Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman

Bury Him by Doug Chamberlain

In  Bury Him: A Memoir of the Viet Nam War (Love the West Publications, 348 pp., $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Doug Chamberlain, a former U.S. Marine Corps Captain, has penned a well-written and engaging look at his time in the Corps, concentrating on his 1967-68 tour of duty commanding Echo Company, in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in the 1st Marine Division in South Vietnam.

Chamberlain, who grew up in eastern Wyoming and western Nebraska, writes about his rural childhood and upbringing, which was agrarian and lonesome, a theme he follows throughout the book. He joined the Marines to avoid the draft, he says, and writes about his basic and advanced training with little fanfare.

He also talks about of the “agony” of deciding finally to write this book, and the support of friends who helped him in that undertaking. His return to The World was unheralded, even by family and friends. He describes his ensuing PTSD and its continuing effect on his life and careers.

The book’s title becomes apparent about half way through when Chamberlain writes about what happened when his unit came across the decomposing body of a fellow Marine and he called for a Medevac chopper to recover the remains. Someone at headquarters refused to authorize that, then told him: “Bury Him. Don’t Rock The Boat. This Is An Order.” The patrol did bury the remains, with the regret and horror that came with breaking the “leave no man behind” military credo.

Chamberlain goes on to write about the turmoil, both physical and psychological, that he and his fellow Marines faced after they tried to recover the remains of the Marine they were ordered to bury, including dealing with a decision to bomb the area to obliterate the remains. The man’s family had to endure two funerals—one for the initially recovered left leg, and the other for the rest of the remains. Chamberlain lived with that deceit and dishonor for more than 40 years before he chanced upon an investigator who helped him discover the details that went into writing this book.

On its face, Bury Him is one man’s story of redemption and closure—and a well written one at that. More deeply, it’s the story of Doug Chamberlain exposing a deeply flawed command layer that pervaded the entire Vietnam War.

Chamberlain’s website is marinedougchamberlain.com

–Tom Werzyn

Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

Winter Phoenix by Sophia Terazawa

The poems in Sophia Terazawa’s Winter Phoenix: Testimonies in Verse (Deep Vellum Publishing, 140 pp. $16, paper; $15.20, Kindle) serve as witness to a series of war atrocities. A poet and performer of Vietnamese-Japanese descent, Terazawa holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and is the author of two award-winning poetry chapbooks.

The poems in the Winter Phoenix—some of which were published in The Iowa Review, The Cincinnati Review, Salt Hill Journal, The Seattle Review, and Sundog Lit—are a form of found poetry based on veterans’ testimonies during internationally publicized events, including the Winter Soldier Investigation held by Vietnam Veterans Against the War in Detroit in 1971, and the Bertram Russell International War Crimes Tribunal in Stockholm in 1966.

Terazawa says these poems are about her “ongoing survival as the daughter of her mother.” The book can be read as eighty poems, or as six poems, or even just one long one. There are several different forms of poems, and poems within poems. Taking the overall form of a war crimes tribunal, the poems speak of accusations and allegations, atrocities, violence, trauma, and witness. Each consists of an opening statement, witness oaths, exhibits, supplemental diagrams, testimony, cross-examination, redactions, bylaws, a final report, and a closing statement. In all, they are “a cry for justice.”

These lines that jumped out at me during multiple readings of the book:

She was shot before they called her young.”

“Our trials happened but we never happened.”

“Stars inside my mouth” and the men kept changing places, “Slapping high-fives.”

“How do trials make another body absent?”

“women, hunted, were first shot then stabbed—each comma,/here, most crucial to our story, hence, delineating men from action/during war—a woman, hunted, was then killed upon another hill./These facts are very simple.”

“Losing count of war crimes meant a war crime never happened. Therefore, I was tortured.”

“Then all was silent in your

language, and my language”

“Somewhere in a thicket

There were rabbits screaming. Stop.”

“Uphill, in a country not my own, I found her body, sir.

From that body I could write our book of testimonies. But I could not write this by myself.”

“Why did you just stand there and say nothing?”

The final poem includes an alphabet running backwards, as if it’s leading us back to a time before there was a language to describe the atrocities of war. But even then there would be a witness and a silent accusation: Why did you not do something?

This is a consciousness-raising work of literature.

–Bill McCloud


An Unholy Mess by Richard J. Dobbyn III

Duty as a military policeman provides a view of Army life that few people see. Working that duty in a war zone distorts its perspective in many ways. In An Unholy Mess (235 pp. $14, paper, $7.99, Kindle), Richard J. Dobbyn III recounts his two-year career as an MP officer, centered around his 1966-67 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Dobbyn first worked from Long Binh and then in downtown Saigon. He quickly learned to rely on guidance from his senior NCOs. His stories reflect a spirit of seeking fairness in any endeavor. His outspoken manner got him into trouble.

At times, his values quivered when he cut corners and overlooked misbehavior to help others as well as himself, but his better instincts always prevailed. From his position of MP authority, he helped the confused and downtrodden. He made friends with unhappy draftees, homeless children, and disillusioned Vietnamese colleagues. He admits to drinking too much too often.

You can’t help but like the guy and root for him. Dobbyn’s security duties exposed him to his fair share of danger, including escorting truck convoys. “Rule number one,” with that job, he writes, “when getting fired upon, keep moving as fast as you can. That was also rule number two, three, et cetera.” He also worked alongside Explosive Ordnance Disposal troops,lived next to an ammo dump that was blown up by the Viet Cong, and supervised cleaning up dead bodies after attacks and bombings in Saigon.

Offbeat all the way, he took his R&R to Penang, Malaysia—making new friends and doing some leisurely all-night drinking.

Dick Dobbyn

Dobbyn’s military life makes up the second half of An Unholy Mess. In the first half, he details what it was like growing up in Boston as the son of a World War II veteran.

At six foot four, Dick Dobbyn was a big-time jock in high school. He spins rite-of-passage tales from his boyhood and college years. That includes jobs as a drummer in a rock and roll band, a cab driver, a disc jockey for a jazz radio show, a lifeguard on Cape Cod, a basketball coach for pre-teens, and a human lab rat at Harvard Medical School. With full transparency he shows how these experiences influenced his life-long thinking and behavior.

He earned a commission from the Boston College ROTC program and volunteered for the Military Police based on his mother’s insistence to “Stay the hell out of the infantry and anything to do with tanks or big guns.”

Dobbyn capped his Army career as commander of an aggression force during summer National Guard training. Being recalled for Guard duty well after his discharge from active duty angered him. On the borderline of insubordination for two weeks, he masterfully outmaneuvered and embarrassed his superiors before again marching out of the Army and back into a happy civilian life with his wife and two sons, never to return.

Dobbyn’s website is anunholymess.net

–Henry Zeybel

The Asian Queen by Fred Yager

Fred Yager’s, The Asian Queen (Hannacroix Creek Books, 195 pp. $16.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), is a delightful homage to the book and classic Humphrey Bogart/Katherine Hepburn film, The African Queen. Yager, a poet and novelist, served in the U.S. Navy, including an eighteen-month tour of duty as an embedded journalist and designated war correspondent in the Vietnam War.

The novel is set in 1977 with Monty Tipton living aboard his 32-foot refurbished Navy PBR while he motors up and down the rivers of Vietnam and its neighboring countries. Tipton’s a veteran of the Vietnam War who has decided to stay in Southeast Asia. His boat has been his home for the last eight of his 32 years. He has a reputation for being a loner with a weakness for booze and young Thai girls.

Tipton has been making his living—enough to keep him in fuel and cans of Foster’s beer—by smuggling Cambodians out of the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge at a hundred bucks a head. It’s becoming increasingly dangerous, though, and Tipton tells himself that he might just make one last trip into Cambodia.

He typically takes his human cargo to a refugee camp in Thailand. A young woman, Esther Brafford, has recently begun working at the camp, which is sponsored by the U.N. Refugee Commission. She would like to go into Cambodia and treat people. She’s also heard of atrocities on a mass scale being carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Since the U.N. and the U.S. government seem to be ignoring the atrocities, she wants to bring back photographic evidence that would push the Western world to step in.  

Fred Yager

Esther recruits our reluctant, antihero to take her into Cambodia by telling him she knows the location of some buried treasure. After a couple of days on their way to a country that Tipton says “smells like death,” Esther learns that the boat’s engine is on its last legs and her companion typically drinks ten beers a day, then has to drink Jack Daniels at night to stave off nightmares of the war.

They dodge mines, fend off frightening water rats, and evade gunboat blockades. The two are constantly bickering. She calls him a “disgusting degenerate alcoholic.” He counters with: “Of all the boats in the Delta, why’d she have to come aboard mine?”

Writing an homage to a classic work is not as easy as you might think. You don’t just copy the work; you tell a similar, recognizable tale while maintaining the spirit of the original one. Fred Yeager has done that—and more—and in the process has created a love letter to the original film.

–Bill McCloud

13 Months by Bruce A. Bastien

“It doesn’t take long to ‘saddle up,’” Bruce Bastien writes in his memoir, 13 Months: In the Bush, In Vietnam, In 1968 (iUniverse, 121 pp. $43.98, hardcover; $32.63, paper: 99 cents, Kindle), “when you’ve been sleeping on the ground in your clothes, wearing your boots, and all your gear has been packed tight waiting right next to you. So we got up and strapped on the backpacks, weapons and ammo, and everything else we owned. Off we went down the road.”

With a style that ranges from sobering to haunting, Bastien recounts his 1968-69 tour as a Marine mortarman with Kilo Company of the Third Battalion, Fifth Marine Regiment in Quảng Nam Province, just southwest of Danang. He was one of countless Marines fighting during mini-Tet against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong in the months following the January-February 1968 Tet Offensive.

Bastien describes compelling, sometimes poetic, scenes of men in action and at rest. He illustrates each with modest detail and invites the reader to visualize the rest. Especially striking is his recollection of the effects of going without water in a combat environment in 100-degree heat. He writes of exhaustion, misery and fear, as well as hallucinations. During one, he watched as—unable to endure the weight of his backpack anymore—his arms fell off.

Through the spring and summer of 1968, Bastien’s unit fought its way across Go Noi, an island in the Thu Bồn River. Heavily fortified by the NVA, rife with enemy bunkers and tunnels, Go Noi was the scene of three U.S. military operations.

Reflecting on the first, Operation Allen Brook, Bastein conveys the bleak challenges faced by every man there:

“From then on, we swept, searched, and destroyed. We looked to contact the enemy, and when it was made, we engaged, fought, and called in artillery or air strikes until they were killed or retreated—and then we pressed on and did it all over again. We covered the same territory again and again. This might go on for weeks. We did not know. In fact, we didn’t know what later that day would bring, let alone how long this would last.”

With no way of knowing, Bastien and his buddies did what men in war have done forever: They watched out for each other and they endured. Many of his buddies’ stories are shared here, which is to Bastien’s credit. His book is proof of his commitment to preserve his recollections and those of his fellow Marines after the website they had made for their unit came to an end. 

The many stories Bastien gives us and actual book itself deserve praise. Larger in size than most books, the text is well laid out, with good spacing between letters and lines. There are also many photos. The images are large, in color, and starkly show how young these men were. The pictures also testify that, despite the brutal conditions in which the Marines lived and fought, they were still capable of good cheer—and could still feel hope.

–Mike McLaughlin

UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/VC Forces by Peter E. Davies

Veteran military historian Peter E. Davies’ UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/VC Forces: Vietnam 1962-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the book for anyone who wants to know just about everything about the UH-1 Huey helicopter in the Vietnam War. Rich in photographs and illustrations, this concise book examines and explains virtually every detail about that famed helicopter, from its inception to its war-fighting variants. The Huey, formally named the Iroquois based on the Army’s use of American tribal names for its helicopters, was the backbone of U.S. air mobility warfare in Vietnam.

In this tightly focused study of only eighty pages Davies—aided by illustrators Jim Laurier and Gareth Hector—takes the reader from the first use of helicopters in combat to the development of the gunship as an assault helicopter. Davies goes step-by-stop from concept through design innovation, evaluation, and the emergence of a new capability on the battlefield. He then discusses air mobility in the Vietnam War and how tactics and weapons evolved to meet a changing battlefield.

He also addresses the counterstrategy the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese developed to try to neutralize the challenges of air mobility. In doing so, Davies examines NVA and VC tactics and weapons systems and how they evolved to meet the air-assault threat.

The limits of the helicopter in fighting in the Vietnam were exposed during Operation Lam Son 719 in 1971 when the NVA set up an intensive anti-aircraft artillery defense in Laos, taking a heavy toll on the assaulting helicopter force. 

Although this book is well researched, I found a few minor errors. Davies writes, for example, that the 1st Cavalry Division’s fixed-wing aircraft (the CV-2 Caribous and OV-1 Mohawks) were turned over to the U.S. Air Force in 1966. In fact, the Mohawks remained with the 1st Cav. 

That said, UH-1 Huey Gunship vs NVA/ VC Forces is an outstanding reference book. For anyone looking for a well-informed examination of Hueys in the Vietnam War, this is it.

–John Cirafici

Memoirs of a Grunt by Gary Henderson

Gary Henderson’s Memoirs of a Grunt: On The Ground In Vietnam 68/69, (117 pp. $19.95, Paper; $3.99, Kindle) is not a story-telling book but a cut-and-dried memoir that reads much like a journal or diary. Reading it, I learned a lot about what Henderson did during his tour of duty in Vietnam, but struggled to visualize much of it. Henderson arrived in-country on August, 13, 1968. Three days later we was assigned to C Company in the 1st Brigade, 1/327th Infantry, of the 101st Airborne Division at Fire Support Base Bastogne west of Hue. He was immediately given the nickname “Tennessee,” and thrown into the mix of daytime patrols and nighttime ambushes. Throughout this memoir Henderson shows us much of what many U.S. Army grunts experienced in the Vietnam War.

Memoirs of a Grunt has a useful glossary and a list of items (including their weight) regularly carried by most infantrymen. It also has an annotated map identifying some of the places where Henderson saw action—and pics, lots of pics. You can find more of Henderson’s pictures on his website. memoirsofagrunt.smugmug.com

It’s a truism that war is often made up of long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. In his book Henderson writes mostly about that boredom. But don’t let that scare you away from reading it. He is so open and honest that some of what he reveals is downright embarrassing, including things that many of us have done, but elect not to discuss.

He writes about career soldiers’ penchant for volunteering for combat duty for the sole purpose of building their resumes—and receiving rank and decorations. What happened in Vietnam was that many of those who had rank didn’t have the experience or competence needed to lead men in combat or to make good life-and-death decisions.

On March 23, 1969, Henderson was badly wounded and medically evacuated. He spent nearly a year and a half recovering in hospitals in Japan and at Ft. Campbell undergoing five surgeries and then was medically discharged.

I enjoyed reading Memoirs of a Grunt. I now feel that I know Gary Henderson. I believe others will enjoy reading it as well.

–Bob Wartman