John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

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A Double Dose of Hard Luck by Leo Aime LaBrie

Leo Aime LaBrie, with help from Theresa McLaughlin, has assembled an extremely interesting history of prisoner of war life in A Double Dose of Hard Luck: The Extraordinary Story of a Two-time Prisoner of War, Lt. Col. Charles Lee Harrison (Page Publishing, 134 pp. $12.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

The title speaks for the book’s contents: Charles Lee Harrison “had the unfortunate distinction of being only one of two Marines to have ever suffered captivity as a prisoner of war twice in two separate conflicts,” retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Orlo K. Steele writes in the book’s Foreword.

During World War II, Harrison spent nearly four years (December 1941-September 1945) as a prisoner of the Japanese. During the Korean War, Chinese communist forces held him for six months in 1950. In 1965-66, Harrison served in Vietnam—where he was not captured.

Harrison saw action in all three wars. In World War II and Korea, he and fellow Marines fought for their lives against enemy forces that greatly outnumbered them. His first capture followed the siege and invasion of Wake Island by the Japanese. The second came when Chinese soldiers swarmed a truck convoy during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.

An enlistee at age eighteen in 1939, Harrison’s career lasted until 1969 when he retired as a lieutenant colonel. Along the way, he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.

La Brie’s pre-World War II picture of military life—when a private’s pay rate was $20.80 a month, plus clothing allowance—provides a departure point for recognizing how much changed and yet remained the same after three quarters of a century.

His main sources are a transcript of Harrison’s ten-hour oral history from 2002; history books; magazine and newspaper articles; and a 2015 interview with Jane Harrison Williams, a daughter. Gen. Steele personally recorded Harrison’s oral history.

LaBrie, a U.S. Air Force veteran, recreates POW life by showing the extremes of stress and pain that men are capable of enduring, especially under the cruelty of the Japanese. He masterfully weaves Harrison’s reactions and observations into the history presented by other sources to give his stories an authenticity that drove me to read the book in one evening and the following morning.

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He depicts the communist approach to brainwashing without actually using the word. Instead, he refers to it as “interrogation,” “propaganda,” “lectures,” or “indoctrination.”

Harrison and fellow prisoners saw through the ploys and used them to their own advantage.

An array of photographs shows Harrison at different stages of his career.

—Henry Zeybel

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

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

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