Hard to Kill by Joe Ladensack and Joseph A. Reaves

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Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.

Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.

“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”

His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.

Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.

A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to HideA Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.

Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.

Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.

He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.

He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.

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Father Joe 

Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:

“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.

“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.

“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”

Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.

Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.

All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.

Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Phantom in the Sky by Terry L. Thorsen

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Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Terry Thorsen flew for the Marine Corps in the F-4J Phantom as a member of the VMFA-232 Red Devils. He chronicles that experience in his memoir, Phantom in the Sky: A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp. $34.95, hardcover).

Thorsen enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from college. He did not want to go to war, but recognized an obligation to serve his country. On the other hand, he did not want to be an infantryman, fully appreciating that grunts had the toughest—and most dangerous—job of all.

His wife, Jan, and his parents also did not want him to go to war. His wife detested the Marine Corps because of its all-encompassing control of Thorsen’s time and energy.

Thorsen had a love-hate relationship with flying, which he reflects in the book in telling of fascinating, yet occasionally repetitive, incidents that led him to find his niche as an officer and crew member. He does an excellent job capturing the uncertainty he felt at critical stages during his enlistment.

Thorsen flew 123 combat missions from Chu Lai in 1969. The Red Devils employed a large inventory of munitions on targets across I Corps and into Laos and Cambodia. Day and night, their tasks included close-air support, interdiction, flak suppression, rescue, reconnaissance escort, and B-52 escorting.

The book contains a virtually day-by-day account of Thorsen’s air and ground activities. Not unexpectedly, usually uneventful flying tasks often suddenly turned into moments of sheer terror. Night rocket attacks on Chu Lai complicated his negative attitude toward the war.

Flying five missions in twenty-two hours, though, boosted his self-esteem. Supporting or rescuing overwhelmed grunts elevated him to a self-actualizing level. Those flights allowed Thorsen to achieve his full potential as a warrior:

“I didn’t expect thanks or praise,” he says. “Gratification came from a job well done. Lessening the deaths of some of our military combatants satisfied me.”

RIO duty taught him an even more gratifying lesson: An F-4 RIO’s brainpower was a pilot’s best insurance policy. Unhampered by concentrating on flying the airplane (the back seat had no control stick), an RIO sees beyond conventional behavior and recommends actions that save airplanes and lives. Thorsen describes more than enough in-flight incidents to prove that point.

In 1968 when I served in the Vietnam War, our C-130 crew made stops at Chu Lai during the Tet Offensive. We marveled at the base’s continuous flow of fighter activity.  We watched fighters take off, make low-level bomb drops along the horizon, RTB, rearm, and relaunch within what seemed the same hour. We grinned in admiration for zealousness of the Marines in I Corps.

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The book’s title slightly deceives because—as is the case with most Vietnam War memoirs—this book includes the author’s account of his training that preceded combat. Thorsen, that is, writes about his squadron’s year-long preparation for a combat tour of duty. Straight from a rigorous Officer Candidates School that paralleled boot camp and Naval Flight Officer training, he had poor self-confidence because of continuous bouts of airsickness that had nearly kept him from winning his RIO wings. The illness became more frequent during his squadron’s rehearsal for the physically challenging aerial maneuvers it would employ in Vietnam. He had far less frequent airsickness once he got to the war zone.

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Phantom in the Sky rings with authenticity because Thorsen clearly explains his illness, conflicting attitudes, and relationship with a hard-to-please wife. He even recalls interactions that registered his own embarrassment. Furthermore, based on their situations as well as his own, he portrays and evaluates leaders and fellow fliers in clear and honest terms.

The book contains letters that Thorsen wrote home and photographs from his tour. Appendices record the history of Marine Corps units mentioned in the text.

Terry Thorsen came home from the war, took an early discharge, and opened a photography studio that failed during the 1980s recession. He then joined the active Reserves; enjoyed and retired from a crime scene investigator career; raised two sons; and, as he says, after many, many years, “Jan and I divorced.”

—Henry Zeybel

Zero to Hero by Allen J. Lynch

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Allen J. Lynch’s Zero to Hero: From Bullied Kid to Warrior (Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 370 pp. $25) is a well-crafted, well-edited, and well-presented book.

In it, Vietnam War Medal of Honor recipient Allen Lynch takes us from his childhood in industrial South Side Chicago, through multiple high schools he attended in Illinois and Indiana, and to a memorable Army experience. While life at home growing up was good, Lynch also went through many school-bullying episodes, causing low self-esteem and loneliness issues that haunted him for decades.

After high school graduation in 1964, college was not in his future, so after a few no-growth jobs, Lynch decided that the military offered the best way out of the neighborhood. He joined the Army and in the book tells of his military schooling and deployments. In Germany he decided that an assignment to Vietnam would realize his objective of becoming a warrior.

Lynch takes us through his moves in-country and then to his permanent assignment with the 1st Cav in the Tam Quan area of Binh Dinh Province in the Central Highlands. There he recounts his combat activities, including what happened during a December 15, 1967, firefight when his courageous efforts under fire rescuing fellow troopers resulted in Allen Lynch being awarded the Medal of Honor in 1970.

Upon returning to the States, Lynch’s planned Army career was truncated by family circumstances. With his father’s health declining, he stepped away from the military. He met, courted, and married the love of his life, Suzie. They had three children and remain together to this day.

Lynch later rejoined the Army through the Reserves, rising to the rank of 1st Sergeant. In a series of civilian jobs he worked as a Veterans Benefits Counselor for the VA, and later counseled veterans on employment opportunities.

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Allen J. Lynch

In his book Lynch does not shy away from describing what he calls “the dragon,” post-traumatic stress disorder, which he has had since returning from Vietnam.

He mostly dismissed the symptoms when they first appeared, but later realized he had PTSD, sought therapy, and received “the tools first to keep PTSD in check and then to defeat it when it reared its ugly head.”

In short, this is a very readable offering from a very humble—and ultimately successful—Vietnam War hero.

–Tom Werzyn

Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel

Highway Thirteen by Denis ‘Mac’ McDevitt

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Denis McDevitt dropped out of high school and that was the end of his formal education. He received his draft notice in February 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

McDevitt’s autobiographical Highway Thirteen (Lulu.com, 184 pp., $14.95, paper) is written so far from the standard rules of fiction-writing that it has the feel of an experimental novel such as Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. But this is not an experimental novel; it’s a book in which an inexperienced author is doing the best he can to produce a book about his time in an infantry unit in the Vietnam War.

Hat’s off to Mac McDevitt for how well he does with his skills and with his adventures in the war. Don’t expect fancy things such as apostrophes to demonstrate possession or not quite getting words like “trepidation” right. Still McDevitt does pretty well at telling an interesting story. He has good material, and his novel is better than many I have slogged through in the past ten years.

There’s a useful glossary at the back; the definitions are rough and ready, but adequate. For instance, McDevitt says “hooch” refers to a native hut, but defines it as any place you hung your hat.

Most of the usual stuff a reader encounters in an Vietnam War infantry novel can be found in these pages. Shit burning receives an especially good treatment and is deemed “the stinky science.” Half of a fifty-five gallon drum filled with shit and maggots is not what I had to deal with when I burned shit, but it gets the point across. Wyatt Earp gets a mention on the same page as shit burning is explained.

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The author in country

A riot at Long Binh Jail (LBJ) is discussed. as are Bob Hope, leeches, Miles Davis, Rome Plows, C-ration peaches and pound cake, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, Eldridge Cleaver, REMFs, PTSD, Canned Heat (the rock group, not the fuel), Sharon Tate, the concept that war is money a-go-go, and “chairborne” rangers.

I enjoyed this short book and suspect that it wouldn’t be much better if it had received a rigorous editing.

But you need to read with a forgiving and uncritical eye to get full pleasure from this narrative.

—David Willson

Vietnam Abyss by Michael J. Snook

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Michael J. Snook’s Vietnam Abyss: A Journal of Unmerited Grace (Southwestern Legacy Press, 234 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the author’s journal of his struggles from April 14, 1996, to November 5, 1998. It details how he ultimately found God and a new wife and pulled himself out of his dark times.

Snook is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but barely discusses his experiences in Vietnam in this book, which he wrote with Michael J. Snook. The book, instead, focuses on Snook’s battles with alcoholism, PTSD, and mental illness. After his service in the Vietnam War, Snook was divorced, lost his job, and went back to Vietnam to work.

This is not a feel-good book and is hard to follow in places. It also is unpolished and repeats the same stories. On the plus side, Snook uses lists in his journal—an interesting approach.

Here’s one example, in which he debates what to do with his life:

Retire and screw it all,

Live on the street,

Get drunk,

Kill myself

The last thirty pages describe how the author escaped from alcoholism and PTSD, found romance and God, and now lives a useful and happy life.

This book is not for the faint of heart, but may be useful to those suffering from the same problems that Michael Snook faced.

—Mark S. Miller

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

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Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

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Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty