In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

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Daniel H. Weiss’s In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 192 pp., $26) is a stunning book. It contains only 176 pages of text, but is well written and presented.

Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell, a helicopter pilot whose chopper was shot down by enemy fire in Cambodia while extracting a secret reconnaissance team on March 24, 1970. The crew and passengers went down in flames in dense jungle surrounded by the NVA.

Weiss follows O’Donnell and his family from birth to his loss. Then he shows how his parents, sister, and girlfriend dealt with the fact that he was officially missing in action. O’Donnell’s remains were not identified until 1995. He was buried in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in a common grave with the remains of the five men he tried to rescue and his 170th Attack Helicopter Co. co-pilot John Hosken,

His story is told in conjunction with a very compact presentation of the history of the  Vietnam War. Though not a member of the Vietnam War generation, Weiss, a former college president and author, is a proven researcher. His Vietnam War history is dispassionate and un-cynical—even clinical.

His telling of Mike O’Donnell’s short life story is special, mainly because of the fact that he was a poet. During O’Donnell’s teen-age years and his short foray at college, music and poetry were driving forces for him. He enlisted in the Army with the draft breathing down his neck. He made it through OCS and helicopter flight school and in Vietnam served a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot with 170th ASC at Pleiku and Dak To.

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During his time in country O’Donnell wrote a good number of poems (and some song lyrics) that he wanted to assemble under the title “Letters from Pleiku.” One of his poems came to be known after his death by its first line, “if you are able.” It has been widely published, including on the home page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website run by the 4th Battalion/9th Infantry Association, and on the Fallen Warriors page on the Blue Star Mothers’ website.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Survival Uncertain By Lee Cargill

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In writing about the Vietnam War experiences of eight 1963 U.S. Naval Academy graduates in Survival Uncertain (253 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), Lee Cargill focuses on Lt. Jim Kelly Patterson, the only one that did not return home.

Cargill thoroughly describes the sustained but unsuccessful effort to rescue Patterson, the navigator and bombardier of an A-6A Intruder that was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 SAM missile on May 19, 1967. The plane’s pilot became a prisoner of war for six years, but Patterson simply disappeared.

Cargill broadly speculates about Patterson’s destiny, including the idea that he became “Moscow Bound”—traded to the Soviet Union by heavily indebted North Vietnam. Extensive post-war searches in Vietnam have failed to resolve Patterson’s fate, and he has attained legendary stature, although officially listed as KIA.

Among the seven other men (including himself) Cargill writes about, four were pilots, two served aboard ships, and one was a road construction engineer. Aside from being in the USNA Class of ’63, all of the men took part in Cargill’s wedding party at Annapolis on graduation day.

The men speak for themselves with Cargill providing continuity. Their stories are exciting, particularly those dealing with search-and rescue-missions. A few of them were troubling, however, such as a helicopter pilot reporting: “[We] knew the location of the downed pilot but were not allowed to enter the airspace over North Vietnam until clearance was received from Washington, DC, which took over an hour.”

The participants do not make a big issue about the voids in leadership and unproductive tactics because such stories often have been told before. Nevertheless, the rancor felt for higher headquarters mismanagement persists.

Cargill completes the book’s combat action with an appendix that provides details about the combat deaths of members of the USNA Class of 1963.

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Capt. Cargill

As a postscript, Cargill discusses court martial charges that he and five others faced based on a sailor’s death aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier in 1981. His study of the case provides a detailed look into the military justice system.

As the ship’s XO, Cargill was found not guilty of all charges. The administrative aftermath of the case, however, effectively ended Capt. Cargill’s career progression, and he chose an early retirement from the Navy.

Survival Uncertain confirms the camaraderie and mutual esteem that Annapolis graduates have for each other. Their unified spirit forms a foundation for Navy operations, most effectively during desperate times.

Profits from sale of the book will be donated to non-profit organizations that benefit young people, Cargill says.

The book’s website is https://survival-uncertain.com/

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lost in Dalat by James Luger

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Vietnam War veteran James Luger’s new novel, Lost in Dalat: The Courage of a Family Torn by War (High Flight, 298 pp. $12.95; paper; $5.95, Kindle), introduces the reader to Meggon Mondae (love that name), whose father went missing in action in Vietnam just before she was born.

The story begins as Meggon’s seven-year marriage ends and she finds herself thinking of her father whose body was never recovered after one of the last big battles of the war in early 1972. Having a father she never knew listed as an MIA in the war left “a hole” in her heart.

The first few pages make pretty uncomfortable reading as we witness a marriage spat that nearly turns into a declaration of domestic war. Finding herself in the throes of a messy divorce—and with additional problems at work—Meggon begins thinking more and more of her father. She enlists the help of a veteran who places a notice in the locator section of a veterans magazine asking if anyone remembers serving with her father.

After a few weeks, she hears from a man who tells her that he saw “where he fell.” The veteran says it was in the Central Highlands, just west of the mountain city of Dalat. He says he last saw her father trying to help an injured buddy before they disappeared after a grenade explosion.

With this information, Meggon ponders going to Vietnam to visit the general location where her father fell. She hopes this will help her connect with him more. Meggon’s first inkling of going to Vietnam doesn’t come until nearly half-way through the book

Traveling alone, she arrives in Ho Chi Minh City and quickly learns that most Vietnamese people still call it Saigon. She also discovers that what she had always known as the Vietnam War is actually is called the American War in Vietnam by the Vietnamese. A highlight of this book is Luger’s depiction of food and drink and details of Vietnamese life today.

Once she gets to Dalat, Meggon deals with people who cheat her, only to be victimized by a shakedown at the hands of a local government official—not once, but twice. She’s informed that the corruption is “a system we are used to.” Wanting to immediately return home, Meggon ends up being befriended by someone who takes her to a small mountain known locally as “Massacre Mountain” because of the number of American soldiers who died on it one night.

She’s told: “You are standing on the same ground your father walked on.”

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Jim Luger

At that point the story begins to go off the rails, though anything can happen in a fictional world. Our heroine becomes romantically entangled with a local businessman, sets off an international incident, and—with bullets flying—desperately tries to escape the country.

She tells one character, “If you want to fight until we’re both destroyed, then let’s go.”

The story is well-told and the book is well written, yet it remains an “entertainment” and does nothing to advance the story of our nation’s Vietnam War experience.

Jim Luger is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America. His website is jamesluger.com

–Bill McCloud

Through the Valley by William Reeder

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Through the Valley: My Captivity in Vietnam (Naval Institute Press, 256 pp., $29.95, hardcover and Kindle) is a well-written chronicle of Army Col. Bill Reeder’s time as a POW and his struggles adapting back in the “real world.” The book came out in hardcover in 2016, and Naval Institute Press has just been published in paperback ($21.95).

In 1971, Reeder returned to Vietnam for his second tour, and was assigned to fly Cobra helicopters for the 361st Aviation Company, aka the “Pink Panthers.”  On May 9, 1972, Reeder’s Cobra was shot down. He survived the crash and for three days hid in the jungle, before being taken prisoner. The majority of the book recounts his treatment as a POW. He had a broken back, three types of malaria, three varieties of intestinal parasites, an intestinal disease called tropical sprue, and a broken tooth.

After his capture, Reeder was marched for three months to Hanoi. He was released with the other POWs who were held in North Vietnam on March 23, 1973. It is said that he was the last American POW captured who survived the ordeal.

In the book Reeder includes an image of the actual telegram from the military to his wife informing her he was missing in action. Many of the POWs, including Reeder, ended up divorcing. He is now happily married to his third wife and is on good terms with his children and ex-wives.

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Col. Reeder

The last chapter is an account of what happened to many of the POWS who were with Reeder after they were released. I found this chapter fascinating. Reeder did a huge amount of research to compile this chapter and track these heroes down.

This is an outstanding memoir and I highly recommend it.

—Mark S. Miller

Captured by Alvin Townley

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As the fourth highest-ranking officer among the prisoners held in Hanoi by the North Vietnamese, Navy Commander Jeremiah Denton set a standard of behavior virtually beyond imagination in fulfilling the rigid expectations of the official Code of Conduct for Members of the Armed Forces of the United States.

Denton’s seven-and-a-half years—from July 1965 to February 1973—as a prisoner have been well chronicled. That includes When Hell Was in Session, Denton’s 1982 memoir. The latest recreation of Denton’s POW experience is Alvin Townley’s Captured: An American Prisoner of War in North Vietnam (Scholastic Focus, 256 pp. $18.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), a book for Young Adults. The two men were friends until Denton’s death in 2014 at age 89. Captured captures the bravery of the American POWs’ resistance against North Vietnamese torture.

Of the Code of Conduct’s six Articles, Denton—who was promoted to Rear Admiral during his captivity—concentrated on two: First, he took a leadership position among prisoners when he was the senior officer of a group. Second, he emphasized providing the enemy with only name, rank, service number, and date of birth.

“And if you say more,” Denton ordered, “make them beat it out of you.” He stressed that a prisoner’s ultimate goal was to maintain personal integrity in order to return home with honor.

“[Jerry] defined leadership with a fearless sense of bold, almost unthinking, self-sacrifice,” Townley says. He “took the punches and the rope first. If he didn’t, how could he expect others to follow his orders?”

The North Vietnamese favorite (and most effective) type of torture was to bind a prisoner in ropes that compressed his body and drastically reduced blood circulation and breathing, and then leave him in that position for hours. Other tortures included long stretches of solitary confinement, often in darkness; imprisonment in a four-by-four-foot concrete cell; a parade through Hanoi that allowed the public to abuse the prisoners; feeding the men soup laced with human feces; and bombarding them with propaganda.

Denton advised his subordinates to “take torture and before you lose your sanity, write something harmless or ludicrous.” At the same time, he believed “a prisoner should not make any statement disloyal to the United States.”

Although he advocated a hard line, Denton understood that no one can hold out forever in the face of torture. During periods of unrelenting, brutal torture, all prisoners “signed the apologies, the confessions,” Townley notes.

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The North Vietnamese viewed American prisoners as political tools whose confessions could validate the United States as an aggressor nation in the eyes of the entire world.

In my mind, the degree of man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man is incalculable. From that premise, I attempt to quantify the degree to which political, racial, and economic differences affect a jailer’s treatment of his prisoners. I often have wondered if the men who originally wrote the Code of Conduct ever had even an inkling of similar thoughts.

Retired Navy Capt. Allen Colby Brady spent more than six years as a prisoner in Hanoi during the time Denton was there. He recently published an account of that experience in Witnessing the American Century: Via Berlin, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and the Straits of Florida. His attitude and actions as a prisoner slightly differed from Denton’s. Still, considering the intensity of their environment, even the slightest differences provide extremely interesting comparisons.

—Henry Zeybel

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Men Come Home From Work… Late by Galen Hobbs

The plot of Galen Hobbs’ Men Come Home From Work…Late  (AuthorHouse, 364 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) involves two men escaping from two POW camps twenty years after the end of the American war in Vietnam War. Jake, who is in the Air Force, and Crow, a Navy SEAL, meet by chance and join forces to try to evade the Vietnamese Army.

When they arrive in Laos, they are joined by a Marine named Ed and by a woman named  Michelle, who appears to have no military affiliation.

They are pursued by a drug gang who are trying to kill them. The United States Embassy also wants them dead. They head west with many obstacles to deal with, harboring the hope in their hearts that they might link up with their families.

The book begins with an author’s note that the novel takes no position on the question of whether Americans were left behind “knowingly or unknowingly” in Vietnam as prisoners of war. Hobbs says he made up all characters’ names, places, and incidents.

Before the story begins, there are two pages of the something called “19 Rogers’ Rules.” The first rule is, “Don’t forget nothing.” The book does give the appearance of having included everything necessary to make the story move right along.

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This is a complex tale which seems somewhat muddled, but it held my interest.

The book, in essence, does make a case that the Vietnamese kept Americans after the war. However, it failed to convince me that there were any good reasons to do so.

Readers eager for another Vietnam War POW book could do much worse than to read this one.

I read it in one long sitting.

The author’s website is http://www.ghobbsauthor.com

–David Willson