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

Heart Shots by Bob Lantrip

Heart Shots: A Vietnam War Veteran’s Troubled Heart (Friesen Press, 156 pp. $27.22, hardcover; $15.49, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Bob Lantrip is a short novel about a young Marine’s experiences in Vietnam and how he deals with the effects of PTSD after coming home from the war. Lantrip, who holds a retired Chiropractor, served as a U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War.

In the novel, main character Damon Lee Lane joins the Marine Corps because he likes the uniform. Graduating from his training in San Diego he knows he is joining “a brotherhood that would last a lifetime.” After Boot Camp at Camp Pendleton he finds himself thinking that “the most fun part of preparing for war was that the Marines were taught how to blow up stuff.”

His thinking sobers up as he finds himself developing “the mindset of surviving Vietnam.” Pondering the question of how one really prepares for war, he decides that “perhaps the best way to survive a war was to have a reason to.”  With that in mind, Damon gets married a few weeks before he leaves for Vietnam.

He arrives in Da Nang at the end of 1969 and is sent to Chu Lai. He engages in a great deal of combat action during his first few days with men wounded and killed all around him.

We read of air strikes being carried out by “angels from heaven.” There are times when orders are given to burn all the structures in Vietnamese villages. There are poisonous centipedes and attacks by the near-mythical rock apes who throw huge rocks at the Marines from the jungle trees before swinging away to safety.

One of the book’s heroic characters, squad leader Wild Wit, serves two tours in heavy combat, then returns home, as many others did, with “No Purple Heart, no Medal of Honor—just the pride within that he had done his job. One day he was there, then gone the next.” Damon returns only to spend the rest of his life dealing with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

Along with an interesting story, Heart Shots includes information aimed at helping those who still carry emotional scars from the war. Heart Shots is a useful PTSD handbook with a religious emphasis.

–Bill McCloud

Operation Embankment by Michael Trainor

Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.

Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.

Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.

On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.

The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.

Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.

Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.

The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.

Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.

Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.

–Bill McCloud

Follow the Gold by Timothy I. Gukich

If you read enough novels about the Vietnam War, you eventually will find one in which a REMF is the hero. One of those rarities is Timothy I. Gukich’s Follow the Gold (303 pp. $15.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle). Gukich was working for the IRS when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The same is true for his protagonist, Timothy Gardner. It’s safe to assume the book is at least partly autobiographical. 

The novel begins with Gardner’s last day in country. It then flashes back to his arrival in Vietnam where “[e]very place looked like something bad had happened.” It’s October 1969, so that is only a mild exaggeration. 

Gardner is assigned to CMAC (Capital Military Assistance Command) as a lowly clerk.  However, since he was an IRS agent, his commanding officer quickly takes advantage of Gardner’s skills as a forensic accountant to investigate black marketeering involving MPCs. It seems like a boring assignment, but with the help of his roommate Sharpe, Gardner turns sleuth.

Sharpe is a Special Forces operator and seemingly the opposite of Gardner, yet they quickly become friends. When Sharpe is not working with the Phoenix program, he is happy to help Gardner navigate the shadier side of Saigon. 

Gardner’s ferreting uncovers a connection to some C.I.A. “snoops” who are using Air America for shady business dealings. Much of the digging takes place during Gardner’s off hours, so a good bit of the book has him doing typical REMF tasks, such as guard duty. Along the way, he befriends an ARVN sergeant and a general.

I know I had you at IRS agent turned REMF, but here’s why you might want to read the book even if that doesn’t lure you. Gukich is a good writer. He is sincere in his desire to teach a little about the war to the point where he includes a bibliography, which is very rare in a novel. He did his research and adds information to this memoir disguised as a novel. He gives good descriptions of the M-14, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Agent Orange, among other things. And, of course, you’ll learn probably more than you want to about military payment certificates, aka “funny money” or “monopoly money.”

I enjoyed the book, but in some ways it was unfulfilling. Although Gukich warns that some embellishment occurred, the problem for me is that he does not embellish enough. Without giving away the ending, it’s another clue that Gukich was writing about his own experiences and I wondered if Sharpe’s story might not have been more exciting. 

That said, Timothy Gardner is an appealing nerd who does not avoid danger and his relationship with Sharpe is intriguing. Plus, you’ll learn who the names of the seven generals who died in Vietnam.

–Kevin Hardy

The Deacon and the Shield by John E. Howard

The Deacon and the Shield (Austin Macauley Publishers, 174 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $4.50, e book) by John E. Howard, is a fictional story infused with religious testimony. Howard served a 1967-68 tour of duty in Vietnam with the 198th Light Infantry Brigade’s 1st Battalion/14th Artillery in the Americal Division in Chu Lai.

In an author’s note Howard writes of learning about the “horrific event” known as the My Lai Massacre in mid-March 1968. He suggests that what happened there led to a general sense of PTSD among U.S. troops in country. He also, intriguingly, suggests that PTSD may also be caused by the fact that after finishing their tours of active duty, Vietnam War veterans were still in the inactive reserves and could be called back to military service at any time.

The novel centers on twenty-two-year-old Eddy Riffle, who is married when he is drafted into the Army. When the guys in his unit learn he was a church deacon back home, that becomes his nickname. In his last combat action in Vietnam he feels that he was saved from death by an angel. After coming home from the war, he frequently has nightmares about which his wife says, “It seems that he just goes back to the jungles.”

Riffle’s family grows as he becomes a successful attorney. After being caught in a compromising situation with a co-worker, he loses his job, and becomes estranged from his family. His life spirals out of control as a new sense of failure and unworthiness combines with his PTSD. He regrets and fears all the things that might be said about him on the judgement day. To boost his income, he becomes a licensed, wise-cracking private detective.

The story goes on to include a physical fight with an angel who appears on horseback in which Riffle pits his “military training against his angel training,” as well as money laundering, undercover assignments, classic double-crosses, the antichrist, alluring women, and near-death experiences.

The Deacon and the Shield is difficult to classify. It’s not a fantasy because it’s based on a sense of spiritual reality. Basically, it’s a religious tract with a fictional story supported by many biblical verses.

The book might work for a men’s church group. Although it deals with the Vietnam War, its veterans, and PTSD, the main subject is the Deacon and his Christian faith.

–Bill McCloud

The First Door is the Final Exit by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil

The First Door is the Final Exit (235 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Neil spent the entire year of 1969 in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, and dedicates the book to “the men that died and the women who tragically suffered.” 

The novel has a tri-part structure. The plot follows Winson, the book’s protagonist, Winston, a 25th Division grunt, and his squad through their year in South Vietnam. Their in-country experiences are intertwined with those of Winston’s girlfriend Veronica, who is in nursing school back home. Occasionally O’Neil throws in current events to remind the reader what was happening on the home front.

Winston is an all-American boy. As soon as he graduates from college, he is drafted. He is a reluctant warrior, but not a troublemaker. He gets through his tour of duty by reminding himself that it’s just one year and then he can start his real life back home with Veronica. 

He goes to Nam as naïve as most cherries. He is put into a heterogeneous squad whose “complexion was the opposite of those who created the war.” Winston fits in immediately and befriends a like-minded guy named Rufus. They share a love of weed; in fact, the platoon has a reputation for being a unit of heads. 

Between bull sessions and toking, the squad is sent on missions typical of the war in 1969. The first is to the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they search a few abandoned huts and then return. They wonder why they had to wade through a leech-infested swamp just to be picked up on the other side.  

Questioning the war, in fact, is a theme of the book, but the novel is more anti-tactics than antiwar. The squad goes through a variety of leaders, ranging from the gung-ho to the cautious. The grunts are seldom told why they are doing things that can and do get them killed. 

Meanwhile, Veronica is waiting for the return of her man. Her chats with her friends parallel Winston’s with his buddies. For drama, she is being stalked by a Casanova.

There are countless good memoirs about the war. O’Neil takes that genre and fictionalizes it into a story of a grunt’s tour, adding a girlfriend back home to give a taste of how the war affected women and their boyfriends in Vietnam. And he throws in snippets of 1969 events showing the country going through some seismic social and political shifts.

U.S. infantrymen in the Michelin Rubber Plantation

The main focus, though, is on Winston and his squad. The characters are well-developed and each has a distinct personality. The book has a lot of dialogue, all well-written, and the jargon is appropriate for grunts. O’Neil enhances the story with grammatical flourishes. He is creative with his similes, such as describing the plane Winston arrived in county on as being like a womb. One distracting element is that the book could have used better editing.

If you haven’t read any Vietnam War memoirs, you might want to try this novel centered on a soldier counting down the days to the Freedom Bird. The First Door is the Final Exit is a realistic tale of a typical grunt and his comrades. Although the combat scenes are visceral, O’Neil avoids the temptation to give his readers combat porn. Winston is no Rambo. He is just trying to survive, a theme of the book.

Another theme is that squad members are pawns at the mercy of higher ups whose goals are the almighty body count and the “glory count” of dead GIs. Overall, the novel rings true as far as putting the reader in the boots of an American soldier in South Vietnam in 1969.   

O’Neil’s website is tkomynovels.com

–Kevin Hardy

Charlie Owns the Night by Ilse Cullen

Charlie Owns the Night (294 pp., $12.99, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by the Irish writer Ilse Cullen. Set in Vietnam in 1968, the books has a multi-arc story of several individuals whose lives are effected by the war. Love comes to odd couples in the midst of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The novel interweaves several main characters. Each gets their own chapter. Chau is the daughter of a decorated North Vietnamese general. The general wants her to deliver a secret message to Viet Cong command in Saigon. She ends up in the tunnel complex at Cu Chi. 

On the way back home via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Chau bonds with her driver, Trang. Her brother Chinh is a VC operative working in Saigon. He works in a bar where he picks up intelligence information from drunk Americans. He ends up in a forbidden relationship with Marie-Louise, a French journalist. 

Tom is an American doctor. He and his wife are involved in the antiwar movement, so you can imagine her reaction when he volunteers to serve in Vietnam because he thinks the experience of combat surgery will be valuable to his career.

Charlie Owns the Night is not a Vietnam War novel even though it is set in Vietnam during the war. This is a welcome change from the other Vietnam War novels I have read, though I would not recommend it as a reader’s first taste of the war. 

Cullen does throw in some tidbits that show she has knowledge of the war. The journalist, for example, takes in the “5 O’Clock Follies,” the derisive nickname war correspondents used for fabrication-laden military press briefings. She gives herself a gold star for specifying that the VC wore black-and-white checked neckerchiefs with a red band at each end. 

Cullen is more interested in generalizing the war. The communists will win because they want it more and the Americans are doomed to fail because most of them don’t care about what they are fighting for. She implies that nearly all American troops were on heroin. The American military she portrays is closer to the way it was in 1972 than 1968.

Of the three main stories, Chau’s is the most compelling. The delivery of the secret message is without suspense, but her long journey home on the Ho Chi Minh Trail gives the book a core that is intriguing.

Chinh’s arc starts slowly and then improves with the introduction of Marie-Louise. The romance seems rushed, but the novel takes off after she visits the American base at Tay Ninh and reports on the attitudes of American troops. 

Tom’s story is the most pedestrian. His wife caves in too easily and their relationship is mostly developed via letters that tend to be redundant.

Cullen can be trite (“Thank you for helping me love again”), but she is sincere in her effort to personalize the North Vietnamese side of the war. She manages to do that through Chau and Chinh and to be fair she adds Tom into the mix.

The novel is definitely pro-VC/NVA, but Cullen does not demonize Americans. Tom represents the benevolent side of America—a nation that poked its nose in business that was not its own.

If you are familiar with the American grunt experience in the Vietnam War through novels and nonfiction books, this novel will give you a different perspective. Apparently, they lived and loved, too.

–Kevin Hardy

The Five O’clock Follies by Richard Brundage and David Billingsley

The Five O’clock Follies (Critical Communications, 306 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a comic novel that looks at the Vietnam War through the experiences of three close friends. Co-author Richard Brundage served two tours in Vietnam; the first with D Troop of the 17th Cavalry, and the second conducting daily press briefings as an Operations Officer at the Da Nang Press Center. Co-author Billingsley is a novelist and meteorologist.

In a story that plays like a buddy movie (but with three guys), three GIs—Brunell, Donovan, and Hosa—bond while going through jungle warfare training together in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. A year later, after having served apart in Vietnam, the three wind up at Fort Knox learning to command tank units. They love to clown around and there’s lots of wisecracking and shenanigans going on in the book. At the same time, the men know they would give their lives for each other.

The three receive separate assignments for their second tours in the war zone in 1969, but all end up in the far northern part of South Vietnam. Brunell, the main character, monkeys with his orders to get himself assigned to a cushier job with Armed Forces Vietnam Network, and takes over the press center at Phu Bai. He and his buddies continue to run into each other during the following year. Hosa is a pilot in Da Nang; Donovan’s work is so secret he can’t even say that he can’t talk about it.  

This humorous novel consists of many skit-like comic moments, some involving pranks. The buddies concoct fake orders. They have drag races with Army trucks down an airfield runway at night without lights.

Hosa takes part in the most dangerous missions. Donovan remains secretive. He’s the thinker in the group, the straight man, the voice of reason. Brunell settles in at the press center, and then gets reassigned to Da Nang. “Five O’clock Follies” is the term that war correspondents came to use for the military’s daily briefings, considering them basically to be foolish, untruthful, and repetitive.

This is an enjoyably humorous look at men at war with the enemy, as well as with their own military bureaucracy. But it’s mainly a double love story: a traditional love affair between a man and a woman, and the love three men have for each other as they share wartime experiences.

That kind of love is one of the few positives that can come from war. It is worth celebrating.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Finding Father by Peter S. Glick

In his strikingly compelling novel, Finding Father: Vietnam Fifty Years After (Sixty Degrees Publishing, 330 pp. $18.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle), Peter S. Glick invites the reader to accompany not one but two men—an American and an Australian—as they set out to learn who their fathers truly were.

The American’s father died, leaving the son with a home filled with books, photos, and mementos he brought home from Vietnam, yet with no context for the son to appreciate how his father came to the possess them. The Australian’s mother was Vietnamese and had fled the country at the end of the war. But she never revealed to her son who his biological father was—only that he was an American serviceman. Seeking answers from opposite sides of the world, hoping for enlightenment of any kind, both men make their way to Vietnam.

Writing in a metaphysical, often haunting, style, Glick grabs the reader and never lets go. Half the story is told in the first person, so the reader, for example, is inside the American’s mind as he sifts through his father’s past. “I have found the old study,” he says, and that inspires a kinship with the first man, JJ, whose plight is more pronounced because he never knew his father.

Every step of each man’s journey is told in the present tense so readers experience each event, thought, and perception as the protagonists do. And while the two men do not meet until well into the story, the message is clear from the start: they have a connection and they will meet in Vietnam.

Peter Glick

Glick had a construction business Vietnam from 1965-75, before being forced to leave shortly before the war’s end. His time in Vietnam him the opportunity to learn the language and the history and culture of the country in a way few Americans have.

A French speaker, he became fluent in Vietnamese. So fluid, that once in a gathering where he was the only American present, someone told a joke at America’s expense, then blushed with embarrassment until someone else gestured toward Glick and said, “Don’t worry about him. He’s Vietnamese!”

Because JJ grew up in Australia and his mother wished to acclimate to her new home as much as possible, he speaks only a few words of Vietnamese. When he arrives in Vietnam, security forces take him for a spy and detain him for hours, abusing and humiliating him before finally letting him go. The American, however, quickly finds that his father’s commitment to learning about the people and the land during his tour opens doors that otherwise would have remained closed.

Despite the two men’s differences, the sobering fact remains that—as Glick shows very well in the book—even five decades later, wounds from the war remain deep, and because of this, the goal the men seek may come at a cost too high to pay.   

–Mike McLaughlin