The Day I Died by J.R. Tuorila

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Shot down during his second tour in Vietnam, Marine helicopter pilot Paul Montague spent five years as a prisoner of war in four North Vietnamese camps. In The Day I Died: A True Story of Patriotism, Faith and Survival (Tate, 339 pp. $15.41, paper), J.R. Tuorila, a clinical psychologist, tells the story of those years based on his friendship with—and 700 pages of documentation given to him by—Montague.

Many former POWs—such as James Stockdale, Robinson Risner, and Bud Day—have written books about their ordeals. Montague’s highly detailed story provides insights equally as revealing and interesting as those others.

In 1968, Montague and his copilot Bruce Archer survived a crash landing after a “hailstorm” of bullets shattered their UH-34D Chinook cockpit. Abandoned in the wreckage by the recovery team they had been carrying, the two men managed to crawl free but then fell into the hands of the NVA. That started an arduous journey that took them across South Vietnam to a jungle camp, then north to Camp Farnsworth, Plantation Gardens, and the Hanoi Hilton.

Three episodes of prolonged torture and an entire year of isolation marked Montague’s first two years as a prisoner. He obeyed the Code of Conduct throughout. After he returned to the United States, Montague admitted that he had been mentally broken. “The communists could break anyone over time,” he said, “and they had plenty of time to find the key to each prisoner’s weakness.”

Nevertheless, Montague’s devotion to God and country helped him win psychological battles and even earn respect from his captors. His resistance to torture reflected near super-human dedication to sticking to giving only his name, rank, and service number. Eventually, his reputation made him a leader among the POWs. In that capacity, although his action almost cost him his life, he countermanded the NVA rule for prisoners to bow to their guards.

After he returned home in 1973, Montague worked to press charges against ten POWs who had violated the Code of Conduct “for a beer and a cigarette” at the Plantation and Hilton. Six days before the announcement that the men would be punished, one committed suicide. The charges were dropped against the remaining defendants. An appendix in the book lists the men’s names.

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Marine Maj. Paul Montague

The Day I Died is an excellent starting point for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War POW world, although the book covers Montague’s life before he was captured and afterward. The book also should interest those familiar with POW life because of Montague’s hard-core attitude. He displays an insurmountable stubbornness that resulted in behavior well beyond interesting.

—Henry Zeybel

The War I Survived Was Vietnam by Michael Uhl

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Michael Uhl’s The War I Survived Was Vietnam: Collected Writings of a Veteran and Antiwar Activist (McFarland, 300 pp., $29.95, paper) is a wide-ranging compilation of Uhl’s reviews and opinion pieces that will certainly generate responses. True to its subtitle, this collection has an antiwar agenda. It also covers issues other than the Vietnam War, including the plight of veterans exposed to atomic weapons and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As David Cline, the national president of Veterans For Peace says in the book: “There have always been veterans for peace. War makes veterans warriors for peace.”

A Vietnam Veterans of America member I served with once told me that his feelings about the Vietnam War took several drastic shifts as his circumstances changed. He focused on survival while in country. When he came home, he examined how the war ended, as well as the nation’s treatment of veterans, along with the controversy over the design of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the POW/MIA issue. Uhl, who served as an intelligence officer in Vietnam in 1968-69, includes reviews and essays on these subjects and more.

They are sure to evoke strong reactions. As Uhl puts it: “If they provoke thought in whoever reads them, I will be profoundly satisfied.”

Uhl writes about many players involved in the Vietnam War, including some unheralded heroes, some famous and infamous people, and some who helped orchestrate the war’s strategy and tactics. Gen. Julian Ewell, the Ninth Infantry Division Commander in February 1968, is one of the key players Uhl credits with implementing the “body count culture,” which he says enabled American troops to hand out “candy to small children” one moment, then later to torch “a hootch or abuse a cringing papa-san.”

Uhl’s essays cover many topics, but I believe his essay on the Heinemann brothers succinctly represents the personal impact the Vietnam War has had on many people. “Three Heinemann brothers would eventually go into the military, two to Vietnam,” Uhl wrote in 2005. “Among them only Larry [the author of Paco’s Story] remains. One brother was a post-war suicide; the other left his family never to be heard from again.”

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Michael Uhl

Mentioning Robert Strange McNamara will liven up any discussion of the war. In 1995 in The Nation Uhl and co-author Carol Brightman wrote: “McNamara’s critics span the ideological spectrum, though the burden of their indignation differs according to whether they believe his moral failure lies in the past for not having spoken out sooner, or in the present for having spoken at all.”

This anthology is a valuable reference tool for anyone looking for scholarly and incisive writing on America’s most divisive overseas war. The fervor of those opposed to the war may have never been matched. Uhl includes essays by some of those who were dedicated to bringing the war to an end, such as David Harris, former Secretary of State John Kerry, and environmentalist and one-time presidential candidate Barry Commoner.

This anonymous excerpt written by a veteran quoted by Uhl may be the best summation of the Vietnam War legacy:

I carried the war in my blood

In or out of service

I was at war

Even today

Every day war explodes in my brain

—Curt Nelson

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel

Lions and Tigers and Cong by Theodore Wild

Theodore Wild’s Lions and Tigers and Cong (Lulu, 398 pp., $28.96, paper; $8.99, e book) describes a variety of places, people, and events in the life of a 19 year old in the Vietnam War as he grew from boy to man. Ted Wild served with Charlie Company in the 5th of the 46th infantry Battalion and later with Bravo Company of the 4th of the 221st Infantry, aka Big Bad Bravo. Wild’s title comes from his newbie’s briefing on what he would find in the jungles of Vietnam.

The author draws on personal experiences as well as on stories, tales, legends, and remembrances of those who fought in the Vietnam War. Although Wild calls his book a memoir he changes all the names, so it is difficult to tell what is real and what is not. Many of the stories are raw and disturbing, but the book gives an excellent look at what life was like for a Vietnam War infantryman.

What struck me most was the quality of the writing. Here are a few passages that demonstrate Ted Wild’s literary talent:

“The heavens hid what we had done to the land. The craters and denuded fields marked our progress, and the land could not be re-farmed, rebuilt, re-tilled nor carted away to be buried.”

“He was a dilapidated alky blues singer, shuffling, carrying a weapon, heading to his janitor job at some midnight bus station to clean toilets used by homeless winos.”

“This acre of sand, this scant fathom of water, was ours, and we played and swam and splashed in it, children forever for a fleeting moment.”

“You have the drive, the passion, the love for a hundred people, and it is distilled by this sour, vile nightmare of war.”

Ted Wild in Vietnam

This book is the story of a group of men whose love for one another and need for one another were eclipsed only by the danger that shaped their lives.

The author’s website is tedwild.com/the-author

—Mark S. Miller

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam, which Henry Zeybel reviewed on these pages when it was published in hardcover last year, is now out in paperback (Osprey, 320 pp., $15).

The book tells the story of Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. of Bravo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Sabo received the Medal of Honor posthumously after nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack during the 1970 Cambodian incursion.

“I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important,” Zeybel wrote in his review.

“They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.”

—Marc Leepson

No Strings Attached by John W. Carlson

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John Bultman enlisted in the Marine Corps and arrived in Vietnam at age nineteen in 1967. He spent thirteen months as a courier for the First Marine Air Wing at Da Nang. He also helped defend the base perimeter as a rifleman during the 1968 Tet Offensive. Bultman’s courier runs to outlying posts by helicopter, Jeep, light aircraft, and river patrol boat exposed him to “war’s dreadful brutality,” he says. The sight of dead bodies, “especially women and children,” created his “most horrible memories.”

Later in life, Bultman talked fervently about the Marine Corps to John W. Carlson, a drinking buddy and a feature writer for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana. Fascinated by what he heard, Carlson has written a book about Bultman’s life called No Strings Attached: John Bultman’s War as a Marine in Vietnam, and Its Aftermath (CreateSpace, 78 pp. $10. paper).

This short book provides a lucid image of Bultman’s personality, depicting his weaknesses as well as strengths. Best of all, Carlson shows that Bultman has a sense of humor about the world in general and an ability to laugh at himself when appropriate.

As the subtitle suggests, Bultman’s war experiences fill only half of the book. The “Aftermath” focuses on Bultman’s playing the banjo and battling PTSD.

After the war, John Bultman bummed around on beaches near San Diego, worked with Vietnam Veterans Against War, returned to college but dropped out, and then discovered and taught himself how to play the banjo. Love of music led him to the love of his life—Janan—who played the piano, flute, and mandolin. They married, had two daughters, and enjoyed success in the music business until PTSD overwhelmed him.

Bultman’s years of treatment for PTSD included two months as an in-patient at a VA hospital. Survivor guilt haunted him.

267x267-2d1fdaa5-3bb0-474e-8476f194863d8de0“When John describes his treatment, it takes on the aura of sweaty, physical effort,” Carlson writes, “’Oh, shit,’ he recalled. ‘It was hard, hard, hard work. My life changed dramatically,’ he said, though he noted his treatment wasn’t exactly a panacea. ‘I was not as angry.’ Still, even in the face of success, he doesn’t take such good news, such progress, for granted. He admitted, ‘I’ve never met a Vietnam vet that wasn’t grumpy. Every day, it’s always something. It’s just that now the level is different, of course.'”

To me, these four quotes quietly explain that PTSD is a lifelong problem. Along the way, a VA doctor declared Bultman one hundred percent disabled by the disorder.

Carlson’s No Strings Attached is what it is. Basically, he adds another witness to confirm the severe damage incurred by young minds exposed to traumatic situations.

—Henry Zeybel

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel