Fighting for Freedom by Charles F. Bolden Jr. and Gail Lumet Buckley

Charles F. Bolden Jr., and Gail Lumet Buckley’s Fighting for Freedom (D Giles, 80 pp., $16.95, paper) is the fifth in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Double Exposure” series. The book contains a series of captivating photos from the Civil War to the present day of men and women in uniform.

Though the writing is brief, tantalizing details emerge about African American military history most of us know nothing about. The writing accompanying the images is succinct and clear, adding enticing details.

The photos themselves, all sixty-two of them, are stunning in their beauty and power. There are many of groups of African American men and women troops, as well as single portraits and snapshots. It is striking to see photos of handsome young men, smiling with pride on the way to war. They are healthy and dignified, knowing they are going to serve their country. Then there are the images of men back from battle, their faces haunted, their shoulders slumped, exhaustion and pain etched in their faces.

Quite a few women are included, such Capt. Della Raney, who in 1942 became the first African American nurse accepted into the Army Nurse Corps, and all of the female members of the all-black, World War II 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

There is a photo of military training at Tuskegee, as well as one of a smaller group of Tuskegee airmen; a stereoscopic image of African American volunteers in the Philippines in 1899; a shot of Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the former Commanding General of American forces in Iraq; and one of two unidentified soldiers giving the soul power salute in Vietnam in 1967.

There are also a few photos of African American people going about their everyday lives—a wedding, a woman in a park in Washington, D.C.—that remind us that before and after war many black people had to fight for their own freedoms here at home. And that they had lives like everyone else— memories, pain, glories, and joys.

The book contains no preaching or proselytizing, making it even an even more powerful look at African Americans’ military experiences.

—Loana Hoylman

The Mighty Jungle by John A. Bercaw

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John A. Bercaw served in the U. S. Army, as well as in the Marine Corps and the National Guard. He spent a year in South Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and his experiences form the background of The Mighty Jungle (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $8.75, paper; $2.99, Kindle). In addition to this thriller, Bercaw is the author of Pink Mist, a memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam.

This novel has two main characters: a warrant officer pilot near the end of his time in the Vietnam War, and a young and very green infantry lieutenant. When their helicopter is shot down and crashes in the jungle, all the others are killed and these two characters are thrown together to attempt to evade capture and survive in that very hostile environment.

Bercaw is very graphic about what they encounter in the “mighty jungle.” Insects and other creepy crawlies the least of it. Spoiler warning: The green lieutenant does not make it. The warrant officer manages to barely survive capture (and torture) by the enemy, and ends up back in the safety of the U.S. Army. He is treated fairly and with compassion, which surprised me.

Dieter Dengler—the Navy pilot who was shot down, captured, and escaped his captivity in Laos—is cited. The Mighty Jungle has much of the flavor of Dengler’s classic book, Escape from Laos, and I was impressed that Bercaw had done his research so well.

This is an engrossing and exciting thriller and I very much enjoyed reading it. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” is quoted and never has it been more appropriate. The extreme misery of being lost in a jungle has never been portrayed with more intensity and realism. I put the book down with gratitude that my tour of duty in Vietnam did not involve any such adventure or risk.

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Bercaw in country

The aspect of the novel that unnerved me the most was the worms. The two characters eat worms and also produce them from both ends of their bodies.

I figured that the worms would do them in. I was half right. The medical personnel who work on the survivor are much focused on the small creatures who inhabited his body.

Showers, soap, and poison soon bring them under control, but the psychic trauma is not so easily dealt with.  Time and the love of a good woman helped some.

There’s a lesson in that.

—David Willson

Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Michael A. Eggleston

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After a thirty-year career in the U.S. Army, Michael A. Eggleston became a historian. His first five books focused on the American Civil War, U.S. Marines in World War I, and Vietnamization. He addresses a different aspect of the Vietnam War in Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 (McFarland, 224 pp. $35, paper;  $9.99, Kindle).

The North Vietnamese designed an offensive in and around Dak To, Eggleston writes, to try to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese forces away from the large cities, thereby setting the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. What’s called “Hanoi’s Plan” changed the enemy’s strategy from replying primarily on Viet Cong guerrilla warfare to a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive designed to “cause a spontaneous uprising [among South Vietnamese] in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest possible time.”

Con Thien, Dak To, and Khe Sanh were the primary NVA targets. In other words, the North expected to “win in a single stroke,” Eggleston says.

The plan appeared unrealistic and did not work, as Eggleston notes. At the same time, he explains a disparity in American strategic thinking regarding a choice between pacification and attrition programs. In the end, Gen. William Westmoreland’s costly body-counting war of attrition strategy prevailed.

The core of the book is a long chapter about the many battles fought along the Cambodian and Laotian borders near Dak To. This chapter alone—in which Eggleston recreates a series of hill battles—is worth the price of the book.

“Vietnam’s bloodiest campaign started on 15 June [1967], when the 24th NVA Regiment annihilated a CDIG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] patrol led by two U.S. Special Forces advisors near Dak To,” he writes. After that, the men of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade did the brunt of the fighting. The combat lasted until Thanksgiving.

The recounting of five days of fighting for Hill 875 tells as much about the horror of war as anything I have read. Eggleston calls this engagement “the costliest fight of the Vietnam War.”

Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles. Their actions and observations fascinated me; among them the fact that the extraordinary became routine. Additionally, Eggleston uses published memoirs by infantrymen, Combat Operations After Action Reports, secondary sources, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletter excerpts, TV reports, and other video sources. He also relies on personal knowledge gained during his two tours at Pleiku.

He concludes with a chapter, “Aftermath,” that summarizes what happened during the 1968 Tet Offensive and follow-on action across South Vietnam. And he takes the narrative up to 1975 when the North finally prevailed.

Eggleston is opinionated and readily points fingers at those he believes were responsible for America’s failure to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands. “If any single person can be blamed for precipitating our full involvement in the war in Vietnam,” he writes, for example, “it was [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” Eggleston also faults Gen. Westmoreland failing to see the war’s big picture. Additionally, he names and blames lower-level commanders who put their careers ahead of the lives of the men they led.

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Michael Eggleston

Along with a list of definitions for acronyms, he includes biographical sketches of key participants in the book, a chronology of Vietnamese history from 1930-77, unit organizations, and a list covering nineteen pages of the names of U.S. personnel killed in the Dak To fight.

Eggleston labels the organizational style of his writing a hybrid because it “merges the official history of the war with the oral history of people who were there.”

The depth of his research provides personalities for each of his accounts of battle. He delivers an extremely interesting approach to history.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War River Patrol by Richard H. Kirshen

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Second Class Petty Officer Richard H. Kirshen was a three-year Navy enlistee who served eighteen months in Vietnam in 1969-70. For much of that time he captained a Landing Craft, Mechanical (LCM) along the waterways near Nha Be and Cam Ranh Bay.

An LCM, he says, “is the boat you see in all the World War II movies where the soldiers run off the front onto the beach after the ramp is dropped.” In Vietnam, however, Kirshen and his three-man crew used the gunboat primarily to deliver supplies and troops to support bases. Another difference: Their LCM was a true gunboat; it carried two 50-caliber and two M-60 machine guns, along with an M-79 grenade launcher.

Ambushes and brief but furious firefights were a common part of life. Kirshen’s accounts of his crew’s experiences in Vietnam War River Patrol: A U.S. Gunboat Captain Returns to the Mekong Delta (McFarland, 260 pp; $29.95, paperback; $9.99, Kindle) make good reading. Among the most riveting: the section on what happened the night two enemy B-40 rockets hit the boat “right at the waterline” and blew the men into the water, after which the boat sank in “a matter of minutes.”

Kirshen, a long-time member of Vietnam Veterans of America, also talks about relatively under-reported war activities, such as his underwater duty as a diver, one of the few in-country, during the final six months of his tour.

These events comprise about half of the book. Kirshen intersperses his war memories with what he saw and did forty years later as a tourist on a vacation highlighted by eight days on the Mekong River aboard a luxury cruise ship.

Kirshen, his wife, and friends went to—among other places—Phnom Penh, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and Angkor Wat. In these sections he provides interesting historical background info, including detailed descriptions of the atrocities that took place during the 1975 Khmer Rouge holocaust.

At the same time, he repeatedly emphasizes the quality of food and service provided by the trip coordinators. These passages could be a sales pitch for the ship and the hotels where Kirshen and his party stayed.

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In general, Kirshen has a keen eye for detail, a ready sense of humor, and the skill to turn a phrase. One of his best lines: “That was a venue where M-16s and side arms were as common as a crooked politician or a sun visor in Miami.”

He includes an outstanding collection of photographs of both wartime and tourist subjects. Overall, the war stories top the vacation trip in interest, but Richard Kirshen gives the best he has in the latter case.

—Henry Zeybel

A Soldier’s Story by Richard F. Hogue

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Just the other day, I was thinking about something that happened twenty years ago. No big deal, right, in a life that spans eight-plus decades?

That evening I picked up A Soldier’s Story: Forever Changed: An Infantryman’s Saga of Life and Death in Vietnam by Richard F. Hogue (Richlyn Publishing, 418 pp. $17.93, paper; $5.49. Kindle).  In it, Hogue talks about a lot of men who got killed—eight from his platoon in one morning. Seven from his NCO class. Only one was older than twenty-one.

Hogue went on and on until I felt a distinct rush of guilt for the many years I have enjoyed while other equally deserving soldiers didn’t.

As well as anyone who tackled the topic, he makes the point that in his unit “we were expected to perform like men, while most of us were still boys.”

“Hound Dog” Hogue served as a squad leader—and occasionally platoon leader—for the Third Herd of the 25th Infantry Division, which operated out of Cu Chi. For six months in 1969-70, he led Reconnaissance in Force missions that included the usual medley of helicopter assaults, setting up night ambushes, and being ambushed. Then he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He was twenty-three years old.

“I had taken only a few steps when I heard a seemingly muffled explosion different from any other explosion I had heard in Vietnam,” he writes. “I immediately felt a terrific force and a blast of heat from the explosion, and in what seemed like slow motion, I fell backward onto the ground.

“I slowly raised my head to see what had happened to me. What I saw scared the hell out of me. Blood was squirting out of my lower left leg with every beat of my pounding heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to bleed to death. Lord, don’t let me die this way.’”

Hogue’s account of his medical treatment and recovery pays tribute to the many people who saved him. Much later, he says, “After seeing my friends killed in action, I knew I was fortunate.”

Hogue provides an interesting perspective on serving in Vietnam in a chapter titled “My War, Was It Worth It?” He had volunteered for the draft. After looking back on his wounds and post -war life, he concludes: “So my personal answer to the question…is ‘Yes.’”  d1caf254082f7a1d525192b5fc048345-army-shirts-united-states-army

A Soldier’s Story follows a path similar to We Were the Third Herd: An Infantryman’s Story of Survival in America’s Most Controversial War, Vietnam, which Hogue published in 2003. The latest book includes a detailed account of Hogue’s 2013 visit to Vietnam with fellow Third Herd veterans.

—Henry Zeybel

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Melody Hill by Rick DeStefanis

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Rick DeStefanis served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne from 1970-72.  He brings his military experiences as a paratrooper and infantry light weapons specialist to every page of his novel, Melody Hill (CreateSpace, 364 pp., paper; Kindle), a prequel to his award-winning The Gomorrah Principle).

Duff Coleridge leaves behind Melody Hill, Tennessee, when he joins the Army and heads to Vietnam. While in country, he somehow manages to stumble into the shadow warrior realms and gets involved in black ops. A beautiful woman is, of course, involved. And naturally she is half French and speaks perfect English.

Does she really love Duff, or is she just using him to get information for her own devious purposes? Duff’s immediate boss seems to be as crooked and untrustworthy as possible, and Duff seems headed for an early grave in the jungles of South Vietnam.

Duff’s boss, codenamed Spartan, is dealing black market arms to the VC, and that is not even the worst of his sins. Duff, however, can’t get to the bottom of it all without placing himself at ultimate risk. Will he carry on, expose Spartan, and get the girl, or will he end up dead in a water-soaked ditch with a bullet in his head? You might be surprised at the answer.

If you read and enjoyed The Gomorrah Principle, this book will be right up your alley.  John Wayne gets two mentions, but Rick DeStafanis is much more interested in pop songs such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Moon River,” and “Sea of Love” than in 1950s cowboy movie stars. Which is refreshing.

The author’s website is http://rickdestefanis.com/vietnam-war-novel-melody-hill

—David Willson