The Phantom Vietnam War by David R. “Buff” Honodel

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To his surprise, F-4 Phantom jock Captain David R. “Buff” Honodel fought his share of the Vietnam War entirely in Laos during his 1969-70 tour of duty. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which provided air power against North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars.

Honodel—who died in February this year before the publication of this book—had prepared “to fight in Vietnam,” he wrote, “not some ancillary backwater skirmish in a primitive, jungle covered wilderness.” Mainly, the 555th crews killed trucks.

Furthermore, Honodel quickly realized that combat missions vastly differed from what he had expected, even though he ranked himself as “the world’s greatest fighter pilot.” Mostly, he had to relearn maneuvers he believed he had mastered because controlling a heavyweight, bomb-laden Phantom was like flying an entirely different aircraft.

Honodel related his experiences in these operations with a sometimes puzzled, but always eager, attitude in The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat Over Laos (University of North Texas Press, 330 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). As a young man, he sought and found excitement, drama, and satisfaction amid the chaos of enemy gunfire and Air Force leadership.

The book thoroughly walks the reader through preparing for and flying fighter-bomber missions against targets seriously defended by antiaircraft weapons. Of Honodel’s 137 combat missions, 53 were as a Night Owl, which taught him a lot about himself. “When I crossed the Fence that first night,” he wrote, “I had no idea that I entered a new war, an environment that brought new terror.”

Night Owls flew in absolute blackness, or as Honodel put it: “About the only thing darker would be the inside of a coffin.” Lessons he learned on both night and day missions fill the book, and their details should delight flying enthusiasts as well as readers unfamiliar with military matters.

Self-criticism overrode much of his airmanship because no matter how well he performed, he still wanted to do better. At times, he viewed perfection as unattainable. Yet he recalled a foolhardy shootout and destruction of an antiaircraft gun and its crew that cleared the way for a successful helicopter rescue of a downed flyer and called the feat “the proudest day of my life.”

Often, Buff Honodel and his squadron mates were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war for reasons such as deaths and disappearances of fellow crewmen; too many tactical restrictions; inappropriate targeting; and illogical expectations from higher headquarters. Their criticism did not diminish their level of dedication to the task, however.

To deepen readers’ understanding of flying the F-4, Honodel provided fourteen pages of images with explanations of the interior of the aircraft’s cockpit, along with a crash course on ejection procedures. He also included twenty-four pages of photographs of the men and weapons discussed throughout the book.

Honodel returned to the United States in mid-1970 to fly the F-4 at Holloman Air Force Base. In 1972, he got to fight in South Vietnam when his squadron unexpectedly deployed to Southeast Asia to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive. He targeted infantry during forty-some missions, which he mentioned only briefly in this book.

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Buff Honodel

The Phantom Vietnam War closes with Honodel’s grim but reasonable conclusions regarding the war’s significance. The men with whom he flew are his heroes, especially those killed or missing in action. He appreciated what they all accomplished more than why they did it.

Honodel admitted to writing The Phantom Vietnam War exclusively from memory. At times, the book has a novelistic tone because he created dialogue and recreated radio transmissions. A few of his generalizations could have been better supported. None of this, however, detracts from the overall impact of his feelings.

Following more than four decades of consideration, they still were fresh and sincere and comprise the foundation for his memoir.

—Henry Zeybel

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Time in the Barrel by James P. Coan

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During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps combat base at Con Thien sat three clicks south of the demilitarized zone, always on alert for an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. In September 1967, the NVA began an intense bombardment of the Marines in Con Thien that lasted for forty days.

James R. Coan, a Marine lieutenant, led a Third Battalion/Third Division platoon of M-48A3 Patton medium tanks defending the base, his first combat command. He recalls the action from those days in Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien (University of Alabama Press, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover and e book).

While in-country, Coan kept a diary that he used to help expand his recollections in the book. He includes a copy of the diary in an appendix. For background, he presents a brief but highly informative history of I Corps prior to his arrival. Six pages of photographs enhance the memoir.

Coan describes Con Thien as a “three-pronged hill mass” and “the finest natural outpost along the entire lengths of the DMZ.” From its high ground, an observer had an unlimited field of view in all directions. On the other hand, the base also stood out as a perfect target.

Hidden within the densely vegetated DMZ, 20,000 NVA troops awaited orders to assault the base, he says. Meanwhile, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket crews bombarded the base around the clock, once firing more than a thousand rounds in a day. Line of sight sniping with 57-mm recoilless rifles supplemented the NVA daylight firepower.

The situation produced a classic siege that Coan describes in detail. Fear of death—the “danger of enemy shells dropping out of the sky”—was the primary source of apprehension, he says. Every day, Marines died and were wounded. Unpredictable bombardments and sapper attacks; lack of food, water, and military supplies due to road cuts; monsoonal rains and mud; and rat infestation heightened the men’s anguish.

Coan—the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, a 2007 book on the same subject—labels the fire base a “hell hole.” Based on what I saw around the time Coan was there, his description applied to all of northern I Corps. Nights were pitch black and days dimly lit. From I Corps, our C-130 crew carried away the dead in body bags on stretchers.

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In January 1968, the NVA shifted its strategy to besieging Khe Sanh.

Beyond his account of Con Thien, Coan wedges in non-combat material. His memories of screw-ups during high school and college years and the rigorous demands of Officer Candidate School interrupt the drama of the story.

Nevertheless, Time in the Barrel offers a worthwhile perspective of what, at the time, made headline news in America. The book unflinchingly illustrates humans’ ability to cope with the unbearable as a function of duty.

—Henry Zeybel

The Deepest Wounds of War by R.T. Budd

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R.T. Budd’s The Deepest Wounds of War (Strategic, 312 pp., $28.63) is a very sad novel, full of bitterness. The dedication provides a glimpse of that bitterness: “Fact: 85% of Vietnam Veterans made the successful transition from military to civilian life. This book is dedicated to the forgotten 15%.”

It is clear from the start that the protagonist, Bryan Hamilton, is a very bitter veteran. His experiences as a medic in the Vietnam War are the basis for a novel full of anger and resentment as Hamilton attempts a difficult transition into civilian life after two tours of duty in the war.

The book is full of two-dimensional characters. They include a hypocritical priest who reads Playboy magazine, a young woman who calls Hamilton a murderer, and teenage boys who disrespect the flag.

The Deepest Wounds of War ends up reading more like a memoir than a novel. It has a very episodic feel to it with sixty chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue jammed into 213 pages.

The story may be stilted, but the pain is real.

–Bill Fogarty

Under Fire with ARVN Infantry by Bob Worthington

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Over the years American Vietnam War veterans have written countless books about their war experiences. In Under Fire with ARVN Infantry: Memoir of a Combat Advisor in Vietnam 1966-1967 (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper), Bob Worthington brings us a story, as the subtitle indicates, of an American adviser assigned to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. By his reckoning, during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam starting in 1945, more than 66,300 American advisers worked with the South Vietnamese military.

In a relatively short and compact book, we are introduced to a side of the conflict not commonly considered or explored. All of us in Vietnam knew there were advisers for most everything, but back then didn’t think about it all that much.

Worthington begins his story in the late 1950s when he was out of high school and not ready to handle college. So he enlisted in the Marines in early 1957. He takes us along on his adventures in boot camp and his release from the Marine Corps two years later to return to college. From the Marine Reserves he transferred to Army ROTC and then to active duty.

He got married, and he held a series of jobs at home and overseas. Before he went to Vietnam Worthington completed Special Warfare Training and the Military Assistance Training Advisor course at Ft. Bragg, as well as Vietnamese language school at the Presidio. In-country, Capt. Worthington worked with ARVN units in Da Nang, Hoi An, An Hoa. and other areas of I Corps.

Worthington relates his experiences and reactions using little direct dialogue, opting instead for indirect quotes and attributions. He goes into detail about encounters with the NVA and VC, replying primarily on his daily journals and unit histories. The Vietnamese officers and personnel he worked with are well portrayed. His descriptions of riding on an O-1 Birddog and on board a fire mission with a Snoopy Gunship alone are worth the price of admission.

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Worthington (left) in Vietnam

He briefly goes into “oft ignored” inter-service rivalries, and the derisive attitude of some U.S. officers about the Advisory programs. After a second tour as an adviser in 1968-69, Worthington left active duty and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was involved with research on returning troops and POW’s, and was a psychological consultant with the Army’s Health Services Command.

Worthington found success in civilian life as a writer, University of New Mexico professor, and business owner. Under Fire with ARVN Infantry is a good story by a good man—and a good soldier.

—Tom Werzyn

Uncommon Valor by Stephen L. Moore

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company That Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret (Naval Institute Press, 422 pp.; $23.14 Hard, $21.96 Kindle) is a Vietnam War history book for the ages.

More bluntly put: The book is a helluva good war story. In this recon world things went right about half the time. Sometimes a well-conceived plan would fail and people died. Sometimes an audacious plan would work like a charm. That world was no reasonable place to go, but it was exactly where young, fit, tough guys wanted to be.

Stephen L. Moore, the book’s author, really has his stuff together. Readers will find interesting stories of combat or intrigue on page after page. He assembled this history based on interviews with men who were on the scene, along with citations for awards, official reports, archival material, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, secondary sources, and personal records. Moore has written seventeen other history books about World War II and Texas.

Uncommon Valor portrays the exploits of a small collection of American men from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, and CIA field agents in the Vietnam War supplemented by indigenous people. They all secretly operated behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia.

Code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and stationed at Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2) near Kontum in the Central Highlands, SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and the White House. The main mission was to disrupt North Vietnamese operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also took part in downed pilot and POW rescue missions.

The book recreates the history of FOB-2 beginning with its original thirty-three Green Berets. Because a significant amount of paperwork was destroyed to maintain secrecy, Moore centers his account on the activities of five Medal of Honor and eight Distinguished Service Cross recipients whose actions were thoroughly documented.

Moore bestows the greatest recognition on SFC Robert L. Howard, one of America’s most decorated warriors. Howard served in the Army for thirty-six years and retired as a colonel. His exploits, along with similar actions performed by other men from FOB-2, defy logic and the odds. As Moore tells the story, every man from FOB-2 was a hero.

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Stephen Moore

The SOG program demanded the most competent warriors available, and fortunately those who were best qualified volunteered for the task. Photographs, a glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, a roster of SOG troops at FOB-2, and an index round out the book’s structure.

I was only vaguely aware of SOG before reading Uncommon Valor and found it highly informative. I believe even those familiar with SOG might be enlightened by the insights provided by Moore’s nearly one hundred interviewees.

The author’s website is stephenlmoore.com

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam: There & Back by Jim “Doc” Purtell

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“Truth cuts to the bone,” according to Jim “Doc” Purtell.

He uses a truth-above-all writing formula in Vietnam: There & Back: A Combat Medic’s Chronicle (Hellgate Press, 182 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle) to examine his year with Charlie Company of the 1/6th in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade operating out of Chu Lai in 1968-69.

After growing up in rural Wisconsin with eleven brothers and sisters, Purtell enlisted in the Army to escape a domineering father. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in the war zone. Before entering the Army, he knew nothing about Vietnam and had never traveled more than ninety miles from home.

Purtell readily recalls the trauma he felt throughout eight months in combat. He frequently uses the word “scary” to describe life-threatening situations—and those come before the shooting begins.

As a medic, he experienced the downside of humping with the infantry: Back-to-back-to-back ambushes on the same day; a mortar salvo that instantly killed four men; needlessly taking one hill and then another; and being constantly undermanned and overworked.

In his unit, medics normally served six months in the field and then moved to duty at the LZ Bayonet Medical Clinic. A shortage of medics, however, kept Purtell in the field for two additional months, a time when the intensity of his company’s combat encounters increased disproportionately.

Short-timers often insisted on walking close to him in case they were injured. Using this tactic, three men suffered wounds beyond Purtell’s ability to save them. He describes such horrendous events bluntly and succinctly: For example, “Busse had been hit in the heart, and blood was gushing out of his chest with tremendous force.”

Medic school had emphasized how to treat people in a hospital and not on the battlefield, he says. He believes that the trainees were not shown what battle wounds really looked like because the instructors feared the wash-out rate would soar. As a result, Purtell felt guilty that the inadequate training forced him to learn doctoring under fire.

At times, he records his emotions in a voice brimming with puzzlement, plus a touch of naivety. He repeatedly questions why he joined the Army, his role in life, and the meaning of his existence. Occasionally, he appears to be a stranger to himself.

Purtell tells of one incident that still haunts him. At the same time, he describes his heroics in a matter-of-fact tone that strongly relies on what others have said about his actions. He gave me the impression that he unselfishly risked his life out of respect for the men with whom he served. Their needs were the impetus for his devotion to duty.

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People, he writes, “have a better understanding of what we went through over there,” he says. Furthermore, reliving the war gave him a clearer understanding of his life’s course. Doc Purtell worked strictly from memory and says that once he started writing the book,  he found himself “typing as quickly as my fingers would hit the keys.”

The final product contains seven photographs that include him, but he forgoes notes, bibliography, or an index.

Following the war, Purtell earned BA and MA degrees that led to a career in veteran counseling.

His website is jimpurtell.com

—Henry Zeybel

Bourbon & Bullets by John C. Tramazzo

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It’s hardly news that military men and women have been known to enjoy a stiff drink. “American service members carried whiskey into battle from Valley Forge to Gettysburg, Manila, and Da Nang,” John C. Tramazzo writes in Bourbon & Bullets: True Stories of Whiskey, War, and Military Service (Potomac Books/University of Nebraska Press, 296 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). It “bolstered their courage, calmed their nerves, and treated their maladies.”

Less well known is the significant role that this country’s veterans have played in whiskey production. That’s the subject of Tramazzo’s entertaining book, which is packed with fascinating details.

During the 1960s, many young people “rejected everything their parents stood for, including their alcoholic beverage of choice,” Tramazzo—a U.S. Army captain who has served in Afghanistan—notes. “Bourbon nearly disappeared from the American drinking scene. However, overseas sales helped keep bourbon afloat, thanks in particular to sales on military bases.”

Tramazzo, who runs the bourbonscout.com website, recounts a story the famed Vietnam War correspondent Joe Galloway told about riding in a helicopter during the siege of Plei Mei Special Forces Camp. “When the Huey landed, a sergeant major ran up to Galloway along with an angry field grade officer. [Galloway said,] ‘The dialogue goes something like this: Who the hell are you? A reporter. Son, I need everything in the goddamn world from food and ammo to water, medevac, [and] reinforcements, and I wouldn’t mind a bottle of Jim Beam. But what I do not need is a goddamn reporter!’”

That was in 1965, the year the Army drafted Bob Stillnovich, who later led a platoon in the Thirty-Fifth Infantry Regiment and served nearly eighteen months in what Tramazzo calls “the most dangerous jungles of South Vietnam.” Afterward, Stillnovich pursued several lines of work, eventually co-founding the award-winning Golden Distillery (now part of Old Line in Baltimore).

Another entrepreneurial Vietnam War veteran, Thomas E. Bulleit, Jr., was a Navy corpsman attached to a Marine battalion north of the Da Nang Airbase in 1968. During the battle of Khe San, Bulleit asked himself: “How can men come to this?” Nineteen years later, a successful lawyer, he established a bourbon company, now part of London-based Diageo. In 2016, Bulleit bourbons won gold medals at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

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Hootch party in Vietnam with Jim Beam & friends

Amid this celebration of booze, Tramazzo sounds a cautionary note: “[W]hile whiskey has comforted and intrigued me and played an important role in the American military community, one cannot ignore that it has been, and always will be, destructive when abused. No group understands that reality more than veterans of war do.”

He says he was “proud to discover” that a World War I veteran, Bill Wilson, co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935.

–Angus Paul