Red Rivers in a Yellow Field Edited by Robert M. Craig

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Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

A new Vietnam War memoir fulfills that want on a large scale. Vietnam War veteran Robert M. Craig’s Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era (Hellgate Press, 526 pp. $29.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) contains autobiographies of thirty-four Principia College graduates from the sixties who served in the war. Only one woman contributes her experience: Elizabeth Pond, a journalist captured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rogue.

The book evolved from conversations at a 50th high school reunion. Craig, a professor at Georgia Tech for forty years, took charge as editor of the project with support from the Principia staff.

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field is exceptional because it highlights the effects of a civilian education that guided people to behave positively in war or in peace. The graduates willingly served in America’s armed forces with deep dedication to duty. Many easily transitioned into successful marriages and business dealings.

Half of the thirty-four Principia grads filled combat roles in Vietnam. Their first-person shoot-’em-up reminiscences are revelatory and spellbinding. The veterans coolly speak about combat—which is to say, they faced ultimate dangers with determination and poise. The actions they describe reflect unselfish heroism.

The variety of their duties—platoon leader, swift boat commander, helicopter pilot, among others—provides insightful views of the inner workings of the war. Slightly more than half of the graduates served in the Navy; the rest were in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. By far, the majority were officers. In Nam, they often met by chance, and shared tight bonds.

Tradition significantly influenced the men’s decisions. Nearly every one of their fathers had served in World War II or Korea, with several family histories extending back to earlier American wars.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of Principia College, which Craig describes as “an independent kindergarten through college school for Christian Scientists; the K-12 campus is located in a suburb west of St. Louis; the college overlooks the Mississippi River, about forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.”

It is not unusual for students to attend both campuses for sixteen years of education. Many family members attend either or both campuses generation after generation.

“[Principia’s] founder Mary Kimball Morgan held the firm conviction that the purpose of education is to develop self-discipline, character, and the ability to think vigorously, fearlessly, and accurately,” Craig says. He credits dedication to Christian Science for the graduates’ ability “to accomplish whatever was their duty to do, without being harmed or fatigued, and to stay healthy under all conditions.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is not mentioned by anyone of them as a problem.

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The school’s graduates were not robots, however. Some who served during the Vietnam War declined to contribute to the book for “both universal and personal” reasons, Craig says. Their resistance reminded others of the war’s “full picture,” he adds.

As a man without a favorite religion, I admire the Principia graduates portrayed in Red Rivers in a Yellow Field. They met every intention of their school’s training and their familial backgrounds to serve our nation to the fullest.

—Henry Zeybel

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Crash Course by H. Bruce Franklin

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In the coda of H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War (Rutgers University Press, 384 pp. $34.95, hardcover and Kindle) the author ponders what kind of country could “simultaneously produce both as shameful an abomination as the Vietnam War and the as admirable an achievement of the movement that helped defeat it.” Franklin suggests that only when the answer to this question is discerned, will the country cease its hawkishness, and end what he calls the “forever war.”

Libraries and bookstores may have trouble categorizing this book as it tackles history, political philosophy, social commentary, and cultural criticism, all recounted in the first person. Franklin has been a professor at Rutgers University for more than forty years, and has written nineteen books on a variety of topics, including Melville, Star Trek, and oceanography. His Vietnam War books include MIA, or Mythmaking in America and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies.

Though the title, “Crash Course” is suggestive of an analysis of American militarism since World War II, the book is essentially a memoir. In it, Franklin recounts his life from his birth in Brooklyn to his antiwar activities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Crash Course is a highly entertaining read, and Franklin’s talent as a writer is unmistakable. He writes about his humble upbringing as Jewish boy in Brooklyn, his time Amherst College, his work on the New York City docks, his stint as an Air Force navigator, and as a Ph. D. student and professor at Stanford—where he remains the only tenured professor ever fired.

As Franklin weaves his life story with American political history, readers may find themselves nodding or shaking their heads; those on the Gore Vidal side of the Buckley-Vidal Vietnam War debate, up and down, those who agree with William F. Buckley, side to side. If Franklin’s opinions about the military industrial complex are tired and familiar, his prose keeps even a disagreeing reader engaged.

As the book is more personal than analytical, Franklin does not necessarily defend his thesis. He uses the term “forever war” essentially as a polemic to provide a backdrop for his life’s work. His mix of culture, myth, conspiracy, and history can be comically Manichean. To Franklin, the U.S. government is not just consistently erroneous, but sinister. This worldview allows for little nuance. Saying, for example, that the Vietnam War was a misguided tragedy and America was wrong in its entry and execution, does not necessarily mean that the North Vietnamese communists were right, let alone noble and just.

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H. Bruce Franklin

It is conceivable that the answer to Franklin’s concluding thought lies in the dynamism of America, a country that proverbially bends toward justice.

Franklin’s story is his own unique version of the American Dream: He was born poor and through his own guile and talent achieved his own version of success. It was not easy and he was not always treated fairly, but Franklin was ultimately given the freedom to vehemently oppose his government—and later the opportunity to write and teach while being employed by that same government.

Perhaps a better thought experiment is to imagine if that same poor boy in current-day Hanoi or Pyongyang would be afforded the same opportunities.

The author’s website is https://www.hbrucefranklin.com

—Daniel R. Hart

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

Fallen: Never Forgotten by Ronny Ymbras and Matt Ymbras

Fallen Never Forgotten: Vietnam Memorials in the USA is an extensive compendium of information on state and local Vietnam Veterans memorials. First published in 2016 by Vietnam War veteran Ronny Ymbras and his son Matthew, the book is out in a new, autographed second edition (RY Airborne, 268 pp., $39.95).

For more info, including how to order a copy, go to the book’s website, fallenneverforgotten.com

 

Through the Valley by William Reeder

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Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is a well-written chronicle of Army Col. Bill Reeder’s time as a POW and his struggles adapting back in the “real world.” The book came out in hardcover in 2016, and Naval Institute Press has just been published in paperback ($21.95).

In 1971, Reeder returned to Vietnam for his second tour, and was assigned to fly Cobra helicopters for the 361st Aviation Company, aka the “Pink Panthers.”  On May 9, 1972, Reeder’s Cobra was shot down. He survived the crash and for three days hid in the jungle, before being taken prisoner. The majority of the book recounts his treatment as a POW. He had a broken back, three types of malaria, three varieties of intestinal parasites, an intestinal disease called tropical sprue, and a broken tooth.

After his capture, Reeder was marched for three months to Hanoi. He was released with the other POWs who were held in North Vietnam on March 23, 1973. It is said that he was the last American POW captured who survived the ordeal.

In the book Reeder includes an image of the actual telegram from the military to his wife informing her he was missing in action. Many of the POWs, including Reeder, ended up divorcing. He is now happily married to his third wife and is on good terms with his children and ex-wives.

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Col. Reeder

The last chapter is an account of what happened to many of the POWS who were with Reeder after they were released. I found this chapter fascinating. Reeder did a huge amount of research to compile this chapter and track these heroes down.

This is an outstanding memoir and I highly recommend it.

—Mark S. Miller

The Healing by Richard Jellerson

Once upon a time, Pan American Airways sold a special ticket for something called Flight One. It was akin to a magic flying carpet ride. Good for a year, a Flight One ticket entitled its holder to circle the earth, stopping in major cities as often and for as long as desired.

Back in that long-ago time during the Vietnam War—contrary to good reasoning—Richard Jellerson flew back-to-back tours with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi. After each tour he bought a Flight One ticket.

Jellerson’s first earth orbit lasted only a month, the duration of his leave time between tours. His second trip took time enough to stabilize his mind for re-entry into society—and the onset of adulthood.

Jellerson’s The Healing: Pan Am Flight 001 (Outskirts Press, 148 pp. $15.95, paper) is an account of those journeys. The book is exceptionally well written. For that, Jellerson thanks screenwriter Todd Mattox, a cousin who brainstormed with him about the book, and “then acted as muse, editor, [and] occasional re-writer.”

Jellerson writes about truths that are evident, but unrecognized, in military life. For example, combat demands obedience to the desire for self-preservation, but the need disappears once the shooting starts.

He explains these types of things with lucidity filled with innocence, as if he had heard such truths in the past but only much later began to understand them. Paradoxically, one’s heightened senses reduces concern for one’s self, he says. “Through the war I had become a different person and still didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he admits.

He had to overcome contradictory thoughts to return home and establish a workable relationship with America, a nation that had betrayed him, he believed. Traveling to sixteen countries, Jellerson encountered a variety of people with whom he discussed life—people who “pulled him back from the edge,” he says. That includes:

  • A young Thai woman selling soda and telling him her dreamy vision of America
  • A news correspondent eagerly seeking war
  • Men and women in Australia, Italy, England, and Greece accepting him at face value
  • Jellerson himself pondering atheism and the certainty of no afterlife, thereby placing the burden of living on here and now.

At times, I felt the people he met were simply Jellerson’s alter egos, and he was talking to himself, straining to evaluate horrors that the war had revealed to him. He frequently flashed back to combat experiences—particularly rescuing the wounded—to build a foundation for his rehabilitation needs.

He sums up a turning point in his life with an observation that occurred in 1969 on his “second or third day of flying a combat assault” as a nineteen-year-old copilot:

“The enemy below this day was a wonder to see. They ran at full speed through the jungle in those light brown uniforms and pith helmets carrying all their weapons. These North Vietnamese Army regulars were fully committed to get to our landing zone ahead of us. They ran through the humid, deep green, overheated jungle with only one thought: shoot down the helicopters.”

His conclusion: “Until then I had only intellectually embraced even the concept of enemy.”

In those moments, Jellerson discovered a foe and surrendered his individuality to American politicians. Flight One helped him find it again. People of the world taught him a major lesson—that “no one hated me, and I hated no one. I had friends everywhere I went. And only had enemies in one small beautiful country in Southeast Asia by political mandate.”

I rank The Healing alongside my favorite books written by the youngest of men at war: A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself by Dominick Yezzo and Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War by Loring M. Bailey Jr.

The three books tell more about the Vietnam War than a roomful of generals or overflowing stacks of Pentagon documents.

—Henry Zeybel