Dien Bien Phu 1954 by Martin Windrow

Martin Windrow’s Dien Bien Phu, 1954: The French Defeat that Lured America into Vietnam (Osprey, 96 pp., $24, paper) is an easy-to-follow account of the pivotal May 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu, which ended the Vietnamese war against France and determined the future of Vietnam. Rich in photographs, illustrations, and maps, and supported with a detailed chronology and order of battle tables, this concise history takes the reader right into the battle.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu was a consequence of monumental errors in French operational planning, including misunderstanding the enemy’s intentions and capabilities. The French also overestimated their own capability to maintain and defend the remote base with artillery and air support. and forces available—and underestimated the Viet Minh’s ability to commit substantial forces to the battle supplemented with artillery and antiaircraft weaponry.

The purpose of the base was to draw Viet Minh forces away from the strategically important Red River Delta, which included Hanoi and Haiphong. Ironically, the misguided plan instead isolated significant numbers of French forces, moving them away from areas where they were essential. Despite heavy losses by the Viet Minh. the French were ultimately crushed.

Although Windrow—a military historian who has written widely about the 20th century wars in Vietnam—does not compare Dien Bien Phu with the siege of the remote Khe Sanh combat base fourteen years later during America’s Vietnam War, one cannot help but look for parallels and differences. Some similarities and some important differences come to mind.

The Viet Minh, for example, zeroed their artillery in on Dien Bien Phu’s two airfields, essentially shutting them down and the North Vietnamese Army essentially did the same thing at Khe Sanh. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the overall commander of attacking forces in both battles, applied the lessons of the first to the second. French tactical airpower at DBP was sorely inadequate and encouraged Giap’s tactical boldness. In contrast, U.S. airpower inflicted heavy losses on NVA at Khe Sanh in 1968. 

Vietnamese artillery, well concealed and protected, was a key component of the siege strategy at both DBP and Khe Sanh. At DBP it was used to support assaulting troops, wipe out outposts, deny the use of the airfields, and target command and control bunkers. Fuel storage and ammunition dumps also were destroyed at Khe Sanh. The ammunition dump also was destroyed, many aircraft on the ground were hit, and movement within the camp greatly restricted. Yet Khe Sanh, supplied by airdrops, never fell to the NVA.

French troops besieged at Dien Bien Phu

Finally, an important difference: For the North Vietnamese the Siege of Khe Sanh was not the focus of the ensuing 1968 Tet Offensive. The base did not have to be actually taken. The NVA instead succeeded in its goal of drawing key U.S. combat forces (the 1st Cavalry Division) away from population centers on the eve of the South Vietnam-wide Tet Offensive.

As a veteran of the siege of Khe Sanh I wanted to learn as much as possible about Dien Bien Phu from this book. And I was pleased to see that Windrow’s narrative, maps, order of battle listings, and timelines allowed me an to “see” the battle of DBP as it unfolded.       

This book accomplishes quite a bit. It is well worth reading.          

–John Cirafici           

War and the Arc of Human Experience by Glen Petersen

Glenn Petersen ran away from home at 16 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy shortly after turning 17. By 19, he was flying combat missions from the U.S.S. Bennington in the Vietnam War in 1966-67. Peterson, a research anthropologist and City University of New York professor, tells his story with wonderment and vigor in War and the Arc of Human Experience (Hamilton Books, 290 pp. $24.99, paper; $23.50, Kindle), an autobiography that should touch the soul of most people who served in the military.

In the first half of the book Petersen describes his emotional growth under a domineering father and wartime conditions; in the second half, he reveals his challenging ascent through alcoholism, antiwar civil disobedience, and parenthood.

Youthful exposure to movies, TV shows, books, and songs that emphasized duty to fight and to kill for our country (and to die for our faith) imbued him with the belief that dedication to duty was the primary trait of a warrior. This dedication reached its pinnacle when Petersen flew as an intercept controller and flight technician in E-1B Tracer early warning aircraft. On the aircraft carrier’s deck, he also maintained radar systems in an undermanned and under-equipped unit. He ranked his job ahead of his wellbeing, and the earnestness of his work brought recognition and promotions.

In the book Petersen skillfully recreates the dangers of aircraft carrier operations: the on-deck and inflight rigors of maintenance; the emotional and physical toll of catapult launches and arrested recoveries; and the absolute absence of free time. All of this fortified his aggressiveness as a warrior. When his crew mistakenly overflew China’s Hainan Island and barely evaded intense antiaircraft fire, Petersen reached a new heroic level in his mind.

After separating from the Navy and returning to school Petersen began to rethink his role in society. He tells extremely interesting stories about those years, showing how, in class, he worked as hard as he had in the Navy. He also drank a lot and totaled three cars in two years. He became an antiwar protester. He made what he calls the “bizarre decision to become an anthropologist” and live in exotic places, including Micronesia.

As the book progresses, Petersen disassembles his psyche with surgical-like precision. For him, it is open season on every aspect of his thoughts and behaviors, primarily involving marriage and fatherhood. He reduces war to an intellectual topic and simultaneously analyzes the emotions of the world at large from a hardcore anthropologist’s perspective, which involves neurobiology, guilt, just-war theory, and moral injury.

Peterson’s discussion of PTSD far exceeds what you’ll find in most Vietnam War memoirs. He repeats himself by bringing up the topic several times, but on each occasion, he digs deeper into the problem, and finds greater revelatory reasons for his PTSD and its resulting behavior. His thoughts about PTSD stretch to the end of the book.

Glenn Petersen has led a tough life—one I wouldn’t want. (He names Yossarian of Catch-22 as his role model.) His willingness to write about what he suffered induced me to look at my own self-destructive shortcomings that I could have prevented. Too late, though, in my case.

Anyone with an open mind will have it opened wider by reading this book.

—Henry Zeybel

SOG Chronicles, Vol. I by John Stryker Meyer

The Studies and Observations Group (SOG) was one of the most misidentified and misnamed special operations units in the American war in Vietnam. With his 2017 book, SOG Chronicles, Volume I (SOG Publishing, 210 pp. $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), former Army Green Beret John Meyer gives us the first of a series telling the stories of the men who took part in the secret SOG actions.

Changing some names “to protect those involved,” Meyer tells us of the birth and mission of SOG, which was in place under MACV from 1964-72. He also includes some of the history that drove its inception and goals.

The Special Forces troops of SOG and their Vietnamese comrades, including Montagnards, went where they weren’t supposed to go and did what they weren’t supposed to do with the knowledge that the U.S. government would disavow their existence and missions into Laos, Cambodia, and North Vietnam if they were discovered.

SOG Chronicles focuses on the 1970 Operation Tailwind, in which 16 Green Berets and some 120 Montagnard fighters went deep into western Laos to draw the NVA’s attention away from another operation being run by CIA forces in eastern Laos.

This operation turned into a four-day fight, a greater-than-expected engagement with more than a few casualties. The men were finally extracted with 60 wounded, all of whom were kept alive by the sole medic in the unit, Gary Mike Rose, with the help of an indigenous assistant. In 2017, Rose belatedly received the Medal of Honor for those beyond-the-call-of duty actions.  

Meyer also includes a rundown of other SOG operations, as well as details about some of the minutia and high jinx that took place in camps and on the trail. He heaps great praise on the airborne assets assigned to SOG, those who transported the men out and back and provided air support.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and informative book and a tribute the men of SOG.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

–Tom Werzyn

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM by Peter Caldwell

Up to Speed on VIET-NAM (Taote Publishing, 150 pp. $9.95, paper; $4.25, Kindle) is Dr. Peter Caldwell’s take on what happened during the American war in Vietnam. He therefore opens the book by asking: “How difficult is it for someone who wants to try and get up to speed on the history of American involvement in Viet-Nam?”

My experience reading this book was just that—difficult. It’s a wonderful book, but there is so much diverse material with many outside references in it that I had to re-read a few sections to understand the full picture Caldwell was trying to paint.

He has packed nearly 100 excerpts from publications written by Americans (both war hawks and doves) and Vietnamese (from the South and North) into this short book. The endnotes and bibliography lend credence to his observations and comments, causing me to rethink my opinions about the war.

From 1966-67 Caldwell served as a Navy Battalion Surgeon for the Marines in the Hue-Phu Bai area. He later made several trips back to Vietnam on volunteer medical missions and to visit his in-laws. In 1960, Caldwell’s Vietnamese wife Olga Hoang Hai and her family had moved to Hawaii where and met her and they later married.

Here are a few strategic changes that Caldwell believes could have reversed the outcome of the war:

  • Periodically invading southern areas of North Vietnam and moving into sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail
  • Pursuing the enemy into Cambodia and Laos
  • Continuing support for President Ngo Dinh Diem
  • Expanding the USMC’s Combined Action Platoon program
  • Integrating the ARVN command structure with ours and giving the South Vietnamese military more autonomous responsibilities
  • Reducing access to untruthful news outlets

I enjoyed reading Up to Speed on VIET-NAM and feel I now have a more well-rounded understanding of the Vietnam War. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Kapaun’s Battle by Jeff Gress

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Kapaun’s Battle (3rd Coast Books, 239 pp. $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is the inspiring story of the final year of the life of Emil Kapaun, a man of God who became the most decorated chaplain in U.S military history.

When the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950, United Nation forces, mainly from the U.S., moved in to aid the South Koreans. Among them was Father Kapaun, 34, who had served as a Catholic chaplain in World War II and rejoined the Army to go to Korea because, he said, he had “orders from God.” Upon his arrival “No one but the generals understand why we’re here,” Kapaun said.

In early action he had his helmet knocked off by rifle fire and later he was blown off his feet by a mortar round. Another time a bullet split Kapaun’s pipe in two while was holding it. He taped it back together. One soldier called him “the most fearless chaplain I’ve ever seen.” He always seemed to be surprised to be complimented for his bravery.

Father Kapaun was with the troops as they moved across the border into North Korea, frequently using the hood of a Jeep as an altar. He was also with them when China entered the war with human wave attacks that broke through the American lines. Kapaun was seen dragging wounded men to cover again and again during the assault, constantly moving among them, treating the wounded, and praying over them. He was in a command post when it was overrun by the Chinese.

Gress, a screenwriter, pulls no punches when describing deaths on the battlefield. Much of it involved hand-to hand-fighting, which Gress characterizes as “hell on earth.”

As the Chinese moved south, nearly a thousand captured Americans were marched north. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot. As the POWs marched, Kapaun prayed just loud enough for the men around him to hear.

Eventually Kapaun and the other POWs were put in camps where dead bodies were stacked up by the hundreds. During the winter of 1950-51, one of the coldest on record, the POWs slept “with their cold feet clamped in the armpits of others,” Gress writes.

During their captivity Kapaun constantly prayed and comforted the men. He also actively stole food for them, and once tried to dig a grave, though he only had dog tags and sticks to do it with. In the spring of 1951 he defiantly gave an Easter service.

Father Emil Kapaun died in captivity in May 1951 and was buried in a mass grave. He was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Legion of Merit Award, and decades later, was posthumously given the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.

Kapaun’s Battle is a well-written book about a courageous, selfless man who is being considered for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. It was an honor to read it.

The book’s publisher, Ron Mumford, served with the Americal Division’s 6/11th Artillery in 1970.

–Bill McCloud

In the Year of the Rabbit by Terence A. Harkin

Terrence A. Harkin’s new novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), is the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, but Rabbit is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens with Harkin’s Brendan Leary, an American cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following the crash of his helicopter gunship in the jungles of Thailand at the height of the Vietnam War. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served in a USAF photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Together, Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Though he tries to put the past behind him, Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the war. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is, in his own words, “a gunner and a bomb leader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared experiences in the war.

At times, both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side, the book contains many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in the movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. The thoughtfulness and careful prose of In the Year of the Rabbit make Terry Harkin’s second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.

The author’s website is taharkin.net

–Meg Bywater

Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War by Harry Spiller

Harry Spiller’s Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War: 17 Personal Accounts (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) contains just about everything you need to know about the U.S. Navy enlisted medical specialists who served with U.S. Marines in the war. Spiller, who served ten years in the  Marines with two tours in Vietnam, put together this book primarily with interviews of 17 corpsmen whose combat duties in the war stretched from July 1967 to October 1970. Seven of them were in-country during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Spiller has written 17 books, including  World War II and Korean and Vietnam War oral histories. A former sheriff in Illinois, he was an associate professor of criminal justice at John A. Logan College.

Although the 17 corpsmen in the book enlisted in the Navy as sailors, in Vietnam they primarily performed as infantrymen in I Corps, exchanging fire with the enemy until somebody called, “Corpsman up,” which meant someone had been wounded and needed immediate medical attention. After completing medical studies in the Navy, the corpsmen underwent Marine Corps field medical training. That training strengthened them physically, familiarized them with weapons, and taught them how to perform medical procedures in combat with an emphasis on keeping their butts down at the same time. To a man, they saved lives—and became Marines at heart.

Spillman tells each man’s story in a chapter of its own. The men’s recollections of caring for the wounded and dead fascinated me because on the Corpsmen’s high degree of selflessness as they came to the aid of others. In their minds, they felt they never did enough and believed there was always one more person they should have helped or saved.

As former Corpsman John Cohen puts it: “I would just go into a mode of not paying attention to what was going on around me” as he performed first aid and triage seemingly endlessly. Paul McCann and Leon Brown say they maintained “tunnel vision,” disregarding what was going on around them. “Fighting sometimes lasted for hours, and sometimes for days,” Leon Brown says. His twin brother Loren Brown, who served side-by-side with him, said, “All the combat just made us numb, with no grief.”

The book overflows with remembrances of battles. As soon as he arrived at Da Nang, for example, Lamar Hendricks says his commander put him on a helicopter and dropped him into a rice paddy where his new company was in a firefight. Corpsmen suffered high losses and were in great demand. “The chances of getting killed at Con Thien,” Paul Douglas Reininger says, were “about 50 percent.” Little wonder the Marines nicknamed the DMZ the “Dead Marine Zone.”

Although all of the men experienced unusual combat situations, Daniel Milz provides the book’s most gruesome accounts. Coming upon a burned-out crash site, he says, “There were 17 briskets that looked like people in the helicopter.” He also remembers a priest at a helicopter pad who performed last rites for men leaving on a mission. Dennis Kauffman tells of operating from patrol boats as part of the Mobile Riverine Forces, a job that came with many types of of saving and killing.

Occasional Combined Action Platoon duty pleased all of the corpsmen, particularly doctoring children, because it provided tangible help to relatively helpless people.

Navy Corpsmen in the Vietnam War is an insightful collection of exciting, happy, and heartbreaking tales that played out in an environment that should be wished upon nobody. Corpsmen faced limitless responsibilities in the midst of almost indescribable chaos. They were fighting men who saved other fighting men under horrendous conditions.  

—Henry Zeybel         

Letters from the Heart by Jonathan and Sherrie Benumof

Jonathan and Sherrie Benumof’s Letters from the Heart: A Young Army Doctor’s 1969 Vietnam War Experience (Park Place Publications, 434 pp. $24.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) contains 282 letters that Jon wrote to Sherrie during his 12-month tour in Vietnam. Fifty-one years after his return to The World, the Benumofs read the letters to each other, and decided to assemble them in a book with added comments for their children.

Fresh out of medical school, Jon Benumof was drafted into the Army as a Captain. He landed in Vietnam in January 1969, was sent to Fire Base Evans near the DMZ, and immediately became the head anesthesiologist with the 18th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, aka, the 18th MASH, which primarily served the 101st Airborne, and was very busy.

For most of Benumof’s 12-month tour of duty the 101st was fighting along the DMZ—including at the infamous Hamburger Hill and throughout the nearby A Shau Valley. American, South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, and North Vietnamese Army troops, along with civilians, were treated at the 18th MASH. This made for very long hours in the OR. It also required a very strong-minded person to deal with the daily onslaught of the vicious results of the war.

Benumof was medically unprepared for this. He had had only limited training in anesthesia and surgery, yet through desire, intelligence, and research he quickly got up to speed. He displayed an admirably unrelenting concern and compassion for his patients. 

Dr. Benumof

Working in a very dangerous area, Benumof and the other medical personnel put in superhuman hours dealing with horrendous wounds and making life and death decisions—sometimes during NVA rocket attacks. The almost daily letters between the newly married couple helped sustain them both throughout the time of isolation and loneliness.

Letters from the Heart is a good book that tells a great story, but it is not always easy to read. The memoir is interspersed with references to relevant letters. Those letters are grouped in the middle of the book and numbered L-1 through L-282. Having to continually move between the memoir sections and the letters kept me from enjoying a continuous read of Jon Benumof’s impressive tour of duty.

–Bob Wartman

Warriors and Friends by Jim Hasse

Jim Hasse’s Warriors and Friends: Through the Eyes of His Alter-Ego, a Green Beret Unlocks Forbidden Memories of Vietnam on His Path to Healing (296 pp. $11.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is billed as a collection of 38 short stories. For the most part, though, it reads like a novel divided into 38 chapters. Hasse describes his book as a memoir written in the form of “creative non-fiction” because it’s a fictional retelling of events that really happened. Warriors and Friends is a really fine book, though, whether it’s a creative nonfiction, a novel or a group of short stories.

Hasse spent two years on the ground in Vietnam as a Green Beret sergeant. He later made a career in law enforcement. In the book Hasse’s alter ego is Jay Boone Hanson. In 1965 Hanson is in college listening to a stern professor challenging the males in class to consider what they’re going to do with their lives. What Hanson does is drop out of school and join the Army. The professor is the only person in the book to come across as a caricature. He is reminiscent of the schoolmaster, Kantorek, in All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his young students to join the German army.

I bonded early on with Hanson when he went through three months of training at Fort Gordon to become a Communication Center Specialist. I had that same training and, also like me, he would not work very long in that MOS. He makes an unsuccessful stab at Officer Candidate School and then goes through Special Forces training at Fort Bragg before arriving in Vietnam in January 1967.

“I believe I have always had the warrior spirit,” Hanson says, and he sees plenty of action in Vietnam in firefights, ambushes, and raucous nights back at the club. He’s issued large amounts of amphetamines to help him stay awake in the field and serves with a Sergeant First Class who, when in the rear, begins some of his mornings with two double Scotches mixed with buttermilk.

Hanson encounters a Vietnamese orphanage, Montagnard tribesmen, and an atrocity is committed by an American. Many people we read about in the book end up being killed. “The constant presence of death,” Hanson says, “stunned me into appreciating life.”

Once he’s home in Illinois out of the Army and dealing with ex-wives and PTSD, Hanson takes comfort in a companion dog while taking part in therapy groups for war veterans and finding a creative outlet in a veteran writers group.

Hanson says he was “devastated” when he “had to leave combat, Vietnam, and the military.” Later he recalls: “In the past fifty-two years I have thought of Vietnam every day, many times a day, and I am back there again on nights too numerous to count.”

Jim Hasse does a great job telling this story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Now that I think about it, the idea of making the book’s chapters into short stories works.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam in My Rearview by Dennis D. Blessing, Sr.

Dennis Blessing’s Vietnam in My Rearview; Memoir of a 1st Cavalry Combat Soldier, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 222 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) looks at Blessing’s 12-month tour of duty as a rifleman with the Cav in Vietnam beginning in March 1966. He served with the 1st Cavalry’s famed 7th Regiment.

Before leaving for Vietnam, Blessing told his wife he would try to write to her every day. He wound up writing 212 letters to her from the warzone. Fifty-four years later he read through those letters, which brought back memories of many places, times, and events in Vietnam—and enabled him to write Vietnam in My Rearview.

Blessing spent most of his tour fighting in and around the Ia Drang Valley in the Central Highlands. This region was always crawling with NVA and VC, and he saw a lot of action. Few pages of Vietnam in My Rearview pass without an excerpt from a letter to his wife.  Before and after each Blessing fills in details that he didn’t want to divulge to her at the time.

He fought in 11 operations and received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star. His many combat experiences included the vicious May 1966 fighting at Bong Son during Operation Masher, in which his platoon was nearly wiped out.

Being a grunt and spending long periods in the field without letup completely wore him out. Adding to his fatigue as Blessing got shorter was an incessant feeling that he would not survive. Therefore, when he was given the opportunity to spend his final two months in Vietnam to be his company’s supply clerk, he jumped on it.

Several passages in the book, including Blessing’s final words, have caused me to think more deeply about some of the causes of  PTSD. Blessing was discharged from the Army in 1968, and went on to graduate from college, raise a family, and work to retirement. He now lives with his wife of 55 years in the mountains of central California, near the western edge of Yosemite National Park.

Vietnam in My Rearview is well written and a pleasure to read. I recommend it.

–Bob Wartman