RVN by Tim Gingras

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Tim Gingras is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served on active duty in the 1970s.  In his novel, RVN (Outskirts Press, 156 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) eighteen-year-old Charlie Kinane is drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. He avoids going into the Army by joining the Navy as a hospital corpsman. He chooses pharmacy tech training, thinking that would keep him out of blood-and-guts experiences.

Then Charlie goes to Vietnam and is send to the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh, a base  infamous for being constantly under heavy attack. Charlie’s primary duty is to keep track of medical supplies, especially controlled medications used for the treatment of pain. When Charlie is sent as a replacement corpsman on an overnight search-and-destroy mission outside the wire, he confronts everything he had been working hard to avoid.

Charlie keeps close track of the days he spends in Vietnam. He had to put in a one-year tour of duty that it would end in August 1967, so if he survived, he would hold the military to “this one-year thing,” as he refers to it. (I believe that in the Marines the Vietnam War tour of duty was thirteen months.)

Charlie’s duties include dealing with malaria, trench foot, leaches, delousing, burns, nausea, and countless other medical things including suturing. He works with female personnel and feels so strongly about one nurse’s  bad qualities that he discusses fragging her. He ultimately decides that fragging is “basically murder,” which he was against personally.

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Tim Gingras

Movies were available for Marines stationed on base and they watched The Sand Pebbles, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The Dirty Dozen, and Charlie’s favorite, In Like Flint.

I recommend this small but interesting book to all who are curious about the life of a Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

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A War Away by Tess Johnston

Tess Johnston is an amazing woman with amazing stories to tell. A native of Virginia, Johnston worked for the U.S. Government in various capacities for more than thirty years. She has lived abroad for nearly half a century, with seven years in Germany (both East and West), and forty years in Asia (thirty-three in Shanghai and seven in Vietnam.)

After a  stint in Berlin with the U.S. Foreign Service, the Charlottesville native enrolled in the graduate program at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia in 1958, as did many other women prior to 1970. Women were barred from the males-only undergraduate programs at U-Va., but were allowed in the graduate schools.

Johnston went on to complete a master’s degree in German in 1963, and then taught German at Virginia and the College of William and Mary. In 1967, Johnston went to Vietnam to work for USAID, and stayed for seven years.

This experience inspired her to rejoin the Foreign Service, which sent her to Frankfurt, Berlin again, New Dehli, Tehran, and then to Shanghai. After thirty-three years in the Foreign Service, she faced mandatory retirement in 1996. Johnston stayed in Shanghai, and has written several book since then, including a coffee-table book,  A Last Look: Western Architecture in Old Shanghai. Her other books include Shanghai Art Deco, and Permanently Temporary: From Berlin to Shanghai in Half A Century.

Tess Johnston returned to the United States in 2016, and has now published a new book, A War Away: An American Woman In Vietnam 1967-1974 (Earnshaw Books, 236 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) It’s an interesting memoir that is in need of a good editor.  Johnston took good notes while she was in Vietnam, but her writing style consists of plugging away with much too much detailed information.

There are two photos on the cover of her book. One shows her firing a gun at a practice range wearing a dress; the other is of the infamous John Paul Vann.

Vann was a military and civilian adviser in Vietnam until 1972 when his helicopter crashed while he was assessing damage after the Battle of Kontum.  Vann’s life is the focal point of Neil Sheehan’s National Book Award-winning 1988 biography, A Bright Shining Lie, a detailed portrait of the man—and an incisive history of the Vietnam War.

A War Away provides a different picture of Vann, albeit in only two of the fourteen chapters. Vann comes across as demanding and charismatic, feared and loved by those whose lives he touched.  Johnston provides some interesting anecdotes, though Vann is not a central character in the book.

Tess Johnston

The problem with A War Away is that there seems to be no central theme. Instead, we encounter a stream-of-consciousness style of writing, with too much focus on mundane details.

If you have the patience to sift through descriptions of the furniture in Johnston’s apartment and the phone system in her office, you will be able to find some items of interest. Her chapter on the 1968 Tet Offensive during her time at Bien Hoa, for example, is very interesting, as are her stories of other close calls with the Viet Cong.

Tess Johnston was clearly a level-headed, competent office assistant to Vann and others, and her story could have been be a compelling one if she pared it down a bit.

—Bill Fogarty

We Shot the War edited by Lisa Nguyen

It’s not that the photos in We Shot the War: Overseas Weekly in Vietnam (Hoover Institution Press, 214 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), aren’t first rate. They’re really good and provide a clear look at everyday life of American troops in the Vietnam War. That said, the photos are a letdown after the big build-up from the publisher.

The Overseas Weekly is described as a trail-blazing, anti-establishment rag that was the GI’s voice: “The least popular publication at the Pentagon,” we’re told. The people who put it together must have been real rabble-rousers.

The book’s Foreword tells us that the images used in the book were culled from 20,000 photos in the Hoover Institution Library’s Archives. National Geographic also liked to trumpet how many rolls of film were shot, but I always thought the greatest boast would be getting the greatest number of unforgettable images from the fewest rolls of film.

The book is edited by Lisa Nguyen, an archivist who organized an exhibit this summer of Overseas Weekly war photos at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The Overseas Weekly was founded in Germany by Stanford graduates in 1950 to cover military affairs in a less-official manner. As the war in Vietnam escalated, a Saigon office was established. A young, Texas journalist, Ann Bryan, its editor-in-chief, was the only female editor in Southeast Asia.

The Overseas Weekly irritated the brass by covering such sensitive topics as drug use and racial strife among the troops. It was noted, too, for its “Man in the Street” column, which gave enlisted men the opportunity to sound off—and for running lots of photos of pretty girls.

Ann Bryan in Vietnam in 1967

The paper had a small, dedicated staff and a shoestring budget. The first issue went to press in 1966 and by 1970 it was all but washed up. But in that four-year period its writers and photographers (often one and the same) scattered across South Vietnam and Cambodia, documented the war from the GI’s perspective. Unlike better-known media covering the war, its readers were those fighting the war.

Subsequently, the coverage became more nuanced, providing a gentler portrayal of the war’s combatants. It wasn’t pandering; it’s because the editor would be called on every error of fact and tone. Reaction was immediate because the audience wasn’t half a world away.

–Michael Keating

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From the Overseas Weekly archive, South Vietnam, 1967

The Butterfly Rose by Dick Stanley

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Rarely these days are readers granted an opportunity to enjoy an offering so well constructed and presented as Dick Stanley’s novel, The Butterfly Rose (Cavalry Scout Books, 252 pp. $13.08, paper; $.99, Kindle), a three-generation story of an American and a Vietnamese family’s involvement with each in Vietnam.

Stanley, a former journalist who served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, wordsmiths the English language to an almost lyrical presentation.

One example: “It is a valley of flowers but none is more beautiful than the silken, five petal roses that turn many colors in their brief lives, as ephemeral as butterflies fluttering on a green bush.”

The Butterfly Rose centers on a young, Confederate Army officer, Sean Constantine, a large man with a glowing mane of red hair and a beard to match. After participating in The battle of Manassas, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of events involving his brother, father, black servant, and a stay in Paris, Constantine is posted to a colonial French garrison in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

His love of roses, developed over the years of his Mississippi youth and his worldly travels, finds a like-minded individual in the 1860s in Vietnam: a village shaman, an old woman skilled in naturopathic and herbal medicines and remedies. She also is a conjurer who converses with the many gods and deities roaming the Vietnamese jungles.

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Dick Stanley

Fast forward a century to a team of American advisers working with an ARVN combat team in that same Central Highlands valley near Que Son. Neal Constantine, a red-headed grandson of Sean, is a member of that American team, working as a historian. He possesses his grandfathers’ 1860s diary and flower guide. And he meets the great granddaughter of the village healer, without knowing about the earlier family connection.

The story toggles back and forth between the centuries, chapter by chapter. Parallels are drawn, including the weather, expectations of higher commands, tactics, ideologies, as well as the relationship between the big, red-headed American and the old healer and their shared interest in the roses that populate the valley.

This novel artfully spans nations, generations, wars and people, and it ties all those strands together with a shared love of flowers and of the short gift we all share with each other—that of life.

—Tom Werzyn

Face to Face by Don Fox

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At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss Don Fox’s Face to Face: Images from a Different War (Old Goat Press, $35, hardcover; $20, paper), with its uninspired cover montage and the erratic quality and sizing of the photos. Easy to dismiss, that is, as another in a crowded field of ill-conceived self-published books of war photos.

It’s not. The book is a masterful meditation on War and the Other. Don Fox, a VVA life member, grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The Vietnam War provided his first look at a different culture—a culture that clearly mesmerized him when he served a year in country in 1966-67.

The 19-year-old Fox—a “Good Morning, Vietnam” disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon—spent untold hours on the streets photographing its inhabitants. But when he returned to the States, he put several hundred Ektachrome slides in a cardboard box and stored them in the basement. During his life’s moves Fox always took that box with him, but somehow the slides wound up in the basement. Half a century later, when he finally opened the box, Fox found that his slides were badly damaged. Mildew had eaten into the film emulsion of many; others were water stained.

But what surprised Don Fox is that he remembered each shot: the place, the situation, his intention, his shyness, his excitement. He realized, too, that the images had been percolating in his head for all that half century. He had never really left them behind.

So he spent a year laboring to restore images and assemble them into a book. The restorations were uneven, yet curiously even the ravages of time and neglect have somehow been incorporated into the images. As Fox writes in his Epilogue, this book is the work of two photographers. One is a “naïve, fresh-out-of-high-school soldier”; the other, a “world-weary retired English teacher.”

The result is a beautiful album arranged in a straightforward format: photographs on the right, brief commentaries on the left-hand pages. Often the remarks are Fox’s own reflections. Other times, he’s employed the crystalline thoughts of others, such as the novelist Tim O’Brien and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

For example, Fox presents a photo of woman in front of a collapsible gate with her face illuminated by a single ray of light. The facing page quotes the 18th century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du: “Alone, in silence, she beheld the moon,/ her heart a raveled coil of hopes and dreams.”

There are more than two dozen photos in this slender volume, including several I could live with for a very long time. One is of an innocent, curious child in a crowd looking back at the photographer while everyone else is concealed by scarves or conical hats.

afvnlogoAnother is a child held on the shoulders of an old man. “At first what caught my eye was the contrast between the old man’s gnarled hands and the smooth face of this little girl,” Fox writes. “But the true contrast is seen in the young child’s ancient eyes.”

In yet another remarkable photo a woman carries two huge pots with a shoulder pole, her face obscured. The background is a gated storefront. Her belly is swollen with child.

“And when I see the sun reflecting off her conical hat,” Fox writes, “I see her halo.”

To order, go to Fox’s website, oldgoatpress.com

–Michael Keating

Reflections on LZ Albany by James T. Lawrence

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James T. Lawrence’s Reflections on LZ Albany: The Agony of Vietnam (Deeds Publishing, 192 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is collection of rich personal essays, and is a different type of book on war.

The book captures the essence of the hearts of soldiers in combat, as well as the fears and challenges they faced. It is a book packed with true emotions from a man who was there in the early days of the Vietnam War.

Lawrence pulls the reader in with his opening essay, “The Band of Brothers,” introducing the bonds of brotherly love forged in the fires of combat. Lawrence is a former First Cavalry Division infantryman who bore the weight of leadership in combat. He survived a paralyzing head wound in the vicious fighting at Landing Zone Albany during the bloody November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley. While he was waiting in a medical tent with other wounded men he heard last rites being given amid the moans of men in severe pain.

Lawrence also brings the reader the joy of knowing war-time friendships—and the lasting sorrow of losing closing friends, something he describes in his rich essays “Conversations with a Tombstone,” “Voice from the Wall,” “The Premonition,” “Bringing in the Hueys,” and “Albany.” In “Just Don’t Ask Me,” Lawrence lays bare the pain of combat and suffering, and the realization of  lines of civility being crossed during war that can never be uncrossed.

Lawrence brings rich feelings to the surface. The reader can almost see him searching for young love in “She’s Out There” and feeling something  very different in “Dear John.” In the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” he takes you into the triage tent with a chaplain. Lawrence’s prose immerses the reader in the intensity of the suffering in that dark and hot makeshift emergency room.

In “It’s All Over,” he describes what happens after he orders his first real meal in a restaurant after coming home from the war:

“And for the first time, the young ex-officer realized that the people back home, with the exception of family, had no idea what was going on in Southeast Asia and could care even less.  He had been in a battle where over 150 of his colleagues had been killed and over 120 wounded, including himself, but nobody knew and nobody gave a damn.

Evacuating a casualty from LZ X-Ray. Photo by Joe Galloway

“Now in his first day as an American civilian, he felt alone, isolated, unacknowledged, and unappreciated in a city of millions whose freedoms he thought he had fought to protect.  And for the very first time, he asked himself a question. Why?”

Jim Lawrence has captured the soul of soldiers in war in Vietnam. He speaks truth to the emotions of those who fought so hard and paid such a price.

This is a must read for students and scholars And for political and military leaders to help them realize the costs they ask to be paid when they send troops into harm’s way.

–Bud Alley

How Did You Get This Job?  by Terry A. Moon

Terry A. Moon’s How Did You Get This Job?: The Daily Journal of a 1st Air Cavalry Combat Photographer in Vietnam  (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $12.95, paper) tries to correct a common complaint about military books: that they have too few pictures. Well, this book contains more than four hundred photos.

While I was very pleased and entertained with the photos in the book, I was disappointed to find that this year-long journal of a 1st Air Cav combat photographer had very few pictures of grunts in action.

Moon enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 with a guaranteed MOS as a photographer. In April, he went to Fort Ord for basic training then on to photo school. On November 13, 1968, he stepped off a 707 at the Bien Hoa AFB and his Vietnam tour began. As that 707 was landing, Moon’s photo journal also was taking off. During his tour, Moon received a Bronze Star for meritorious service and the Air Medal for all the flying he did to get to his photo assignments.

He had graduated number one in his photo class, so the 1st Cavalry Division snatched him up and stationed him at Phuoc Vinh, 50 kilometers north of Saigon. He had a unique way of getting around to different Fire Support Bases, LZs, and other locations. Moon’s press pass gave him the ability to take any open seat on virtually any airplane or helicopter going wherever he needed to go. Periodically, there were no available seats maybe thirty minutes away, so he had to cobble together multiple hops that sometimes ended up taking several hours to get to that same place.

There is a journal entry for nearly every day of Terry Moon’s tour. Much like a Command Chronology, some days are loaded with interesting entries and some are not. Virtually every photo is captioned and many are accompanied by very descriptive and educational narratives.

I found this book to be relatively interesting and learned a lot about behind-the-scenes activities required to make the seemingly apparent happen.

While How Did You Get This Job? never really grew on me, I found it to be an interesting and educational book. I read the entire book, including the photo captions, and feel it was time well spent. I believe others will agree.

The author’s website is http://1stcavphotog.tripod.com/

— Bob Wartman