The Erawan War by Ken Conboy

The events that Ken Convoy covers in The Erawan War: Volume 1: The CIA Paramilitary Campaign in Laos, 1961-1969 (Helion & Company, 64 pp. $29.95, paper) take place at a time when the Domino Theory was a key factor in American national security policy. That theory, which President Eisenhower first explained publicly in 1954, held that a communist takeover of one nation would inexorably lead to communist takeovers in nearby countries, which would “fall” like dominoes.

In 1961 the Southeast Asian Kingdom of Laos was seen as a key nation under threat from communism as it bordered two communist countries, China and North Vietnam, as well as noncommunist Thailand, South Vietnam, and Cambodia. Consequently, the Eisenhower Administration placed remote, landlocked Laos squarely on the Cold War chessboard.  

To thwart a communist insurgency in Laos the United States in 1961 became clandestinely involved in its largest-ever paramilitary covert operation (code-named Erawan) amid a civil war between Lao factions including the communist Pathet Lao. Convoy’s concise, heavily illustrated book—nicely supported throughout by photographs and maps—describes the CIA’s efforts to reverse the advances that the Pathet Lao and its ally, the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN), made throughout much of northern and central Laos.  

Similarly, important missions were conducted to counter the PAVN’s use of the Ðuong Trường Sơn (known to Americans as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) in eastern and southern Laos, and the Sihanouk Trail in Cambodia, which the communists used to move troops and supplies into South Vietnam.    

Demonstrating incredible initiative, a handful of CIA field officers, working with Thai Special Forces, successfully imbedded themselves in Lao tribes, including the Hmong, and built a formidable fighting force to counter the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao.     

Equally impressive were the efforts to maintain trail-watching teams that collected intelligence on PAVN movements and assessed the effectiveness of the U.S. bombing campaign.    

One of the most audacious operations—Codename Fox—inserted teams into the People’s Republic of China to tap phone lines. Another trained a team of Nung—Chinese tribesmen from Vietnam—to conduct direct action ops against the PAVN on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA operations in Laos also included superb air support provided by Air America and BirdAir, and a secret U.S. bombing campaign that began in 1964.  

The story of CIA operations in Laos, one of America’s longest-running Cold War engagements, as Convoy recounts it in this book, is a fascinating one.

However, I found it odd that U.S. Army Special Forces, although not central to this story, were barely mentioned even though they conducted parallel operations in Laos from 1959-62. Although this book is clearly about the CIA in Laos, you can’t give the complete picture without mentioning in some detail the Green Berets’ Operation White Star.   

Otherwise, The Erawan War is a great military and military intelligence history book. 

–John Cirafici

Mended Wings by Colin P. Cahoon

Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.

Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.

Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.

As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.

Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war. 

I highly recommend Mended Wings.

The author’s website is colinpcahoon.com

–Bob Wartman

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman

Jungle Combat by Gemma M. Jablonski

Gemma Jablonski’s Jungle Combat: A Combat Pilot’s Tape Recorded Transcripts from Vietnam, 1968-1969 (299 pp. $27.99), paper; $15.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War time capsule. That’s because it is not based on memory, but consists of a series of edited transcripts of tapes recorded by John Astle during his Vietnam War tour of duty in 1968-69. Jablonski, a long-time friend of Astle, transcribed the audio tapes.

John “Ace” Astle went to Vietnam as a Marine aviator. During his year flying helicopters he kept an audio diary on a small tape recorder, sending the tapes home on a regular basis. He also regularly received tapes from home. He recorded many of the tapes while he was in the latrine, which is why he told his family not to “try to read anything into the tone of my voice.”

The entries are arranged chronologically, running from June 1968 to June 1969 where they appropriately, and abruptly, end with the last tape.

Astle was stationed at Marble Mountain, part of the Da Nang complex, where he flew large CH-46s. When the young lieutenant first arrived there he heard were rumors of impending attacks by the Viet Cong. On a recording he made on his second day in-country he said: “One thing I will say about Vietnam is that I don’t think I’m going to like it very much and will probably be happy to end my tour and get back to the States.” Hearing the sounds of artillery fire in the distance, he said that it wouldn’t be long before he would begin flying “out into bad guy land.”

After Astle’s first few flights he reported that he was “kind of disappointed” that he didn’t get shot at. Later, I read his accounts of several several life-and-death adventures, I couldn’t help wondering why he was “writing” about such things home to his mother. Most of the participants in the war I know tried to keep their families in the dark about the day-to-day dangers they faced. Astle, on the other hand, seemed to have no desire to hold anything back.  

He talks about a rocket attack on the base, a mortar attack, and about sixteen men who were lost in a helicopter crash. He talks more than once of having been in “a shit sandwich.” One time a bullet came into the cockpit. Another mission ended with twelve holes in the helicopter. And he talks of mid-air collisions. I can’t help but wonder how much additional stress was put on his family as they listened week-by-week to so many hair-raising stories.

The transcribed tapes do, however, make for an interesting, immensely readable book. Every veteran has a story and each deserves to be heard. This book has an easy, consistent flow, and the credit for that goes to Jablonski.

One thing that puzzled me was the more than three dozen instances in which this Marine aviator referred to his helicopter as an airplane. There may have been pilots who did that, but I think it would have been extremely unusual.

The book’s website is authorgemma.com/jungle-combat

–Bill McCloud

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam by William J. Walsh

Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.

Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam. 

His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.

In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.

Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade. 

When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.

Navy nurses aboard the USS Repose in Subic Bay

The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.

After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.

–Marshall Snyder

Mercy’s Heroes by Tom Crowley

Tom Crowley’s Mercy’s Heroes: The Fight for Human Dignity in the Bangkok Slums (Koehler Books, 190 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is an inspirational, often heartbreaking, look at a long-established children’s charity in Bangkok, Thailand.

Crowley served in the Vietnam War, commanding a 25th Infantry Division rifle platoon. After the war, while battling PTSD, he made a significant life change. After working as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer and for General Electric in Asia, he left the business world to take on life as a volunteer, helping to rescue and protect street kids in Jet Sip Rai, Bangkok’s largest slum. He believes that through this work he has been able to find great personal spiritual understanding.

The Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation has 23 kindergartens throughout Bangkok, working to prepare children for grade school. The first school opened in 1972 in a pig slaughterhouse pen. The organization grew beyond the schools, helping the children’s families, as well as the general community. Some of the children are brought to the Centre, Crowley reports, by concerned people who “basically” kidnap them away from the dangers of the streets.

Today the Mercy program is based on education, shelter, and community assistance. Mercy also provides medical support for children with HIV/AIDS. Crowley worked with Mercy for more than 14 years.

Mercy Centre was started by Father Joe Maier who, Crowley says, “believed working with the poor meant living with the poor.” He followed that principle by living in the same shack for twenty years. When Crowley first decided to volunteer he wasn’t sure what he would be able to do. But then, he writes, he was told, “Don’t worry about where you might fit in. Things will develop. You have to change for Mercy; Mercy will not change for you.”

He sometimes took groups of older girls to dance classes and on camping excursions to national parks. He tells stories about an adult with Down Syndrome who was placed in a kindergarten class, and about children he called the Follow-Me-Home Girl, the Woodshop Boy, the Sleepy Boy, and two Rail Line Kids. The heroes of the book’s title include the children, staff, and volunteers at Mercy Centre.

Crowley in country in 1966

Early on, Crowley says, he fell in love with all the kids. The sections of the book in which he tells of individual children that includes their photos, drive the story. Crowley occasionally incorporates stories about his experiences in the Vietnam War in 1966. He remembers, for one thing, that death was always present, and that he thought of himself then as “a dead man walking.”

The Mercy Centre is an independent foundation, not funded by the Catholic Church. It’s dependent on public donations to sustain its programs. Contact information is included at the back of the book for those interested in making contributions.

If you read this story of selfless work being done to help children who try to survive in one of the poorest parts of the world and I have no doubt you’ll reach for your wallet. I did.

–Bill McCloud

Blackhorse Tales by Donald C. Snedeker

Donald C. Snedeker’s Blackhorse Tales: Stories of 11th Armored Cavalry Troopers at War (Casemate, 304 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99 Kindle), is one of the best books I have read about U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War.

Snedeker served in 1969-70 as a platoon leader with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) Regiment. The unit operated in the hotly contested War Zones C & D north of Saigon in places such as An Loc, Zuan Loc, Di An, Gia Ray, Bien Hoa, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Nui Ba Den, Tay Ninh, and the Ho Bo Woods, and farther west into Cambodia.

Although he awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Snedeker writes very little about himself in this, his second book about the regiment. The first was The Blackhorse in Vietnam, which came out in 2020. His new book is almost entirely about other Blackhorse troopers and a few attached units. Through scores of interviews, they share their experiences, perspectives, and evaluations.

While writing about one combat engagement after another, Snedeker, who is the unit’s long-time historian, includes many photos, maps, and drawings. Blackhorse Tales is well designed with seven chapters interspersed with “Combat Vignettes.” The chapters include many details about Vietnamese civilians and allies, animals, terrain and weather, and how all of that affected every aspect of the lives of the troops.

These men literally lived in their APCs and tanks. Some spent months in the bush before returning to base camp. They set up fire support bases that were more like night defensive positions, and frequently were on the move. One trooper said he felt like a gypsy living in his track and constantly moving to other positions. 

Reading Blackhorse Tales, I was even more impressed with the mobility and effectiveness of armored troops in the jungles and through the rice paddies of South Vietnam. It is estimated that in its 67 months in country, the 11th Cav drove their tracked and wheeled vehicles over some 23-million miles of terrain and that the unit’s air group had flown some 250,000 sorties.

I truly enjoyed and appreciated Don Snedeker’s work in Blackhorse Tales. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam by Charles U. Smith

Charles U. Smith’s The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 128 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a war memoir that Smith put together with the help of Constance Williams.

In it, Smith explains how he came to construct his story, then takes the reader on a short tour of his childhood growing up in segregated Prattville, Alabama, his high school graduation, and his enlistment in the U.S. Army three months later in September 1964. A less than stellar send-off speech by his school district’s superintendent gave Smith all the impetus he needed to get out of town and make a better life, beginning with joining the military. That, in fact, was the route his four older brothers took.

The strange title refers to the path Smith’s infantry training took—first to Alaska to train as a “snow trooper,” then to Hawaii for some jungle training, and finally, in late 1965, to Ch Chi in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division.

Smith’s describes his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War as more-or-less uneventful, though he recounts near misses and tales of buddies lost, along with descriptions of the daily minutia of life in the warzone. He often speaks about his experiences as a Black man and as a Black soldier; several times Smith repeats stories, which likely is due to the stream-of-consciousness way in which he tells his war story.

After returning home, Charles Smith worked several jobs before settling into a career with Greyhound Bus Lines. He worked as an interstate driver and as a driver-instructor during his 30-plus years with the company.

This is a short book and a quick read—and a good look at one man’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Fire Road by Kim Phuc

The picture has been seared into America’s collective memory since 1972. A nine-year old girl running naked down a road in South Vietnam after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force jet. The photo is almost always accompanied by the story of how Nick Ut, a Vietnamese Associated Press photographer, captured the Pulitzer Prize-wining image, which brought him international acclaim and propelled the young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, onto the world stage.

In 2017, with Ashley Wiersma, Kim Phuc wrote a soulful, deeply religious account of that June 1972 day and the years that followed. In Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace (Tyndale House, 336 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper), she writes about that jet screeching overhead as she ran from the village of Trang Bang on soldiers’ orders:

“Falling from that underbelly were four ice-black bombs. The bombs softly made their way to the ground, landing one by one, somersaulting end over end—whump-whump, whump-whump. These were not the bombs that fell heavily from the sky; no, these bombs all but floated down. There was something sinister in those cans.”

Later, the communist government paraded Kim Phuc before international journalists, all of whom wanted to know how the “Napalm Girl’ was faring. The government repeatedly robbed her of the education she wanted, and her desire to be a medical doctor as a way of repaying doctors the world over who had done their best to alleviate her constant pain.

By a stroke of luck, during a trip to Hanoi, she was introduced to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, one of Ho Chi Minh’s former lieutenants. He took a fatherly interest in her and arranged to send her to Cuba. At first, she felt that being on a Caribbean Island far away from Vietnam would provide solace and a respite from being a propaganda puppet. She would soon be proven wrong. Even thousands of miles away from Vietnam, it seemed that she would never be able to be free of the country’s grip.

“Although Bac [Uncle] Dong had assured me that I would be free from oppressive `minding’ by Vietnamese officials in Cuba, an embassy man had been assigned to me, visiting me in the hospital almost daily, checking in on my goings-on, gathering details to take back to his superiors.”

Kim Phuc

It was in Cuba that Kim Phuc met the man who would become her husband, Bui Huy Toan, a fellow student. They married and she soon expressed her frustrations to Toan over what the Vietnamese government had put her through since 1972.

On their return flight after their honeymoon in Moscow, the idea of defecting began to fester. Her husband at first resisted, but Kim Phuc stood her ground and, at a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, both announced their desire to seek political asylum.

Recent years have found her traveling the world in the cause of peace as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO, and also for her Kim Foundation. She has opened her heart internationally to those less fortunate than she, and Fire Road sheds a wonderfully bright light on her valiant struggle to survive and the peace and love that she found in doing so.

–Marc Phillip Yablonka.

The reviewer is a military journalist and author whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film

Walking Point by Mike Cunningham

Why would an infantryman who fought in in Vietnam decades ago want to share his experiences fifty years later? The answer: because he will never forget what he went through in that war and can no longer put aside the need to pass on his memories. Mike Cunningham’s memoir, Walking Point: An Infantryman’s Untold Story (CreateSpace, 290 pp. $9.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) was written in 2017 to let others know about the wartime experiences that changed his life forever.   

Anyone who has been in a war knows that there are so many parts to that experience that only when they are presented as a composite can the full story be properly told. Mike Cunningham totally understands this as he leads the reader on his journey by knitting together the parts that took him from newbie to combat-experienced trooper.     

In this well-written account Cunningham describes joining the Army at 18 and not long after, in June 1968, being plunked down in the jungle with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 46th Regiment in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in northern II Corps. He shows what it was like initially to know nothing of war and soon learning the hard way that it is no picnic.    

This is a story of fear, courage, and sometimes dumb behavior. Cunningham, for instance, once pointed a pistol he was cleaning in the direction of his best friend and—thinking the chamber was empty—discharged it.

He contrasts even the most mundane experiences in the Vietnam War with those back home. When he describes between movements in enemy-infested jungles with a hike in the woods back home, for example, I knew exactly what he was saying.

Only after Cunningham first witnessed his company suffering casualties did the reality of being in combat totally sunk in. Later, when he learned of civilian atrocities committed by the Viet Cong did he see how difficult it was for the Vietnamese people to endure the war.

Cunningham takes the reader on frustrating and exhausting patrols during which leeches and the crushing heat were constant companions, and with deadly encounters with booby traps while walking point and ambushes always a possibility.

What’s more, rain, mosquitoes, and water-filled foxholes made sleep a nearly unattainable luxury.  

This book captures what life as an American infantryman in the Vietnam War was all about. I truly enjoyed Mike Cunningham’s account of the high and low moments in his war and about the brotherhood he was a part of.      

–John Cirafici