Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel

Lions and Tigers and Cong by Theodore Wild

Theodore Wild’s Lions and Tigers and Cong (Lulu, 398 pp., $28.96, paper; $8.99, e book) describes a variety of places, people, and events in the life of a 19 year old in the Vietnam War as he grew from boy to man. Ted Wild served with Charlie Company in the 5th of the 46th infantry Battalion and later with Bravo Company of the 4th of the 221st Infantry, aka Big Bad Bravo. Wild’s title comes from his newbie’s briefing on what he would find in the jungles of Vietnam.

The author draws on personal experiences as well as on stories, tales, legends, and remembrances of those who fought in the Vietnam War. Although Wild calls his book a memoir he changes all the names, so it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Many of the stories are raw and disturbing, but the book gives an excellent look at what life was like for a Vietnam War infantryman.

What struck me most was the quality of the writing. Here are a few passages that demonstrate Ted Wild’s literary talent:

“The heavens hid what we had done to the land. The craters and denuded fields marked our progress, and the land could not be re-farmed, rebuilt, re-tilled nor carted away to be buried.”

“He was a dilapidated alky blues singer, shuffling, carrying a weapon, heading to his janitor job at some midnight bus station to clean toilets used by homeless winos.”

“This acre of sand, this scant fathom of water, was ours, and we played and swam and splashed in it, children forever for a fleeting moment.”

“You have the drive, the passion, the love for a hundred people, and it is distilled by this sour, vile nightmare of war.”

Ted Wild in Vietnam

This book is the story of a group of men whose love for one another and need for one another were eclipsed only by the danger that shaped their lives.

The author’s website is tedwild.com/the-author

—Mark S. Miller

Grandfather’s Journal by Tom Maxwell

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In an autobiography written for his grandson’s edification, Tom Maxwell chronologically recreates his past in Grandfather’s Journal: A Grandson’s Journey into His Grandfather’s Life (WestBow Press, 140 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book covers Maxwell’s childhood as he traveled the world with an Air Force father; his military experiences as a Navy pilot and commander; and his career as a highly successful business executive who also ministered to people he calls “the least of these in our prison system.”  Maxwell sets exemplary standards for perseverance and dedication in every pursuit.

His Navy career stretched from 1955-83. He filled all the right squares while rising to the rank of Captain and a posting as an attaché in West Germany where he helped gather Cold War intelligence from the Soviet Union.

In 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, Maxwell deployed twice to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He flew two hundred missions in the KA3 Skywarrior, receiving credit for eighty-five “saves” of aircraft in distress. A short time later on a two-month TDY to Danang Air Base, he flew an additional fifty combat missions.

For most of his military career, Maxwell put his job first, even ahead of family needs. Occasionally in times of trouble, he prayed for help, but mainly as wish-fulfillment rather than with confidence in the powers of an almighty deity. Nevertheless, his prayers brought positive results. Then, at the age of forty-two, motivated by intensely focused reading and urging from his wife Betty Ann, Maxwell “accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

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Tom & Betty Ann Maxwell

The closing fifth of Grandfather’s Journal describes a life dictated by guidance that resulted from prayer. For thirty years as a civilian, Maxwell produced excellent results in both business relations and in his prison ministry work.

He disappointed me, however, by including only ten pages on his Vietnam War experiences in this book, just half of which dealt with events in the air.

The author’s website is captaintommaxwell.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Foreign Correspondent by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten

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Foreign Correspondent: A Journalist’s True Story by Patricia L. Mosure and Stephen G. Patten (Lee and Grant International, 401 pp., $17.95, paper) focuses on Patten’s experiences over a forty-year period. He served as a Captain in the Marine Corps from 1962-68, including a short tour (three weeks) in Vietnam in 1967. He then was a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, the Far East, and Central America. The authors also devote one chapter to the current war on terror.

Steve Patten and  co-author Mosure also recount their meeting a Catholic nun, Sister Linh, who was running an orphanage in South Vietnam. She told Patten that “if the Communists come, they will kill me.” In 1975, with the fall of South Vietnam imminent, Patten flew there to try and rescue Sister Lihn. The mission failed and he never saw her again.

That incident spurred Patten’s interest in the POW-MIA issue. Several chapters are devoted to discussing the 83,120 who remain missing from World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Cold War. and Gulf War. Especially poignant are the stories of five returned POWs: Angelo Donati (Laos), Ed DeMattos and Phil Nadler (World War II), and Paul Galanti (Vietnam).

The book gives a realistic view of what life as a foreign correspondent entails. The authors’ stories include accounts of South Vietnamese refugees (the boat people) fleeing communist rule, the Plain of Jars in Laos, Pope John Paul’s visit to South Korea, guerrillas in El Salvador,and interviews with Mother Teresa and India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

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Steve Patten

Several chapters are devoted to Patten’s struggle to clear his name after being fired in 1984 by CBS following allegations that he was a CIA agent. Patten worked briefly for NBC, but was fired again when the CIA rumors resurfaced.

The authors suggest the CIA rumor was planted by the Israelis to discredit him because of his critical reporting of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The book follows Patten’s fight all the way to the CBS Board of Directors in 1990, but does not reveal if a settlement was reached.

I found this book very interesting and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in war reporting, POW/MIAs, and the history of our most recent wars.

—Mark S. Miller

 

Eternally at War by Robert Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan

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Tragedy played a big role in the life of Robert G. “Gene” Lathrop. When he was two years old he witnessed a crashed B-17 engulfed in a tower of flames as high as he could see. The fire was “permanently etched into the synapses of [his] mind,” he said. In his early twenties as a Marine Corps pilot, he ejected from an F9F-8 Cougar fighter jet that disintegrated moments after takeoff. His parachute malfunctioned, and he landed in the airplane’s blazing wreckage. Suffering severe burns and multiple bone fractures, he barely survived. A year later, he arrived in Vietnam.

These scenes comprise the opening act of Eternally at War (Age View Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan. The book is a memoir put together by Vaughan based on Lathrop’s writing about his past as part of a PTSD recovery program. The pacing of the writing brings events to life in an exceptionally vivid manner. Lathrop’s thoughts and behavior blend realistically, magnifying and complementing the other.

For most of his year in Vietnam, 1968-69, Lathrop flew F-4 Skyhawks with MAG 12, VMA-311 Tomcats at Chu Lai. The unit’s mission sent him into battle over I Corps, the DMZ, North Vietnam, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Primarily, he flew close air support for Marines fighting the North Vietnamese Army.

Chu Lai was the hub of Marine Corps flying in I Corps. While trash-hauling during the time Lathrop was in Vietnam, I crewed on C-130s that occasionally landed at Chu Lai. Everything on the base appeared constantly in motion, or as Lathrop said on his first day there, “It seemed like there was a plane taking off or landing every ten or fifteen seconds.” Judging by what I saw countrywide, Marines never rested.

“Overworked” and “overstressed” perfectly describe Lathrop’s experience with the Tomcats. At times, he flew as many as four missions in twenty-four hours. He took part in or witnessed events more devastating than his crash in the Cougar.

Lathrop saw death and destruction on a daily basis. These events tried his psyche, but his devotion to duty overrode doubts about his actions. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “when I landed, I lived until I flew again. Nothing would impact me if I could help it. Once I learned to live only for the moment, the stress of war didn’t bother me.”

After seven months in the cockpit and against his wishes, Lathrop became commander of a company that guarded the perimeter of Da Nang Air Base, a move that again proved that every Marine is basically an infantryman.

A turning point in Lathrop’s life began when he returned home after thirteen months in country. “Being home was torture,” he said. He wanted to be left alone and avoided contact with people. After-effects of the injuries he received before going to Vietnam made it progressively more difficult for him to fly, so he resigned his commission in 1970.

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Gene Lathrop

Successfully employed as a forester, he grew increasingly restless and depressed. He divorced his wife, gained custody of the younger of his two sons, and remarried. But the bouts with depression came more frequently and lasted longer and longer.

In 1984 he began to suffer the full effects of PTSD. Flashing back to the war, he experienced mental and physical disorders that transcended the worst he encountered in his fiery crash or in combat. Counseling and hospitalization did not help. Anguish and guilt haunted Gene Lathrop until the day he died from heart failure in 2012.

As a victim of fire, Lathrop repeatedly delivered the same punishment to his enemies in the form of napalm, which formed the core of his guilt. At one point he tells us, “From my very first day in Vietnam, I was conscious of the continual emissions of fire.”

That war-induced recognition dictated the images in his mind and the course of his post-war life.

–Henry Zeybel

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Combat Bandsman by Robert F. Fischer

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In January 1968, military enlistments began to decline when Americans entered into a patriotic lull, and Selective Service administrators reflexively sent greetings from Uncle Sam to just about every healthy recent college graduate. That included Robert F. Fischer. A year later, Fischer arrived in Vietnam.

For most of his first year in the Army, he attended a series of schools that eventually qualified him as a personnel management specialist. Upon learning that he could play a trumpet, though, assignment personnel in Vietnam ignored his training and sent him to the 9th Infantry Division band at Dong Tam. Fischer recounts his Army band experience in Combat Bandsman: Memoir of a Tour in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, 1969 (McFarland, 256 pp.,  $29.95 paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Generally, Robert Fischer writes like a pro. He deftly weaves together humor, history lessons, insights, and his own unusual experience wrapped in cynicism. But he is a stickler for detail and sometimes tells his story as if a reader has no hint about what Army life in Vietnam was like during the war. Consequently, he explains things such as MPCs, REMFs, Saigon tea, etc. etc. etc. At one point, he devotes four pages to describing an uneventful forty-mile drive from Dong Tam to Saigon.

Combat Bandsman made me wonder why we had bands in a war zone, and Fischer feels the same way. He calls his band the “personal property” of the division commander, “utilized as he pleased for his own enjoyment and that of his subordinates and guests.” Fischer tells how the band performed at daily and weekly base functions, graduations, retreat ceremonies, the general’s mess parties and dances, honor guard ceremonies, awards ceremonies, memorial services, and an endless number of change of command ceremonies that glorified high-ranking officers.

“I never quite understood the frivolities demanded by those in the higher division echelons,” Fischer says. “For them the war was more of an inconvenience than a struggle for survival. The higher the pecking order, the more luxuries and sandbags.”

Along with wanting not to die, Fischer had no desire to kill. Despite his relatively safe job, he still had concerns for his life. The band mostly traveled from job to job in un-escorted trucks. That’s why some band members carried as much firepower as possible, which they never used because they never were ambushed.

Fischer fired his weapon in anger once when spending a night at an ARVN outpost that came under attack. “I grabbed my M-16 and took a position on the berm,” he writes. “Lying on my back to expose as little of my body as I could and using my thumb to pull the trigger, I fired off one magazine rock ‘n roll style over my head.” Before he could reload, the fight ended.

Additionally, the NVA and VC mortared or rocketed Dong Tam practically every night, attacks that killed several of his acquaintances. For a while, incoming arrived at 2200, 0200, and 0400—similar to the “10, 2, and 4” schedule for drinking Dr. Pepper, Fischer says. As a result, he focused on one thought: “Stay alive until DEROS.”

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Combat Bandsman differs from most Vietnam War memoirs in that it contains a Glossary, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The notes are exceptionally well written and interesting, but I think their information would have worked  better if they had been incorporated in the text.

At the completion of his tour, Fischer felt disassociated from a “mean and disillusioned” Army with, “an officer corps saturated with career-oriented commanders, totally unclear military objectives, ever-increasing reliance on reluctant draftees to fill the ranks, and dwindling support on the home front displaying disdain for its soldiers.”

And that’s a wrap.

—Henry Zeybel