William Winders’ Finally, Home (243 pp. $40, paper) is an amalgam of personal interviews and material gleened from reference materials. The interviews are mainly with Vietnam War veteran and former POW Dan Hefel, the subject of this very good book.
On Dec. 4, 1968, Daniel H. Hefel drove from his home near Buena Vista, Iowa, to the U.S. Army recruiting office in Dubuque and enlisted. In April 1969 PFC Hefel found himself in South Vietnam at Camp Sally as a 101st Airborne Division riflemen toting an M79 grenade launcher. For the next few months he took part in many large and small-scale actions from the A Shau Valley to the DMZ. Neither the NVA nor the VC could slow Hefel down, but a mosquito disabled him for a few weeks with a dose of malaria.
During this down time, Dan Hefel applied for and got permission to transfer to a 101st Aviation platoon as a Huey door gunner. He soon began flying missions manning an M60 machinegun.
On February 5, 1970, his chopper crashed near the A Shau Valley. The pilot died. Hefel and two other crew members survived, only to be captured by the NVA. They were transported to Hanoi and thrown in POW camps.
In Finally, Home, Dan Hefel recalls his POW experiences, which included recovering from a broken back and other crash injuries and dealing with torture, loneliness, and mental anguish. At one point, the prison doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on him without anesthesia. After being held for three-plus years, on March 27, 1973, Hefel, along with 590 fellow American POWs, was released.
A year after returning to the U.S., Hefel was declared disabled due to his combat injuries and retired from the Army as a staff sergeant. He returned to Iowa, reunited with his family and friends, got married, raised a family, and is now living the American Dream on his Harley.
Finally, Home is a very good book, loaded with pictures, maps, and drawings. I recommend reading Sgt. Dan Hefel’s story.
The book is available from Winders’ newspaper, The Dubuque Leader, 1527 Central Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001.
In Paper Dog: The True Life Story of a Vietnam War Dog (Elm Grove Publishing, 180 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper) former U.S. Army veterinarian John Kubisz tells the true story of a Vietnam War scout dog named Paper. Kubisz treated the seriously injured dog when he was the CO of the 764th Medical Detachment at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969.
Kubisz’s publisher says that he “clearly has much in common with Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H,” so, being a fan of the TV series, I was excited to have this book in my hands. As I began to read, I did see some similarities between his life story and Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the popular TV sitcom and Hollywood movie.
But I also was disillusioned with Kubisz’s disdain for the Army. When most of us had to deal with less-than-stellar superiors, red tape, or insufficient materiel, we sucked it up and made the best of it while trying to follow military SOP. Kubisz, on the other hand, did it the Hawkeye Pierce way. One main reason for SOP is to enable a smooth transfer of duties when personnel are replaced. When Kubisz and his ragtag crew rotated back to The World, their replacements were left to deal with a nonstandard operation.
That said, this book is well written, well presented and a pleasure to read. Kubisz performed amazing—even heroic—feats with Paper and his other patients. He showed great compassion for the dogs and their handlers and he improved the level of veterinary care for all the U.S. war dogs in Vietnam.
The story of the dog named Paper and his 101st Airborne handler Tom Hewitt makes up nearly half of the book and is heartwarming and insightful.
Paper Dog contains a lot of good information and many photos. Be prepared to meet an Army officer with very little military bearing, but do read this well-written and very interesting book.
Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.
Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.
I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam(2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.
Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.
Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.
To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.
Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.
I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.
“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.
With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:
Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.
The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.
Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.
In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”
Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”
The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking.
Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.
The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.
Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.
We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.
Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.
This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.
Nancy K. Napier and Dua Thuy Ha’s The Bridge Generation Việt Nam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime (272 pp. $15, paper; $3.69, Kindle) is an interesting book on several levels. It is at once jarring and revealing. It was jarring to me, a Vietnam War veteran, because Napier and Ha refer to the conflict as the “American War.” It was revealing in that they chronicle—through interviews, observations, and essays—the progress that has taken place in the entire country of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.
Napier is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Boise State University. She managed an extension program developed by Boise State and funded by the Swedish government that brought an MBA and Business Management curricula to the National Economics University in Hanoi. Dua Thuy Ha is a Boise State alum who lives and works in Vietnam.
The book lives up to its subtitle by dividing recent Vietnamese recent history into three segments: “War,” from the early 1950s into the 1980s; “Hunger,” from 1975 to 1990; and “Launch,” from the early 1990s to today. The Bridge Generation is a term the authors give to Vietnamese people born in the late 1950s and early 1990s, as their lives “bridge” the three eras.
The authors interpret the eras from their perspective living in Hanoi, and the narrative is filtered by that and by the Vietnamese government’s communist ideology. That said, the book contains an engaging history of the Boise State project and its successes in preparing leaders for the new, emerging Vietnam. The book’s interviews were conducted with a wide variety of Vietnamese people of differing ages, experiences, economic levels, jobs, and goals.
Napier’s personal asides about living in Vietnam contain some interesting moments, including the vagaries of translations of English idioms and slang; food availability and preparation; and private conversations under the eye of the communist government. She extolls the emergence of Vietnam’s economy on the world stage and the resilience of the people who are making it happen.
This book presents, in a scholarly light, the progress that the Vietnamese have made as they seek their new position on the world stage.
At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.
McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.
I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.
He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.
McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”
He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.
His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.
There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”
McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.
Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive.
Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors.
In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.
Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.
The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.
This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.
The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.
For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.
Edward Fedrick’s Darkness Bravo: A Soldier Remembers 1966-1967, 1968-1969, (Covenant Books, 326 pp. $33.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) contains 36 chapters of nearly nonstop, close-up, Army grunt action in the Vietnam War. It was a sheer pleasure to read.
Ed Fedrick joined the Army in January 1966. He took a train from Memphis to Ft. Benning for Basic and AIT. He then found himself in Vietnam, based near Quan Loi not far from the Cambodian border, assigned to Bravo Company in the 2nd/8th of the 1st Infantry Division. He received two Purple Hearts during his first tour; after volunteering for a second tour he received two more.
Fedrick fought in five big battles, but most of the book is filled with details of his everyday, small daylight patrols and night ambushes. His descriptions are filled with so many details that you feel you are there with him. At one point during his two tours of day, Fedrick’s company had 54 consecutive days of enemy contact.
Throughout the book, he paints pictures filled with weapon and ammo weights, the pros and cons of different weapons, methods he and others devised to overcome the jamming problem of the M-16, physical characteristics of fellow soldiers, and tales of leadership and bravery.
Ed Fedrick is painfully honest with his feelings about himself and his combat brothers. He speaks of himself as being mediocre and sometimes inadequate. But when you finish reading Darkness Bravo, you’ll find out that he is totally adequate—and a true hero.
Going on patrols an ambushes, his quiet thoughts included things such as, “I know I’m going to die today,” “I’m not going to live through this,” and the same thoughts in other words. Nearly everything he says about his fellow soldiers is complimentary.
After leaving the Army, Fedrick joined the Memphis Police Department. He has retired and with his wife Louise lives in the hills of Tennessee.
Darkness Bravo opens with a good Glossary that will be helpful to the uninitiated. The last 27 pages of this excellent book are filled with beaucoup pictures of Fedrick, his fellow Big Red One soldiers, and his wife. I suggest looking through these pics before reading the book to meet many of the people Fedrick writes about.
Two minor complaints: I would like to have seen a map of his areas of operation and a Table of Contents, or at least chapter titles on the page headers.
That aside, Darkness Bravo is flawlessly presented. Put reading this one on your bucket list.
In his memoir, Even the Dust Cried Tears: Memoir of an American Advisor to the Vietnamese Rangers (310 pp. $25.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Stephen Nahay recounts his experiences as a U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese Army Ranger units from December 1971 to December 1972. A native of New York City, Nahay enrolled in Army ROTC at the City College of New York. Upon receiving his commission as a second lieutenant, he went to Fort Benning for Infantry Officer Basic program, then completed Airborne and Ranger training. Nahay then volunteered to go to Vietnam to work with his ARVN counterparts.
When Nahay arrived in country Vietnamization was well under way, and ground combat operations were being turned over to ARVN units. By early 1972, American troop strength in Vietnam had dropped by nearly two-thirds, from a 1968-69 peak of more than 500,000 to below 157,000. By the end of the year fewer than 15,000 American troops would remain. As the ARVN filled the gap, they relied heavily on American air and sea power.
In late 1971 American advisers no longer served with South Vietnamese companies, only at the regimental and brigade levels. Those still working with ARVN units acted as liaisons to American forces as restrictions were put in place to minimize the risk of injury and death to U.S. troops during a time when public opinion back home turned decidedly against the war.
Nahay served with different ARVN Ranger units throughout his year in Vietnam, rotating from the region around Saigon (III Corps) and the far north near the border with North Vietnam (I Corps). Soon after his arrival the North Vietnamese launched Operation Nguyen Hue—also known as the 1972 Easter Offensive— a massive attack to try to break South Vietnam into pieces and end the war.
The most harrowing part of Nahay’s story is his recounting of a thirty-six hour period when ARVN units withdrew from Quang Tri, the capital of South Vietnam’s northernmost province. In the confusion, Nahay and his senior American advisers found themselves cut off from friendly units fifteen miles behind enemy lines.
For the next day and a half, the Americans and a handful of their ARVN counterparts carefully made their way south on foot. Calling for evacuation by air, they coordinated with a Forward Air Controller to direct airstrikes against the nearby North Vietnamese. Nahay writes that the enemy was so close he could feel the heat of the napalm dropped on them.
The North Vietnamese were heavily equipped with shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles. They shot down FAC planes and a rescue helicopter, and damaged another so badly damaged that it was forced to land before returning to its base. The offensive was blunted, but the NVA’s determination on the battlefield proved a sobering lesson and foreshadowed the 1975 campaign that defeated the South.
Nahay’s gripping account is especially sobering given the scope of the North Vietnamese attack. Through it he gives a compelling account of one young officer’s efforts to help save the South Vietnamese as they fell ever deeper into the shadow of their enemies.
During his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty Mike Leonard earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a V device) for performing bold feats in the O-1 Bird Dog throughout central South Vietnam. But don’t expect an overflowing collection of stories about a forward air controller’s combat action in his new memoir, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond (SOPREP, 330 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) because Leonard devotes only 64 pages of the book to those achievements.
What we get are other hyper-interesting stories of combat that recreate support missions mostly flying under four hundred feet of altitude in attacks on North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Leonard’s proudest moments in the air led to the rescue of a shot-down helicopter crew that crashed practically in the laps of the enemy.
Mike Leonard’s life has been filled with joy and drama in war and peace, yet he reflects a humble approach to all of it. His level of introspection remains constant whether a situation is good, bad, or otherwise.
Beyond the Vietnam War, his stories about flying the C-5A Galaxy and his post-Air Force life as an executive in the satellite market steal the show. Straight from the war Leonard went to piloting the C-5A in the midst of its growing pains. Whatever could go wrong with those airplanes went wrong. Fear of flight problems caused the Air Force brass to limit the aircraft’s tactical deployment. Still, one preposterous situation followed another.
Leonard repeatedly experienced the unexpected, and his descriptions of those events made me laugh out loud—and then I read those passages to my wife, who laughed along with me. Screw-ups that produced positive results in which Leonard took part advanced the C-5A’s tactical growth faster and more accurately than command guidance did.
After exactly twenty years of military service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work in the satellite industry. He describes his second career as intermittently intense, mundane, borderline illegal and unethical, and highly stressful. He reveals the intrigue behind years of knock-down, drag-out deal making and tells better stories than most present-day television and movies do.
Mike Leonard’s business ventures made him a wealthy man. I believe he should have expanded the 100 pages about commerce in this memoir into a book of its own.
As an introduction to all of the above, Leonard presents a bizarre history of his family. He rates growing up in St. Louis as a surprisingly good experience. The pace of the book slows a bit when Leonard writes about enlisting in the Air Force and then going through Officer Training School; and his experiences as an EC-121 Warning Star weapons controller (including a rotation to Tan Son Nhut in south Vietnam), and during pilot training. Much of this ground has been covered many times in other memoirs, but Leonard re-evaluates the events in his terms.
An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot compensates for its misleading title by providing stories that should entertain anyone with the slightest interest in aircraft and the people associated with them, as well as exposing how a few sly devils manipulate big businesses.