Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson

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Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud

Back in the World by Joe Lerner and Herman Kaufman

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The late Joe Lerner was assigned to the American embassy in Laos in an undercover espionage posting before his return home from the Vietnam War. Later, while attending college, he wrote extensively on his readjustment to civilian life. Herman “Kid” Kaufman was posted to the American embassy in Laos as a communications technician. He knew Joe Lerner there, and mentored him during his college career. Kaufman completed Lerner’s memoirs with his own recollections, and the result is Back in the World: A Composite Novel: Returning to the World Can Be So Much Harder than Leaving (Booklocker.com, 264 pp. $21.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle).

The characters in Lerner and Kaufman’s book are entirely fictional. The events may be real happenings that have been fantasized into fiction, but are not intended to portray historic events.  Readers who know some Vietnam War history may object to the authors’ twisting of the war’s timing, but this is done out of dramatic necessity.  The public’s ill treatment of Vietnam veterans is true in many cases.

The authors compare the Vietnam War with World War II by noting that the killing of evil Nazis and treacherous “Japs” was easily justified. “I grew up with John Wayne telling me so,” they write. The so-called Big War, the Real War, and the Good War was a morality melodrama, an all-star production.  As the authors put it: “Our righteous chevaliers sallied forth to vanquish the evil hoards.”

They characterize the American military in Vietnam as ten percent defective. “No matter how fucking clear you make anything to the troops, ten percent of them never get the word. They’re fucking clueless.”

They go on to state the military’s raison d’être: “Everyone who joins the service helps to kill people. It’s the purpose of the military. What does it matter who actually pulls the trigger or drops the bomb?”

When Joe, the book’s hero, arrives back home in the World, he discovers that a myth has preceded him. “You dudes got the black syph and I don’t know what all. Hey, I’m clean. I ain’t taking no chances. They’re keeping some of you guys over there on an island ‘cause they can’t cure you. Don’t tell me you believe that old sea story?”

Our hero ends up out in a drizzly street, with seagulls shrieking at him. No love for him, not even a short time.

Homecoming is bleak for Vietnam veterans. What will become of Joe Lerner?  Nothing good.

–David Willson

A Marine’s Daughter by Al Hague

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Jon Milo has a recurring dream whose meaning he cannot fathom. In Al Hague’s novel, A Marine’s Daughter: Semper Fi (Gatekeeper Press, 314 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle), Milo is tormented with the fragmented memory of a bloody Vietnam War fight outside the wire at a remote camp.

Milo recalls only portions of what happened that night. He remembers leading a couple of squads of Marines toward a village rumored to be threatened by Charlie. He splits up his team, only to see the first squad pinned down in the middle of a rice paddy by a savage ambush. Milo sends out the rest of the men in a flanking maneuver, then decides to take the pressure off by charging into the enemy fire with his M-60 on his hip.

When he wakes up later, injured and on board a hospital ship, Milo has no idea what happened. Did his men survive? Was the mission a disaster? And, ultimately, did he let his men down?

Flash forward to a gray-haired Milo whose health has begun to fail. He has yet to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for fear he’ll recognize the names of the men he led out on that mission.

Hague’s most effective story-telling device is toggling between scenes of war with a young Milo and present day, when Milo’s now-adult daughter is working secretly to arrange a reunion of her father’s old team. Some of the men have been searching for him for decades. And they have a surprise in store.

Hague weaves in a personal story as well. Milo is afraid he’s dying. Daughter Sara is afraid she is failing to live. Both are struggling to find meaning in their lives. In Milo’s case, it is a bit of aging, and perhaps Agent Orange shares part of the blame.

He was offended by the antiwar protests that erupted stateside. He wonders if he will ever be able to forgive his country for the way he and his men have been treated. But Milo will take a chance on a new life, as will Sara.

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Al Hague and Brady

When his old comrades show up, Milo learns that he broke the back of the VC assault with that M-60 charge. The men have put together statements and documentation to petition for recognition for Milo, who will be awarded a Silver Star for saving the squad.

Hague served in Vietnam in 1965-66 as a Marine NCO. His prose can be clunky, but he’s created characters we care about.

The author’s website is amarinesdaughter.com

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales from the Morgue

In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

Jungle Warriors, Crime Fighters by Doug Houser

Doug Houser completed Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1966, and landed in the Vietnam War in January 1967. He served a thirteen-month tour of duty along the DMZ in—among other places—the Rock Pile, Khe Sanh, the Hai Lang Forrest, and the Artillery Plateau.

The protagonist of his novel, Jungle Warriors, Crime Fighters (BookBaby, 308 pp., $18.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle) KC Huntington, runs a post-war security company made up of other former Marines. It’s a success and he has a comfortable life, but KC needs more. So he decides to form a secret Special Operations division of his company. The special ops guys then go after criminals who have slipped through the hands of the law.

Using lessons he learned during stealthy maneuvers in the dark in Vietnam, KC and his crew get involved in more and more dangerous situations. KC hires a woman to train his men in sophisticated martial arts. She trains the crew and they kick a lot of butt.

The primary revelation for me in this novel came about a third of the way through.  “One of the things most Americans don’t know is that Vietnamese couldn’t see very well in the dark,” Houser writes. “The notion that they had superior night-vision was a misconception that was reinforced by the fact that the North Vietnamese Army almost always maneuvered under the cover of darkness, thus the saying, ‘They control the night.’”

Why couldn’t the enemy see well after dark? Houser tells us that it had to do with diet.  The Vietnamese ate mostly rice with some fish and therefore lacked the nutrients required to produce the chemicals for a human to develop good night vision, he says.

Which leaves an unanswered question: Given the fact that the enemy “couldn’t see very well in the dark,” how could we lose such an unequal war?

If you are desperate to read a thriller that builds on skills learned in the Vietnam War, Jungle Warriors Crime Fighters might be just the ticket.

On the other hand, if you like reading novels that are reality based, this is probably not the book for you.

The book’s website is junglewarriorscrimefighters.com

—David Willson

Abby and the Old Guy by Robert

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Robert Quinn’s Abby and the Old Guy (Independently Published, 500 pp. $14.99, paper)is a massive male-fantasy romance novel. The time period is November of 2007 to February of 2009.

Quinn is a lawyer and financial services professional who served in the Air Force in Vietnam from 1969-70 and is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His main character, Matt Flynn, is also a Vietnam veteran and a “part-time attorney and part-time financial guy.”

Flynn—a great name for a hero, by the way—meets Abigail McKay in a New England coffee shop on the first page. If this were a movie, at this point we wouldn’t be through the opening credits. The 61-year-old Flynn, widowed for ten years, and the 26-year-old grad student immediately fall in love.

We follow the lovers through a dialogue-driven novel that also includes lots of descriptions, mainly of meals, clothes—and of the two main characters undressing each other.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby loves the body of a man who has thirty-five years on her, and because she invites him into her apartment on their second day together. Whereupon they have glorious sex.

It’s a work of male fantasy because Abby, whom Flynn he calls “Beauty,” is constantly saying things any older man would love to hear. That includes that she finds him more interesting than guys her age.

It’s also male fantasy because Flynn, whom Abby lovingly calls “Old Guy,” is an extremely virile man. They make love their first eight, at least, days together. And they don’t stop there. After the first month they calculate—yes, they keep track—that they’ve made love 130 times. After eight months the number reaches almost a thousand, which works out to an average of “four times a day.”

The novel covers fifteen months in which Flynn and Abby meet, fall in love, move in together, get engaged, get married, and have a child. They also make love 1,481 times. That’s mathematically possible because when her pregnancy causes abdominal cramps she believes she will feel better if they have sex, which they do nearly up to the day she delivers. The book ends with the suggestion that their new baby is not going to slow them down any.

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Bob Quinn

Flynn’s Vietnam War experience plays a small part in the story, primarily in a short section when we learn that Abby’s family respects him for his military service.

Bob Quinn is a hell of a writer and this giant novel is immensely readable. But not all that much happens and Flynn’s one-way “conversations” with his deceased wife early on in the book were a little off-putting.

I guess if you buy the book’s main premise, you’ll by okay with what transpires. If you don’t buy it—and I didn’t—then not much of the novel will work for you.

—Bill McCloud