Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox

Gung-ho to the max but realistic nevertheless, Franklin Cox assembles a preponderance of war stories and several mini-essays in his Vietnam War memoir: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966 (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.59, Kindle). His revealing war stories mainly relate to humping with his unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. Cox’s his mathematical magic guided artillery support for search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. His essays editorialize on situations outside the battlefield.

Cox’s chronology is a bit jumbled, but it doesn’t matter: Each chapter has a life of its own.

Franklin Cox’s adoration for the Marines does not hinder his ability to recognize the Corps’ weaknesses in the Vietnam War. He took part in the historic 1965 amphibious landing that began the big buildup of in-country manpower. He writes that beyond “a handful of senior offices and salty first sergeants,” the rest of the Marines were new to warfare. They soon became the first American troops assigned to “find and kill the enemy” south of Danang in “inhospitable” I Corps.

“When the last Marine units finally left Quang Nam province six years later the objective was never fully accomplished,” Cox notes.

His account of his first months in country overflows with tragedy. He writes about ten days of “incredible mistakes, one after another, that became numbing, commonplace events that befell the greenhorn battalion from the first days it landed.” In “one two-day period 2/9 took more than 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps and recorded not one official VC KIA.” Meanwhile, the rules of engagement that required multiple levels of cover-your-ass approval virtually eliminated timely artillery support. Inflammatory U.S. media reports further disrupted the Marines’ efforts, Cox says.

For the first half of his thirteen-month tour, Cox watched the world unravel from inside the battalion headquarters’ Fire Support Coordination Center. His life changed drastically when he joined the grunts in the field as a forward observer, and voluntarily took part in everyday combat tasks, including walking point. “Frustration and fatigue consumed us,” he writes, although Cox lavishes praise on superiors who skillfully led. He also bluntly disparages leaders who failed to meet their responsibilities.

Cox engaged in his share of intense fighting, and his combat stories sometimes resemble parables that become cryptic. He recalls, for example, watching a Marine platoon leader make a point—using six 106-mm recoilless rifles of an M-50 Ontos—by flattening a well-established schoolhouse after a village chief denied any affiliation with the VC despite booby traps that ringed the village and killed and seriously wounded three Marines.

The surviving “savage” Marines sadly looked away while women and children screamed and cried. The village chief showed no emotion even when the platoon leader called him a son-of-a-bitch. Cox ends the story by saying: “A few months later something happened to another Marine platoon when it entered the same village. Only someone pathetically dumb would have to wonder what happened.” Still, even today Cox respects the VC and NVA.

Cox in Vietnam

Like a goodnight kiss, he includes a short chapter at the end of what he terms unlearned lessons from the Vietnam War.

Cox offers no notes or bibliography. He derived “the essence of his experience” primarily from “scores of letters” written to his mother, he says. Occasionally, he writes about conversations with longtime friends. The book contains a scattering of in-country photos he took. 

Published in 2010, Lullabies for Lieutenants attained classic status among Marines after winning several awards, including the grand prize in the 2014 Story Pros Awards Screenwriting Contest.

—Henry Zeybel

Brothers in the Mekong Delta by Godfrey Garner

Godfrey Garner possesses exceptional storytelling skills. Along with that talent, he has definitive psychological insights about life and about war. He puts that all together in Brothers in the Mekong Delta: A Memoir of PBR Section 513 in The Vietnam War (McFarland, 192 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a memoir of his 1967-68 tour of duty.

 “Following a lengthy break in service,” Garner writes early in the book, “I reentered the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan where missions were planned and often rehearsed for at least a week.” In his book Garner briefly compares that experience to his Vietnam War tour as a naïve young man.

“Vietnam wasn’t a clean war,” Garner says. “Missions in Vietnam were conceived in the morning and carried out in the evening. Though we were all trained pretty well before deploying to Vietnam, once in the country, we realized that there were no training protocols that could have equipped us for what we encountered. It became more and more unconventional on a daily basis.” Later, he adds, “We never planned ahead. We reacted.”

Garner crewed on—and then captained—a 30-foot Riverine Patrol Boat based at the Sadec River Division 513 compound. Navy PBR crews were the cops of the Mekong Delta waterways. They also provided transportation and fire support for SEAL team operations.

He tells his story through the eyes of a twenty-year-old who is still a teenager at heart, as were the men with whom he crewed and spent most of his free time. Befriended for life by Jack Anderson, David Taylor, and Billy Moore, Garner recollects the “new normal” education of them all. “In many ways,” he says, “Vietnam served as a sort of ramped-up kindergarten of life. Our average age was 19.”

Between nearly daily patrols, while lounging and sharing two-dollar PX quarts of Jack Daniels, they discussed survival and death. “We spent a lot of time talking about inane things,” Garner says. “It was our way of seeking balance at times when we didn’t even realize we had lost it.”

Garner also includes accounts of combat. He reports on good results and bad ones, including watching an explosion and fire consume two close friends. Stories about combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive are his best reporting.

His voice projects adult certainties fogged at times by childlike awe in response to the extraordinary. His ability to drag forth memories from fifty years ago amazes me. His descriptions of interactions between friends and foes repeatedly delighted me.

As much as it is a war memoir, Brothers in the Mekong Delta also resembles a textbook on finding direction for the future. The book should be mandatory reading for high school students.

Finding design within a kaleidoscope of emotions, Garner wraps up his observations with a mini-sermon that serves as a grisly reminder of the “strange maturity” brought on by war and the difference between “good” and “right” in combat. Both ideas translate to everyday living. He suggests that understanding the difference of the latter borders on a sacred miracle.

Garner in Afghanistan

In opposition to such absolute certainty, Garner cites a remark by David Taylor that concluded a deep philosophical discussion:

“Course, you realize how seriously fucked up that actually is.”

Garner is his own best example of applying method toward outcome. Today, he is a professor at Mississippi College, as well as an adjunct at Tulane University and Belhaven University in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. In addition to his doctorate in counseling psychology, he is working on a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Godfrey Graner retired from the Army in 2006. He wound up serving two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. He has written several books and more than fifty magazine articles on counterinsurgency.

—Henry Zeybel

A Backseat View from the Phantom by Fleet S. Lentz

   

I did time at Ubon, U-Tapao, Nakhon Phanom, and Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force bases during the Vietnam War. And I knew guys from Takhli, Udorn, and Korat. But I never heard of Nam Phong RTAFB until I read A Backseat View from the Phantom: A Memoir of a Marine Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam (McFarland, 229 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Retired Marine Corps Col. Fleet S. Lentz, Jr.

As part of the wind down of the Vietnam War, the Marines moved the F-4 Phantoms of the VMFA-115 Silver Eagles from Da Nang in South Vietnam to Nam Phong in Thailand. From there, the squadron bombed targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia for 15 months from 1972-73. Never completed for its original purpose, Nam Phong had been a “bare base” used by the CIA to support the dispersal and staging of theater forces.

Lentz served as a Radar Intercept Officer with the Silver Eagles. “To my knowledge,” he says, “no one has written of the Marine aviation effort during those final months.” By the time he arrived in Southeast Asia, Lentz writes, “Marine infantry had been pulled out of Vietnam, as had Army infantry. We were the last Marines in combat in Southeast Asia.”

Lentz wrote the book primarily from memory, but also used information from conversations he had with others stationed at Nam Phong, his Aviator Flight Log, and a Silver Eagles Cruise Book reminiscent of a high school yearbook. He identifies people by title, call sign, or nickname.

Lentz tells his tale in four acts from the viewpoint of a 26-year-old first lieutenant. The first—”My New World”—concentrates on the wealth of privations at Nam Phong, which Marines called the Rose Garden. The base featured a 10,000-foot runway that Lentz says resembled “a long hazy gash or a dirty flesh wound with a faint gray line down the middle.”

The living and working areas consisted of canvas tents above plywood floors on hardened dirt. The tallest building was “the shortest control tower I had even seen,” Lentz says. It looked like “a wooden water tank on stilts or maybe a deer blind.” The facilities, in other words, were deplorable. On the plus side, the Silver Eagles had an unparalleled commander.

Lentz plays a hyper-positive role in Act Two—”Hops”—the Marine term for a takeoff and landing. He learned by doing and tells all about perfecting Phantom crew skills: air-to-air re-fueling, in-flight emergencies, bomb runs, night operations in absolute darkness, missiles, air-to-air combat tactics, and frags (self-inflicted damage caused by flying through your own bomb shrapnel pattern).

“Air crews didn’t have much true intelligence as to their targets,” Lentz says. Generally, a crew flew to a designated area in Laos or Cambodia, hooked up with a forward air controller, and went after the targets the FAC designated. “We assisted allied ground forces, but we never knew for certain who they were,” Lentz says. After American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in January 1973, bombing was limited to Cambodia.

Lentz carefully analyzes relationships between pilots and RIOs, who very much needed each other. Because the same pilot and RIO did not commonly fly together, irregular teaming up occasionally caused personality problems, and Lentz’s stories on the subject provide excellent entertainment.

His narrative style has a matter-of-fact quality that is more lesson-like than adventure-packed. Of course, the facts of combat and flying beyond Mach 1 need no hyperbole. His stories satisfyingly recollect good and bad times, and he sometimes even pokes fun at his own naiveté.

Act Three—”Special Times, Special People”—continues his dive into the psyches of fellow flyers. He offers insider views of combat pilot behavior that defy understanding and yet produce admiration. An underlying theme in most of his stories is the willingness of one man to help another. To improve a unit, “salts” (older Marines) shared their knowledge and experiences with new guys. “Unit loyalty in the Marine Corps was and is paramount,” Lentz says.         

The final act—”Things Changed”—discusses Operation Sunset, the departure of the Silver Eagles from the Rose Garden. Lentz moved to the higher echelon of Marine Air Group 15 as a supply and then an embarkation officer. He disliked the supply job until he was allowed to act independently. Some accounts of his cumshawing (scrounging) gear for Marines border on legend. For embarkation, Lentz directed 23 days of “shipping everything out,” he says, and was one of the last men to depart from Nam Phong, leaving the base either to the Thais or the jungle.

Visiting Officers’ Quarters as Nam Phong Air Base in Thailand

Scattered photographs dress up the book. A series of appendices add perspective about the war and Lentz’s squadron’s history and leadership.

Operation Sunset provided the final lesson in Fleet Lentz’s wartime career, but what he learned at Nam Phong impelled him to stay in the Marine Corps and make it a career. The men with whom he flew provided outstanding role models. Several pilots at the Rose Garden became generals.

The book’s most significant lesson is the importance of learning from one’s superiors and modeling one’s behavior accordingly when in a leadership role. Lentz mastered that task.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fleetlentz

—Henry Zeybel  

American Dreamer by Tim Tran

Tim Tran’s American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America (Pacific University Press, 390 pp. $18.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an engaging and very readable book. Tim Tran is the Americanized version of the author’s Vietnamese name, Tran Manh Khiem. A first-time author, he has delivered a nice tale.

Tran begins his story—written with Tom Fields-Meyer—as a four-year-old on a U.S. Navy boat with his parents as they fled the North Vietnam in 1954. The family eventually settled in Saigon in South Vietnam.

We move with the author through a series of short chapters, few more than four or five pages long, all divided up into eight parts that signal important changes and developments in his life. Each of the chapters could almost stand alone. They are presented as if they were transcribed from a series of after-dinner reminiscences by the author. Tran’s memory of names and dates and places translates into a pleasant progression.

We follow Tran as he moves through school in Saigon with stories about his student shenanigans, then on to a prestigious high school. He applies and is selected for a USAID scholarship to attend college in the U.S. Tran and the woman who would later become his wife were sent to Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend Pacific University.

Tran portrays his life and times as an American university student wonderfully, even with difficulties dealing with cultural and language issues. He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a degree in Economics.

Upon his return to Vietnam in the early 1970s, Tran author went to work for Shell, the worldwide oil company. He rose steadily through the ranks, and had attained a good position when the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. His chapters on life under the communist regime are very revealing to those do not know the harsh deprivations many South Vietnamese were forced to endure under the new regime.

Tim Tran

Tran describes many attempts to escape from Vietnam. He and his family eventually fled by boat to Indonesia in 1979. His stories of the pirates who pillaged the group are particularly graphic.

From an Indonesian refugee camp, Tran Manh Khiem, with his family, was finally able to return to the U.S., where he began life anew and become a successful businessman. He and his wife Cathy (her Americanized name) became U.S. citizens and prospered. In Tran’s final chapters, he writes of his deeply held love for the U.S.

American Dreamer is a well-written memoir that deserves a place on your book shelf.

The author’s website is timtranamericandreamer.com

–Tom Werzyn

Bleeding Spirits by Robert E. Jewell

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Robert Jewell’s memoir, Bleeding Spirits: A Combat Soldier’s Memoir of the Vietnam War (Sweetgrass, 189 pp. $19.58, paper), is an exceptional look at the effects of fighting in a war have on a combatant’s personality and behavior. Jewell’s directness when writing about the men he killed overwhelmed me for a short time. Then his attitude confirmed a self-evident truth: No apology is ever necessary for killing an enemy in war.

In this book Bob Jewell tells a deeply reflective and therapeutic story of his 416 days as a Vietnam War grunt with the Americal Division near Chu Lai. His reflexive talent for shooting enemy soldiers caused him consternation, which resulted in repeated personal re-evaluations. Despite self-punishing introspection, Jewell’s physical strength and mental acuity turned him into a consummate warrior.  

In telling his story Jewell wastes no time with writing about his Army training. He takes the reader directly into combat and describes his first kill in minute detail—a North Vietnamese soldier who looked like a 15-year-old boy.   

Draftee Jewell arrived in-country as a replacement at the onset of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Shortly before that, his company of 120 men was reduced to 17. He soon saw several  killed and horribly maimed, he says, and “quickly morphed into a rage-filled savage.” Jewell describes this transition as “an automatic, almost normal change” that made him “lust for killing.” Grossly undermanned, his company nevertheless spent inordinate time in the field. One mission lasted 52 days.

Two of Jewell’s many battlefield experiences reached historic proportions. In the first, 10,000-15,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded and captured Kham Duc in May 1968. In the second, his company walked into an overwhelming large NVA force and fought a night-long battle that devolved into “a firefight in an artillery barrage” with “gunfights at a range of four feet,” as Jewell puts it.             

Wounded three times and hospitalized once during his 14-month tour, Jewell had dozens of other close calls. When facing what appeared to be imminent death, his mind all but shut down and recorded no memory of the event’s outcome. Those experiences created “fragments of mysterious free-floating images” that drifted in and out of his mind, he writes, “no more than mere ‘snapshot photos’ of faces or scenes providing me with no before-or-after context.” Those images lasted for decades.

What he experienced was too profound to ignore. The images created confusion that defied logic and reality, he says, and burdened him with post-traumatic stress. Despite living with PTSD, Bob Jewell enjoyed a distinguished thirty-year career as a teacher and counselor in Helena, Montana. In 2003, after a series of personal tragedies, he began a six-week inpatient program of “long, intense days and nights to reconcile critical secrets.”

Jewell’s analysis of his treatment for PTSD concludes that combat-induced trauma contains more questions than answers, and the restorative power of treatment has limitations. He accepts that many of his important experiences in the Vietnam War are lost to repressed memories.

“Rather than fight the memory,” he says, “I now try to accept is as a friendly reminder that I was one of the lucky ones to survive some of the worst combat shit possible.”

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Bob Jewell in country, 1968

Bleeding Spirits contains 33 pages of Jewell’s letters that spoke truths to family members. In one, for example, he wrote:

“The gooks shot down a plane nearby, and we had to go to the rescue. We found the plane burning and exploding. The pilot was dead, cooked in fact, and we had to pull him out in pieces.”

Throughout the book, Jewell’s other stories are equally candid. They parallel the insanity of moments when, as he says, “Every rule of war, religion, and humanity was instantly obliterated. The non-rules of total chaos took over!!!”

He overlays this candidness with a thin coating of detachment that validates what he saw and did. I greatly admire him.

Robert E. Jewell died of cancer in 2017. His memoir is perfect testimony to warfare’s limitless destructiveness of body, mind, and spirit.

—Henry Zeybel

 

A Trucker’s Tale by Ed Miller

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Ed Miller’s A Trucker’s Tale: Wit Wisdom, and True Stories from 60 Years on the Road (Apollo Publishers, 186 pp., $22, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a notably refreshing little book.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to any number of folks who have riding in a big rig on their bucket lists; Miller’s book is a wonderful opportunity to vicariously clear that item off your list.

Miller begins his 18-wheeler tales of adventure as a youngster on the family farm in rural North Carolina. Then he brings us along with a breezy, conversational, and at times delicately profane story that reads like an extended bar-stool homily.

Reared by a family of truckers, Miller recounts dozens of anecdotes from a group of folks right out of central casting: neighbors, parents, grandparents, siblings.

In the late 1960s, after a halfhearted college effort, Ed Miller tells us, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the Seabees based in part on his familiarity with trucks and heavy equipment. He hoped the Navy would help to further his training and experience with trucks.

Miller soon found himself in the Vietnam War sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck in Da Nang.  His chapter on boot camp and advanced training with his Seabee battalion alone is worth the price of admission. The antics he relates are well worth reading. His in-country stories are as fun as they can be in a war zone, and certainly are an interesting view of a side of the war that most of us are unfamiliar with.  

Returning from the service and moving through his work in  the trucking industry, Miller keeps us turning pages—if only to see if he can outdo himself describing yet another on-the-road incident.

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Ed Miller

Interestingly, laced through most of the stories is a subtle undercurrent of personal honesty, and a sense of honor and performing good deeds. Miller is a Knight of the Highway because of his helpfulness and can-do spirit. He briefly addresses the decline of that sense of duty and service today.

In this, his first book, Ed Miller has come up with a well-written and well-edited one. It moves along nicely; you can read it in just about one sitting.

If you’ve ever driven trucks, or wanted to, you’ll be nodding in agreement all the way through this one.

–Tom Werzyn

No Where Man by Stephen J. Piotrowski

 

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As Stephen Piotrowski makes clear in No Where Man: One Soldier’s Journey Home from Vietnam (450 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) being in combat for a year is emotionally and physically draining, and the experience of coming home can be no less traumatic and stressful. Piotrowski’s story is like that of countless young veterans who have returned home from a war and found it nearly impossible to let go of what had been an all-consuming time in their lives.

As I read about his struggles I thought that this is what many war veterans need to write, even if it’s just a personal journal, to externalize the emotions and get them out in the open to be dealt with, and ultimately put to rest.

The book starts during the author’s final days as an RTO with the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in 1970, and the beginnings of his alienation as he finds it difficult to decompress in the rear at his battalion’s base camp. From there, his emotions continually erupt as he transitions in little more than twenty-four hours from the war zone to a very, very different world back home.

Anyone coming home from war will recall many of the same feelings and experiences Piotrowski, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, describes as he reluctantly prepared to leave his combat buddies and return to a country where he no longer fit in. Adding to the confusion back home were family and friends who appeared to have little or no interest in what he had undergone or was now going through.

An RTO in the field in Vietnam

One of the most mindless questions he heard again and again—just as many of us have—was, “Did you kill anybody?”

Aside from a brother who had returned from combat the year before, there was practically no one to help him sort out his confusion and alienation. A car mechanic who had been in the Korean War said it was the same for him when he returned. What made it worse was the contemptuous attitude of many World War II veterans who dismissed Korea as a nothing war. That same attitude would be experienced by many of us coming home from Vietnam; hence the founding principle of Vietnam Veterans of America: Never Again Will One Generation of Veterans Abandon Another.

It’s difficult to believe that those who had known war would reject returning war veterans who needed their support. For the author nearly everything seemed so bewildering. Even everyday sounds and sights took on ominous meanings in his mind.

I read each page carefully to catch all his take-aways as confusing sensations arose from things happening to and around him. I kept recalling similar moments that I had when I came home from my war. I can still remember well my involuntary reaction when I was walking to college classes and heard the high-pitched noise of metal on metal made by worn-out brakes. The sound was nearly identical to the final seconds of incoming North Vietnamese artillery rounds fired at us day and night during the battle for Khe Sanh. Who on campus could possibly imagine what was going through my mind at that moment?

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Piotrowski in country

 

This book doesn’t attempt to explain the Vietnam War or describe the battles that were fought. It’s an every-man’s account of one young soldier trying to come to grips with his war and then struggling to bring closure to it.

In the end, Stephen Piotrowski realized that the first giant step for him to leave the war behind was to take control of his life and not wait for others to make the decisions.

It is on that positive note that the book ends.

–John Cirafici

Fury by Joe Myles

Joe Myles wrote Fury: A Soldier’s Journey (Salt Water Media, 174 pp. $19.95, paper) to record his military experiences for his sons and grandchildren. In the book Myles describes his life as an infantryman with the Big Red One, the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division, in the Vietnam War during his 1968-69 tour of duty. He also uses the book to teach his offspring lessons from experiences far beyond ordinary life.           

For example, after witnessing several members of his platoon die in combat, Myles says that he stopped dwelling on the loss of life. “I don’t feel I had become insensitive,” he writes. “I just shut down in some way, just to be able to cope. Our wonderful minds have a way of protecting us by putting us on automatic pilot to allow us to continue to function.”

As a draftee a year out of high school, Myles rapidly adapted to the Army’s demands. He demonstrated leadership skills and facility with weapons in infantry AIT and the accelerated NCO candidate course (AKA “Shake ‘n Bake School) at Fort Benning’s Infantry School, and during his brief duty as a drill instructor at Fort Polk. After less than a year on active duty, Myles was promoted to Staff Sergeant, E-6.          

How Joe Myles accomplished that feat is a marvelous story that takes up the first half of the book.           

Old timers resented his rapid rise through the ranks and questioned his abilities, which he more than adequately repeatedly proved to them while conducting search-and-destroy missions from Lai Khe Base Camp in South Vietnam. Assigned to a brigade woefully undermanned because of casualties, Myles was chosen to lead a platoon, a position normally filled by a lieutenant. Employing tactics he learned at Fort Benning made him more than the equal of OCS graduates. When a replacement lieutenant arrived, Myles’ company commander assigned him elsewhere and Myles kept his platoon leader slot.

Eventually, a glut of new lieutenants reduced Myles to the position of platoon sergeant. Soon after, however, the company commander called on him to pick a squad and lead a difficult rescue mission, a success for which Myles received a Bronze Star.                         

His strangest encounter occurred after his point men got lost in a rainstorm. His unit then walked into a firefight with NVA troops—at their Cambodian R&R camp. “We couldn’t report the battle results,” Myles says, “because we were out of country.”

After being hit by an RPG during an attack on Hill 178, his company commander’s last words appointed Myles to lead the company, which Myles did until his men reached the plateau and a lieutenant colonel replaced him. That’s when Myles suffered a horrendous chest wound. He survived and returned to his unit with four months left to serve in Vietnam. 

Myles’ accounts of combat make interesting reading because he experienced the Vietnam War from both the level of a grunt and that of a commander. Regardless of his leadership status or the task, Myles took part in everything his men did.

Despite an offer to remain on active duty with a choice between a commission as a second lieutenant or a promotion to Sergeant First Class, E-7—which would have made him the youngest SFC in the Army—Myles decided to accepted a discharge after arriving home in July 1969.

Big Red One troops in Vietnam

His final lesson to his offspring appears in an epilogue, and compares life to a roller-coaster ride.  As Myles puts it: “When you’re at the top of your game and taking a dive toward the bottom, throw your arms up above your head and enjoy the ride, because you won’t be at the bottom long.”

The book closes with twelve pages of color photographs. Their arrangement triggered flashbacks to the book’s major episodes, making them a perfect conclusion to the memoir of an exceptional warrior. 

—Henry Zeybel

Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm

Although Edward F. Palm titles his book Tiger Papa Three: Memoir of a Combined Action Marine in Vietnam (McFarland, 213 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), it includes stories from his first seventy years of life told in an existential, nonlinear narrative. The subtitle for a self-published edition of the book more closely describes it: The Illustrated Confessions of a Simple Working-Class Lad from New Castle, Delaware.                      

Ed Palm started life as the child of a selfish mother in a broken home. He overcame that, and went on to earn a doctorate in English, appointments as a dean of two colleges, a fifty-year marriage, fatherhood, and a career in the U.S. Marine Corps. At eighteen, with barely an inkling about the war in Vietnam or the realities of life, he ran away from home, and enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Along with many detours that recall other phases of his life, Palm includes descriptions of two distinct periods of his 1966-67 tour in the Vietnam War. During the first half the young Marine performed menial supply duties, which he loathed. So he volunteered for the Combined Action Program (CAP), a counterinsurgency plan that supplemented search-and-destroy tactics with self-help projects and better security to raise living standards for villagers—in Palm’s case, between Cam Lo and Dong Ha, ten kilometers from the DMZ.

Led by a sergeant, thirteen enlisted Marines and a Navy corpsman comprised the Tiger Papa Three CAP in which Palm served. The men worked with forty members of the Vietnamese Popular Forces, soldiers analogous to U.S. National Guardsmen. The U.S. Army offered no help or encouragement, Palm says. He labels CAP as the Marines’ “enlightened gesture of dissent” against a strategy that was “proving to be self-defeating.”

With a bow to Tim O’Brien, Palm says he tells it “the way it mostly was, which “could sometimes be fine.” His stories of fellow soldiers, combat, difficulties in working with the PFs, and attempts to win the hearts and minds of civilians provide entertaining and informative reading. His Tiger Papa Three teammates are his heroes.

When discussing life’s problems, Palm frequently finds support for his solutions by citing quotes from world-famous novelists and playwrights. He is critical of himself and analytic about his past. At the same time, he displays a restrained sense of humor. Logic, challenged by unpredictable and unexpected events, is his forte as both soldier and civilian.

Beyond reminiscences of the Vietnam War, Palm delves into common controversial aspects of life, particularly those related to women and the different forms of intercourse between the sexes. He also strives to clarify connections between politics and war.          

Ed Palm

An excellent collection of photographs, mostly shot by Palm, supplement the text.

Palm has written three other books—two about coming of age and one a very short political treatise. Anyone with even a vague interest in military matters or life in general should enjoy his insights in Tiger Papa Three.

The book’s website is edwardfpalm.homestead.com/TigerPapaThree.html

—Henry Zeybel

The Freedom Shield by John D. Falcon

Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.

Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.

Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.   

That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.  

Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.

He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.  

With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalry was continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone. 

In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”

This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.

— John Cirafici