The Second Team by James C. Downing, Jr.

The title of James C. Downing Jr.’s The Second Team: A Vietnam Pilot’s Journal Account of Faith, Freedom and Flying (Encodable Impact, 404 pp. $17.76, paper; $17.77, Kindle) is not a reference to a skill level. It rather refers to former Army helicopter pilot Downing’s tour of duty in Vietnam, which began in 1966 when he was among those who replaced the first wave of 1st Cavalry Division chopper pilots returning home after tours ended.

Downing begins his story by writing about his less-than-sterling childhood, and then explains how his love of flying came about. His deeply held Christian faith is evident throughout the book; virtually each page contains some mention of his devotion to his personal God. Sometimes during his Vietnam War tour Downing’s faith seemed at odds with his fellow pilots who spent much leisure time carousing at the Officers’ Club. But he persevered.

Downing enlisted in the Army in July 1963, completed helicopter flight school, and was sent to Korea where he was 1st Cav’s Commanding Gen. Hugh Exton’s personal pilot. Downing writes that as his flight hours accrued, he learned valuable lessons on the ground, as well as in the air.

From Korea, Downing deployed to Vietnam, and another assignment with the 1st Cav as a Chinook pilot. To fill an empty slot, he was temporarily assigned as a slick pilot for a few months, then went back to the twin-engine CH-47.

Downing kept a daily journal from his first day in the Army to his last. He leans heavily on those journal entries in this memoir. They contained masses of info on his daily life in Vietnam, and that minutia tends to bog down the story for a reader who isn’t as enamored of flying as the author is. On the other hand, those who appreciate the expertise and finesse required for piloting slicks and Chinooks in combat will be well rewarded. 

Several times Downing repeats stories, and the book contains some spelling and grammatical errors. At times, the book reads as if it was dictated or copied out verbatim from the journal pages. Downing would have benefited from tighter editing and proofing, but the book, in the end, is a good read—a good story from a good man. And a book I recommend.

The author’s website is jamescdowningjr.com

–Tom Werzyn                                                   

Kapaun’s Battle by Jeff Gress

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Kapaun’s Battle (3rd Coast Books, 239 pp. $17.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is the inspiring story of the final year of the life of Emil Kapaun, a man of God who became the most decorated chaplain in U.S military history.

When the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in the summer of 1950, United Nation forces, mainly from the U.S., moved in to aid the South Koreans. Among them was Father Kapaun, 34, who had served as a Catholic chaplain in World War II and rejoined the Army to go to Korea because, he said, he had “orders from God.” Upon his arrival “No one but the generals understand why we’re here,” Kapaun said.

In early action he had his helmet knocked off by rifle fire and later he was blown off his feet by a mortar round. Another time a bullet split Kapaun’s pipe in two while was holding it. He taped it back together. One soldier called him “the most fearless chaplain I’ve ever seen.” He always seemed to be surprised to be complimented for his bravery.

Father Kapaun was with the troops as they moved across the border into North Korea, frequently using the hood of a Jeep as an altar. He was also with them when China entered the war with human wave attacks that broke through the American lines. Kapaun was seen dragging wounded men to cover again and again during the assault, constantly moving among them, treating the wounded, and praying over them. He was in a command post when it was overrun by the Chinese.

Gress, a screenwriter, pulls no punches when describing deaths on the battlefield. Much of it involved hand-to hand-fighting, which Gress characterizes as “hell on earth.”

As the Chinese moved south, nearly a thousand captured Americans were marched north. Those who couldn’t keep up were shot. As the POWs marched, Kapaun prayed just loud enough for the men around him to hear.

Eventually Kapaun and the other POWs were put in camps where dead bodies were stacked up by the hundreds. During the winter of 1950-51, one of the coldest on record, the POWs slept “with their cold feet clamped in the armpits of others,” Gress writes.

During their captivity Kapaun constantly prayed and comforted the men. He also actively stole food for them, and once tried to dig a grave, though he only had dog tags and sticks to do it with. In the spring of 1951 he defiantly gave an Easter service.

Father Emil Kapaun died in captivity in May 1951 and was buried in a mass grave. He was awarded the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, a Legion of Merit Award, and decades later, was posthumously given the Medal of Honor by President Barack Obama.

Kapaun’s Battle is a well-written book about a courageous, selfless man who is being considered for canonization by the Roman Catholic Church. It was an honor to read it.

The book’s publisher, Ron Mumford, served with the Americal Division’s 6/11th Artillery in 1970.

–Bill McCloud

The Soul of a Warrior by Tim Rezac

The Soul of a Warrior by Tim Rezac

Tim Rezac dedicates his spiritually based Vietnam War memoir, The Soul of a Warrior: Spiritual Reflections from the Battlefields of Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 168 pp. $22.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), to his wife Patty. The book, written from a Christian biblical perspective, aims to fortify the beliefs of fellow Christians and to enlist non-believers into their ranks.

Rezac was drafted into the Army in 1966 and served as a rifleman with the 25th Infantry Division in 1967-68. He took part in actions against the Viet Cong during many daylight search-and-destroy missions and nightly ambushes. He witnessed the deaths of many comrades. Rezac’s wartime experiences provided a foundation for preaching the benefits of believing in Jesus and the teachings of the Bible.

“I am extremely grateful for my year of combat in Vietnam,” he writes. “Some of the most prayerful, peaceful, worshipful moments of my life happened while sitting on a rice paddy dike in Vietnam.”

Each chapter of The Soul of a Warrior begins with a photograph. Then comes a war story related to the picture, after which Rezac reflects on Bible passages that relate to his war experiences. He ends each by suggesting practical applications for living a meaningful life.

Within twenty chapters, Rezac examines comradeship, fear, dreadful times, abiding peace, self-sacrifice, joy, grief, vengeance, gratitude, and more.  

After the war, Rezac married Patty, his high school sweetheart who wrote to him daily when he was in Vietnam. They raised two children. Rezac worked as a layout designer for General Motors for twenty years. Answering God’s call, he attended Divinity School and served as a pastor for twenty-four years.

Tim Rezac’s experiences in war and peace provide lucid arguments for his aims and give credibility to his suggested paths through life—even if a reader does not accept Jesus. At the same time, Rezac makes every effort to enlist his readers in the Lord’s army.

—Henry Zeybel