Planet Vietnam By Steve Tate

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Planet Vietnam (CreateSpace, 132 pp., $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the account of Steve Tate, who served as a nineteen-year-old with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book follows Tate to Bunker 48, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, and finally an aviation unit performing helicopter maintenance.

At the end of the book Tate questions whether he was “in the shit” or in “the rear.” He goes on to talk about “a new type of discrimination” in the Army in which many soldiers looked down on those with rear echelon assignments.

There are many interesting issues relating to the war that Tate addresses. He vividly describes, for example, the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. “Alcohol was responsible for more deaths and destruction than will ever be admitted,” Tate says. He also recounts how “they” planted two bags of pot in his grip when he was out of the barracks in hopes of framing him.

I found a couple of incidents in Planet Vietnam very interesting. In one, a friend of Tate tries to commit suicide when he receives a Dear John letter from his girlfriend near the end of his tour. Tate also writes about a buddy who shot down his own helicopter firing an M79 shell through the top of the chopper. He also mentions seeing UFOs in the spring of 1968 near the DMZ. “We were being buzzed by UFOs,” Tate says, “and never knew, or cared.”

This is a short book in which Steve Tate brings up many topics I wish he would have explored further. Overall, Tate describes the Vietnam War in a unique way, and I would recommend his book.

—Mark S. Miller

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Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel

The Band Never Played for Us by Ronald G. Goddard

When you first open The Band Never Played for Us: The Vietnam War as Seen by a Marine Rifleman in 1967 (Lulu, 425 pp. $31.49, hardcover; $19.99, paper: $7.99, e book), turn to the chapter titled “Battle at Phu Oc.” It culminates all that came before.

Ronald G. Goddard, who was nineteen when the battle took place, examines that day with frightening clarity. Thirty-one Marines were killed in action and 118 wounded. The order that sent Marines into battle at Phu Oc was “the stupidest tactics I had ever seen for the terrain we were in,” Goddard says.

“There were almost no enemy soldiers visible even though they were all around me. I did not see any recognizable NVA soldiers today; except the shadowy figures I saw running deep in the jungle. I saw muzzle flashes, hands, arms, but I never saw a face or anything that looked like a human being. No one was out in the open.”

Based on his experiences as a squad leader in the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment from March to October 1967, Goddard concludes: “The problem every American infantry leader had in Vietnam, from a battalion commander to a fire team leader, was that we didn’t know the terrain as well as the enemy, and we never knew what we were getting into until we were in it.”

Wounded three times, Goddard saw more than enough action to validate his opinion. He understood that Marines were both “the hunter and the hunted,” and recognized the “fine line between aggressively pursuing the enemy and getting yourself sucked into an ambush.”

The core of his book describes and analyzes on-the-ground warfare in Vietnam based on Goddard’s experiences and day-by-day accounts of his squad’s activities. Even a reader familiar with Vietnam War infantry operations should find interest in Goddard’s efforts to devise tactics to protect his men and to outwit the NVA. He brings to life what he learned firsthand.

Throughout the book, Goddard’s honesty pleased me, especially when he went off on a “Fuck it all” tangent. Otherwise, he is a life-long, truly proud and dedicated Marine.

The final pages of The Band Never Played for Us contain several maps of his operating areas along with photographs of Marines in Vietnam.

The author’s website is ronaldggoddard.com

—Henry Zeybel

Vignettes from Vietnam by Brice H. Barnes

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In Vignettes from Vietnam: Brief Moments of Sanity and Belated Notes of Gratitude (Outskirts Press, 232 pp. $14.95, paper) Texan Brice H. Barnes writes mainly about his two tours of duty in the Vietnam War.

His first tour encompassed the Tet Offensive, during which Barnes earned the Distinguished Service Cross at the Battle of Widow’s Village with the 2/47th Infantry, a mechanized infantry battalion in the 9th Infantry Division. During his second tour he commanded an infantry company during the incursion into Cambodia and then worked as an advisor with the ARVN.

Barnes devotes the book’s largest portion to vignettes that say thank you to people who helped him during his thirty-year Army career. With a light-hearted tone, he recognizes friends and acquaintances—such as church ladies who shipped overwhelming quantities of cookies to troops overseas.  Barnes retired as a colonel.

The book also includes a collection of Barnes’ other writings. He presents reflective thoughts on Tet 1968 and the battle for Widow’s Village, a small hamlet near Long Binh. He presents several pages of poetry and poetic tributes, followed by short on-scene reports that he wrote for the Austin American-Statesman during his second tour in 1970. He ends the book with a history of the 5th Division.

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Photo from “VC/NVA ATTACK ON LONG BINH AREA DURING TET 1968,” by Larry F. O’Neill 

Barnes’ collection of writing covers many years and shows a highly individualized view of the American Army and the Vietnam War.

For ordering info, go to the Outskirts Press web site.

–Henry Zeybel

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 Strong 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.

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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