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 Long Goodbye by Michael Archer

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The Long Goodbye: Khe Sanh Revisited (Hellgate Press, 367 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an exceptional book on many counts. It is very well researched and generously documented. As it is largely autobiographical, the book conveys to the reader a significant you-are-there quality. Plus, there is an element of mystery to this story, which covers more than four decades

Author Michael Archer includes the de rigueur critique of the tactics used in the Vietnam War by rifle units during his phase of the war. But the central theme of the book is the philosophical issue of battlefield casualty recovery and to what extent it should be pursued. It is an unwritten policy in the U. S. military that every effort should be made to recover combat casualties from the battlefield. This policy is designed to promote comradery, morale, and mutual loyalty.

I believe the most important contribution this book makes to military literature is the standard it sets for loyalty and caring among fighting men and women embodied in the statement: “No soldier will be left behind” on the battlefield.

The author narrates a poignant story about his close friend Tom Mahoney, his close friend from high school. Archer and Mahoney joined the Marine Corps together. Both went to Vietnam where they faced combat and death. It is this experience that helped them develop maturity, responsibility and loyalty that lasts throughout their lives.

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Mike Archer

 

Mahoney was killed at Khe Sanh in 1968. Despite their best efforts, his fellow Marines were unable to recover his body. What followed was a long, earnestly pursued effort to bring him home. It involves many Marines, both those who made a career out of their military service and those who left active duty after the war.

Archer, in loving detail, tells of his and others’ efforts to recover the body of their deceased comrade. No one involved in this recovery task is left unaffected. These efforts include personal attempts at recovery as well as official government recovery attempts in which they participated.

Altogether these efforts have lasted more than forty-five years.

The author’s website is http://www.michaelarcher.net

—A. Robert Lamb

 

 

 

 

Unaccounted by Michael McDonald-Low

Michael McDonald-Low’s Unaccounted (First Edition Design Publishing, 364 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins with a startling statistic: More than 83,000 American military personnel—the overwhelming majority from World War II— have been listed as missing in action.  The military did not systematically search for MIAs until after the Vietnam War, the author points out, when the families of those unaccounted for demanded answers.

Unaccounted looks at the service of, and search for, Clifford D. Van Artsdalen, an American soldier who went missing in May 1968 at the beginning of the second Tet Cffensive. Using a unique style of storytelling, the author presents a fictionalized account of the war from Van Artsdalen’s perspective, starting with his first duty station at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and ending with his presumed death in the Que Son Valley. McDonald-Low intersperses this retelling with personal experiences and interactions he had as Van Artsdalen’s platoon leader, along with details gathered from after-action reports.

Convincing reconstructed dialogue and descriptions put the reader firmly in the combat boots of the two main characters in Vietnam. The story starts with McDonald-Low waking in the present, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare that has haunted him for decades—the day when, as a platoon leader with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, he and his men walked into an ambush along the hills of Que Son Valley.

The Author

The events leading up to the ambush are what the author attempts to reconcile through this retelling—could something have happened that would have spared the lives of Van Artsdalen and other men? Was there some crucial detail that he missed?

When Van Artsdalen is shot and goes missing, the book leaps forward to the present, where McDonald-Low is advising a JPAC recovery team searching for Van Artsdalen’s remains. The last third of the book describes the team’s recovery efforts in Hawaii and Vietnam. Without giving too much away, the recovery team is only marginally successful, but its endeavor enables McDonald-Low to confront Van Artsdalen’s death.

Inattentive readers may miss the shift in POV when a new chapter starts, as there’s not much change in tone. Plus, sometimes chapters skip weeks, months, or even years in a non-linear fashion. But overall, McDonald-Low’s book does an excellent job portraying the chaos of battle and the similar thoughts and emotions of officers and enlisted men.

Unaccounted evokes Clifford Van Artsdalen’s war experiences and the ultimate sacrifice he paid—even if it took 44 years for him to be accounted for.

The author’s website is www.unaccounted.net

—James Schuessler

Life on a $5 Bet by Edward J. Mechenbier with Linda D. Swink

Way back when, several Americans wrote about their experiences as POWs in the Vietnam War. The books by Robinson Risner and John Dramesi made a great impact on me because they graphically detailed the physical pain and deprivation suffered by Americans held prisoner by the North Vietnamese.

In Life on a $5 Bet (Little Miami, 323 pp., $30), Edward J. Mechenbier, with the help of Linda D. Swink, has written an account of his time as a POW in Vietnam, but from a different perspective. His recollections focus on the psychological interplay between prisoners and their guards.

Mechenbier does take the reader into the torture rooms, describing a rope technique and other relentless punishments. But mostly he looks at what he calls “the funny side” of prison life. He contends that humor was the “mechanism that made the serious aspects of prison life more palpable.”

Regardless of the prisoners’ aims, though,the laughs were few and far between for me. When a prisoner won a psychological battle too convincingly, guards frequently beat him to even the score. Smiles I received based on a prisoner’s experience were tempered by the sorrow I felt for his predicament. “Singing in the Rain” might be a better title for the first half of the book—or, better yet, “Singing in the Monsoon.”

Although Mechenbier cited the Code of Conduct as a guide to proper behavior for a POW, the Code’s overly restrictive rules caused more hurt than help. The “die-before-you-talk” restrictions of the Code trapped men in untenable positions. Mechenbier admits as much. He mentions the Code a dozen times in a positive way, but he does not discuss the post-war controversy that caused its revision.

Mechenbier names a lot of names, none more than Kevin McManus, his F-4 backseater and Air Force Academy classmate who was shot down with him in 1967. Frequently together, they made the rounds of the Hanoi Hilton, Plantation, Zoo, Camp Faith, Camp Unity, and Dogpatch prisons for five years, eight months, and four days.

After repatriation, Mechenbier returned to duty as a fighter-branch test pilot because flying was all he wanted to do. He resigned his commission, however, when regulations required him to move to a non-flying job after eleven years. By then, his wife and he had adopted three daughters—from Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea—and then conceived a son of their own.

After resigning from active duty, Mechenbier joined the Ohio National Guard to fly the F-100. He soon took command of an A-7 squadron, leading it for seven years. Recognizing greater opportunities for advancement, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve, giving up flying. He excelled as a high-level jack-of-all-trades and eventually attained the rank of major general. A specially designed program for generals allowed him to return to the cockpit of the C-141.

While performing his National Guard and Reserve duties, Mechenbier held several full-time jobs as a civilian in the flying industry, about which he tells many interesting stories.

His final official Air Force flight was piloting a C-141–known as “the Hanoi Taxi” because it was the plane that had brought him and the other POWs home from Vietnam in 1973—on a mission to Hanoi to repatriate the remains of two American MIAs in 2004, a fitting finish to forty-four years of military service. In the photo above, he is saluting the remains on the tarmac in Hanoi.

The title, by the way, is based on a bet between Mechenbier and his father regarding an appointment to the Air Force Academy.

—Henry Zeybel

Defiant by Alvin Townley

Alvin Townley’s Defiant: The POWs Who Endured Vietnam’s Most Infamous Prison, the Women Who Fought for Them, and the One Who Never Returned, which was published last year, is now out in paperback (Thomas Dunne/Griffin, 432 pp., $17.99).

In focusing on telling the stories of about a dozen captives, this well-written book draws heavily on the previous body of POW literature. It also goes over the story of the POW wives at home who, against long odds, successfully lobbied the government on their husbands’ behalf.

You can read our review in the January/February 2014 print issue of The VVA Veteran.

—Marc Leepson

 

Chita Quest by Brinn Colenda

The publisher tells us that Chita Quest (Southern Yellow Pine Publishing, 288 pp., $14.95, paper) is a novel about “one man’s search for his POW/MIA father.”  Actually, two sons have serious involvement in this search for their long-missing father. VVA member Brinn Colenda is the author of the earlier book in this series, Cochabamba Conspiracy, a thriller we reviewed here last year. If you loved that book, you will also enjoy this one. It is more of the same.

The story again involves the Callahan brothers. This time they are on a quest to find their fighter-pilot father who was shot down in Vietnam.

In the book’s Introduction, William B. Scott castigates “political elites who broke faith with those in uniform and intentionally left American POWs behind.” That is the crux of this fast-moving thriller, which is filled with enough plot twists to keep any reader tied in knots of suspense. The heroes are intrepid; the lily-livered bad guys lack any redeeming qualities.

Brinn Colenda

Chita Quest will hold your attention and provide the escape you need for an afternoon—that is, if you wish to devote your time to having your paranoia stoked about patriots being stabbed in the back during the Vietnam War, about fighting a war that was being won by superior fire power and massive air power but was “lost” by self-serving political hacks and the liberal news media.

A warning to sensitive readers: This is the sort of book in which a chubby lieutenant with the common sense not to want to fly in seriously bad weather is nicknamed “Minnesota Fats” by a bullying pilot and put in jeopardy by the bad judgment of that same pilot who then has to eject when their plane is about to crash.

That scene takes place in 1972 near the border of South Vietnam and Cambodia. The mission is to locate a downed pilot. The plane crashes, and I was pleased later to meet Fats again. He and the pilot survived the ejection from the plane. When Fats is ushered in to interrogate the hubristic pilot, the chubby guy punches him in the nose. This was my favorite moment in the book.

Colenda knows what he is writing about, and writes with great authority. He is a graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy. He served in a variety of assignments around the world, including in Southeast Asia. He had a post-graduate fellowship at the Hoover Institution of War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University.

The book’s Epilogue, set in a Siberian forest, seems to indicate that there will be another volume in this series, one in which our heroes rescue a very old man living alone in a one-room log cabin. He many be very old, but the man still has the moxie to recite “the American Fighting Man’s Code of Conduct” and to salute “a small, crudely made American flag.”

Readers can only hope.

The author’s website is http://brinn-colenda.com

—David Willson

 

The Longest Rescue by Glenn Robins


In The Longest Rescue: The Life and Legacy of Vietnam POW William A. Robinson (University Press of Kentucky, 259 pp., $31.50, hardcover, $19.25 e-book) the historian Glenn Robins brings a scholarly treatment to his subjects’s time as a Vietnam War POW, as well as the rest of his life.

Unlike most Vietnam War POWs Robinson was an enlisted man. In fact, he holds the record for the longest term as an enlisted Vietnam War prisoner: eight years. After several stateside deployments, he worked out of Thailand as part of USAF air rescue crews, manually (that is, looking down directly into the jungle) helping chopper pilots as they lowered hundred-foot cables to downed pilots. Before the fateful day in 1965 when he himself was shot down, Robinson had received a Silver Star not for his exploits—as Robinson, a modest man, would be certain to say—but for doing his job well.

William Robinson’s capture resulted in the iconic photo of him (which appears on the cover), a big man, with his head downcast, being ushered at gunpoint down a village path by a girl not half his size. The photo of Robinson and “the guerrilla girl” had great propaganda value for the North Vietnamese, symbolizing a small nation—North Vietnam—standing up to an overwhelming enemy, America.

The photo was entirely staged shortly after Robinson’s capture, and the girl, Nguyen Kim Lai, knew no more about what was going on than Robinson did. Robins, a thorough writer, relates how Robinson and Kim Lai met again in 1995 when a Japanese documentary crew brought them together. They had a peaceful, cordial meeting, and it might even be said that they struck up a friendship.

Robinson spent his eight years in various prisons around Hanoi. Some were new, some were primitive, and some a vestige of the French era. He was tortured—most damagingly, with the rope torture in which his arms were yanked behind his back at the elbows, then tied to the ceiling. Horrible at this must have been, it was the prolonged bad food, and the scarcity of it, that was perhaps his worst ordeal. Robins delivers a harrowing account of Robinson’s appendectomy, which he endured with only a local anesthetic.

Robins, a history professor at Georgia Southwestern State University, also weaves in the stories of other POWs. Most fascinating of these may be that of Marine Lt. Col. Edison Miller and Navy Commander Walter Eugene Wilber, who—presumably to avoid torture—went over to the other side and tried to convince other POWs to do the same. These two are mentioned fairly often in POW memoirs, but they probably deserve their own book.

Robinson was well liked by other prisoners. He was cheerful, practical, and had a good sense of humor. A gifted mechanic, he kept things running. These characteristics would describe him in civilian life, too.

William Robinson signing copies of The Longest Rescue

His father spent his POW pay, but Robinson forgave him—and kept forgiving him. When he returned, with a battlefield commission as a lieutenant, Robinson worked through his life-lasting injuries, and made a career in the Air Force. As a civilian, he took on ordinary jobs, put up with a difficult marriage before settling into a good one, and supported POW/MIA causes.

In his ordinariness, he’s an extraordinary man.

—John Mort