There Was a Time by George H. Wittman

There Was A Time (Casemate, 312 pp. $24.95, paper; $11.49, Kindle) by George H. Wittman is a work of historical fiction dealing with the last few weeks of World War II in Southeast Asia. The hook is that we follow the exploits of a handful of Americans working closely with communist Vietnamese forces against invading Japanese troops. Wittman served in the U.S. Army during and after the Korean War.

The novel centers on a handpicked OSS team led by Maj. John Guthrie and his second in command, Capt. Edouard Parnell, both veterans of combat in the European theater. The team is parachuted into Tonkin, in far northern Vietnam, to lead the effort on the ground working directly with Ho Chi Minh’s rag-tag Viet Minh guerillas against the Japanese for control of what was then known as Indochina.

They’ve been told to get the Vietnamese to start “kicking some Jap ass.” One problem is understanding the complex Vietnamese political situation. Another big issue is dealing with the French who want to regain control of their Indochina colony, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Among the complicating factors is that the British were supporting the French because the Brits wanted to regain their own colonies, primarily India, after the war. Ho Chi Minh wanted the French and the Americans to be fighting the Japanese.

Guthrie, a labor lawyer in civilian life in Gary, Indiana, had been considered a “hard charger” after being awarded a Silver Star. He suffered from occasional nightmares, and even more frequent stomach ulcers.

Wittman

Both Ho Chi Minh and the head of the Viet Minh military forces, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, end up meeting these Americans. Giap is depicted as dour man mainly because of his hatred for the French.

Ho is impressed by the American plan to give the Philippines independence after the war and believes the best chance for independence for Vietnam lies with cultivating a close relationship with the U.S. What he wants from Americans in the near-term are supplies, military equipment, and weapons.  

After a night-drop, the OSS team gets lost and is ambushed by a Japanese squad before encountering friendly Vietnamese who, as part of Ho’s Viet Minh guerrillas, have been helping rescue shot-down U.S. in pilots in northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh promise to help this small American group in return for receiving better weapons.

The title is a reference to this very short period of time in 1945 during which the U.S. and the communist nationalist leadership of Vietnam fought together as allies. During that time key decisions were made that would have a big impact on the Vietnamese and American people for generations to come.

George Wittman drops us into the middle of this chaotic time and place with a book that is nothing short of a riveting read.

The author’s website is georgehwittman.com

–Bill McCloud

Oklahoma Odyssey by John Mort

Oklahoma Odyssey (Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, 332 pp. $24.95, paper), by Vietnam War veteran John Mort is a work of historical fiction bringing to vivid life the place and times of the largest land run in U.S. history. The so-called Cherokee Outlet, more commonly known as the Cherokee Strip, consisted of lands bought from the tribe that would later make up much of northern Oklahoma.

John Mort, who served with the 1st Cavalry Division in South Vietnam from 1968-70, has written 11 books. That includes the Vietnam War-heavy novel, Soldier in Paradise (2013), and Don’t Mean Nothin’, a collection of a dozen Vietnam War short stories (2012).

Oklahoma Odyssey, which is set in 1892, centers on three characters, two of whom are “sort-of brothers” and one a “maybe-sister.” Eddie Mole, an outlaw bad-guy, murders the father of Ulysses (“Euly”) Kreider, one of the “brothers,” in the main street of Jericho, Kansas. Twenty-year-old Euly, a Mennonite, struggles with whether or not it’s appropriate to use violence and seek revenge.

There’s a lot going on in Euly’s life. His father is killed; he’s planning to get married; and his best friend, a member of the Osage tribe, keeps telling Euly that they should track down and bring Mole to justice one way or another. The two young men share a love of Homer’s The Odyssey, which they see as “akin to certain Osage stories with its fantastic adventures.”

The federal government is preparing to open former Cherokee Nation land bordering central Kansas for settlement. Euly plans to make his fortune by moving closer to that area and establishing a hardware store. It’s a time, he declares, when “the three items with the highest markup, the things men couldn’t do without, were horses, liquor, and rifles.” Though Euly keeps trying to push Eddie Mole into the back of his brain, destiny has the two of them racing toward a confrontation that will rival the Oklahoma land rush.

Oklahoma Odyssey includes a lot of interesting details based on a significant amount of research Mort undertook. It’s what I consider “quiet research” because the facts never slow down or interfere with Mort’s great storytelling.

At its heart, this is a story about family and how even the strongest of bonds can be tested in stressful times.

–Bill McCloud

The Five O’clock Follies by Richard Brundage and David Billingsley

The Five O’clock Follies (Critical Communications, 306 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a comic novel that looks at the Vietnam War through the experiences of three close friends. Co-author Richard Brundage served two tours in Vietnam; the first with D Troop of the 17th Cavalry, and the second conducting daily press briefings as an Operations Officer at the Da Nang Press Center. Co-author Billingsley is a novelist and meteorologist.

In a story that plays like a buddy movie (but with three guys), three GIs—Brunell, Donovan, and Hosa—bond while going through jungle warfare training together in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. A year later, after having served apart in Vietnam, the three wind up at Fort Knox learning to command tank units. They love to clown around and there’s lots of wisecracking and shenanigans going on in the book. At the same time, the men know they would give their lives for each other.

The three receive separate assignments for their second tours in the war zone in 1969, but all end up in the far northern part of South Vietnam. Brunell, the main character, monkeys with his orders to get himself assigned to a cushier job with Armed Forces Vietnam Network, and takes over the press center at Phu Bai. He and his buddies continue to run into each other during the following year. Hosa is a pilot in Da Nang; Donovan’s work is so secret he can’t even say that he can’t talk about it.  

This humorous novel consists of many skit-like comic moments, some involving pranks. The buddies concoct fake orders. They have drag races with Army trucks down an airfield runway at night without lights.

Hosa takes part in the most dangerous missions. Donovan remains secretive. He’s the thinker in the group, the straight man, the voice of reason. Brunell settles in at the press center, and then gets reassigned to Da Nang. “Five O’clock Follies” is the term that war correspondents came to use for the military’s daily briefings, considering them basically to be foolish, untruthful, and repetitive.

This is an enjoyably humorous look at men at war with the enemy, as well as with their own military bureaucracy. But it’s mainly a double love story: a traditional love affair between a man and a woman, and the love three men have for each other as they share wartime experiences.

That kind of love is one of the few positives that can come from war. It is worth celebrating.

–Bill McCloud

Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”

The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”

Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.

Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.

It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.

A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.

Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.

While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.

Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.

Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.

Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.  

Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.

After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”

In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”

André Carter

Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.

The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.

Carter’s website is andrelewiscarter.com

–Bill McCloud

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

The Sentinel Papers by Robert Espenscheid, Jr.

Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.                     

This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”  

Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”

Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.

After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.

The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.

Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.

—Henry Zeybel

Finding Father by Peter S. Glick

In his strikingly compelling novel, Finding Father: Vietnam Fifty Years After (Sixty Degrees Publishing, 330 pp. $18.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Peter S. Glick invites the reader to accompany not one but two men—an American and an Australian—as they set out to learn who their fathers truly were.

The American’s father died, leaving the son with a home filled with books, photos, and mementos he brought home from Vietnam, yet with no context for the son to appreciate how his father came to the possess them. The Australian’s mother was Vietnamese and had fled the country at the end of the war. But she never revealed to her son who his biological father was—only that he was an American serviceman. Seeking answers from opposite sides of the world, hoping for enlightenment of any kind, both men make their way to Vietnam.

Writing in a metaphysical, often haunting, style, Glick grabs the reader and never lets go. Half the story is told in the first person, so the reader, for example, is inside the American’s mind as he sifts through his father’s past. “I have found the old study,” he says, and that inspires a kinship with the first man, JJ, whose plight is more pronounced because he never knew his father.

Every step of each man’s journey is told in the present tense so readers experience each event, thought, and perception as the protagonists do. And while the two men do not meet until well into the story, the message is clear from the start: they have a connection and they will meet in Vietnam.

Peter Glick

Glick had a construction business Vietnam from 1965-75, before being forced to leave shortly before the war’s end. His time in Vietnam him the opportunity to learn the language and the history and culture of the country in a way few Americans have.

A French speaker, he became fluent in Vietnamese. So fluid, that once in a gathering where he was the only American present, someone told a joke at America’s expense, then blushed with embarrassment until someone else gestured toward Glick and said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s Vietnamese!”

Because JJ grew up in Australia and his mother wished to acclimate to her new home as much as possible, he speaks only a few words of Vietnamese. When he arrives in Vietnam, security forces take him for a spy and detain him for hours, abusing and humiliating him before finally letting him go. The American, however, quickly finds that his father’s commitment to learning about the people and the land during his tour opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Despite the two men’s differences, the sobering fact remains that—as Glick shows very well in the book—even five decades later, wounds from the war remain deep, and because of this, the goal the men seek may come at a cost too high to pay.   

–Mike McLaughlin

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud