Under Fire with ARVN Infantry by Bob Worthington

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Over the years American Vietnam War veterans have written countless books about their war experiences. In Under Fire with ARVN Infantry: Memoir of a Combat Advisor in Vietnam 1966-1967 (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper), Bob Worthington brings us a story, as the subtitle indicates, of an American adviser assigned to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. By his reckoning, during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam starting in 1945, more than 66,300 American advisers worked with the South Vietnamese military.

In a relatively short and compact book, we are introduced to a side of the conflict not commonly considered or explored. All of us in Vietnam knew there were advisers for most everything, but back then didn’t think about it all that much.

Worthington begins his story in the late 1950s when he was out of high school and not ready to handle college. So he enlisted in the Marines in early 1957. He takes us along on his adventures in boot camp and his release from the Marine Corps two years later to return to college. From the Marine Reserves he transferred to Army ROTC and then to active duty.

He got married, and he held a series of jobs at home and overseas. Before he went to Vietnam Worthington completed Special Warfare Training and the Military Assistance Training Advisor course at Ft. Bragg, as well as Vietnamese language school at the Presidio. In-country, Capt. Worthington worked with ARVN units in Da Nang, Hoi An, An Hoa. and other areas of I Corps.

Worthington relates his experiences and reactions using little direct dialogue, opting instead for indirect quotes and attributions. He goes into detail about encounters with the NVA and VC, replying primarily on his daily journals and unit histories. The Vietnamese officers and personnel he worked with are well portrayed. His descriptions of riding on an O-1 Birddog and on board a fire mission with a Snoopy Gunship alone are worth the price of admission.

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Worthington (left) in Vietnam

He briefly goes into “oft ignored” inter-service rivalries, and the derisive attitude of some U.S. officers about the Advisory programs. After a second tour as an adviser in 1968-69, Worthington left active duty and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was involved with research on returning troops and POW’s, and was a psychological consultant with the Army’s Health Services Command.

Worthington found success in civilian life as a writer, University of New Mexico professor, and business owner. Under Fire with ARVN Infantry is a good story by a good man—and a good soldier.

—Tom Werzyn

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Vietnam: There & Back by Jim “Doc” Purtell

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“Truth cuts to the bone,” according to Jim “Doc” Purtell.

He uses a truth-above-all writing formula in Vietnam: There & Back: A Combat Medic’s Chronicle (Hellgate Press, 182 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle) to examine his year with Charlie Company of the 1/6th in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade operating out of Chu Lai in 1968-69.

After growing up in rural Wisconsin with eleven brothers and sisters, Purtell enlisted in the Army to escape a domineering father. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in the war zone. Before entering the Army, he knew nothing about Vietnam and had never traveled more than ninety miles from home.

Purtell readily recalls the trauma he felt throughout eight months in combat. He frequently uses the word “scary” to describe life-threatening situations—and those come before the shooting begins.

As a medic, he experienced the downside of humping with the infantry: Back-to-back-to-back ambushes on the same day; a mortar salvo that instantly killed four men; needlessly taking one hill and then another; and being constantly undermanned and overworked.

In his unit, medics normally served six months in the field and then moved to duty at the LZ Bayonet Medical Clinic. A shortage of medics, however, kept Purtell in the field for two additional months, a time when the intensity of his company’s combat encounters increased disproportionately.

Short-timers often insisted on walking close to him in case they were injured. Using this tactic, three men suffered wounds beyond Purtell’s ability to save them. He describes such horrendous events bluntly and succinctly: For example, “Busse had been hit in the heart, and blood was gushing out of his chest with tremendous force.”

Medic school had emphasized how to treat people in a hospital and not on the battlefield, he says. He believes that the trainees were not shown what battle wounds really looked like because the instructors feared the wash-out rate would soar. As a result, Purtell felt guilty that the inadequate training forced him to learn doctoring under fire.

At times, he records his emotions in a voice brimming with puzzlement, plus a touch of naivety. He repeatedly questions why he joined the Army, his role in life, and the meaning of his existence. Occasionally, he appears to be a stranger to himself.

Purtell tells of one incident that still haunts him. At the same time, he describes his heroics in a matter-of-fact tone that strongly relies on what others have said about his actions. He gave me the impression that he unselfishly risked his life out of respect for the men with whom he served. Their needs were the impetus for his devotion to duty.

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People, he writes, “have a better understanding of what we went through over there,” he says. Furthermore, reliving the war gave him a clearer understanding of his life’s course. Doc Purtell worked strictly from memory and says that once he started writing the book,  he found himself “typing as quickly as my fingers would hit the keys.”

The final product contains seven photographs that include him, but he forgoes notes, bibliography, or an index.

Following the war, Purtell earned BA and MA degrees that led to a career in veteran counseling.

His website is jimpurtell.com

—Henry Zeybel

Catkiller 3-2 by Raymond G. Caryl

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Raymond G. Caryl’s Vietnam War story is a unique one. Manning U.S. Army fixed-wing Cessna 0-1 Birddogs, he and other 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company pilots flew under the operational control of the Marine Corps.

Tasked with search-and-destroy missions in I Corps, Marine infantrymen needed airborne visual reconnaissance to guide close air support, but the Marines didn’t have adequate aircraft or pilots. So Gen. William Westmoreland assigned the job to the Army’s 220th RAC.

Closing a gap in the Marine order of battle filled Caryl with pride. His recollection of that time in Catkiller 3-2: An Army Pilot Flying for the Marines in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 264 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $29.95, Kindle) reflects his admiration and adulation for the Marines he served with in the war.

Carly and the 220th flew out of Phu Bai during 1967-68. Students of the war might recognize familiar information and situations in this book, but in most cases Caryl provides new twists to old tales. Plus, his explanations of events have depth.

The book also includes the bigger picture and serves as both a personal memoir and a unit history. Along with describing the missions that he flew for the Marines, Caryl blends in spur-of-the-moment ops such as helicopter rescues and sorties in support of Special Forces troops. He puts the reader in the pilot’s seat by amazingly recalling opening covers, toggling switches, and removing safety pins, along with the other actions required to fly the Birddog.

The training conducted by the Marines and the development of new aerial observer skills by the 220th pilots played a big part in the combined operation, which developed smoothly. Caryl labels the effort as “just a little different,” but he then points out events well beyond the Birddog norm such as hazardous flying over the demilitarized zone.

Caryl knows whereof he speaks. His aviation career stretched from 1966-2004. After six-and-a-half years on active duty, he flew for the Army Reserve and National Guard, as well as both the U.S. Forest Service and the Customs Service. He ended his civilian career as a contract helicopter pilot fighting forest fires. He summarizes his 3,200-plus hours in helicopters by saying, “I survived.”

Catkiller 3-2 contains eight pages of photographs, a bibliography, and an index, but no footnotes

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Catkiller crews at Vinh Long Airfield

In summarizing his adventures, Caryl closes with words of advice that I have given when talking to young men about career choices:

“Do not reject serving in the U.S. military as a stepping-stone to lifelong success and satisfaction.”

—Henry Zeybel

Circus of the Absurd by James O’Leary

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In Circus of the Absurd (Focused Publishing, 375 pp. $15.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle),  James O’Leary definitely reigns as ringmaster. Based on the cover or the title page, the book’s contents are either “Notes from the Clown Car, Vietnam 67-68,” or “A Novel Look at our War in Vietnam.” In both cases, “absurd” rings true.

The novel also serves as Jim O’Leary’s war memoir. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he says he had input from “several fellow Vietnam veterans” at an Orlando VFW post.

The book’s stories live up to the “circus” in the title: Practically everyone Leary describes had an act. Usually it was a scam to make money or to abuse power. O’Leary himself tried illegal money exchanging and ghost writing before settling on black market PX Courvoisier cognac. That income financed his acting-out desires. Along the way, he met many interesting people with clever schemes, such as manufacturing and selling counterfeit war souvenirs.

O’Leary’s storytelling has no boundaries. His ability to embellish events reminded me of Carl Hiaasen‘s talent for amusing readers. He examines whatever trips through his mind. At one point, he resolves the arguments surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, I tuned him out, but his determination to entertain soon won me back. The humor often hides within irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and ridicule.

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O’Leary’s main desire centered on carnal pursuit of women. His success in this quest proved formidable and made me recall the escapades in Tom Jones. Sexually, there was no such thing as too much, but friendship also counted.

Trained as an armor crewman, O’Leary’s bachelor’s degree in journalism earned him a job as an Army information specialist USARV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut and, later, Long Binh. He worked days and met his obligations, but his nights were free and Saigon’s women called. A twenty-three year old draftee with no real responsibility, he behaved more like a man on vacation than a soldier in a war zone. He describes one day as “doing my perpetual tourist thing.”

Not unexpectedly, the war intruded on his pleasure and O’Leary witnessed the deaths of friends and foes, along with being a target himself. Defending a base perimeter constituted his major contribution to the war, and that too turned farcical. He finished his tour by returning to Saigon from a Bangkok R&R amid the 1968 Tet Offensive, a tale that could stand alone as a novella.

O’Leary’s wartime journey followed a path well worn by others, but his approach was highly personalized. Here’s his summary of the Vietnam War:

“I had to hand it to LBJ. If you’re going to hold a war, do it somewhere warm, with an abundance of beautiful women, a low cost standard of living, and a very benign attitude toward unbridled sex, smoking dope, and other assorted hedonistic pursuits.”

Even a one-way ticket to Hell might possibly provide first-class seating.

—Henry Zeybel

Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla

Blades of Thunder by W. Larry Dandridge

Blades of Thunder: The True Stories of Army Helicopter Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and Door Gunners in Vietnam, Book One (TVV Publishing, 428 pp. $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of love, admiration, and respect for men that author W. Larry Dandridge served with in the Vietnam War.

Initially published Blades of Thunder in 2015, Dandridge updated the book late in 2017 partly to earn money to support Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves families of veterans undergoing treatment at the local VA Medical Center. He also voluntarily fills several advisory roles at the Center. For the retired Army lieutenant colonel, life has no dull moments.

Dandridge is an old-school raconteur who finds interest in personalities as well as events. His stories revolve around friends he made while learning to fly helicopters and then going to Vietnam together. During an assignment with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang in 1968-69, Dandridge flew Hueys.

The book’s opening chapter describes his crash in a helicopter, his severe injuries, and his physical reconstruction. The chapter is a stunning opening for a long series of flying stories about chaotic situations and other adventures.

Amid the war scenes, Dandridge includes an award-winning leadership speech he presents that sets standards for any leader, military or civilian. This demanding kick-ass address puts everyone and everything in place. He counterbalances his authoritarianism with clever jokes.

The book’s many images include detailed captions that give the reader an on-the-scene feeling. Among the book’s eleven appendices, a collection of forty-four “Lessons Learned and Lessons Perhaps Not Learned” is the most noteworthy. In it, Dandridge evaluates warfare in thought-provoking lessons that cover issues from grand strategy to day-by-day tactics.

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On the higher level, he suggests an isolationist approach by America to military intervention overseas. He summarizes many lessons at this level by labeling them “only partially learned.”

Most lessons for everyday tactics, which constitute the bulk of the appendix, conclude with “learned but…” and require “today’s aviators [to] benefit from reviewing such lessons.” Others focus on people and projects deserving special recognition.

As a fan of helicopter crews, I look forward to Book Two, which Dandridge indicates will be published by the end of this year.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul