Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

Soldier On by Tran B. Quan

In 1978, along with 340 other Vietnamese Boat People, four-year-old Tran Quan and her family escaped their homeland. After a year in a refugee camp in Thailand, they immigrated to America.

Tran Quan’s new memoir, Soldier On: My Father, His General, & the Long Road from Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 240 pp. $26.95, paper: $9.95, Kindle) is an inspiring book in which she tells the story of her family in Vietnam and in the U.S.A.

Soldier On focuses mainly on two former ARVN soldiers: Lt. Le Quan (Tran’s father) and Maj. Gen. Tran Ba Di (Le Quan’s commander). Le Quan was attached to the 16th Regiment, in the Army of South Vietnam’s 9th Infantry Division; Tran Ba Di commanded the 9th Infantry Division. During years of fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, the two men met and formed a bond of recognition and respect.

The story begins with the childhoods of both Le Quan and Tran Ba Di and continues through their Army careers, their service in the war, their internments in communist re-education camps, their immigration to the U.S., and their final years.

The book is appropriately titled Soldier On, as it chronicles two men who continually tried to achieve something despite running into difficulties. Tran’s parents and the general soldiered on throughout their lives.

Upon arriving in America (Le Quan in 1979 and Tran Ba Di in 1993), the former soldiers made new lives for themselves and their families. On a combined family road trip in 2015 from Orlando to Key West, Le Quan and Tran Ba Di renewed their old friendship and built new ties.

As that trip proceeded, stories materialized. Soldier On presents those stories, which give a seldom-heard perspective of the American War in Vietnam and shed light on the everyday lives of Vietnamese military personnel. I learned a good deal about how the South Vietnamese people carried on with their lives normally during the war despite the death and destruction around them.

Le Quan’s family worked hard and achieved the American Dream: they owned a car, a house, and their own business. Tran Ba Di settled in Orlando where he worked until the age of 74.

In 2002, Tran Quan graduated from college. She joined the U.S. Army, graduated from medical school, and served four years active duty as an Army doctor.

I strongly recommend Soldier On.

–Bob Wartman

On Full Automatic by William V. Taylor Jr.

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Those lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” were very evident during William V. Taylor’s early days serving with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion in the 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam in 1967-68. But as time wore on, casualties and rotations took experienced leaders off the battlefield. They were replaced with inexperienced leaders who were more concerned with their own survival and careers than with the survival and success of their men.

In his amazing new memoir, On Full Automatic: Surviving 13 months in Vietnam (Deep Water Press, 352 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) Taylor recounts his nightmarish Vietnam War experience. The book opens on April 26, 1967, with 18-year-old Bill Taylor on board the USS Duluth, an amphibious transport ship. He and his fellow C/1/3 Marines were about to be helicoptered to a field 20 miles south of Da Nang. That’s when Taylor’s tug-of-war began, as the Marines took a location, only to give it back and return later to take it again.

Taylor tells of many enemy engagements, some large and some small, some won and some lost. In nearly all of them, there were two common denominators: incompetent leaders and casualties. He describes his tour of duty in a way that put me right there with him. Throughout the book I experienced fear, anger, and sadness—and very little jubilation.

Taylor’s humility and matter-of-fact honesty overwhelmed me. As did his unwavering bravery and aggression on the battlefield. He includes some raw language used at that time and place. Some readers might find that offensive, but I found it essential in bringing me into the action.

I highly recommend On Full Automatic.

–Bob Wartman

Taylor’s website, which includes a photos of C/1/3 Marines in Vietnam, is williamvtaylor.com

Flying With the Spooks by Herbert Shippey

In Flying with the Spooks: Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 242 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) Herbert Shippey tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty, including how “all that good intel” about enemy air activity was collected and put to use. This is an intriguing tale for those of us who had not thought about how the U.S. military gathered that kind of intelligence in the Vietnam War.

Shippey tells a rambling story that includes his background, his Navy enlistment after he was about to be drafted into the U.S. Army after completing graduate school in June 1969, and his recruit and Vietnamese language. The heart of this memoir is Shippey’s recounting of the work he did while assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Support Detachment at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

Shippey flew SIGINT (Signal Intelligence, or Intercept) reconnaissance in several aircraft designed for just such missions: the EC-121 Warning Star, the repurposed, prop-driven Constellation; the P-3 Orion; and the two-engine jet A-3 Sky Warrior. He was the guy who had the head phones on, listening intently (and recording on reel-to-reel tapes) to everything he could gather from the airwaves. Hot intel was relayed directly to pilots for immediate action.

Shippey flew almost daily on patterns that took him over the Gulf of Tonkin and back west over Laos, Thailand, along the North Vietnamese border in unarmed aircraft. His flights were sometimes accompanied by F-4 Phantoms for security, but they were often re-routed when other missions gained priority.

Shippey describes the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, the South China Sea, and the war-torn areas on the ground, as well as American installations and their surrounding towns and villages.

He intersperses travelogue-like observations of the places he visited, things he saw, books he read, music he enjoyed, and conversations he had with fellow self-professed nerds. The book has an index, but a better addition might have been a Glossary of basic Intel terms, including the definition of the word “spook” in intelligence circles.

All in all, Flying with the Spooks was an interesting read,

–Tom Werzyn

Chico’s Promise by Mike Monahan

This book will keep librarians guessing. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it fable, biography, or autobiography? Ultimately, it’s a war story about a warrior who served with valor in the Vietnam War but was ultimately disrespected. In this case, the warrior is a dog.

The dog—Chico—is also the book’s narrator. I know—I was prepared to dismiss a book narrated by a dog, too. But in VVA member Mike Monahan’s capable hands, Chico’s Promise: A Superhero, Lives Saved and a Promise Made! (ThinkMonahan, 150 pp. $25) works. Chico thoroughly describes the U.S. military dog program during the Vietnam War: how dogs were recruited and trained, what they were trained for, what their daily lives were like in country, and the actions they took to save American lives.

Chico, a dog once discarded as too rough and aggressive, and Monahan slowly learned to trust each other when they began working together in Tay Ninh in 1969. By overcoming mutual misgivings, man and dog endured the training and learned the hard lessons that enabled them to become a team that used Chico’s superior canine hearing, sight, and sense of smell to avoid catastrophes and save lives.

Monahan is at his best describing the bond that develops between a dog and its handler. Chico and Monahan forged a hard-earned one in the midst of war. It was that bond—and Monohan’s intense grief at having had to leave his dog in Vietnam—that compelled him to write this book. While it’s factual and often funny, there’s a constant brooding sadness and even a wish for atonement in the background.

Chico puts it bluntly: “Here I am in Vietnam, a decorated war hero, waiting to be put down. The Army calls it euthanized because they don’t want to own the dirty deed, but I know they are about to kill me, and I’m really scared and disappointed.”

In the final minutes of his life, while he lies strapped to a steel table waiting for that lethal injection, Chico tells the story of his memorable life, including the bond that developed after a rocky start with his handler.

Mike Monahan doesn’t disguise his grief or his regret, but that’s how things were done during the Vietnam War. And now Monahan has taken on a project—Chico’s Promise—by forming a nonprofit whose mission is to support no-kill shelters by paying the adoption fees to save 50,000 dogs in Chico’s memory. 

It’s his way of honoring Chico, Monahan’s “partner walking point.”

Monahan’s website is thinkmonahan.com

–Michael Keating

We Saved SOG Souls by Roger Lockshier

Roger Lockshier’s We Saved SOG Souls: 101st Airborne Missions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos During the Vietnam War (300 pp. $21.99, paper; $5.99 Kindle), is Lockshier’s first book—and I hope not his last.

Lockshier enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1966. After completing Jump School in December, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 101st Aviation Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A year later, the entire 101st Division was deployed to Vietnam.

Lockshier was a crew chief and door gunner with the 101st’s Black Angel Huey helicopter gunship fire team. Their mission in Vietnam was to support the combat operations of the 101st Airborne, the 5th Special Forces, MACVSOG, and other units. The covert nature of SOG (Studies and Observations Group) meant that only select people could support its operations. That task went to dedicated fixed-wing and helicopter units of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. In addition, some brave South Vietnamese pilots and crews joined the team.

The bulk of We Saved SOG Souls recounts missions flown by Lockshier and his crewmates in support of the Green Berets supporting secret SOG operations in South and North Vietnam, as well as in Laos and Cambodia. Many of the stories in this book are almost unbelievable, but Lockshier presents them in a way that made me a believer.

Throughout the book he paints vivid pictures of up-close actions—many of them very dangerous ones in enemy-controlled territory. The missions’ objectives included taking enemy prisoners, rescuing downed pilots, conducting rescue operations to retrieve U.S. POWs, and undertaking short- and long-range reconnaissance patrols.

SOG aviators were unsung heroes, mainly because their missions remained top secret for more than twenty years. Time and again, their courage under fire and aviation skills saved the lives of SOG recon teams and larger SOG units. Lockshier returned to the States in December of 1968 with a chestful of medals, and mustered out of the Army a short time later.

I highly recommend We Saved SOG Souls.

–Bob Wartman

Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat by Bob Worthington

Bob Worthington’s Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat: Memoir of a Combat Adviser in Vietnam, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 283 pp., $29.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) is not the usual Vietnam War combat memoir. Worthington was not a member of a ground unit fighting the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army; instead, he was an adviser to South Vietnamese militia units. 

Worthington had an unusual career prior to the Vietnam War tour of duty he writes about in this book. He was a police officer while in college; served in the Marine Corps and took part in the 1958 landing in Lebanon; was inadvertently commissioned as a Chemical Corps officer, and put in a 1966-67 tour of duty in Vietnam.

Arriving in Saigon for his second tour in August 1968, Worthington was assigned to the Hau Nghia Province Advisory Team as the Trang Bang District Adviser on the Cambodian border. He was responsible for working with his Vietnamese counterpart, a South Vietnamese Army major, on the team’s twofold mission—advising the local Vietnamese military forces and supporting pacification efforts. 

Working with some 500 Vietnamese militia soldiers in the district, Maj. Worthington’s team provided intelligence about Viet Cong targets and supported efforts to stop enemy infiltration of troops and weapons from Cambodia. Speaking fluent Vietnamese was key to his success as an adviser, but his identification with the Vietnamese led to friction with the more kinetic efforts of the nearby U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division units. Despite his successes as an adviser, Worthington was removed from his position in December 1968 and reassigned to another advisory job in Saigon.

In late January 1969, Worthington was reassigned to Rung Sat Special Zone, part of the extensive river delta area south of Saigon where VC units often attacked American ships.  The Vietnamese military units there had been taking bribes from the Viet Cong and the U.S. Navy advisers in the area did not have the expertise to support ground combat operations against them. Working with the Navy advisory team and Navy River Patrol Group, Worthington’s job was to support Vietnamese efforts to break the back of the local Viet Cong.

Worthington’s book—his second Vietnam War memoir—addresses the complexities involved with the U.S. advisers working with Vietnamese units. While advisers had access to intelligence, mobility, and firepower assets unavailable to the Vietnamese militia units, Worthington still needed to traverse jungles on foot or patrol the rivers in small boats. His ability to speak Vietnamese and his personal relationships made him a much more effective adviser.

Worthington describes shooting water buffalos carrying weapons across the Cambodian border from a helicopter and running snatch missions to catch Viet Cong officials. He also suffered a near-fatal hookworm infection and a gunshot wound during his tour.

Bob Worthington in-country

Worthington continued his unorthodox career after coming home from the war. He left the Army to attend graduate school and earned a PhD in Psychology, then rejoined as a psychologist and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel.

While Bob Worthington’s account of his adventures in Vietnam was well worth reading, the real value of this book lies in his extensive descriptions of the American advisory efforts in the war. He addresses in detail the relationships between advisers and advisees and the role of the advisers in pacification efforts. 

If more U.S. military advisers had spoken Vietnamese as Worthington did, and had more personal relationships with the Vietnamese people, perhaps the war might have had a different outcome.

Worthington’s website is bobworthingtonwriter.com

–Marshall Snyder

MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971 by Jim Roberts

Jim Roberts’ MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971: Stories from 33 Quebec’s Tour of Duty, (366 pp. $29.98, hardcover; $17.87, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a collection of stories by a patriotic, brave, and humble man about his service in the Vietnam War during Vietnamization.

Roberts was a deferment-carrying high school science teacher who quit his teaching job, gave up his deferment, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1969. He signed up for Infantry OCS and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. 

The new lieutenant arrived in Dong Xoai in Phuoc Long Province on the Cambodian border in April 1970, and he was assigned to Mobile Advisory Team 111 as Senior Adviser to local South Vietnamese Army Regional and Popular Forces (sometimes known as Ruff-Puffs) military units. Roberts and four U.S. soldiers lived among the Vietnamese. By 1971, with Vietnamization in full swing, departing American troops were not replaced, and Roberts eventually found himself as the only American left in camp.

33 Quebec was Roberts’ radio call sign. As part of the five-man MAT team, he and 33 Tango, a sergeant first class, formed a two-man unit advising local Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers on combat operations in the jungles and hamlets. His book tells about his war experiences during this turbulent period of the Vietnam War.

MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971 is very well written. Roberts presents his 42 true stories in a way that put me at his side through much of it. His penchant for explaining everything works well as a primer for those with little knowledge about the war, as well as a refresher for veterans and others who are familiar with the U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam. The book includes a good number of maps and photographs.

Roberts shares everything in a relaxed manner as he relates his joys and sorrows, his bravery and fears, and his knowledge and ignorance. Throughout the book he displays a high degree of maturity and fairness in his wartime thinking and decision-making. He also describes quite a few dangerous situations which he jokingly refers to as, “A Walk in the Woods,” along with several fast-paced moments of combat.   

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

The U.S. Naval Advisory Effort in Vietnam by R. W. Kirtley

R. W. Kirtley’s The U.S. Naval Advisory Effort in Vietnam: An Inside Perspective (McFarland, 218 pp. $35, paper; $16.49 ,Kindle) is, as the author puts it, an “expose and a confession of sorts.” That is a fitting description since throughout the book, Kirtley offers strong opinions and seems fairly frank about his intentions and fears.

After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967, Kirtley had a twenty-year Navy career, retiring as a Commander. In 1969 he served in the Tonkin Gulf on Yankee Station as a Gunnery Officer on the USS De Haven. From 1970-1971 he served with the Naval Advisory Group as Senior Adviser to the Vietnamese Navy in the Mekong Delta. Then, in 1972, Kirtley went back to he Saigon to help plan the U.S. Navy’s withdrawal from South Vietnam.

After an abbreviated stateside training period, Kirtley was whisked off again to Vietnam and immediately placed in a difficult and dangerous position. He was given the job of helping the fledgling Vietnamese Navy become an effective force after the U.S. Brown Water Navy’s withdrawal.

Kirtly seems to have done a good job learning on the job—and learning to survive. He also did well teaching military tactics and instilling some military order to the South Vietnamese Navy units. However, the job was not easy, especially trying to work through cultural differences about preventive maintenance on the equipment the U.S Navy turned over to the South Vietnamese.

This took place during Vietnamization. In the end, American advisers in South Vietnam were not given adequate time to complete their missions.

After his tour Kirtley was stationed in Washington, D.C., and worked on reassigning the massive number of Navy personnel leaving Vietnam. He later became a Supply/Contracting Officer.

I recommend The U.S. Naval Advisory Effort in Vietnam. I enjoyed the book and learned a lot, but I wish I had read Chapter 30, “Reflection and Takeaways,” before starting it. 

–Bob Wartman

Rucksack Grunt by Robert Kuhn

Bob Kuhn writes in a voice filled with self-confident cockiness that masks a quest to learn what life is all about. At the beginning of his memoir, Rucksack Grunt: A Naive Teenage Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Vietnam War Veteran (156 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), he describes the past as he remembers it “and still struggles today to understand it all.”

Kuhn introduces himself as an “average student with a bad attitude.” He turned 18 in 1970 Focused on marrying his high school sweetheart, he saw the Army as the solution to his future: serve two years, get married, go to college at government expense, and find a good job. So he volunteered for the draft. At that point, his naiveté becomes the book’s major theme.

He completed Basic at Fort Dix, thinking he’d go on train as an MP, but then found out that he was too young for the job: MPs must be at least 19. Disappointed and forgotten by the system, Kuhn performed menial tasks for nearly two months, and then, bored beyond reason, he went home for a week.

When he returned to Dix, a first sergeant understood the situation (no Article 15), and Kuhn ended up as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, serving a 1971-72 tour of duty in Vietnam. He knew he did wrong by going AWOL, and regrets it to this day.

The guidance of older troops carried the young infantryman through his initial months in the combat zone. For example, when readying himself for field operations, Kuhn had no idea where to begin until a fellow squad member assembled his gear for him. Kuhn later returned the favor for new guys. The book’s unspoken message is that training alone does not adequately prepare a person for war, a state of affairs involving incalculable variables.

Operating in and around Tuy Hoa, Kuhn pulled lots of guard duty, went on night ambush patrols, and took part in three month-long search-and-destroy missions into the Central Highlands. In telling the stories of his tour he details the difficulties common in most Vietnam War memoirs: standing watch alone, challenging the unknown, lugging a rucksack, hacking through the jungle, enduring continuous rain, existing on C rations, and contending with snakes, leeches, and insects.

Bob Kuhn in country

He also briefly discusses military friendship; the Vietnamese people, whom he generally disliked; drug use; and race relations.          

As far as feelings are concerned, Kuhn basically tells what happened and does not deeply analyze his emotional state. He recollects times on night guard duty, for example, when he found a need to pray and God spoke to him “personally one on one, or He spoke to me. It wasn’t anything verbal or audible, but I felt a direct-link communication and understanding. That is where God communicated to me that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to survive this tour.”

That experience still comforts him today, Kuhn says.

Although Rucksack Grunt offers a limited amount of new information, it is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Bob Kuhn served during Vietnamization and the drawdown of American forces. His unit did not engage in intense or extended contact with the enemy. The 1st of the 22nd’s major accomplishment was discovering and destroying caches of enemy military supplies.

The book contains a group of interesting photographs that Kuhn took in Vietnam.

His website is rucksackgrunt.com

—Henry Zeybel