Combat Talons in Vietnam by John Gargus

The C-130 Combat Talon program was classified Top Secret during the Vietnam War. It operated out of Nha Trang Air Base. From there, six crews with four airplanes flew deep into North Vietnam to drop men, equipment, and leaflets intended to disrupt the enemy’s hierarchy. Navigator John Gargus, a retired USAF colonel, recounts his involvement in the program in 1967-68 in Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew (Texas A&M University Press, 272 pp.; $35, hardcover; $19.25, Kindle).

The Top Secret classification extended to every aspect of Combat Talon ops. For example, a section of the aircraft was partitioned by “heavy duty curtains” to prevent viewing of “sensitive Top Secret” electronic countermeasures equipment by “those who had no need to know,” as Gargus puts it. Conversation and planning for operations were limited to one secure room. Furthermore, crews “never knew the exact content” of bundles they delivered, Gargus says.  Basically, Combat Talon was an instrument of MACVSOG (the covert MACV Studies and Observations Group).

Gargus spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force. He served as the lead navigator for the November 1970 Son Tay Prison raid (for which he was awarded the Silver Star), and later wrote a book about the mission. In 2003, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame.

Gargus tells his story from a “personal perspective enhanced by numerous accounts of [his] colleagues who assisted [him] with their documented inputs.” In his history of the development of Combat Talon equipment, he points out that the air frame has also been called “Stray Goose” and “Blackbird.” He describes the airplane’s specialized performance capabilities—such as the Fulton Recovery System. But more so, he focuses on the disappearance of Crew S-01 in 1967 and the decades-long effort to find the men’s remains and return them to the United States.

He twice tells the story of the loss of Crew S-01. First, as part of his memoir, Gargus gives his eyewitness account of events as they happened, along with his post-war activities to expedite the return and burial of the crew. Second, in an appendix, “The Last Mission of Combat Talon’s S-01 Crew,” he offers a detailed account of the flight originally published as a booklet for the lost crew’s families.

His analysis of procedures for finding MIAs is an education in itself. He explains the intricacies of practices related to communications with next of kin, crash site recovery procedures, identification of remains, and burial and memorial services.

“All Americans should be proud of the way the U.S. government persists in identifying and returning the remains of fallen soldiers,” he writes.

The identified human remains of Crew S-01 reside in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

In an epilogue, Gargus pays tribute to Special Operations. He also provides a remembrance of the seven Combat Talon aircrews lost between 1967 and 2005. Fifty-six illustrations enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

Snowden’s Story by Lawrence F. Snowden

“The Formative Years” is the first of sixty-six unnumbered chapters, or episodes, in retired Marine Corps Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden’s memoir, One Marine’s Indebtedness to the Corps (Turtle Cove Press, 262 pp., $19.95, paper).  In it we learn that Lawrence Fontaine Snoddy, Jr., the only son of Lawrence and Beatrice, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on April 14, 1921. He later changed his name to Snowden.

The memoir is often not presented in chronological order. Why? Because, Gen. Snowden writes, his stories were “recorded here as I happen to think of them.”  Additionally, the lack of an index and a glossary of acronyms is challenging.

Larry Snoddy graduated from The University of Virginia in 1942. He had been involved with glee clubs and sang professionally with local bands such as the Tin Can Quartet.  He was rehearsing with the Tin Can Quartet when the Pearl Harbor attack was announced. He joined the Marine Corps soon thereafter, explaining that his “family dentist, Dr. Sims, baited me with the challenge that I probably was not tough enough to serve as a Marine.”

He was sworn into the Marine Corps Reserves at the Charlottesville Post Office on February 21, 1942. Three months later when he stepped off the train at the Marine Corps Base, Quantico, he heard a Master Sergeant say, “Welcome to Quantico and to the Marine Corps.” With “that simple greeting,” Snowden writes, “I was in my new world, which was to become my Universe for the next thirty-seven and a half years.”

2nd Lt. Snoddy joined the newly created 4th Marine Division in Hawaii, and then fought on Iwo Jima. He describes Iwo as “the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Ocean Area and probably in our national history of war.” He received his first two Purple Hearts after seven days on Iwo and was evacuated to a Guam hospital. He later hitched a ride on a postal flight back his unit on Iwo Jima. Two days later the young lieutenant was wounded again and evacuated.

Many chapters deal with what happened after Snoddy was promoted to Brigadier General in 1968 and changed his name to Lawrence F. Snowden.

Snowden was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work clearing ordnance out of the Korean DMZ after the Armistice ending the fighting was signed. He then held several administrative positions, including  at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in New York City, before his six-month tour in Vietnam as the CO of the 7th Marine Div. at Chu Lai.

Gen. Snowden

He went on to serve as Chief of Staff of U.S forces in Japan and Chief of Staff at U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, before retiring in 1979. In his second career, Snowden served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and as a Hughes Aircraft vice president.

He accepted Gen. Colin Powell’s offer to serve on the commission that investigated the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.

Gen. Snowden died on February 18, 2017, at age 95, a year after this book was published.

—Curt Nelson

On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki

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In On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp., $32.95; $9.99, Kindle), Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki describes his experience in the Vietnam War from 1966 to the communist takeover in 1975 working behind the camera for ABC News. The eyewitness accounts of the many phases of the war in this memoir bring events to life as if they had happened yesterday.

In his quest “to become as good as [the famed photojournalist] Robert Capa,” Hirashiki chose to cover the most dangerous assignments in the war. “Many of us dreamed that war reporting would find us fame and recognition within our profession,” he says. For Hirashiki, the dream materialized in the form of a forty-year career with ABC News.

The uncertainty of survival loomed as the primary obstacle to fulfilling that wish. “In many ways, we all felt that we were pushing our luck every time we tried to cover a story,” Hirashiki says. He talks about correspondents who died or disappeared in the war, particularly freelancers.

Hirashiki worked with many famous correspondents. The list includes Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel (who wrote the book’s Introduction), and Drew Pearson. Without a school for combat photography, Hirashiki mastered his skills on the job. Reporters normally operated as a three-man team—photographer, sound man, and correspondent. Hirashiki tells dramatic stories that involve a long list of teammates. He frequently cites these men as teachers and heroes who taught him the finer points of journalism.

His stories are interesting because Hirashiki complements his views with observations by other people who were involved in each incident. Often, this comes from post-war letters that deepen the significance of an event. The acute details of his recollections of a battle in Happy Valley and the chaos leading to the war’s end—which open and close the book—provide highly informative and enjoyable reading.

Following the 1973 ceasefire in Vietnam, Hirashiki temporarily moved to Phnom Penh. He describes the Khmer Rouge assault on that city’s civilians as “scenes from hell.” This gave me the impression that this action was more horrendous than what Hirashiki had seen in Vietnam.

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Tony Hirashiki filming ABC News correspondent Don North during Operation Junction City in 1967

The book’s importance lies in its neutrality. Many people have criticized Vietnam War correspondents, especially television reporters, for promoting antiwar sentiments. On the Frontlines of the Television War, which was edited by Terry Irving, contradicts that opinion by telling the story of a closely knit group of professionals who strove to report what they saw as accurately as possible.

In other words, any distortion in television reporting did not originate in the field.

—Henry Zeybel

 

PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three by Robert Scholten

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Robert Scholten’s Vietnam War experiences resurfaced in 2007 during six weeks of  VA therapy sessions. He has collected them in PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three: Coming Up Out Of PTSD’s Trench (Westbow Press, 128 pp., $30.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

Scholten, who is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was troubled from minute one when he joined Charley Battery of the 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in September 1970. He immediately began counting down the days to the DEROS date on his long-timer calendar. He inscribed his personal mission on his boonie hat: “I’m a-going home – heaven or Chicago.”

Nicknamed “Preacher” because he constantly read his Bible, Scholten says he is “a praying man from a praying family.” His trust in God and his devotion to prayer and scriptural knowledge were central to his Vietnam War tour of duty.

Scholten came to learn that his emotional welfare was way down on his unit’s priority list, behind maintaining the Duster track vehicle, cleaning weapons, guarding the firebase, and placing crew members before self. He describes Charley Battery as “a tight-knit group who learned mutual trust and comradeship under extreme stress that would snap a civilian like a dry twig under a horse’s hoof.”

“Looking back forty-five years later, I have to admit that first night with my Unit had major impacts on my life,” he writes. During that first week Scholten couldn’t sleep, troubled by thoughts of his family praying for his safety and his own prayers centering on not having to “take a life.” Those thoughts and prayers “and Scripture readings started mingling with previous war movies and television shows” to keep him awake.

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Duster Gunner Robert Scholten completed his year in Vietnam thanking God that he had lost no members of his crew. PTSD was an unknown when he flew home.

Many years later, realizing he was “haunted” in the “PTSD trench,” Scholten writes, “I didn’t leave Vietnam alone, I brought my crew and Section members with me in my heart and soul. To this day I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear the times we were in the Duster engaging the enemy.”

–Curt Nelson

Wasted Blood by Ken Palmer

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In the new movie T2 Trainspotting,  a character named Sick Boy chides a crony for acting like “a tourist in your own youth.” If he is correct and looking back on former times is forbidden, then Ken Palmer should not have written Wasted Blood: Facing the Music in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 256 pp., $21.99, paper). As a Seabee in the Vietnam War, Palmer experienced a string of strange events and now has finally recollected them in this memoir.

An enlistee, Palmer tells us about his young manhood immediately prior to deploying, while in-country, and for a short time after returning stateside. Mainly, he explains how it felt to be the star of a rock band named “Wasted Blood” as a protest against the war.

With their commander’s encouragement (which including being issued  Fender, Gibson, and Ludwig instruments), Palmer and four other Seabees—Keith, Saul, Ron, and Jerry—formed a band to entertain the troops. Before that each man had played for his own enjoyment. Now, they continued to work ten-hour construction days, and they practiced and entertained during their off-duty time.

Stationed at MCB121 at Red Beach on the Gulf of DaNang, the band traveled to gigs mostly at night in a truck. Providing their own protection allowed them to travel where USO and other shows couldn’t go. Occasionally, for trips to distant camps, they flew by helicopter. Their high-energy performances and willingness to fulfill all requests gained them avid fans who often believed they were professional musicians.

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Seaman Palmer, the guitarist, entertaining the troops

Palmer tells wonderful stories, ranging from sexy to ridiculous, concerning women that he met because of his star status. Recalling these encounters is enough to justify his becoming a tourist in his own youth.

—Henry Zeybel

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson

 

To Hear Silence, 2nd Edition, by Ronald W. Hoffman

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Two years ago, we reviewed Ronald W. Hoffman’s memoir, To Hear Silence: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience Supporting the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; 9.99, Kindle). This memoir focuses on Hoffman’s Vietnam War experiences with Charlie Battery.

In the book’s new second edition, Hoffman has added a Prologue, in which he sets out what he calls “events that eventually pulled us into this undeclared, limited political war.” He begins that historical journey with the Second World War and ends it fifteen pages later by saying, “And thus, the United States politically lost its first war ever.” By emphasizing the political entanglements in the Vietnam War, Hoffman quietly emphasizes the high degree of dedication shown by Marines (and other fighting men) who actually took part in the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel