Straining Forward by Michelle Layer Rahal

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Finding a niche in life might require a lifetime. Imagine the difficulty of that task for an adolescent woman suffering feelings of responsibility for her parents’ unhappiness; who sees her loving father and two siblings shot dead by a Vietcong soldier; endures war and the indignities of prison, torture, rape, starvation, and homelessness; and loses her mother to prostitution.

Michelle Layer Rahal accepts the challenge of unraveling such a life in the biography, Straining Forward: Minh Phuong Towner’s Story (Xulon Press, 374 pp. $19.49, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Born in 1958 to an upper-class Vietnamese family in Saigon, Minh Phuong Towner attended a Catholic school that conducted lessons in French. When the communists won control of Vietnam in 1975, her world collapsed, and her mother ordered her to flee the country with her younger brother Thanh.

The escape of Minh and Thanh from Vietnam is a spellbinding story and sets the stage for all that follows. Searching for freedom and identity, Minh traveled through Taiwan, France, and Australia, ending up in the United States. Her life is a study in coping with emotional and physical trials by adapting to the demands of her environments.

Along the way, Minh experienced nearly every pain and privation that could befall a defenseless young woman. Her naivety led to repeated victimization. She suffered, but never gave up.

To win acceptance in each country, she learned the local languages and analyzed herself. At the end of a torture session in Vietnam, she thought: “God has abandoned me.”

In Taiwan, she decided: “I know how to care for others, I do not know how to care for myself.” France taught her that “Working to stay alive is not the same as working to live, and [she] wanted to live.”  In Australia, after becoming a registered nurse, she asked herself: “Who am I? What do I want out of life?”

She married an American in Australia, and had a son and daughter. Her brother Thanh’s death from cancer made Minh consider suicide: “Death would have been easy,” she says, “but I chose the harder route. I chose life.” When the marriage failed, she moved to the United States.

She married for a second time and evolved spiritually. Diagnosed with PTSD, she learned to manage. She earned a graduate degree and attained a satisfying life in ministry and became a United States citizen.

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Michelle Rahal

The pace of this uplifting book slows after Minh reaches Australia. Activities during her nearly thirty years in that nation relate mainly to repetitive domestic conflicts. Thankfully, Rahal’s fluid writing style sustained my interest.

Twenty photographs that perfectly span sixty years show Minh and her family from childhood to the present.

Mihn’s story reminded me of Thuhang Tran’s Standing Up After Saigon. Both books focus on young women facing life-changing challenges and provide information about the assimilation of Vietnamese people in other nations, as well as their acceptance into the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

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John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN by Ric Murphy

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Ric Murphy’s Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN: First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier  (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017, 220 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells the story of a poor African American boy who grew up in segregated America and through education, determination, and incisive decision-making advanced to the highest ranks of the United States Navy.

Murphy is an award-winning author and an avid genealogist and historian who specializes in African American history. Born in Boston into a family with lineage dating to the earliest colonial period in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia, he lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN presents the powerful story of Larry Chambers’s climb to the top, as well as the sociopolitical and global and military history surrounding his life. Reading this book raised my level of admiration, respect, and gratitude for Adm. Chambers, his family, his mentors, and for the author for his impeccable book.

Thanks to Adm. Chambers’s widowed mother and his grandparents, his school administrators, teachers and his other role models, he received a solid and formidable foundation and went on to live his life and make decisions supported entirely by that foundation.

More than once during his military career, Adm. Chambers realized that a decision—while being the correct one—might result in his court-martial. But these instances resulted instead in commendations and promotions.  Adm. Chambers’s dedication to his core beliefs and his devotion to protecting his men and assets far outweighed his desires to succeed.

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Ric Murphy

The results of these decisive actions are legendary and a part of U.S. Navy history. His crowning achievement after being the first African American to captain a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, was his stellar, heroic participation in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon during the final hours of the Vietnam War.

Whether you’re into military, global, or social history—or you just enjoy a very good read—I highly recommend Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN be placed high on your reading bucket list.

The author’s website is ricmurphy.com/

— Bob Wartman

Camp Frenzell-Jones by Ray Bows and Pia Bows

Ray Bows knows how to do his homework. Since retiring as a Master Sergeant from the U.S. Army in 1983, he has researched military records and written extensively about the Vietnam War.

Camp Frenzell-Jones: Home of the Redcatchers in Vietnam (Bows, 192 pp., $15, paper) is his eighth book. Pia, his wife, began collaborating with him in 2001. In their books the Bows’s pay tribute to people, events, and locales that otherwise might be forgotten. Ray Bows served with the Redcatchers of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam during 1967-68.

The book explains the naming of the main base of the 199th on the northern edge of Long Binh Post in honor of Herbert “Herb” Frenzell and Billy C. Jones, who died on January 21, 1967. The two infantrymen were the 199th’s first combat casualties in the Vietnam War.

The book tells their life stories. We learn that they became friends in the Army despite coming from drastically different backgrounds. Frenzell, an unmarried college dropout, had enlisted; Jones, a blue-collar husband with two children, was drafted. After reaching Vietnam, they developed negative feelings about the war, which are reflected in many letters they sent home. Nevertheless, they conscientiously spent their short in-country lives in the field on search and destroy missions. Both received posthumous Silver Stars for gallantry.

Many restored photographs, along with some taken from 8-mm film footage shot by Frenzell, fill out the book—and the personalities of the men.

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PFC Bows, 1953

Like good historians, the authors include a bibliography and index. Their  research also provides a 199th Infantry Brigade Order of Battle, which lists lineage, decorations, and awards for the brigade’s battalions and support units.

I recommend going to the authors’ website at www.bowsmilitarybooks.com where you can find book-ordering information. My visit gave me a broader appreciation of the depth to which self-motivated writers dig to prevent the price paid by those who took part in the Vietnam War from being forgotten.

—Henry Zeybel

Heart of Gray by Richard W. Enners

 
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Richard W. Enners’ Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy Enners: Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam (Acclaim Press, 256 pp., $26.95) is a shining tribute to the author’s older brother. The book commemorates a life of honor and achievement, from junior high school to the Vietnam War, where Raymond Enners died. It is clear from the beginning that he was a team player who always left ego behind to make sure his team did well.

Richard Enners tells how early experiences built Ray’s character and led to his leadership abilities. He uses lacrosse and his brother’s expertise in the game as an example of the Ray’s natural-born talents. As a young boy in an important game, for example, Ray had a chance to score a goal but instead passed the ball to a teammate so he could reach a personal milestone. “Ray certainly had the guts, but was not interested in the glory,” his brother writes.

Such leadership carried through to the Vietnam War in which Ray served after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. His brother—also an Academy graduate—discusses Ray’s life at West Point, from drills to dinner.

Raymond Enners went to Vietnam in 1968 where he used “influence, not authority, to lead his teammates,” Richard Enners writes. 1st Lt. Ray Enners led his unit, Alpha Co., in the Americal Division’s 1/20th Inf. Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade with courage and friendship. His men never suffered low morale, thanks primarily to his leadership.

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Richard Enners

Even Ray’s death on September 18, 1968, in a vicious firefight with the NVA near Ha Thanh showed his lack of selfishness, as well as his courage and humanity. He died in a rice paddy as he saved others. For this, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for dedication, bravery, and valor.

Heart of Gray is filled with extraordinary detail from Ray’s entire life. The fight in which Ray fought and died is described so well that the reader can easily envision the action. Even his R&R is chronicled in detail. There also are testimonies from former classmates, war buddies, and friends, all glowing with respect and admiration for Raymond Enners.

—Loana Hoylman

 

 

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam, which Henry Zeybel reviewed on these pages when it was published in hardcover last year, is now out in paperback (Osprey, 320 pp., $15).

The book tells the story of Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. of Bravo Company in the 3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, Sabo received the Medal of Honor posthumously after nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack during the 1970 Cambodian incursion.

“I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important,” Zeybel wrote in his review.

“They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.”

—Marc Leepson

Midair by Craig K. Collins

Midair: An Epic Tale of Survival and a Mission That Might Have Ended the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 246 pp., $26.95) is a book that contains two quite different elements. The first is an amazing true-life war story that author Craig K. Collins, a former journalist, relates quite well. The second is the espousal of the controversial theory that the Vietnam War could have been won if only the Air Force had been given permission—as the noted Vietnam War hawk Gen. Curtis Lemay once said—to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”

The heart of the book is the story that Collins—the author of Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture—relates about the military adventures of his uncle Don Harten, an Air Force jet pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions in three different aircraft (B-52, F-105, and F-111) over North and South Vietnam from 1965-72.

The part of Harten’s story that provides the book’s title is an almost unbelievable tale of survival. It took place in June 1965 over the South China Sea. During an intense typhoon Harten’s B-52 bomber collided head on with another B-52 at 30,000 feet. Harten ejected and narrowly avoided death a dozen times before he was rescued.

Interspersed with this almost unbelievable tale of survival is a theory posited by Harten and other pilots that fighter jet bombing operations over North Vietnam, such as Operation Rolling Thunder, were “effed up beyond all recognition,” as Collins puts it.

There was no way, the pilots believed, that “fighter jets could bring even a small country like North Vietnam to its knees by punching at its jungle midsection,” Collins writes. “The consensus was that the jet jockeys needed to let the big boys take out Hanoi in one or two missions.”

The Vietnam War, Collins contends, wasn’t lost “in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t lost in the skies over Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam. And it wasn’t lost in 1975 when the last marine helicopter lifted from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Rather it was lost in the White House, the halls of Congress and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.”

This is a book for you if you enjoy reading a harrowing story of war-time survival—and if you’re convinced that politicians and generals’ perfidy was the reason the U.S. did not prevail in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson