21 Months, 24 Days by Richard Udden

Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.

“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,”  Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman.  “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.

Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”

Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.

As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.

1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion

Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.

He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.

The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.

Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.

He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.

“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.

Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.

The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html

—Henry Zeybel

You Had to Be There by Gene Gorman

Thought for the day: There’s no such thing as a good deal that a GI can’t fuck up. A bunch of guys I served with believed that thought was gospel. In fact, some of us occasionally qualified as the sentiment’s poster children. But Gene Gorman beat all of us when it came to self-destruction.

In You Had to Be There: A Memoir of a Miraculous Life (Archway, 260 pp. $35.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), Gorman sets some kind of record for successively running up ladders of success and then free falling from the top rung, loaded with beer. He performed his one-act play as both a Marine and a civilian.

His book is a good read because he pulls no punches. Gorman presents a classic alcoholic’s story by revealing himself at his absolute worst. Watching him is both tragic and funny, sort of like seeing LeBron James block his own breakaway, game-winning layup. Fortunately, we eventually see Gorman at his best.

Born in 1946, the second oldest of six children, Gene Gorman began working as a pre-teen door-to-door Christmas card salesman to supplement the family’s income. From then on, he never stopped selling a product or himself. He started drinking at fifteen—mostly beer. Told to leave home after high school, he enlisted in the Marine Corps.

His drinking steadily increased, even after he reached the fast track of driving an admiral. He did a tour in Vietnam, mainly leading a squad on search and destroy operations north of Dong Ha. Home from the war, Gorman received choice assignments while drinking his way to an honorable discharge.

In civilian life, Gene Gorman excelled in many different sales jobs, usually lasting around ninety days each. Once he lasted three years. But booze inevitably took control and he repeatedly walked away from work. Gorman seldom, if ever, got home before the bars closed in the wee hours of the morning.

Gene Gorman married and was divorced by the same women three times. They had two children. At the age of twenty-nine, Gorman resigned himself “to just being a drunk and waiting to see what happened to guys like [him].” Delirium tremens and repeated failures at detoxification finally forced him to admit he was an alcoholic and enter a twelve-step program at thirty.

Gene GormanThe book’s second half provides a message of hope for anyone trapped in addiction.  As a member of the Easy Does It Club, Gorman (at left) followed the guidance of recovery mentors and, working for others, maximized his talent for selling cars. Alone, he founded a program—The Winning Edge—that teaches leadership skills worldwide. You can look it up.

His managerial success led to building a used automobile sales corporation—Gene Gorman Associates—in  Punta Gorda, Florida. It now is nearly twenty years old. You can look that one up, too.

Simultaneously with his business success, Gorman started a new family and made amends with his first wife and older children. His story frequently takes on a well-earned proud poppa and grandpa tone. The book contains twenty-eight pages of pictures that closely resemble a family album.

The author’s website is www.genegormansbooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge by John D. Deaton

Dr. John Deaton served as an Air Force doctor in Vietnam in 1967-68 and witnessed the Tet Offensive. He arrived in country mid-August 1967, addicted to the barbiturate Seconal, seeking redemption. “At the 12th Hospital [in Cam Ranh Bay], I found the affirmation I had been seeking, and just in time to save my life,” Deaton writes in his memoir, Rockin’ In the Round-Eye Lounge (Amazon Digital Services, 417 pp., $9.99, Kindle). An internal medicine specialist, Deaton comments on several issues that I have found of interest as a Vietnam veteran.

“Again, it sounds small of me to mention it, but the peculiar military put down of having one person call another a “Remf” is, to me about as small as you can get,” he writes. And later: “By the way, Jane Fonda doesn’t deserve our loathing. Wishing to end the war, as we all did, she made a mistake. Big deal!”

This book gives us as good and intimate introduction to 12th USAF Hospital as we are ever likely to get. The most gory details of that hospital are there for the interested reader. Also the struggles of Dr. Deaton to deal with his Seconal habit, and to kick it, with the help of fellow doctors.

Deaton sings the praises of military nurses, and makes the point that at least 7.500 women served in the military in the Vietnam War. For those interested in details of how the Tet Offensive affected the 12th, no better book than this one exists I know of.

Another thing I loved about Deaton’s book is his comment on the word “’Nam.” To wit: “But in 1967, the last innocent year of our involvement there, we still called it Vietnam.”

Perhaps the wisest thing he says about the American war in Vietnam is: “Stopping a guerrilla war requires a ten to one superiority in numbers, the support of the local populace and a strong network of bases. We had none of the three.”

Deaton points out that the giant Cam Ranh Bay base had a miniature golf course, a bowling alley, and a massage parlor. Also a tennis court and a whorehouse. More reasons we lost that war.

I enjoyed this fine book, and I think that many others will too. If you’ve been an addict, you’ll especially appreciate it.

—David Willson

The Ghosts of the Green Grass by J. L. Bud Alley

Invariably, wars produce battles that become historical benchmarks. Not enough can be written or spoken about those events. Arguably, the Vietnam War’s 1965 Battle in the Ia Drang Valley between the Army’s newly formed 1st Air Cavalry Division’s 7th Cavalry and the North Vietnamese Army achieved such magnitude.

Ia Drang’s distinction began with Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, which examined the entire battle.  J. L. “Bud” Alley has written a  book about just the final stage of that fight—the 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry’s engagement with North Vietnamese forces at Landing Zone Albany. His book, The Ghosts of the Green Grass (Codi, 393 pp. $29.99), reveals exploits unrecognized in previous writings.

Alley served as a 2/7 second lieutenant in 1965-66. Part of an experimental U2 (untrained second lieutenants) program, he went from college to his unit without attending a basic officer course, although he later received training in combat communications.

His story focuses on more than the fighting.  Alley, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, walks the reader through a chaotic month of assembling the battalion at Fort Benning for deployment to Vietnam as part of the newly formed 1st Cav. Equipment and manpower shortages hindered planners. Uncertainty about practically everything plagued company grade officers and sergeants.

Bud Alley in Vietnam

“I was not sure if a Harvard professor could make sense out of the complexities,” Alley writes.

After thirty days at sea on the USS Rose, the battalion arrived at Qui Nhon in mid-September 1965. Its operational base was at An Khe.

Impulsive and unpredictable leadership stalled the battalion’s development into a fighting force. The Army was thin with experience across the board, Alley says. Six weeks after the battalion arrived in country, its stressed-out commander asked to be relieved.

On November 17, 1965, the day the entire battalion finally deployed in the field, no strategy existed to counter an enemy attack. The day’s plan was simple: march indirectly from LZ X-Ray to LZ Albany to avoid a B-52 ARC Light strike. The battalion’s column stretched from eight hundred to fifteen hundred meters in length. Delays were frequent. “We had no maps or idea of our destination other than to follow the man in front,” Alley writes.

Having never chosen an extraction landing zone, the battalion leaders were uncertain as to which of two cleared areas constituted LZ Albany. When the company commanders gathered to discuss the problem, the battalion came under fire on all sides from NVA forces.

Bud Alley

The battle that followed became a fight for survival. Alley graphically describes the intensity of combat that cost the battalion one hundred fifty-five dead and one hundred thirty-four wounded. He weaves in first-hand accounts, his own included, worthy of awe and admiration.

A bitter conclusion to the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley came soon afterward, when Gen. Westmoreland told the 2nd Battalion survivors that they had achieved “a great victory over the Communists from the North.” A year and a half later, units of the 4th Infantry Division fought nearly identical costly battles in the Ia Drang, fights that are described by Robert Sholly in Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors.

As Charles Baker does in his book, Gray Horse Troop, Alley links the 7th Cavalry’s Vietnam War experiences to its 1876 Little Bighorn Battle, but in greater depth. Alley points out many similarities between the “ghosts” of Gen. George Custer’s last days and 2/7’s encounters.

Alley’s book is based on more than fifty interviews with the men, wives, and widows of the Seventh Cavalry fighters, as well as military records and other published and unpublished sources.

Bud Alley earned a master’s degree in history in 2011. But he still possesses a sense of humor. At times, with its wealth of dialogue, The Ghosts of the Green Grass resembles a novel.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.theghostsofthegreengrass.com

—Henry Zeybel

Seed of Endurance by Rudy Cooper and Rosemary Wilkinson

Sgt. Maj. Rudy Cooper earned three Combat Infantryman Badges—in the Second World War, Korea, and Vietnam—along with many wounds. None of his wounds was as traumatic as the damage he suffered when his main and reserve parachutes failed to deploy during a nine-hundred-foot jump. That happened just twelve days before his scheduled retirement.

Cooper survived that fall. With Rosemary Wilkinson, he writes about his thirty years in the Army in Seed of Endurance: An Autobiography of SGM Rudy Cooper’s Military and Personal Life (Old Mountain Press, 285 pp., $20.00, paper).

I found the last third of Cooper’s book to be its most interesting. That’s where Cooper describes his almost continuous Southeast Asia service between 1965 and 1972. No regular U.S. combat units were in country when he reached Vietnam with the Special Forces in 1965. Americans were advisors to CIDG Strikers at Don Phuc, smack up against the Cambodian border, and on the Plain of Reeds, where Cooper worked.

The CIDGs’ task was to interdict Viet Cong forces. Cooper chose to accompany mainly night forays into the field rather than administrate. He operated from air boats, helicopters, and an O-1 Bird Dog. When necessary, he exceeded his advisory role to protect his own life or the lives of men lacking combat savvy. The missions found and destroyed a big VC aid station, a large-scale print shop for producing propaganda, and a mine and booby trap factory.

Rudy Cooper spent 1967 in Thailand teaching counterinsurgency tactics to Thai soldiers. In 1969, he returned to Vietnam as part of MACV SOG, which conducted highly classified SF operations in Cambodia. In 1971, Cooper was sent to Lop Buri, Thailand, on a special assignment that paralleled clandestine CIA activities in Laos. For that clandestine job, personnel had no rank and wore civilian clothes.

All of which is not to say that Cooper had it easy in his previous two wars. For him, Vietnam produced many flashbacks to his experiences in Europe and Korea.

The Second World War actions of Cooper and his life-long friend Clarence Ruff reminded me of the plight of Bill Mauldin’s Willie and Joe. With the barest necessities and envious of their officers, Cooper and Ruff defeated better-armed German soldiers. With Ruff driving and Cooper manning a 37-mm gun and .50-caliber machine gun in an M-8 armored car, they shot everything in their path.

From 1943-45 as members of the 805th “Hellcats” Tank Destroyer Battalion, Cooper and Ruff fought across North Africa and then made an epic combat journey up the Italian peninsula: Anzio, Casino, Rome, the Po Valley. All the while, they maintained constant surveillance for wine and women, usually finding their share of both.

Disenchanted with post-war civilian life, Cooper enlisted in the Regular Army in 1947, and became a Counterintelligence Agent in Vienna. When the Korean War began, combat proved irresistible. In 1951, he took a short discharge and reenlisted for assignment with the infantry in Korea.

Cooper’s episodes about Korea are spellbinding. His writing captures the absolute nightmare of the impersonal dispersion of death. His Infantryman is a hopeless victim of violence, as well as a god emerging from virtually limitless destruction. Cooper’s descriptions of battle overwhelm the imagination. He damns the political machinations surrounding peace talks and labels them “a cruel addition to the war,” providing momentary hope that repeatedly morphed into greater violence.

In the years between the Korean and Vietnam wars, Cooper often served as an administrator, a role he detested. Reflecting on the monotony of peacetime, he recalls the antics of bored SF troops, including pranks such as disrupting a retreat ceremony with booby-trapped trip wires and smoke grenades.

Rudy Cooper provides minimal details about his personal life. He was married to Rosemary Wilkinson, who is listed as the book’s co-author. They had two sons and two daughters. At early ages, the sons died in accidents.

Sgt. Maj. Rudy Cooper died in 2008, two years after he finished writing Seed of Endurance.

—Henry Zeybel

The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On by Tom Davis

Here’s the deal. When you pick up a book, do you expect to read all of it? If not, why not? That is the dilemma posed by Retired Army Col. Tom Davis in The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On: A March from Private to Colonel (Old Mountain Press, 328 pp., $20.00, paper).

This good-natured memoir, which covers Davis’ thirty-plus years in the U.S. Army, resembles a course in the many macho career fields available to soldiers. Davis says that only his three closest loved ones “will read this epic from cover to cover.” He tells the rest of us, “You don’t have to,” and suggests that we “peruse the table of contents and pick and chose what most tickles [our] fancy.”

I called his bet, read every page, and found a lot to like—along with bits of repetition and predictability. Davis devotes most of the book to his years as a lieutenant and captain in jobs that prepared him for his climb up the leadership ladder.

Davis used the Army training system to his advantage by taking as many courses as possible. A newlywed with a low draft number, he forestalled being sent to Vietnam by enlisting, earning a commission through OCS, then completing parachute and Special Forces training, followed by failing Vietnamese language school. Hey, nobody’s perfect.

Eventually, Davis spent a relatively calm year in Vietnam. In his first four months during 1970, as a Special Forces lieutenant at Duc Hue, he led CIDG troops on Search and Destroy missions, which he called “Seek and Avoid.” They battled enemy forces only once. In Long Hai for his last eight months, he trained Cambodian civilians (ages twelve to sixty-four) to be soldiers.

A Special Forces trooper with CIDG forces

On his return from to the war zone, Davis helped to organize a Special Forces mountaineering team before mastering SCUBA techniques and moving on to the Infantry Officer Advanced Course and Ranger training. A short time later, he also qualified in HALO parachuting. He details these activities with greatest emphasis on SF SCUBA operations.

As a junior officer, Davis unhesitatingly called on his senior sergeants for guidance. In particular, he pays great respect to SFC Ronald Brockelman, his SCUBA Team Sergeant.

Ror twenty years Davis plied his many SF skills in England, Germany, Denmark, France, Korea, Zaire, Turkey, Tunis, Italy, Iraq, and Bosnia. His sense of duty was exemplary: He took virtually any assignment at a moment’s notice. Reading the entire book teaches you more than you ever expected to know about peacetime operations in his areas of expertise. A hundred-plus photographs emphasize the chapter highlights.

Davis explains the minutiae of running SF units at higher and higher command levels and details what he calls the Five Principles of Good Management— his Five Pillars of Command Philosophy—plus the acceptability of making exceptions to them when “downright necessary.” Hey, no plan is perfect.

Overboard about physical fitness, Davis cannot stop when he talks about participating in triathlons and marathons, along with other ever-more-clever-and-complex athletic competitions he devised. In this respect, his ego grows as big as the Ritz—and its annex. I ran distance races for several decades, but just reading those sections exhausted me.

Nevertheless, I greatly admire Tom Davis because he frequently used his leadership positions to challenge authority, mainly to question his superiors. A few of his stories project unwholesome pictures of pettiness within the U.S. military structure, based on (excuse the cliché) the father-knows-best attitude of senior officers. Davis often was a rebellious son. More power to him.

The author’s website is www.oldmp.com/davismemoirs

—Henry Zeybel

The Dead Were Mine by Charles W. Honaker

Bill Honaker begins his Vietnam War memoir by telling us what he is not going to tell: “I have deliberately left out some of the events I experienced,” he says, “in part because I could not capture in words what I saw in my mind’s eye and translate into an acceptable fashion, and partly because some things were just too gruesome to try to explain.” Regardless of the self-censoring, the information Honaker  imparts in The Dead Were Mine (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $10.00, paper) fascinated me.

Honaker served two Nam tours as a Graves Registration (GRREG) Specialist: 1966-67 in the 9th Infantry Division operations area, and 1969-70 with the 243rd Field Service Company at Pleiku and Qui Nhon. He spent time in the field, leading Search and Recovery missions. During Operation Compassion Honaker humped the Central Highlands while looking for men lost going back as far as four years.

His duties entailed finding, cleaning, and identifying bodies; trying to determine cause of death; and escorting remains of those killed in action or who died otherwise in Vietnam. What Honaker describes of the destructive aftermath of combat is limited, but it also is new and grisly.

In a strangely dispassionate manner, Honaker and his coworkers’ emotions transcended the horror of their tasks. The dedication of these men who accepted such depressing duty reflected the depth of respect they felt toward those who gave their lives for our nation.

Graves Registration personnel preparing transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home.

Honaker precisely explains the hopelessness he overcame to fulfill his responsibilities in-country where tasks were far grimmer than those he had mastered in GRREG school. He dedicated himself to “ensuring that fallen soldiers would be returned home, and [he] would be doing immeasurable good for the Next-of-Kin.” Photographs from slides he shot supplement his story.

Having enlisted in the Army in 1962, Honaker retired in 1983 as a Master Sergeant. He spent his entire career in GRREG, which now is called Memorial Activities.

Honaker tells plenty, but not everything, about collecting and processing human remains. For that consideration, some readers might thank him.

Others might wish that he had provided every gory detail from his experiences. But Honaker did not write the book as a catharsis for PTSD or other post-war emotional problems. Instead, he aimed to give credence to men and women who served in an honorable, arduous, and consuming role. What he reveals adequately proves his point.

—Henry Zeybel