Her Father’s Land by Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1968 with the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote about it a 2001 memoir, DMZ Diary. Kelly has now produced a novel, Her Father’s Land (Booklocker.com, 418 pp., $22.02, paper; $2.99,Kindle), which is inspired by his experiences in Vietnam.

He served at a fire base built on the site of a razed hamlet. The gravestones caused him to wonder what it must have been like for the villagers to abandon their homes there, along with the graves of their ancestors. So Kelly has set Her Father’s Land at Fire Base Alpha-3, the closest American base to the DMZ, and interweaves the stories of U.S. Marine, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong characters into the novel.

With Alpha-3 within range of North Vietnamese artillery, the new battalion commander, Col. Favors, is not thrilled about being a sitting target. He feels Marines are best used in an aggressive manner. One of his best men is Lance Cpl. Tim “Monk” Montgomery.

An NVA officer named Huang Van Nhu is in charge of operations against Alpha-3. He and the main character, a female Viet Cong cadre named Tran Xuan Ha, are a couple. Ha goes undercover to get information from an incompetent, cowardly Marine lieutenant named Jones who uses connections (his uncle, a U.S. Senator) to transfer to USAID. 

Getting himself out of Alpha-3 gives Jones chance to go after the beautiful Ha and—like most lotharios—he thinks she really digs him. To get her in bed, he’s soon blabbing secrets that get Marines killed.

The love triangle of Nhu, Ha, and Jones is the core relationship in the book. The second half follows the trio as Ha and Nhu attempt to get the kidnapped Jones to the North so he can be used as a political pawn. Meanwhile, battles rage around Alpha-3.

Kelly tries to avoid the flag waving in many Vietnam War novels and movies by being evenhanded. Since he limits himself to a few main characters, he is able to develop them well. Jones comes off as a stereotypical ugly American, but the others are all good examples of combatants sincere in their dedication to their side. Favors and Nhu are worthy adversaries and anyone would want Monk or Ha in their squad. 

Jeff Kelly

Kelly writes well with few flourishes. This is not a romance novel. He walked the walk so he is able to get into the heads of his Marine characters. Monk, for example, processes a buddy’s death in less than a minute. He goes from shock to acceptance, eliminating the denial and grief phases, “a skill they all mastered well,” as Kelly puts it.

He goes on to describe combat and weapons like someone who has seen the elephant. The noise from an AC-47 Spooky, Kelly writes, is like “a wail of banshees, a choir of tortured souls, a technological song of megadeath.” On the other hand, Kelly’s choice of not dumbing things down might cause not well-versed in Vietnam War military lingo to have Google handy.

Jeff Kelly has seemingly read Vietnamese memoirs because Nhu and Ha are not stick figures. You won’t root against them. I hope.

The main theme of the novel is that the war was a conflict of American technology and firepower versus the enemy’s zeal—an elephant trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer.    

–Kevin Hardy

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

There It Is by Jim Talone

The title of Jim Talone’s memoir, There It Is: A Helicopter Ride and a Purple Heart  (337 pp. $25, hardcover; $20, paper; $10, Kindle)  a flat-voiced phrase that rings scary-true to virtually every Vietnam War veteran, refilling the memory with images, places, people, and things from long ago.

This is an excellent book by a talented wordsmith, a former high school English teacher. In the book Talone covers his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a young Marine lieutenant leading B Company of the 1st of the 9th Marines in the 3rd  Marine Division in I Corps.

The story moves along rapidly with short, frugal, and crisp sentences telling a compelling narrative of “his men, his Marines,” and their lives in combat. Talone’s unit, known as the “Walking Dead,” earned that nickname after taking heavy battlefield losses early on in the Vietnam War.

Each of the months Talone served in Vietnam is a chapter in the book and each is filled with vignettes—some mere paragraphs long, others several pages in length. This is a pleasantly different format than most Vietnam War memoirs. The rather short Glossary could have been broader, but the main items of interest are covered.

The book contains a four-page “Reflections” sections in which Talone sets out his thoughts about his part in the war. There’s also a very powerful three-age soliloquy, “Khe Sanh Remembered.” And the poetic Preface alone is worth the price of admission.

This books is a great read by a talented author I’d love to see more from. There it is.

–Tom Werzyn

Combat to Conservation by F.J. Fitzgerald

F.J. Fitzgerald’s Combat To Conservation: A Marine’s Journey through Darkness into Nature’s Light (Koehler Books, 166 pp. $23.95, hardcover; $15.92, paper; $7.49, Kindle), is both haunting and inspiring. Fitzgerald presents an account of the horror of combat tempered with the beauty of nature with his life story beginning with a happy childhood and including details of his tour of duty as a Marine with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment of the 1st Marine Division in Vietnam.

Growing up in Southeast Minnesota farm country, Francis Fitzgerald loved the tranquility of the fields and woods. Walking and often sitting for hours, he came to love every animal, plant, and tree, especially white pines. His accounts are so compelling that readers can readily see themselves traveling the back country with the author.

Exceptionally bright and talented, Fitzgerald wanted a college degree and a career as a game warden. Yet doubts about his youth and his lack of experience, combined with a yearning for action and adventure, inspired him to join the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school in the summer of 1969. He arrived at LZ Baldy, a fire support base in the hills south of Danang, in the spring of 1970.

Fitzgerald writes with exceptional style; his descriptions are at once spare and poetic. With tight sentences and concise accounts of what he saw and endured, he presents a stark picture of the environment in which the Marines operated. He includes one eerie anecdote after another from patrols in dense jungle, as he strained to find his way through a claustrophobic world too often dark—and always wet.

Particularly striking are his graphic depictions of the misery of trench foot and the difficulty of treating it in a place where dry feet were every Marine’s futile wish; of sitting next to a tree limb and finding himself face to face with a poisonous snake and realizing he was an intruder in the animal’s world. And of sighting and killing an elusive enemy, then feeling little afterward, except that it was a consequence of war, as certain as night following day.

Then there is Fitzgerald’s account of coming to grips with post-traumatic stress disorder. As a way to try to fight it, Fitzgerald returned to nature when he returned to civilian life. He found that every waking moment he spent in the great outdoors was a balm for his troubled spirit. To move and breathe in the air and the light—to be continually reminded of the beauty of the world—empowered him. It continues to sustain and heal him.

Combat to Conservation is an excellent read; it’s a book as subtle as it is inspiring.

Fitzgerald’s website is www.fjfitzgerald.com

–Mike McLaughlin

LZ Sitting Duck by John Arsenault

Many Vietnam War veterans well remember what it was like to be thrown into battle in a remote corner of South Vietnam, fighting for their lives in combat that ultimately would made absolutely no sense. Fire Support Base Argonne on the Laotian border just below the DMZ in Quang Tri Province was one of those places.    

In defiance of common sense, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division were compelled to attack Argonne, a former U.S. fire support base. The North Vietnamese Army always prepared defenses on abandoned bases, including booby traps, in anticipation of returning American troops. What happened at FSB Argonne was no different.  

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Arsenault’s LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne (Liberty Hill Press, 272 pp. ($32.49, hardcover; $17.40, paper; $8.99; Kindle) is a collection of vignettes taken from nearly two dozen Marines who went through hell just trying to survive as they fought tenaciously against a determined foe.    

From the moment the Marines assaulted the LZ they named Sitting Duck, they came under intense fire and began taking heavy casualties. That situation would not change much for the entire time they conducted operations. Snipers picked them off, mortar rounds rained down on them, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, an artillery round intended for the North Vietnamese fell short, leaving no one unscathed.     

The highly regarded battalion CO, seemly invincible as he stood up to lead his men, became just one more KIA. That was one of many scary moments for a lieutenant who describes watching his CO take a direct hit to the head.

The Marines performed feats of pure heroism. Again and again, as one reads their accounts at Argonne there is a real feeling of being there amid the incoming fire, the chaos, and the confusion. The Marines fought in rugged terrain with little water to combat their dehydration from the overwhelming heat, all while attacking the enemy troops ensconced in well-prepared fighting positions.

Many of the book’s twenty-four vignettes describe the same battle scenes; but each one offers something new from a different Marine’s perspective. Their individual accounts are almost like reading a murder mystery in which different witnesses describe a crime scene with each one seeing things differently.

Collectively, this book adds up to an astounding account of perseverance, hardship, heroism, and endurance. One can’t help but coming away from reading these battle stories with admiration for the Marines who fought at Argonne.   

This is a sobering account of combat that should be read.

–John Cirafici

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

Korean Odyssey by Dale Dye

If you don’t recognize the name Dale Dye, whose latest book is Korean Odyssey: A Novel of a Marine Rifle Company in the Forgotten War (Warriors Publishing Group, 353 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $9.49, Kindle), you’ll almost certainly recognize his face. Dye served twenty years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising from the enlisted ranks to retire as a Captain. That included three tours of duty in the Vietnam War, during which he took part in 31 major combat operations. Today he runs Warriors, Inc., the leading military training and advisory service to the entertainment industry.

Dye has acted in or worked in some way more than 40 movies, including Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Casualties of War, as well as the acclaimed the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers and The Pacific. He has a degree in English Literature and has written twenty books, including the novelization of Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

His new novel starts in the summer of 1950 with Marine Capt. Sam Gerdine trying to build a rifle company around him at Camp Pendleton. Gerdine is a career Marine and Silver Star recipient of WWII action in the Pacific. With the outbreak of war in Korea, the cry goes out at Pendleton: “From now on it’s double-time all the time in this camp.” With most of the rifle companies being short-handed it is not uncommon for NCOs to search for available men and add them to their companies. The result is a command “manning up with raw recruits, malcontents, shanghaied clerks, and a few brig-rats,” Dye writes.

The war news meanwhile, is “dismal. Doggies were getting their asses handed to them. The gooks were raising hell.” Training becomes more intense.

With training complete, the Marines land in South Korea, and soon find themselves in the thick of the action—an “ugly reality check,” as Dye notes.

Dale Dye in Platoon

Then comes No Name Ridge and hand-to-hand fighting. Before long, it’s winter, and the Korean cold envelops the battle space. The firefights and hand-to-hand fighting continue, but this time in blinding snow. Then comes the Chinese offensive.

Dale Dye writes with an authenticity that cannot be denied. His writing expresses a warrior spirit that is a constant no matter what war he’s dealing with.

I could almost hear his voice when reading sentences like: “How about you people stand back and let a real rifle company show you how to take a hill.”

This is an important addition to the literature of ground-level-view fighting in America’s “forgotten war” in Korea.

–Bill McCloud

On Full Automatic by William V. Taylor Jr.

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Those lines from Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” were very evident during William V. Taylor’s early days serving with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion in the 3rd Marine Regiment in Vietnam in 1967-68. But as time wore on, casualties and rotations took experienced leaders off the battlefield. They were replaced with inexperienced leaders who were more concerned with their own survival and careers than with the survival and success of their men.

In his amazing new memoir, On Full Automatic: Surviving 13 months in Vietnam (Deep Water Press, 352 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) Taylor recounts his nightmarish Vietnam War experience. The book opens on April 26, 1967, with 18-year-old Bill Taylor on board the USS Duluth, an amphibious transport ship. He and his fellow C/1/3 Marines were about to be helicoptered to a field 20 miles south of Da Nang. That’s when Taylor’s tug-of-war began, as the Marines took a location, only to give it back and return later to take it again.

Taylor tells of many enemy engagements, some large and some small, some won and some lost. In nearly all of them, there were two common denominators: incompetent leaders and casualties. He describes his tour of duty in a way that put me right there with him. Throughout the book I experienced fear, anger, and sadness—and very little jubilation.

Taylor’s humility and matter-of-fact honesty overwhelmed me. As did his unwavering bravery and aggression on the battlefield. He includes some raw language used at that time and place. Some readers might find that offensive, but I found it essential in bringing me into the action.

I highly recommend On Full Automatic.

–Bob Wartman

Taylor’s website, which includes a photos of C/1/3 Marines in Vietnam, is williamvtaylor.com

The Grotto: Book Two by Harold G. Walker

Like countless veterans, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Harold Walker began writing a war memoir for his family—in his case, to chronicle his service as a Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The result is The Grotto, a three-volume series documenting his tour of duty, along with his thoughts and meditations and praise for his Marine brothers.

The Grotto: Book Two: Vietnam 1970, Marble Mountain (Dragonfly Publishing, 487 pp. $25, hardcover; $22, paper; $4.99, Kindle) begins in February 1970. Walker was three months into his tour and Vietnamization was underway. American troops were leaving the country as the South Vietnamese took control of combat operations.

In a single day, his squadron, HMM-262 (“The Flying Tigers”), of CH-46 transport helicopters left the Phu Bai Combat Base near the city of Huế. With their fellow squadrons of Marine Air Group Sixteen, they flew southeast to their new home at the Marble Mountain Air Facility outside Da Nang.

Walker’s accounts of time in Vietnam is so inspired that readers will feel that he is speaking to them personally. Each chapter begins with a date, the number of hours Walker had flown to that time in the war, and the total since he completed flight training. He also provides details about key events at home, including the rising protests against the war, and his thoughts about the future of South Vietnam—and the U.S.A.

The Flying Tigers’ job was to ferry Marines and supplies wherever they were needed. They also flew countless “red ink” missions, so named because those combat missions reports were written in red. These included medevac flights and recoveries of Marine recon teams when they were in grave danger. Many missions went satisfactorily. Others did not.

In one disturbing passage, Walker describes how a helicopter nearly crashed after a single bullet struck the aircraft, killing the pilot and badly wounding the co-pilot. The young crew chief, who had some experience flying helicopters, managed to help land the craft safely.

In another, a .30 caliber bullet hit a pilot in the center of his chest plate leaving him stunned but alive. He was able to land, take on supplies, and fly off again, only to crash from being overloaded. Only the men in the cockpit survived.

The author in the cockpit in Vietnam, 1970

Walker also presents a sobering dilemma from one mission when he realized that another pilot—an officer far senior to him—lacked the requisite experience to fly helicopters. The man had long flown A-4 Skyhawk jets, yet he lacked the skills and finesse for rotary-wing flight. Because aviation protocol decreed that a pilot’s word was law, what was a better-qualified co-pilot supposed to do?

After one such flight, a co-pilot formally declared the senior officer pilot unfit to fly. By doing so, the junior Marine risked his career and he knew it. Yet his superiors agreed with him, and the other pilot was removed from flight duties. It was a clear example of moral courage with a Marine putting the good of others far above his own.

The Grotto: Part Two is worth the time, and is ample reason to look forward to the third volume.

The author’s website is haroldgwalker.com

–Mike McLaughlin

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman