Missing on Hill 700 by Carrie Pepper

Marine PFC Anthony “Tony” Pepper disappeared in 1968 while attempting to capture Hill 700 in Vietnam, west of  Khe Sanh. Four days later his parents received a telegram that listed him missing in action. The message was the first of six similar telegrams the Pentagon sent to the family in the next six months. A seventh and final message classified Tony as killed in action/body not recovered.

The loss of their only son put the Pepper family members into mourning for the remainder of their lives. Following the deaths of both parents and the estrangement of an older sister, Tony Pepper’s younger sister Carrie took up the challenge of finding his remains. She had been thirteen when Tony died.

Carrie Pepper tells the story of her quest in Missing on Hill 700: How Losing a Brother in Vietnam Created a Family in America (Cottage Ink, 242 pp., $24.95). Vietnam veterans of 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines who had fought alongside Tony Pepper comprised the new family that she created in America—a family dedicated to the remembrance of her brother.

She found these veterans, many with closely involved wives, and built relationships with them through phone calls, email, letters, visits, memorial services, and unit reunions. Carrie Pepper’s research has recreated the last days of her brother’s life. At the same time, she vicariously experienced what he would have gone through had he survived the war because her band of new brothers also shared the good and bad from their post-war lives.

Despite never finding her brother’s remains, Carrie Pepper arranged to have a ceremony to place a tombstone for him in a special section of Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

Tony Pepper in 1967

Strong similarities link Carrie Pepper’s Missing on Hill 700 with June 17, 1967 by David Hearne. The books differ only because a civilian woman wrote one and a former artillery lieutenant wrote the other.

Both stories, however, focus on small infantry units that needlessly suffered high casualty rates. A tragic undercurrent of the stories is that the casualties were young men who willingly followed flawed tactics and indifferent orders.

These accounts recognize a problem common to small unit operations in the Vietnam War. The lessons taught by them deserve to be told again and again.

Each one was an avoidable tragedy.

The author’s website is cottageinkpublishing.com

—Henry Zeybel

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MIA: A Hero’s Return by Frank Charles Pisani

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In Frank Charles Pisani’s novel MIA: A Hero’s Return (CreateSpace, 308 pp., $11.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Army Sgt. Harry Archer has been kept prisoner by the North Vietnamese for more than forty years because he and a few hundred other Americans were considered being of worth as captives. The POWs live quiet lives in Vietnamese villages, using their farming or engineering skills to help the victorious North Vietnamese.

They are given wives and huts to live in and jobs to do. Archer plans to escape when he gets the chance. Finally it comes and he makes his move. It’s up to the reader to suspend disbelief as much of the story is not very believable. If you read it rapidly, on the other hand, it does roughly hang together.

Among other things, Pisani has the captives cling to their aversion to fish and the smell of fish longer than seemed likely, but that is what they do. There also is complaining among the men about not having received the recognition they deserve; Jane Fonda is cursed; and the North Vietnamese are shown murdering a baby, a turnaround of the “baby killer” myth that American Vietnam veterans were made to suffer for.

There is a section about “The Wall in Washington” and ranting about long-haired commie symps being traitors and running to Canada to avoid the draft.

Harry Archer escapes to America and seeks retribution from those who run the country for all the harm that was done to him. I won’t relate what that looks like, but it isn’t very satisfying.

Pisani does tell an engrossing story and his characters are interesting and believable—to a point. If you are hungry for yet another Vietnam War POW novel, but one that is a little bit different, try this one. It held my interest.

I was disappointed that no mention was made of John Wayne, but you can’t have everything.

—David Willson

Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton by Amy Shively Hawk

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Amy Shively Hawk, the author of Six Years in the Hanoi Hilton: An Extraordinary Story of Courage and Survival in Vietnam (Regnery, 320 pp., $27.95) is the stepdaughter of Air Force Capt. James R. Shively. Hawk wisely  presents the harsh details of his May 1967 capture in the book’s prologue, giving the reader a heads up on what would become a painful six-year ordeal as a POW in North Vietnam.

The book’s three-part narrative begins with Jim Shively’s coming-of-age childhood, continues through his unexpected acceptance into the U.S. Air Force Academy and his assignment to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron.

Shively, his stepdaughter says, was a top student in high school. “Not only did he excel academically, he was voted most popular and elected class president three years running,” she writes.

Graduating from the USAFA in 1964, Shively earned an MA in International Relations at Georgetown University. 1st Lt. Shively then completed Pilot Training qualifying to fly the supersonic F-105D bomber.

Then came the assignment to the 357th Tactical Fighter Squadron in a secret base in Thailand. Like the other pilots, Shively was required to fly 100 missions. That began in December 1966. “Jim loved combat flying in Southeast Asia. In fact, it was the most fun he’d ever had in his life,” Hawk writes. “He loved the thrill of it, the intensity, the risk.” He was shot down on May 5, 1967, the first time the bombers were permitted to hit targets in Hanoi.

Part two of the book, “In Captivity,” contains vivid descriptions of the horrid POW prison conditions, including Jim’s injuries which went untreated, minimal meals, mosquitoes and rats, torture and other physical and mental abuse, and how the men devised ways to cope and support each other. Shively spent time in a tiny concrete isolation cell the prisoners called “Heartbreak Hotel.”

He and other prisoners periodically were moved from the Hanoi Hilton into other POW camps the men nicknamed Plantation, Zoo, Dungeon, Big House, Camp Faith, and Dogpatch. During the 1972 Christmas B-52 bombing of Hanoi, 209 prisoners, including Shively, were hastily moved to the jungle compound called Dogpatch. He was released with 590 other POWs in 1973.

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Part three, “Home Again,” highlights welcome home celebrations, and Jim Shively’s marriage to Nancy Banta, the author’s mother.

Jim Shively died on February 18. 2006, exactly 33 years to the day he was released from his North Vietnamese prison. When his sister Phyllis died, he wrote: “When I die I want people to celebrate. I want everyone to remember that I enjoyed my time here, and had a wonderful, exciting life filled with great adventures.”

The celebration continues in this book’s pages.

–Curt Nelson

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