A Battalion of Angels by Mike Burns

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Mike Burns’ A Battalion of Angels (Mira Digital Publications, 131 pp., $12.99, paper) is an anthology of the stories of thirteen Vietnam War veterans centering on how their lives were saved in combat through Divine Intervention. These essays vividly describe helicopters flying into hot landing zones, dropping in combat units and evacuating casualties; soldiers patrolling in thick jungles that hide snipers and booby traps; and Marines walking into enemy ambushes. These are tales of how premonitions, early detections of attack, and last-minute battle plan revisions spared lives.

William Whitmore is the subject of the first chapter. More than half way through his tour of duty with the 101st Airborne the Bronze Star recipient was in an intense firefight. “While firing and moving, Bill felt a hand on his back that pushed him hard to the ground,” Burns writes. “To this day, Bill considers the hand and push as divine intervention, or more precisely, the hand of God”

This brief volume is well organized with chapter titles bearing the veteran’s name and time of service in-country, including evidence of the influence of a deity or a surrogate. In addition, there are remarkable battlefield accounts uniquely recording actions that are historically valuable alongside personal paths leading to the spiritual encounter.

Readers may identify with dates and locations as I did with the entry submitted by Raymond Jobin. His Vietnam War service dates correspond to my own, August 1969 to August 1970.  We had the same Commanding General, Maj. Gen. John A.B. Dillard.

Jobin was offered a position on Gen. Dillard’s staff, but was uncharacteristically uncertain about whether to accept it. Perhaps God influenced his late-night decision to turn down the offer. Seven months later Gen. Dillard and nine staff members died when their chopper was shot down.

The final story introduces Navy Corpsman Kurt Turner, who served on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose in the South China Sea. Turner and other Corpsmen typically carried wounded Marines from helicopters to triage, placing each patient on a gurney. One time this routine duty was nearly deadly. A Marine on the gurney had a live grenade hidden in a gauze leg bandage. When the grenade was safely removed Turner looked for an ambulator Marine who spotted the live explosive and told the Corpsmen about it. But that Marine was no where to be found.

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“Kurt is very comfortable in his belief that the Marine was actually a guardian angel, whose name in life was James E. Williams, Jr.,” Burns writes.

I strongly recommend A Battalion of Angels. Mike Burns made contact with ten of the thirteen veterans in the book through the free ads he placed in the “Locator” column in The VVA Veteran magazine. Because of that he is donating some of the book’s profits to Vietnam Veterans of America.

—Curt Nelson

The Sun Sets on Vietnam by Robert B. Haseman

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During the Vietnam War, Robert B. Haseman strove to do the right thing straight from the get-go. He gave up his college deferment and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He completed boot camp, advanced infantry training, sniper school, Platoon Leader Class, and even Army Ranger school.

Then as a second lieutenant, he joined Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and became an infantry platoon commander in Quang Tri Provence near Dong Ha. During his 1969 six-month tour, his “company suffered 21 dead and at least 54 wounded,” Haseman writes in The Sun Sets on Vietnam: The Firebase War (Lulu, 176 pp.; $10.99,  paper; $7.49, Kindle).

Haseman and his men “spent most of [their] time defending permanent combat bases, usually called firebases,” he says, and “conducting field operations in the mountainous jungle between the spread-out firebases. The strategy required most of the regiment’s troops just to occupy the firebase. It discouraged, but failed to prevent, the NVA from passing through the jungle on their way south or from attacking our firebases.”

Haseman saw that defensive strategy as “much less effective [than] the more traditional ‘attack strategy’ that is usually employed in war.”

While “accurate memories of events” remain clear in his mind, he writes, some names and conversations “faded from memory.” Therefore, he occasionally fictionalizes characters and combines events. In two instances, he uses information from John S. Brown’s The Vietnam War: An Almanac to expand stories about being overrun by sappers and taking heavy losses.

The book’s distinction is Haseman’s dedication to following lessons he learned in training. He spells out good and bad decisions, second guessing himself forty-six years after events took place. For example, based on his “recent Ranger School training,” he relates a wondrous tale of building three rafts from sticks and ponchos so that his six-man team could float home from a patrol—at night, under a nearly full moon. Enough said.

Haseman also claims to have been “one of the very few platoon commanders” who employed firing the Final Protection Line “at several prearranged times each night” to “keep the troops awake, alert, and well-practiced.”

The book closes with Haseman’s twenty-four page analysis of “Why we were there [in Vietnam].” A self-professed “amateur historian,” he combines military experience and years of studying the war to conclude that “U.S. policy toward Vietnam was always flawed.” Welcome to the crowd, Robert.

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Bob Haseman (left) in Vietnam in 1969

Nonetheless, he says, “At least I can say that when my country called, I tried to help.”

Haseman’s writing style is direct and he does not linger over details that are common knowledge. He credits Tim O’Brien’s famed novel, The Things They Carried, for inspiring him to produce this memoir. An average reader should finish Haseman’s book in one enjoyable afternoon.

—Henry Zeybel

 

War in Aquarius by Dennis Kitchin

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When first published in 1994, Dennis Kitchin’s War in Aquarius (McFarland, 216 pp.; $19.99, paper) carried the subtitle Memoir of an American Infantryman in Action along the Cambodian Border during the Vietnam War, which perfectly describes the book’s content. During 1968-69, Kitchen served with the 25th Infantry Division’s 27th Infantry Regiment—the Wolfhounds—headquartered at Cu Chi. He spent all of his year in the field.

The book was republished in 2015, which is a good thing because it rings true. Kitchin examines the Vietnam War through the lens of a man who hates war but accepts the obligation of serving his country. Classified 1A, he volunteered for the draft after graduating from college. Kitchin’s attitude is not unique, but the way he expresses his thoughts in this book stands above the norm.

He often internalizes his perspective to the point that what goes on in his head transcends what occurs around him. Yet he physically performs all that is demanded. This sense of detachment helps Kitchin  maintain his rationality, especially as the months unfold and he grows more convinced that the war is wrong. He particularly deplores the injuries—both accidental and deliberate—inflicted on civilians.

As his tour unfolds, Kitchen morphs from being a babe in the woods into a hardened combat veteran. His depictions of helicopter and World War II landing craft river assaults; of enemy ambushes and booby traps; unproductive patrols; and U.S. casualty numbers greater than those of the V.C. create a mood of dejection throughout the book. As he remains unhurt while friends die alongside him, Kitchin deeply contemplates death and serious injury. He blames most of his unit’s losses on bad decisions made by incompetent leaders. At one point, his platoon’s strength was reduced to fourteen.

Kitchen writes with clarity and purpose. He finds relationships between events and more than once turns a creative phrase. For example, on patrol in “rugged, uninhabited terrain,” he describes the locale as “enough woods to excite John Muir.” The story line never lags.

27th-infantry-regiment-insignia-wolfhounds“Pseudonyms have been used for all persons named in this account, excepting the author himself,” Kitchin writes. Considering the high degree to which he praises and criticizes leaders and peers, I understand why he chose this style. I used a similar approach in my 1987 Vietnam War memoir, Gunship: Spectre of Death, because I did not want to intrude on anyone’s life.

Now, however, I feel otherwise. Using fictitious names diminished the historical value of my work; I feel the same about Kitchin’s book.

More recently, Kitchin has published humor-laced books about his Philadelphia childhood and travels to New Zealand and Ireland.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

A Dusty Boot Soldier Remembers by Larry A. Redmond

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A Dusty Boot Soldier Remembers: Twenty-Four Years of Improbable but True Tales of Service with Uncle Sam’s Army (Hellgate Press, 574 pp., $27.95, paper) is a Horatio Alger story: A boy from “Fly Town U.S.A.” (the poorest section of Columbus, Ohio) finds success as a U.S. Army colonel and, after retirement, becomes a representative for two large corporations.

In this autobiography, Larry A. Redmond walks the reader through his experiences in military training, work, and combat assignments. “Redmond’s Rules,” twenty-five directives to becoming a more effective leader, punctuate the book.

Spanning the years 1962-87, Redmond’s experiences included different jobs in many parts of the world. His recollections often teach history lessons that compare the time of the draftee Army to the present structure of all-volunteer soldiers, which began in 1973.

Commissioned upon graduation from Providence College, Redmond completed jump school and Ranger training and by 1964 was commanding a company. He recalls peacetime field exercises and housekeeping duties such as his paying the troops in cash at the end the month. He then joined Special Forces and served in Panama before going to Vietnam. His two tours with the 101st Airborne Division in I Corps highlight the book.

Redmond’s first tour in Vietnam in 1967-68 ended with what he called “thirty-six hours of purgatory”: leading his company in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The accounts of maneuvers in the field provide a textbook for combat leadership. Redmond candidly describes both his right and wrong moves. As a result of wounds he received at Hue, he spent many unconscious days and three conscious weeks in intensive care. Eight months of rehabilitation followed.

During his second tour in 1971-72, Redmond encountered an unexpected world of drug abuse and racial tension. Vietnamization had transformed Americans basically into spectators awaiting the end of their involvement in the war. Even senior U.S. leaders were marking time. Recognizing this, the NVA often avoided contact. In his duties as S3 and eventually acting battalion commander, Redmond attacked problems ignored by previous leaders.

In six months, he renewed a sense of STRAC among his men; tore down an on-base hootch that was basically a drug den; thwarted a large-scale NVA attack by diverting a B-52 Arc Light strike; put down a rebellion by a group of black soldiers known as the Phu Bai Thirteen; and foiled a plot to frag him. When his unit rotated stateside early, Redmond stayed on as a J3 with MACV during the 1972 NVA Spring Offensive.

Following the war, Redmond’s career path meandered. He was a member of a United Nations peacekeeping team for the 1973 Yom Kipper War. He went to Thailand in 1975-76 with a casualty resolution group. Redmond provides insightful history regarding both tasks, particularly on MIA-POW issues.

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Larry Redmond

Back at Fort Bragg in 1976, he deployed to Germany and Panama and Alaska, eventually commanding an 82nd Airborne battalion. He spent seven years at Bragg and tells interesting stories about the Army’s peacetime preoccupation with selling the product—namely wartime capabilities—through exercises, deployments, and demonstrations.

Reading between the lines I concluded that during Redmond’s years of service relationships among officers radiated a good-old-boy aura. Friendships provided as much advancement and favoritism as outstanding performances did.

Redmond wrote this book, he says, at the urging of his children who wanted a record of his accomplishments. Beyond satisfying them, the book offers a clearly detailed picture of a quarter century of Army life during transitional periods.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

The Boy with a Bamboo Heart by Amporn Wathanavongs

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The opening chapter of The Boy with a Bamboo Heart: The Story of a Street Orphan Who Built a Children’s Charity (Maverick House, 2812 pp., $15, paper: $2.99, Kindle) has a newly orphaned five-year-old Thai boy named Lek next to his mother’s flaming funeral bier in a rural Thai village attempting to hold her burning hand. He is simply unable to face life without her, a frightened boy who will be thrust into a life on his own in which he must steal to survive.

“The village held nothing for me but bad luck,” author Amporn Wathanavongs writes in this memoir. “I wanted to leave this place and never see it again ever.”

Lek walks away alone, stows away on a train, and gets off at the first stop. Each rung of his life ladder to adulthood comes with a name change. His first new designation is the nom de guerre “Boney,” which the teenager acquires when recruited into mercenary action against the French.

The Indochina War from 1946-54 spilled over from Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. Suddenly Boney finds himself in fighting in the jungle. After a brutal fight he is the sole survivor of his unit. Suffering from the stresses of battle and the loss of his family leads to two suicide attempts. Taking the advice of his hospital nurse, Boney returns to Thailand.

“There, in my natal village, I would claim my right to a family of my own,” the author writes, “or I would join my parents in death.”

Introducing himself to the Abbot of a Buddhist temple led to another name change, this time “Nehn Amporn,” a moniker presented to him along with the orange robe of a novice monk. Amporn learns to read while absorbing Buddhist philosophy from his teacher. “Words were sweeter to me than mango sticky rice,” he writes

Amporn was advised to move on from his small village temple to continue his education in Bangkok, sometimes called the City of Angels. Unable to afford admission to a large temple, he joined a smaller one with only three monks, all of whom were thirty years older. “That would allow me to study without making too many demands. I was seeking intellectual enlightenment,” he writes. This led to the third name change. He was ordained as “Bikkhu Visalo” in 1958.

His introduction to an English teacher was also his first exposure Christianity. He soon decided he was a “fake monk,” and decided to renounce Buddhism. This step led to his final name change, Amporn Wathanavongs.

He found employment at a Jesuit school called Angel Center. His celibate temple life had ended and he met his future wife near the center. “Her eyes,” he writes, “like raindrops on a banana leaf in the morning, mesmerized me.”

His marriage and earning a Master’s Degree in the Philippines completed Amporn Wathanavongs’s rise from being alone and poor to being an advocate for children in poverty. “With the Vietnam War over,” he writes, “I knew it was only a matter of time before the Americans packed up and went back home.”

Funding for humanitarian projects was difficult to find. He was hired by the non-governmental agency, The Christian Children’s Fund, and when he retired, he chartered his own agency, The Foundation for the Rehabilitation and Development of Children (FORDEC), on Valentine’s Day of 1998. He was 61 years old.

In appreciation of his work on behalf of children, King Rama IX of Thailand decorated Amporn Wathanavongs with the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant. In 1996 he received an honorary doctorate from American Coastline University of Louisiana.

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Amporrn Wathanavongs with children at FORDEC

I recommend this concise, well-written (with the help of Chantal Jauvin) memoir to anyone who served in Southeast Asia.

All author proceeds will be donated to FORDEC, the charity founded by Amporn Wathanavongs.

Co-author Chantal Jauvin’s website is chantaljauvin.com

—Curtis A. Nelson, Jr.

Crazy Me by Thomas Bixby

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Most autobiographies are written to inform readers about the events in the life of the author during a defined period of time. In that respect, Crazy Me: How I Lost Reality… and Found Myself (Micro Publishing Media, 204 pp., $15.99, paper) follows that practice.

The reader, however, once engaged in reading this book will find that it is not presented chronologically. The book begins in 1970 when Bixby’s symptoms of psychosis were at the worst. It then goes back to his Bixby’s childhood experiences, before returning to 1970 when he first sought psychological help.

The rest of the story is told chronologically, although Bixby goes back to his earlier experiences as they came up in the therapy process.The book finishes with chapters on life in recovery.

Tom Bixby, a member of Vietnam  Veterans of America who served as an MP and helicopter door gunner in the war, provides a very detailed account of the causes and history of his mental illnesses, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of the descriptions of his life experiences are extremely graphic and unsettling. 

I believe this book would be excellent required reading material in an academic setting for a class leading to a degree in psychopathology. It is not a book for relaxed reading.

—A.R. Lamb

My Other Life by Richard Alexander

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In 1967-68, Richard Alexander served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam. Memories of what he did and saw have stuck with him ever since. As a result, after nearly half a century, he wrote My Other Life: A Combat Soldier in Vietnam (Darwin Press, 266 pp.; $34.95).

Upon opening his book, I thought, “What makes his story different from others who shared similar experiences?” I must admit to one fault: I usually bypass prefaces, forwards, acknowledgements, and anything else that delays the opening of a memoir. I want the story first.

Nevertheless, for no particular reason, I read Alexander’s preface. In it, he projects a why-the-fuck-not-talk-about-everything style that immediately had me nodding and laughing in sync with his tirade of honesty. The preface says it all. Yet, at the same time, it makes the reader feel as if some heavy stuff will follow. And it does.

Alexander jumps into the Vietnam War through a series of flashbacks. After bombing out of college, he volunteered for the draft. Alexander says he felt obligated to help to prevent the Domino Theory from becoming a reality. Or did he, he wondered.

In Vietnam Alexander manned a gun on an armored personnel carrier, got promoted to track commander, and then demoted back to gunner after complaining about the progress of the war within hearing range of his commander. His regiment worked near Xuan Loc in the south and on the Batangan Peninsula in the north.

The story line sounds familiar, but Alexander’s irreverent presentation knocks it beyond ordinary memoir boundaries. He hopscotches from scene to scene with prose overflowing with doubt, sarcasm, fear, love, hate, cynicism, and exaggeration. He raises questions about most phases of the war while producing laughs and anger. His amped-up writing style seldom wavers in its intensity portraying war as a menace to mankind.

At times he displays near-psychopathic rushes of ambivalence, hating the war but hating with equal ferocity those who protested against it. As a corollary to that hate, he constantly wanted to go home despite knowing that Americans no longer loved warriors.

“The first patrol I went out on,” Alexander writes, “set the tone for my whole tour.” Much of what he saw on that patrol, such as the murder of a prisoner, might be familiar to readers of Vietnam War memoirs, but the trauma Alexander felt further verifies the horrors of war.

Descriptions of his eight months in the field are what you expect to read—days of intense heat or rain in overgrown jungle or on dusty or muddy terrain, with interruptions of death and destruction from unseen forces until helicopter gunfire and Phantom napalm blasts incinerate everything in his unit’s path, soon followed by another similar day. Alexander, though, describes the routine in a spellbinding manner.

Shortly after Alexander survived a case of malaria and got out of the hospital with three months left in his tour and was assigned to rear-echelon duty, he agreed to a one-time courier trip to his former unit on the Cambodian border near Loc Ninh. He arrived on the day the Tet Offensive kicked off and once more became an APC gunner (until six days before rotating home), continually wondering “why” as mines and rockets destroyed men and tracks around him.

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Richard Alexander

Alexander remembers a lot of guys he enjoyed knowing in Vietnam but never saw again. For a long time, he refused to search for their names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial so that he could continue to hope they survived the fighting. He still feels guilty for being “spared,” as he calls his it.

“We were nothing but bait, going out each day,” he says. He developed a phobia of being ambushed and overrun, a situation American tactics set the stage for eventually encountering, he believes.

He rails against the enthusiasm of young people enticed by military propaganda that glorifies war”It’s a good thing we don’t know what awaits us, isn’t it?,” he writes. “What’s in store for us?”

Alexander repeatedly addresses the emotional toll that his war service took on his closely knit family, particularly on his parents. He examines every angle regarding his younger brother’s decision to move to Europe to avoid the draft, giving his brother a voice in the argument.

I found many similarities between Alexander’s My Other Life and Bruce McDaniel’s recently-published Walk Through the Valley: The Spiritual Journey of a Vietnam War Medic. The war significantly disillusioned both authors. Alexander’s book also made me dig Brian Esher’s Rolling Coffins: Experiences of a Mechanical Infantry Soldier in the Bloodiest Year of the Vietnam War, 1968 from my bookshelf. Combined, Alexander and Esher present a full-scale picture of life among APC crewmen.

Esher, too, found disenchantment with his nation but pride in his service. As he put it: “I was a simple soldier who did his duty when called upon by his country.”

To me, these three authors speak for the masses.

—Henry Zeybel