Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman

Watchman at the Gates by George Joulwan

George Joulwan’s Watchman at the Gates: A Soldier’s Journey from Berlin to Bosnia (University Press of Kentucky, 296 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is an incredible book. In it, Gen Joulwan details his diverse and unparalleled 40-year Army career which began in 1957 when be enrolled at the U.S. Military Academy, and ended in 1997 when he retired as a four-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

Watchman at the Gates—which Joulwan wrote with the veteran military historian David Chanoff—wends its way through Europe, Vietnam, Chicago, Washington D.C., Central and South America, back to Vietnam, Africa and finally, to Europe again. Throughout we see Joulwan working and eventually commanding at the highest geopolitical and military levels.

Throughout his military career Joulwan faced one catastrophic situation after another. But, guided by his foundational beliefs and prescience, he always seemed to make the right decisions. He is, in my estimation, one of America’s most influential military figures of the 20th century.

In 1960, after three years at West Point, Joulwan was sent to Germany as a cadet platoon leader, and then made the decision to pursue his career in the Infantry.  After graduating from the Academy, he went back to Germany and served with the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Battle Group. Col. William DePuy was the commander and became Joulwan’s early, and most significant, mentor.

In June 1966, Joulwan began the first of two tours in the Vietnam War, commanding B Company, 1st Battalion, 26th (Blue Spader) Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division. Once again, he found DePuy in his chain of command. DePuy, a Major General, was the Big Red One’s commanding general. The Vietnam War became Joulwan’s combat crucible. 

Cpt. Joulwan (right) in country

“Allies, coalitions, and partnerships are the key to furthering our national interests,” Joulwan writes, “but to survive as who we are and who we have always been, we need above all, to keep to our moral purpose as a nation.” He goes on to say that successful military actions “require clarity of mission, unity of command, robust rules of engagement and strict attention to detail.” Joulwan learned those lessons, he says, under the tutelage of Gen. DePuy on the battlefields of Vietnam.

Throughout Watchman at the Gates, we read of many well-known events. I believe that many readers, as I was, will be surprised at the level of involvement Gen. George Joulwan had in these pivotal moments in American history.

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Bury Him by Doug Chamberlain

In  Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War (Love the West Publications, 348 pp., $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Doug Chamberlain, a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, has penned a well-written and engaging look at his time in the Corps, concentrating on his 1967-68 tour of duty commanding Echo Company, in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam.

Chamberlain, who grew up in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, writes about his rural childhood and upbringing, which was agrarian and lonesome, a theme he follows throughout the book. He joined the Marines to avoid the draft, he says, and writes about his basic and advanced training with little fanfare.

He also talks about of the “agony” of deciding finally to write this book, and the support of friends who helped him in that undertaking. His return to The World was unheralded, even by family and friends. He describes his ensuing PTSD and its continuing effect on his life and careers.

The book’s title becomes apparent about half way through when Chamberlain writes about what happened when his unit came across the decomposing body of a fellow Marine and he called for a Medevac chopper to recover the remains. Someone at headquarters refused to authorize that, then told him: “Bury Him. Don’t Rock The Boat. This Is An Order.” The patrol did bury the remains, with the regret and horror that came with breaking the “leave no man behind” military credo.

Chamberlain goes on to write about the turmoil, both physical and psychological, that he and his fellow Marines faced after they tried to recover the remains of the Marine they were ordered to bury, including dealing with a decision to bomb the area to obliterate the remains. The man’s family had to endure two funerals—one for the initially recovered left leg, and the other for the rest of the remains. Chamberlain lived with that deceit and dishonor for more than 40 years before he chanced upon an investigator who helped him discover the details that went into writing this book.

On its face, Bury Him is one man’s story of redemption and closure—and a well written one at that. More deeply, it’s the story of Doug Chamberlain exposing a deeply flawed command layer that pervaded the entire Vietnam War.

Chamberlain’s website is marinedougchamberlain.com

–Tom Werzyn

An Unholy Mess by Richard J. Dobbyn III

Duty as a military policeman provides a view of Army life that few people see. Working that duty in a war zone distorts its perspective in many ways. In An Unholy Mess (235 pp. $14, paper, $7.99, Kindle), Richard J. Dobbyn III recounts his two-year career as an MP officer, centered around his 1966-67 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Dobbyn first worked from Long Binh and then in downtown Saigon. He quickly learned to rely on guidance from his senior NCOs. His stories reflect a spirit of seeking fairness in any endeavor. His outspoken manner got him into trouble.

At times, his values quivered when he cut corners and overlooked misbehavior to help others as well as himself, but his better instincts always prevailed. From his position of MP authority, he helped the confused and downtrodden. He made friends with unhappy draftees, homeless children, and disillusioned Vietnamese colleagues. He admits to drinking too much too often.

You can’t help but like the guy and root for him. Dobbyn’s security duties exposed him to his fair share of danger, including escorting truck convoys. “Rule number one,” with that job, he writes, “when getting fired upon, keep moving as fast as you can. That was also rule number two, three, et cetera.” He also worked alongside Explosive Ordnance Disposal troops,lived next to an ammo dump that was blown up by the Viet Cong, and supervised cleaning up dead bodies after attacks and bombings in Saigon.

Offbeat all the way, he took his R&R to Penang, Malaysia—making new friends and doing some leisurely all-night drinking.

Dick Dobbyn

Dobbyn’s military life makes up the second half of An Unholy Mess. In the first half, he details what it was like growing up in Boston as the son of a World War II veteran.

At six foot four, Dick Dobbyn was a big-time jock in high school. He spins rite-of-passage tales from his boyhood and college years. That includes jobs as a drummer in a rock and roll band, a cab driver, a disc jockey for a jazz radio show, a lifeguard on Cape Cod, a basketball coach for pre-teens, and a human lab rat at Harvard Medical School. With full transparency he shows how these experiences influenced his life-long thinking and behavior.

He earned a commission from the Boston College ROTC program and volunteered for the Military Police based on his mother’s insistence to “Stay the hell out of the infantry and anything to do with tanks or big guns.”

Dobbyn capped his Army career as commander of an aggression force during summer National Guard training. Being recalled for Guard duty well after his discharge from active duty angered him. On the borderline of insubordination for two weeks, he masterfully outmaneuvered and embarrassed his superiors before again marching out of the Army and back into a happy civilian life with his wife and two sons, never to return.

Dobbyn’s website is anunholymess.net

–Henry Zeybel

13 Months by Bruce A. Bastien

“It doesn’t take long to ‘saddle up,’” Bruce Bastien writes in his memoir, 13 Months: In the Bush, In Vietnam, In 1968 (iUniverse, 121 pp. $43.98, hardcover; $32.63, paper: 99 cents, Kindle), “when you’ve been sleeping on the ground in your clothes, wearing your boots, and all your gear has been packed tight waiting right next to you. So we got up and strapped on the backpacks, weapons and ammo, and everything else we owned. Off we went down the road.”

With a style that ranges from sobering to haunting, Bastien recounts his 1968-69 tour as a Marine mortarman with Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment in Quảng Nam Province, just southwest of Danang. He was one of countless Marines fighting during mini-Tet against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in the months following the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive.

Bastien describes compelling, sometimes poetic, scenes of men in action and at rest. He illustrates each with modest detail and invites the reader to visualize the rest. Especially striking is his recollection of the effects of going without water in a combat environment in 100-degree heat. He writes of exhaustion, misery and fear, as well as hallucinations. During one, he watched as—unable to endure the weight of his backpack anymore—his arms fell off.

Through the spring and summer of 1968, Bastien’s unit fought its way across Go Noi, an island in the Thu Bồn River. Heavily fortified by the NVA, rife with enemy bunkers and tunnels, Go Noi was the scene of three U.S. military operations.

Reflecting on the first, Operation Allen Brook, Bastein conveys the bleak challenges faced by every man there:

“From then on, we swept, searched, and destroyed. We looked to contact the enemy, and when it was made, we engaged, fought, and called in artillery or air strikes until they were killed or retreated—and then we pressed on and did it all over again. We covered the same territory again and again. This might go on for weeks. We did not know. In fact, we didn’t know what later that day would bring, let alone how long this would last.”

With no way of knowing, Bastien and his buddies did what men in war have done forever: They watched out for each other and they endured. Many of his buddies’ stories are shared here, which is to Bastien’s credit. His book is proof of his commitment to preserve his recollections and those of his fellow Marines after the website they had made for their unit came to an end. 

The many stories Bastien gives us and actual book itself deserve praise. Larger in size than most books, the text is well laid out, with good spacing between letters and lines. There are also many photos. The images are large, in color, and starkly show how young these men were. The pictures also testify that, despite the brutal conditions in which the Marines lived and fought, they were still capable of good cheer—and could still feel hope.

–Mike McLaughlin

Memoirs of a Grunt by Gary Henderson

Gary Henderson’s Memoirs of a Grunt: On The Ground In Vietnam 68/69, (117 pp. $19.95, Paper; $3.99, Kindle) is not a story-telling book but a cut-and-dried memoir that reads much like a journal or diary. Reading it, I learned a lot about what Henderson did during his tour of duty in Vietnam, but struggled to visualize much of it. Henderson arrived in-country on August, 13, 1968. Three days later we was assigned to C Company in the 1st Brigade, 1/327th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Base Bastogne west of Hue. He was immediately given the nickname “Tennessee,” and thrown into the mix of daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes. Throughout this memoir Henderson shows us much of what many U.S. Army grunts experienced in the Vietnam War.

Memoirs of a Grunt has a useful glossary and a list of items (including their weight) regularly carried by most infantrymen. It also has an annotated map identifying some of the places where Henderson saw action—and pics, lots of pics. You can find more of Henderson’s pictures on his website. memoirsofagrunt.smugmug.com

It’s a truism that war is often made up of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In his book Henderson writes mostly about that boredom. But don’t let that scare you away from reading it. He is so open and honest that some of what he reveals is downright embarrassing, including things that many of us have done, but elect not to discuss.

He writes about career soldiers’ penchant for volunteering for combat duty for the sole purpose of building their resumes—and receiving rank and decorations. What happened in Vietnam was that many of those who had rank didn’t have the experience or competence needed to lead men in combat or to make good life-and-death decisions.

On March 23, 1969, Henderson was badly wounded and medically evacuated. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering in hospitals in Japan and at Ft. Campbell undergoing five surgeries and then was medically discharged.

I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Grunt. I now feel that I know Gary Henderson. I believe others will enjoy reading it as well.

–Bob Wartman

100 Days in Vietnam by Joseph F. Tallon

From its first to final page, 100 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Love, War, and Survival (Koehlerbooks, 321 pp. $19.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper) deals with a conscientious man’s everyday trials living in war and peace. It focuses on retired Army Lt. Col. Joseph F. Tallon’s Vietnam War tour of duty flying OV-1 Mohawks for the 131st Aviation Company, operating out of Marble Mountain Army Airfield in 1972.

The Tallon family’s military service reflects dedication to the nation far beyond the norm. Joseph Tallon’s father served at Normandy as a Navy gunner on D-Day in World War II. His two sons became Army officers.

His account of his flying duties in Vietnam covers only half of the story of Tallon’s war service. He flew missions in Mohawks mostly at night, accompanied by a single observer seated alongside him. They primarily performed side-looking airborne radar (SLAR) surveillance parallel to the coast of North Vietnam in search of targets of opportunity. Unarmed, they radioed sightings to ground controllers. Harassed by antiaircraft artillery rounds although over water, Tallon once had to outfly an NVA SA-2 missile.

As a lieutenant, Tallon caught nearly all of his company’s extra duties on the ground. He spent daylight hours supervising the unit’s motor pool, an endless task that he accomplished with small bribes to contactors and by performing the same labor as the recalcitrant enlisted men who served under him. Discipline was lax and morale low in mid-1972 because the comparably few service members in Vietnam expected the war to end any day.

On his 95th day in-country Tallon’s Mohawk lost an engine on takeoff and crashed. He ejected but did not escape the fireball that engulfed the crash site. Severely burned and injured internally, he endured medical treatment—best described as torturous—in overseas and stateside hospitals.

Tallon’s storytelling relies upon handwritten letters he sent to his new wife Martha Anne, letters and transcriptions of cassette tapes she sent to him, and excerpts from contemporary newspaper articles. Tallon fills the role of a newlywed with daily letters to his young wife that overflow with promises of eternal love and the sorrow of being separated. 

Joe Tallon at the Marble Mountain Motor Pool office

Joseph Tallon’s son Matthew adds a lengthy afterward to the book by describing his success gaining recognition for his father’s fellow crewman who died in the Mohawk crash. Forty years after the fact, Matthew Tallon’s effort secured a Purple Heart medal for the family of Spec.5 Daniel Richards.

100 Days in Vietnam is filled with honesty about everything Joseph Tallon saw and did, pro and con, during the war, throughout his recovery, and beyond. All is relevant. His relationship with the Army fluctuated as he dealt with unpredictable acceptances and rejections of him as an individual. Confronted by overwhelming injuries and subsequent bureaucratic turmoil, Joseph Tallon has repeatedly proved his worth as a warrior and citizen.

Matthew Tallon’s website is matthewtallon.com/

—Henry Zeybel

Mohawk Recon by Russell Pettis

 Russell Pettis’ Mohawk Recon: Vietnam from Treetop Level with the 1st Cavalry, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 158 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, e book) is an interesting account of an unusual Army mission in Vietnam. Pettis, who served as an OV-1 Army Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft crewmember, has an easy-going writing style that takes the reader along on his one-year tour in the Vietnam War.   

The OV-1 Mohawk was unusual. It was a state-of-the-art, fixed-wing reconnaissance platform equipped with side-looking airborne radar, infrared target detection systems, and cameras. Unlike other Army aircraft, the Mohawk was equipped with ejection seats. At a time when the Air Force was taking possession of almost all of the Army’s fixed wing aircraft, the Mohawk remained in Army hands. However, the Air Force insisted in 1966, and the Army agreed, that  Army Mohawks would operate only in an unarmed configuration.

Pettis, flying as one of a two-man crew, was the enlisted operator of the onboard detection systems employed while the pilot flew at low levels on day and night recon missions over hostile territory. He ended up flying 315 missions and put in more than 1,000 hours in the air.

Anyone who served on operations in Vietnam is going to feel right at home with Pettis’ experiences as a member of the 1st Cavalry Division. He writes about sharing a shoddy GP Medium tent with rats, subsisting on C-rations, enduring frequent torrential rainfalls, being shot at, and enduring a bout of dysentery. He also enjoyed the company of Australian and New Zealand troops drinking the Vietnamese beer we called “Bah-me-bah.”

The author’s missions were varied, and included flying parallel to the Ho Chi Minh Trail looking for truck traffic and water sorties seeking out enemy sampans. He flew “down in the weeds,” as low as sixty feet, and on higher-altitude missions looking for enemy troop movements.

When Pettis described his first combat sortie I felt a shared moment with him. His pilot flew the Mohawk across the A Shau Valley at the same time when I was on the ground there during Operation Delaware. When he described his OV-1’s frequent exposure to ground fire, I recalled the time I saw a Mohawk land at Tay Ninh with bullet holes stitched across its fuselage. 

It was particularly interesting to read about a mission in which Pettis’ Mohawk’s navigational system failed while over featureless terrain and the pilot unknowingly flew into Cambodia.   Then discovered a North Vietnamese airfield with MiGs on the ground. Two enemy fighters then launched and pursued the Mohawk into South Vietnam until F-4s were scrambled to intercept the MiGs.   

Another amazing incident came to mind as I read the book. I had learned of a Mohawk pilot who engaged a MiG-17 at approximately the same time in 1968. In this case, the aircraft was configured with weapons in violation of the 1966 Army-Air Force agreement and the pilot shot down the MiG. Because of the weapons violation, the Army didn’t officially acknowledge that aerial victory until 2007. 

I immensely enjoyed reading Russell Pettis’ account of his exciting missions, along with his descriptions of day-to-day grunt life in Vietnam. I highly recommend Mohawk Recon.

–John Cirafici