Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea by André Lewis Carter

In Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (336 pp. Kaylie Jones Books/Akashic, $42.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), U.S. Navy veteran André Lewis Carter takes a fictional look at the early 1970s, a time of heightened racial tension in the Navy. This excellent first novel, while chronicling the racism faced by main character Cesar Alvarez, in the end is love letter to the U.S. Navy.

Alvarez, a teenaged, street tough of Afro-Cuban descent, enlists in the Navy to run away from his past, including a murderous gangster who is hot on his heels. As he goes through the recruiting process Cesar’s not sure what he thinks of his recruiter in “full Cracker Jack uniform,” who reminds him of an ice cream salesman.

Cesar is sent to the Great Lakes boot camp where manners “were an early casualty as the men drew closer. It was kind of like being in grade school.” He finds himself attending classes “where attentive students dodged the textbooks” thrown at nodding-off recruits. There is also the usual verbal abuse and multiple workouts “akin to personal assault.” Some recruits drop out because of injuries, while some just seem to disappear.  

Meanwhile, the gangster, Mr. Mike, also joins the Navy to avoid serious legal issues, a seemingly ominous event.

After boot camp, Cesar is assigned to Signalman School in San Diego. One of the first things he’s told, from a Black seaman, is: “It’s just so sad to see another brother walk into this shit. Ain’t nothin’ good gon’ come from you putting on that uniform. I’m telling you, man, you can’t be Black and Navy too.”

In Signalman School the trainees are told that their future captains “would make decisions based on information passed from their signalmen, so it better be right the first time.” On base he learns of a “white boy club,” and notes how racial bias “seemed blatant.” He’s soon facing overt racism during a time when the Navy was “cracking down on drug use, across the board.”

André Carter

Cesar learns he’s going to be assigned to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, supporting U.S. troops in Vietnam. It’s sometimes known as the “Shitty Kitty” because the ship is always “having some kind of malfunction.” What Cesar doesn’t know is that he’s heading straight into an encounter with Mr. Mike, which will unfold during the worst shipboard racial riot in U.S. naval history.

The dialogue in this first novel is so natural that it speeds the story along. The main character, not a sympathetic one at first, grows on the reader. And we get a quite satisfying ending.

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is not a war story; it’s a war-time story. And a great one.

Carter’s website is andrelewiscarter.com

–Bill McCloud

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam Voices edited by Edward Caudill, William Minser, and Jim Stovall 

Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (359 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the third oral history volume produced by the Friends of the Blount County Library in East Tennessee. Volume 3 almost begs the reader to pick up the first two volumes to continue the story. This small book is a quick but fulfilling read.

Editors-Stovall, Minser, and Caudill have tried to contact as many local Vietnam War veterans as they can, then offer them the opportunity to become part of the project through interviews conducted using a same-questions format. That process makes for continuity for the reader and the participants.

Each of the volumes contains 12-15 interviews with veterans from all of the military branches and ranks, enlisted and officers alike, that are condensed into thumbnail versions of longer, in-person interviews. Each chapter contains verbatim answers to mostly identical questions with a bit of editing that provides a readable flow.

The book also includes reprints of drawings by soldiers who took part in the U.S. Army’s Combat Artists Program during the Vietnam War. Between 1966 and 1970 nine teams of artists moved throughout the four war zones recording what and who they saw.

Vietnam Voices is a short but personable book—an opportunity for each participant to contribute to the Vietnam War historical record of individual experiences, efforts, and accomplishments. A county library undertaking such a project speaks well of its support of hometown war veterans. It’s well worth the read.

The full audio interviews are archived on the library’s website. 

–Tom Werzyn

The Sentinel Papers by Robert Espenscheid, Jr.

Robert Espenscheid, Jr. most definitely owns a creative mind. Fortunately for readers, he shares his thoughts. His fourth novel, The Sentinel Papers (273 pp. $12, paper), bores in on American life in the early 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

Espenscheid tells his story in a journal format. The cast of characters features three unmarried Vietnam War veterans who call themselves “The Deck”; two daughters of one of the veterans; members of the Sedgewick family; and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

The story revolves around the interactions of the veterans and the Sedgewicks, particularly the relationship between Oliver Dragon and Jodi Sedgewick. Yes, the book is a love story, and at every opportunity sex grabs center stage and does so in humorous ways. The drama is filled with complexity and contradictory behavior that carries beyond ordinary life. Nevertheless, the characters are truly believable.                     

This dialogue-heavy, fast-paced novel, which is set in Milwaukee, illuminates the difficulties of living with the consequences of war and highlights people’s dependence on lasting friendships and family life. Espenscheid tells stories that contain messages of right-or-wrong and good-or-bad, but he does not preach. At one point, he summarizes Oliver’s feelings by having him say, “Life had caught all of us by surprise.”  

Espenscheid can turn a phrase. He describes one man, for example, as a “guy with a smile that lit up whenever he swung a kick stand down.” A man with “baggage crammed with heartache” is so psychologically lost that he says, “Not even Santa Clause knew my address.”

Espenscheid served as an artillery officer in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. He fictionalizes several of his war experiences in flashbacks in the novel. What the novel tells of the war is unique, presenting situations that I have encountered nowhere else.

After The Deck and the Sedgewick sisters pair off, the book concentrates on their efforts to build a unified family and to rejuvenate financially strapped Harley-Davidson. In doing so, Espenscheid provides outlandish lessons about group interactions, working class management, and love.

The Sentinel Papers ends with a bang that feel like peoples’ reactions to VJ-Day, Christmas, and the Fourth of July rolled into one. The Deck and wives, relatives, and Harley-Davidson triumph.

Espenscheid lets it all hang out and the results are stupendous. I’m still grinning.

—Henry Zeybel

Tanks in the Easter Offensive, 1972 by William E. Hiestand

Osprey Publishing always produces quality books. True to form, William E. Hiestand’s Tanks in the Easter Offensive, 1972: The Vietnam War’s Great Conventional Clash (Osprey, 48 pp. $19, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a very nicely illustrated concise history of the use of armor by both during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive. The book includes details on every type of tank and armored fighting vehicle used by both sides the during five-month offensive, including their characteristics and limitations.  

The role of armor is viewed from tactical and strategic perspectives, as Hiestand, a Pentagon military analyst, analyses successes and failures on the battlefield. When properly employed by competent officers, the South Vietnamese armored forces were effective, as they were during the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. On the other hand, when poorly led by incompetent commanders, the South Vietnamese armored vehicles were of little of no value on the battlefield.   

As for the North Vietnamese Army, its armor acquitted itself well, but the tactical successes often did not lead to operational success because the NVA leadership was often slow to react to changing situations on the ground.   

What makes the use of armor by the NVA especially interesting is that during the American War they rarely employed armor in South Vietnam, and then only the PT-76s—thinly armored amphibious tanks—that attacked lightly defended sites such as Special Forces camps in the Central Highlands.    

By the time of the North Vietnamese 1972 offensive its military had become much better armed and was learning how to use combined armed forces using Soviet military tactics. The North suffered horrendous losses during the offensive due in large measure to effective U.S. airstrikes which destroyed some 250 tanks and AFVs. 

One important lesson from the battle was the very successful use by both sides of anti-tank weapons. The North employed a new type —the Russian AT-3 Sagger.  he ARVN at Kontum used an experimental TOW ATGM (anti-tank wire guided missile), and destroyed 24 enemy tanks.  

South Vietnamese troops near Dong Ha, April 11, 1972. AP Photo/Nick Ut

At An Loc ARVN tank killer teams armed with M-72 LAWs (light anti-tank weapons) also took a toll on NVA armor. When ARVN leaders misused their armor in static defense postures, they became easy targets for Saggers and other anti-tank weapons. Today anti-tank missiles are playing a major role on the battlefield in Ukraine, with the destruction of Russian armor by Ukrainian fighters armed with American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles.

Tanks in the Eastern Offensive closes with an analysis of the long-term impact of anti-tank weapons, including the successful use of Saggers during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.    

This book is informative and timely in explaining the use of armor during the Easter Offensive, and in illuminating lessons that are applicable on the current battlefield—plus, it’s a handy reference book on the subject.

–John Cirafici

Finding Father by Peter S. Glick

In his strikingly compelling novel, Finding Father: Vietnam Fifty Years After (Sixty Degrees Publishing, 330 pp. $18.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Peter S. Glick invites the reader to accompany not one but two men—an American and an Australian—as they set out to learn who their fathers truly were.

The American’s father died, leaving the son with a home filled with books, photos, and mementos he brought home from Vietnam, yet with no context for the son to appreciate how his father came to the possess them. The Australian’s mother was Vietnamese and had fled the country at the end of the war. But she never revealed to her son who his biological father was—only that he was an American serviceman. Seeking answers from opposite sides of the world, hoping for enlightenment of any kind, both men make their way to Vietnam.

Writing in a metaphysical, often haunting, style, Glick grabs the reader and never lets go. Half the story is told in the first person, so the reader, for example, is inside the American’s mind as he sifts through his father’s past. “I have found the old study,” he says, and that inspires a kinship with the first man, JJ, whose plight is more pronounced because he never knew his father.

Every step of each man’s journey is told in the present tense so readers experience each event, thought, and perception as the protagonists do. And while the two men do not meet until well into the story, the message is clear from the start: they have a connection and they will meet in Vietnam.

Peter Glick

Glick had a construction business Vietnam from 1965-75, before being forced to leave shortly before the war’s end. His time in Vietnam him the opportunity to learn the language and the history and culture of the country in a way few Americans have.

A French speaker, he became fluent in Vietnamese. So fluid, that once in a gathering where he was the only American present, someone told a joke at America’s expense, then blushed with embarrassment until someone else gestured toward Glick and said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s Vietnamese!”

Because JJ grew up in Australia and his mother wished to acclimate to her new home as much as possible, he speaks only a few words of Vietnamese. When he arrives in Vietnam, security forces take him for a spy and detain him for hours, abusing and humiliating him before finally letting him go. The American, however, quickly finds that his father’s commitment to learning about the people and the land during his tour opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Despite the two men’s differences, the sobering fact remains that—as Glick shows very well in the book—even five decades later, wounds from the war remain deep, and because of this, the goal the men seek may come at a cost too high to pay.   

–Mike McLaughlin

A War Tour of Vietnam by Erin R. McCoy

Erin McCoy’s A War Tour of Vietnam: Cultural History (McFarland, 206 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle) covers the years 1940-75 in a mere 190 pages of text. McCoy’s ambitious goal of exploring the “culture, history and popular music in the countries most affected by the Vietnam War, i.e. North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and of course, the United States,” though, falls a bit short.

McCoy devotes a chapter to each of these years, but the popular music she writes about in all the chapters is all American. Plus, her music reviews and references are sometimes somewhat oblique.

While McCoy touches on many cultural topics, she occasionally goes off on tangents. Nearly half of the chapter about the year 1969, for example, deals with the music of that year, and, for some reason, we also get details about a trip she took to Puerto Rico. That and other recitations of day-to-day, personal activities subtracted from the book.

That said, McCoy does bring interesting facts and observations to the page. And the book reads well, and would be valuable to casual readers who are not part of the Vietnam War generation.

–Tom Werzyn

Soldier On by Tran B. Quan

In 1978, along with 340 other Vietnamese Boat People, four-year-old Tran Quan and her family escaped their homeland. After a year in a refugee camp in Thailand, they immigrated to America.

Tran Quan’s new memoir, Soldier On: My Father, His General, & the Long Road from Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 240 pp. $26.95, paper: $9.95, Kindle) is an inspiring book in which she tells the story of her family in Vietnam and in the U.S.A.

Soldier On focuses mainly on two former ARVN soldiers: Lt. Le Quan (Tran’s father) and Maj. Gen. Tran Ba Di (Le Quan’s commander). Le Quan was attached to the 16th Regiment, in the Army of South Vietnam’s 9th Infantry Division; Tran Ba Di commanded the 9th Infantry Division. During years of fighting the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, the two men met and formed a bond of recognition and respect.

The story begins with the childhoods of both Le Quan and Tran Ba Di and continues through their Army careers, their service in the war, their internments in communist re-education camps, their immigration to the U.S., and their final years.

The book is appropriately titled Soldier On, as it chronicles two men who continually tried to achieve something despite running into difficulties. Tran’s parents and the general soldiered on throughout their lives.

Upon arriving in America (Le Quan in 1979 and Tran Ba Di in 1993), the former soldiers made new lives for themselves and their families. On a combined family road trip in 2015 from Orlando to Key West, Le Quan and Tran Ba Di renewed their old friendship and built new ties.

As that trip proceeded, stories materialized. Soldier On presents those stories, which give a seldom-heard perspective of the American War in Vietnam and shed light on the everyday lives of Vietnamese military personnel. I learned a good deal about how the South Vietnamese people carried on with their lives normally during the war despite the death and destruction around them.

Le Quan’s family worked hard and achieved the American Dream: they owned a car, a house, and their own business. Tran Ba Di settled in Orlando where he worked until the age of 74.

In 2002, Tran Quan graduated from college. She joined the U.S. Army, graduated from medical school, and served four years active duty as an Army doctor.

I strongly recommend Soldier On.

–Bob Wartman