Red Rivers in a Yellow Field Edited by Robert M. Craig

412bp1l9ns9l

Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

A new Vietnam War memoir fulfills that want on a large scale. Vietnam War veteran Robert M. Craig’s Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era (Hellgate Press, 526 pp. $29.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) contains autobiographies of thirty-four Principia College graduates from the sixties who served in the war. Only one woman contributes her experience: Elizabeth Pond, a journalist captured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rogue.

The book evolved from conversations at a 50th high school reunion. Craig, a professor at Georgia Tech for forty years, took charge as editor of the project with support from the Principia staff.

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field is exceptional because it highlights the effects of a civilian education that guided people to behave positively in war or in peace. The graduates willingly served in America’s armed forces with deep dedication to duty. Many easily transitioned into successful marriages and business dealings.

Half of the thirty-four Principia grads filled combat roles in Vietnam. Their first-person shoot-’em-up reminiscences are revelatory and spellbinding. The veterans coolly speak about combat—which is to say, they faced ultimate dangers with determination and poise. The actions they describe reflect unselfish heroism.

The variety of their duties—platoon leader, swift boat commander, helicopter pilot, among others—provides insightful views of the inner workings of the war. Slightly more than half of the graduates served in the Navy; the rest were in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. By far, the majority were officers. In Nam, they often met by chance, and shared tight bonds.

Tradition significantly influenced the men’s decisions. Nearly every one of their fathers had served in World War II or Korea, with several family histories extending back to earlier American wars.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of Principia College, which Craig describes as “an independent kindergarten through college school for Christian Scientists; the K-12 campus is located in a suburb west of St. Louis; the college overlooks the Mississippi River, about forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.”

It is not unusual for students to attend both campuses for sixteen years of education. Many family members attend either or both campuses generation after generation.

“[Principia’s] founder Mary Kimball Morgan held the firm conviction that the purpose of education is to develop self-discipline, character, and the ability to think vigorously, fearlessly, and accurately,” Craig says. He credits dedication to Christian Science for the graduates’ ability “to accomplish whatever was their duty to do, without being harmed or fatigued, and to stay healthy under all conditions.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is not mentioned by anyone of them as a problem.

principia_college_sign

The school’s graduates were not robots, however. Some who served during the Vietnam War declined to contribute to the book for “both universal and personal” reasons, Craig says. Their resistance reminded others of the war’s “full picture,” he adds.

As a man without a favorite religion, I admire the Principia graduates portrayed in Red Rivers in a Yellow Field. They met every intention of their school’s training and their familial backgrounds to serve our nation to the fullest.

—Henry Zeybel

Advertisements

Emmet and the Boy by Terence O’Leary

41fkulwmo1l._sx322_bo1204203200_

Terence O’Leary’s Emmet and the Boy: A Story of Endless Love and Hope (Swan Creek Press, 241 pp., $12.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction written for young adults as were many of O’Leary’s earlier works. This book is every bit as strong as O’Leary’s 2017 novel, Bringing Boomer Home. There is a lot in the new book about the process of dying from cancer and Hospice. Since I am currently dying from cancer, I found a lot to identify with.

The Old Man, the main character of this story, suffers through the lingering death of his wife, the love of his life, and tries to find the will to go on living. His grandson was abandoned by his father following his parents’ nasty divorce, and is hiding in a fantasy world.

Somehow, the mismatched aspect of their generations makes it possible for them to communicate. They hide out at Grandpa’s lakeside cabin way out in the Michigan woods. The Old Man, Emmet, tries to help the boy, Colin, heal, as he himself begins to heal by getting over the death of his beloved wife.

The book consists of simple short chapters. Some are just discussions between the Old Man and the boy about the meaning of life or past experiences. My favorite chapter comes late in the book when the subject of war rears its ugly head.

“You were in the Army?’

“Just for a couple of years.”

“Were you in a war?”

The Old Man does not want to talk about the war, but he goes ahead and does so. He’s asked if he killed anyone.

“I was a medic. My job was to try to save people, not kill them.”

“That’s cool.  I bet you were good at it.” 

The Old Man goes on to discuss further the Vietnam War. 

“They say time heals all. It doesn’t. The memories of Viet Nam are still with me like ghosts in the corner.” 

I highly recommend this sensitive book to young adults, and to those who are not so young. O’Leary is one of the best writers currently writing to this audience.

The author’s website is www.terenceoleary.com

—David Willson

Hard to Kill by Joe Ladensack and Joseph A. Reaves

518iehp4ryl._sx346_bo1204203200_

Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.

Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.

“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”

His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.

Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.

A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to HideA Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.

Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.

Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.

He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.

He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.

111111111111111111111111111111111

Father Joe 

Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:

“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.

“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.

“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”

Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.

Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.

All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.

Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Abyss by Michael J. Snook

41jzgluzwtl._sy346_

Michael J. Snook’s Vietnam Abyss: A Journal of Unmerited Grace (Southwestern Legacy Press, 234 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the author’s journal of his struggles from April 14, 1996, to November 5, 1998. It details how he ultimately found God and a new wife and pulled himself out of his dark times.

Snook is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but barely discusses his experiences in Vietnam in this book, which he wrote with Michael J. Snook. The book, instead, focuses on Snook’s battles with alcoholism, PTSD, and mental illness. After his service in the Vietnam War, Snook was divorced, lost his job, and went back to Vietnam to work.

This is not a feel-good book and is hard to follow in places. It also is unpolished and repeats the same stories. On the plus side, Snook uses lists in his journal—an interesting approach.

Here’s one example, in which he debates what to do with his life:

Retire and screw it all,

Live on the street,

Get drunk,

Kill myself

The last thirty pages describe how the author escaped from alcoholism and PTSD, found romance and God, and now lives a useful and happy life.

This book is not for the faint of heart, but may be useful to those suffering from the same problems that Michael Snook faced.

—Mark S. Miller

Don’t Thank Me for My Service by S. Brian Willson

51se2bku-iol._sx331_bo1204203200_

Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Viet Nam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies (Clarity Press, 412 pp. $29.95 paperback; $15.99, Kindle) is a difficult book to classify. The subtitle indicates that it is a memoir. But it turns out that this is more like a textbook—and one that perhaps should be required reading for a college or graduate school course on the Vietnam War.

Brian Willson commanded an Air Force combat security unit at Phan Rang Air Base in Vietnam. After coming home from the war, Willson went to law school and ended up as a peace advocate, taking on the criminal justice system and the foreign policies of the U.S. In a terrible accident during a protest, Willson lost both legs while attempting to block a train carrying weapons to Central America in 1987. The accident—which Willson writes about in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks—did not deter him. His new book is clearly the work of a man who is passionate about justice, and who puts in the hard work of research.

Willson, however, has crammed too much material into this book. There really are two books in one. The opening pages and the last chapter contain his personal stories, with an especially interesting recounting of his first day in country. The first eight chapters are a history book, a Howard Zinn-like perspective with lots and lots of footnotes.

This history covers a wide range of topics, from a review of the theft of the land of America’s indigenous inhabitants to Cold War hysteria, and just about everything in-between. There is a history of the fighting in Vietnam, a history of the social justice fights in America, and much more. It is exhausting.

One wishes that Willson could have broken this up into two—or even three—different books. And that he was a better writer.

brianwillson_web

Willson

But don’t let that scare you away from this book. Don’t Thank Me for My Service is a historical resource with an important perspective.  Brian Willson comes down hard on American imperialism. His facts and his arguments need to be heard and need to be known.

My recommendation: Put this on your bookshelf, and look at it from time to time.

Brian Willson’s website is brianwillson.com

—Bill Fogarty

Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

walkingpointcover-front-new

As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

2222222222222222222222222222

Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

335th Assault Helicopter Company by Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino

61KfBcEZl7L

Vance Gammons and Dominic Fino’s 335th Assault Helicopter Company: What We Did after the Vietnam War. (Deeds Publishing, 296 pp., $19.95, paper) is an interesting look at the post-Vietnam War lives of the members of the Cowboy Company, a stand-alone Air Assault Helicopter company created in September 1966 to work with a variety of infantry units.

The unit, a company of lift ships and their personnel, fitted the needs of the Army in Vietnam to provide the flexibility for ground troops who did not possess their own transportation onto the battlefield.  As such, the 335th provided service to the leg units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade from 1965 until its stand down in November 1971.

The book is a compilation of the post-war biographies of the men who served with the unit. Knowing the pilots and crew members’ propensity for quick, accurate verbal communications, the book surprises with some lengthy personal biographies, along with some extremely brief ones that let the reader fill in the spaces between comments.

Some of the men went on to lead rich and colorful lives. Some of the biographical sketches show the pain and heartaches that others bore during their time in the war.

What comes through clearly in all of them is the brotherly bonds created by the camaraderie of their time as Assault Helicopter men. The pride of their service is evident in all the stories.

335th-assault-helicopter-82nd-avn-bn-vietnam-war_1_a729bb4aaf3cb773a9fafa4bcec2faa7

A particularly heartbreaking biography submitted by the widow of Ed Eget tells of a lifetime of hard work punctuated by lingering health problems related to his service in Vietnam. It is easy to see the effects of combat on each person in every story—including Agent Orange and PTSD.

Dominic Fino, one of the co-authors, tells of his struggles with bits of sarcastic humor and honesty.

The book shows Vietnam War veterans as we returned home, put on civilian clothes, and went about making productive lives. It also shows the resiliency of the American citizen soldier who faced extreme danger in war, yet overcame that to grow into substantial contributing members of society.

–Bud Alley

A former First Cavalry Division LT, Bud Alley is the author of The Ghosts of the Green Grass, which looks at the fighting at LZ Albany during the 1965 Vietnam War Battle of the Ia Drang Valley