Once We Flew Vol. II by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.

The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.

After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.

Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.

During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing.  As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.

Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.

This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.

Sepesy’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Tom Werzyn

Last Summer Boys by Bill Rivers

Last Summer Boys (Lake Union Publishing, 285 pp. $14.95, paper; $1.99, Kindle) is a novel by Bill Rivers. An outstanding student, Rivers went into public service after college. He worked in the Senate and then was a speechwriter for former Secretary of Defense James Mattis. A prized memento from his childhood, a part from a crashed jet he found, is the genesis for this book about four boys in the summer of 1968.

The story takes place in rural Pennsylvania. The Eliot family lives in a two-hundred-year-old house. Pete is the oldest of three boys. Will is the middle child, and the youngest is Jack, the who is focus of the story, as we see that fateful summer through his eyes. 

The brothers are joined by their bright cousin Frankie because the big city he lives in is being roiled by the aftermath of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Part of the novel involves introducing the city boy to life in the country. Frankie is game and bonds especially with Jack. 

In 1968 Jack knows from watching the nightly news that South Vietnam has become a dangerous place. Pete is going to turn 18 on the 4th of July and Jack has nightmares about his brother being in the “murderous jungles.” He gets it in his head that if his brother becomes famous, he can’t be drafted. So Jack decides that Pete should find the wreck of a jet fighter that went down in the area.

All the boys go on the quest. Besides this adventure, the book describes other incidents in a summer to remember. They tangle with a motorcycle gang. They go to a drive-in movie where Will impresses the local beauty. A camping trip becomes perilous. They go to a cemetery one spooky night.

The book contains a lot of nostalgia for Baby Boomers. Hell, the boys even catch fireflies. A fire that threatens their home. It’s not the only example of the role Mother Nature plays in the story.

Bill Rivers

I use the word “nostalgia” because it best describes the book, not just because the boys have adventures that many will be able to relate to. If you grew up in the suburbs or the country in the 1950 and 60s, chances are you will be able to relate to at least one of the incidents. If you are a Boomer or older, you will smile at all the things the boys do that the later generations’ parents would have heart attacks over. 

Nostalgia also covers some of the characters as Rivers includes stereotypes like a greedy land developer, a motorcycle gang leader, and a creepy boy who likes to start fires. All the characters are so well-drawn, though, that you won’t cringe over any of them. The adventures are also familiar, but the results are often unpredictable.

Rivers is a polished writer. He had me from page one when he described a man’s temper as “like coals glowing in the hearth late at night.” The book is full of such deft analogies. The exposition connecting the adventures fleshes out the characters and keeps the book flowing at a brisk pace. 

The boys manage to cram in a lot in one summer. The book reads like a series of short stories, all of which are interesting.  

The book’s website is lastsummerboys.com

–Kevin Hardy

Chinatown by Thuận

Chinatown (New Directions, 184 pp. $16.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by the acclaimed Vietnamese novelist Thuận (translated by Nguyen An Ly) is a compact story that encompasses worlds of time. This post-post-modern story is written in one continuous paragraph with no breaks of any kind, emphasizing that it’s a collection of words packed between two covers.

Chinatown is a breathless stream-of-consciousness story that speeds along although the narrator remains sitting in one place as we become aware of her thoughts. Thuận (Đoàn Ánh Thuận) was born in Hanoi in 1967 during the height of the American war, and lives in Paris. This is her twelfth novel and the first to be translated into English. She is a recipient of the Writers’ Union Prize, the highest award in Vietnamese literature.

The story begins with a Paris Metro train stopped at a small station sometime in the early 2000s. An abandoned duffel bag is found that could be a bomb and has brought all movement to a halt.

A middle-aged Vietnamese woman on the train begins to think back on her life. She recalls a past love, Thuy, who remains a constant memory. He was her friend during their early school years. Born in Vietnam, his “slanted eyes” and Chinese ethnicity made him an outcast in school and the village.

Although the two became close, her parents never mentioned his name during her three years of high school and five years at university in Russia. They were married for a short time and had a son. They’ve been apart for twelve years. He works as an architect in the Cholon section of Saigon, known as Chinatown.

Thuận

As her thoughts bounce around, the narrator realizes how stressful her life has become in France. She teaches at a secondary school in a Paris suburb and speaks French with a jumbled accent. Aside from memories of her past love, she ponders a son and a male friend she refers to as “the guy.” But Thuy is always on her mind. While her greatest fear is that she will never see him again, she also thinks she “can’t imagine” meeting him again.

Her thoughts stray to her hairdresser and how to cook a snake. She also inserts short sections of what may become a chapter in a novel she’s writing. She occasionally recalls memories of a dreamed-of future.

There are frequent repetitions of a single thought, both within a page and from one page to another. My first look at this book, with its unbroken pages of text, led me to fear it might be difficult to read. It turns out I shouldn’t have been concerned because the lack of chapters and other page breaks led naturally to a nonstop reading experience, and the book flows as the story unfolds.

Chinatown is an interesting story told in a most interesting way.

–Bill McCloud

Her Father’s Land by Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1968 with the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote about it a 2001 memoir, DMZ Diary. Kelly has now produced a novel, Her Father’s Land (Booklocker.com, 418 pp., $22.02, paper; $2.99,Kindle), which is inspired by his experiences in Vietnam.

He served at a fire base built on the site of a razed hamlet. The gravestones caused him to wonder what it must have been like for the villagers to abandon their homes there, along with the graves of their ancestors. So Kelly has set Her Father’s Land at Fire Base Alpha-3, the closest American base to the DMZ, and interweaves the stories of U.S. Marine, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong characters into the novel.

With Alpha-3 within range of North Vietnamese artillery, the new battalion commander, Col. Favors, is not thrilled about being a sitting target. He feels Marines are best used in an aggressive manner. One of his best men is Lance Cpl. Tim “Monk” Montgomery.

An NVA officer named Huang Van Nhu is in charge of operations against Alpha-3. He and the main character, a female Viet Cong cadre named Tran Xuan Ha, are a couple. Ha goes undercover to get information from an incompetent, cowardly Marine lieutenant named Jones who uses connections (his uncle, a U.S. Senator) to transfer to USAID. 

Getting himself out of Alpha-3 gives Jones chance to go after the beautiful Ha and—like most lotharios—he thinks she really digs him. To get her in bed, he’s soon blabbing secrets that get Marines killed.

The love triangle of Nhu, Ha, and Jones is the core relationship in the book. The second half follows the trio as Ha and Nhu attempt to get the kidnapped Jones to the North so he can be used as a political pawn. Meanwhile, battles rage around Alpha-3.

Kelly tries to avoid the flag waving in many Vietnam War novels and movies by being evenhanded. Since he limits himself to a few main characters, he is able to develop them well. Jones comes off as a stereotypical ugly American, but the others are all good examples of combatants sincere in their dedication to their side. Favors and Nhu are worthy adversaries and anyone would want Monk or Ha in their squad. 

Jeff Kelly

Kelly writes well with few flourishes. This is not a romance novel. He walked the walk so he is able to get into the heads of his Marine characters. Monk, for example, processes a buddy’s death in less than a minute. He goes from shock to acceptance, eliminating the denial and grief phases, “a skill they all mastered well,” as Kelly puts it.

He goes on to describe combat and weapons like someone who has seen the elephant. The noise from an AC-47 Spooky, Kelly writes, is like “a wail of banshees, a choir of tortured souls, a technological song of megadeath.” On the other hand, Kelly’s choice of not dumbing things down might cause not well-versed in Vietnam War military lingo to have Google handy.

Jeff Kelly has seemingly read Vietnamese memoirs because Nhu and Ha are not stick figures. You won’t root against them. I hope.

The main theme of the novel is that the war was a conflict of American technology and firepower versus the enemy’s zeal—an elephant trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer.    

–Kevin Hardy

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle by Jack Whitehouse

The subtitle of Jack Whitehouse’s From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle (McFarland, 267 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), Memoir of a Naval Officer in the Cold War, is a reminder to those of us who served in-country during the Vietnam War that much of the rest of the world continued to be embroiled in the Cold War. 

Whitehouse has created a nicely crafted book. It begins with his high school years and includes how he choose a naval career. With a family history of military service, it was an easy decision.

As his memoir unfolds, there seemed to be almost an On The Road urgency to it as the pace of the writing picked up markedly as Whitehouse moved into the details of his Navy tour of duty. To do so required good notes and a yeoman’s effort at research. Whitehouse gives credit to his wife Elaine for reviewing and correcting the manuscript “numerous times.”

Beginning in 1968, Whitehouse served on the USS Buck, a World War II era destroyer, for two tours on Yankee Station in South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. In 1971 he became the commanding officer of a gun boat, the USS Chehalis, which operated out of the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay. Later he became the first U.S. Navy exchange officer with the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Whitehouse tells many stories involving all of his duty stations, on the water and behind a desk. It seems as though there was always something going on worth writing about. Of particular interest was his time with the Royal Norwegian Navy; his stories of cruises and patrols above the Arctic Circle are well told and quite interesting.

At the end of the book, as he resigns from the Navy, Whitehouse moves on to a second career as a case officer in the Directorate of Operations at the CIA.

The book includes an Appendix titled,  “Soviet Socialism and its Influences Today.” It alone is worth the price of the book.

From Vietnam to the Arctic Circle is a good read. I highly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

Heart Shots by Bob Lantrip

Heart Shots: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Troubled Heart (Friesen Press, 156 pp. $27.22, hardcover; $15.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Lantrip is a short novel about a young Marine’s experiences in Vietnam and how he deals with the effects of PTSD after coming home from the war. Lantrip, who holds a retired Chiropractor, served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.

In the novel, main character Damon Lee Lane joins the Marine Corps because he likes the uniform. Graduating from his training in San Diego he knows he is joining “a brotherhood that would last a lifetime.” After Boot Camp at Camp Pendleton he finds himself thinking that “the most fun part of preparing for war was that the Marines were taught how to blow up stuff.”

His thinking sobers up as he finds himself developing “the mindset of surviving Vietnam.” Pondering the question of how one really prepares for war, he decides that “perhaps the best way to survive a war was to have a reason to.”  With that in mind, Damon gets married a few weeks before he leaves for Vietnam.

He arrives in Da Nang at the end of 1969 and is sent to Chu Lai. He engages in a great deal of combat action during his first few days with men wounded and killed all around him.

We read of air strikes being carried out by “angels from heaven.” There are times when orders are given to burn all the structures in Vietnamese villages. There are poisonous centipedes and attacks by the near-mythical rock apes who throw huge rocks at the Marines from the jungle trees before swinging away to safety.

One of the book’s heroic characters, squad leader Wild Wit, serves two tours in heavy combat, then returns home, as many others did, with “No Purple Heart, no Medal of Honor—just the pride within that he had done his job. One day he was there, then gone the next.” Damon returns only to spend the rest of his life dealing with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Along with an interesting story, Heart Shots includes information aimed at helping those who still carry emotional scars from the war. Heart Shots is a useful PTSD handbook with a religious emphasis.

–Bill McCloud

Vector to Destiny by George W. Kohn

Vector to Destiny: Journey of a Vietnam F-4 Fighter Pilot (Koehler Books, 274 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $18.49, Kindle) fits comfortably inside the age-old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. In this war memoir, George W. Kohn writes about his rise from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse to flying USAF F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War in 1969. To his credit, Kohn climbed the ladder of his dreams on his own God-given initiative.

While still a child as a Wisconsin farmer’s only son, Kohn rose well before school hours to perform demanding chores. On several mornings while milking cows, he heard a low-flying B-58 Hustler bomber’s “earth-vibrating, thunderous boom that drowned out all the other sounds,” he says. The noise also heralded a message: the farm boy’s destiny would be to fly an airplane like that one.

In telling his story, Kohn—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—sets out in great detail the many difficult tasks required to overcome the conventions of farm life and the hardship of an inferior education. He became a self-made man in order to find a path through his high school’s pecking order and through University of Wisconsin classes beyond his learning skills, as well as the trials of ROTC and summer camp, pilot training, survival school, and F-4 familiarization. It all culminated in his assignment to fly with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Danang in November 1969.

Along the way, he records his thoughts about the Vietnam War era, lauding the good and castigating the bad within America’s political structure and among his peers. His war stories do not begin until well into Part Five of the book.

In 201 missions as an F-4 back-seater, he bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, supply depots in Cambodia, and the city of Vinh when the Nixon Administration resumed attacks on North Vietnam in 1970. In most cases, his combat action centers on problem-solving in which logic dominated emotion. He got pissed off, but practiced restraint by repeatedly reminding himself how lucky he was to be where he was.

Vector to Destiny will appeal to readers with limited knowledge of Air Force activities, in other words, those who would benefit from Kohn writing about military tasks step by step—everything from classroom demands to test flying an F-4 at Mach two. Old timers might view those details as overkill.

To me, Kohn’s boyhood farm activities are as interesting as his combat stories, maybe more so. They definitely fulfill the book’s rags-to-riches theme. Of course, I reacted to the country scenes as a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh and who once believed that vegetables grew in plastic crates at Kroger.

Kohn’s website is hgwkohnauthor.com

—Henry Zeybel

Mekong Medicine by Richard W. Carlson

In Mekong Medicine: A U.S. Doctor’s Year Treating Vietnam’s Forgotten Victims (McFarland, 222 pp. $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), Richard Carlson offers an extremely sobering account of his efforts to provide the best possible medical care under Spartan conditions at a civilian hospital in South Vietnam during the war.

In 1966, two years after completing medical school at the University of Southern California, Carlson was drafted into the Army. After basic training at Fort Sam Houston, he received orders for Vietnam. Posted in Bac Lieu Province, sixty miles southwest of Saigon in the Mekong Delta, he spent a year at the provincial hospital where he led the American team of military and civilian personnel in the Military Provincial Health Assistance Program.

The contrast between American hospitals and a rural Vietnamese facility was shocking. Set in one of the world’s poorest countries, and one at war for years in a relentlessly hot and humid climate, the hospital resembled a farm in many ways, with animals wandering across the grounds–and often into the buildings.

Supplies of medications, equipment, clean water, and electricity—the hallmark of any modern hospital—were inconsistent at best. This was especially problematic as the staff dealt with endless numbers of patients that increased as the war dragged on. Despite the shortages, and because he had to view medical problems as objectively as possible, Carlson’s voice remains that of a doctor throughout his book, no matter how dire the condition of his patients.

He and his team brought heartfelt compassion to their work in caring for patients struggling with illnesses or grievously wounded. Their compassion, though, was too often tempered by the grim knowledge that there was only so much they could do. Some patients succumbed to their injuries or illnesses, while others deemed themselves well enough to leave on their own. Many children died, and their grieving parents simply took their bodies away and disappeared into their private darkness in ways completely unheard of in an American hospital.

Dr. Carlson

Throughout the book Carlson repeatedly praises the dedication of his co-workers, Vietnamese and American, as they tried to accomplish the most while working with so little. He gives the highest praise of all to the hospital’s director, Dr. Vinh.

Initially appearing reserved, even solemn, Vinh displayed extraordinary depth of feeling and candor when he mused about his country’s future, as well as dismay when he witnessed the results of the Viet Cong’s treatment of the people they claimed to love.

Dr. Vinh also provided insights that were slow to come to many American newcomers, particularly why change occurred so slowly in Vietnam. After centuries of foreign occupation and countless years of war, the country’s capacity to improve itself, especially in the rural interior, was strained to breaking point.

Despite the bleak conditions in which he was compelled to work, Richard Carlson finished his tour—and he ends his memoir—with a note of hard-earned optimism.

“Despite the horror,” he writes, “confusion, and the war’s conclusion, my odyssey reaffirms individuals will aid those in need despite overwhelming odds. And that is a reason for hope.”

–Mike McLaughlin

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

There It Is by Jim Talone

The title of Jim Talone’s memoir, There It Is: A Helicopter Ride and a Purple Heart  (337 pp. $25, hardcover; $20, paper; $10, Kindle)  a flat-voiced phrase that rings scary-true to virtually every Vietnam War veteran, refilling the memory with images, places, people, and things from long ago.

This is an excellent book by a talented wordsmith, a former high school English teacher. In the book Talone covers his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a young Marine lieutenant leading B Company of the 1st of the 9th Marines in the 3rd  Marine Division in I Corps.

The story moves along rapidly with short, frugal, and crisp sentences telling a compelling narrative of “his men, his Marines,” and their lives in combat. Talone’s unit, known as the “Walking Dead,” earned that nickname after taking heavy battlefield losses early on in the Vietnam War.

Each of the months Talone served in Vietnam is a chapter in the book and each is filled with vignettes—some mere paragraphs long, others several pages in length. This is a pleasantly different format than most Vietnam War memoirs. The rather short Glossary could have been broader, but the main items of interest are covered.

The book contains a four-page “Reflections” sections in which Talone sets out his thoughts about his part in the war. There’s also a very powerful three-age soliloquy, “Khe Sanh Remembered.” And the poetic Preface alone is worth the price of admission.

This books is a great read by a talented author I’d love to see more from. There it is.

–Tom Werzyn