Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta

 

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In his 1961 minor classic, Among the Dangs, George P. Elliott tells the story of an anthropologist who becomes a member of a primitive jungle tribe. The anthropologist’s deep immersion in the tribe’s culture ends when he realizes If he “had stayed there much longer I would have reverted until I became one of them until I had lost myself utterly.”

Eight years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Andretta brought much of that fiction to life for himself as an advisor to Vietnamese Coastal Group 14, stationed fifteen miles south of Danang.

In six months with the Group, Andretta was struck by lightning, shredded by shrapnel, blown off a boat, and shot through both legs. After receiving his third set of wounds, he turned down a third Purple Heart and forfeited an opportunity to leave Vietnam early. His desire to help the Vietnamese outweighed all other considerations.

Andretta relates his Vietnam War experiences in Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force (CreateSpace, 428 pp., $20, paper; $8.75 Kindle). Many of the operations he writes about were new to me.

As the leader of three Americans assigned to Group 14, Andretta immersed himself in the war and Vietnamese culture. He participated in practically every search and destroy mission; observed every social custom; doctored children infected with boils and other illnesses; and built a maternity ward and a two-room school for the hamlet of Doi.

Along with South Vietnamese sailors, Andretta worked closely with Ruff-Puffs—Regional Forces (RF) and Provincial Forces (PF). The Navy delivered Ruff-Puffs to coastal or waterway sites where they patrolled on foot. When possible, everyone engaged the enemy with firepower from water and land.

Despite the depth of his involvement, after a few weeks or so, Andretta said, “I felt so isolated; like I had gone to a different world.”

Andretta writes in a straightforward, conversational style that gives the book a humorous tone. He does not hide his feelings, and it is easy to relate to him. His knack for depicting personality traits brings characters alive. His scenes of the aftermath of battle clearly support his transition from a dedicated warrior to a man who abhors war.

He learned by doing. While hospitalized at Danang with an amoebic abscess of the liver, he helped unload CH46 helicopters overflowing with Marines killed and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Even though he had already been seriously wounded, the carnage shocked him.

Shortly after, following another Group 14 “great victory” at “ambush corner” on the Thu Bon River, he saw the napalmed remains of enemy soldiers (men, women, and children) and experienced an epiphany: “Suddenly I hated the country. I hated this place. I hated the war. I hated the people. I wanted out.”

After six months of search and destroy missions, he understood that his men “were just the bait. The artillery and aircraft had done the rest.” Only the body count mattered to his superiors, he decided.

Andretta He accepted a transfer from Group 14 to ragtag Group 13, north of Danang. Group 13 saw little action. Nevertheless, Andretta worked hard to improve a dismal area. From that point, the book resembles an interesting travelogue more than a combat saga.

Ignoring his antiwar sentiments, Andretta connived to participate in a final sweep with a nearby Army unit; the helicopter in which he rode was shot down. He said, “It did not take much reflection to conclude that I was more than just a bit crazy.”

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Then he accompanied a SEAL team on a “special patrol” that ended in a shootout. “There was no time to be frightened; only to shoot well,” he said. Outnumbered, the SEALs fled: “That was probably the fastest I have ever run,” Andretta noted.

After he completed his tour, Andretta flew to San Francisco, and encountered a “not very pleasant homecoming, and that’s an understatement” from war protesters.

By remembering his Naval Academy classmates killed in action, Andretta repeatedly conveys the remorse felt by  survivors for friends who died in the war. He recognizes that many survivors never achieve release from their sorrow.

Andretta enhances his narrative by blending an excellent collection of photographs with the text, rather than lumping them together in the middle of the book.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972 due to combat-related disabilities, Andretta became a lawyer and then a judge. He stepped down from the bench in 2007. His wounds still cause him problems that require surgery.

—Henry Zeybel

With Schwarzkopf by Gus Lee

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The latest book from author Gus Lee, a character-based leadership authority, is With Schwarzkopf: Life Lessons of the Bear (Smithsonian Books, 312 pp., $27.95). Lee also has written two other bestsellers: China Boy and Courage: the Backbone of Leadership.

Gus Lee was in his junior year at West Point in 1966 when he learned he was in danger of failing. He then came under the personal tutelage of instructor Norman Schwarzkopf who, in addition to academics, mentored Lee on character, leadership, and the need to do the right thing, no matter how difficult. Even though Lee failed to graduate from West Point, his many hours spent in the company of then Maj. Schwarzkopf created a bond between the two men that lasted more than forty years.

Lee gives the reader a close-up account of life at West Point through his own experiences, both positive and negative. He reveals a little-known side of Schwarzkopf—as a wise, insightful intellectual with unwavering personal values of honesty, courage, and commitment. Affectionately known as “The Bear,” his mentoring of Gus Lee helped Lee deal with his struggles at West Point and, years later, as a legal officer in the post-Vietnam War Army.

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Gus Lee

Lee relates then Schwarzkopf’s experiences as an advisor to a Vietnamese Airborne unit. He earned Vietnamese Master Parachute wings, but in the process suffered a back injury that plagued him for years.

Lee writes that Schwarzkopf wondered back then if he could succeed with an Army career–if he could “keep his damn mouth shut with rear-area types who never got muddied or bloodied and never lost a man.” Schwarzkopf managed, despite his legendary temper, to rise to stardom as the celebrated general who led the way to victory in the first Persian Gulf War, aka Operation Desert Storm.

In 1991, the Bear declined the offer to become Army Chief of Staff. He retired after 39 years in uniform.

Gus Lee has written an inspiring story about one of America’s greatest post-World War II generals. We can all learn from the life lessons and personal values passed along from The Bear to Lee.

The author’s web site is www.guslee.net

—James Coan

 

 

Vigilance by Ray Kelly

 

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Reading Ray Kelly’s memoir, Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City (Hachette, 328 pp., $28.00, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is like reviewing New York City’s crime files from the mid-1960s to today. Kelly served forty-three years with the NYPD. He provides insight into fighting crime from the perspectives of the street cop up to the commissioner.

A lifelong New Yorker, Kelly was born in Manhattan and earned bachelor and law degrees from colleges in the city. His book ties together his efforts to improve the police force with various mayors’ ambitions to make New York City safer and more livable.

During the summer following his junior year at Manhattan College, Kelly earned a second lieutenant’s commission through the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Course. His three older brothers had been Marines. Soon after, he also qualified to attend the police academy. So, on graduation from college, he “put the NYPD on hold” for three years to fulfill his military obligation.

Kelly became an artillery forward observer and fire-support coordinator after completing infantry warfare training. Newly married to Veronica Clarke, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton until he shipped out aboard the USS Gunston Hall to Vietnam in 1965.

Kelly underplays his role as an artilleryman in Vietnam. Initially, he led a team on amphibious-assault landings in amtracks. “We’d take modest sniper fire,” he says. He also writes that he enjoyed working with men from all parts of America, which refined his leadership skills. “Virtually everything I know about being a leader, I learned in the Marine Corps,” he writes.

“I spent most of my tour in the valleys near Hue and Phu Bai,” Kelly says. He took part in day and night helicopter assaults and Operations Harvest Moon and New York. His details of encounters with the enemy focus on other people as the performers of extraordinary actions.

Kelly felt pride in his young men for their dedication. His primary regret is that he and his men never had a “full understanding of the endgame.” Confusion, he says, “was a constant part of the Vietnam experience. He and his men often ran around in what he calls a “fog of war.”

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Ray Kelly in Vietnam

 

With the NYPD, Kelly frequently moved from one part of the city to another because of his ability to improve the efficiency of problem precincts.  Promotions came rapidly. He helped remove sex businesses from Times Square and reduced the city’s homicide count after it reached rampant proportions. That hard work led to his first appointment as police commissioner in 1992.

For the next twenty years, Kelly continued to lead police organizations in NYC, the federal government, and even overseas. From 2002-13, during his second appointment as commissioner following 9/11 , he determined his mandate to be “counterterrorism, crime fighting, and community relations.”

Ray Kelly, who retired to the private sector in 2014, carried a tremendous burden. I doubt anyone could report that trying period of police work with more accuracy and authority than he does.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Man Who Walked 3,500 Miles to Kill Me by William Zoesch

 

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Sometimes a passage in a book gets ingrained in a reader’s mind. That happened to me with the following words from William Zoesch:

“His brain was not going to tolerate an insult like this, I thought having seen enough head wounds of all types to last me for the next fricking millennium. His CT scan showed the bullet track through his brain, bone fragments lay where his personality once was, and then exited out through his right motor sensory strip.”

The patient bled out on an operating table.

Dr. Zoesch (rhymes with “flesh”) spent four years (1969-73) in the Army, with one year in Vietnam. Then he returned to college and studied Emergency Medicine. From 1984-92, he was a doctor in the Air National Guard. And from 2003-07, he doctored for the Army Reserves, with a year in Afghanistan. His separations from the services include two honorable discharges and a resignation of his commission.

Zoesch records his combat zone experiences in The Man Who Walked 3500 Miles to Kill Me: Reminiscences from Vietnam and Afghanistan (Lulu, 378 pp., $18.95 paper; $9.95 Kindle). The book evolved from diaries he wrote thirty-two years apart.

He incorporates the two diaries into one storyline and thereby deals with both wars simultaneously. Zoesch intersperses his life as a captain in Vietnam from June 1971 to April 1972 with his time as a colonel in Afghanistan from September 2004 to September 2005. We leap back and forth between the two countries, sometimes from paragraph to paragraph. But every entry is dated.

Initially, the book’s organization works and similarities between the start of the author’s two tours are comparable. But once Zoesch reaches his units, his jobs differed so greatly that they lack relativity. Nevertheless, the book abounds with enlightening and entertaining stories.

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Operating room at the 24th Evac Hospital in Vietnam

In Vietnam, Zoesch ran TOCs at Long Binh and Xuan Loc. In Afghanistan, he ministered to the wounded and sick at Bagram Air Base and Kabul. The common core of Zoesch’s two combat tours was long working hours and fatigue brought on by too little sleep.

Zoesch’s Vietnam War memories offer new twists to old facts. For example, he explains how a Claymore mine works to illustrate the damage one did when a Thai soldier used it to assassinate another soldier over a woman. In Zoesch’s world, the unit mascot is a dog named Roach who kills other dogs on sight, even other mascots. And in the tiny Bearcat officers’ club, a barmaid with self-induced catatonia is allowed to pass out on the floor for hours at a time. Most interesting, Zoesch’s running battle with finance concerning back pay ends in a “High Noon”-type showdown.

As a TOC boss at Bearcat, Zoesch worked closely with his Thai and South Vietnamese counterparts. He developed great respect for the Thais and believed their combat skills were under-appreciated and under-publicized.

When President Nixon reduced in-country troop strength in 1972, Zoesch moved to Xuan Loc. Shortly after he arrived, a  South Vietnamese battalion took heavy losses, something he had not experienced. Later, Zoesch became aware of additional problems such as heroin trafficking and the use of torture and murder as interrogation techniques. After the North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive, however, he focuses on the war.

In remembering Afghanistan, Zoesch’s recitations of treating wounds and illnesses resembles a medical textbook. He uses words such as beta-agonist, auscultation, and rhabdomyosarcoma, which might confuse the average reader. But he clarifies them with detailed and lucid explanations. As the months roll by, his diary fills more and more with descriptions of unusual medical cases, one involving an illness that doctors claimed “had not been seen in forty years.”

The doctors at Bagram worked twenty-four hour shifts and tended to Afghanis as well as to GIs. The breadth of costly medical aid and transportation provided to the civilian population, including life support, surprised me.

At age fifty-seven, after four months of eighty-plus-hour work weeks, Zoesch grew deeply depressed. Then he moved from Bagram to Kabul, which he likens to going from a penal colony to a city. An R&R to Doha coupled with his appointment to command the clinic in Kabul rejuvenated him. He continued to treat patients while becoming an administrator involved in policy making and politics until finishing his tour.

In both wars, as he neared the end of his tours, Zoesch reflected on what he had seen and done and philosophized about what the future held for America. His book’s Epilogue presents a sound case against the rampant use of American power to democratize the world.

The book’s title refers to a Mongolian Muslim soldier who said he had walked all the way to Afghanistan (3,500 miles) to kill infidels—Americans in particular. He made the pronouncement as a POW while Zoesch treated his battle wounds.

Here’s one more passage ingrained in my mind:

“Along the north side of our tiny airfield, there was a scene there etched into my memory ever since—twelve black body bags covered by swarms of flies. Squatting about five meters away were three Vietnamese soldiers eating their lunch from bowls with spoons. That to me was Viet Nam in one cataclysmic blink. I have seen filled body bags in Viet Nam and Afghanistan but that one moment in time survived and summarized all of the rest.”

—Henry Zeybel

Heroes to the End by Jim Smith

Jim Smith wrote for the Stars and Stripes newspaper in Vietnam during his 1971-72 tour. His only difficulty was his bosses’ demand that he not denigrate American policies or practices.

For one of his first articles, Smith exposed the incompetence and inadequacies of Bien Hoa’s First Team Combat Training Center. His editor told him to rewrite it or forget about it; otherwise, if the article were printed, Smith “would suddenly find [himself] slinging hash in a field kitchen in the Delta—at best.”

Smith chose not to buck the system. For seven months he “used helicopters as taxis and was ferried to every city in South Vietnam,” specializing in “secondhand accounts of heroism.”

Despite the censorship, Smith was able to report vignettes of people and events from the front lines to the rear. He had a knack for finding stories that undammed a flood of memories for me. He just might do the same for anyone else who spent time in-country.

Smith has collected all of his by-lined articles, along with previously unpublished work, in  Heroes to the End: An Army Correspondent’s Last Days in Vietnam (iUniverse, 337 pp.; $23.95 paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book separates people into nine categories such as “Combat Heroes,” “South Vietnamese and South Korean Units,” “American Units,” and “Invited Guests.”

During Smith’s tour, America’s war effort rapidly unwound as President Nixon cut troop strength with his Vietnamization strategy. Because we know what came to pass, Smith’s reporting of “Do Gooders” now resembles satire. He shows that as Americans departed in droves, the few remaining troops labored with greater misdirection than ever.

Smith also provides insights about weapon systems and the people who operated them. As counterpoint to battle action, however, he emphasizes the American soldiers’ desires to depart the country and to “let the ARVNs do it all.” Lacking fire support and facing newly introduced SA-7 heat-seeking missiles, a helicopter pilot said, “The only thing that’s destroyed when we go out on a search-and-destroy mission is us.”

The NVA’s 1972 Easter Offensive receives much of Smith’s attention. During that time, he spent weeks in and around Kontum City. His reports of the NVA victory at Tan Canh and the fighting in and around Kontum rank among the book’s highlights. The stories of these events, he tells us, “didn’t run” in the Stars and Stripes.

Smith patrolled the jungle with grunts and flew with helicopter crews to get first-hand views of the war. The longer he was in country, the more risks he took. “Whenever I wanted to find out what was really happening in a battle zone, I went to the helicopter people first. The hell with the information officers,” he writes. “Most of them were completely worthless and were just worried about putting a positive spin on things.”

In his section called “Clerk in a War Zone,” Smith discusses the five boring months he spent processing troops at Cam Ranh Bay before his reassignment to Stars and Stripes. The luxury he enjoyed in Saigon as a reporter should elicit (even after all these years) at least one WTF from former boonie rats. The fact is, however, that Smith had the talent to make the change—proof that at least one soldier was used to the best of his ability in that war.

The book contains twenty pages of photographs and closes with excerpts from letters Smith wrote to his parents. That includes:

“I’ve lived my life over mentally a hundred times since I’ve been here.”

“Well, nobody forced me into it…here I am out in the jungle 30 miles southeast of Saigon. That’s a damn poor lead sentence but so are my surroundings.”

“I’m down with the real people, as the Lt. says—the ones that matter in Vietnam.”

“I don’t know how anyone could keep his sanity if he had to do a full tour in the jungle.”

Smith confesses to feelings that surprised me with their depth of both love and hate toward the Army and its men, his job, and the war. His willingness to record his feelings shows a lot of courage.

Before enlisting to avoid being drafted into the infantry, Jim Smith worked as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, New York, while earning a bachelor’s degree at Hofstra University. After the war, he returned to reporting and editing for that newspaper until 2014—a forty-five year career.

—Henry Zeybel

It Wasn’t Like Nothing by Thomas J. Hynes

Clearly the double negative in the title is a clue to expect a no-nonsense chronicle about the hazardous realities of Vietnam War combat through the eyes of a United States Marine. It Wasn’t Like Nothing: One Marine’s Adventure in Vietnam by Thomas J. Hynes (iUniverse 270 pp., $20.95, paper; $3.49, Kindle) covers the author’s path from enlistment to fighting the Viet Cong and and NVA.

Hynes’s rapid change of venue after graduating from Georgetown Law School in September 1966, then taking the Marine Basic Course and Officer Candidate School and his subsequent assignment to Lima Company, Third Battalion, Fifth Marines near Da Nang all happened in less than a year. 2nd Lt. Hynes even somehow managed to fit in his marriage during a two-week leave.

A Catch 22-like assignment was the new Lieutenant’s introduction to Lima Company. Introducing himself as Captain K, his CO said, “Lieutenant, we have a problem. I already have three platoon commanders, and I don’t have a place to put you except as weapons platoon commander.” Captain K then told Hynes that there wasn’t a weapons platoon. A temporary mortar team was created and Hynes began “learning the hard way.” Talking to experienced members of Lima Company was more valuable than most stateside training.

This OJT often took place during platoon sweeps, patrols, and battalion-wide operations. Calling in artillery strikes and air support requires full knowledge of where your unit is and where the enemy is. “Just as the rifle was the basic tool of the infantryman, the map and compass were the basic tools of the platoon commander,” Hynes writes.

Responding to a firefight, another platoon commander “intentionally called in the mission on top of us. He thought we would get out of there in time and we would catch Charlie sneaking in behind us. He didn’t give us enough time to clear the area before the artillery came in.”

Hynes offers his opinions on the South Vietnamese military and civilians. “We went from village to village,” he writes. “The reaction of the villagers was one of studied indifference. The peasants were caught in the middle of this war. All they wanted was to tend their fields in peace. Regardless of who ruled their country, they had to raise enough crops to survive another year.”

One battle in which a Marine platoon advanced on a treeline responding to small arms fire from Viet Cong inside the forest did so without support from the the ARVN squad they were working with. The Vietnamese later explained, “we do not attack treelines.”

Although the book’s photographs are of poor quality, the author’s descriptions of his platoon’s combat actions are as vivid as any images on film. One such account describes a ground action that could have caused many friendly casualties.

A battalion operation was winding down as two companies were returning to their base camps. Lima Company detected incoming fire from the woodline in front of them and laid down a field of fire into the woods. Delta Company, advancing on the other side of the woods, returned fire toward Lima Company’s position. Miraculously, none of the thousands of rounds fired resulted in friendly fire casualties. The din of rapid firing drowned out cease-fire commands until radio transmissions halted the gunfire.

Operation Swift was among the most critical enemy engagements Second Platoon was involved in during Hyne’s year in country. His report on this series of battles reveals a startling action that had the Marines and their lieutenant thinking about the futility of such operations over a few kilometers of The Que Son Valley.

Marines ready for action during Operation Swift

Official reports often conflicted with what the grunts actually experienced. Lt. Hynes recalled: “I later read the after-action report on the operation, and it was my opinion the official version of Operation Swift was suspect.”

Hynes has written a remarkable personal journal enabling readers to appreciate the work of a group of brave Marines.

—Curt Nelson

Memoir of Vietnam by William S. Fee

A memoir normally has a purpose beyond simply recounting what the writer did over a given period of time. William S. Fee follows this pattern in Memoir of Vietnam 1967 (Little Miami, 122 pp. $15) by describing how military training and combat turned his infantry squad into a family.

Fee took part in search and destroy missions as a member of Delta Company, 1st of the 18th in the 1st Infantry Division from July to November of 1967 in the Iron Triangle. During the battle for Loc Ninh, he suffered a crippling shoulder wound that led to an early discharge from the Army after four complicated operations.

At age nineteen, Fee gave up the “inanity” of college and enlisted as an infantryman. He felt obligated to serve his country because, he says, “So many young men were drafted against their will to fight this war.” Fee believed his participation would “make a difference” and influence “friends who seemed not to care about the war.” He also sought the “intoxication of a dangerous adventure.”

Fee found himself in an unusual situation. The men he trained with in basic at Fort Knox and Infantry AIT at Fort Polk and Fort Lewis remained together after schooling. Aboard the USNS Geiger, they sailed to Vietnam and formed a new company in the Big Red One.

Fee fondly recalls all of his squad members, living and dead. He describes the high level of camaraderie that evolved from spending so much time together. The climactic event for him was the fighting at Loc Ninh during which a rocket propelled grenade nearly tore off his right arm. He credits his survival to the special care he received because his squad mates were long-time friends.

Based on his experience, Fee believes that the practice of sending single replacements to rifle companies in the field in the Vietnam War was a major cause of PTSD. Men treated in this manner were victimized by being alone, both during and after the war, he believes.

In the post-war world, Fee faced survivor’s guilt and his life lost purpose. He married but soon divorced his sweetheart—Sally—who had waited for him throughout his time in the Army and in hospitals. Psychiatrists and the VA were unprepared to deal with PTSD in the mid-1970s and provided no help in curing his illness.

By talking to himself in mirrors, Fee overcame his disorders on his own, but retained residues of fear. He tells us that in battle he developed “the sensation that an enemy soldier had me trained in his rifle sight. It is a fear I carry with me to this day.” Regarding death in combat, he still frequently wonders, “Why not me?”

Following his rehabilitation, he and Sally remarried. Fee began a long career in the television industry. And had children. He also had a second family— the men from Delta Company who periodically hold reunions and remain close.

A 1st Infantry Division soldier cleaning his weapon in the field

Fee pays great tribute to his battalion commander, Lt. Col. Richard Cavazos, who later became a four-star general. Cavazos fought shoulder to shoulder with his men on the battlefield. Today, he still maintains friendships with Delta’s veterans.

Fee presents a viewpoint new to me related to search and destroy strategy. He says: “Colonel Cavazos was a conservative war tactician. As soon as our patrols were ambushed, he ordered our retreat back to the perimeter, and immediately called in air strikes and artillery on our positions as we withdrew” (italics added).

In other words, Cavazos did not require his undermanned units to duel with superior forces while awaiting massive fire support, as virtually everyone else did. Overall, Fee shows that Cavazos’ tactics saved many lives, including the author’s.

—Henry Zeybel