibber, promoted to Lance Corporal, took over as a Squad Leader after the former Squad Leader was killed in action. At that time, death “became a part of life,” he writes. In September, he wrote home to his family members, telling them, “things had changed. I knew that my chances of being wounded or killed were pretty high.”

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In Vietnam

Near the end of his tour, he writes: “It was a funny thing, but I was still in knots waiting for the one with my name on it. Hey, I’m short, in fact, I’m next, so give me a break.”

Charles A.Van Bibber got that break on March 6, 1969, when he caught his Freedom Bird home.

The author’s website is charlesvanbibber.com

—Curt Nelson

June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II by David Hearne

David Hearne’s account of a battle at Landing Zone X-Ray during Operation Billings in Vietnam in June of 1967 begins: “When the killing started, it was slow and deliberate. They were killing us and we didn’t know it.” That happened at noon. “By about 3 P.M. that day,” Hearne recalls, “more than 30 of our men were dead, and a hundred or more wounded.”

A member of A Company, 2nd of the 28th, the Black Lions of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Hearne was a lieutenant and forward observer for a 105-mm howitzer battery. The Americans that day were “two battalions strong, and had artillery and deadly air support,” Hearne says, and then asks, “What sane Viet Cong commander would subject his men to an inevitable slaughter?”

Despite their apparent superiority, the Americans walked to LZ X-Ray and found themselves ambushed, surrounded, and overrun by the NVA 271st Regiment. A stream of Army helicopter gunships, forty-three Air Force fighter sorties, and 8,250 artillery rounds made the difference in turning back two NVA assaults—a massive display of firepower considering that the battle lasted only one afternoon.

Hearne examines the engagement from multiple perspectives in June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II (Subterfuge, 386 pp.; $17.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), including recollections of fellow soldiers. Amid descriptions of the action, he offers biographies of the men linking them to their families and friends back home.

He also intersperses chapters that compare young soldiers to their counterparts in the civilian world. Even after half a century of reflection, the broad dichotomy of their values still disturbs him.

Overall, Hearne presents a grim picture of the destructiveness of weapons of war. He discusses the effects and duties encountered as part of the aftermath of battle: wounds, shock, feelings of guilt and loss, and fulfilling graves registration requirements.

To compensate for high American losses, the 1st Division commanding general claimed victory based on an unconfirmed enemy body count. Hearne likens the battle’s outcome to “a couple of pugilists beating one another up so badly that they both end up in the intensive care ward, with both of their managers declaring their boxer the winner.”

Sixteen pages of photographs and maps support Hearne’s account of the battle. He also includes the official After Action Report.

Books about Xom Bo II are rare. Gregory Murry presented a sergeant’s view of the encounter In Content with My Wages (2015). Hearne recognizes him for providing a “plethora of facts.” Because they fought in different positions on the landing zone, their views differ. Primarily, Murry found significant faults with the American master plan and tactical decisions.

Both books are well worth reading: They show how a quiet day in a war zone can instantly turn into a gruesome nightmare.

The author’s website is david-hearne.com

—Henry Zeybel