Ruff Puff by Phil Tompkins

Before reading Phil Tompkins’s Ruff Puff: A ‘MAT’ Team Leader’s Story (Amazon Digital Services, 291 pp., $10.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) I knew what Ruff Puff meant but had never heard of MAT. Tompkins wasted little time in informing the reader that it’s the acronym for “Mobile Advisor Teams.”

In 1969-70 he served as an Army officer with a five-man MAT team of Americans in Quang Ngai Province working with his “brothers-in-arms, the local militia soldiers and South Vietnamese government officials in this small part of a historic fight for the very survival of the Republic of Vietnam.”  Th locals were the South Vietnamese military’s Regional Forces and Popular Forces—RFPFs or Ruff Puffs.

I found this book fascinating because it was about a part of ther war in South Vietnam that I knew little about. It’s also a part of the war that gets little attention in the literature. What attention if gets is often dismissive of the Ruff Puffs. I encountered them in South Vietnam and always found them to be pleasant folks, but they seemed like poorly armed amateurs up against forces that would roll over them soon. The author shows a lot of affection for the most pitiful and ragtag of them all, in our efforts toward “war and ‘nation building’ at the rice-roots level.”

When Tompkins focuses his story on the Vietnamese local militias and the war he waged with them, his book is strong and interesting. It illuminates how things worked in the provinces with the province chiefs. Tompkins was warned when he arrived in South Vietnam, that the RFPF men “would sometimes run away in a firefight or even defect to the other side.”

They carried with them the necessities for cooking lunch, which they would have at a certain time of the day and then take a siesta. This went against Tompkins’s training, but he adapted to this custom, and to most of the customs of the Vietnamese he fought with.

“I was one of the few Americans that loaded up everything with the pungent nuoc mam—and when I would sweat (which was often) I smelled like a native!”  Tompkins loved the Vietnamese people he worked with and it shows on every page of his memoir.

Tompkins in Vietnam

He also mentions his reading, which included Catch-22.  He loved the book, which he calls “a totally irreverent military satire.”

But Tompkins strays from his worthy narrative often to indulge in rants. There is, for example, a not-uncommon anti-REMF tirade, which he describes rear echelon personnel as “the people that re-told the wildest ‘war stories’ and made the most of the souvenirs they had had once they got back to “The World.’”

When this REMF got back to “The World” in late 1967, no one wanted to hear about my war, let alone anything like a bloody war story. I kept my mouth shut, as did most of my recently returned veteran friends.

Tompkins complains bitterly about the news media, which he calls “the left-wing press.” And he has little good to say about the culture of the 1960s; “do-gooders who hated the war effort”; and the ARVN troops. He sees the Tet Offensive as a decisive blow against the Vietcong, not as the surprise to the American military who had claimed we had the enemy on the run.

Also, Tompkins is in denial about the ending of the war. “We didn’t lose,” he says. ” We quit.” He also has trouble believing that the Phoenix Program was as bad as some have said it was—and he can’t spell it consistently, either.

He also questions the reality and extent of the My Lai Massacre because of what he says was biased reporting by the U.S. news media. “We will never know the real truth about My Lai because of that,” he claims. It “was almost as if the American news media was the puppet of international communism.”

The book also suffers from the overuse of exclamation points! Not to mention that Tompkins’s use of commas is, at best, hit and miss.

The author states that Americans who opposed the war “weren’t really against the war, but were against the draft” and “were afraid they would wind up in our shoes—or in a body bag!” He says that those who were against the war “for selfish reasons of their own (cowardice in most cases)” embraced the “atrocities of My Lai as their own personal cross.”

If you are comfortable with these statements, read this book. In between all of the author’s rants is a lot of valuable information about the Ruff Puffs and their fight against communism.

—David Willson

Black Cat 2-1 by Bob Ford

It’s refreshing to read a memoir by a Vietnam veteran who underwent an action-heavy tour of duty and came home to live a full, successful life. That’s what happened to Bob Ford, who flew Hueys with the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company out of Da Nang. Ford, in fact, also had a happy upbringing before the war.

As Ford tells us in his memoir, Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew (Brown Books, 288 pp., $24,95), growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he had “stern but loving parents,” liked “all of [his] teachers,” and “was blessed with a high school sweetheart.”

He took ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and proudly wore his Class-A uniform to his June 1966 graduation ceremonies—the only graduated to wear a military uniform at the event. During OCS, Ford’s weekends were “filled with athletics and all-around fun.” He excelled in helicopter training (“I had a knack for flying”), becoming one of the first in his class to solo at flight school. After flight school, Ford married his girlfriend Diane (“I couldn’t have been happier”), and then volunteered for Vietnam.

After he came home from the war, Ford put in a stint as an instructor pilot at Fort Wolters, an experience that was “the best year of [his] life.” When he got out of the Army in 1969 Ford, his wife, and new-born daughter moved back to Oklahoma and he began working for his father’s company, the Shawnee Milling Company. Today he runs the company’s flour mill in Okeene, Oklahoma. “It’s rewarding work,” he says.

In the four decades since Ford came home from Vietnam, he writes, “I’ve been able to enjoy school, community, and church activities,” and “have filled a leadership role in each.” An active athlete (“I played every sport available”), Ford has participated in hundreds of races, including marathons and triathlons, where he has excelled, winning state championships in his age group in “ten separate years.” Ford also enjoys “hunting, fishing, and raising cattle, as well as growing wheat and canola.”

Bob Ford today

In between growing up and coming home came an eventful 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, which Bob Ford describes well and in detail in his memoir. He arrived in country in July of 1967 and took part in much combat, including the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

His book offers often many evocative descriptions of combat flying, replete with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue.

For Bob Ford, the Vietnam War was a positive experience, “flying at its most satisfying and thrilling,” as he puts it, and serving “with honor and dedication to our country as an army helicopter pilot with America’s best.”

The author’s web site is http://blackcat2-1.com

—Marc Leepson

Uniforms by David G. Duchesneau

“This book speaks from the heart and mind of everyone who has ever had the experience of attending a Catholic school with nuns, all those who were ever so fortunate to be a member of a drum and bugle corps, and all those combat veterans who served in Vietnam and experienced the rigors and sorrows of that war,” David Duchesneau writes in the Introduction to Uniforms (Xlibris, 150 pp., $22.70, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

As the title suggests, uniforms were the key to Duchesneau’s early life. He dressed in the slacks, white shirt, and blue blazer of Catholic schools and a bugler’s glittering attire before graduating to the uniform of the United States Marine Corps.

Duchesneau is graphic. He delivers his memoir in the vernacular of an eighteen-year-old Boston wise guy. His fuck-all attitude is what kept me reading.

His blow-by-blow description of a 1968 Marine boot camp should have been titled The Theory and Practice of Hell. (I know—that title has already been used.) Two sentences perfectly summarize the rigor of the training: “We had three marines who committed suicide in the latrine. Two hung themselves, and one boot cut his wrist and bled to death.” At that time, boot camp had been reduced from thirteen to nine weeks to shorten the pipeline between induction and Vietnam.

Hard times were nothing new for Duchesneau. Physically abused and bullied by his father, Catholic nuns, and his grandmother, he survived childhood by learning to go his own way. Duchesneau found freedom after his father forced him to join a drum and bugle corps at age eight. As a teenager, he became the bugle soloist in a corps invited to perform across the Eastern United States and Canada. He also worked part-time after school and became night foreman in a shoe factory.

David G. Duchesneau

His Marine Corps life included AIT before going to Vietnam, where he served from March 1969 to August 1970. Duchesneau says that this book is his first “recollection of the Vietnam War as [he] experienced it as a marine infantryman, a grunt. The dates and locations may be out of sequence, but the events are factual and actually occurred.”

He spent March to mid-September 1969 in combat, operating out of Vandergrift Firebase north of Con Thien. His company conducted operations mainly along and into the DMZ. The enemy was primarily NVA, the best fighters from the North.

Duchesneau’s squad was mostly guys drafted into the Marine Corps who couldn’t believe that he had enlisted. With them, he participated in walking point as an FNG; search-and-destroy missions; day patrols; night patrols; ambushes; manning listening posts; getting in skirmishes; destroying villages; blowing up bunker complexes; surviving heat, bugs, and snakes; humping and sleeping amid monsoons and mud; and enjoying a three-day R&R at China Beach.

On one mission, he and his buddies were issued their own body bags. “Now that was a real morale booster,” he writes. The large number of American deaths caused by friendly fire or by accidental shootings and detonations upset him as much as anything else.

Reward for his combat came mainly from a sergeant major who admired Duchesneau’s “sweet-sounding sound of those twenty-four notes of taps.” The book ends with Duchesneau turning down an opportunity to become a member of The Commandant’s Own Drum and Bugle Corps in Washington, D.C. Instead, he returned to civilian life.

Uniforms contains about thirty pages of photographs without captions. The pictures of Duchesneau speak for themselves, but readers might benefit from captions for the many pictures of otherwise unidentifiable landscapes.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

Road Gang by H. V. Traywick, Jr.

H.V. Traywick, Jr.’s Road Gang: A Memoir of Engineer Service in Vietnam (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 218 pp., $20, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a classy book. Traywick ranks as a four-star raconteur. His self-deprecating sense of humor enlivens his story.

Traywick sets the stage by writing about arriving in Vietnam, then smoothly flashes back to his life at Virginia Military Institute and his training as a Ranger and parachutist. He arrived in-country in 1969 as a captain and was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division at Phu Loc. When the 82nd rotated home, he transferred to the 34th Engineer Battalion at Phouc Vinh.

Because he had a degree in Civil Engineering, Traywick was given command of a road construction company, the “Dusty Delta Road Gang.” His primary mission was to rebuild Highways 1A and 2A to an all-weather capacity. The roads were critical to supplying units along the eastern edge of the Iron Triangle, north of Saigon. The task had to be accomplished within the six-month dry season.

At that point, the book almost becomes an engineering text. In detail, Traywick describes how his unit built Fire Base Lobo, including its berms and bunkers, along with roads and culverts outside the wire. He explains the use of Rome Plows, sheep’s foot rollers, Clark 290 scrapers, graders, and D7E Caterpillar bulldozers. He also names seemingly every man who worked for him.

Traywick’s tongue-in-cheek writing keeps the narrative lively. He finds humor in his cautious improvisation of using a tractor as a minesweeper. While he and his men crept along a road, a column of APCs drove straight at them; the column’s colonel blistered Traywick with “very creative Angle Saxon,” demanding to know why he was “tooling along like that behind a funny looking rig running backward up the road.”

Later, when the VC sprang a mid-day attack on the Road Gang, Traywick rushed to the scene. His instincts told him “to do like Stonewall Jackson did at Cedar Mountain, and not shilly-shally around.”

The greatest danger to his men were mines and booby traps hidden in construction sites at night by the VC.Traywick did everything possible to protect his men, even when he was criticized for overreacting. When things went wrong, Traywick accepted the blame.

The book’s finest lessons are accounts of decision-making incidents that showed the dynamic differences between management and leadership. Zealous to meet deadlines, Traywick found flaws in a construction plan. Consequently, to save their reputations, at least two senior officers betrayed him. He was unaware of their treachery. As a result, Traywick’s battalion commander publicly insulted him and took away his command. “At this date I look back in wonder at how innocent of guile I was,” he says. The episode still rankles him.

H.V. Traywick

Following a rotation of leadership, working for a new battalion commander, Traywick redeemed himself and earned a Bronze Star. Nevertheless, he was disillusioned by the doubts surrounding his honor, and resigned his commission upon returning to the United States.

Throughout the book, Traywick repeatedly questions the norm. He is a man of traditional values predicated on a strong Southern background. He talks about seeing a staged version of the rock musical Hair while on R&R in Australia. That triggered him to discuss “freedom versus responsibility” and “self-denial as opposed to self-indulgence” for several pages. He also says: “No one in his right mind can advocate mixing men and women in the same military unit—unless his agenda is to undermine and demoralize it.”

Often while reading his book, I felt that Traywick would have been a most-perfect soldier in World War II—or, perhaps, in a war against Union aggression.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

When It Rains in Hell by Harry R. McCoy

Harry R. (Randy) McCoy served in two recon platoons in E Co., 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army;s 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. In his memoir, When It Rains in Hell (CreateSpace, 300 pp., $15, paper), McCoy writes eloquently about that experience.

McCoy has throat cancer, “which debilitated [my] voice and ability to eat food,” he writes. He was often exposed to Agent Orange during his tour of duty, and his book includes some powerful writing about that poison. “We grunts suspected the chemical was bad for our health,” he writes, “but the Army maintained it was perfectly safe and only affected vegetation for a while.”

McCoy’s recounting of walking through a desolate area that had been hit by Agent Orange is a dystopian vision that chilled my blood—blood, by the way, that is currently under attack by Agent Orange-caused Multiple Myeloma.

McCoy started his tour assigned to road-clearing trips every morning as well as pulling convoy escort duty, bunker guard and listening posts. This might sound fairly safe and harmless, but it wasn’t; it involved dealing with booby traps of high explosive. His unit then went out in the jungle “looking for Charlie.” Often McCoy and his fellow infantrymen found him. The book is filled with well-written descriptions of close combat.

Randy McCoy is not the typical grunt, if there were such a thing. He quotes John Donne from memory: “any man’s death diminishes me.” His facility with the English language and his philosophical pondering about what he terms “vexing questions” elevates this infantry memoir. He often tells the reader that our leaders in that ill-fated war failed to heed the edict to “know thine enemy,” and because of that we were doomed to lose the war.

McCoy arrived in Vietnam in early 1968. He is clear about his dedication to the M-16. He says that the bugs had been worked out of it by then and it was a fine weapon for use in the jungle. It had to be pried out of his hands when he left combat situations.

There is no racist ranting about the inferiority of the Vietnamese people in this book. McCoy makes it clear that he liked and respected the Vietnamese. He also thanks the Boy Scouts for training him and preparing him for survival in Vietnam.

Randy McCoy

My great respect for this memoir slipped a tiny bit at the end when McCoy indulged in a brief rant about Jane Fonda. He went  on to say, though, that he no longer hates protesters and war activists of the 1960’s.
“I can now quite clearly see they were right in their actions,” he writes. “Their efforts ended the war quicker than it would have happened otherwise.  However, I am still not ‘fonda Jane.’”

This memoir moves back and forth in time—from Vietnam to the future. It reflects on how McCoy’s tour of duty affected his later life, especially his first marriage. This literary device works well.

The book does not stop when he boards the “Freedom Bird” to go home. The reader finds out where McCoy’s life goes next and what demons tormented him in his post-war life. He dealt with these demons by isolating himself in his garage working on restoring cars—a pursuit that was solitary and had clear parameters, unlike the challenges of being a husband and father.

McCoy’s ability to summon up stark details of long-ago combat in Vietnam makes this memoir stand out as one of the best. His thoughtful reflections about that time held my interest throughout.

I highly recommend this memoir to those interested in the infantry experience in Vietnam.

—David Willson

Vietnam & Beyond by Jenny La Sala and Jim Markson

In Vietnam & Beyond: Veteran Reflections (Trafford, 292 pp, $24.99, hardcover; $14.99 paper, $3.99 ebook), Jim Markson reports on his 366 days in-country—he’s one of the 1968 Leap Year victims “keenly aware” of the extra day to “get hurt or killed.” Using a familiar memoir pattern in the book’s first half, Markson includes letters he wrote home, and supplements them with contemporary news clips, along with his reflections on the whole thing.

Co-author Jenny La Sala merits high praise for preserving memories of soldiers like Markson. She developed compassion for people suffering the aftereffects of war while dealing with her father, a World War II veteran; her ex-husband Markson; and her brother, who served in the Gulf War. Prior to this book, she wrote her father’s memoir, Comes a Soldier’s Whisper.

The core of Markson’s combat experience was surviving the 1968 Tet Offensive as an Air Force security policeman at Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Greatly outnumbered, Markson and his fellow APs kept attackers from overrunning the base long enough for other U.S. forces to join the battle. I was at Tan Son Nhut during Tet and vividly recall the awe everyone felt for the APs’ heroic actions.

Prior to that, Markson’s year had been relatively calm. His letters contained messages such as “Yesterday I went into Saigon and had shrimp cocktail and yes, a filet mignon”; “I feel a little guilty when I collect that combat pay”; and “Things here at Tan Son Nhut have been pretty quiet.”

Then, shortly after he turned 20, Tet happened. Markson lost his youth, along with his “naivety” and “blind trust in authority and things [he] just took for granted.”

Markson’s writing has a slight apologetic tone. He went to war full of patriotism bred from respect for his father’s World War I service. Following his return to the United States, Jim Markson—as was the case with many Vietnam veterans—felt disdained by society, particularly by war protesters. He temporarily disassociated himself from the Army by letting his hair grow long, wearing bell-bottoms, and growing a beard.

Jim Markson

Based on the tone of his writing, it appears that Markson still retains vestiges of that rejection. Nevertheless, he has overwhelming pride for having “been part of the [Vietnam] experience.” In 2007, doctors finally identified his forty-year battles with night terror as PTSD.

In the book’s second half, La Sala presents interviews with men and women veterans from World War II, and the wars in Korea, Afghanistan, and Iraq. These short accounts follow the pattern of Markson’s service: patriotic young men transformed by battle. Those who escaped physically unscathed paid the price of long mental anguish.

At the same time, their reflections on the past are a tribute to human fortitude. In the most casual manner, they deliver lines that transcended their pain and suffering.

Jenny La Sala

For example, Don Crizer of the 1st Air Cav says: “Our unit was on a continuous search-and-destroy mission, with one spanning 87 days straight” as if it was no big deal. Former infantryman Delmer Presley describes several horrible incidents and then says: “I will never be the same.”

John Sutor, another former infantryman, recalls a Major who told his company, “If I tell you to go out there and die, you will go and die. You will be remembered for your honor and duty to your country. Dismissed.”

To Sutor, the order was merely a fact of life. The Major was killed in action.

World War II veteran Guy Whidden summed up the mood by saying: “We knew exactly where we were going, but not what was to become of us.”

Vietnam veteran Morris Spitzer provided my favorite quote from the book: “It is not our abilities that show what we truly are. It is our choices.”

The authors’ website is www.vietnamandbeyond.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

SCAR by Thomas L. McComb

“This book is dedicated to all who shared Viet Nam’s misery and anguish.  Those of us who fought there went through Hell and brought this Hell home with us to haunt our minds.”  So reads the dedication in Thomas L. McComb’s SCAR: Southeast Asia Crisis and Repercussions (297 pp., $9.95, Kindle), a bitter infantryman’s memoir.

McComb goes on to say: “This entire country is covered by a scar.” Everything in his book, he says, “is true, based on a descriptive log kept by me and the inerasable memories etched in full color in my mind.”

I have no doubt that Tom McComb believes everything in his book is true, but I don’t believe it. He tests my ability to believe him more than once. For instance, I believe him when he says, “My parents raised us in a Christian home and taught us to respect and love each other and our fellow man.”  But time and again in this memoir McComb does not honor that raising in practice where Vietnamese people are concerned. He does not seem to accept that they are human.

They “were uneducated, underdeveloped, ungroomed third-world underlings,” he writes, “and I disrespected their way of life. I felt I was better than they were, and I wondered why it was taking us so long to whip the V.C. if they were like these people.” He goes on: “With our intelligence and technology, it should have been a snap.” Of course, the Vietnamese kids were sharp enough to steal his watch.

McComb was drafted on September 26, 1966. He tells us he was excited and proud to be drafted into the U. S. Army. “After all, hadn’t I trained my whole childhood to be a soldier?”

I found the most interesting chapters to be the ones about McComb’s boyhood back home in Indiana. Much of that is quite moving:  about being pounded on by his big brothers, his general lack of interest in school, and his obsession with fast cars. McComb says of his brothers:  “They constantly belittled me and told me I was dumb and worthless.”

McComb came home from Vietnam in July 1968. He and I served in the Army in Vietnam at almost the exact same time. But our experiences couldn’t have been more different. When he arrived in Vietnam on a troop ship, McComb was trucked to Chu Lai, the headquarters of the Americal Division, then to Hill 69, and from there to Duc Pho Base Camp.  And then all the usual infantry stuff began.

He tells us about his return from Vietnam, in which a man gave up his ticket so that he wouldn’t miss his flight, and how a stewardess offered to take him home with her. His personal experiences were positive, but he then goes on to say: “Returnees were being spat upon and attacked at airports. Patriotic soldiers were accused openly of being baby killers and war criminals.” These things did not happen to McComb by his own account. Far from it.

Later he writes: “I found out that only those who were not affluent, or those who could not or did not go to college were drafted.”  And: “The ‘smart kids’ must be saved. It puts me in mind of Hitler’s mentality of creating a master race.”

When I went through Basic Training at Fort Ord in January of 1966, my company had many college graduates in it. My advanced training also had many college grads. I knew many enlisted men in Vietnam who were college graduates. I was one of them. I was not a candidate for any “master race.” So this assertion is not true.

McComb rants about Jane Fonda. He questions when she was not tried for treason and hung.  “She criticized the government and our soldiers to the enemy,” McComb writes, “and then came home and openly criticized them again!” The truth is that the only thing Jane Fonda had done of note while McComb was in the Army was to be the most popular pin-up in Vietnam. Her trips to Hanoi came in the 1970s. McComb is peering into the future.

Chapter 22 amounts to one long rant about how unfair life has been to the author. Here’s some news, though: life is not fair. My dental damage from the war was not fixed by the government either. I had to pay for it out of my pocket, just like McComb did. My GI Bill benefits ran out in ten years also, so I lost them, as McComb did.

There’s nothing remarkable about the infantry exploits in this memoir, which is why I focused on other aspects of the book. For those who want their prejudices reinforced about how worthless REMFs and ARVNs and the Vietnamese people are in general, this book may be for you.

I read it twice, so I wouldn’t miss the nuances, and it was a hard read for me.  Both times.

—David Willson