Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.
Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”
All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.
These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.
What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.
Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.
These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.
I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.
Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.
Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.
“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “
Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.
Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.
Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”
Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.
He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”
Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.
Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Love Found and Lost: The Kim Vui Story (Texas Tech University Press, 260 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle), is an interesting and important autobiography by a Vietnamese actress and singer who was the most glamorous—and famous—star in the South Vietnamese entertainment industry in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the story of Saigon’s nightlife and film scene during the American war years.
Kim Vui was six years old in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the United States near the end of World War II, which led to chaos in and around Saigon as the French tried to regain control of their former colonial capital. Amid the uproar, Kim Vui fled with her family to the Mekong Delta to begin a new life in the countryside. The next year she saw French forces murderously rampaging through her village. The family subsequently returned to Saigon.
With fond memories of singing in her Catholic church, Kim Vui began performing in theaters in Saigon at an early age. In spring of 1955, after France had lost all its Indochinese colonies, the sixteen-year-old Vui was pregnant by a young man she would only see once more in her life.
After her first child was born she finished secondary school and returned to singing in restaurants. Kim Vui also worked in a government program taking music, dance, and propaganda into the countryside to support the noncommunist South Vietnamese regime during the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.
South Vietnam was developing a small film industry and Kim Vui starred in her first movie in 1957. Ten years later, with Saigon now “a capital in the midst of war,” she had become a popular entertainer, known as a singer of “tragic love songs.” But having failed to find true love, Kim Viu writes, “I made myself ignore the past, live in the present, and always look to the future: to forget the illusion of love and think only of my children.”
In 1968 she took part in an Asian ensemble that had a few gigs in Las Vegas. Returning to Vietnam, she starred in two films with anti-communist themes. After marrying an American civilian, she moved to the U.S. with her children and parents. After that “marriage of necessity,” she wrote, “I would learn that one can survive, even in the absence of happiness.”
She would eventually find herself taking one final stab at finding true love. Despite multiple marriages and occasional other relationships, Kim Vui was doing all that she thought she could to make a safe, successful, life for herself and her six children.
In Love Found and Lost, Kim Vui presents a rare and satisfying glimpse into the social life of upper-class Vietnamese citizens in South Vietnam during the war. Her strengths and maternal influences shine throughout this story—a story of a woman, herself, full of love.
Joe Copalman is an expert on aviation history. F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle), his first work for Osprey, is a thorough rundown of an aircraft that was hitherto unfamiliar to me. Along with accounts of its role in two wars, Copalman includes views of the Skynight’s activities throughout the Cold War. Jim Laurier provides the book’s artwork, the usual first-class Osprey combination of drawings and photographs.
The Douglas F3D Skyknight was in action with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as a night fighter jet from 1950-70. A pilot and radar operator manned the plane. Copalman calls the aircraft “the most unsung hero of its two major wars.”
In Korea, twelve F3Ds Skyknights (nicknamed “Nightmares”) replaced the F4U-5N Corsair and F7F Tigercat in August 1952. Copalman describes missions of crews inexperienced in combat against both Korean and Chinese aircraft and high caliber antiaircraft fire. The pilots developed complicated maneuvers and struck ground targets of opportunity. Lacking formal training in tactics, they learned by doing.
With detailed accounts of air warfare, Copalman explains Nightmares’ difficulties tryin to avoid becoming bait for MiGs and searchlight traps, as well as the rigors of escorting outdated B-29s. The Nightmare pilots were pragmatic and understood that their jamming was effective when tracking AAA began firing erratically as their aircraft broke enemy radar locks. The Nightmares’ confrontations with slow-moving North Korean “Bedcheck Charlie” biplanes steal the Korean War show.
Two years after the Korean War, the F3D upgraded to the F3D-2Q, re-labeled the EF-10B in 1962. In the Cold War the plane performed photographic and electronic surveillance against Soviet-designed radar in North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Far East. The EF-10Bs and MiGs looked each other over, but never fought.
The Vietnam War required a full-scale array of new tactics by EF-10B crews. They deployed as squadron VMCJ-1 to Da Nang in April 1965 and operated over South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Copalman offers a full picture of the squadron’s actions during five years in-country. Renaming the aircraft “Whale” and “Super Whale,” crewmen again basically learned the best tactics for themselves through on-the-job training.
The men’s primary task was hunting and jamming North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception sites electronically or with chaff to outwit surface-to-air missile launch teams. In support of fighter-bombers, EF-10B crews were the first on target and last to leave. Overloaded with jammers and carrying maximum fuel, Whale pilots could barely get airborne and often shut down an engine to save fuel and lengthen their time over targets.
Whale and enemy SAM crews both developed new tactics. SAM crews tended to improve slightly faster because Soviet technical advisers helped them; at the same time, Pentagon rules restricted EF-10B attacks on SAM sites for fear of killing Russian advisers and escalating the war.
EF-10Bs escorted Navy A3Ds on straight-and-level, slow-speed bombing missions that one Skyknight pilot likened to World War B-17 raids on Germany. Every day offered a new experience.
Copalman describes almost unimaginable highlights of the EF-10B’s flying from aircraft carriers. More than likely, he could write an entire book about the uniqueness of that potentially self-destructive practice.
I enjoyed F3D/EF-10. Like every Osprey book, its research uncovered new facts about warfare—in this case, the work of an aircraft unfamiliar to me. Heroics also are part of the drama.
Copalman portrays the resilience of American flyers by showing how they had to learn for themselves the best ways to execute their mission.
They relearned old lessons that hadn’t been passed down by people in similar dilemmas. Copalman clearly shows that the pilots came up with tactics that helped others more than themselves.
In their joint memoir, Massachusetts natives Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank give a compelling portrait of America’s role in the Vietnam War in 1965. The Gunner and The Grunt: Two Boston Boys in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division Airmobile (King Printing Company, 216 pp., paperback) traces the paths Kelley and Burbank took starting with growing up in neighborhoods a dozen miles apart and illustrates their hopes and expectations upon joining the U.S. Army.
Enlisting in 1964, Kelley chose Army aviation; Burbank aspired to be a paratrooper. The two boys from Boston met in Vietnam shortly after their arrival at the 1st Air Cav base at An Khe in the Central Highlands.
Inspired by a friend who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Burbank decided, to the great distress of his parents, to leave high school and pursue his dream. For his part, Kelley finished high school, then put in for a posting in Germany where he hoped to work as an aviation mechanic and become a helicopter crew chief, as well as to enjoy the company of beautiful women and the limitless range of German beers.
To his dismay, Kelley received orders to join C Troop C the 1st Squadron in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Upon learning he was going to Vietnam, Kelley was filled with dread. His sense of impending doom became a certainty that he was a dead man and powerless to prevent it. By contrast, Burbank was ecstatic knowing he would soon be in combat.
Their training began during the advisory years of America’s commitment to Vietnam. In 1964, the number of U.S. troops in the country was a tiny fraction of the more than 550,000 who would be there four years later. By the end of 1965, the build-up was well underway. On arrival, Burbank and Kelley found themselves in the shadow of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that was fought by 1st Cav troops only days before. Losses on both sides were shockingly high, and the message was sobering—an American victory in Vietnam would neither be easy nor swift.
The authors’ accounts of their daily lives during their tours are vivid. For Burbank, minutes drifted into months as he and his friends fought the elements as much as the enemy. Heat and humidity, insects and leeches, and snakes of every kind were constant companions. Every day resembled the one before. The only way he knew it was Sunday was when he was told to take his weekly malaria pill. The war turned into a blur of movement and action, fear and endurance.
When Michael Kelley began the book decades later and invited his friend to participate, Peter Burbank was reluctant. Kelley, however, was insistent, saying, “History untold is history unremembered.”
Burbank agreed, and together they have created a joint narrative of their Vietnam War tours that is well worth the read.
When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.
Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.
Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.
For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.
Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.
Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.
Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.
Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.
In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.
Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.
He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.
This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.
What could be more blandly benign than an organization called the Studies and Observation Group? As anyone familiar with the history of the American war in Vietnam knows, though, SOG, which came into being in January 1964, did much, much more than just study and observe. SOG was a top-secret, multi-unit, special warfare MACV operation that mounted countless undercover missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
That included disrupting enemy activities primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; undertaking prisoner snatches and other types of rescue operations; and mounting psychological ops. SOG teams were made up of U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Warfare Units, South Vietnamese Special Forces, and Montagnard volunteers.
SOG was “the only U.S. military organization [in the Vietnam War] operating throughout Southeast Asia with its own aircraft, raiding forces, recon units and naval arm,” retired Army Maj. John Plaster writes in SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars (Casemate, 456 pp., $49.95), a revised and updated examination of SOG with more than 700 photos, maps, charts, and sidebars.
First published in 2000, the book is a companion photo history to Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, but could very well stand on its own as a history of SOG. Plaster—who served three years with SOG, leading intelligence-gathering recon teams behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia—writes about many operations and the men who took part in them, a group that includes eight Medal of Honor recipients.
Although Plaster doesn’t include footnotes or a bibliography, he has his facts straight throughout the book, including in his accounts of operations such as the Son Tay prison raid and Bright Light rescue missions of downed American flyers in enemy territory in North and South Vietnam.
“Happy families,” Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
I couldn’t help think of that famed aphorism while devouring Craig McNamara’s stunning, deeply personal new book, Because Our Fathers Lied: A Memoir of Truth and Family, from Vietnam to Today (Little Brown, 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle).
It’s no exaggeration to say that millions of words have been written by and about Craig McNamara’s father, the late former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, in scores of books and in hundreds of magazines, newspapers, and other publications—including The Pentagon Papers. But amid that avalanche of written material relatively little has been revealed about McNamara’s personal life. As for his son Craig, he has been little more than a footnote to a footnote in that avalanche of material, if he’s mentioned at all.
With this revealing autobiography, Craig McNamara reveals a great deal of hitherto unreported details about his controversial father’s family life and how McNamara senior’s hubris, lies, and obfuscations about the Vietnam War led to his estrangement from his father.
We learn in often painful detail about Craig McNamara’s decidedly unhappy experience growing up in the McNamara household and how that has molded him since he dropped out of college and escaped his nuclear family’s stifling cocoon.
On the surface, Craig McNamara had an ideal childhood. His father made a fortune as he rose up the corporate ladder to become the first non-member of the Ford family to head the Ford Motor Company in 1960. He grew up in a family (with his mother Margaret and his two older sisters, Kathleen and Margaret) of affluence. Think country club memberships, family skiing vacations, mansion-like houses, top–drawer private schools.
But underneath the success was a family dominated by the hard-charging, emotionally distant father. An Eagle Scout who had graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley in 1937, Robert S. picked up an MBA from Harvard Business School two years later. In 1943 he joined the U.S. Army Air Corps and served as a logistics whiz during World War II, analyzing and developing bombing raids and implementing sophisticated, statistical-based troop and supply movement systems. He left the military in 1946 as a Lieutenant Colonel, then went to work for Ford with a group of other “Whiz Kid” WWII veterans.
As a child, Craig, who was born in 1950, was devoted to his old man, even though McNamara senior was often absent and not exactly a model father when he was at home. By his early teens the boy suffered psychologically and physically. “After I failed most of my exams in the tenth grade,” he writes, the head of his boarding school “suggested to my parents that I be sent to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for psychotherapy every Wednesday afternoon.” The man “had a theory that I suffered from test-taking anxiety, and they thought a shrink could cure it. Years later I would be diagnosed with dyslexia.”
Craig McNamara came of age during the sixties when his father was basically running the increasingly costly and unpopular war in Vietnam. In high school he turned against the war with a vengeance. He hung an upside-down American flag in his bedroom and actively and took part in antiwar activities.
His father’s “refusal to speak publicly and to pressure his successors to get out of Vietnam was a primary reason that I started to protest the war,” Craig McNamara writes. “If he wouldn’t tell the truth, I would do it for him.”
One day the son asked his father, “Tell me the truth, Dad—why are we there?” Looking back, Craig McNamara writes, “the thing I remember most from our conversation is talking about football.” As with “so much about my father’s life,” Craig McNamara learned about his father’s role in the Vietnam War “by reading other people’s words—the words of journalists, historians, and essayists.”
Over the years, he writes, “I had thought about Dad every day with a mixture of love and rage. Whenever we spoke and I asked him about Vietnam, he deflected. There was never a big confrontation between us. I remember my life at that time as being defined by an absence of truth and honesty in our relationship.”
As every male member of his generation did, Craig McNamara came face to face with the military draft. When called up for his physical, he was classified 1-A, even though he reported that he had stomach ulcers. Later, his doctor wrote his draft board confirming the diagnosis and he was medically disqualified.
“Not going to Vietnam as a soldier still causes me overwhelming guilt,” he says. “It’s like a gap in my soul. On some level, I believed that serving would pay a debt for my father’s involvement in the war.”
The pressure of academics, his mother’s serious illnesses (she died in 1981, 27 years before her husband’s death at 91) and his father’s starring role in prosecuting the Vietnam War came to a head in college. Craig McNamara dropped out of Stanford in 1971, and went into self-imposed exile in South America.
“I’ve lived my life through the lens of the Vietnam War,” he says, and tells his life story from the unique viewpoint of the son of the war’s architect. He reveals a man who was, at once a “caretaker, loving dad, hiking buddy,” and an “obfuscator, neglectful parent, warmonger.” As a result, living with his father turned into “a mixture of love and rage.”
In Because Our Fathers Lied, (the words are from a poem by Rudyard Kipling about who is responsible for deaths in warfare) Craig McNamara has revealed an unmatched depth of understanding of his father in a clearly written and deeply introspective book that measurably adds to our understanding of the person most responsible for prosecuting the nation’s most controversial overseas war.
p.s.: Memo to David Kissinger, Henry’s only son (born in 1962): Your turn.
Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.
For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.
Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.
Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.
This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.