The Last Vietnam Veteran by Joe Murphy

Joe Murphy’s The Last Vietnam Veteran (222 pp. $7.99, paperback; $4.99, Kindle) is a very readable, semiautobiographical novel centered on the diverse stories of the last living eleven (perhaps thirteen) Vietnam War veterans. Murphy tells his tale through the eyes of the narrator, who eventually becomes the last man standing. No spoiler alert is necessary since the reader is told who the sole survivor is at the beginning of the book.  

If you are a Vietnam War veteran, reading this novel will seem like listening to and relating to the war stories Murphy spins out as if you were at a VVA chapter meeting or sitting belly-up to a bar, without having to buy a round of beers. Readers who are not Vietnam War veterans can eavesdrop and wonder if these stories are true. As one of the characters says: “When the facts and the legend collide, go with the legend!”   

Some are Murphy’s vignettes are funny, some are implausible, but almost all are poignant. A few of the characters went to school with the narrator or lived in his hometown. However, most were from different units, different backgrounds, and served in the war at different times.

Several themes permeate the book. One is survivor’s guilt on many different levels. Another is the guilt rear echelons who did their jobs and went home felt since they were not in combat. Then there’s the guilt of those who were in combat but believed they should have done more. Finally, the guilt of those who never went to Vietnam while many of their compatriots did.

Another theme is the existence—and value—of Vietnam Veterans of America. Murphy, who joined the Army in 1966 and served in Vietnam with 64th Quartermaster Battalion at Long Binh, presents VVA as a forum where Vietnam War veterans help their fellow veterans and talk about their war experiences with men and women who are interested and will understand. The book is a great advertisement for VVA, which—among other things—helps preserve the national and personal memories of Vietnam War veterans’ sacrifices and stories.

The additional themes of nicotine addiction (unfiltered!), alcoholism (“Mr. Beer”), and PTSD and reoccur throughout the novel. The narrator, for example, has built a bunker in the garden of his house and keeps an extensive survivalist cache in his root cellar.

Joe Murphy

But it is survivor’s guilt that leads to his belief that “we owe” and “I did not do enough.” This accounts in part for the desire of almost all of the book’s characters to help other veterans. The narrator also reflects on how one year of a long life would dominate the remaining years of so many lives. 

The answer may be contained in the cliché that although a veteran may have left Vietnam, Vietnam has never left the veteran. That that experience, in other words, cannot be left behind.

As Murphy writes: When two Vietnam vets met, one of the most common questions they ask of each other is, “When were you there?”  Many a vet will pause… and reply “Last night.”

Murphy’s book posits the many reasons why this is so. Although legend, for many it is fact and it is why you should read this book.

His website is

–Harvey Weiner

Winds of Discontent by Don Meyer

Don Meyer’s novel, Winds of Discontent (329 pp. $24.95, hardcover; 14.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle), is a throwback to the paperback men’s adventure novels that were popular from the 50s through the 70s, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The story takes place in Vietnam, mainly during the years of the French Indochina War, then up to the time of the big American involvement. Meyer is a Vietnam War and worked six years on writing this novel.

It’s late 1945 and nineteen-year-old Sinclair Langdon, the son of an American mother and British father, has decided to stay in Vietnam after his father is posted back to China. He befriends two men who will play important roles in his life. The first, Frenchy, is a soldier of fortune running guns to Vietnamese rebel groups fighting the French. Langdon goes to work for him.

The second, Edward Bourke, works for a small British newspaper and Langdon will also winds up working for him. The plan is for Langdon to accompany Frenchy on his dangerous missions and report what he sees and learns to Bourke, who will write them up in his newspaper.

In true adventure-novel style Langdon falls in love. In this case its with Yvonne Renaud, a beautiful young Eurasian (Vietnamese and French). That’s quite a bit for a nineteen-year-old to handle, but the times and the environment cause him to grow up fast.

The two nineteen-year-olds quickly develop a physical relationship. She comes with a history she’s ashamed of, though, having been forced into sex slavery by Japanese forces when she was sixteen. She’s the daughter of a prominent French officer dying of cancer, a man determined to arrange a marriage for her with a military officer.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on here.

While delivering more and more American weapons to Vietnamese rebels, Langdon is also writing about the growing ill feelings building in the countryside about the French.

The years go by. There’s a lot of gunplay. Each main character gets at least one bullet wound.

I enjoyed reading Winds of Discontent, which is basically an old-style pulp men’s adventure tale. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  

–Bill McCloud

Red Clay Ashes by Julie Tulba

Red Clay Ashes (343 pp. $16.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a novel set in the Vietnam War. Author Julie Tulba was inspired to write it after a trip to Vietnam. The plot focuses on the role of female Vietnam War correspondents. The main character is based on Anne Morrissey Merrick, who married a male journalist and raised a child in Saigon until America withdrew its combat troops in 1973.

The book opens in Saigon in 1975. As the communist forces close in, Hazel Baxter is evacuated, but not with her husband. The novel then jumps to 2005. Hazel’s daughter Bee is dealing with the death of her mother, whom she knows little about. She makes a trip to visit a friend of her mother, Suzanne, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. She shocks Bee with the story of her mother when she was a freelancer in Vietnam starting in 1967. 

The novel has two tracks—Hazel’s and Bee’s. Hazel’s story makes up about eighty percent of the book. This gives Tulba the opportunity to highlight female journalists and to hit some interesting topics.

Hazel uses her press credentials to go on a patrol, visit a military hospital, participate in a psyop mission, ride in a tank to rescue a family, explore a VC tunnel, and expose the mistreatment of prisoners in South Vietnam’s Con Son prison. Meanwhile, she has a relationship with a veteran male journalist. All of this is news to Bee.

Tulba did her homework. She includes a bibliography, which is unusual for a novel. She is interested in shining a light on a war she feels is ignored in American History classes. And in highlighting female war correspondents.

Hazel and Suzanne risk their lives breaking a glass ceiling. Vietnam was the first American war in which journalists could go anywhere and watch anything. Tulba having Hazel take advantage of that allows her to give readers a taste of the seamier side of the war. That includes plunking Hazel in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive where she is wounded and sees death and destruction up close.

Hazel does it partly for the adrenalin rush. She also puts her job ahead of her family.  However, Tulba avoids the stereotype of war correspondents being hard partiers. Instead, Tulba trods a less-traveled path by implying that journalists can have PTSD. This explains Hazel’s poor parenting.

Julie Tulba

There is a definite feminist vibe. The novel is antiwar, but it is not overdone. The book has no significant Vietnamese characters, so we do not get much on the effects of the war on civilians. 

Instead, we get a reporter’s view, which includes the lying and exaggerating at the “5 O’Clock Follies” official military press briefings. Hazel sees and writes about the failure of the Americans winning the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people and about the devastation cause by spraying Agent Orange.

I enjoyed Red Clay Ashes. It is part romance, part mystery, and part history. While the romance is straight out of a rom-com without the com, overall the novel is well-written and Tulba’s attention to history is commendable.

Just don’t read it as a parenting guide.   

Julie Tulba’s website is

–Kevin Hardy

Life Dust by Pam Webber

Life Dust (She Writes Press, 312 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.49, Kindle) is a novel telling the story of a young couple separated for a year due to the war in Vietnam. Author Pam Webber is a nurse practitioner who is married to a Vietnam War veteran. This is her third novel.

It’s the spring of 1971 and the book’s protagonist, Nettie, a nursing intern, unfortunately stumbles across two high-level hospital employees engaged in sex. Though she stays silent about it, they decide to make her life hell.

Nettie is engaged to Andy, a freshly minted U.S. Army lieutenant on his way to Vietnam. Andy hopes he is prepared “to lead men I’ve never met, in a country I’ve never seen, in a war no one seems sure about.” He carries a small New Testament with Nettie’s picture tucked inside.  

Andy begins to build a good reputation during his first days in-country when he’s told, “You notice a lot for a new lieutenant. You have good instincts.” Some of the guys he serves with have names like Doc and The Philosopher, and I’m not sure why the character whose real name is John Wayne would even need a nickname, but at least it’s Cowboy.

The book’s title derives from a reference to the unit’s translator, a French/Vietnamese man who Vietnamese people refer to as “life dust,” signifying someone left behind and frequently abandoned.

Back home Nettie worries about Andy. As an intern, she is a part-time student and part-time hospital employee. She bonds with a patient, an older man dealing with congestive heart failure. She also begins doing volunteer work for an organization working to bring attention to the plight of Vietnam War MIAs and POWs.

Andy’s men spend long stretches in the bush. Once after returning to their base after months deep in the jungle they are berated by an officer for their “filthy” appearance. Meanwhile Nettie is at home fighting false charges brought against her as she tries to keep her job at the hospital.

Toward the end of the story Webber unfortunately includes a passage that enforces the myth of returning troops being spat at by demonstrators—and on the East Coast at that.

Overall, though, Webber’s novel is a good one. She has a very smooth writing style and has put in a significant amount of Vietnam War research. Her knowledge of military equipment and information is truly impressive.

Though the story doesn’t break any new ground, many readers will find it to be a captivating one.   

Pam Webber’s website is

–Bill McCloud

Henry by Donald J. Yost

Don Yost served as an infantryman and combat correspondent in Vietnam during his 1968-69 tour of duty with the Americal Division’s 11th Infantry Brigade. Since then, he has worked with veterans dealing with PTSD and in 1995 wrote Blessings: Transforming My Vietnam Experiences.  A long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, Yost is a Senior Lecturer in English at Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania. 

The first third of Yost’s latest book—Henry: A Sequel to Stephen Crane’s the Red Badge of Courage (Covenant Books, 192 pp. $24.95, paper; $9.49, ebook)—recaps Crane’s famous fictional Civil War veteran Henry Fleming’s experiences at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Yost also flashes back to flesh out Henry’s life as a farm boy who left his widowed mother to enlist in the Union Army.

Although Yost adds to Henry’s story, the first nine chapters are mainly dedicated to the recap. Chapter 10 begins with Yost’s imagining of what happened to Henry after the battle.  It turns out he and Billy Wilson moved on to fight at Gettysburg, where they faced Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge. Henry was wounded and his war ended. The rest of the book covers his readjustment to rural life as a severely disabled veteran.

First, let me give kudos to Yost for writing this book. A sequel to one of the most revered novels in American literature? That took some guts. But somebody needed to do it as Crane leaves us wondering what Henry’s future will be. 

Yost’s conjecture is realistic. In a sense, we learn what returning to civilian life was probably like for many Civil War veterans who came from farm families. Even with Henry back, the Fleming family has a hard time. One theme of the book is the communal nature of rural America at that time, along with the religious foundation that helped people get through hard times. 

Religion did not play a large role in Red Badge, but it does here. A clergyman is a major character. He nudges Henry back to his faith. Yost also explores war guilt and PTSD, a concept sometimes known then as “Soldier’s Heart.”  He also gets a runaway slave family into the mix. Drummer boys and Dorothea Dix, the pioneering mental health advocate, get shout-outs. 

Don Yost is a good writer. This book is an easy read, partly because he does not try to replicate the dialect used by Crane. Some of the characters, though, tend to be comfortably clichéd: the saintly reverend, the helpful neighbors, the loving mother, the disabled veteran who worries he doesn’t fit in anymore, and the girl he left behind. 

I believe that few people will read this book who have not read Crane’s, so the first nine chapters may not have been necessary. I would have preferred to have seen Henry’s future as a soldier explored more.

I also have a problem with Crane’s Henry having a quick transformation from coward to hero in one day. I wanted Yost to take him through the rest of the war and see which version of Henry was the real one. 

This is not to say that the focus on Henry coming home was a bad decision. It just seems to me we could have had both. The home front chapters are heart-warming. I recommend reading this book while sitting in front of a fire.   

–Kevin Hardy

Zigzag Men by Larry Sherrer

Zigzag Men (Brass Books, 273 pp. $14.95, paper; $2.99, ebook) by Larry Sherrer is an enjoyable, darkly humorous novel of the Vietnam War, focusing on a group of helicopter pilots battling an inefficient, inept military system every bit as much they’re fighing the enemy. In fact, the “villain in this novel,” Sherrer tell us, “is a dysfunctional army.”

Larry Sherrer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served as a scout helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War. He flew out of Quan Loi Base Camp near An Loc in South Vietnam in 1971, the same location and time in which the novel takes place.

Warrant Officers Eldon Zigman and “Roach” Surr arrive together in-country, having been friends since flight school. Zigman, who is almost too tall to be a helicopter pilot, quickly develops a bad attitude about the Army and the war. Roach is almost not tall enough and didn’t like the Army from the get-go. The only thing he hates more than lifers is the Army itself.

Both men were draftees. Now they’re entrusted with flying quarter million-dollar helicopters at a time when there is an appalling attrition rate for chopper pilots.

Flying as scout pilots out of Quan Loi, the two men see plenty of air action. Zigman is convinced the system is going to kill him, but he feels powerless to change it. He’s constantly making lists of ways he might die and separating them into categories.

A few pilots are considered to be jinxed because they always seem to find trouble. Sherrer writes about men who don’t want to be promoted into additional responsibilities and others who have concerns about the quality of aircraft maintenance. In one scene, a pilot battles to control a helicopter that suddenly loses its hydraulics. In another, a pilot loses his memory after his helicopter is hit. Another has an out-of-body experience in reaction to combat.

Humor is often an important way people in the military deal with stressful situations. Using humor in writing about the experience can be an effective technique. I’m keeping Zigzag Men in my library to reread again. Highly recommended.   

–Bill McCloud

Saigon Spring by Philip Derrick

Saigon Spring (Sonnyslope Press, 301 pp., $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War novel by Philip Derrick. Based on the dedication, Derrick was or is a teacher at a high school, and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. This is his second novel. The first is Facing the Dragon (2018).

Both books’ main character is James Peterson. Using the name Travis Nickles, Peterson returns from Vietnam in 1971. He is spit on and called a baby killer. However, four years later he finds himself back in the war and is there for communist takeover of South Vietnam in April 1975.

Nickels is surprised to learn he was sent back to Vietnam to be used as bait to get an enemy agent who has him as his target. The book’s big mystery is why him. The spy is called the Salamander. 

The book intercuts between chapters on Nickels and on the Salamander whose story is told in flashbacks. He joined the Viet Cong young and rose rapidly because of his ruthlessness. During Tet ‘68, he was in charge of the lists of those to be executed in Hue. In 1975, his mission is to make sure no resistance movement keeps the fight going after South Vietnam falls. 

And he adds a side mission to kill Nickels. Neither Nickels nor the reader know what the Salamander’s beef is. The American, even with a target on his back, moves around the doomed South Vietnamese capital. He gets involved with an orphanage. Inevitably, he and the Salamander cross paths.

I wish I had known about the first book before I read this one. Early in Saigon Spring, Nickels makes the intriguing comment that he had assumed a soldier’s identity to go to Vietnam and get revenge for his family. I was hooked, but it turns out the book never explains what happened. The first book does.

Derrick means for the novel to be a mystery, but it is not a standard one. He does not offer clues about why the Salamander is after Nickels. Instead, we get a big twist at the end. Most of the chapters spell out Nickels’ arc. They are told in first person. The Salamander chapters are more concise on his about his activities. He is a dastardly villain and as Derrick pushes the spit-opon-veteran trope, he also gives us the V.C.-were-cruel trope.

Derrick’s writing is fluid and the book has a good flow to it. The chapters are short and advance the narrative efficiently. Nickels is as appealing as the Salamander is loathsome. He is a good person who tries to help others in danger. 

The book is a good tutorial on what it was like in Saigon in its last chaotic days as the capital of South Vietnam. Derrick interweaves facts with his fiction. Although this is not an action novel, Nickels does see some and even gets wounded. Most of the action is saved for the big reveal at the end.

It’s worth the wait, like the ending of a M. Night Shyamalan movie.

I recommend Saigon Spring for those interested in a mystery set in the last days of South Vietnam.   

–Kevin Hardy

Of Helicopters and Heroes by Gary Bowman

Gary Bowman served as a helicopter crew chief and door gunner during his 1971 tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He decided to write a novel, Of Helicopters and Heroes (198 pp. $8.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), about his experiences rather than a memoir. He used his experiences and those of other helicopter crews in the 101st Airborne to create his plot.

As usual with an autobiographical novel, you have to wonder which parts reflect the actual experiences of the writer and his comrades and which parts are made up. Since Bowman does not enhance the narrative with incidents that are not believable, it appears everything in the book either happened to him or to someone he knew.

The main character is Tim Burroughs, who comes from a dysfunctional family. He enlists because he figures he will be drafted or be “volunteered” by a judge. His limited knowledge of the war gives him the belief that he will be fighting communism.

The book eschews describing Burroughs’ training and plops him into a helicopter several months into his Vietnam War tour. He’s 19, and no longer a cherry. He is a crew chief and a good one.

Burroughs and his unit encompass a typical Huey helicopter and crew over the period of a one-year tour. The missions include inserting and extracting Special Forces teams. Sometimes these missions are in Laos. He experiences a helicopter crash. He stops an ARVN officer from throwing an old man out of the chopper in flight. They carry Donut Dollies to a base. An ARVN accidentally fires an RPG into the deck of the chopper. They rescue an ambushed unit by landing in a very small space.

In one of his last missions, Burroughs leaves the chopper to save a wounded soldier. He should have gotten a medal for that deed, but the action took place in Laos so, officially, it never happened?.

Bowman does not use the book to preach. However, he does offer some insights about the war. Burroughs loses his faith in God (after deaths of another crew), but not in his country. He is critical of the press. They make a big deal of the accidental killing of civilians, he says, but say nothing about good things, like Americans rescuing civilians from a flood.

He points out that the further from the bush, the more the perks (like hot water showers), but the more chicken shit (saluting). Another point he makes is that troops were not given enough time to recover from physical and mental wounds. “It’s a system of musts, not wants.”

Unlike other self-published Vietnam War books, Bowman’s does not have any major spelling or grammar problems. It is an easy read, except for the many abbreviations that he assumes the reader knows.

I enjoyed Of Helicopters and Heroes in which Gary Bowman gives some love to crew chiefs and door gunners. Most Vietnam War books focus on pilots, but the crewmen were an important component of all helicopter operations. 

The book is informative about the experiences of everyone on the chopper and the vignettes are entertaining.   

–Kevin Hardy

Daughters of the New Year by E.M. Tran

Daughters of the New Year (Hanover Square Press, 314 pp. $27.99) is a beautifully written work of literary fiction by E.M. Tran. A Vietnamese American writer from New Orleans, Tran holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi and a PhD in Creative Writing from Ohio University. This novel, her first, centers on five generations of Vietnamese mothers and daughters and how their readings of the zodiac guide their lives.

It’s 2016 in New Orleans. Xuan Trung is obsessed with divining her daughters’ fates through their Vietnamese zodiac signs. Every Lunar New Year she gives her daughters horoscopes she has prepared from a book. She draws charts on old paper, writing them in an almost secret language. She wears multiple “jangling jade bangles” on her wrists to ward off evil. “Twice she abstained from wearing white for the entire year because it was unlucky for her sign.”

Xuan has been in the United States since 1975, yet she wears her American citizenship “with discomfort, like a pair of shoes half a size too small.” She sometimes wonders what happened to old friends in the former South Vietnam, but doesn’t really want to know. She is divorced from her husband, but still helps him run a local Vietnamese newspaper.

She recalls how happy she was when they had bought a new house in New Orleans. “In Vietnam, if you had something new, it meant you were rich. If you had something old, it meant you were poor. If you had nothing at all, it meant you were nothing. Simple as that.”

We read about the dragon dance and Vietnamese American funerals. We read about how the houses in South Vietnam had seemed to mourn the losses of their families who fled during the tumultuous events of 1975. We learn of someone claiming to be the last man to leave Vietnam, only to discover, according to Xuan, that “every man had been the last man to leave Vietnam – God forbid a man just admit he had been one of many to leave, driven out like common cattle.”

This story moves backward in time, all the way to ancient Vietnamese legends. At that point, we realize that time might not be moving at all, but is standing still.

When you finish this book, you may discover you’re reading a more serious story than you expected. Then again, maybe this is a book you were destined to read—as written in the stars.

–Bill McCloud

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

Christopher McCain-Nguyen was born in Vietnam and came to America as a student in 1966. He settled in the U.S. where he became a successful businessman. His debut novel, The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp., $16.99, paper; $2.40, Kindle), gestated for 25 years before it was published in 2021. He partially dedicates the book to “all the fighting men of the Republic of South Vietnam” and “members of the U.S. Armed Forces who sacrificed so much in the Vietnam War.”

Main character James Saito lives on a California farm with his wife and daughter from his first wife, Mai, who was left behind in the turmoil of the American evacuation from South Vietnam in 1975. The story flashes back to when Maj. Saito, an intelligence officer, arrives in Saigon in 1966. He meets the beautiful Mai the first day and falls head over heels for her. 

Mai was adopted by a doctor who supported the Thieu government. He was not exactly thrilled when an American asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, especially since Mai had been betrothed to Chung, a future doctor. Chung soon leaves to join the National Liberation Front as a doctor. The lives of these three people will be affected by the events in the war from 1967-75—and beyond.

This novel is not based on a true story, although McCain-Nguyen weaves facts (and opinions) about the war into the narrative. It’s a romance novel, but one that also has strong descriptions of the events that led to the fall of South Vietnam.

There are stretches of the book during which the main characters disappear and the book becomes basically a tutorial on the war. There is a good section on the Tet Offensive and a vivid description of the collapse in 1975. The story includes a rare glimpse of VC fighters living in the jungle.

Americans tend to stop reading about the war when it gets to 1973 and the withdrawal of the last U.S. combat troops, but the war buffets Mai and her friends and family after that. McCain-Nguyen forcefully condemns the U.S. for abandoning South Vietnam and has Chung muse about fighting for the wrong side.

He also explores the role of destiny in life. Mai stays in Saigon because it is her destiny, an Asian concept that puzzles James. Before the flashback kicks in, we learn that James is returning to Vietnam to see Mai before she dies of cancer. 

That was the biggest problem I had with the book. I appreciate an author wanting to be creative, but giving away the ending before the love story kicks in was a poor decision. It reduced the suspense. Also, the love triangle provides little tension because Chung is out of the competition early.

Although McCain-Nguyen put his heart and soul into the book and meant for it to enlighten as well as entertain, it is poorly edited and contains spelling and grammar problems. Reading it can be a bit distracting. 

If romance novels are not your cup of tea, you might enjoy this book because of its heavy dose of Vietnam War history. Perhaps too much, though, as the novel is long and the characters sometimes get overlooked in the long timeframe.

–Kevin Hardy