The Long Journey Home by Craig Blackman

Focusing on the concept that “sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless,” Craig Blackman enlisted students in his advanced placement American history class at Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia, to study the lives of twenty-five local men who died in the Vietnam War. Twenty-three of them were killed in action. He had the students find and interview the men’s family members and friends, research their unit records, and write the stories of their pre-war lives and military service.

Blackman has compiled the students’ findings into The Long Journey Home: The Untold Stories of Forgotten Soldiers (292 pp. $11.00 paper). 

Sound historical scholarship forms the book’s roots. Page after page overflows with notes that validate the students’ findings. A bibliography is loaded with primary sources. Several of the students overachieved on the assignment and wrote longer-than-required accounts of their subjects, including their units’ activities. Some wrote wrote about in-country situations and locations previously unknown to me.

Despite growing up close together in Chesapeake, the men had diverse backgrounds: White, black, Native American; an only child; one of thirteen children; good guys and bad actors; draftees and enlistees. There’s an almost even split between those who were in the Army and in the Marines; only one officer is profiled. Their deaths stretched from 1966-70; fourteen took place in 1968. They shared a grim commonality in military assignments: straight from training to Vietnam in the combat arms. Nine died while still in their teens.

Each man’s story reveals a distinct personality. Photographs flesh out their personalities. A few experienced a rapid and perhaps premature transition from youth to adulthood. Determination to do the right thing prevailed among them. One definitely deserves his own book.

The students learned to appreciate the sacrifices made to American values by people barely older than themselves, even as a result of questionable diplomacy. “These high school students will never be the same,” Blackman says. “Interacting with the Gold Star families forever sculpted them emotionally and intellectually.”

The biographies are both sad and joyful. They brought unexpected resolution to some family members of the deceased by memorializing the deaths beyond a name engraved on a wall.

Craig Blackman in the classroom

Blackman’s project peaked with a 2014 “special reception honoring Chesapeake citizens who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Vietnam War,” followed three days later by a Memorial Day ceremony. Relatives and friends of the men in the book attended both events.

Blackman also describes how he organized the project. In an appendix, he includes the worksheets he designed to guide his students’ research. Initially, his efforts produced spotty results, and he almost stopped the endeavor. Now he wants other educators to emulate this method for teaching American history.

—Henry Zeybel

The Giant Killer by David A. Yuzuk & Neil L. Yuzuk

Richard J. Flaherty was “the most unconventional man ever to serve in the U.S. military,” according to The Giant Killer: American Hero, Mercenary, Spy … The Incredible True Story of the Smallest Man to Serve in the U.S. Military—Green Beret Captain Richard J. Flaherty (Mission Point Press, 318 pp. $14.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) by David A. Yuzuk and Neil L. Yuzuk.

Within the first six pages of this very interested book, Flaherty is killed by a hit-and-run driver in the wee hours of a hot May morning in a small Florida town near Miami. Earlier that evening he had told David Yuzuk that “if you ask too many questions, it could be bad for your career, and dangerous to my health.”

Yuzuk was a police officer in Aventura, Florida, who befriended Richard Flaherty and received his permission to produce a 2017 documentary about his life. With the help of his father, Neil, David Yuzuk tells Flaherty’s story in the film and this biography.  

As the book begins to take shape, it traces Flaherty’s life from his high school days in Stamford, Connecticut. The bones of the story come from notes taken during lots of conversations David Yuzuk had with Flaherty, who was homeless—more or less by choice—for more than twenty years. He also interviewed many men Flaherty served with; his father did much of the behind-the-scenes research.

The title, Giant Killer, comes from a high school graduation yearbook entry referring to the nickname Flaherty earned after retaliating against a much larger classmate following a locker room prank. It stuck with him over the years.

The authors follow Flaherty through his enlistment in the Army, Basic Training, Infantry AIT, Officer Candidate School, Green Beret training, and his deployments to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division and the 3rd Special Forces Group. He was always the smallest man in the room—and in the field. Flaherty took the derision and ridicule heaped upon him as fuel to excel at everything he attempted.

After the war, Flaherty—by then a decorated Special Forces Captain—was riffed out of the Army. Feeling cheated by the military, he embarked upon a series of adventures, with different partners and clients, some of them covert, some of them with agents of the U. S. Government. There was a short prison stay.

This is a good, well-written book about a very interesting man. 

–Tom Werzyn

North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive by Stephen Emerson

Stephen Emerson’s message in North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive : Hanoi’s Gamble (Pen & Sword, 126 pp. $22.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam could not have defeated North Vietnamese Army invaders without airpower provided by the United States. He repeatedly cites B-52s—which averaged 76 sorties a day during June, July, and August 1972 and carpet-bombed within 600 yards of friendly forces—and Spectre AC-130 gunships as the deciding factors.

Emerson, a Ph.D. in International Relations/Comparative Politics, has written three other books about conflicts in Southeast Asia. He also has authored more than 100 classified and unclassified publications on topics ranging from American national security affairs and political instability to terrorism, African conflicts, and counter-insurgency.

He describes the Vietnam War in 1972 as a now-or-never situation. Four years of talks between American and North Vietnamese diplomats had produced little progress, Emerson says. Both sides felt a proclivity for a military solution to the war. Vietnamization had put the onus on the ARVN to defend its nation with help from a comparatively few American advisers.

Massing its largest concentration of troops, tanks, and artillery of the war, the NVA invaded, and drove the wavering ARVN to the brink of defeat in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3. Until American air power intervened.

An angry President Richard Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker to step up bombing inside North Vietnam. Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers crippled transportation and supply systems by collapsing bridges, cutting rail lines, and destroying stockpiles of war goods. However, the more immediate airpower need required killing enemy invaders on the ground in South Vietnam, which the B-52s and AC-130s did most effectively.

With support from maps, Emerson explains the ebb and flow of fighting during the middle six months of 1972. He presents detailed accounts of the fall of Quang Tri and the defense of Hue, the battle for Kontum, and the siege of An Loc.

To me, the most interesting part of the book he titles “Saigon Counterattacks.” in which the ARVN broke free from the Hue pocket, outlasted the NVA attackers at An Loc, and recaptured Quang Tri to end the Easter Offensive.

Emerson’s research principally relies on American sources. I would have appreciated more input about the thinking of North Vietnamese military and political leaders. Otherwise, North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive is an excellent summation of an averted disaster.

Practically every page of the book contains a black-and-white photograph, and an eight-page gallery in the middle of the book offers color photos. That collection of images ranks among the best I have seen in a Vietnam War book.

For several weeks during the Easter Offensive, I was part of a three-man team on special assignment from Hurlburt Field in Florida to locate NVA 130-mm artillery in a Spectre gunship. I went on two missions to An Loc and found the fighting more frantic than anything I had experienced during my previous year’s tour with Spectre, which included the Lam Son 719 debacle.

A B-52 unloading during Operation Linebacker

At the same time, in-country operations exuded a grim determination. Emerson’s extensive history helped me to realize why our mission failed: We had not seen the big picture all those years ago.

Emerson closes the book with discussions about diplomatic stalemates, Linebacker II, and a post-mortem. He did not need to do so. The ARVN’s poor performance during Lam Son 719 in 1971 and its inability to act independently against the 1972 Easter Offensive foreshadowed exactly what was to come after the NVA rebuilt its forces.

—Henry Zeybel

Taking Fire! by David L. Porter

David L. Porter served twenty-seven years in the U.S. Army, retiring as as a colonel in 1995. The most memorable time of his career occurred when, immediately after he received his wings as a helicopter pilot, he flew the Hughes Cayuse OH-6 Scout LOH as an Aerial Scout Section Leader with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (known as the Thunderhorse) from Quan Loi, Vietnam in 1969-70. 

Porter recalls those days in Taking Fire!: Memoir of an Aerial Scout in Vietnam (McFarland, 182 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Porter tells his story with “no surnames” and “no attempt to identify any themes nor to draw any conclusions.” He leaves those tasks to readers, he says, and claims to offer only his “description of events.”

The memoir revolves around Hunter-Killer operations, which died with the war. The tactic could not have been simpler: An OH-6 LOH (Light Observation Helicopter or “Loach”) flew around Viet Cong- and NVA-controlled territory at or below treetop level until it drew fire, then marked the spot with a smoke grenade. Instantly, an AH-1G Cobra waiting overhead would attack the area.

These encounters quickly escalated as Cobra pilots directed artillery onto enemy positions. Ideally, an Air Force OV-10 Bronco forward air controller then brought in F-4 Phantoms to finish the job. 

American ground forces requested these missions, which were known as VR (visual reconnaissance) to try to find the elusive enemy. The ballsiest part of the operation fell to the LOH pilot—Porter’s role. An observer—called OSCAR—accompanied him and provided the primary set of eyes for locating the enemy. LOH pilots and OSCARs refused to consider themselves as bait.

Porter flew Thunderhorse Hunter-Killer strikes from October 1969 through February 1970. His recollection of facts during that time is astounding. The details of his physical and mental states often made me feel as if I were in his body or mind.

He brings everything to life, on the ground and in the air, on-duty and off. Although Porter uses no surnames, he gives us memorable personalities and dissects the idiosyncrasies of men of all ranks. For him as a lieutenant, watching and listening to experienced people was akin to attending school.

He examines LOH tactics in depth by analyzing missions and after-action discussions about arbitrary maneuvers such as which way to break over a target. His reflections on the morality of machine-gunning three VC—men he had initially attempted to capture—puts a heartrending slant on death, even in combat.

David L. Porter

One might read Taking Fire! as a coming-of-age story. Frequent turnovers in commanders allowed Porter to analyze leadership techniques from aggressive and violent, to careful and deliberate and, I believe, establish his own criteria for how best to command troops. Furthermore, the losses and injuries of many close friends had a strong impact on Porter’s appreciation for life. That said, these conclusions are merely mine.

Without intending to do so, David Porter also convinced me (for at least my tenth time) that flying helicopters is the toughest aviation job in warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

Lingering Fire by William Jackson Blackley

William Jackson’s Blackley’s poetry collection, Lingering Fire (Main Street Rag Publishing, 40 pp., $11, paper), which was published in 2015, contains excellent, mostly short poems with titles such as “Indirect Fire,” “Black Market Habits,” “Cities,” “Captain Crazy,” “Thermite,” “One Tour Too Many,” and “Blue Sunday.”

“Some of these poems were written during a very dark chapter in my life when I questioned even the existence of God,” Blackley writes. “They are based on my experiences growing up, with the draft, military training, battlefield action, coming home, talking with veterans and post-traumatic consequences of actions in Vietnam.” The poems “are, at times, my personal attempts to work through conflicted emotions rising from war experiences.”

The key to understanding this collection is a close reading of Blackley’s poem “Captain Crazy.” It’s about his fellow Vietnam War veteran Yusef Komunyakaa, the much-honored poet.

During my thirteen-and-a half-months in Vietnam I served as an office worker. However, in the months and years after I returned from the Vietnam War, I observed similar behavior to what Blackley describes in “Captain Crazy”. My sympathy for Komunyakaa and other returning Vietnam veterans was extreme, partially because I was similarly affected by my tour of duty.

Blackley

If you want to understand the fears of a Vietnam War veteran, read Komunyakaa’s poetry and your sympathy and understanding will be increased.

The poem I like best in the Lingering Fire is “Breaking Ranks.” Here are excerpts:

Home from Vietnam I carried engraved images of twisted and burned men everywhere I went

Never mentioned them, never even hinted at them until in the stands at my son’s soccer game one year I stunned myself and friends when ashen faced I stood and shouted “shut up shut up shut up” to a knot of teenagers chanting “kill them kill them kill them”

If you like hard-hitting poems that don’t mince words, this book is for you.

–David Willson

Combat Pay by David R. Bublitz

David R. Bublitz’s Combat Pay (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 72. pp. $14, paper) is divided into two sections: “War” and “Home.” Each contains more than a dozen poems. The “War” section touches on subjects you’d expect: Reveille, field stripping, living on base, dry fire, basic training, being drafted, and the like. 

“Home” contains the poems “Faith,” “Army Wife,” “My Father is a Spent Shell,” “Combat Pay,” “Walking Dad,” “Infidelity,” “When You Hear the Air Raid Warning,” and “Sleep Smoking.”  

The poems are mostly short and easy to understand. I found them worth reading and even fun to read. Here, for example, is “Fighting Weight:” 

My father’s hands never young

Return from the desert red

Where the folds of his palms

And finger prints used to be.

He’s reduced to 150 pounds bound

For home in the bed of the truck.

My dad’s finally back.

I tell a friend I produce

A picture, Dad’s one knee up

And arms loose across.

The friend looks and frowns.

Where’s the rest of him?

That’s a good question. A page or two later comes the poem, “My Father is a Spent Shell.” Some of the answers to that question are in this poem.

The poems in this book are tough to read in one sitting, but worth the effort. It’s an effort. I happily made it, and encourage others to do the same.

David Bublitz’s Facebook page is: facebook.com/combatpay

–David Willson

The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

David E. Grogan’s The Hidden Key (Camel Press, 250 pp. $15.95, paper) is the third book in his Steve Stilwell series of thrillers. Stilwell is an attorney who works for himself in Virginia. He previously served as a U.S. Navy attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps–as did the author.

The action kicks off immediately as we learn that a member of the American military has smuggled an ancient clay-tablet out of Iraq and taken it back with him to the U.S. Something takes place in the very first chapter that lets you know that just about anything is likely to happen in this book. There’s more action in the first two chapters than in many entire books.

Stilwell, who is going through a divorce, has been out of the Navy for six years. Casey Pantel is a partner in his law office. She barely survived an Army helicopter crash. Phan Quốc Cường also works for him. He once saved Stilwell’s life. In return, Stillwell helped him and his family escape from Vietnam.

Stilwell meets with a wealthy client and we learn that an active black market in antiquities has been in place since the beginning of the Iraq War. Museums and historical sites have been looted for items that are solde to raise money for Al-Qaida. Before long, his client is dead.

The tablet falls into, then out of, Stilwell’s hands. It appears that it’s not an ordinary tablet from the distant past. There’s something unique and important about this tablet. The writing on it may be a key to an ancient map of Babylon, or even the prized map itself. Or a Babylonian map of the world. Bad guys have killed in an attempt to obtain it. The good guys are after it as well, in the guise of FBI Agents Crosby and Fields who are assigned to the bureau’s Art Crime Team.

The holy Shroud of Turin becomes a plot point, as does the legendary Fountain of Youth and the biblical Garden of Eden. The action takes place in Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia, as well as in Italy, India, and Bahrain. Grogan includes several important female characters in a novel with a bit too much stilted dialogue.

Retired Navy Capt. Dave Grogan

Overall, the book reads like something written in the 1930s, perhaps by Sax Rohmer, the English novelist who created Dr. Fu Manchu.  At one point Grogan writes, “Steve felt like a detective in a B movie.”

This is a B novel—more in the “boys own adventure” genre than a sophisticated thriller. Still, it was fun to read.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

–Bill McCloud

Rice Roots by Robert R. Amon, Jr.

Robert R. Amon Jr.’s Rice Roots: The Vietnam War: True Stories from the Diary of a U.S. Combat Advisor (Legacies and Memories, 328 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper) is a historically accurate page-turner about the Vietnam War.

Amon skillfully used his personal diary from his time in-county as a starting point as he put together this readable memoir of his ’69-’70 tour of duty with a series of South Vietnamese Army units in the Mekong Delta.

As a newly minted, well-trained infantry lieutenant, Bob Amon—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—was assigned to a Mobile Advisory Team, which consisted of five men charged with advising and working with small ARVN units. He spent his entire tour in the field, separated from American military activities and base camps. Part of his war story deals with the experiences of the men he served and fought with; those sections enliven the running story line. 

Amon toggles between his journal entries—which are printed in italics—with expansions of the narrative and bits of recreated dialogue. The writing draws the reader into the story, and affords a larger view of the war. He also includes the occasional letter home to underscore and complement the story. With this format, we experience one man’s intimate view of the war in remote villages in the Mekong Delta.

Bob Amon’s in-country diary

Amon’s telling of his story is not minute-by-minute battlefield reporting, nor is it a chronology of his life from cradle to jungle. Instead, he relates, in well-constructed prose, the daily routine of one group of soldiers helping another working side by side and fighting a war as best they can.

Amon, to close his story, describes his return to Vietnam more than twenty years after his tour of duty, accompanied by his wife, visiting towns and villages where he served.

He took photos during his tour, and brought albums of them with him. He was able, through those pictures, to meet with former comrades and enemies, as well as relatives of those he served with and advised.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and well-produced book, and one that I was doubly intrigued with.

That’s because I served in the same Delta areas as Amon did a year before he arrived in Vietnam. My efforts were not in a combat role, but in gathering local intelligence that he relied upon to execute his mission.

The book’s website is riceroots.com

–Tom Werzyn

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Destiny Returns by Douglas Volk

Destiny Returns (Danjon Press, 415 pp. $14.99, paperback; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in The Morpheus Series by Douglas Volk. These books get under my skin and find a home in the part of my brain that responds to terror. Volk is a very seductive storyteller.

This time we’re dealing with kinky sex, blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, and contract murder. All that is held together by The Curse, which we first encounter at the beginning of the first book in this series,The Morpheus Conspiracy. The Curse comes about following a mysterious, brutal, incident that took place in South Vietnam involving an American soldier and Vietnamese civilians in late 1970. Volk describes it vividly in The Morpheus Conspiracy, and I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The Curse expresses itself through Somnambulistic Telepathy, which gives people the ability to travel into other people’s dreams and carry out acts of violence against them.

This book begins twenty years after the previous one, The Surgeon’s Curse ended. It’s 2006 and Chicago is dealing with of murders, most of them involving street gangs. Charlotte “Charly” Becker has been a cop for five years, but is a rookie detective assigned to homicide, a department known as “the flying shit storm.” Her father is retired from the same department and had a reputation as a brilliant detective.

The first case she’s assigned to take the lead on involves the murder of a dominatrix, apparently at the hand of a professional gunman. But, of course, nothing’s ever as simply as it seems. Hoyt Rogers, one of the main partners in a large law firm and a long-time city councilman—is a client of the murdered woman. Charly Becker finds out he has serious money troubles. Not to mention being the brother of a notorious mass murderer known as The Surgeon.

As Rogers’ troubles worsen, his appearance goes through big changes, his personal hygiene goes downhill, as his mental state deteriorates. It seems The Curse is back and the horror is about to begin all over again. At the same time, Detective Becker has to deal with pressure from the department to solve the murder, along with political complications because of Rogers’ position with the city, and a reporter who keeps pestering her for details about the case.

These books tell nightmarish tales. Horrible things keep happening. You think things can’t get worse, but then you turn the page and they do. I consider Volk to be a master of dialogue. It always rings true.

I encourage readers to start with the first book in the series and read your way through. That will give you a better sense of the over-all vibe that’s going on here—the malevolence that underlies everything.

This book is popular entertainment, one that can help us get through these stressful pandemic days.

–Bill McCloud

The author’s website is https://www.themorpheusseries.com/

Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud