Tiger Bravo’s War by Rick St John


Tiger Bravo’s War (Currahee Press, 356 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is packed with almost non-stop action. There are entire books written about single battles. This book chronicles on infantry company’s exploits in no less than three major battles and dozens of smaller, yet intense and deadly, fights.

Rick St John’s writings are wide-ranging. They include Circle of Helmets: Poetry and Letters of the Vietnam War and—believe it or not—lighthearted, children’s stories, a beautiful dichotomy. On the battlefield, warriors like Rick St. John are fearless, aggressive, and totally driven to kill and survive. Underneath, though, the rawhide-skinned, steely-eyed warrior is a good, loving human being with a heart of gold.

Rick St John is a 1966 graduate of West Point who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1968. His battlefield awards include the Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 as a colonel.

Tiger Bravo’s War starts a bit slowly as St John’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 3rd Brigade in the 101st is preparing to depart Ft. Campbell for Vietnam. Stay with it, though, as the Prologue and first chapter set the stage for an exciting tour—and an exciting book.

Because of the unit’s early departure from the States, the first month in-country was dedicated to OJT for jungle warfare. Then, on January 3, 1968, it hits the fan and seldom lets up for the next eleven months. Tiger Bravo became one of the Army’s “hired guns,” amassing staggering combat numbers. Super-hotspots, impossible odds, friendlies in a bind? Tiger Bravo got airlifted in.

The enemy respected and feared the warriors of Bravo Company. It is reported that the NVA and VC would say, “These American soldiers with an eagle patch on their shoulder piled on from every direction. Day or night, under heavy fire or not, they kept coming.”  Having read Tiger Bravo’s War, I believe this is true.


Rick St John

Throughout the book, St John is honest and objective, and he shows no excessive bravado. In Vietnam he displayed a healthy ability to delegate and to trust the judgement of others. He searched out the special capabilities of every man under his command and used them to the unit’s advantage. He was the quintessential infantry commander, a warrior leading warriors.

Opening with a good glossary that is supplemented in Chapter 1 with a section on Vietnam War “Speak,” the excellent documentation continues with an expansive Bibliography and Notes section at the end. The lack of an index is a minor issue. Maps and photos abound.

Tiger Bravo’s War grew on me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

—Bob Wartman


Memoirs of Physician Serving in the War by James V. Donadio, Jr.


Memoirs of Physician Serving in the War: From Mayo Clinic to Vietnam is Dr. James Donadio’s account of his year in the Vietnam War, from August 1966 to August 1967. Army Capt. Donadio was assigned to the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon in its newly created kidney unit.

Donadio was drafted into the Army while working at the famed Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. He left his wife and four children to practice in the renal section in Saigon, where he also conducted research on acute renal failure, malaria, and ricksettsial infections and worked as a physician at two orphanages and as physician-in-attendance to Cardinal Spellman during his visit to Vietnam during the 1966 Christmas season.

Twenty pages of articles Dr. Donadio—who today is an emeritus physician at the Mayo Clinic’s Nephrology Division—has published in various medical journals are included in the book. These may be overly complex for those not in the medical field.

For me, the highlights of this memoir are the vivid pictures from Vietnam and the letters, maps, and Army documents Donadio includes. The images of the orphanage and the streets of Saigon were especially memorable.

I would recommend this book to all historians of the Vietnam War.

You can order a PDF copy of the 148-page book ($7.95) or a soft-cover version ($21.95) at the author’s website or his Facebook page.

—Mark S. Miller

Racing Back to Vietnam by John Pendergrass


If you want to know about flying in F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and competing in triathlons years later, you must read John Pendergrass’s Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace (Hatherleigh, 256 pp. $22, hardcover; $7.99, Kindle).

In the book, former U.S.A.F. flight surgeon John Pendergrass writes about his Vietnam War tour of duty with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in 1971-72. Much of what he relates has been well reported. However, when a writer presents the drama of war from a highly individualized perspective as Pendergrass does, that type of storytelling does not grow old.

Pendergrass’s prose is easy to read. He nicely turns many a phrase, including “checking out a slow learner in a fast mover.” Honesty is his forte. When he does something beyond the ordinary, Pendergrass explains why he did it, especially if it benefits him. He is free of pretense and rich in enthusiasm.

Like most doctors with whom he served, John Pendergrass did not want to go to Vietnam, but after he got there, he voluntarily flew fifty-four missions over Laos, Cambodia, and both South and North Vietnam in the back seat of the F-4 Phantom. He recalls the post-mission feeling of being “more alive than when I took off, anxious to go again.” At the same time, the fear he experienced is palpable.

His squadron’s basic assignment was to interdict trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He describes virtually every step of preparing for and executing flights that dropped lots of bombs.

He also devotes chapters to life as a prisoner of war and to complications involved with being shot down and rescued, situations that he luckily avoided. On his final mission at the battle for An Loc, Pendergrass  witnessed events that altered his perspective of the war.

He includes observations about air power that I had not read before, but with which I concur. His conclusions ended his combat life on a down note.

Pendergrass’s account of his war makes up only half of this memoir. In 2016 he returned to Da Nang at the age of seventy and participated in an Ironman Triathlon. He did it partially to satisfy “a mixture of nostalgia and reflection,” Pendergrass, an eye surgeon in Mississippi, says.

The triathlon took only one morning. He then drove to Laos with a guide to exolore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He worked his way to Hanoi and shuffled through Uncle Ho’s tomb. Next, he visited battlefields in the South and ended up in Saigon.

Having experienced my share of flying in the Vietnam War, I found Pendergrass’ peacetime travel to be the most enlightening part of the book. I learned a lot I would not have on my own. Pendergrass talked to everyone who gave him time. As a result, he offers insights about today’s Vietnamese and their lifestyles. Farmers work unobstructed, except for uncovering unexploded ordnance. The tourist trade flourishes and most people have forgotten the American War.

Pendergrass speaks of the “absurdity of war,” and in the same breath he recalls combat as “the great adventure of [his] life.” This paradox reminds me of returning to the scene of an old crime, intrigued by questions that should have been resolved half a lifetime earlier. Seeking justification for what one did in war is unnecessary. No guilt should be associated with adrenaline rushes related to acts a person performed practically in childhood.


Recently I reviewed  another flight surgeon’s account of the war, Sharkbait by Guy Clark. He flew eighty-six combat strike missions in back seats of Phantoms.

His six-hundred-plus-page memoir offers readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about Vietnam War Phantom and Air Force operations.

Both Clark and Pendergrass extol the skill and courage of pilots with whom they faced death.

—Henry Zeybel


CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier


In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel

More Than Nine Lives by Evan Balasuriya


In More Than Nine Lives (CreateSpace, 208 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $19.95 paper ), Evan Balasuriya writes about narrow escapes from death early in his life. That theme reaches a crescendo during the 1968 Tet Offensive when his band—Savages—is in the middle of a tour entertaining American troops in South Vietnam.

Savages consisted of four men (three guitar players and a drummer) and three women (a lead singer and two go-go dancers) mainly from Sri Lanka where they were one of the country’s most popular rock bands. The group had more than nine lives, Balasuriya, notes, having cheated “death more than eleven times and perform[ed] for nearly 500,000 U.S. soldiers” during thirteen long months in-country.

Their brushes with death included rocket attacks; their van coming under small arms fire; confrontations with drunken ARVN, Korean, and American sexual predators; and speeding along narrow roads in the blackness of night in the middle of nowhere. Balasuriya plays each event for all it is worth. He personalizes a stray bullet that hits a wall near him, for example, by saying, “Yet again, I had cheated death.”

Balasuriya builds a background for the Vietnam War scenes by recalling growing up in Sri Lanka. For me, this was the most interesting part of his memoir.

Born in 1942, he describes a near-drowning and a near-emasculating bicycle accident, along with other threats to his life. The son of a doctor who worked in government hospitals, he grew up with six siblings. He labels his Catholic parents as “upper middle class,” but they had servants and their children attended boarding schools. In high school, Balasuriya excelled as a soccer goalie, captaining his team to a national championship.

Despite being his father’s scapegoat for misdeeds by the children, Balasuriya developed a strong personality and sense of responsibility without harboring resentment. Consequently, he displayed excellent leadership at critical times, especially in Vietnam.

In keeping with a privileged upbringing, Balasuriya’s thinking reflects puritanical standards. His observations on love, sex, war, prostitution, and other controversial topics reveal a righteous state of mind that led him to face physical danger to protect the women in his band and to stand up to bullies.

For Balasuriya, going to Vietnam resembled a leap to another planet. It was his first trip outside Sri Lanka and his first airplane ride. He had no knowledge about the war or its purpose. To him, everything in Vietnam portended danger.

Like the other members of Savages, Balasuriya delighted in entertaining enlisted men, NCOs, and officers with separate performances in a given day. Savages played some 750 concerts.

Similar to other Asian bands, Savages mimicked performers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Balasuriya mentions nearly every song Savages played for the troops, which should trigger at least a few memories for Vietnam War veterans.


The book contains about a hundred photographs he took. Many are small or dark. But they all provide evidence of an unusual year for a remarkable leader and his group.

Balasuriya migrated to the United States in 1973. For years, he operated a nationally renowned restaurant in Minneapolis. In 2005, he founded an organization that built houses for Sri Lanka tsunami victims.

The author’s website is morethanninelives.com

—Henry Zeybel

Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy


The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.


Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.jchandy.net

—David Willson

What Now, Lieutenant? by Robert O. Babcock     


The book title’s question recurs throughout Robert O. Babcock’s What Now, Lieutenant? An Infantryman in Vietnam (Deeds, 422 pp., $19,95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an incident-jammed memoir that links a stream of anecdotes—some gruesome, some humorous—that highlight the kaleidoscopic tour of a young, proud, and impressionable Army infantry officer in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Bob Babcock’s memory swarms with “alarms and diversions” as the old officer’s training manual put it. He presents these through excerpts from his letters home and adds extended commentary on the day-to-day operations while he served as leader of Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion/22nd Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division.

What is striking about this memoir is the degree to which—despite his experiences with friendly fire, obtuse and careless orders from the higher ups, and even a bout of malaria— Babcock “keeps the faith,” maintaining his respect for his fellow company officers, his troops, and the overall mission.

This is a record of the early days (1966-67) when the Vietnam War was being fought as crisis management and the main goal of the generals seemed to be publicizing (and often exaggerating) the daily enemy body count. Though Babcock and his men see little evidence of progress toward achieving any strategic goal, they continue to follow orders with courage and honor—though, of course, not always without grumbling.

Endemic command SNAFUs notwithstanding, the author repeatedly asserts he was proud to have served and, most importantly, to have won the respect of the men of Bravo Company. During his tour, the company lost only three (two to friendly fire) of the 180 who served in the unit.

Babcock quotes, apparently without irony, Gen. William Westmoreland’s Thanksgiving Day message from the back of the 1966 holiday menu sent to the troops in the field: “May we each pray for continued blessings and guidance upon our endeavors to assist the Vietnamese people in their struggle to attain an everlasting peace within a free society.”


Bob Babcock

These words may have rung stirringly back at headquarters. But Bancock records his unit’s day-to-day operations in the field as a kind of endless rushing about to suppress enemy brushfires.

The memoir also reminds us that the war tactically changed year-by-year. For instance, the men of Bravo Company, serving in the Central Highlands in 1966, viewed the impoverished indigenous Montagnards with a mixture of pity and contempt. On the other hand, the increasingly guerrilla-savvy Army Special Forces at the same time were beginning to employ these very pro-American natives as trusted warrior-guides.

Aside from offering insights into the daily grind of a field unit in an early phase of the Vietnam War, the author describes what it was like to arrive back in The World after this tour of duty.  Babcock recalls that in 1967 there were neither welcome home celebrations nor antiwar protests. His discomforting conclusion at the time was that most Americans just didn’t care much one way or the other about the war that had drastically altered his life and the lives of his fellow Bravo Company infantrymen.

Babcock supplements his memoir with mini-bios of many of those men, tracing the survivors’ post-war careers and current status in civilian life. He also includes a chapter titled “Advice for Today’s Lieutenants.”

— Paul Kaser

Note: Babcock’s memoir—first published in 2008 and re-issued in 2014—should not be confused with Marine Corps Gen. Richard Neal’s 2017 Vietnam War memoir of the same title.