Stumbling Toward Enlightenment by Polly B. Davis

 

 

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Polly Brown married Tom Davis the day after he finished Army OCS in 1969. For Polly, “marrying a soldier seemed surreal.” She did not hold the profession in high regard, but was “committed to her beau” and had “made up her mind to follow him wherever he chose to go.”

After a three-day honeymoon, Tom began parachute training. Almost instantly, Polly looked into “the soul of the military machine” and saw that “the mission came first, before family, before anything.” She asked herself, “What? Me, second?” but tagged along while Tom finished jump school and then Special Forces training.

Believing husbands and wives should share everything, Polly made two parachute jumps—the first frightening, the second enlightening, and the final one because she had nothing more to prove. With Tom’s encouragement, she became a high school sociology teacher and embarked on a life of her own, which she describes in Stumbling Toward Enlightenment: A Wife’s Thirty-year Journey with Her Green Beret (Old Mountain Press, 209 pp., $15, paper; $6.99, Kindle)

They had been married slightly over a year when Tom went to Vietnam. While he was overseas, Polly earned a master’s degree at the University of Georgia.

Initially, Polly talks mostly about raising their children, Thomas IV and Pollyanna, moving from post to post, curing illnesses, raising dogs and cats, and keeping house while Tom pursued adventures around the world. During a three-year tour in Germany, for example, she writes of picturesque travels across Europe.

Back in the States, Polly developed an ever-increasing independence as a college English teacher and department head. She received a PhD from North Carolina State University. Volunteering for profit and non-profit companies earned her jobs at high-levels, which brought greater authority and recognition. At one time, Polly simultaneously chaired Networth, the North Carolina Community College English Association, and her local Kiwanis.

What’s more, throughout her career, she battled—and repeatedly neutralized—multiple sclerosis.

Polly examines topics beyond travels and her teaching and leadership skills. Her strongest message concerns the difficulty of being a military wife with children and her relationship with her husband.

When I entered the Air Force in the mid-1950s, young men with family problems often were told: “If the military wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one.” This attitude still prevailed throughout Polly Davis’ life from 1969 to 2000.

Tom Davis wrote a memoir about his career, The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On:  A March from Private to Colonel. In reviewing his book, I wrote: “I greatly admire Davis because he frequently used his leadership position to challenge authority, mainly to question his superiors.” I feel equal admiration for Polly’s willingness to step on toes when necessary.

Tom attended every school available to him: Special Forces, Mountaineering, SCUBA, Infantry Officer Advanced Course, Ranger, HALO, and Command and General Staff College. He served in England, Germany, Denmark, France, Korea, Zaire, Turkey, Tunisia, Italy, Iraq, and Bosnia. These assignments required him to be away from home for prolonged periods, leaving Polly entirely burdened with their family problems.

Separations from husbands became a way of life for Polly and other Army wives. When the men returned, she says, “What should have been relaxed, joyful homecomings often ended up as several tense days of adjustment.

“Reunions weren’t easy. A pretty standard habit, we wives agreed, was for our men to arrive after a long or even a short deployment and immediately take over. Or make an attempt.” The men immediately sought “to repair what they considered damage done in their absence, whether it was disciplining the children or the dogs or balancing the checkbook.

“First they would question our latest purchase, even groceries, then the reason for the purchase, then criticize it. The unfounded guilt that arose from their misplaced criticism confounded me.” In the best of times, marriage was one great compromise, reached mainly by wives surrendering.

Difficulties were compounded by the fact that, as Polly says, “We wives considered those long periods as sole parents tedious and difficult.”

In the seventies, “military wives were incidental, part of the casualties of the War,” Polly says, arguing that nobody recognized the possibility of PTSD. “We wives were nothing but confused, guiltily wondering what we’d done wrong,” she says.

Soldiers grew introverted and found solace among their peers rather than within their marriages. “Sometimes I felt like I’d lost [Tom] to Ron and those guys on the team.” The needs of Tom’s men—even the most impractical demands—took precedence over the needs of his family, she says, and she did as told because she thought it was the norm.

Yet when husbands deployed, they expected wives to manage everything single-handedly.

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The family that paddles together… Tom and Polly Davis

As further evidence of men’s domination, Polly cites Tom’s accusations of her “lack of attention to detail” about small mishaps. His military mind sought the same degree of perfection from her that it expected from his men. He failed to realize that he was absent more often than not when family problems arose, and consequently he seldom provided timely solutions.

While in the Air Force, I was guilty of every complaint that Polly makes against military husbands. At that time, I crewed on Strategic Air Command bombers. Every other week we lived in a bunker next to our airplanes; perfection was the only acceptable performance of duty. Like me, many fellow crewmen applied military standards to family life. I left SAC after six years, and did a 180, but it was too late to make amends: My wife divorced me.

To overcome the “still dependent wife” syndrome, Polly encourages soldiers’ wives to build identities of their own. But she had limited success in altering their ingrained behavior. “I’d always found it difficult to perpetuate an outmoded tradition that squelched individual growth,” she writes.

Nevertheless, a growing concern among men that wives were “getting uppity” and a “batch of divorces in the battalion” provided her with a modicum of grim satisfaction. Otherwise, she felt that women were merely their husband’s shadows.

All husbands can benefit from reading Polly’s book, particularly men in highly stressful jobs and those who spend long periods away from home. It is important to understand that Polly is not a whiner. She talks about stumbling to enlightenment without belaboring situations that challenged her along the way. Her criticisms are factual and brief.

For example, describing a time when MS immobilized her for two months, she says: “Tom did the best he could. However, the tension was often so thick I could feel myself chocking. Tom couldn’t do it all.” Following her description of one confrontational dinner, she explains how the children formulated a solution for the conflict, and then  changes the subject.

Enlightenment has taught Polly Davis how to move ahead regardless of what gets in her way.

—Henry Zeybel

 

The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

A Different Face of War by James G. Van Straten

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James G. Van Straten served as a U.S. Army senior medical advisor with the South Vietnamese Army throughout I Corps in 1966-67. During that period, he wrote three hundred fifty-two letters to his wife and six children in Texas. Forty-five years later, he has assembled the letters into A Different Face of War: Memories of a Medical Service Corps Officer in Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 497 pp.; $34.95 hardcover; $15.99 Kindle). The book takes the reader through Van Straten’s year, nearly day by day.

American advisors had no power of command within the Vietnamese military hierarchy; their leadership depended solely on persuasive talent. Advisors worked under the authority of Vietnamese commanders who made the final decisions on policies and actions. Nevertheless, advisors were accountable to their American regional commanders for overall results.

Recently, I read Bob Andretta’s Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force, which describes how an American lieutenant immersed himself in the Vietnamese culture to influence the Vietnamese regional commander’s thinking. Maj. Van Straten employed a similar strategy. Both men, despite working long hours, including occasional around-the-clock days, attended countless Vietnamese town meetings and social functions to build relationships. Open hostility between Buddhists and Catholics complicated Van Straten’s task of remaining politically neutral.

Andretta’s experience centered on Navy combat actions. Van Straten performed Army medical service tasks. Their introspection about how to deal with cross-cultural differences makes these books valuable.

Under the supervision of Maj. Pham Viet Tu, the head doctor of Da Nang’s Duy Tan hospital, Van Straten constantly traveled across I Corps. The United States provided much of the material medical support, and Van Straten performed many minor miracles to ensure that its delivery was timely and in adequate quantity for Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. He faced the endless task of suppressing rampant outbreaks of tuberculosis, bubonic plague, malaria, cholera, rubella (measles), lice, dysentery, and diarrhea.

He also supervised movements of the wounded. Sometimes hospitals had to handle double the number of patients they could handle. During his time in Vietnam, I Corps suffered more casualties than the rest of the country combined. He helped to sort the wounded from the dead and the Americans from the Vietnamese.

In his ten-year Army career before the war, Van Straten had never been assigned to a hospital of any type. “The number of civilian casualties produced by the war was appallingly high,” he writes. “As a younger man, I had so wanted to become a physician, but exposure to trauma of that magnitude convinced me that I was not equipped to handle it. Sometimes I got mildly depressed. I was encountering heart-rending trauma almost on a daily basis.”

From this experience, Van Straten developed an overwhelming compassion for the Vietnamese people. In 1967, to counter the high civilian casualty rate, he helped relocate eighteen thousand civilians away from the DMZ to safer homes southward.

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A civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war

In their occasional free time, he and American surgeons corrected deformities, such as cleft palates and clubfeet among civilians, mainly children.  Dr. John Henry Giles was the prime motivator for this program.

Beyond describing his everyday activities, Van Straten tells stories about revelatory encounters with a  long list of people, from the famous to the unknown. He explains nuances of Vietnamese culture overlooked in many other Vietnam War memoirs. He provides memorable word pictures of scenes such as the differences between American and Vietnamese casualty wards. He editorializes against the tactic of search-and-destroy.

He also subtly argues that the NVA won the war in I Corps while he was there and that an NVA final victory was inevitable. Many photographs, mostly taken by the author, supplement the text.

For James Van Straten, remorse for events that ended unsatisfactorily transcends the long interval since they occurred. He repeatedly apologizes for his mistakes—mainly minor and unavoidable—and wishes that any outcomes he left unresolved have had no negative repercussions on the people involved.

His conscience and wartime experience have locked the Vietnamese people in his mind forever.

—Henry Zeybel

Red Blood, Yellow Skin by Linda L.T. Baer

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This coming of age tale begins with the birth of the author, Nguyen Thi Loan, in a village sixty miles from Hanoi in 1947. Her trials, tribulations, and rare triumphs straddle the French and American wars in Vietnam. She vividly describes them in Red Blood, Yellow Skin, A Young Girl’s Survival in War-Torn Vietnam by Linda L.T. Baer (formerly Nguyen Thi Loan) (River Grove Books, 330 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle).

A cast of characters worthy of a Charles Dickens novel runs through this story of Loan’s extended family, both the loved and the hated. Loan was often left to provide for herself and her siblings,  encountering and sometimes eating crabs, water bugs, scorpions, buffalo leaches, snakes, and tigers, as well as being caught in crossfires and bombings. Loan’s father was killed in the French war, leading to her dependence on uncles, neighbors, strangers, corrupt officials,  an abusive dtepfather, and deceitful cousins.

Chapter titles such as “Mountain Of Broken Glass” and “Saigon Tea” signify milestones during Loan’s tumultuous childhood. A close friend is killed in “Tiger’s Paw.” “Concrete Pillow” refers to Loan being homeless in Saigon.

The family moved often in search of safer villages and for opportunities for the author’s stepfather’s medical practice. He was very strict with little patience. Loan was often whipped and once even buried in a hole for allowing a baby to fall out of a hammock. She was rescued by neighbors. “Everyone saw the way my stepfather mistreated me, but there were no rules or laws against spousal or child abuse at that time.”

Loan and family joined some 900, 000 other refugees from Northern Vietnam relocating to the south in 1954 after the country was divided. Operation “Passage to Freedom” took Loan and family to Saigon from Haiphong aboard a U.S. Navy ship. Thirty-eight babies were born on the voyage, including Loan’s step-sister Nho. The family settled in Long Phuoc. It was there that 13-year-old Loan decided to go out on her own since her family was too poor to care for her.

“I’m going to Saigon to look for a job,” she writes. “Don’t worry, I’m thirteen years old, and I can take care of myself.”

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Linda L.T. Baer (Nguyen Ti Loan)

Arriving in Saigon with no money, no job, and one bag of clothes, Loan thought: “I’ve reached my destination. Now what am I going to do? I left home because of the treatment I received there and I quit a job because I had been taken advantage of. I made up my mind that things had to be different.”

The sixteen year old made this declaration in 1963. She soon met 28-year-old Lynn and finally Loan’s life appeared to be on a sustainable path. She and Lynn lived on Le Loi St., a familiar street to many Americans who served in Vietnam. The two women operated a successful bar and dance club until Lynn’s child was killed and the club was sold.

Loan’s determination to succeed, along with her stepfather’s  transformation, provide welcome respite from her calamitous childhood. Her mother and stepfather moved to Vung Tau, about 50 miles from Saigon.

In the chapter “Cicada Shell” she is eighteen years old and five months pregnant and approaching this gripping memoir’s finale.  The chapters titled “Garden Of Love” and “Dancing Rainbow” reveal how Loan’s long-suffering saga concludes. I look forward to the release of the sequel.

—Curt Nelson

 

The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

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Robert F. Curtis’s The Typhoon Truce, 1970: Three Days in Vietnam when Nature Intervened in the War (Casemate, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a most unusual story of humanity in the middle of war. It is a story about heroism, skill, and soldiers’ abilities to put their missions first despite any personal dangers they encountered. This book is a report of the kind of activities that seldom happen in war, but when they do, history deems it important to remember them for posterity.

In October 1970 in the area between Da Nang and the DMZ , the names “Joan” and “Kate” took on a sinister meaning. Joan proved to be the name of a ferocious typhoon that flooded northeast Vietnam. Less than a week later came Kate, another devastating typhoon. Due to the unceasing, torrential rain that accompanied the storms, untold numbers of Vietnamese were left stranded in the valleys surrounded by rising floods.

The heart of this book is the story of how American Chinook pilots risked their lives to airlift endangered Vietnamese citizens to higher ground. While the flying was extremely difficult and dangerous, the pilots and crews—as in much of the Vietnam War—were never quite sure who the enemy was.

This book is not a rush-to-the-climax kind of read. The author takes the reader into the middle of the activities almost to the point where you can feel the rain and tension. The gradual movement from the beginning of the rain to the actual rescue missions seems to take quite a while. At first, this can be rather disconcerting, but waiting is also the name of the game in awaiting the approach of a typhoon.

Several chapters describe daily life in a helicopter unit. Readers who have had similar experiences in Vietnam will have an easy time relating to the author’s vivid descriptions of the men and their equipment. Great detail is given to the capabilities of the pilots. Many former pilots might recall that helicopters are sometimes called “a collection of various loose parts flying in close formation.”

The men of C Company, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division were given the call sign “Playtex” prior to leaving the United States. Curtis explains that while most of the men involved did not know the origin of this name, it was because they gave such good support.

The Typhoon Truce was unspoken and unplanned. It came about because people were in trouble and other people saw a way to help. The author does a great job explaining the mindset of the flying crews who never knew if they would face appreciation or gunfire from the people they were trying to rescue.

2015125669cec98b33dCurtis—the author of Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond—has a unique way of moving sideways as well as forward in telling his story. Many times he interrupts the action to fill in personal details of the men involved to bring a greater depth of understanding.

I believe this story will stimulate much conversation among former Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crews. I would be surprised if it did not elicit similar examples of kindness from other veterans in the midst of a devastating war. Reading this book is a mission strongly recommended.

—Joseph Reitz

Turbulence by John W. van Kleeff

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America’s war in Vietnam was very, very good to John W. van Kleeff. In Turbulence (Xlibris, 192 pp.$29.99, hardcover; $19.99. paper; $3.99, Kindle), he tells how, as an Army enlistee, he volunteered to be liaison officer of his unit and used the position to promote himself in both legal and illegal businesses.

Upon arriving in Vietnam in 1963, van Kleeff answered an NCO’s call “to stay behind in Saigon” and coordinate resupply and logistical aid for the rest of the men in his unit (which he never identifies). Said unit deployed seventy miles to the north in “jungle country.”

Although van Kleeff says he did not know it at the time, that decision turned out to be the best thing he ever did. He understood that “Vietnam was just a shitty place to serve,” and that a soldier in the field “left the modern world behind.” He says, “The only way I can describe my experience in the Vietnam War is pleasant.”

Van Kleeff does not mention his winning any medals in Vietnam. But he deserves one for his depth of honesty in revealing what he saw and did.

After taking possession of his personal jeep, he began a Milo Minderbinder-type of existence. He found corruption among people in positions of power and quickly mastered the art of bribery, a skill that enabled him to cut deals that benefited his unit—and himself.

Several shady transactions with civilians led to a friendship with Henry Mucci, a WWII hero who managed million-dollar government programs for the Calabrian Corp. Van Kleeff soon took charge of a portion of the corporation’s  overseas mission, which allowed him to enjoy the upscale life of a civilian executive living in Saigon. He continued, however, to devote an hour a day to his military duties–as much time as the job required.

“To me,” van Kleeff says, “the Vietnam War smells of rich steak and dark red wine, of delicate French pastries, and the perfume of women.”

I have read more than fifty Vietnam War memoirs, but only Napalm and Filet Mignon by John Jennings comes anywhere close to describing a tour as cushy as John van Kleeff’s.  Jennings worked as a waiter in the opulent Fourth Infantry Division Commanding General’s Mess. But for five fearful months before that he lugged a machine gun over hills and rice patties with an infantry company.

Shortly before leaving Vietnam, van Kleeff accepted Calabrian’s offer to start a USAID mission in Thailand. The new program resembled the corporation’s work in Vietnam, aimed at building and sustaining the host country’s economy.

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An imagined Milo Minderbinder M&M Enterprises logo from Catch-22

“Depending on the tone, the Thai word suai can mean beautiful, bribe, or bad luck. That one word sums up my entire experience in Thailand,” van Kleeff says. Corruption was so rife that even van Kleeff was overwhelmed by it. “Almost every business transaction had its accompanying bribe,” he says, but he doubts that Thais thought of the practice as corruption.

Calabrian’s business turned out to be a “total sham” that “was never intended to last,” van Kleeff says. His two years in Thailand left him frustrated, disillusioned, and on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

In 1969, van Kleeff moved back to Saigon “where the pay was pretty good.” He worked for U.S. construction companies—Knudson, Brown and Root and Jones—for a year and a half.  He saved enough money to attend flight school in Oklahoma, with help from the GI Bill.

Three months before turning thirty, he fulfilled a lifelong desire by earning his wings. He got his first flying job as an instructor pilot in Germany.

Van Kleeff’s account of his life before and after his Southeast Asia experiences comprise the beginning and ending of Turbulence. Both sections contain many interesting stories about his life.

He survived a childhood shattered by his father’s decision to have him raised by a foster family in Holland beginning at age six. As a result, his education was far more eclectic than most Americans received. He and his father never established a friendly relationship. Nevertheless, van Kleeff was devoted to his mother, particularly later in life.

As a pilot, he worked hard to establish himself as a teacher and business manager in Germany. His reputation for hard work and dependability gained him a job as a pilot for Saudi Arabian royalty and businessmen with whom he traveled the world for four years. “The wealth floating around the Kingdom made the experience surreal,” he says.

The emotional peaks and valleys of van Kleeff’s experiences convey the book’s primary message: Good things can turn bad and therefore nothing is certain—but life can still be fun.

Throughout the book, van Kleeff provides snatches of history and his opinions on topics such as religion, war, and crosswind landings. He also records memories of marriages and romances that bloomed and faded, leaving vestiges of pleasures and sorrows, but mainly pleasures.

—Henry Zeybel

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