Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

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Wanderer by F.T. Burke

Wanderer: The Ultimate Hippy Trail Journey (Purple Whale, 464 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a novel “inspired by true adventures,” as F.T. Burke puts it. Basically, Steve Reifman lived the story while Burke used his writing skills to put it down on paper.

The words “Vietnam War” are on the back cover. On page twelve we read, “Screw going to Vietnam!” Those are about the only mentions of the war, though, in a novel that begins in the Vietnam War summer of 1969 and frequently includes references to music and books of the era.

The title character is Steve, also known as “The Wanderer” because of the sense of wanderlust he frequently expresses. Before long, he’ll also be known as “Woodstock” because he was there.

He decides to hit the road and go backpacking through Europe and parts of Asia over what is known as the “overland hippie trail.” His father is deceased and I’m never quite sure how much The Wanderer is searching for his father’s spirit or trying to prove himself to him in some way, though that’s never suggested.

And, so he goes off to Luxembourg, Belgium, and Amsterdam. He stays in student hostels, “soaking up culture,” and interacting with natives and fellow travelers. Then to England, France, and Spain, where he dabbles in drugs , has run-ins with local law enforcement, and is shunned by most females. I couldn’t help but think Steve didn’t need to go to another continent to strike out, take drugs, and get rousted by the cops.

Things get a little more exciting after Steve lands in Morocco and then comes under rocket fire on the border between Jordan and Israel. I noted that as he moves closer to the East his thinking becomes more mystical. He can sometimes feel spiritual vibrations of places he’s in. Once he’s mistaken for a “saint.”

Syria, Turkey, Iran. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India. Eventually, Steve finds himself in the presence of the Dalai Lama. After a year on the road he returns home and rather matter-of-factly walks up to his house.

The story moves quickly and keeps you hooked, but you have to get through some rather-stilted dialogue. As in Steve telling his mom, “I am a hippy.” I don’t believed we hippies necessarily referred to ourselves as that. And: “Sure gives you a classic original hippy-look in our 1969 summer of love and peace.”

Burke and Reifman

Instead of saying, “Hey, man, let’s start getting into some conversation about the music scene,” it would have seemed more natural if Burke had gone straight into the conversation without introducing it.

I enjoyed reading this book, and the story it tells. However, there’s no need to put it on the you Vietnam War shelf of books because the war has no direct impact on this story.

It’s just something happening somewhere else and barely mentioned.

Burke’s website is authorftburke.com/category/wanderer/

–Bill McCloud

Arabic with a Redneck Accent by Aaron D. Graham

Aaron Graham, an assistant poetry editor for The Tishman Review, is a Marine Corps veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq where he served as an analyst and linguist.  He is working on a PhD in literature at Emory University and teaches English Lit and writing at Kennesaw State University in Georgia.

His chapbook, Arabic with a Redneck Accent (Moonstone Press, $10, paper), contains twenty-six pages of poetry, much of which has been published in small magazines and journals such as Grist, Digging Through the FatThe Seven Hills Review, and The Taos International Journal of Poetry.

These are short poems, mostly about one page in length. They are all very powerful. Here’s one, “Mohave Viper,” an example of Graham’s fine work:

The nearest civilization

The world’s

Biggest thermometer

Is a palm tree

On our horizon

Approaching the plywood MOUT town

The first seconds of light

Breached the horizon—

The silence of darkness

What exploded before us

Was not shrapnel, prosperous

Or tetanus-seeping Philips-head screws,

Explosions were

Refracted light bouncing from

Microfilament spindle silk

Strands left by Tarantula-legions

Covering their cacti overnight

Like a police tape perimeter

Made of muslin

A crystalline kingdom of perfection

So delicate only the infant

Rays of sun would hold in focus.

 

In predawn hours

The Mohave sand

Already instructing—

The cost of invasion is

How something beyond

Fathom is lost—

Or, rather

Comes to end

 

under retread souls—

Issued combat boots.

Fine stuff and well worth savoring at great length while—as I did—drinking my morning cup of mint tea with honey. No better way to start my day.

Aaron Graham

Reading a poem in the morning is a great way to jump-start a day in Maple Valley, Washington, or anywhere for that matter.  It’s better than reading a chapter in a war memoir, which tends to be a downer.

For ordering info, go to squareup.com/store/moonstone-arts-center/item/arabic-with-a-redneck-accent-1

–David WIllson

On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

A Genuine American Citizen Soldier by Al Navarro

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The heart of a citizen soldier contains non-militarized republicanism filled with a sense of public duty and civic virtue, according to historians. American Revolutionary War soldiers typified that ideal. World War II warriors solidified the image because the citizen soldiers in that conflict fought for international freedom. The Vietnam War might have been the citizen soldier’s final endeavor with the ending of the draft in 1973.

Alberto (Al) Navarro assumes the mantle of a citizen soldier in A Genuine American Citizen Soldier (362 pp. $25, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an autobiographical novel in which he becomes Arcadio Polanco, a Panamanian who enlists in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War summer of 1966 to qualify for American citizenship. At the urging of his wife, Navarro wrote the book as a history lesson for his children.

Navarro’s novel primarily deals with 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War at the age of 21 when he was stationed at Hoi An with the 37th Signal Battalion. He admits to taking liberties with his descriptions of combat action and characters. As a result, Polanco’s insights into leadership, strategy, and combat go beyond a grunt’s point of view. For example, his description of action during the 1968 Tet Offensive has depth that reflects research. In particular, he lauds the battle skills of Republic of Korea soldiers.

Most emphatically, Polanco/Navarro understood his destiny. He earned promotions and medals by seeking and performing duties beyond his pay grade. Disappointment did not daunt him. Promised a non-combat assignment upon enlisting, he became an outstanding citizen soldier when sent into the war zone.

Navarro’s style of writing contains conversations and accounts of routine activities that occasionally slow development of the story line. Otherwise, he clearly delivers his true-to-life message of how a person must repeatedly overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.

Al Navarro—the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 343 in Houston—completed active duty in the Army after completing his three-year enlistment. He went on to serve in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from 1972-2002, retiring as a Sergeant Major.

Following his naturalization process in December 1969, Navarro proudly says he became “a GENUINE AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

—Henry Zeybel

Legacy of War by Ed Marohn

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Vietnam War veteran Ed Marohn’s novel, Legacy of War (BookBaby,  340 pp. $16.95, paper), is a military thriller that delivers all the goods.

The protagonist, John Moore, is an overworked psychologist who has never gotten over the death of his wife from cancer. His bouts with depression and nightmares relating to his combat experiences in the Vietnam War have lead to his professional decision not to accept any patients who are veterans. That is, until now.

Dealing with a new client ends up with Moore learning a tale of the CIA’s war-time Phoenix Program gone wrong and a covered-up massacre, which gets him involved in a story of revenge—and a search for buried gold. Moore ends up grudgingly accepting an unofficial CIA invitation to return to Vietnam and help untangle a mind-bending mess. Before long, the hero says to himself, “This stuff sounds like a spy novel.”

He’s also aware that no one is telling him the complete story about anything. But he has his own reasons for getting involved.

The Socialist Republic of Vietnam needs unofficial assistance from the CIA at the same time the CIA needs hush-hush help from the Vietnamese. It turns out that the reasons for Moore being pulled into this secretive, dangerous mess go back more than thirty years. Some characters are trying to forget things they remember; others are trying to remember things they’ve forgotten.

The first half of the book is filled with conversations and explanations, but once the story gets going, it moves with the speed of a piano falling out of a thirteen-story window. At almost exactly the halfway point Moore is back on the “ancient soil of Nam,” wearing a .45 caliber pistol in a shoulder holster. Before long, he’s once again “humping through the Vietnamese boonies.”

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Ed Marohn

References to the Vietnam War are sprinkled throughout the book, as when Moore walks down a hall in an apartment building and notes that it resembles “a dark tunnel with a light at the end.” The apartment he’s looking for is “number ten.” A suicide note left by a Vietnam War vet says, in part, “It don’t mean a fucking thing.”

Notable characters include Moore’s female associate, a buddy he’s stayed close with since they served together in 1969 and 1970, and a female member of the Vietnamese National Police.

You want beautiful women, you got it. You want shootouts, you got it.

Most of the action takes place over a fifty-day period in late 2002, early 2003. More than one surprise makes this one well worth sticking around to the end for.

Ed Marohn served with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division in the Vietnam War. His website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

Noble Canine by Jimmie Moore

To avoid the likely possibility of living a grunt’s life in the jungle, Jimmie Moore plotted his own course through the Vietnam War. With the draft breathing down his neck, Moore enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, completed basic training and Security Police School, and became a K-9 sentry dog handler. During his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 37th Security Police Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base he patrolled the perimeter every night but six, he says, with German Shepherds Duke II and Junior.

Interactions between handlers and animals constitute the core of Moore’s Noble Canine: Search for the Edge (Steel Crow Productions, 240 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle). He examines those relationships in totality in the book, and his candor makes enjoyable reading. Beyond that, Moore’s accounts of in-country activities parallel the experiences of many Vietnam War veterans.

Moore recalls the challenges of K-9 training at Lackland Air Force Base, a time when a seasoned sentry dog severely tested his ability to control him. In Vietnam, Moore faced similar challenges while working with Duke II and Junior, both of whom were later euthanized. Moore deplores Air Force policy that dictates death for sentry dogs that no longer can perform their duties; their aggression, the military argues, precludesthem from becoming pets.

A dog’s highly refined ability to hear and smell made it the team leader in nighttime patrolling. Dogs responded to anything approaching the base far sooner than handlers could. Moore often visualized life without a dog and how he might be shot and killed before recognizing a threat.

Jimmie Moore was nineteen years old while at Phu Cat. Initially, he spent as much time as possible in nearby Qui Nhon. He gets specific when reminiscing about local women and the pleasures they taught him. Eventually, following ten-hour night patrols, he grew contented with 8:00 a.m. beer drinking and poker games with eight other handlers he had trained with at Lackland.

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He recalls events meaningful to all of them. Viet Cong fighters attacked the base four times during the year he was there, but they hit distant ammunition and fuel storage areas. Along with Moore, the eight handlers ate in mess halls, slept in beds, and made it through the year unscathed.

Old documents, letters, and recollections frame this memoir. The book overflows with reconstructed dialogue as Moore took, he says, “a few liberties to fill in the blanks without infringing on the story’s truth.”

People who love dogs should love Noble Canine.

The book’s website is www.moorek9.com

—Henry Zeybel