Pushing Limits by Ted Hill

The first meeting between Army Capt. Ted Hill and his battalion commander at Cu Chi in Vietnam in 1969 pretty much sums up Hill’s memoir, Pushing Limits: From West Point to Berkeley & Beyond (American Mathematical Society, 294 pp. $45, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

After reviewing Hill’s C.V., which included West Point, Stanford graduate school, and Ranger training, the commander rose, shook Hill’s hand, and said, “You look like a leader to me.” Hill thanked him but said he felt that he did not have the right to learn combat engineering at the expense of men’s lives.

“And if possible, sir,” Hill added, “I prefer to take part only in defensive actions.”

Ted Hill’s reward for honesty was a series of unconventional and dangerous duties, often at the shoulder of his action-hungry commander.

This insightful and entertaining book’s first half covers Hill’s military career, emphasizing the rigors of West Point and Ranger training. Hill conforms to the demands of the schools, but he does so with improvised actions that sometimes bring punishment. As often as not, however, he outwits the systems. Plus, his superior intelligence ultimately saves him from washing out. That part of the book could have been titled “How I Outsmarted the Hard Asses.”

The second half tells just about everything you would want to know about the study of mathematics at the highest levels Hill’s references to subjects such as Kolmogorov’s trong Law of Large Numbers; the law of the iterated logarithm and the central limit theorem; and Markov chains opened doors beyond the fringe of my mathematical knowledge.

After years of study and reflective thinking among “pure and applied postgraduate math majors who were the best of their generations,” and while still marching to the tempo of his own drumbeat, Hill received a PhD from U.C. Berkeley in theoretical mathematics.

After devising an improvement in state employment practices, Hill became a faculty member at Georgia Tech. His fluency in several languages qualified him as a visiting lecturer overseas.

Riding the crest of his genius, Ted Hill’s contrarian nature emerged one last time: As a whistle blower, he challenged Georgia Tech administrative practices that led to “financial misdeeds.” Years of investigations by school administrators brought some positive changes. They also brought Hill’s involuntary early retirement at age sixty.

Hill’s tendency to see many situations in life as problems to be solved enhances the book’s readability. He seeks to improve whatever he can.

His determination to pursue problems to their conclusion won my admiration.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Behind My Wings by BJ Elliott Prior

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As a stewardess for the Military Airlift Command in 1969-71, BJ Elliott Prior developed a life-long love for members of the armed forces. Back then, she served on flights that carried troops to and from South Vietnam. Often she saw the same men before and after their tours. Decades later she found Vietnam War veterans and interviewed them about their participation in the war. She  has recorded their experiences, with the help of Linda Lou Combs Wiese, in Behind My Wings: Untold Stories of Vietnam Veterans (Burkhart, 228 pp. $15.99, paper).

The stories come from former officers and enlisted men who talk about the past in similar ways: search-and-destroy missions, living in the jungle, exposure to Agent Orange, massive artillery and air firepower, emotional swings, PTSD, failed marriages. At the same time, Prior finds idiosyncrasies that give each man individuality.

She examines the apprehension of young men en route to a war they did not fully understand and the fragmented personalities of those who survived combat with drastically altered values. She describes one veteran who talked “as though part of him was left back on those battlefields.”

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, most of these accounts add little new information about the Vietnam War. However, the mens’ observations rank beyond the ordinary when described through Prior’s innocent eyes. She suffers when they suffer and pays a psychological price along with them.

Behind My Wings is not totally gloom and doom. The MAC routing from California to Vietnam included aircrew rest stops in Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They provided opportunities for romance, which “was everywhere during our layovers,” Prior writes. “We were quite young, fun and wild.” How wild? Prior had “Coffee Tea or Me” embroidered on her garment bags.

Prior went on to put in a forty-year career as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, which contracted MAC flights during the Vietnam War.

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BJ Elliott Prior

Her two years with MAC exceeded by a year the airlines’ recommended time frame for attendants’ “well being.” Afterward, in the midst of “drinking and dating to fill the void and pain in [her] life,” Prior says, she began a “journey with God.”

She accents Behind My Wings with passages from the Bible. “My story is God’s glory,” she says.

The author’s website is behindmywings.com

 

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War River Patrol by Richard H. Kirshen

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Second Class Petty Officer Richard H. Kirshen was a three-year Navy enlistee who served eighteen months in Vietnam in 1969-70. For much of that time he captained a Landing Craft, Mechanical (LCM) along the waterways near Nha Be and Cam Ranh Bay.

An LCM, he says, “is the boat you see in all the World War II movies where the soldiers run off the front onto the beach after the ramp is dropped.” In Vietnam, however, Kirshen and his three-man crew used the gunboat primarily to deliver supplies and troops to support bases. Another difference: Their LCM was a true gunboat; it carried two 50-caliber and two M-60 machine guns, along with an M-79 grenade launcher.

Ambushes and brief but furious firefights were a common part of life. Kirshen’s accounts of his crew’s experiences in Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta (McFarland, 260 pp; $29.95, paperback; $9.99, Kindle) make good reading. Among the most riveting: the section on what happened the night two enemy B-40 rockets hit the boat “right at the waterline” and blew the men into the water, after which the boat sank in “a matter of minutes.”

Kirshen, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, also talks about relatively under-reported war activities, such as his underwater duty as a diver, one of the few in-country, during the final six months of his tour.

These events comprise about half of the book. Kirshen intersperses his war memories with what he saw and did forty years later as a tourist on a vacation highlighted by eight days on the Mekong River aboard a luxury cruise ship.

Kirshen, his wife, and friends went to—among other places—Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and Angkor Wat. In these sections he provides interesting historical background info, including detailed descriptions of the atrocities that took place during the 1975 Khmer Rouge holocaust.

At the same time, he repeatedly emphasizes the quality of food and service provided by the trip coordinators. These passages could be a sales pitch for the ship and the hotels where Kirshen and his party stayed.

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In general, Kirshen has a keen eye for detail, a ready sense of humor, and the skill to turn a phrase. One of his best lines: “That was a venue where M-16s and side arms were as common as a crooked politician or a sun visor in Miami.”

He includes an outstanding collection of photographs of both wartime and tourist subjects. Overall, the war stories top the vacation trip in interest, but Richard Kirshen gives the best he has in the latter case.

—Henry Zeybel

A Soldier’s Story by Richard F. Hogue

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Just the other day, I was thinking about something that happened twenty years ago. No big deal, right, in a life that spans eight-plus decades?

That evening I picked up A Soldier’s Story: Forever Changed: An Infantryman’s Saga of Life and Death in Vietnam by Richard F. Hogue (Richlyn Publishing, 418 pp. $17.93, paper; $5.49. Kindle).  In it, Hogue talks about a lot of men who got killed—eight from his platoon in one morning. Seven from his NCO class. Only one was older than twenty-one.

Hogue went on and on until I felt a distinct rush of guilt for the many years I have enjoyed while other equally deserving soldiers didn’t.

As well as anyone who tackled the topic, he makes the point that in his unit “we were expected to perform like men, while most of us were still boys.”

“Hound Dog” Hogue served as a squad leader—and occasionally platoon leader—for the Third Herd of the 25th Infantry Division, which operated out of Cu Chi. For six months in 1969-70, he led Reconnaissance in Force missions that included the usual medley of helicopter assaults, setting up night ambushes, and being ambushed. Then he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He was twenty-three years old.

“I had taken only a few steps when I heard a seemingly muffled explosion different from any other explosion I had heard in Vietnam,” he writes. “I immediately felt a terrific force and a blast of heat from the explosion, and in what seemed like slow motion, I fell backward onto the ground.

“I slowly raised my head to see what had happened to me. What I saw scared the hell out of me. Blood was squirting out of my lower left leg with every beat of my pounding heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to bleed to death. Lord, don’t let me die this way.’”

Hogue’s account of his medical treatment and recovery pays tribute to the many people who saved him. Much later, he says, “After seeing my friends killed in action, I knew I was fortunate.”

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Hogue provides an interesting perspective on serving in Vietnam in a chapter titled “My War, Was It Worth It?” He had volunteered for the draft. After looking back on his wounds and post -war life, he concludes: “So my personal answer to the question…is ‘Yes.’”

A Soldier’s Story follows a path similar to We Were the Third Herd: An Infantryman’s Story of Survival in America’s Most Controversial War, Vietnam, which Hogue published in 2003. The latest book includes a detailed account of Hogue’s 2013 visit to Vietnam with fellow Third Herd veterans.

—Henry Zeybel

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

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“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

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Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

White Water, Read Hot Lead by Dan Daly

In 1967-68, Dan Daly served as the skipper of a fifty-foot-long Swift Boat in Vietnam. He delivers a highly personalized account of that experience in the new edition of White Water, Red Hot Lead: On Board U.S. Navy Swift Boats in Vietnam (Casemate, 413 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), which was first published in 2015.

Swift Boats worked relatively unfettered by assignments from headquarters. Daly and his five crewmen primarily intercepted trawlers carrying supplies to NVA units in South Vietnam.

Daly describes Swift Boat life starting with training in California. In country, he and his men encountered frequent firefights, ferocious weather that once capsized their boat, and harassment from superiors who considered Swift Boaters too independent and macho. Daly also recollects the onset of his lasting love for a Navy nurse from the U.S.S. Repose.

His crew’s combat action mainly took place offshore near Da Nang. To fill out the Swift Boat picture, Daly describes in detail an operation in which one of his friends picked up Special Forces troops at the southern tip of Vietnam near the Cambodian border.

Daly holds a lasting fondness for his crewmen and fellow Swift Boat skippers. Through his eyes, his men saw themselves as elite sailors working hard to maintain that status. His book makes a strong case for an overwhelming sense of teamwork and dedication to duty among Swift Boat crews.

Daly and crew

Throughout the book, Daly has blended an excellent collection of photographs, most of which he shot, with the text.

The author’s website is whitewaterredhotlead.com 

The book is available for a 50 percent discount for members of Vietnam Veterans of America. To order, call 610-853-9131, or go to casematepublishers.com, tell them you are a VVA member, and provide the code VVA-50. The offer is good through September 30, 2017.

—Henry Zeybel