Letters Home by Leon Bly

Leon Bly served twenty-one years in the U. S. Army as a Special Forces enlisted man, a Green Beret. Letters Home: Diary of a Green Beret (Aegina Press, 126 pp., $19.70, paper) is a small book based on “letters “written to my aunt over a 21 period,” Bly writes.

Bly organized the letters to tell the story of Army career, with some focus on his time in Vietnam. “During my tour of duty in Vietnam, as I traveled through the Mekong Delta, with Viet Cong behind every bush, I escaped injury,” he writes, “only finding out on returning to the Alpha detachment camp that the air boat was riddled with machine gun holes.”

Bly’s book begins at Fort Meade, Maryland, on October 21, 1952, and proceeds to Fort Benning, Fort Bragg, Camp LeJeune, and to Camp Hale, Colorado, back to Fort Bragg, and then off to Bad Tolz in the former West Germany. His letters to his aunt give a good sense of what it was like to be in the Army in the 1950s. He also often offers comments on the situation in the world as it relates to protecting America from communism and other evil forces.

In his discussion of  “the new era of warfare,” Bly writes: “These are brush fire wars, new in intensity and ancient in origins. These wars are won by ambush instead of combat.  They’re won by infiltration instead of aggression. Victory is gained by eroding and exhausting the enemy instead of direct engagement.”

After Bly’s time in Germany, he returned stateside to Fort Devens, Mass. Then it was on to Fort Richardson, Alaska, via the Alcan Highway, “one thousand miles of bad road,” he calls it.

Bly finally gets to Vietnam in Chapter nine. He calls it “The Tarnished Goddess: Vietnam.” There are only ten pages dealing with his time in the war, which ran from June 9, 1967, to April 12, 1968. That encompasses the 1968 Tet Offensive, which Bly comments on. This chapter also contains his observations on the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, and the racial violence that erupted after that. Bly is African American, so when he describes the day as “the grimmest day in the history of black people” his comments hit home.

Memoirs and diaries by African American Army enlisted men are rare, which makes this volume even more precious for readers who seek first-hand accounts of what it was like to be in the Army of this long-gone era. I recommend this book for those who are interested in the evolution of the Green Berets and for collections specializing in African American contributions to America’s military.

—David Willson

Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—Henry Zeybel

Orange Socks and Other Colorful Tales by J.S. Lamb

Jim Lamb served in Vietnam in the Navy, stationed in Da Nang. He arrived in-country in the Spring of 1970, “after the Tet Offensive, but well before the Fall of Saigon,” as Lamb puts it in his memoir, Orange Socks and Other Colorful Tales: How I Survived in Vietnam and Kept My Sense of Humor (Amazon Digital Services, 77 pp., $4.99, Kindle).

Lamb says that it is a matter of record that he served eleven months in Vietnam during the war, but he really only spent seven months in-country as he was on rotation from his home base in Atsugi, Japan. His squadron was VQ-1, a reconnaissance outfit: “Big planes. Long flights. Secret missions.”

This short book contains many interesting and mild little tales of his naval service. I enjoyed them, especially because the book is well-written and well-edited.

Lamb begins with a chapter called “Welcome to the War,” and then gives us a chapter about a rocket attack on Da Nang, where they were fairly common. He tells us about boot camp at Great Lakes and about his six months at Aviation Electronics School at the Memphis Naval Station. He regales us with stories of his time as a troubleshooter at Corpus Christi, and about guarding the squadron of Stoofs. I won’t explain Stoofs, as Lamb does a better job of that than I could do.

I encourage everyone curious about what it was like to be in the Navy in Da Nang during this period of the Vietnam War to read this little book. Lamb writes elegantly and modestly of his experiences and manages to make the wearing of orange socks a heroic—as well as an amusing—escapade.

The author’s website is www.jslstories.com

—David Willson

The Making and Un-making of a Marine by Larry Winters

Psychodrama provided the major impetus for Larry Winters’ recovery from PTSD. In The Making and Un-making of a Marine: One Man’s Struggle for Forgiveness (Millrock Writers Collective, 322 pp., $14.77, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle), Winters tells his life story, which was filled with anguish that began in childhood and continued into mid-life.

Winters’ father beat him repeatedly and, at times, unmercifully. Upon graduating from high school in 1967, Winters enlisted in the Marine Corps. “The way I saw it,” he says, “what could the Marines do that the old man hadn’t already done?”

His training at Parris Island answered that question. Many authors have described the punishing teaching methods used by boot camp instructors, but Winters offers a darker level of their physical cruelty than I had ever read.

After AIT and metalsmith training, Winters spent nearly two years stateside in a Marine Air Wing before sailing to Vietnam on the U.S.S. New Orleans. Exposure to the negative feelings of Vietnam returnees at home disillusioned him about the war’s purpose. He decided to go AWOL, but a traffic accident ended the attempt.

At Phu Bai and Marble Mountain, Winters joined what he calls the “dissident element.” He worked as a sheet metal repairman, spent three months on guard duty as punishment for the wrong attitude and misbehavior, and ended his tour as a CH-53 door gunner. He felt shame and guilt for serving in a war he did not believe in.

Discharged upon his return home, he married his high school sweetheart. Their happy marriage failed under the pressure of Winters’ difficulties with running his own business and failing to bond with a son his wife and he had carefully and lovingly planned for. He felt rejected in all relationships: parents, wife, child, and employees. Divorced, he drifted from place to place and job to job.

The book’s final section follows Winters (above) through his psychological rebirth. After he found Psychodrama, overcoming shame and guilt became his primary pursuit. Although taxing, the dynamic process of Psychodrama sessions shattered the emotional shield surrounding his PTSD.

The sessions fascinated me because of what they forced Winters to reveal. Part of his rehabilitation included a fatiguing trip to Vietnam where his travel group of veterans confronted and reconciled with NVA generals and foot soldiers. Eventually, Winters solved his own problems, and went on become a mental health counselor.

Originally published in 2007, the current book is a second edition. In a follow-on book, Live the Dream: No More Excuses, Winters explains his hard-learned strategies to gain financial freedom while maintaining balance between family, friends, and faith.

The author’s website is www.makingandunmaking.com

—Henry Zeybel

Three Days Past Yesterday by Doris I. “Lucki” Allen

Doris I. “Lucki” Allen’s Three Days Past Yesterday: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Incredibility (CreateSpace, 72 pp., $10, paper) lives up to its subtitle: It tells the story of an incredible journey by a black woman in the United States Army. There are passages worthy of note and respect in every chapter and in every poem. This is an honest and clear presentation of Allen’s three tours in the Vietnam War and her ongoing struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Allen, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, writes that her three Bronze Stars and other career honors in no way make her a hero, nor do they ameliorate her PTSD symptoms. “‘Why are you laughing Lucki?’, they ask me. My reply, ‘I’m laughing just to keep from crying.’ Will this feeling of helplessness ever go away? I’m still stuck in Vietnam.”

Allen’s prose and poetry are filled with examples of how she was changed by the Vietnam War. For example: “I still can’t understand why people kill people to show people that killing people is wrong.”

This concise compendium illustrates that Allen’s ability to handle life in a combat zone and deal with her post-war emotional problems are due in great measure to the support she had from her parents growing up. “I knew that I was unique,” she writes. “Mom and Dad saw to that. Mom assured me that no matter what risks I took in life she and Dad would always be there to help guide me. And so it goes—I have never been ordinary.”

Keeping her parents’ encouraging words in mind as she served in Vietnam War from 1967-70 helped Allen (in Vietnam in the photo below) through many tough times. However, while seeking the safety of bunkers during rocket attacks she found other sources of security. As she writes: “Between God and my bottle of Crown Royal, I knew I could make it through each day.”

Despite the brevity of this work, much wisdom is revealed. It’s akin to what might be found in a cleric’s daily breviary. In this case, the book provides veterans with valuable methods of managing some of combat’s unresolved remnants.

I plan on keeping this book within reach at my desk and I recommend it to any veteran.

Since April is National Poetry Month, here is Allen’s poem, “Help”:

Little girl–war

All she knew was the word Help…

Didn’t know what help

She wanted cause she couldn’t explain what

Help she needed.

So the medic came and asked

” What’s the matter?”

All she could say was “I don’t know”

—Curt Nelson

Fear Was My Only Weapon by Dennis Papp

Neil Simon’s Biloxi Blues tells a comedic World War II barracks story about a twenty-year-old draftee who learns to cope with a diverse assortment of soldiers during basic training while enduring the wrath a bullying superior.

J. Dennis Papp updates the theme in Fear Was My Only Weapon: Can a Personnel Clerk Maintain His Sanity and Survive Vietnam When He’s Forbidden to Have Any Bullets for His M16? (CreateSpace, 233 pp., $8.96 paper; $2.99, Kindle). Papp’s story takes place at Bear Cat outside of Long Thanh in Vietnam during the first nine months of 1968. Married and twenty-three years old, Papp had been cruising through administrative duty at Fort Sill when he received orders for Nam with only nine months of service remaining.

Papp joined Personnel Actions Team 4 at Bear Cat. He still had a lot to learn, and his bosses picked on him. His friends were the usual supportive suspects: Clyde, Smiles, Numbers,The Face, Boomerang, and Incoming. Papp’s nickname was Pinky. Naturally, each name had a story behind it. Bear Cat went untouched during the Tet Offensive.

Papp and his buddies solved administrative problems, went on R&Rs (Papp took three), and roamed the base (below), which had tents, a mess hall, a PX, and a barber shop. While bonding, they cracked old jokes that still bring smiles and they drank as if tomorrow didn’t exist.

His Top Sergeant chose Papp to be his whipping boy. The abuse culminated with an Article 15 for Papp that carried a fine, plus a fourteen-day restriction with laborious extra duty. Papp’s only revenge was to out-shout the Top during a Red Alert without suffering consequences.Papp describes a lifetime-quota of mental turmoil over the possibility of not making it home. But the life-ending threats he experienced were mainly in his mind until late in his tour. Then he went to Dong Tam as part of an advance party. There, “the days were physically draining; the nights, emotionally so,” Papp writes. He mixed concrete all day and went through Red Alerts at night.

The book’s title is based on the fact that Papp had no infantry training; therefore, on his first guard duty in Nam, he was not permitted to lock and load a bullet into the chamber of his rifle. Thereafter, an “impotent” M16 became his trademark.

Papp is a witty writer. But he might reconsider his style. He doesn’t need to explain how to button each button when a character puts on a shirt. And when it comes to dialogue, every comment doesn’t merit a response.

—Henry Zeybel

To Hear Silence by Ronald W. Hoffman

In To Hear Silence (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; $9.99, Kindle), Ronald W. Hoffman says, “If you were to investigate Charlie Battery 1/13, you would find this unit at the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. Before that—and before this book—little to nothing has been published about this unit.” His subtitle clearly explains his book’s purpose: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience in Support of the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines.

Along with teaching a history lesson, Hoffman offers a look at his Vietnam War experience with Charlie Battery 1/13. He smoothly ties together his diary entries, declassified Marine Corps documents, memories of fellow Marines, and letters he sent home to his mother.

A 1966 draftee, Hoffman opted to serve as a Marine. Two years earlier, poor eyesight had prevented him from enlisting in the Corps. He trained as a radio operator on a Forward Observer Team.

Along with 3/26, Charlie Battery traveled from San Diego to Vietnam aboard the USS Lenawee on her final deployment. With layovers at Hawaii, Okinawa, and the Philippines, the voyage took from September 4 to December 11, time that included combat training exercises. Hoffman’s account of the unit riding out a typhoon in the disintegrating twenty-two-year-old ship could make a book by itself.

Dong Ha was the unit’s first stop in Vietnam. Hoffman’s description of the base exactly matched my recollection of the place: an absolute shit hole. Shortly after arriving, 3/26 took part in Operation Chinook and spent seventy-nine consecutive days in the field.

Following Operations Chinook I and II, Charlie Battery accompanied 3/26 to Phu Bai to Leatherneck Square on the south edge of the DMZ, and finally into Khe Sanh—another part of the book that could stand alone. The mission was the same everywhere: find and destroy the enemy.

Hoffman recites Marine activities as day-by-day events of entire units. For example, he reports that “Kilo Company was hit with sniper fire from across the river” and “India detected a column of some three hundred VC troops that they engaged with mortar fire.” Generally, he identifies individual Marines only when they are killed.

The companies of 3/26 used Charlie’s 105-mm howitzers against practically everything they encountered. They even called for rounds on a single enemy soldier who loitered beyond rifle range. More often than not, the difficulty of verifying results created frustration for everyone because Gen. William Westmoreland demanded body counts. Time after time, Charlie Battery unloaded dozens of rounds on target areas with outstanding coverage, and then the men in the field found traces of blood but no bodies.

“Probable” kills outnumbered verified kills. So, digging up enemy bodies to determine the cause of death became a common practice to increase the number of confirmed kills. After one encounter, American forces hunted well into the night with artillery illumination to find dead enemy soldiers and try to double a body count.

Practically every day, Marines triggered booby traps. At one point, because of more casualties to the Marines than to the enemy, daytime missions were said to end; instead, companies were assigned sectors and expected to wait in ambush. Nobody followed the new plan and the tactics remained unchanged.

At the time, Hoffman wrote: “This isn’t at all what any of us thought war would be like.”

Meanwhile, the NVA largely switched from conventional warfare to guerrilla tactics. In small groups they hit and ran. When they had the numbers, though, the NVA employed human wave attacks against isolated American units.

Hoffman did plenty of homework. His meshing of different sources provides reams of facts to help readers reach their own conclusions about the effectiveness of American efforts during the early stages of the Vietnam War. Some might view Hoffman’s research as a study in frustration.

The book contains photographs, maps, and five appendices: The Vietnam War by the Numbers (a summation of all Vietnam casualties); September 1966 Convoy Ships; a Roster of Charlie Battery 1/13; Original 3/26 Members Killed in Action; Replacement 3/26 Members Killed in Action; and Marine Corps Acronyms and Definitions.

—Henry Zeybel