Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

No Strings Attached by Jimmy Nowoc

Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.

Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.

In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.

Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.

He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.

This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.

–Tom Werzyn

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

Vietnam Voices edited by Edward Caudill, William Minser, and Jim Stovall 

Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975 (359 pp., $24.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the third oral history volume produced by the Friends of the Blount County Library in East Tennessee. Volume 3 almost begs the reader to pick up the first two volumes to continue the story. This small book is a quick but fulfilling read.

Editors-Stovall, Minser, and Caudill have tried to contact as many local Vietnam War veterans as they can, then offer them the opportunity to become part of the project through interviews conducted using a same-questions format. That process makes for continuity for the reader and the participants.

Each of the volumes contains 12-15 interviews with veterans from all of the military branches and ranks, enlisted and officers alike, that are condensed into thumbnail versions of longer, in-person interviews. Each chapter contains verbatim answers to mostly identical questions with a bit of editing that provides a readable flow.

The book also includes reprints of drawings by soldiers who took part in the U.S. Army’s Combat Artists Program during the Vietnam War. Between 1966 and 1970 nine teams of artists moved throughout the four war zones recording what and who they saw.

Vietnam Voices is a short but personable book—an opportunity for each participant to contribute to the Vietnam War historical record of individual experiences, efforts, and accomplishments. A county library undertaking such a project speaks well of its support of hometown war veterans. It’s well worth the read.

The full audio interviews are archived on the library’s website. 

–Tom Werzyn

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Those Left Behind by Jack McCabe

Vietnam War veteran Jack McCabe is a good writer and determined investigator. In 2016, he heard about the crash of a CH-47A Chinook helicopter named “Love Craft” on July 10, 1970, near Cu Chi in which two crew members and seven passengers lost their lives. The survivors and the families of those who perished, he later learned, felt the effects for the rest of their lives.

That story and its aftermath fill the pages of McCabe’s new book, Those Left Behind (366 pp. $19.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), which is based on extensive interviews with the survivors and the wives, girlfriends, and friends of men who died, as well as archival research.

We first meet these men as children turning into adults from the time they leave high school and shortly thereafter enter the military. They know they are going to end up fighting in a war, more than likely as infantrymen.

Facing a second tour, Elroy Simmons answers his wife Barbara’s questions, “Why are you going? Why do you have to go?” by saying, “I just have to go,” and walking away. He kisses his five-year-old daughter goodbye and tells her, “See you when I get back.” She replies, “You’re not coming back.” That exchange reflects the mood of the entire book and every thought in it rings true.

McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served two tours with the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade in Vietnam in 1970-72—shifts from telling one man’s story to another’s with short accounts of their lives, including their tours in Vietnam. The grunts who perished, who served in the 14th Infantry Regiment, came to realize that there was no way they were going to change things in Vietnam, so their focus shifted to taking care of each other—and coming home alive.

Midway through the book, three men who are part of a helicopter crew join the story. By then it is July 9, 1970, and the reader has developed a relationship with the seven enlisted men who would climb aboard as passengers on “Love Craft” the next day.

McCabe describes the destruction of the helicopter with grim detail in a chapter titled “Inferno.” The aircraft carried twenty men and had just been refueled to capacity. North Vietnamese soldiers attacked it with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. Nine Americans were killed, and the survivors suffered severe injuries.

2nd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, Cu Chi, 1970

The second half of the book focuses on what happed after the crash with the dead and wounded. McCabe discusses every step in the process of treating casualties during the Vietnam War. His details transcend anything I have read about the casualty system.

He covers multiple duties expected to be carried out with precision: mortuary activities related to identifying remains of shattered and burned bodies; evacuation of the critically injured to Japan for stabilizing treatment; casualty notification of next of kin (“probably one of the most difficult assignments in the service,” McCabe says); transportation home; funerals; returning to duty; and living with loss. In doing so, McCabe fills over a hundred pages with respect, sadness, and grief.

Those Left Behind bluntly reminds the reader of the high price of war paid by combatants and those dear to them on the battlefield and afterward. The book should be on library shelves in every American high school—even in Texas where I live.

McCabe’s website is jackmccabe.net

—Henry Zeybel

Portraits of Patriots by Tom Keegan

Tom Keegan’s Portraits of Patriots: Vietnam Veterans’ Tales of Duty, Courage, and Honor (Middle River Press, 232 pp. $20, paper) is a compilation of interviews with 24 Vietnam War veterans.

In 1970, Keegan’s draft lottery number was 261, and because of the big drawdown of troops from the war zone with Vietnamization, Keegan remained a civilian. After retiring many years later as an insurance fraud investigator with a burning admiration for veterans, Keegan began interviewing Vietnam War veterans for this book.

He chose two dozen Vietnam vets for the book, veterans whose MOSs run the gamut. They include infantrymen, helicopter pilots and crew members, USAF radar jammers, a post office officer, a WAC nurse, Navy SEAL, admin clerks, a Navy Corpsman, and a combat engineer. “The thread that is so pronounced in all of these stories,” Keegan writes, “is that of selflessness.”

Each chapter is the story, as told by the veteran, of his Vietnam War experience that also includes Keegan’s comments. For the most part, the stories follow the same outline: the veterans talk about how and why they entered the military, go on to describe their first impressions of Vietnam, add a story or two from their tour, and then tell what it was like coming home.

I know what I did as a Marine in Vietnam, and I enjoyed learning what others did. These stories taught me more about the many different things the troops did in Vietnam, a lot of which I took for granted at the time and had not given much thought to since.

It was very interesting reading about those “hidden” duties and responsibilities taking place simultaneously throughout the war zone. We all sort of know what helicopter pilots, grunts, and corpsmen went through, but to read their own thoughts about doing what they did was enlightening. Keegan has done a very good job combining these disparate stories into a single read.

I recommend Portraits of Patriots. With its short chapters and stand-alone stories, it is a great book to read in one sitting—or in 24 separate sittings. 

For ordering info, go to the author’s webpage: tomekeegan.com

–Bob Wartman

Combat and Campus by Peter R. Langlois and Annette Langlois Grunseth

The best parts of war memoirs tell naked truths that leave historical perspective aside and entirely reflect the emotions of the author. Former infantryman Peter Langlois perfectly fills that bill with Combat and Campus: Writing through War (Elm Grove Press, 180 pp. $18.95, paper), particularly when he says, “The enemy was almost god-like. He was everywhere and anticipated our every move.”

The book—put together and written with his sister Annette Langlois Grunseth—contains letters written when Langlois served in Vietnam with Alpha Company, 2/22, of the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His unfiltered descriptions of the carnage his unit endured is as graphic as those in any book I have read. He and his fellow grunts—most of whom were draftees—endured unrelenting combat complicated by poor leadership and inadequate supplies. In operation after operation, the 2nd of the 22nd’s casualties were inordinately high.

Drafted at 23, Peter Langlois had just graduated form the University of Wisconsin with a journalism degree. He wrote letters from Vietnam with a reporter’s point of view, mainly informing his family and friends about events that he experienced during four months of nearly constant exposure to the enemy. His hometown newspaper—the Wausau Daily Record Herald—published a series of his letters.  

Although he was challenged emotionally, Langlois maintained his psychological balance while writing home. “I can’t see how I can keep my sanity,” he wrote, for example, “unless I lose my conscience and sense of justice.” Despite the fact that he did not want to be in Vietnam, Langlois became a squad leader and did everything expected of him.

In 2004 Peter Langlois died at 59 from Agent Orange-induced cancer. Annette Grunseth, an accomplished writer and poet who is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran, collected and arranged her brother’s letters into this memoir. She had attended the University of Wisconsin during Langlois’ tour, and provides a first-person look at student antiwar demonstrations on campus.

Langlois and his 13-year-old interpreter in country

Throughout the book, her powerful affinity for her brother recollects his entire life with thoughtful prose and poetry. Although I am not a fan of the latter, one of Grunseth’s poems brought tears to my eyes. Still grieving over her brother’s post-Vietnam War PTSD, she reveals a deep understanding of the mental and physical effects of war and its aftermath.

Combat and Campus fulfils several tasks in remembering the Vietnam War, its causes, and its participants. The book should jar the memories of old timers (especially those of us who were there) while showing younger readers the toll taken by war on both individuals and nations.

Summarizing why America took part in the war, Peter Langlois wrote: “Basically the major powers in this world haven’t matured enough to realize the virtue of love and compassion.”

Annette’s Grunseth’s website is www.annettegrunseth.com

—Henry Zeybel

A Soldier’s Heart by Raynold Gauvin

A Soldier’s Heart: The 3 Wars of Vietnam (Friesen Press, 192 pp.) is Raynold Gauvin’s accounting of his life from birth to today. Much of the book consists of details about his Army training, his year in the Vietnam War, and the challenges he faced for decades after returning home.

“Soldier’s Heart” is a term used to describe men who suffered from what is now known as PTSD after coming home from fighting in the U.S. Civil War. Gauvin’s three wars are the one he fought on the ground in Vietnam, his post-war battles with PTSD, and the with effects of exposure to Agent Orange.

Gauvin was born in northern Maine and grew up with family on both sides of the Canadian border. His family spoke French at home, even though English was required at school. This, along with being dyslexic, created considerable problems. The family suffered a major blow when his father died, leaving his mother the bread-winner for six children.

After his first year of college Gauvin registered for the draft, not worrying about a war that seemed very far away. Shortly after realizing he did not have the money to return to school he received his draft notice, or, as Gauvin puts it, “a love letter from Uncle Sam.” This spurred him to enlist in the Army, hoping he’d be able to avoid the infantry. As his job choice he picked X-ray Technician.

After basic at Fort Dix, he was sent to Fort Sam Houston for combat medic training, then to x-ray school. He did a residency at Fort Lewis, and then went to Vietnam.

Landing in country in 1968 he was surprised to find that he had been chosen to become a member of a small, elite team. Not the kind that hunted down the Viet Cong. He would be working in a mortuary in Saigon and taking part in a study to evaluate the causes of death of combat casualties. The hush-hush work involved performing autopsies in the name of research. It would last only the year Gauvin was in Vietnam when 8,000 combat fatality cases were studied.

The rest of the story involves Gauvin’s decades-long efforts to deal with PTSD and then cancer that was likely caused by exposure to the highly toxic herbicide Agent Orange in Vietnam.

Every Vietnam War veteran has a personal story to tell. We’re fortunate that Raynold Gauvin chose to share his with us. It’s truly inspiring.

–Bill McCloud

Mercy’s Heroes by Tom Crowley

Tom Crowley’s Mercy’s Heroes: The Fight for Human Dignity in the Bangkok Slums (Koehler Books, 190 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is an inspirational, often heartbreaking, look at a long-established children’s charity in Bangkok, Thailand.

Crowley served in the Vietnam War, commanding a 25th Infantry Division rifle platoon. After the war, while battling PTSD, he made a significant life change. After working as a U.S. State Department Foreign Service Officer and for General Electric in Asia, he left the business world to take on life as a volunteer, helping to rescue and protect street kids in Jet Sip Rai, Bangkok’s largest slum. He believes that through this work he has been able to find great personal spiritual understanding.

The Mercy Centre and Human Development Foundation has 23 kindergartens throughout Bangkok, working to prepare children for grade school. The first school opened in 1972 in a pig slaughterhouse pen. The organization grew beyond the schools, helping the children’s families, as well as the general community. Some of the children are brought to the Centre, Crowley reports, by concerned people who “basically” kidnap them away from the dangers of the streets.

Today the Mercy program is based on education, shelter, and community assistance. Mercy also provides medical support for children with HIV/AIDS. Crowley worked with Mercy for more than 14 years.

Mercy Centre was started by Father Joe Maier who, Crowley says, “believed working with the poor meant living with the poor.” He followed that principle by living in the same shack for twenty years. When Crowley first decided to volunteer he wasn’t sure what he would be able to do. But then, he writes, he was told, “Don’t worry about where you might fit in. Things will develop. You have to change for Mercy; Mercy will not change for you.”

He sometimes took groups of older girls to dance classes and on camping excursions to national parks. He tells stories about an adult with Down Syndrome who was placed in a kindergarten class, and about children he called the Follow-Me-Home Girl, the Woodshop Boy, the Sleepy Boy, and two Rail Line Kids. The heroes of the book’s title include the children, staff, and volunteers at Mercy Centre.

Crowley in country in 1966

Early on, Crowley says, he fell in love with all the kids. The sections of the book in which he tells of individual children that includes their photos, drive the story. Crowley occasionally incorporates stories about his experiences in the Vietnam War in 1966. He remembers, for one thing, that death was always present, and that he thought of himself then as “a dead man walking.”

The Mercy Centre is an independent foundation, not funded by the Catholic Church. It’s dependent on public donations to sustain its programs. Contact information is included at the back of the book for those interested in making contributions.

If you read this story of selfless work being done to help children who try to survive in one of the poorest parts of the world and I have no doubt you’ll reach for your wallet. I did.

–Bill McCloud