Lullabies for Lieutenants by Franklin Cox

Gung-ho to the max but realistic nevertheless, Franklin Cox assembles a preponderance of war stories and several mini-essays in his Vietnam War memoir: Lullabies for Lieutenants: Memoir of a Marine Forward Observer in Vietnam, 1965-1966 (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $9.59, Kindle). His revealing war stories mainly relate to humping with his unit, the Second Battalion, Ninth Marines. Cox’s his mathematical magic guided artillery support for search-and-destroy missions against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. His essays editorialize on situations outside the battlefield.

Cox’s chronology is a bit jumbled, but it doesn’t matter: Each chapter has a life of its own.

Franklin Cox’s adoration for the Marines does not hinder his ability to recognize the Corps’ weaknesses in the Vietnam War. He took part in the historic 1965 amphibious landing that began the big buildup of in-country manpower. He writes that beyond “a handful of senior offices and salty first sergeants,” the rest of the Marines were new to warfare. They soon became the first American troops assigned to “find and kill the enemy” south of Danang in “inhospitable” I Corps.

“When the last Marine units finally left Quang Nam province six years later the objective was never fully accomplished,” Cox notes.

His account of his first months in country overflows with tragedy. He writes about ten days of “incredible mistakes, one after another, that became numbing, commonplace events that befell the greenhorn battalion from the first days it landed.” In “one two-day period 2/9 took more than 45 casualties from snipers and booby traps and recorded not one official VC KIA.” Meanwhile, the rules of engagement that required multiple levels of cover-your-ass approval virtually eliminated timely artillery support. Inflammatory U.S. media reports further disrupted the Marines’ efforts, Cox says.

For the first half of his thirteen-month tour, Cox watched the world unravel from inside the battalion headquarters’ Fire Support Coordination Center. His life changed drastically when he joined the grunts in the field as a forward observer, and voluntarily took part in everyday combat tasks, including walking point. “Frustration and fatigue consumed us,” he writes, although Cox lavishes praise on superiors who skillfully led. He also bluntly disparages leaders who failed to meet their responsibilities.

Cox engaged in his share of intense fighting, and his combat stories sometimes resemble parables that become cryptic. He recalls, for example, watching a Marine platoon leader make a point—using six 106-mm recoilless rifles of an M-50 Ontos—by flattening a well-established schoolhouse after a village chief denied any affiliation with the VC despite booby traps that ringed the village and killed and seriously wounded three Marines.

The surviving “savage” Marines sadly looked away while women and children screamed and cried. The village chief showed no emotion even when the platoon leader called him a son-of-a-bitch. Cox ends the story by saying: “A few months later something happened to another Marine platoon when it entered the same village. Only someone pathetically dumb would have to wonder what happened.” Still, even today Cox respects the VC and NVA.

Cox in Vietnam

Like a goodnight kiss, he includes a short chapter at the end of what he terms unlearned lessons from the Vietnam War.

Cox offers no notes or bibliography. He derived “the essence of his experience” primarily from “scores of letters” written to his mother, he says. Occasionally, he writes about conversations with longtime friends. The book contains a scattering of in-country photos he took. 

Published in 2010, Lullabies for Lieutenants attained classic status among Marines after winning several awards, including the grand prize in the 2014 Story Pros Awards Screenwriting Contest.

—Henry Zeybel

Brothers in the Mekong Delta by Godfrey Garner

Godfrey Garner possesses exceptional storytelling skills. Along with that talent, he has definitive psychological insights about life and about war. He puts that all together in Brothers in the Mekong Delta: A Memoir of PBR Section 513 in The Vietnam War (McFarland, 192 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a memoir of his 1967-68 tour of duty.

 “Following a lengthy break in service,” Garner writes early in the book, “I reentered the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan where missions were planned and often rehearsed for at least a week.” In his book Garner briefly compares that experience to his Vietnam War tour as a naïve young man.

“Vietnam wasn’t a clean war,” Garner says. “Missions in Vietnam were conceived in the morning and carried out in the evening. Though we were all trained pretty well before deploying to Vietnam, once in the country, we realized that there were no training protocols that could have equipped us for what we encountered. It became more and more unconventional on a daily basis.” Later, he adds, “We never planned ahead. We reacted.”

Garner crewed on—and then captained—a 30-foot Riverine Patrol Boat based at the Sadec River Division 513 compound. Navy PBR crews were the cops of the Mekong Delta waterways. They also provided transportation and fire support for SEAL team operations.

He tells his story through the eyes of a twenty-year-old who is still a teenager at heart, as were the men with whom he crewed and spent most of his free time. Befriended for life by Jack Anderson, David Taylor, and Billy Moore, Garner recollects the “new normal” education of them all. “In many ways,” he says, “Vietnam served as a sort of ramped-up kindergarten of life. Our average age was 19.”

Between nearly daily patrols, while lounging and sharing two-dollar PX quarts of Jack Daniels, they discussed survival and death. “We spent a lot of time talking about inane things,” Garner says. “It was our way of seeking balance at times when we didn’t even realize we had lost it.”

Garner also includes accounts of combat. He reports on good results and bad ones, including watching an explosion and fire consume two close friends. Stories about combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive are his best reporting.

His voice projects adult certainties fogged at times by childlike awe in response to the extraordinary. His ability to drag forth memories from fifty years ago amazes me. His descriptions of interactions between friends and foes repeatedly delighted me.

As much as it is a war memoir, Brothers in the Mekong Delta also resembles a textbook on finding direction for the future. The book should be mandatory reading for high school students.

Finding design within a kaleidoscope of emotions, Garner wraps up his observations with a mini-sermon that serves as a grisly reminder of the “strange maturity” brought on by war and the difference between “good” and “right” in combat. Both ideas translate to everyday living. He suggests that understanding the difference of the latter borders on a sacred miracle.

Garner in Afghanistan

In opposition to such absolute certainty, Garner cites a remark by David Taylor that concluded a deep philosophical discussion:

“Course, you realize how seriously fucked up that actually is.”

Garner is his own best example of applying method toward outcome. Today, he is a professor at Mississippi College, as well as an adjunct at Tulane University and Belhaven University in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. In addition to his doctorate in counseling psychology, he is working on a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Godfrey Graner retired from the Army in 2006. He wound up serving two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. He has written several books and more than fifty magazine articles on counterinsurgency.

—Henry Zeybel

Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Spreading Ink Blots by David Strachan-Morris

During the Vietnam War the United States Marine Corps’ counterinsurgency program was successful—a minor success, perhaps, but nevertheless, still successful. David Strachan-Morris reaches that conclusion in Spreading Ink Blots from Da Nang to the DMZ: The Origins and Implementation of U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Strategy in Vietnam, March 1965 to November 1968 (Helion, 158 pp. $49.95, hardcover).

This book takes on the heavyweight challenge of explaining the deeply felt conflict between the Marine Corps and U.S. Army early in the war. That battle matched the Marines’ emphasis on counterinsurgency practices against the Army’s preference for conventional strategies, primarily search-and-destroy missions.

The book originated as Strachan-Morris’ PhD thesis at the University of Wolverhampton. In expanding his study, he had full cooperation from Marine archivists, which resulted in a wealth of footnotes and a potent bibliography. Over the past decade, Strachan-Morris has written three other books on warfare and lectured at the University of Leicester School of History.  

The Marine concept of counterinsurgency, Strachan-Morris says, aims at uniting civil and military efforts in partnership with local indigenous forces to use economic and political means to pacify local areas. The idea is that these areas (“ink blots”) will gradually expand and link up until a whole region, or nation, is brought under government control.

These civil-military economic and political efforts are as important as the use of force. In other words, for some strategists, pacification and winning the hearts and minds of a citizenry are the most appropriate countermeasures for defeating insurgents such as the Viet Cong, Strachan-Morris says. 

The 1st and 3rd Divisions of the III Marine Amphibious Force operated under these principles in I Corps of Vietnam, the area of responsibility under Gen. Lewis Walt. Primarily, the Marines’ job was to secure and defend their bases at Phu Bai, Danang, and Chu Lai, and to conduct clearing operations in areas contiguous to those bases.

In 1965, Walt placed great faith in Combined Action Platoons, small Marine units that lived, worked, and trained alongside local Regional and Popular Forces in their villages. The CAP Marines sought to win the people’s support by patrolling the area, defending the villages, and carrying out small-scale civil projects to raise living standards for villagers. One platoon soon grew to a company of ten teams in the Phu Bia area. An immediate highlight of CAP was Operation Golden Fleece, which prevented the Viet Cong from extorting their biannual rice taxes from the villagers’ harvests.

Army Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded all U.S. forces in-country, judged the Marine approach as simply a smaller version of conventional war and largely unnecessary in the Vietnam War, Strachan-Morris says. Westmoreland preferred the search-and-destroy strategy to buttress President Lyndon Johnson’s overriding exhortations to kill more Viet Cong. Army leaders fomented animosity between the two services by accusing the Marines of “sitting back and waiting for the enemy,” according to Strachan-Morris.

Spreading Ink Blots examines the opposing viewpoints by providing a history of worldwide counterinsurgency efforts from well before the Vietnam War. Strachan-Morris cites successes and failures of the most influential thinkers and doers. He then discusses the development of strategy and the measurement of progress of pacification efforts in Vietnam in 1966-67. He explains how conditions fluctuated significantly and inter-service tensions deepened at the same time that the South Vietnamese political situation grew unstable.

And then came the 1968 Tet Offensive when Marine-Army relations reached their lowest ebb, Strachan-Morris says. He focuses here on the defense of Khe Sanh, which exacerbated tensions among American political and military leaders—and which distracted from the overall strategy of the war.   

Strachan-Morris’ concludes that counterinsurgency is “a useful operational level tool but it is not to be conflated with nation building, nor is it enough by itself to win wars.” His subtext, based on the Marine Corps’ experiences in Vietnam, rates counterinsurgency as effective at a tactical level to achieve a specific objective, within a specific area, and (ideally) for a specific period of time. Beyond those parameters, he says, it is ineffective.

At the same time, he contends that Marine CAP efforts prevented a “general uprising” among the South Vietnamese and aided “Project Recovery,” the South Vietnamese government’s post-Tet reconstruction plan.

I am amazed that a book this thin can foment so much controversy.

In my mind, analyzing and comparing military counterinsurgency operations from different wars in different eras provides limited guidance. For example, the British flaunt their success with counterinsurgency in Malaya after World War II, yet observers contend the British used force and human rights abuses to get results.

Similarly, no two counterinsurgency programs have been alike. Each was tailored through trial and error to fit specific situations. The nature of the insurgents, the terrain, and the political landscape differ in each situation, as Strachan-Morris says, so too do the counterinsurgents themselves. Experts on the strategy provide general principles, but they leave specific methodology to be determined by the situation.

Two recently published books also touch on Marine counterinsurgency operations. Tiger Papa Three by Edward F. Palm, a grunt-level member of a Combined Action Platoon, tells of living with villagers near the DMZ in 1967. Palm reports that villagers acted indifferently to the Marines, did not buy into civic action projects, “and never had any great call for our medical services.” What’s more, the PF avoided maneuvers that involved risk taking. Palm, an extremely well-read and self-made man and a dean of two colleges, seems to have never stopped growing up and sharing what he learns. I trust him.

A Final Valiant Act by retired Marine Col. John B. Lang calls the CAP “a success wherever it was instituted.” Beyond counterinsurgency, Lang’s book describes two complex amphibious operations in 1967—at Duc Pho and along the DMZ—that validate the Marines’ willingness and ability to fight conventionally. The book is a good read about the Vietnam War, but Lang was not there and reports from a historian’s perspective.

That boils down the discussion to two Marines and two opposing opinions: Take your pick.

—Henry Zeybel

What’s Going On by Michael Hayes

Before I began reading Michael Hayes’ What’s Going On: A History of the Vietnam Era (Tine Day, 139 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) I wondered how it would be possible for Hayes to approach such a complex time in America’s history in such a short book. The U.S. was undergoing great turmoil over major and unresolved social issues in the midst of the Cold War. Incredibly, the United States then entered into a war in Vietnam that further fractured American society and intensified the fires of domestic discontent. Would it be possible to do justice in a short book to a very complicated era?

Hayes offers an abridged summary of the historical background to the Vietnam War with references to domestic social issues in the United States and key personalities. He flavors this overview with vignettes in the words of those who experienced the war and the era and with his own words illustrating personal incidents showing the divisions within American society and the abuse of power by those supposedly protecting the public.  

Hayes—who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and has taught U.S. history at the collegiate level—only briefly summarizes complicated events and issues. He often does this without the benefit of balance, when in many cases these topics are controversial. Perhaps he found this necessary in order to keep his book brief, but with an awareness that those issues warrant much greater clarification and amplification, perhaps in a lengthier book.   

The book is written in a style intended for an audience of readers younger than anyone with first-hand memories of the war and the social disunity of that period. The target audience is young adults, who are separated by a half century from that incredible time and are most likely uninformed about the pivotal events of their parents’ and grandparents’ world. Hayes has given them, in most cases, the bare essentials to minimally grasp what issues the American public—particularly war veterans—were confronting during that time of intense combat in Vietnam and serious social and political divisions at home. 

What’s Going On, then, is a sort of primer to whet the appetite of someone with little or no knowledge of the war or the era, and provides the basis for pursuing more comprehensive scholarship. To that end, Hayes provides in end notes and a three-page bibliography with recommended sources for further reading.

A minor criticism is the author’s occasionally one-sided account of history. I say this as a war veteran and activist who remains highly critical of the war, but who seeks impartiality in any discussion of it. Hayes, for instance, reminds readers how the Vietnamese people were subjugated by France’s imperialist policies, but never mentions that the Vietnamese were in their own right imperialists who subjugated non-Vietnamese people (the Chams, Montagnards, and Khmers). 

He also describes the heavy-handed policies of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, while failing to note the North’s brutal suppression of opposition groups. In today’s political climate objectivity is of key importance.  

That said, this book is a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the Vietnam War and its milieu. 

–John Cirafici

Who’ll Stop the Rain by Doug Bradley

If there is someone who knows more about popular music and the Vietnam War than Doug Bradley does, please come to the head of the class. Bradley has immersed himself in what he and other troops listened to since he set foot in Vietnam in 1970. For years he taught a class at the University of Wisconsin called “The Vietnam Era: Music, Media, and Mayhem.”

What’s more, Bradley co-wrote, with Craig Werner, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War (2015), a compendium of all things Vietnam War-era music. “For anyone who wants to know about music and the Vietnam War, this is the book to read,” David Willson wrote in his VVA Veteran review of that book. Bradley and Werner “have given us a gift, a compendious book that looks at the music we rock-and-roll-generation Americans who served in the Vietnam War listened to.”

Doug Bradley’s latest book, Who’ll Stop the Rain: Respect, Remembrance and Reconciliation in Post-Vietnam America (Warriors Publishing Group, 258 pp. $34.99, hardcover; $14.95, paperback; $5.99, Kindle) picks up where the previous book left off—but also expands the subject broadly. The heart of Who’ll Stop the Rain is a detailed report on more than 100 book-and-music presentations around the country that Bradley—who was drafted into the Army in March 1970 and served for a year as an Army journalist at USRV headquarters in Long Binh—and Werner hosted following publication of their book.

What they found time after time at their presentations was that popular music bound together Baby Boomer Vietnam War veterans as well as those who did not serve—no matter what their political persuasions. “The music of the era,” Bradley writes, “can help ground us, get us out of the quagmire, by moving us away from [political] polarizations. Music truth is complex, an implicit recognition that no one voice can tell the whole story, that our public memory is inescapably plural.”

That became especially clear during the Q&A sessions following the presentations. His audiences, Bradley says, “didn’t do the usual griping or head shaking; instead, they listened, intently and respectfully, to what all sides had to say.” Nearly “every conversation eventually moved to somewhere in the middle, and, in the end to some type of communal healing, with every person who stood up and shared—veteran and non-veteran—feeling as if they had been heard.”

Doug Bradley on the job at USRV HQ

The issues that came up during the presentations ran the gamut of Vietnam War and postwar subjects. They included Agent Orange, PTSD, veterans’ homelessness, the VA’s Vet Centers, wannabes, Veterans’ Courts, The Wall and other Vietnam veterans memorials, and Vietnam War movies and books. Throughout the book Bradley intersperses first-person sections, told mainly by Vietnam War veterans, about those and other aspects of the war and veterans issues.

Along the way, Bradley takes care to highlight the postwar accomplishments of many Vietnam veterans, including writers and Vietnam veterans advocates. That group includes W.D. Ehrhart, Alfredo Vera, Karl Marlantes, Steve Piotrowski, Shad Meshad, Bob Fraser, John Ketwig, Kimo Williams, Chuck and Tom Hagel, Sue O’Neill, and Mary Reynolds Powell.

Their words are varied, powerful, and important. As is this book.

–Marc Leepson

A Backseat View from the Phantom by Fleet S. Lentz

   

I did time at Ubon, U-Tapao, Nakhon Phanom, and Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force bases during the Vietnam War. And I knew guys from Takhli, Udorn, and Korat. But I never heard of Nam Phong RTAFB until I read A Backseat View from the Phantom: A Memoir of a Marine Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam (McFarland, 229 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Retired Marine Corps Col. Fleet S. Lentz, Jr.

As part of the wind down of the Vietnam War, the Marines moved the F-4 Phantoms of the VMFA-115 Silver Eagles from Da Nang in South Vietnam to Nam Phong in Thailand. From there, the squadron bombed targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia for 15 months from 1972-73. Never completed for its original purpose, Nam Phong had been a “bare base” used by the CIA to support the dispersal and staging of theater forces.

Lentz served as a Radar Intercept Officer with the Silver Eagles. “To my knowledge,” he says, “no one has written of the Marine aviation effort during those final months.” By the time he arrived in Southeast Asia, Lentz writes, “Marine infantry had been pulled out of Vietnam, as had Army infantry. We were the last Marines in combat in Southeast Asia.”

Lentz wrote the book primarily from memory, but also used information from conversations he had with others stationed at Nam Phong, his Aviator Flight Log, and a Silver Eagles Cruise Book reminiscent of a high school yearbook. He identifies people by title, call sign, or nickname.

Lentz tells his tale in four acts from the viewpoint of a 26-year-old first lieutenant. The first—”My New World”—concentrates on the wealth of privations at Nam Phong, which Marines called the Rose Garden. The base featured a 10,000-foot runway that Lentz says resembled “a long hazy gash or a dirty flesh wound with a faint gray line down the middle.”

The living and working areas consisted of canvas tents above plywood floors on hardened dirt. The tallest building was “the shortest control tower I had even seen,” Lentz says. It looked like “a wooden water tank on stilts or maybe a deer blind.” The facilities, in other words, were deplorable. On the plus side, the Silver Eagles had an unparalleled commander.

Lentz plays a hyper-positive role in Act Two—”Hops”—the Marine term for a takeoff and landing. He learned by doing and tells all about perfecting Phantom crew skills: air-to-air re-fueling, in-flight emergencies, bomb runs, night operations in absolute darkness, missiles, air-to-air combat tactics, and frags (self-inflicted damage caused by flying through your own bomb shrapnel pattern).

“Air crews didn’t have much true intelligence as to their targets,” Lentz says. Generally, a crew flew to a designated area in Laos or Cambodia, hooked up with a forward air controller, and went after the targets the FAC designated. “We assisted allied ground forces, but we never knew for certain who they were,” Lentz says. After American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in January 1973, bombing was limited to Cambodia.

Lentz carefully analyzes relationships between pilots and RIOs, who very much needed each other. Because the same pilot and RIO did not commonly fly together, irregular teaming up occasionally caused personality problems, and Lentz’s stories on the subject provide excellent entertainment.

His narrative style has a matter-of-fact quality that is more lesson-like than adventure-packed. Of course, the facts of combat and flying beyond Mach 1 need no hyperbole. His stories satisfyingly recollect good and bad times, and he sometimes even pokes fun at his own naiveté.

Act Three—”Special Times, Special People”—continues his dive into the psyches of fellow flyers. He offers insider views of combat pilot behavior that defy understanding and yet produce admiration. An underlying theme in most of his stories is the willingness of one man to help another. To improve a unit, “salts” (older Marines) shared their knowledge and experiences with new guys. “Unit loyalty in the Marine Corps was and is paramount,” Lentz says.         

The final act—”Things Changed”—discusses Operation Sunset, the departure of the Silver Eagles from the Rose Garden. Lentz moved to the higher echelon of Marine Air Group 15 as a supply and then an embarkation officer. He disliked the supply job until he was allowed to act independently. Some accounts of his cumshawing (scrounging) gear for Marines border on legend. For embarkation, Lentz directed 23 days of “shipping everything out,” he says, and was one of the last men to depart from Nam Phong, leaving the base either to the Thais or the jungle.

Visiting Officers’ Quarters as Nam Phong Air Base in Thailand

Scattered photographs dress up the book. A series of appendices add perspective about the war and Lentz’s squadron’s history and leadership.

Operation Sunset provided the final lesson in Fleet Lentz’s wartime career, but what he learned at Nam Phong impelled him to stay in the Marine Corps and make it a career. The men with whom he flew provided outstanding role models. Several pilots at the Rose Garden became generals.

The book’s most significant lesson is the importance of learning from one’s superiors and modeling one’s behavior accordingly when in a leadership role. Lentz mastered that task.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fleetlentz

—Henry Zeybel  

American Dreamer by Tim Tran

Tim Tran’s American Dreamer: How I Escaped Communist Vietnam and Built a Successful Life in America (Pacific University Press, 390 pp. $18.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an engaging and very readable book. Tim Tran is the Americanized version of the author’s Vietnamese name, Tran Manh Khiem. A first-time author, he has delivered a nice tale.

Tran begins his story—written with Tom Fields-Meyer—as a four-year-old on a U.S. Navy boat with his parents as they fled the North Vietnam in 1954. The family eventually settled in Saigon in South Vietnam.

We move with the author through a series of short chapters, few more than four or five pages long, all divided up into eight parts that signal important changes and developments in his life. Each of the chapters could almost stand alone. They are presented as if they were transcribed from a series of after-dinner reminiscences by the author. Tran’s memory of names and dates and places translates into a pleasant progression.

We follow Tran as he moves through school in Saigon with stories about his student shenanigans, then on to a prestigious high school. He applies and is selected for a USAID scholarship to attend college in the U.S. Tran and the woman who would later become his wife were sent to Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend Pacific University.

Tran portrays his life and times as an American university student wonderfully, even with difficulties dealing with cultural and language issues. He transferred to the University of California at Berkeley, and earned a degree in Economics.

Upon his return to Vietnam in the early 1970s, Tran author went to work for Shell, the worldwide oil company. He rose steadily through the ranks, and had attained a good position when the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. His chapters on life under the communist regime are very revealing to those do not know the harsh deprivations many South Vietnamese were forced to endure under the new regime.

Tim Tran

Tran describes many attempts to escape from Vietnam. He and his family eventually fled by boat to Indonesia in 1979. His stories of the pirates who pillaged the group are particularly graphic.

From an Indonesian refugee camp, Tran Manh Khiem, with his family, was finally able to return to the U.S., where he began life anew and become a successful businessman. He and his wife Cathy (her Americanized name) became U.S. citizens and prospered. In Tran’s final chapters, he writes of his deeply held love for the U.S.

American Dreamer is a well-written memoir that deserves a place on your book shelf.

The author’s website is timtranamericandreamer.com

–Tom Werzyn

The Cost of Freedom edited by Susan J. Erenrich

“Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming.” That refrain from Neil Young’s song “Ohio” about the shootings at Kent State on May 4, 1970, is embedded in the nation’s collective memory. The lesser-known song on the B-side of that record, Stephen Stills’ “Find the Cost of Freedom,” may have inspired the title to Susan Erenrich’s elegy to the victims of that day, The Cost of Freedom: Voicing a Movement after Kent State 1970 (Kent State University Press, 336 pp. $34.95, paper; $24.99, Kindle).

The book is an assemblage of genres—including a single photograph, a short song, and a 37-page treatise on the historic preservation of the site—dealing with the violence at Kent State University that May day, its aftermath, and its influence on the community and the nation. Erenrich thoughtfully divides this anthology into ten accessible sections.

Susan J. Erenrich is a professor at American University and a social movement documentarian. She previously edited Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: An Anthology of the Mississippi Civil Rights Movement and Grassroots Leadership & the Arts for Social Change. The Kent State story is a personal one for Erenrich. She was a Kent State student in the late 1970s and was deeply involved in the May 4 Task Force, the student organization responsible for commemorating the anniversary of the shootings.

The fiftieth anniversary of the shootings has brought no less than ten recent books on the events that add to an already robust bibliography of the episode. Erenrich’s book seeks to differentiate itself by its focus on justice issues and its call for the future. The books is a collection of primary source material, though it does not focus on contemporaneous accounts of the events, but rather on the later reflections of students and administrators.

There is a palpable catharsis in many of the accounts, and though the reflections are heartfelt and earnest, many were written 20, 30, 40, and even 50 years after the fact. The essays can veer to the polemical and the writers to self-indulgence, which is entirely understandable as many of their lives are divided in half—one before May 4, 1970, and one after. There are entries that are not directly Kent-related by Patricia Mosley and the former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and Weatherman Mark Rudd.

The one contemporaneous account of the events, by then Kent State senior Constance Nowakowski, describes protestors on acid throwing bottles at the police, breaking windows indiscriminately, burning the American flag, burning the ROTC building, and cutting hoses firefighters tried to use to douse the flames. This provides context for the tragedy that would ensue, but does not explain or excuse the senseless killings. The Scranton Commission was correct in finding the shootings “unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”

From a historical perspective, the pieces on post-facto legal activities are compelling and informing. William Whitaker, an Akron trial lawyer who represented the Kent 25—the moniker given to the protesters indicted for criminal activity in connection with events leading up to the shootings—offers an excellent one, as does Sanford Jay Rosen, the lead civil attorney for the dead and wounded students.

Noteworthy among the essays from the students directly affected by the shootings is the piece by John Cleary. An amateur photographer, Cleary, a freshman, was not part of the protests. He was observing and photographing the days’ events when he was shot in the chest. Cleary had a quiet determination not to allow May 4th to define his life. He finished his studies at Kent and went on to a career in architecture.

The shootings at Kent State still reverberate. This collection is a written monument, a fitting memorial to all those killed, wounded, or scarred by the events of May 4, 1970.

–Daniel R. Hart

Bleeding Spirits by Robert E. Jewell

91knedbb2ol

Robert Jewell’s memoir, Bleeding Spirits: A Combat Soldier’s Memoir of the Vietnam War (Sweetgrass, 189 pp. $19.58, paper), is an exceptional look at the effects of fighting in a war have on a combatant’s personality and behavior. Jewell’s directness when writing about the men he killed overwhelmed me for a short time. Then his attitude confirmed a self-evident truth: No apology is ever necessary for killing an enemy in war.

In this book Bob Jewell tells a deeply reflective and therapeutic story of his 416 days as a Vietnam War grunt with the Americal Division near Chu Lai. His reflexive talent for shooting enemy soldiers caused him consternation, which resulted in repeated personal re-evaluations. Despite self-punishing introspection, Jewell’s physical strength and mental acuity turned him into a consummate warrior.  

In telling his story Jewell wastes no time with writing about his Army training. He takes the reader directly into combat and describes his first kill in minute detail—a North Vietnamese soldier who looked like a 15-year-old boy.   

Draftee Jewell arrived in-country as a replacement at the onset of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Shortly before that, his company of 120 men was reduced to 17. He soon saw several  killed and horribly maimed, he says, and “quickly morphed into a rage-filled savage.” Jewell describes this transition as “an automatic, almost normal change” that made him “lust for killing.” Grossly undermanned, his company nevertheless spent inordinate time in the field. One mission lasted 52 days.

Two of Jewell’s many battlefield experiences reached historic proportions. In the first, 10,000-15,000 North Vietnamese soldiers surrounded and captured Kham Duc in May 1968. In the second, his company walked into an overwhelming large NVA force and fought a night-long battle that devolved into “a firefight in an artillery barrage” with “gunfights at a range of four feet,” as Jewell puts it.             

Wounded three times and hospitalized once during his 14-month tour, Jewell had dozens of other close calls. When facing what appeared to be imminent death, his mind all but shut down and recorded no memory of the event’s outcome. Those experiences created “fragments of mysterious free-floating images” that drifted in and out of his mind, he writes, “no more than mere ‘snapshot photos’ of faces or scenes providing me with no before-or-after context.” Those images lasted for decades.

What he experienced was too profound to ignore. The images created confusion that defied logic and reality, he says, and burdened him with post-traumatic stress. Despite living with PTSD, Bob Jewell enjoyed a distinguished thirty-year career as a teacher and counselor in Helena, Montana. In 2003, after a series of personal tragedies, he began a six-week inpatient program of “long, intense days and nights to reconcile critical secrets.”

Jewell’s analysis of his treatment for PTSD concludes that combat-induced trauma contains more questions than answers, and the restorative power of treatment has limitations. He accepts that many of his important experiences in the Vietnam War are lost to repressed memories.

“Rather than fight the memory,” he says, “I now try to accept is as a friendly reminder that I was one of the lucky ones to survive some of the worst combat shit possible.”

5dacfd72dff51.image_

Bob Jewell in country, 1968

Bleeding Spirits contains 33 pages of Jewell’s letters that spoke truths to family members. In one, for example, he wrote:

“The gooks shot down a plane nearby, and we had to go to the rescue. We found the plane burning and exploding. The pilot was dead, cooked in fact, and we had to pull him out in pieces.”

Throughout the book, Jewell’s other stories are equally candid. They parallel the insanity of moments when, as he says, “Every rule of war, religion, and humanity was instantly obliterated. The non-rules of total chaos took over!!!”

He overlays this candidness with a thin coating of detachment that validates what he saw and did. I greatly admire him.

Robert E. Jewell died of cancer in 2017. His memoir is perfect testimony to warfare’s limitless destructiveness of body, mind, and spirit.

—Henry Zeybel