Swift Boats at War in Vietnam edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway

Vietnam War Swift Boats exemplified a one-of-a-kind weapons system from 1965-70. They were designed and built for intercepting North Vietnamese trawlers that supplied NVA and VC troops in South Vietnam. In late 1968, their mission expanded to patrolling rivers, streams, and canals, which greatly increased their contact with the enemy.

The fifty-foot-long Swift Boats’ main strength was an ability to “outrun anything they couldn’t outfight,” the crewmen said.

On Swift Boats, an Officer in Charge commanded five crewmen and enjoyed virtually total independence of operation. Only 116 Swift Boats took part in the Vietnam War, manned by about 600 officers and some 3,000 enlisted men. Nearly all the men were in their early to mid-twenties. Fifty Swift Boat sailors were killed in Vietnam, and 400 wounded.

Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway have combined their experience and knowledge to put together Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (Stackpole, 328 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $15.65, Kindle), an oral history. Gugliotta, a former journalist, and Yeoman earned three Bronze Stars each while commanding Swift Boats. Sullaway’s expertise centered on peaceful maritime activities.

Their book’s chapters tell the Swift Boat story chronologically from 1965-70—the life of the American operation. Thereafter, the boats were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Each chapter begins with a review of official monthly Operations Summaries for a given year. Then comes a series of oral histories from crewmen who served on Swift Boats during that year.

A large number of Swift Boat veterans responded to the editors’ requests for stories about their war experiences. Those selected for the book strike many emotional notes: humorous, sad, bitter, sardonic, enlightened. Their testimony reflects the pride of the crews and provides a vivid view of Swift Boats and their crews at war and at rest in Vietnam.

The book’s photographs are significantly enhanced by captions that explain the pictures, such as one showing a boat’s 81-mm mortar, aimed like a cannon, which “could accurately hit targets 4,000 meters away. In the horizontal mode, accuracy was good to about 1,000 yards.”

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam is an ideal place to begin reading for anyone unfamiliar with the subject. Those who know about the boats should be entertained by the range of feelings displayed in the short war-time stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Women Vietnam Veterans by Donna A. Lowery

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This encyclopedic volume is a valuable in-depth  history told in the words of women who served in the Vietnam War from 1962-1972. A book team of twenty members collaborated in producing  Women Vietnam Veterans: Our Untold Stories (AuthorHouse, 733 pp., $36.99, hardcover;  $25.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Donna A. Lowrey, who served in Vietnam in 1967-69. 

The book contains the words of enlisted women and officers—other than nurses—who served in Vietnam during the war. The extensive databases and indices in this work are guides to this historical cornucopia containing the contributions of hundreds of female veterans.

The Army, Air Force, Marine, and Navy are all represented. I recommend a close look at the lists prior to reading the oral histories and biographical sketches, which are arranged chronologically according to when the veterans served in Vietnam. The entries would have been better had they included the homes of record of the veterans. I found connections to my own service in the extensive lists.

Readers will discover a wide spectrum of jobs and combat zone tales,  from humorous to tragic. Women served as physical therapists, switchboard operators, clerk typists, journalists, nutritionists, comptrollers, and staff Judge Advocates, among many other jobs. Many of the accounts recall the same February 18, 1968, night attack when the Viet Cong blew up the ammo dump at Long Binh.

Spec. 5 Sonia Gonzalez, a clerk typist, was new in-country when the attack woke her and she scrambled to the safety of the first floor of her barracks. “I managed to get my issue [clothes] on,” she said. “We stayed there until the next morning. A formation was called and as roll was being taken, everyone started laughing. My pants were on backwards; my uncomfortable boots pointed outward with the left boot on the right and the right boot on my left.”

Several veterans share other memories of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Some marked their arrival in Vietnam by the length of time until Bob Hope’s Christmas Show. Maj. Betty Jean Stallings recalled the Hope show being broadcast on Armed Forces Vietnam Television: “Once when I had to walk down the hall, I realized the same TV show was coming out of every office. The next day, it was easy to see who had seen the show in person and who had watched on TV. Those who had watched in person were quite sunburned.” I might add that I was there photographing the show that hot day.

 

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Donna Lowery

 
Geckos, bats, cockroaches, rats, and mosquitoes are described by many of the contributors—along with hot, wet, and humid weather, hygiene matters, living quarters, clubs, and Post Exchanges.

 

Morale is  the subject of many of these recollections. Spec. 5 Ida Colford wrote to the governor of Maine in November 1967 asking for a fresh Christmas tree. A month later, a Pan Am jet delivered a nine-foot Maine Balsam to Saigon. “It lifted the spirits of all of us so far from home,” Colford said.

So did the formation of a quintet in 1966 called “The Bootleggers of Old Long Binh.” The group wrote songs and performed at their base. There was also a 27-member Women’s Army Corps Drill Team that performed at the WAC Detachment.

Today’s parlance could be used to describe the typical women’s work schedule as 24/7. After their twelve-hour days, many volunteered at jobs such as visiting children in orphanages. Marine Sgt. Ermelinda Salazar worked at St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage, home to 75 children.”This whole orphanage is taken care of by two Catholic sisters,” she said. “The two sisters are Vietnamese who speak no English at all.”

 
Many of the reports describe combat situations such as what the late Mary Van Ette Bender experienced. She served as an Army Chief Warrant Officer and found herself guarding her hotel billet during the 1968 Tet offensive in Saigon. “The MPs guarding the building had been killed almost immediately,” she said. “I was then asked by a male officer to guard the stairwell to the third floor. He then gave me grenades and instructed me to blow up the stairwell in the event that the Viet Cong were able to take the bottom two floors.” CWO Bender was awarded two Bronze Stars for  defending her billet and the women inside. 
 
There are too many poems, songs, letters, and opinions pro and con on the Vietnam War to include here. I found a veteran who worked in the same Engineer Command building where I served at Long Binh in 1970. Sgt. Maryna Misiewicz served as Administrative NCO/ Attache Specialist to Gen. A.B. Dillard, our commander. 
Tragically, he and serveral others were  killed in a helicopter crash. When Sgt. Misiewicz returned home she attended Gen. Dillard’s funeral.
 
—Curt Nelson

The Soldiers’ Story By Ron Steinman

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First published in 1999 in conjunction with a six-hour Learning Channel documentary series, Ron Steinman’s The Soldiers’ Story: An Illustrated Edition: Vietnam in Their Own Words has been republished in a new, large-format, expanded edition (Wellfleet Press, 400 pp., $28).

Steinman served as the NBC News bureau chief in Saigon “through much of 1966, all of 1967, and most of 1968,” he tells us in the book’s Introduction. Steinman also tells us that his “mandate” for the TV show (and the previous editions of this book) was to tell the stories of men “in battle” through their own words. The result here is a long, profusely illustrated book that, indeed, concentrates heavily on first-person testimony from American soldiers and Marines who saw battle action in the war.

There are six chapters—on The Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, The Siege height-200-no_border-width-200of Khe Sanh, The Tet Offensive, The Secret War (mostly in Laos and Cambodia), The Air War, and The Fall of Saigon. Steinman provides context, and seventy-seven men provide the voices of combat.

The book is handsomely produced. And the stories told by the former combatants ring true. We are given many riveting descriptions of all forms of combat.

Reading this book would give the uninformed the idea that the American war in Vietnam was one long series of battle action. That’s because the voices of the overwhelming majority of men and women who served in support roles in the Vietnam War are absent. Still, that was not Steinman’s mission, and he delivers what he promises: real-life stories of men in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

 

There and Back by Lisa A. Lark

Lisa A. Lark, the author of There and Back: The Vietnam War Through the Eyes of Those Who Lived It (M.T. Publishing Company, Inc., 136 pp., $39.95), also has written All They Left Behind: Legacies of the Men and Women on The Wall, which was published in 2012 in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Lark is an English teacher at Edsel Ford High School in Dearborn, Michigan, and teaches writing at Henry Ford Community College. Her new commemorative book is dedicated to the 58,300 men and women who gave their lives in the Vietnam War. The contributors to There and Back include more than a hundred Vietnam veterans, along with members of the families of a dozen who did not make it home—families that donated their memories and photographs to this timeline of the war.

Beautifully designed and prepared, this coffee-table-sized book contains more than 300 photos, many in color. Through these photos and accounts the reader is guided through the day-to-day lives of veterans involved in nearly every aspect of the war from 1959-75.

The text contains three main sections:

“Getting There” takes the reader back to the first inkling that the draft board may be calling, or the decision to volunteer, and then what the journey was like once inducted into military service.

“Getting Through” covers being part of America’s involvement in the war.

“Getting Back” shares the memories of veterans as they marked the days off on their short-timer calendars awaiting the Freedom Bird flight back to The World.

No matter where, when, or how one served during the Vietnam War, this book will surely evoke the reader’s own memories. For those who did not serve in that war, this compilation of veteran memories and quality photographs will paint a vivid picture of what that experience was like.

—James P. Coan

Tours of Duty Edited by Michael Lee Lanning

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee Lanning is one of the most prolific Vietnam veteran writers. Many of his twenty-one military-themed nonfiction books deal with the Vietnam War.

That includes the well-received memoirs he wrote about his tour of duty in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam (1987) and Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal (1988), as well as Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam (1988), Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces (1992), and Inside the Crosshairs: Snipers in Vietnam (1998). He also wrote a comprehensive guide to Vietnam War films called Vietnam at the Movies (1994).

 

Lee Lanning

Lanning’s latest book is Tours of Duty: Vietnam War Stories (Stackpole, 288 pp., $18.95, paper), a collection of tales from some forty other Vietnam War veterans that Lanning collected and edited.

Virtually all are told by men who served combat-heavy tours of duty. Don’t therefore look between these covers for the voices of cooks, clerks, truck drivers, or other support personnel. Many of the tale tellers—like Lanning—served with the 199th.

Lanning chose not to put names with these first-person stories. But, he says, he can “personally testify to the veracity of some because ‘I was there.’ Others were related to me over the years by soldiers whom I hold in high regard. Names have been left out to protect both the guilty and innocent.”

The author’s website is www.michaelleelanning.com

—Marc Leepson

Our Sons, Our Heroes by Linda Jenkin Costanzo

Gold Star Mothers are the mothers whose sons (or daughters) didn’t come home from war. Their Vietnam War stories are documented in an oral history from Linda Jenkin Constanzo, Our Sons, Our Heroes: Memories Shared by America’s Gold Star Mothers from the Vietnam War (Sonrisa Press, 216 pp., $14.95, paper).

The organization began in 1928, for mothers who’d lost sons in World War I. It grew in numbers after the war, and was instrumental in attaining a small pension for surviving mothers. Gold Star Mothers offered support for the grieving, but also was devoted to services such as volunteer work in veterans hospitals.

According to Ann Biber, a former national president, the organization has dwindled since World War II, and is now quite small. But you do not have to belong to a formal organization to be a Gold Star Mother, and Constanzo has gathered the testimony of sixteen women, members and non-members alike, filling a small gap in the ongoing story of the legacy of the Vietnam War. In each account she first tells the story of the soldier or Marine who perished, then recounts how his mother carried on with life.

Every story is touching. Shirley Popoff, mother of Marine Corporal Curtis Crawford, relates how, shortly after her son’s death, she was harassed by an antiwar activist. She then became obsessed with grief, to the point that she turned into a crank at work, and was referred to counseling. Finally, she channeled her grief into constructive activities with the national organization, turning an ugly, bewildering experience into something positive.

The fullest entry may be Virginia Dabonka’s, which includes several letters from her son, PFC John Dabonka. He was an intelligent young man with some sweeping observations about the war, and an engaging writing style. His mother is similarly intelligent, and wise. But all of these accounts, as they try to make sense of senseless loss, also are about love.

Costanzo asked each contributor what she would say to her son if she could. Lance Corporal Stephen Boryszewski’s mother, Theresa, offers words that could speak for every Gold Star Mother:

“He was such a good boy. If I could tell him something, I would tell him, ‘Stephen, you are such a hero who sacrificed your life for the people of Vietnam, for your country, and for freedom. Stephen, I love you and wish you could be here. Love, Mom.’”

Mothers—or fathers, for that matter—are not supposed to outlive their children. For those facing lifelong grief over the loss of a son or daughter in war, Costanzo’s book offers a path out of despair.

—John Mort

The Boys of Benning edited by Dan Telfair

The Boys of Benning (Authorhouse, 384 pp., $19.95, paper) is a tribute to fifteen 1962 Fort Benning OCS graduates. The co-editors—Dan Telfair, Zia Telfair, and Thomas B. Vaughn—say they have done more proofreading than editing. The narratives, therefore, come across like tales spun by your grandpa sitting in front of a fireplace.

This book is the result of a 2012 class reunion that took place in Columbus, Georgia. The surviving members of the class renewed a common bond and agreed to write a book together. No man is an island, and while only fifteen stories are presented in the book, many other soldiers are included.

The families of these men deserve credit for their supporting roles during family separations, training, wartime, and well into the retirement years of the former officers. In the Preface, Retired Army Col. Vaughn notes that this book was written primarily for family and friends. “If this book gains a wider audience, we will all be pleasantly surprised,” he says.

This writer thinks a pleasant surprise is in store. Simply put, The Boys of Benning-–and the boys’s families—deserve the recognition. The collection of Benning narratives reminds us that wars are fought by ordinary people who are often called to do extraordinary things. Self-sacrifice, suffering, and death paint a more realistic picture of war than Hollywood and recruiting posters do. Personal integrity is often challenged. An OCS board colonel, for example, asked Rudy Baker:  “Sergeant, are you prejudiced?”  Baker replied, “Yes sir, I guess I am to some extent, considering where I was raised, but it will never interfere in any military duties I have to perform.”

The organizational and leadership skills the men learned in their military training often carried over into their civilian careers. A strong sense of determination to succeed fostered by their OCS training,seemed to last well throughout the 50 years since their graduation. Post-military occupations include a diversity of activities, from flipping burgers at McDonald’s to teaching in college. But among all the men, there continued to be a sense of duty and response to commitments.

While all of the men describe their Vietnam War experiences, some are more graphic than others.  Retired Lt. Col. Ken Weitzel, who grew up in Berea, Ohio, fought in the 1965 Battle of Ia Drang Valley. That engagement was one of the bloodiest in the war, and included hand-to-hand combat, as well as close-in  air strikes. Every platoon leader was wounded and most of them died.

The reader might expect to hear bitterness in the tone of these veterans. It says much about the character of these men, though, that no sense of anger or long-held hostility comes through. What does come through is loyalty to family and country and appreciation for the opportunities that came their way. The bond that was formed in Georgia in ‘62 remains strong today.

Retired Col. Dallas Cox explains that bond by quoting from the diary of Mai Van Hung, a North Vietnamese soldier he never met. “How frustrating life is! To whom should I unburden myself? In whom should I confide? Who can understand my pent-up feelings? No one could possibly, except us, the soldiers!”

—Joseph Reitz