Sketches of an Earlier Time by Scott O. Ferguson

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For Scott O. Ferguson, memory lane stretches from horizon to horizon—and then some. He served with the U.S. Navy in World War II and with the Air Force in the American wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Ferguson recollects his combat experiences in Sketches of an Earlier Time: A Three-War Combat Veteran Recounts a Twentieth Century Life of Duty and Adventure (Merriam Press, 149 pp. $9.99, paper). His stories cover the middle half of the 20th century—from his birth in 1925 to his retirement as an Air Force colonel in 1975.

Alongside his look at warfare, Ferguson spells out the difficulties of a childhood during the Great Depression and of family life amid a military career. Barbara, his wife, often single-handedly raised four children during long separations caused by the call of duty.

Having lived through most of the same years, I vouch for the accuracy of Ferguson’s remembrances. His accounts provide touches of insight about the times and moods of society in decades gone by.

During World War II, as soon as he was old enough, Ferguson dropped out of high school and enlisted in the Navy. He served nearly four years as a seaman. His adventures in New Guinea and the Philippine Islands provide unusual views of a young man’s reaction to unpredictable events, along with dilemmas he created. To me, this was the most revealing part of the book.

In 1949, after marrying, Ferguson completed Aviation Cadet training and found assignments in fighter/interceptor aircraft. He flew the F-84G (in the book he refers to aircraft only by letters and numbers) in Korea and performed “all types of missions with all manner of purpose,” he says. Ferguson’s biggest concern was the presence of “flak traps everywhere.” His memories of the Korean War are a continuous flow of anecdotes about his squadron’s successes and failures.

During the Vietnam War Ferguson supervised the covert Task Force Alpha/Igloo White electronic warfare activities at Nakhon Phanom Air Base in Thailand in 1967-68. He flew many missions into Laos with O-2 Cessna FACs and in the back seat of F-4s. His stories from this time are as interesting and informative as earlier ones.

Excellent photographs ranging from Ferguson’s childhood to recently accompany each section of the memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

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Blue Ghost: Reveille by John W. Harris

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John W. Harris’ Blueghost Reveille (Page Publishing, 162 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir coming fifty years after the author was drafted into Army in May 1968.

Harris divides his book into seventy vignettes, each offering a picture of his life as member of F Troop of the Eighth Cavalry (the “Blue Ghosts”). F Troops was an autonomous unit assigned to the Americal Division consisting of an infantry platoon, an aerial scout platoon, and an armed aerial rocketry platoon.

The infantrymen served as the ground recon and rescue wing of the troop. The platoon, nominally composed of forty infantry soldiers, rarely reached that number. For most of Harris’ tour, the number was in the twenties.

After he finished AIT. Harris was selected to attend a special NCO school at Fort Benning. Following “Shake and Bake” school, he found himself a buck sergeant after less than a year in the Army and on the way to Vietnam to become a squad leader. Despite his inexperience, after Harris got his feet on the ground he quickly adjusted to his new role and responsibilities as a twenty-two-year-old NCO.

Writing with honesty and humor, John Harris walks the reader through the tasks and operations of an infantry platoon. He carefully explains the terminology for the non-initiated. From his arrival in Vietnam on a commercial airliner to his return to Fort Lewis and his discharge a year later, Harris entertains the reader with one adventure after another.

There are hair-raising moments of small unit combat. There are other, less-dangerous vignettes, as Harris covers the mundane and the heroism equally with clarity and detail.  Each of his brief portraits is self-contained, yet the narrative flows with ease.

Of the many stories Harris relates, none is more exemplary than that of Roger Caruthers, his heroism in Vietnam, and his post-war life in a wheelchair. Harris describes Caruthers as a hero in civilian life as an uncle educating three nieces. Caruthers went on to help many others despite his own infirmities with a smile and a happy story for all.

In a fitting tribute, Harris concludes the book with a very poignant piece titled, “Why Did You Go and Leave Me?”

This is a short book filled with honest emotions that’s enjoyable and easy to read. I recommend it anyone, young and old, who seeks a glimpse into the life a citizen soldier sent off to war in a foreign land.

–Bud Alley

 

The Body Burning Detail by Bill Jones

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During his Vietnam War induction process, Bill Jones joined the Marine Corps by voluntarily filling one of its draftee quota slots. A moment after raising his hand, he thought: “Nobody is more surprised than me.”

That decision began a love-hate relationship with the Corps, which Jones spells out in his memoir, The Body Burning Detail: Memoir of a Marine Artilleryman in Vietnam (McFarland, 202 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle).

Bill Jones describes that relationship with contemplative stories and poems that both challenge and entertain the reader. He proposes questions and makes pronouncements based on lessons he learned firsthand.

He does not shy away from showing the downside of military life—and of warfare. His negativity contains reasoning and wonderment that often remains unresolved, and it provokes questions. “War damages everyone in one way or another,” Jones concludes. “Even the ones who do not go. The extent of the damage is simply a matter of degrees.”

Jones experienced his share of combat drama, fear, and trauma in I Corps Fire Direction Centers with the 3rd Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. Many of the men he served with were killed or wounded in action.

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At Alpine, his first Fire Support Base, he received invaluable advice from an old timer his own age: “This is Vietnam,” the guy said. “Just remember, nobody gives a fuck.”

Days and nights in the FDC bunker, Jones writes, “run together. There are no days off, no holidays, very little free time. The battery is firing or available to fire twenty-four hours a day. We sleep when we can.”

At Neville FSB, he lived in (and hid from mortar rounds in) mud-filled bunkers that he shared with rats. Nearly a month of incessant rain deterred helicopters from supplying food, ammunition, and mail.  His unit targeted artillery from Vandegrift Combat Base in support of the Marines at Khe Sanh. At LZ Argonne, he survived a ten-day battle before the base was abandoned.

Jones finished his year at thinly manned Alpha-2 FSB, the U.S. position closest to the demilitarized zone. “I am just a lowly lance corporal, two stripes above a private, but I have the authority to fire tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of artillery at any real or imagined targets I so choose,” he writes. That paradoxical situation disturbed him.

By then Bill Jones had learned to understand that in war “people are killed or simply die for no apparent reason,” he says, and he managed to contend with discomfort and ever-increasing danger. He detested anyone who justified his importance by lording over people and making them appear worthless. That included officers looking to get their combat tickets punched at the expense of grunts who merely wanted to survive.

In this regard, Jones eliminates the intervening years between the war and now to remember rear echelon bullies, such as “Sergeant Pipsqueak” and his “pogue rodent face” that “smirks like an egg-sucking mongrel dog.” On the other hand, he glorifies purposeful extremist behavior by men such as a third-tour artillery forward observer named Hutch, who became his role model.

Jones’ exposure to combat validated the advice he received at the start of his tour. “The war is lost,” he decided. “The United States will never prevail in this part of Southeast Asia and it is foolish to even consider otherwise.”

Jones’ words aspire to solve the riddle of his existence as a twenty-year-old, as well as fifty years thereafter. He presents seven poems that recall concise slices of life-altering events. For example, he depicts a crash he witnessed as:

A fighter plane

Follows tracer round

Into a red hillside.

Although Jones admits that The Body Burning Detail is not a “tell-all confessional,” he presents an informative and thought-provoking account about war’s effect on his generation.

—Henry Zeybel

Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

A War Away by Tess Johnston

Tess Johnston is an amazing woman with amazing stories to tell. A native of Virginia, Johnston worked for the U.S. Government in various capacities for more than thirty years. She has lived abroad for nearly half a century, with seven years in Germany (both East and West), and forty years in Asia (thirty-three in Shanghai and seven in Vietnam.)

After a  stint in Berlin with the U.S. Foreign Service, the Charlottesville native enrolled in the graduate program at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in 1958, as did many other women prior to 1970. Women were barred from the males-only undergraduate programs at U-Va., but were allowed in the graduate schools.

Johnston went on to complete a master’s degree in German in 1963, and then taught German at Virginia and the College of William and Mary. In 1967, Johnston went to Vietnam to work for USAID, and stayed for seven years.

This experience inspired her to rejoin the Foreign Service, which sent her to Frankfurt, Berlin again, New Dehli, Tehran, and then to Shanghai. After thirty-three years in the Foreign Service, she faced mandatory retirement in 1996. Johnston stayed in Shanghai, and has written several book since then, including a coffee-table book,  A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai. Her other books include Shanghai Art Deco, and Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half A Century.

Tess Johnston returned to the United States in 2016, and has now published a new book, A War Away: An American Woman In Vietnam 1967-1974 (Earnshaw Books, 236 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) It’s an interesting memoir that is in need of a good editor.  Johnston took good notes while she was in Vietnam, but her writing style consists of plugging away with much too much detailed information.

There are two photos on the cover of her book. One shows her firing a gun at a practice range wearing a dress; the other is of the infamous John Paul Vann.

Vann was a military and civilian adviser in Vietnam until 1972 when his helicopter crashed while he was assessing damage after the Battle of Kontum.  Vann’s life is the focal point of Neil Sheehan’s National Book Award-winning 1988 biography, A Bright Shining Lie, a detailed portrait of the man—and an incisive history of the Vietnam War.

A War Away provides a different picture of Vann, albeit in only two of the fourteen chapters. Vann comes across as demanding and charismatic, feared and loved by those whose lives he touched.  Johnston provides some interesting anecdotes, though Vann is not a central character in the book.

Tess Johnston

The problem with A War Away is that there seems to be no central theme. Instead, we encounter a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, with too much focus on mundane details.

If you have the patience to sift through descriptions of the furniture in Johnston’s apartment and the phone system in her office, you will be able to find some items of interest. Her chapter on the 1968 Tet Offensive during her time at Bien Hoa, for example, is very interesting, as are her stories of other close calls with the Viet Cong.

Tess Johnston was clearly a level-headed, competent office assistant to Vann and others, and her story could have been be a compelling one if she pared it down a bit.

—Bill Fogarty

‘My Brothers Have My Back’ By Lou Pepi

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Lou Pepi’s “My Brothers Have My Back”: Inside the November 1969 Battle on the Vietnamese DMZ (McFarland, 225 pp., $35, paper; $18.99, Kindle)  tells the story of one of the biggest battles in the Vietnam War. It took place in November of 1969 and was known as the battle for Hill 100 and also as the Battle of Gallagher Ridge.

Pepi has done an impressive amount of research. There are after action reports, citations, journal accounts, and interviews with fifty men who took part in the fight.

The battle was fought less than two miles from the DMZ where four Fifth Infantry Division rifle companies (around 600 men) met 2,000-3000 NVA troops and battled it out for three days. A Viet Cong document captured near Saigon showed that the NVA attack was timed to coincide with the large Vietnam War Moratorium antiwar demonstrations in the United States planned for November 15th.

Pepi, who was drafted into the Army in March of 1968, served as a 21-year-old  infantryman with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion/61st Infantry Regiment in the Fifth Infantry Division. Four months after he arrived in country, Pepi found himself on the last helicopter that delivered troops into the battle.

He offers unique insights into the story of the men who fought those three days in 1969.

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Pepi in Vietnam

I found the account difficult to follow in some places as Pepi mixed many individual accounts of the battle with full citations. The large number of images, however, added greatly to the book.

I would recommend this book to Vietnam War historians and to anyone who was involved in this action.

—Mark S. Miller

The Phantom Vietnam War by David R. “Buff” Honodel

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To his surprise, F-4 Phantom jock Captain David R. “Buff” Honodel fought his share of the Vietnam War entirely in Laos during his 1969-70 tour of duty. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which provided air power against North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars.

Honodel—who died in February this year before the publication of this book—had prepared “to fight in Vietnam,” he wrote, “not some ancillary backwater skirmish in a primitive, jungle covered wilderness.” Mainly, the 555th crews killed trucks.

Furthermore, Honodel quickly realized that combat missions vastly differed from what he had expected, even though he ranked himself as “the world’s greatest fighter pilot.” Mostly, he had to relearn maneuvers he believed he had mastered because controlling a heavyweight, bomb-laden Phantom was like flying an entirely different aircraft.

Honodel related his experiences in these operations with a sometimes puzzled, but always eager, attitude in The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat Over Laos (University of North Texas Press, 330 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). As a young man, he sought and found excitement, drama, and satisfaction amid the chaos of enemy gunfire and Air Force leadership.

The book thoroughly walks the reader through preparing for and flying fighter-bomber missions against targets seriously defended by antiaircraft weapons. Of Honodel’s 137 combat missions, 53 were as a Night Owl, which taught him a lot about himself. “When I crossed the Fence that first night,” he wrote, “I had no idea that I entered a new war, an environment that brought new terror.”

Night Owls flew in absolute blackness, or as Honodel put it: “About the only thing darker would be the inside of a coffin.” Lessons he learned on both night and day missions fill the book, and their details should delight flying enthusiasts as well as readers unfamiliar with military matters.

Self-criticism overrode much of his airmanship because no matter how well he performed, he still wanted to do better. At times, he viewed perfection as unattainable. Yet he recalled a foolhardy shootout and destruction of an antiaircraft gun and its crew that cleared the way for a successful helicopter rescue of a downed flyer and called the feat “the proudest day of my life.”

Often, Buff Honodel and his squadron mates were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war for reasons such as deaths and disappearances of fellow crewmen; too many tactical restrictions; inappropriate targeting; and illogical expectations from higher headquarters. Their criticism did not diminish their level of dedication to the task, however.

To deepen readers’ understanding of flying the F-4, Honodel provided fourteen pages of images with explanations of the interior of the aircraft’s cockpit, along with a crash course on ejection procedures. He also included twenty-four pages of photographs of the men and weapons discussed throughout the book.

Honodel returned to the United States in mid-1970 to fly the F-4 at Holloman Air Force Base. In 1972, he got to fight in South Vietnam when his squadron unexpectedly deployed to Southeast Asia to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive. He targeted infantry during forty-some missions, which he mentioned only briefly in this book.

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Buff Honodel

The Phantom Vietnam War closes with Honodel’s grim but reasonable conclusions regarding the war’s significance. The men with whom he flew are his heroes, especially those killed or missing in action. He appreciated what they all accomplished more than why they did it.

Honodel admitted to writing The Phantom Vietnam War exclusively from memory. At times, the book has a novelistic tone because he created dialogue and recreated radio transmissions. A few of his generalizations could have been better supported. None of this, however, detracts from the overall impact of his feelings.

Following more than four decades of consideration, they still were fresh and sincere and comprise the foundation for his memoir.

—Henry Zeybel