Preston by Philip McKinney

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Philip McKinney served in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty in 1967-68 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. His novel, Preston (168 pp., $20, paper; $7.19, Kindle), is set in the 1970s in the titular fictional Michigan town.

The main problem with the book for me was that it had no page numbers. Also, I learned far more about the town of Preston than I wanted or needed to know. It’s a small town with some fabulous scenery in the northwestern section of Lower Michigan. The most recent thing that happened there that was of interest to me took place 11,000 years ago when the last glaciers withdrew from the area.

One of the narrators of  this novel loved his job working for a newspaper in Traverse City about forty miles away from Preston. Then he moved to Preston. He was a little ahead of the so-called Boomers and when he attended Michigan State in East Lansing, and so neither the draft nor the Vietnam War had become controversial.  By the time the war and the draft became an issue, he had finished his degree, gotten married, and had a child.

The war does not loom large in this book. Another narrator —an Air Force Vietnam War veteran—only briefly refers to war in a few conversations. That makes the novel essentially a biography of the town of Preston. It is easy to read and moves right along. I’ve never read another book like it, and I’m not sure I feel a need to do so.

I recommend this book highly to those who wish to read a book that is unlike any other you most likely ever have read.

The book’s lack of page numbers annoyed at first, but then I got used to it.

–David Willson

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10 Cents and a Silver Star by Bruce D. Johnson

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I’ve been waiting many years to read a novel of the Vietnam War and its lasting impact that is as enjoyable as Bruce D. Johnson’s 10 Cents and a Silver Star… A Sardonic Saga of PTSD  (Edit Ink, 386 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle )

Johnson begins his book with the main character, also named Bruce Johnson, pretty casually receiving a Silver Star. It’s 1969 and he is awarded the medal for actions he took while fighting in South Vietnam’s III Corps with Army’s the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Specialist Johnson gets no comfort from the medal, believing it to be the result of some “bureaucratic blunder.” He’s pretty sure it was actually intended for his best friend, Bill Hastings, who died in Johnson’s arms while they were engaged in combat.

In that way, his sense of survivor’s guilt becomes even more complicated by receiving a medal he is sure was meant for his buddy. Johnson’s actions during the firefight may have been worthy of a Silver Star, but he was so stoned at the time that he has no idea and certainly doesn’t think so.

Johnson considers the Vietnam War to be “the insane asylum of this planet,” and notes that actions taken by American troops in Vietnamese villages sometimes made those soldiers appear to be “the Peace Corps in reverse.”

The story is told by someone who apparently has determined that life is merely time filled with one absurd incident after another. Johnson is sent to a Fire Support Base for just one day but a misunderstanding keeps him there for six weeks. That’s long enough for his original unit to consider him missing and for his parents to be notified.

Or maybe they weren’t. You can’t be sure if all the things that are supposedly happening in the book are actually happening. It leads you to constantly wonder what is real in this fictional world and what isn’t. So this is not a book you just read, but one you’re forced to engage with, which isn’t a bad thing.

After his year in Vietnam, with the war basically over “except for the shooting,” Johnson returns home to Chicago. He has that Silver Starl which he’s been told will get him a cup of coffee anywhere—if he also has a dime.

It turns out, though, that the medal serves as almost a good-luck charm. It opens up many doors and provides many opportunities that would not have been available to him otherwise. Yet he constantly struggles with the realization that the medal really isn’t his, and belongs to his best friend who paid the ultimate price for it.

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Bruce Johnson

Johnson decides to locate the parents of Bill Hastings and present the medal to them.

 

This novel is written in a hilarious fashion. It’s not often that I laugh out loud when I read something, yet I did several times while reading this book. It’s filled with jokes that keep coming at you in machine-gun style, probably averaging three a page, and at least eighty percent of them work.

They work because—as funny as they are—you are constantly reminded of what the source of the humor is. It’s an attempt to deal with (and make sense of) a world and an existence that is often cold, cruel, and senseless.

Bill McCloud

The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette

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Rita Dragonette’s novel, The Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, 376 pp., $16.95, paper; $8.69. Kindle) is based on her personal experiences as a college student during the Vietnam War beginning in September 1969. That’s when she witnessed a confrontation between ROTC trainees and antiwar student demonstrators who were not sympathetic to those who had ended up in ROTC. This complex novel is, in essence, an inquiry into the domestic politics of protest when the world seems to stop making any sense.

The publisher describes the book as a “coming of conscience novel.” I read the book trying to make sense of that description. My guess is that the main character, PFC Judy Talton, wakes herself up politically by joining the campus anti-Vietnam War movement on her nineteenth birthday.

She is apparently not aware that by doing so, she is jeopardizing her Army scholarship, as well as alienating her military family. She asks her herself, “Who is she if she stays in the Army? Who is she if she chooses to leave?”  Good questions. Neither is easily answered.

The late summer of 1969 is a pivotal time in the Vietnam War, and it becomes a pivotal time in the life of a young and callow young woman who is riven with doubts about her identity and the identity of those around her. Are they her friends? Can she trust them to try to understand what is going on with her?

Few books have taken the time—and space—to examine so thoroughly the collegiate antiwar movement in small-town America. The story held my interest and reminded me of what was going on in Pullman, Washington, around the same time. The tone rang true in every line.

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Rita Dragonette

I was interested in the impact that the draft lottery and its rippling effects had on a generation heavily influenced by the chance uncertainty the lottery had on hundreds of thousands of young people. I had barely paid attention to the lottery because I was one of the young men drafted before the it was instituted.

 

This novel opened my eyes to issues that my thick skin and my age had protected me from. We are admonished to read this book and weep, and I actually did shed a tear or two of sympathy.

If you’re like me, after you read this well-written novel, it will be difficult to put it out of your mind.

The book’s page on the author’s website is ritadragonette.com/projects/the-fourteenth-of-september

—David Willson

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

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