Under the Cover of Light by Carole Engle Avriett

Carole Engel Avriett’s Under the Cover of Light: The Extraordinary Story of USAF COL Thomas “Jerry” Curtis’s 7 1/2 -Year Captivity in North Vietnam (Tyndale House, 320 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $15.99 paper; $11.99, Kindle) is, as the subtitle notes, the story of Cpt. Curtis’s POW experience in North Vietnam after the rescue helicopter he was piloting was shot down on September 20, 1965.

During that long period, Curtis was moved thirteen times. He was released on February, 12, 1973, a member of the first group of POWs to ride home in a C-141 Starlifter, AKA the “Hanoi Taxi.” He was a member of the group known in the camps as the “old heads,” the men who’d been there the longest.

Avriett, a journalist who specializes in religious themes, has constructed a very interesting book, detailing the saga of Curtis’ capture and imprisonment by the North Vietnamese. The story appears to have been developed entirely from Curtis’s memory and memorabilia, as there are no references, resources, or any other research items listed in the book. If that’s the case, Curtis has a prodigious memory.

We are taken into the solitary and communal cells and into the darkness that pervaded most of the places Curtis was held. Avriett explains the famed 25-position matrix tap-code—how it was initially developed in World War I, and it was used to communicate clandestinely in POW camps ever since.

The title of the book refers to Curtis’ deeply held religious faith. Frequently, prayer was the only thing he had available to turn to for solace and to muster the courage and strength to carry on.

Avriett details some of Curtis’ prayers and his conversations with God about his predicament. We see him asking for answers and strength and praying for the comfort of his fellow prisoners. Upon his repatriation, Curtis retired from the Air Force as a colonel.

This is a straightforward story without political rants or agendas. Curtis also speaks candidly, through the author, about conversations and disagreements with his wife about his re-entry into his family, including matters of child discipline, household chores, and things his wife had to do to keep the family going in his absence.

This is a good read; a well-constructed and edited presentation book.                                    

–Tom Werzyn

Finally, Home by William R. Winders

William Winders’ Finally, Home (243 pp. $40, paper) is an amalgam of personal interviews and material gleened from reference materials. The interviews are mainly with Vietnam War veteran and former POW Dan Hefel, the subject of this very good book.

On Dec. 4, 1968, Daniel H. Hefel drove from his home near Buena Vista, Iowa, to the U.S. Army recruiting office in Dubuque and enlisted. In April 1969 PFC Hefel found himself in South Vietnam at Camp Sally as a 101st Airborne Division riflemen toting an M79 grenade launcher. For the next few months he took part in many large and small-scale actions from the A Shau Valley to the DMZ. Neither the NVA nor the VC could slow Hefel down, but a mosquito disabled him for a few weeks with a dose of malaria.

During this down time, Dan Hefel applied for and got permission to transfer to a 101st Aviation platoon as a Huey door gunner. He soon began flying missions manning an M60 machinegun.

On February 5, 1970, his chopper crashed near the A Shau Valley. The pilot died. Hefel and two other crew members survived, only to be captured by the NVA. They were transported to Hanoi and thrown in POW camps.

In Finally, Home, Dan Hefel recalls his POW experiences, which included recovering from a broken back and other crash injuries and dealing with torture, loneliness, and mental anguish. At one point, the prison doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on him without anesthesia.  After being held for three-plus years, on March 27, 1973, Hefel, along with 590 fellow American POWs, was released.

A year after returning to the U.S., Hefel was declared disabled due to his combat injuries and retired from the Army as a staff sergeant. He returned to Iowa, reunited with his family and friends, got married, raised a family, and is now living the American Dream on his Harley.

Finally, Home is a very good book, loaded with pictures, maps, and drawings. I recommend reading Sgt. Dan Hefel’s story.

—Bob Wartman

The book is available from Winders’ newspaper, The Dubuque Leader, 1527 Central Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001.

Who Will Go by Terry Buckler

There have been more than a dozen books about the November 1970 U.S. Special Operations raid on the Son Tay POW camp outside of Hanoi in North Vietnam. The latest is Terry Buckler’s Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp (360 pp. $39.90, hardcover; $28.90, paper; $8.99, Kindle), which came out last November to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that famed mission.

Buckler, who was an Army Special Forces E-5 radio operator, offers a unique account of the training that went into the raid, as well as the raid itself. He wasn’t an officer who helped plan the operation. His perspective as an involved NCO—and the youngest man who took part in the mission—makes for an interesting story.

In this book, Buckler, with the help of Cliff Westbrook, takes us through his military training and describes volunteering at Fort Bragg for a secret mission that could prove to be “moderately dangerous,” as it was described. Buckler was selected to be included on the raid because he was aggressive enough to ask what was going on, and wanted to be included. 

Buckler describes the three intensive months of training that the Green Berets went through at Eglin AFB in Florida in areas that had been used as training sites for other classified missions. Of the 500-odd who men volunteered for the mission, about a hundred took part in the actual raid, including the USAF personnel who supported the 56 men on the ground.

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The prison camp was reconstructed in the Florida wilderness from intel photos and information gleaned from myriad sources. Buckler presents a view of the training—some of which included live fire—that could only come from a man-on-the-ground, and he tells his story well.

He and Westbrook interviewed scores of raid participants, and have fleshed out the story from many angles. We hear from guys who got their hands dirty, as well as those who sat on the platform at the briefings.

The book contains 190 pages of appendices, along with photos, charts, maps, lists of personnel and material, and a list of equipment carried by each man into the field.

The planning, execution, assessment of the Son Tay Raid will continue to be studied by military planners. Terry Buckler’s book adds to the trove of useful information about it and is very well worth the read.

The book’s website is thesontayraid.com

—Tom Werzyn

Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin by Eileen A. Bjorkman

Eileen A. Bjorkman’s Unforgotten in the Gulf: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (Potomac Books, 256 pp., $34.95) is a well-written, meticulously researched and annotated story of the history and development of air rescue and retrieval from World War I to the present day. 

Bjorkman, a civilian flight test engineer and aviator, skillfully weaves the story of one rescue—of Navy aviator Willi Sharp from the Gulf of Tonkin after his F-8 Crusader was downed by enemy fire on November 18, 1965—throughout the book.

We don’t see 1st Lt. Sharp in the water until about three-fourths of the way through the book, yet his story provides the thread upon which Bjorkman builds the entire fabric of the book. Bjorkman writes about Sharp’s pilot training, first flights, and carrier deployments, and weaves in a well-developed picture of the history of air-rescue missions.

As worldwide U.S. military involvement waxed and waned over the 20th century, so did the need for airborne combat search and rescue (CSAR). The concept was developed during World War II, re-engaged during the Korean War, and honed during the Vietnam War. The introduction of helicopters into war theaters as a weapon and a rescue vehicle has defined current CSAR operations.

Throughout this book Bjorkman writes about gallows humor, the terror and elation involved in successful missions, and the sorrow of losing comrades. She notes that the vast majority of Vietnam War rescues involved aviators—and notes that the possibility of capture always lurked in the minds those who flew combat and rescue missions.

Eileen Bjorkman in the cockpit

She speaks as well of the successes of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and its continued operations repatriating the missing from all conflicts, even though the focus tends to be on pilots from the Vietnam War.

Bjorkman devotes a well-reasoned chapter to PTSD, even among aviators who seldom saw the devastation their efforts caused. Her interviews with Sharp and his fellow fliers are telling in the simplicity of their messages. All of them spoke volumes within their short answers.

This is a well-written and edited book that I strongly recommend.

–Tom Werzyn

What We Inherit by Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Finding truth forms the foundation of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers (Unnamed Press, 275 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle). In her first book, the writer and editor Jessica Pearce Rotondi has put together an excellent account of her family’s gradual unfolding of facts regarding her Uncle Jack Pearce’s fate following the 1972 loss of his AC-130 in the skies over Laos during the Vietnam War.

Jessica Rotondi describes the family’s effort by interweaving two quests. The first, which stretched from 1972 to 2008, was undertaken by her grandparents, Ed and Rosemary Pearce, and her mother Linda Pearce. Following Linda Pearce’s death in 2009, her daughter vigorously resumed the second: her search for the same answers after discovering a closet filled with boxes of material dealing with whether her uncle was initially killed or survived and went missing in action.  

Ed Pearce’s conviction that his son survived the destruction of his airplane had continually compounded the question. In World War II, Ed had been a B-17 gunner, and was shot down over Germany. He spent nineteen months as a prisoner in Stalag 17. He visited Laos in 1973, but found nothing confirming his son’s fate. His face-to-face discussions with American military authorities highlight the book’s many contentious episodes. Linda Pearce also was a tireless fact finder. During a 1975 trip to Paris, for example, she singlehandedly confronted the Vietnamese and Laotian ambassadors to France.     

Jessica Rotondi is an excellent writer—and one deeply involved with her topic. Much of what she reports in the book is based on official transcripts. She recreates the tenseness of the times and brings people vividly to life. She also provides insights into the work of the Pentagon’s Joint Casualty Resolution Center and the Central Identification Laboratory.

Jessica Rotondi’s involvement culminates in 2013 with a harrowing but fulfilling hike through the jungle in Laos where her uncle’s airplane had crashed. This part of the book offers a study in determination and fortitude—a fitting climax to all that the family endured.

The book’s website is jessicapearcerotondi.com/book

—Henry Zeybel

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