Letters from the Heart by Jonathan and Sherrie Benumof

Jonathan and Sherrie Benumof’s Letters from the Heart: A Young Army Doctor’s 1969 Vietnam War Experience (Park Place Publications, 434 pp. $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) contains 282 letters that Jon wrote to Sherrie during his 12-month tour in Vietnam. Fifty-one years after his return to The World, the Benumofs read the letters to each other, and decided to assemble them in a book with added comments for their children.

Fresh out of medical school, Jon Benumof was drafted into the Army as a Captain. He landed in Vietnam in January 1969, was sent to Fire Base Evans near the DMZ, and immediately became the head anesthesiologist with the 18th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, aka, the 18th MASH, which primarily served the 101st Airborne, and was very busy.

For most of Benumof’s 12-month tour of duty the 101st was fighting along the DMZ—including at the infamous Hamburger Hill and throughout the nearby A Shau Valley. American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese Army troops, along with civilians, were treated at the 18th MASH. This made for very long hours in the OR. It also required a very strong-minded person to deal with the daily onslaught of the vicious results of the war.

Benumof was medically unprepared for this. He had had only limited training in anesthesia and surgery, yet through desire, intelligence, and research he quickly got up to speed. He displayed an admirably unrelenting concern and compassion for his patients. 

Dr. Benumof

Working in a very dangerous area, Benumof and the other medical personnel put in superhuman hours dealing with horrendous wounds and making life and death decisions—sometimes during NVA rocket attacks. The almost daily letters between the newly married couple helped sustain them both throughout the time of isolation and loneliness.

Letters from the Heart is a good book that tells a great story, but it is not always easy to read. The memoir is interspersed with references to relevant letters. Those letters are grouped in the middle of the book and numbered L-1 through L-282. Having to continually move between the memoir sections and the letters kept me from enjoying a continuous read of Jon Benumof’s impressive tour of duty.

–Bob Wartman

Vietnam in My Rearview by Dennis D. Blessing, Sr.

Dennis Blessing’s Vietnam in My Rearview; Memoir of a 1st Cavalry Combat Soldier, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 222 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) looks at Blessing’s 12-month tour of duty as a rifleman with the Cav in Vietnam beginning in March 1966. He served with the 1st Cavalry’s famed 7th Regiment.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Blessing told his wife he would try to write to her every day. He wound up writing 212 letters to her from the warzone. Fifty-four years later he read through those letters, which brought back memories of many places, times, and events in Vietnam—and enabled him to write Vietnam in My Rearview.

Blessing spent most of his tour fighting in and around the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. This region was always crawling with NVA and VC, and he saw a lot of action. Few pages of Vietnam in My Rearview pass without an excerpt from a letter to his wife.  Before and after each Blessing fills in details that he didn’t want to divulge to her at the time.

He fought in 11 operations and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. His many combat experiences included the vicious May 1966 fighting at Bong Son during Operation Masher, in which his platoon was nearly wiped out.

Being a grunt and spending long periods in the field without letup completely wore him out. Adding to his fatigue as Blessing got shorter was an incessant feeling that he would not survive. Therefore, when he was given the opportunity to spend his final two months in Vietnam to be his company’s supply clerk, he jumped on it.

Several passages in the book, including Blessing’s final words, have caused me to think more deeply about some of the causes of  PTSD. Blessing was discharged from the Army in 1968, and went on to graduate from college, raise a family, and work to retirement. He now lives with his wife of 55 years in the mountains of central California, near the western edge of Yosemite National Park.

Vietnam in My Rearview is well written and a pleasure to read. I recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Coming All the Way Home by Fred McCarthy

Fred McCarthy’s Coming All the Way Home: Memoir of an Assault Helicopter Aircraft Commander in Vietnam (McFarland, 207 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a superb memoir written by a very solid, complex, and accomplished man. As he was growing up in Washington State, Fred McCarthy envisioned becoming a Catholic priest. He attended Seminary for a few years, but in 1967, his yearning for adventure and a desire to fly caused him to leave the Seminary and enlist in the U.S. Army.

By his own admission, he was not the most talented G.I. going through Army training. As McCarthy tells it, he wasn’t the most tenacious trainee. Through sheer grit, though, along with a strong belief in himself and a solid moral foundation, he always seemed to succeed. Following his discharge in 1970, McCarthy moved back home, and became very active in education, politics, civic activities, and raising a family.

In December 1967, Fred McCarthy was sent to Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta as a Warrant Officer and assigned to the Army’s 121st Assault Helicopter Company. For 6 months, he flew Huey slicks, delivering troops and supplies to troops in the field. But that was not enough excitement for him and he volunteered to fly a Viking D-model Huey gunship to be able to engage the enemy directly. He got his wish and piloted a gunship until the completion of his tour in December 1968.

As I opened the pages of Coming All the Way Home, I was expecting to find a lot about McCarthy’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War—and a lot of action. I learned quickly that McCarthy, while proving himself to be a bona fide warrior, is by nature a teacher, historian, and philosopher. He spent 30 years of his post-Vietnam War life as a kindergarten teacher, private school principal, public school superintendent, and college adjunct professor.

In Coming All the Way Home he recounts snippets of combat, but also includes letters, poetry, history, psychological analyses, charitable efforts, and other noncombat activities. I wasn’t disappointed, though, as I found all of those sections interesting, educational, and a joy to read.

Coming All the Way Home is very well written and designed. In a few of the final chapters McCarthy presents a history of the wars that have been fought in Vietnam and his analysis of the American war. His reasoning is well grounded and well explained.

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Paper Dog by John B. Kubisz

In Paper Dog: The True Life Story of a Vietnam War Dog (Elm Grove Publishing, 180 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper) former U.S. Army veterinarian John Kubisz tells the true story of a Vietnam War scout dog named Paper. Kubisz treated the seriously injured dog when he was the CO of the 764th Medical Detachment at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969.

Kubisz’s publisher says that he “clearly has much in common with Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H,” so, being a fan of the TV series, I was excited to have this book in my hands. As I began to read, I did see some similarities between his life story and Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the popular TV sitcom and Hollywood movie.

But I also was disillusioned with Kubisz’s disdain for the Army. When most of us had to deal with less-than-stellar superiors, red tape, or insufficient materiel, we sucked it up and made the best of it while trying to follow military SOP. Kubisz, on the other hand, did it the Hawkeye Pierce way. One main reason for SOP is to enable a smooth transfer of duties when personnel are replaced. When Kubisz and his ragtag crew rotated back to The World, their replacements were left to deal with a nonstandard operation.

That said, this book is well written, well presented and a pleasure to read. Kubisz performed amazing—even heroic—feats with Paper and his other patients. He showed great compassion for the dogs and their handlers and he improved the level of veterinary care for all the U.S. war dogs in Vietnam.

The story of the dog named Paper and his 101st Airborne handler Tom Hewitt makes up nearly half of the book and is heartwarming and insightful.

Paper Dog contains a lot of good information and many photos. Be prepared to meet an Army officer with very little military bearing, but do read this well-written and very interesting book.

–Bob Wartman

Palace Gate by Richard L. Brown

Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.

The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.

Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.

We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.

Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.

This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.                                                   

–Tom Werzyn

Check Ride by Thomas McGurn

At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.

McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.

I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.

He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.

McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”        

He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.

His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.

McGurn (center) and crew in Vietnam

There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”

McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.

—Henry Zeybel

Darkness Bravo by Edward R. Fedrick

Edward Fedrick’s Darkness Bravo: A Soldier Remembers 1966-1967, 1968-1969, (Covenant Books, 326 pp. $33.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) contains 36 chapters of nearly nonstop, close-up, Army grunt action in the Vietnam War. It was a sheer pleasure to read. 

Ed Fedrick joined the Army in January 1966. He took a train from Memphis to Ft. Benning for Basic and AIT. He then found himself in Vietnam, based near Quan Loi not far from the Cambodian border, assigned to Bravo Company in the 2nd/8th of the 1st Infantry Division. He received two Purple Hearts during his first tour; after volunteering for a second tour he received two more.

Fedrick fought in five big battles, but most of the book is filled with details of his everyday, small daylight patrols and night ambushes. His descriptions are filled with so many details that you feel you are there with him. At one point during his two tours of day, Fedrick’s company had 54 consecutive days of enemy contact.

Throughout the book, he paints pictures filled with weapon and ammo weights, the pros and cons of different weapons, methods he and others devised to overcome the jamming problem of the M-16, physical characteristics of fellow soldiers, and tales of leadership and bravery. 

Ed Fedrick is painfully honest with his feelings about himself and his combat brothers. He speaks of himself as being mediocre and sometimes inadequate. But when you finish reading Darkness Bravo, you’ll find out that he is totally adequate—and a true hero.

Going on patrols an ambushes, his quiet thoughts included things such as, “I know I’m going to die today,” “I’m not going to live through this,” and the same thoughts in other words. Nearly everything he says about his fellow soldiers is complimentary.

After leaving the Army, Fedrick joined the Memphis Police Department. He has retired and with his wife Louise lives in the hills of Tennessee.

Darkness Bravo opens with a good Glossary that will be helpful to the uninitiated. The last 27 pages of this excellent book are filled with beaucoup pictures of Fedrick, his fellow Big Red One soldiers, and his wife. I suggest looking through these pics before reading the book to meet many of the people Fedrick writes about.

Two minor complaints: I would like to have seen a map of his areas of operation and a Table of Contents, or at least chapter titles on the page headers. 

That aside, Darkness Bravo is flawlessly presented.  Put reading this one on your bucket list.

–Bob Wartman

Even the Dust Cried Tears by Stephen A. Nahay, Jr.

In his memoir, Even the Dust Cried Tears: Memoir of an American Advisor to the Vietnamese Rangers (310 pp. $25.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Stephen Nahay recounts his experiences as a U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese Army Ranger units from December 1971 to December 1972. A native of New York City, Nahay enrolled in Army ROTC at the City College of New York. Upon receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he went to Fort Benning for Infantry Officer Basic program, then completed Airborne and Ranger training. Nahay then volunteered to go to Vietnam to work with his ARVN counterparts.

When Nahay arrived in country Vietnamization was well under way, and ground combat operations were being turned over to ARVN units. By early 1972, American troop strength in Vietnam had dropped by nearly two-thirds, from a 1968-69 peak of more than 500,000 to below 157,000. By the end of the year fewer than 15,000 American troops would remain. As the ARVN filled the gap, they relied heavily on American air and sea power.

In late 1971 American advisers no longer served with South Vietnamese companies, only at the regimental and brigade levels. Those still working with ARVN units acted as liaisons to American forces as restrictions were put in place to minimize the risk of injury and death to U.S. troops during a time when public opinion back home turned decidedly against the war.

Nahay served with different ARVN Ranger units throughout his year in Vietnam, rotating from the region around Saigon (III Corps) and the far north near the border with North Vietnam (I Corps). Soon after his arrival the North Vietnamese launched Operation Nguyen Hue—also known as the 1972 Easter Offensive— a massive attack to try to break South Vietnam into pieces and end the war.

The most harrowing part of Nahay’s story is his recounting of a thirty-six hour period when ARVN units withdrew from Quang Tri, the capital of South Vietnam’s northernmost province. In the confusion, Nahay and his senior American advisers found themselves cut off from friendly units fifteen miles behind enemy lines.

Nahay

For the next day and a half, the Americans and a handful of their ARVN counterparts carefully made their way south on foot. Calling for evacuation by air, they coordinated with a Forward Air Controller to direct airstrikes against the nearby North Vietnamese. Nahay writes that the enemy was so close he could feel the heat of the napalm dropped on them.

The North Vietnamese were heavily equipped with shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles. They shot down FAC planes and a rescue helicopter, and damaged another so badly damaged that it was forced to land before returning to its base. The offensive was blunted, but the NVA’s determination on the battlefield proved a sobering lesson and foreshadowed the 1975 campaign that defeated the South.

Nahay’s gripping account is especially sobering given the scope of the North Vietnamese attack. Through it he gives a compelling account of one young officer’s efforts to help save the South Vietnamese as they fell ever deeper into the shadow of their enemies.

–Mike McLaughlin

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot by Mike Leonard

During his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty Mike Leonard earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a V device) for performing bold feats in the O-1 Bird Dog throughout central South Vietnam. But don’t expect an overflowing collection of stories about a forward air controller’s combat action in his new memoir, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond (SOPREP, 330 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) because Leonard devotes only 64 pages of the book to those achievements.

What we get are other hyper-interesting stories of combat that recreate support missions mostly flying under four hundred feet of altitude in attacks on North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Leonard’s proudest moments in the air led to the rescue of a shot-down helicopter crew that crashed practically in the laps of the enemy.

Mike Leonard’s life has been filled with joy and drama in war and peace, yet he reflects a humble approach to all of it. His level of introspection remains constant whether a situation is good, bad, or otherwise.

Beyond the Vietnam War, his stories about flying the C-5A Galaxy and his post-Air Force life as an executive in the satellite market steal the show. Straight from the war Leonard went to piloting the C-5A in the midst of its growing pains. Whatever could go wrong with those airplanes went wrong. Fear of flight problems caused the Air Force brass to limit the aircraft’s tactical deployment. Still, one preposterous situation followed another.

Leonard repeatedly experienced the unexpected, and his descriptions of those events made me laugh out loud—and then I read those passages to my wife, who laughed along with me. Screw-ups that produced positive results in which Leonard took part advanced the C-5A’s tactical growth faster and more accurately than command guidance did.

After exactly twenty years of military service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work in the satellite industry. He describes his second career as intermittently intense, mundane, borderline illegal and unethical, and highly stressful. He reveals the intrigue behind years of knock-down, drag-out deal making and tells better stories than most present-day television and movies do.

Leonard in country with his Bird Dog, 1969

Mike Leonard’s business ventures made him a wealthy man. I believe he should have expanded the 100 pages about commerce in this memoir into a book of its own.

As an introduction to all of the above, Leonard presents a bizarre history of his family. He rates growing up in St. Louis as a surprisingly good experience. The pace of the book slows a bit when Leonard writes about enlisting in the Air Force and then going through Officer Training School; and his experiences as an EC-121 Warning Star weapons controller (including a rotation to Tan Son Nhut in south Vietnam), and during pilot training. Much of this ground has been covered many times in other memoirs, but Leonard re-evaluates the events in his terms.

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot compensates for its misleading title by providing stories that should entertain anyone with the slightest interest in aircraft and the people associated with them, as well as exposing how a few sly devils manipulate big businesses.

—Henry Zeybel         

An Accidental (PSY) Warrior by Albert Viator

Albert Viator’s An Accidental (PSY) Warrior: One Soldier’s Recollections of the Psychological Operations Efforts during the Vietnam War (Palmetto Publishing, 278 pp. $19.99, paper) is, as the subtitle says, a recounting of the author’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a psychological warfare (PSYOPS) specialist.

Al Viator enlisted in the Army in 1967 with the hope of obtaining an education in journalism. He signed up for three years, made it into the Army’s Defense Information School, and received a dual MOS of 71R 20 (journalism) and 71Q 20 (broadcasting). He then volunteered to go to Vietnam—not to save the world from communism, but to get on-the-job training in his two occupational specialties.

The plan was to as a broadcaster for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network Radio or as a journalist with the Stars and Stripes newspaper. But to his dismay, Viator was assigned to the 4th PSYOPS Group in Saigon and then sent to the 6th PSYOPS Battalion in Bien Hoa. After a few months, he was transferred to the 199th Light Infantry Battalion in Lai Khe.

For most of his tour, Al Viator was on his own and found himself in many combat situations. Infantry units wanted him on hand to broadcast messages over a high-powered PA system to try to get enemy troops to defect. When he wasn’t slogging through rice paddies with the grunts, Viator could be found in a Huey or aboard a small plane littering the landscape with paper leaflets promoting the Chieu Hoi program, which encouraged enemy troops to come over to the South Vietnamese Army

Viator completed his tour in Vietnam, put in another year in the Army stateside, and mustered out in 1970. After earning a degree from Boston University, he spent more than 30 years traveling the world as a journalist and a video producer for National Geographic, ESPN, PBS, CNN, and other media outlets.

In a very casual manner, Viator tells a lot of interesting stories in his war memoir. Throughout much of the book I felt as if I were having a conversation with him and could envision many of the places he described. 

I enjoyed reading An Accidental (PSY) Warrior and highly recommend it. 

–Bob Wartman