Company Grade by Henry “Rocky” Colavita

The back-cover blurb on Henry “Rocky” Colavita’s Company Grade: Memoir of an Angry Skipper (Hellgate, 276 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells us to expect an “engaging, often funny memoir.” And that’s what Colavita came up with in this well-written book, beginning with his earliest memories of wanting to join the Army and to be a police officer.

His father’s Army career as a transportation officer took the Colavita family to many duty stations and assignments. As a student at Virginia Tech, Rocky Colavita joined Army ROTC, and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated.

The book includes lots of reminiscing about college life and early ROTC training. Colavita went through Infantry AIT, Ranger and Airborne Training, and Vietnamese Language School.

During his first tour in Vietnam he was assigned to an Airborne Advisory Team with MAAG, the predecessor of MACV. While working with a Vietnamese Airborne unit, Colavita was wounded and medevaced stateside for treatment and recuperation.

After recovering from his wounds he did a stint at the Army War College, then went back to Vietnam for a second tour, commanding Delta Co, 2nd/8th in the 1st Cavalry Division. Colavita’s call sign was Angry Skipper-6. He provides lots of good war stories about his second Vietnam War tour. After that, he finished a 20-year career as an Army officer.

Colavita joined the Fairfax County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office after he retired, rose to the rank of Major, and retired a second time. Colavita devotes only five pages to his law enforcement career. After enjoying what came before, I expected more great stories and anecdotes.

–Tom Werzyn

Black World: Special Ops by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s first novel, Black World: Special Ops (269 pp. $11.94, paper: $7.99, Kindle), stars Bill York, a former Navy SEAL and retired CIA agent. The book begins with a present-day scuffle with a few ruffians after a dinner date with his wife. Then we flash back to the back story of this mild-mannered family man.

York’s father, a Maryland State Trooper, knew someone who knew someone who secured him an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy despite non-stellar high school grades and “fitness reports.” Rotruck paints a quite realistic and detailed picture of student life at the Naval Academy, including some of the shenanigans of the budding naval leaders.

During his studies, York develops an interest in the SEALs, and eventually is selected as a candidate. Rotruck tells a credible story as we follow York through the training, and the fabled challenges involved in the training of some of America’s most prestigious and fearsome special operations fighters.

We accompany York on a deployment to Vietnam with Team One where he is injured in a diving accident, which prevents him from continuing as an active member of the team. He then decides to resign his commission, and winds up getting recruited by the CIA.

Again, we get a nicely detailed review of training, this time several CIA venues. York’s reputation as a leader and savvy operator grow, and he is given more complicated and dangerous missions.

Throughout, York’s wife knows he’s working for the government, but not a lot more. He leaves, comes back home, and is gone again. After one hair-raising mission he decides to retire.

This is an interesting book, although some of the dialogue is a bit stilted. This is a first novel and I hope to see Bill York again—either as a free-standing operative, or back with the CIA.

—Tom Werzyn

Searching for Gurney by Jack Estes

Jack Estes’ Searching for Gurney (O’Callahan Press, 328 pp. $17, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a welcome return to high-quality Vietnam War literary fiction. Estes served as a rifleman with the 9th Marines and later with a CAP unit during his 1968-69 Vietnam War tour of duty. He’s written two other books that deal with the war: A Field of Innocence (2014), a memoir, and a A Soldier’s Son (2016), a novel.

With Searching for Gurney’s first sentence—“JT woke, but they were still dead,”—the reader is immediately enmeshed in the world of a Vietnam War veteran’s post-traumatic stress. The veteran, JT, believes he should be able to handle his new civilian job because, Estes writes, “he’d led men into battle, run patrols, set ambushes, called in gunships, destroyed villages and hillsides. He’d fired rifles, machine guns, tossed grenades, and killed enemy soldiers so often that not killing felt odd. So this mailroom job was a skate.”

JT’s wife says he’s been different since he returned home from war. He never smiles and seems to carry a sense of danger with him. She “thought violence was when he punched a hole in the wall or broke a doorjamb,” Estes says. “That wasn’t violence.”

For his part, JT believes that no matter how much he and his wife fuss, God meant them to be together. “Why else would he have survived Vietnam?” Though he is too young to legally buy beer, he often goes to bars and drinks. After getting into fights, he thinks maybe “he’d be better off back in Nam.”

Coop served alongside JT. He’s back home just long enough to attend his grandfather’s funeral before he has to return to the war. While contemplating the funeral service, he thinks, “This wasn’t death. Death was that first patrol. This was sleep.” He also drinks in the morning so he won’t “stick a gun in his mouth.” And he’s glad to be going back because he “wanted war and didn’t care if he died. It was only when he felt at risk that he felt alive.”

Hawkeye completes the trio. He winds up in the Marines to avoid a jail sentence and quickly discovers in Vietnam that the “one thing you can always count on is that you can’t count on anything.” A fourth important character, Nguyen Vuong, joins the three Americans in the book’s third act.

The Vietnamese who are engaged in war with the Americans, Estes writes, believe they are fighting “in a great and noble cause that will be remembered until the end of time.” They read Shakespeare and share their poetry with each other.

Estes in country

The Americans pop amphetamines to stay alert, carry sawed-off shotguns, and live by the philosophy, “They say go. We go.”

They find peacefulness when they can “listen to the silence,” and are confused by the strangeness of hearing rumors of peace talks in the midst of fierce fighting.

In this extremely well-written, time-tangled story, the boyish-looking Lt. Gurney doesn’t make his appearance until the last few pages. He then quickly disappears. That triggers the search in the book’s title, and the plot wraps around itself in an intriguing and satisfying way.

Searching for Gurney doesn’t read like a comic book as so many war novels seem to. It conveys the impact of war through the lens of literary fiction. It’s also one of the few books I reread immediately after I finished it. 

Estes’ website is jackestes.com

–Bill McCloud

Pop Smoke by Bill Lindsay

Pop Smoke: The Story of One Marine Rifle Platoon in Vietnam: Who They Were, What They Did, What They Learned (Palmetto, 222 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $19, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is former Marine Bill Lindsay’s memoir of his time in the Vietnam War. Lindsay says the names in his book are fictitious, but the events are not. I found the book a refreshingly solid retelling of one man’s experiences without having to put up with outlandish tales that so many other memoirs seem to contain.

The first sentence of the first chapter, “My Arrival,” puts us in the plane Lindsay is on entering South Vietnam’s air space on February 6, 1970. I liked that.

This book knows what it is. It’s a description of a military tour of duty in the Vietnam War, pure and simple. The last chapter, “My Return,” should probably be titled “My Departure,” because the book ends as Lt. Lindsay is flying home from Vietnam. There’s nothing in this book about his life before or after the war. This book is focused.

Assigned to the First Marine Division, Lindsay flew into Da Nang and wound up in the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment at LZ Baldy. His unit was in the thick of things, facing both Viet Cong and the NVA. Their success was measured by body count.

Someone handed him a flak jacket stained with mud or blood and told him he would be a platoon commander with India Company because they needed a new one. Lindsay says he never found out what happened to the previous platoon commander—and he never asked.

He had dreamt of commanding a platoon in combat after a challenge a Marine instructor had given him based on Ernest Hemingway’s words: “The only way to truly be a warrior and experience war was to be a soldier, on the front lines. You need to see the enemy and be able to look him in the eyes as you engage him in combat. That is the only way to really consider yourself a warrior.”

He was then told that the life expectancy of a new second lieutenant infantry platoon commander in Vietnam was “under an hour.”

Lindsay’s war experiences included going more than a month without a shower and losing thirty pounds while subsisting on a diet of C-rations. He trudged through monsoon rains. There were ambushes and times he’d sit down and cry as he thought of the dead and wounded. He put up with medical treatment for intestinal worms and malaria.

Bill Lindsay

When word came that it was his time to go home Lindsay was told that the helicopter picking him up would be there in a few hours. It was that quick.

His first reaction was that he wanted to remain with his men, but that request fell on deaf ears. He flew out with sad thoughts that “so many had been killed or wounded during my tour. I was leaving without a scratch. That fact seemed so unfair.”

And with that, Bill Lindsay’s Vietnam War story ends—a story of only his actual time in-country.

It’s a story that consistently rang true and is one of the best Vietnam War memoirs I’ve read.

–Bill McCloud

Thank You, America by Robert R. Rotruck

Robert R. Rotruck’s Thank You, America: Autobiography of a Naval Career (Wheatmark, 178 pp. Paperback and Kindle) is a one-or-two-sitting read. It’s a delightful autobiography written by a retired Navy Chief Warrant Officer, with an emphasis on his unbridled love for his country, his career choices, and his wife and family. 

The book is an assignment-by-assignment journey that details, often with touches of wry humor, the places Rotruck has seen and the jobs he’s performed in a series of almost stand-alone chapters.

Rotruck starts in his home town, Gaithersburg, Maryland, and his decision to forgo college and join the Navy after graduating from high school in 1959. He takes us through Boot Camp, after which he came home to marry his high-school sweetheart. He then trained in repairing and maintaining Avionics and RADAR equipment. He goes on to explain that the rank of Chief in the U.S. Navy is one of merit and responsibility, and spells out the Chief’s Charge in the book’s appendix.

As the book progresses, Bob Rotruck goes through the each of his deployments during his twenty-year Navy career, describing his duties during air operations and his dealings with civilian contractors and their less-than-sterling knowledge about the products they were trying to sell to the U.S. Navy. Many of his assignments were aboard large carriers. He served as air squadron support on the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk (CV-63) on Yankee Station in the South China Sea during the Vietnam War, and later aboard the John F. Kennedy (CV-67).

This is a very positive book without any of the blood, guts, glory, and pathos in many military memoirs. It’s well worth the read.

—Tom Werzyn                                                               

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam by Oscar E. Gilbert

At the heart of Oscar Gilbert’s compelling Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) are interviews with two dozen Marine tankers who served in the Vietnam War. Reinforced with a careful study of official (albeit limited) archives, Gilbert draws a clear line from the arrival of the Marines at Danang in 1965 to their departure from the country six years later. Through it all, he conveys the role of Marine armor in the war. 

From the start, Gilbert illustrates the differing strategies the Marines and the Army brought to the war. MACV’s approach was to draw the NVA and VC out into the open to defeat in decisive battles.The Marines sought to take ground and keep it, primarily in I Corps, where they worked with regional forces and ARVN units. It was only after prolonged pressure from above that the Marines went along with MACV’s strategy.

Gilbert, a former Marine who has written books about Marine tank battles in the Pacific in World War II and in the Korean War, describes the enormous problems tankers faced from the moment they arrived in Vietnam. Terrain ranging from coastal flats to mountains hampered freedom to maneuver and fight, especially in narrow streets during the 1968 Battle of Hue. Monsoon rains reduced fields to swamps, further restricting tank movements. Above all, U.S. military tactics for defeating enemies with tanks would prove ineffective against those without them. 

The book’s most sobering lesson illustrates how easily a tank can be disabled. Armor units were repeatedly ambushed by enemy units armed with RPG’s, satchel charges, and mines. Not once does Gilbert recount an action from which Marine tankers emerged unscathed.   

Using tactics that came to define the war, North Vietnamese units traveling by foot would attack the Americans, damaging and crippling tanks. Whether the units chose to stay and fight or withdraw, the results were often the same. Compelled to drive with hatches open for better visibility, countless tankers were killed and wounded. Tracks broke. Wheels were blown off. Machine guns jammed. And in an environment alive with fragments, tanks also were forced into duty as ambulances.

What’s more, tank maintenance problems were endless. Fine sand and dust wore down wheels, tracks, and suspensions. Air filters clogged quickly and required daily cleaning. Humidity clouded optics and caused water to accumulate in fuel tanks. Unless drained away, the water gave rise to algae that could kill engines. 

Despite those negatives, the North Vietnamese paid every time they engaged the Marine tankers, often suffering far more losses than the Americans. While the growing body count of enemy dead was ballyhooed by MACV, the declarations of victory rang hollow for the men who had earned them. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is a compelling piece of work. That said, Gilbert presents two challenges to less-informed readers.

First, to fully appreciate the book it would help to have a grasp of the Marines Corps’ chain of command at all levels. This knowledge is vital, given the frequency with which tank units were detached from parent companies or platoons to help Marines elsewhere. 

Second, the book has many photos, but only a handful of small-scale maps. Readers would need to look at a large-scale map of I Corps to fully comprehend the veterans’ accounts of the tank actions in the book.

To his credit, Gilbert readily acknowledges this. Actions fought by squads or even individual tanks are not easily documented. To that end, the book’s references include a link to the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association’s website and growing archive of maps. 

Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is an often gut-wrenching account of brave, highly trained men doing their best under circumstances that defied them at virtually every turn. The book is a worthy addition to the library of any student of tank warfare and the United States Marines in the Vietnam War.

—Mike McLaughlin

Our Best War Stories edited by Christopher Lyke

The title—Our Best War Stories: Prize-Winning Poetry & Prose from the Col. Darron L. Wright Memorial Awards (Middle West Press, 234 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) edited by Christopher Lyke—sets up expectations that the book meets time and time again. The awards, honoring an Iraq War veteran killed in a training accident, are administered by Line of Advance, an on-line veterans literary journal. Lyke, a U.S. Army veteran of the Afghanistan War, is the journal’s co-founder and editor.

As for the poems, I especially enjoyed “Starling Wire” by David S. Pointer because of its great word flow and the use of words such as “microscopicesque” and “retro-futuristically.” I also liked Eric Chandler’s “Air Born,” which has us flying home with a “war hangover,” and Jeremy Hussein Warneke’s “Facing 2003,” in which he looks at the aftermath of war with a poem inside a poem. Randy Brown’s “Robert Olen Butler wants nachos” deals with desire.

“Soldier’s Song” by Ben Weakley is my favorite among the poems as it lyrically deals with time and worlds that exist in the tip of a bullet that barely misses your head. In “Havoc 58” Laura Joyce-Hubbard describes a grief-filled widowed pilot’s wife as “Dressed black-drunk.”

Some of the short stories that stood out were David R. Dixon’s “The Stay,” about a man who can smell death, and Michael Lund’s “Left-Hearted,” featuring a man with a rare heart condition. Other worthy stories include  “Bagging It Up” by Scott Hubbartt, and “Walking Point” by former Marine Dewaine Farria, my second favorite story in the book, looks at the warden of a small town prison in Oklahoma. Some of his memories are of men who became only “blood-soaked heaps of jungle fatigues on stretchers.” He uncovers a prisoner’s dangerous shank and realizes that prison and war “encourage ingenuity.’”

“Village With No Name” by Ray McPadden is my favorite short story in the book. It’s set in Iraq and looks at a group of men motivated to get their dangerous mission completed quickly because of an impending sandstorm. They shoot dogs “for no particular reason” and carelessly rip down electric lines as they drive through a village. Then, when one of the men is bitten by a poisonous cobra, and the medic says, “I ain’t no snake doctor,” they find themselves begging for help from an old woman and her jar of paste.

Christopher Lyke

In Travis Klempan’s “Some Kind of Storm” a newly discharged veteran finds himself in “the least hospitable place in America,” a Christian rock festival in southern Oklahoma. He encounters the Painted Man (a tribute to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man) whose tattoos seem to come to life.

The most exciting story is “Green” by Brian L. Braden. In it, a helicopter pilot refueling in-flight suddenly sees tracers from ground fire arcing in the sky. In William R. Upton’s “A Jeep to Quang Tri” we’re aboard a fixed-wing Caribou in Vietnam about to land on a “small dirt strip with more VC than flies on a dog turd.”

Our Best War Stories contains many great poems, stories, and essays—all of them well-told. That’s as good a combination as you can ask for.

–Bill McCloud

The Birdhouse Man by Rick DeStefanis

In Rick DeStefanis’ novel, The Birdhouse Man: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Story (360 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), an older veteran tell his Vietnam War story to a student working on a college project. DeStefanis served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72. The book is the latest novel in his Vietnam War Series.

In it, widower Sam Walker is selling his handmade birdhouses at a campus arts and crafts festival when he meets a student, Claire Cunningham, who tells him the military insignia on his cap is the same one her grandfather had worn. Her grandfather had recently died before he could help her with her senior thesis, which was going to be based mainly on his Vietnam War experiences. Sam seldom talked about the war, except when he had taught it at the college, and he never told anyone about his personal experiences. Still, he decides to help Clair finish the thesis, even though she wants the unfiltered truth of what he did, saw, and thought.

Sam tells her he had enlisted ahead of the draft, volunteered for OCS, then went to Airborne and Ranger School. He landed in Vietnam in late 1967 and noted that everything “outside the barbed wire appeared to be a land of poverty and filth.” He goes on to say that the Vietnamese countryside was “litter, naked children, rivers, and palm trees—sort of like paradise gone to hell.” He was amazed to see a “house made of beer cans.”

Sam eventually tells the young woman of combat so intense and close-up that his rifle was once pressed against the chest of an enemy soldier when he fired it. After a few sessions with her, his nightmares return. We then learn that Claire is trying to connect with her father who served in the Army in Iraq and is on the streets somewhere suffering from PTSD. As Sam continues his story and answers her questions, he decides to help Claire find her father.

In a way the main plot is a fantasy in which a grumpy old veteran finally decides to talk about the war, but only to a young female college student who is very attractive and, as Sam says, my “kind of woman.” While on the road searching for her father the two frequently share a hotel room. One morning they eat breakfast in the room with her wrapped only in a blanket. And, to round out the fantasy, Claire hangs on every word of Sam’s story.

On the other hand, everything turns out to be on the up and up, which seems plausible. Claire loved her grandfather and sees much of him in Sam.

I was impressed with how Rick DeStefanis spun out the various threads of this story in such a way that I never once thought things might come unraveled. He has created a great story of war and the human relationships that come together because of it.

His website is rickdestefanis.com

–Bill McCloud

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.

As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. 

Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.

As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn

War Paint by Brian Lehman

War Paint (LuLu Publishing, 288 pp. $31.52, hardcover; $18.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Brian Lehman is the rare book that lives up to the hype on its back cover. Yes, this book really is “a quirky thriller and a naval warfare story like no other from the Vietnam War.”

Lehman served aboard a destroyer during the Vietnam War. His quirky story takes place during the waning days of American combat in the war, in early 1972, when a U.S. destroyer is used as bait by an unhinged fleet commander while a secret group of North Vietnamese commandos are making plans to board and take control of the ship.

The story begins in the present day when Jeffs Ryder gets asked that dreaded question by his grandson: “Grandpa, you ever kill anyone in the war?” This causes Ryder to begin to recall the most dangerous period in his military experience.

In the first months of 1972 the war is winding down—at least from the American perspective although thousands of NVA troops were crossing the DMZ into South Vietnam. Having been given the choice by a judge of going to jail or joining the military, Ryder enlists in the Navy and soon finds himself aboard the Navy destroyer Rattano sailing to Vietnam.

The fictional Rattano is affectionately known by crewmembers as “The Rat.” The ship moves with “the swagger of an aging but still dangerous gunslinger and, like that aging gunslinger, they wore their guns out where everyone could see them,” as Lehman puts it. The Rat’s captain thought he already had made his final deployment, and welcomes his return to action as a “bonus.” He thinks of the assignment as taking an obsolete destroyer into an obsolete war.

Brian Lehman back in the day

The North Vietnamese are aware of the Rat and, in fact, it may be one of the American ships that they’ve placed a bounty on. But most of the NVA troops are hungry, existing on meager rations, and are using military equipment that in some cases once belonged to the French. Many of the young Vietnamese, like many men on the Rat, do not understand the politics of the war and just want the fighting to end so they can go home.

The chapters begin with entries that could be drawn from a chronology of the war or from letters back and forth between men serving and women waiting back home.

I greatly enjoyed this glimpse into one aspect of Navy life as the war was winding down, especially because my two younger brothers were sailors at the time. I like reading about destroyers and the different jobs men held while on-board. And I liked comparing Lehman’s enlisted men’s official conversations with what they said when no officers were around.

Brian Lehman has produced a fine novel with memorable characters and realistic dialogue. It will remain in my memory, especially sentences like this one: “As he drifted off to sleep he could hear the aft guns come to life, sounding very distant as they began to hurl round after round across the peaceful sea into the southern outskirts of what was left of the city.”

–Bill McCloud