Blades of Thunder by W. Larry Dandridge

Blades of Thunder: The True Stories of Army Helicopter Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and Door Gunners in Vietnam, Book One (TVV Publishing, 428 pp. $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of love, admiration, and respect for men that author W. Larry Dandridge served with in the Vietnam War.

Initially published Blades of Thunder in 2015, Dandridge updated the book late in 2017 partly to earn money to support Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves families of veterans undergoing treatment at the local VA Medical Center. He also voluntarily fills several advisory roles at the Center. For the retired Army lieutenant colonel, life has no dull moments.

Dandridge is an old-school raconteur who finds interest in personalities as well as events. His stories revolve around friends he made while learning to fly helicopters and then going to Vietnam together. During an assignment with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang in 1968-69, Dandridge flew Hueys.

The book’s opening chapter describes his crash in a helicopter, his severe injuries, and his physical reconstruction. The chapter is a stunning opening for a long series of flying stories about chaotic situations and other adventures.

Amid the war scenes, Dandridge includes an award-winning leadership speech he presents that sets standards for any leader, military or civilian. This demanding kick-ass address puts everyone and everything in place. He counterbalances his authoritarianism with clever jokes.

The book’s many images include detailed captions that give the reader an on-the-scene feeling. Among the book’s eleven appendices, a collection of forty-four “Lessons Learned and Lessons Perhaps Not Learned” is the most noteworthy. In it, Dandridge evaluates warfare in thought-provoking lessons that cover issues from grand strategy to day-by-day tactics.

Larry Dandridge

On the higher level, he suggests an isolationist approach by America to military intervention overseas. He summarizes many lessons at this level by labeling them “only partially learned.”

Most lessons for everyday tactics, which constitute the bulk of the appendix, conclude with “learned but…” and require “today’s aviators [to] benefit from reviewing such lessons.” Others focus on people and projects deserving special recognition.

As a fan of helicopter crews, I look forward to Book Two, which Dandridge indicates will be published by the end of this year.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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The Displaced edited by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“What is a refugee like?” asks the author Vu Tran, who fled Saigon as a child and grew up in Oklahoma. He poses that question the timely and moving book, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives (Abrams, 190 pp. $25, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle), edited by the award-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen.

Vu Tran offers three answers. Like an orphan, bereft of “the familial bonds of her homeland, her native community and culture and customs.” Like an actor, who often “is one person at home and another person at work or at school or simply in public.” Like a ghost, who “can be invisible even though her presence is felt.”

Viet Nguyen is himself a refugee, having left Vietnam with his family in 1975 at the age of four. Three years later the family settled in California. He has gone on to a distinguished career: professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California; 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow; and the recipient of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his Vietnam War-heavy novel, The Sympathizer.

“I believe,” Viet Nguyen writes in his introduction, “in my human kinship to those 65.6 million people that the United Nations classifies as displaced people. Of these, 40.3 million are internally displaced people, forced to move within their own countries; 22.5 million are refugees fleeing unrest in their countries; 2.8 million are asylum seekers. If these 65.6 million people were their own country, their nation would be the twenty-first largest in the world.”

The book originated with the publisher, Viet Nguyen explained during a recent wide-ranging recent interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books:  “The editor there is Jamison Stoltz, and he came at me out of the blue, said, ‘I want to do a book about refugees.’ This was around the time Trump’s Muslim ban had been announced. He came up with half the writers, and I came up with half the writers. The criterion we used was that they had to be refugees and writers.”

Abrams is donating a portion of the book’s profits to the International Rescue Committee.

The seventeen contributors were born in Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, Ethiopia, Germany, Hungary, Iran, Mexico, the Soviet Union, Thailand, Vietnam, or Zimbabwe, and settled—often with several stops on the way—in Canada, England, Pakistan, South Africa, and the United States.

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Viet Nguyen

“All of these writers are inevitably drawn to the memories of their own past and of their families,” Viet Nguyen writes. “To become a refugee is to know, inevitably, that the past is not only marked by the passage of time, but by loss—the loss of loved ones, of countries, of identities, of selves. We want to give voice to all those losses that would otherwise remain unheard except by us and those near and dear to us.”

It is, he concludes, “a writer’s dream, that if only we can hear these people that no one else wants to hear, then perhaps we can make you hear them, too.”

–Angus Paul

Tributaries by Tim Ralston

When Tim Ralston died in 2010, his wife Mary Kay Keller Ralston and daughter Mariah Ralston Deragon went through his thirty-plus years of poetry, which he often scribbled on the backs of receipts or on other scraps of paper. They chose a group of poems for a book of his work, often needing a magnifying glass to read the words.

That book, Tributaries (Buffalo Commons Tavern, 106 pp. $16, paper), is a labor of love.

Tim Ralston enlisted in the U. S. Air Force in 1970. He served as an English language instructor in South Vietnam, and received his honorable discharge in 1974. He wrote poems during the long period of time between his service in the Vietnam War and his death.

There are many poems in this book, a few of which deal with the Vietnam War. Early in the book, I encountered these lines:

Not in the ample list

But in the crossing outs

By a rougher, awkward hand

(Were they what was

Bought, or what

Couldn’t be afforded?)

Perhaps the last gasp

Of a dying world

Being medevaced far away.

These words made me hopeful that I would encounter much more in the book about—or at least flavored by—the Vietnam War. But I found very little more that dealt with the war.

Still, there was a lot well worth reading, including a poem with Norwegians eating lutefisk and lefse, and folks eating “Gooseberry pie/Puckered with rhubarb sauce.”  My poetic hunger was more than satiated by these references and many more that were equally powerful.

Buy this beautiful little book and savor the many flavors of poetry that Tim Ralston engraved on scraps of paper—and left for us lucky readers.

For ordering info, send an email to Buffalo Commons Tavern.

—David Willson

Ten: Five Five by Royal Hettling

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Sappers, rockets, and stress comprised the enemy forces that Royal Hettling faced from practically “sunset to sunrise” while guarding the perimeter of Cam Ranh Bay Air Base in 1970-71 during the Vietnam War. His closest ally was Thunder, a one-hundred-pound purebred German Shepherd who walked a nightly beat with him.

An Air Force enlistee at eighteen, Hettling relates his time in-country in Ten: Five Five: Chronicles of the 483rd Security Police Squadron’s K-9 Unit (Create Space, 158 pp. $25, paper; $8.99, Kindle). “Ten-five-five” is radio code for a K-9 alert indicating the presence of a threat.

Despite its subtitle, Hettling’s book offers limited details about guard dogs beyond noting their keen eyesight and sense of smell that helped handlers distinguish real from imagined threats.

Squadron 483 protected Cam Ranh’s ammunition dump and POL storage areas from Viet Cong sappers. Firefights were frequent. A week after Hettling arrived on base, sappers blew up part of the POL area, their only big success of the year.

Most of Hettling’s fellow K-9 handlers were also on the cusp of ending their teenage years. Their stories differ from the usual Vietnam War memoirs in that the men’s war-time lives existed in distinctly different light and dark worlds. By day—except for unpredictable in-coming rocket salvos—they lived like college guys. They went to the beach, played football, and drank beer.

But nights provided lifelong frights. Isolated on the base perimeter, the dog handlers were vulnerable to sneak attacks at any time. Hettling sums up this schizophrenic atmosphere as follows: “Some nights you will never forget. It is as if they happened last night.”

War touched Hettling in several ways. The first casualty was his loss of innocence. He felt ambivalence about hating sappers and also worrying that they looked so much younger than he was. Additionally, he recognized that his hootch maid was a Viet Cong sympathizer. She confirmed that, and he tolerated it. His analyses of sapper activities provide a respectful tribute to the enemy occasionally outmaneuvering American guards.

At times, Hettling radiates a mood that reflects how a bunch of young Americans performed tasks that they would rather not have been doing while wondering how and why they had ended up in a position to do them. The men did not fight the system, however. They admired their commander, Lt. Col. Carl W. Roy, a World War II veteran. Other officers seldom appear in the book.

Cam Ranh Bay was a closed base, which meant GIs could not go into nearby My Ca village. Considering their confinement to a peninsula jutting into the South China Sea, the dog handlers maintained a positive attitude and worked well together.

Camaraderie in the squadron emerged in ways unlike anything that had ever happened to them before, Hettling says. Interdependence led to friendships in which they “felt each other’s pain, joy, and rejection” such as “the dreaded Dear John letter. The bond we established in Vietnam still exists today.”

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Royal Hettling

In several ways, the book’s format reminds me of a high school yearbook disturbed by a war. Hettling presents eight pages of photographs of his comrades labeled “Then and Now.” He also devotes eight pages to wild animals that lived on or near the base.

Interspersed with photographs of facilities, equipment, and weapons, he includes accounts of combat action undertaken by his squadron and describes his own close calls. He presents declassified after-action reports that confirm the stories.

Hettling is donating all proceeds from the sale of Ten: Five Five to the Vietnam Memorial and History Center in Minneota, Minnesota. He operates the Center along with his brother Charlie who also served in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

Operation Linebacker II 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

The best military historians present the thoughts and actions of troops from both sides in a battle. Marshall L. Michel III aspires to fulfill that high bar as he writes about the massive bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 in Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s are Sent to Hanoi (Osprey, 96 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book).

Michel flew F-4 escorts for the bombers, a small slice of his 321 combat missions. In 2001, following a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, he wrote The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle, although he was not happy having to rely on translations from government sources for the North Vietnamese view of the action. After contacting men who had battled the B-52s, he returned to Vietnam and met with North Vietnamese Air Defense surface-to-air missile (SA-2) crewmen and fighter pilots. He also read The Red Book, a manual filled with years of observations about bomber tactics that taught the enemy how to shoot down a B-52.

Based on this insider information, Michel wrote his new book, which might be the final word on the eleven-day air-to-ground Linebacker II campaign.

During Linebacker II, flexibility in tactics determined success and failure for both sides. When the bombing began, Americans were unaware of how much information the North Vietnamese had about B-52 tactics. That’s why in the first four days of battle the B-52s used compromised maneuvers and SA-2s destroyed twelve of them.

Leadership conflicts also hampered American decision making. Planners at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha—who owned the bombers—were out of touch with crewmen half a world away and miscalculated the B-52s’ electronic jammers’ efficiency, which gave a tactical advantage to SA-2 missile teams.

Michel clearly explains the ploys and counter ploys used by both sides. By night eight when the need for SA-2s far exceeded their rate of production—and the B-52s bombed at will—the North Vietnamese sought to resume the Paris peace talks.

Prior to walking the reader through each night of Linebacker II, Michel describes the available weapons and their associated systems on both sides; and offers analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and plans; the political climate; and the campaign’s objective.

Thanks to the talent of illustrator Jim Laurier, Operation Linebacker II 1972 has the outstanding graphics we expect of Osprey publications. His double-page paintings of night operations made me long for flying dangerous missions. Well-chosen photographs, many from Michel’s collection, further enhance the text.

In 1972 I spent half of Linebacker II as a Special Operations liaison at U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand and the other half monitoring daily briefings in Saigon. I believed that experience had given me a solid understanding of the campaign, but Michel’s account significantly broadened my knowledge, particularly about the North Vietnamese mentality and initiative.

Books such as Operation Linebacker II 1972 renew my admiration for historians’ ability to recreate events from long ago. In the summer issue of Air Power History, Darrel Whitcomb wrote an article called “Rescue Operations During Linebacker II.” His account of helicopter search and rescue missions that recovered thirty bomber and fighter crewmen perfectly closes the circle for Michel’s work.

You can read the article on line. Read it. You won’t regret it.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Facing the Dragon by Philip Derrick

Phillip Derrrick’s Facing the Dragon: A Vietnam War Mystery Thriller (Sunnyslope Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction. In the preface Derrick tells us that the war in Vietnam was seen differently by every veteran who was there between 1964 and 1973. Events in this novel take place primarily in 1970 at the Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Derrick is an Air Force brat who joined the Army and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. He later earned a PhD in history and had a career in higher education.

The main character of this novel scams his way into the Army at the age of fifteen, which was not unknown to happen. Our hero, who has several names throughout the book but is known as Jim Peterson at the beginning, had witnessed the murder of his family while they are touring Carlsbad Caverns. He escaped and sought sanctuary in the Army, which he entered through an elaborate ruse involving stolen records. Derrick makes these events believable because he knows how the Army worked back in the day.

The book has an elaborate back-and-forth structure, due to the murderer having been a German soldier and a criminal his past life. That’s why part of the novel takes place in 1945 in Germany as well as in Vietnam in 1970.

Much of this is a semi-standard Army infantry novel fare, with our hero gradually learning Army lore even though he did not go through Basic Training. The story is filled with many of the usual Vietnam War fiction references such as a “fuck-you” lizard who speaks some English, Donut Dollies, ring knockers, Project 100,000, John Wayne, jungle penetrators, LBJ, Vic Morrow in Combat the TV show, shit burning, and elephants. To his credit, Derrick also mentions other stuff that is not so usual such as Karl May, the German author of Western novels; laterite; and the riots at Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.

Philip Derrick

We also get the usual funny names that soldiers in Vietnam War novels are saddled with; in this case, Prophet, Big Red, Dimes, Peddler, and the Project. The LBJ riots are handled well, which makes this novel unusual.

I recommend Facing the Dragon to those looking for an unusual Vietnam War infantry yarn. It is well written and well edited, and the narrative moves right along with no boring patches.

The author’s website is https://philipderrick.com

—David Willson

Kissinger the Negotiator by James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin

Lauding Henry Kissinger is the primary purpose of Kissinger the Negotiator, which carries the subtitle tease, Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level (HarperCollins, 448 pp.; $28.99, hardcover; $17.99, paper; $14.99, Kindle). After studying “many of the world’s most impressive negotiators,” the authors (all Harvard professors) classify the controversial Kissinger as “a breed apart.”

The authors—James K. Sebenius, R. Nicholas Burns, and Robert H. Mnookin—are experts in negotiation, diplomacy, and law. They allowed Kissinger to write the book’s forward. In it, he lauds the authors for being the first, to his knowledge, to “seriously analyze” his “most effective strategies and tactics to address different challenges at the table.” This then is the book’s “central topic,” he says, which makes it “unique.”

The authors dissect Kissinger’s most formidable negotiations by beginning with what they call the “forgotten case” of South Africa in 1976. Then they work their way through Kissinger’s involvement in the Vietnam War, with U.S.-China relations, the Cold War, and the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. They find “a great deal to admire and several aspects to question.”

The concluding chapter offers fifteen “Key Lessons on Negotiation from Henry Kissinger” and provides a checklist to use if you’re ever bargaining across a table. Which begs the question: What happens when your opponent has a copy of the list?

The checklist rewords old practices and self-evident truths. It reminds me of military school handouts that address concepts of leadership: “Know your job” was the first principle of those schools. This book gives similar advice; to wit: “Develop deep familiarity with the subject of your negotiation.”

The professors add a caveat, however, for leaders who negotiate in areas in which they lack knowledge: “Make sure that your team possesses this knowledge.” Do they mean “Know yourself and seek self-improvement,” which has been taught to soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for ages?

What the authors call the book’s “key lessons,” therefore, are not new. In the situations cited, they were effective because of Kissinger’s skill in choosing and applying established tactics. For example, the authors emphasize Kissinger’s talent for “zooming out” to set strategies and “zooming in” to contend with difficult opponents.

The authors describe the miasma that engulfed Kissinger in making Vietnam War policy. “No,” they say, was the operative word from everybody he encountered: the U.S. Congress and public, North Vietnam’s Le Duc Tho, South Vietnam’s Nguyen Van Thieu, and Chinese and Soviet diplomats. Even West German officials added to the discord.

For years, Kissinger pursued America’s Vietnam War goals for good or bad despite Richard Nixon’s showing his hand by withdrawing troops starting in 1969. The authors classify Kissinger’s early bargaining position with the North Vietnamese as “weak.” But his determination was formidable, they say, in pursuing tasks bordering on the impossible.

While reading about Kissinger versus the North Vietnamese, I kept thinking that he could have stayed home if a president had targeted B-52s over Hanoi seven, or even five, years earlier.

With more than one hundred of the book’s pages devoted to notes, bibliography, and index, arguments about negotiation techniques fill less than three hundred pages. Nevertheless, the book provides interesting views of history and Kissinger’s role in the action.

—Henry Zeybel