Boot by Charles L. Templeton

Charles Templeton flew more than 150 missions as a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crew chief in the Vietnam War from 1968-69. His book, Boot: A Sorta Novel of Vietnam (S. Dogood Books, 317 pp. $14.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is made up of 37 short, disconnected chapters. The chapter titles tend to be wacky and whimsical. For example: “The Artists of Dong Ho,” “Panty Porn,” “Ly Cu Chi,” “Our Body of Hue,” “On the Road to Shambala,” “The Wisdom of Wombats,” “Operation Corduroy Peach,” “Dien Cai Dau,” and “Mystic Foxhole Yacht Club Bowl.”

All the chapters of this excellent book are well-written and interesting. Many are humorous; some are horrific and intensely graphic. The book is also sprinkled with bits of poetry by Vietnam War veteran Bill McCloud. Those poems are deftly presented to support the narrative.

Boot appears to be part memoir (it often seems as though it was written from notes Templeton took at the time) and part phantasmagorical novel. The protagonist is George Orwell Hill, or G.O. The book tell stories of G.O.’s life as a Marine in Vietnam, what he learns about the country and its people, and the impact his war experiences had on for life.

The author effectively develops believable and sympathetic characters, while simultaneously communicating the diversity of experiences and backgrounds of these characters who have been thrown together to work as a unit during a war.

Charles Templeton

I have read the chapters of this fine novel multiple times and what I am always left with is Charles Templeton’s clear intent to communicate an honest, authentic picture of the Vietnam War Marine Corps experience, as well as the complexity of factors specific to the Vietnam War, and the consequences of war that last far beyond its supposed end.

I enjoyed reading all 37 chapters of this book (as well as the prologue and epilogue) and wish there were more.

I recommend Boot to those looking for a well-written, unique, and interesting literary look at one man’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

The author’s website is charlestempleton.com

–David Willson

One Degree by Gus Kappler

Gus Kappler’s One Degree: An Historical Medical Mystery (BookBaby, 262 pp. $13.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a mix of fact and fiction with a strong Vietnam War theme. Dr. Kappler did a tour of duty in the Vietnam War as an Army trauma surgeon at the 85th Evacuation Hospital in Phu Bai in 1970-71.

In this novel, after Pfc. Richard Burrows is wounded, he is treated at a field hospital in Saigon, then medevaced to Japan, and later sent to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. After a few months at Walter Reed Burrows seems to be improving, but then suddenly takes a turn for the worse and is in danger of losing both his legs. He then dies of cardiac arrest. When he does, one of his doctors wonders, “What did we miss?”

A lab technician at Walter Reed, Matt Rogowicz, blames himself for Burrows’ post-op death because of what happened a few weeks earlier. Rogowicz had examined a slide of Burrows’ blood and detected an abnormality in a white cell. But there were no reports in the medical literature about such a distortion in infection-fighting white blood cells. Rogowicz could not convince his superiors that this was something that required further investigation and then his patient died.

After leaving the military, Rogowicz becomes obsessed with the tragedy and decides to spend however long it takes to get to the bottom of it. He learns about two more seemingly similar deaths and cover-ups of the circumstances surrounding the deaths. He blames himself even more, and soon exhibits PTSD symptoms, as do others he interviews. There’s a question of whether exposure to Agent Orange could be an issue, and there is a rumor that a Vietnamese worker may have placed a Russian-made toxin in the food in American mess halls.

Then China comes into the picture and things really pick up. There’s a possible connection to Big Pharma, a pharmaceutical conglomerate that had, Kappler writes, “allied with giants in other industries to create and sustain a consortium of players that, in the real sense of the word, ruled the world economically and politically.” This “ruling class” decided to try to control the most powerful man in the world and began grooming a corrupt U.S. senator for a run at the U.S. presidency.

As Rogowicz’s mission drags on for years, it becomes a life-changing experience. He’s not going to stop until he gets this particular monkey off his back. He joins with a handful of other Vietnam War veterans who bring in others who have experience with the mystery disease.

Dr. Kappler, fourth from left, with other 85th Evac surgeons in Chu Lai

Kappler’s dialogue does not come off as natural. He often uses what his characters say as a way of providing information for the reader as characters spit out facts. The brief section of the book that takes place in Vietnam includes several tropes. The VC, for example, turn Claymore mines around to face the GIs; there is a “newbie” First Lieutenant; and pilots survive “several crashes.”

Overall, though, the medical mystery part of this hybrid novel kept me engaged.

Kappler’s website is guskappler.com

–Bill McCloud

The Wars Among the Paines by John M. Millar

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The Wars Among the Paines (KoehlerBooks, 616 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $26.95, paper; $7.99, e book) is a work of historical fiction by John M. Millar, who served as a first lieutenant with the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The novel looks at the effects that fifty-five years of war (1918-1973) had on the nation as seen through the eyes of one family, the Paines. They are proud citizen-soldiers who served when called to wars. They haven’t missed one, reporting for duty in World Wars I and II and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.

The main character, Treat Paine II, refers to his younger sister as “the martyr,” while his older brother is “the prick,” his mother “a drunk” and his father “a bastard.” For decades the family has famously owned several non-union munitions plants. Paine says his family seemed to have it all, yet ended up being dysfunctional, and he wonders how much the pressure of family members fighting in four wars contributed to that.

Within the first few pages we learn that Treat’s brother was killed in Vietnam in 1965 in the Ia Drang Valley and his sister was a leader in the antiwar movement who died by carrying a hunger-strike to its fatal conclusion. After that, his mother went into a catatonic state from which she never recovered. His father, a World War II veteran, would die from a heart attack.

A grandfather survived World War I and the 1918-19 flu pandemic. An uncle was killed in Korea. “We were a family that answered our country’s call every time,” Paine says, “right or wrong.” He tells the stories of his relatives by using journals each kept during their time in service.

After Treat Paine graduates from college in 1966 he volunteers for the Army because he wants to fight in the Vietnam War. Why? Not because of his brother’s death there but because, as he says, he “worshiped Hemingway.” His “purpose for going was complicated by my desire to be a famous writer. I knew that, if I did not go to Vietnam, I would not have the grist to create meaningful stories.”

He volunteers for Army Officer Candidate School and arrives in Vietnam in early 1968. He left the war after serving two tours, with a promise to himself that his writing would never glorify the things he witnessed there.

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John Millar

In preparing to write the historical parts of this novel Millar used an impressive amount of reference materials that are listed on three pages at the back of the book. For the ficttion parts we get a ton of details about Paine’s school years—all of them: subjects he studied, classes he took, his thoughts about his instructors, and final grades he made.

The fact that Millar makes those parts nearly as interesting as military combat shows what skills he has as a writer.

Considering a nation’s history by looking at the personal history of generations in one family is not a new idea. But John Millar has done it as well as anyone.

The book’s website is thewarsamongthepaines.com

–Bill McCloud

A Quiet Cadence by Mark Treanor

Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 392 pp. $29.95) is a great Vietnam War novel.

Treanor—a Naval Academy graduate who led a Marine rifle platoon and commanded an artillery battery in the Vietnam War—tells the war and post-war stories of nineteen-year-old Marine Marty McClure. It begins on the day McClure sees “the dead man above the trees” as he is about to go into the bush. It’s just his fifth day in country.

McClure is an assistant gunner in a rifle company in which the company clerk is the guy with the most scarred face in the unit. The guys are all young. Some have young wives at home, and a couple of them are pregnant. The first Marine to greet him says, “Welcome to shit city.” McClure’s platoon is known as “the frat house” because every member in it went to college.

McClure is looking forward to his first firefight, but hopes it’s a small one. In fact, his actions under fire fall short of his expectations. He is slow to react as he watches a buddy kill “the running man.”

Back at the base camp after a few weeks in the bush means being able to heap mashed potatoes and real butter onto your battered tin chow tray. Then a shower and some sleep and before long you head back out again. McClure encounters the body of a VC and is surprised to see that it’s a young female wrapped in ammunition pouches, an AK-47 next to her.

“Her lips were raised in what looked amazingly like a pucker, as though she were waiting for a lover’s kiss,” Treanor writes, “her nipples incongruously hard.”

Treanor does a great job describing how claustrophobic it feels to tramp through the jungle fearing triggering a booby trap with each step. He also evokes the Marines’ frustrations as they try to ferret out an all-but-invisible enemy:

“We saw no enemy the day Corrie lost his leg.”

“We saw no enemy the day Cavett had his foot blown off and the new guy was ripped up by shrapnel.”

“We saw no enemy on the day Prevas lost his leg.”

The men want revenge, but McClure says there was “no one to kill, no one to pay back. We were all scared.”

When the wished-for action comes, McClure for the first time sees a buddy killed in a firefight. This makes things “somehow more personal,” and he becomes fixated on payback.

The last third of the book deals with McClure’s life after coming home from Vietnam and after leaving the Marines. What he didn’t leave behind was survivor’s guilt. He suffers through continuing nightmares as he attempts to escape the war. The quiet cadence of the title refers to his attempts to continue on with life by focusing on taking things one step at a time.

Mark Treanor

This is a powerful, unrelenting look at the experiences of a Marine serving at the height of the Vietnam War and the personal battles he continues to fight for decades after his return home.

A Quiet Cadence is a major work of combat fiction. It has my full-throated recommendation.

–Bill McCloud

The Reunion by Thomas Conrad

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Thomas Conrad served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War. I read his novel, The Reunion (Page Publishing, 256 pp., $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), in the handsomely produced paperback edition. The book has an in-country photograph on the back cover of a young man in jungle fatigues standing on a laterite landscape with a hand-lettered sign that includes the words “Fixed Wing Aircraft Prohibited.”

The Reunion tells the story of Bobby Gallagher, who returns to his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan, after thirty years to bid farewell to his dying mother. Bobby wound up serving in the Army in Vietnam due to the actions of a corrupt court judge during the trial process. Bobby has a serious score to settle with that judge, as well as with the father of his girlfriend who died in a car wreck.

Bobby resents that his girlfriend’s father framed him for the accident, when, in fact, the wreck was due to his girlfriend’s drunkenness. Much of this book is about Bobby figuring out a way to even the score with his ex-girlfriend’s father.

There is substantial in-country action in this novel demonstrating what Bobby spent his time in doing in the Vietnam War. He served with a Recon team and indulged in the dangerous and often out-of-control life of a 1969 Army infantry soldier.

There are many scenes involving drug dealing and combat action. If the reader is seeking a Vietnam War combat novel, this book will not disappoint.

This is a literate, well-written novel. It works well as a book of action and as a book about a family that has fallen apart.

–David Willson

There Comes a Time by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan’s novel, There Comes a Time (Stillwater River, 306 pp. $16, paper; $7.99, Kindle), deals with the exploits of a group of men who refer to themselves as “The Greyhawk Six.” The guys trained together at fictional Fort Greyhawk Intelligence School and arrived together in Vietnam in September 1967 in Army intel. Nolan himself did a tour of duty in Army intelligence in the war.

The men wear civilian clothes and work different types of special operations, functioning as soldier-spies. A lot of their work involves typing and filing, but some sometimes they get involved in matters the CIA is supposed to be doing.

The sequel to his 2018 novel, Vietnam Remix, this is a tale of agents and double-agents. One of the men uses a cover in which he’s an employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber. He also has a different, phony photo-ID and paperwork in case he needs an escape cover.

The nine chapters in this book are written as if they were individual short stories. Most could stand on their own. That includes the chapter involving one of the men who, after having his life saved, undergoes a religious transformation. It’s reminiscent of something that could have been in Catch-22.

The characters do not get involved in jungle fighting, though one survives being in a Jeep “shot to pieces,” and another witnesses a friend being shot and killed. The men frequently take Vietnamese mistresses, some in their early teens. As Nolan puts it: “In the pseudo-military realm of civilian-cover Intelligence, cohabitation with a Vietnamese woman was forbidden and, also, not uncommon.”

One of the men uses a position with the Catholic Church as his cover. Another opens an office supply store. All of them end up loving some of the Vietnamese people they come into contact with, hating others, and fearing a few.

Most of the story takes place around a fictional Military Intelligence Company’s headquarters in Saigon and at a big field station in the coastal city of Vung Tau, which Nolan describes as a “place that was immune to war by virtue of being a narrow peninsula surrounded by warships.” One of the men, upon returning home, continues to dream of the “pretty girls on the beach at Vung Tau.”

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Jack Nolan in-country

The plot also includes Vietnamese twin brothers who chose different sides in the war, but continue to love each other. In many ways, they represent the history of the divided people of their country.

This is a dense novel—not in page numbers, but in the depth of the story. It is not an action-adventure pulp-ish war novel. Written more in the style of Graham Greene, There Comes A Time was a joy to read.

–Bill McCloud

On Thunder Road by Michael Alan Shapiro

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At the beginning of Michael Alan Shapiro’s autobiographical novel, On Thunder Road (325 pp., Booklocker.com $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), main character Paul Gebhart volunteers for the draft in 1967 “to prove my manhood to the guys in the neighborhood. It was a stupid thing to do.” Having been “raised on war movies,” this New Jersey boy leaves home to receive training at Fort Carson and Fort Riley.

The last thing his father tells him before he leaves for Vietnam is, “Be smart over there and write your mother.” As the plane lifts off, a clock begins ticking in Paul’s mind as the countdown for his one-year tour of duty begins.

Arriving in-country in late 1967 he reports to Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 10th Infantry, in the Army’s First Infantry Division just outside Long Binh. He is immediately told: “You’re going to see some action with this unit.” Bravo Company is charged with helping keep Thunder Road open. That’s what GIs called Highway 13, which was used by most vehicles heading west out of Saigon.

Assigned to a mortar unit, he begins regularly smoking marijuana, and quickly learns that he is fighting alongside several guys who had been in trouble with the law and were given a choice between joining the Army or going to prison.

The daily routine for Paul Gebhart and his fellow soldiers includes morning patrols to sweep the roads for landmines. In the afternoon, they patrol through wooded areas and practice with the mortars. At night there’s perimeter duty. Pot smoking is part of the routine.

On one occasion outside the perimeter Paul experiences a mystical sense of being a part of a brotherhood with men who fought in the American Civil War and with Roman soldiers two thousand years ago, as well as with those who took part in the Crusades.  

He learns to cut a slit in his green towel and wear it like a Mexican serape to help keep the sun off his shoulders. He also learns what it means when you see sandals that have been melted into a blackened, scorched piece of earth.

As the year rolls over into early 1968 Paul hears rumors about guys who’ve dropped acid and walked off into the jungle to make peace with the enemy. But, at the same time, he also hears rumors about guys who would pay to walk point for someone else because they want all the action they can get.

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Big Red One troops on patrol

At base camp the troops continue to smoke dope. Word is that officers several steps up the chain of command are aware of that illegal activity, but allow it because when it comes time to fight the men fight.

Moving through the summer months, Paul Gebhart learns that “getting short is all about being scared.”

In this novel Michael Shapiro does a great job describing how the war changes his main character in ways that we know will make it difficult for him to escape his memories of the war after he comes home. This is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

–Bill McCloud

The Oath by Dennis Koller

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Dennis Koller’s The Oath (Pen Books, 336 pp. $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is an exciting and fast-moving mystery thriller. In November of 1966, Tom McGuire was shot down over North Vietnam and spent the next seven years as a prisoner of war, returning home in 1973 as part of the first group of POWS released.

In 2000 McGuire is a homicide detective in San Francisco when an award-winning columnist for the city’s largest newspaper, Ruth Wasserman, is murdered in an unusual manner. After being shot and killed at close-range, her arms were trussed behind her in a way that McGuire immediately realized was the manner used by the guards in that long-ago Hanoi prison.

McGuire soon recalls that Wasserman, while a writer for the Village Voice, along with a small group of female college students, had visited the Hanoi Hilton. While there, the women betrayed a handful of American prisoners who had slipped them scraps of paper with their Social Security numbers. Three of the men immediately paid the ultimate price for trying to get that info back to the U.S. government.

The investigation into the Wasserman murder soon uncovers the deaths of a few of the other women. All were found with their arms bound behind them. McGuire realizes the killer is likely a former POW now on a tour of murderous vengeance. Furthermore, it may be someone he knew back then. And why does the governor of California appear to be the next person on the list?

Ultimately, McGuire’s aggressive investigation leads to higher-ups in his department who then conspire to take him off the case. Unofficially, he continues and, with the help of a street informant, bulldozes his way through secret government hit squads and deadly Vietnamese gangs.

Koller pulls off a difficult task as he alternates chapters between those written in McGuire’s first-person voice, and third-person ones describing the unknown perpetrator known as “the man.”

Throughout the story the reader is forced to think about the point at which a person with antiwar views becomes a traitor. But Koller also makes you aware of the unintentional war-time bombing of civilian areas and to consider what constitutes an “immoral” military order. There’s the legacy of the My Lai massacre.

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Dennis Koller

The book is divided into sixty short chapters. Just past the half-way point the story begins racing, literally against the clock, toward a satisfying climax. Some might see the book as pulp-ish wish-fulfillment tale. I didn’t.

For me, The Oath worked well as a straightforward thriller. And it kept my interest throughout.

The author’s website is denniskoller.com

–Bill McCloud

Angels in the Balance by Michael J. Ganas

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Michael J. Ganas served in the Vietnam War as a crew chief and door gunner on both Hueys and Loaches during his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 17th Air Cavalry Regiment. Angels in the Balance (Outskirts Press, 576 pp. $41.95, hardcover; $28.95,paper; $4.99, Kindle), his third novel, centers on a Army helicopter crew chief and door gunner in the Vietnam War. This commonality led me to conclude that much of the novel is based on Ganas’ Vietnam War experiences.

He has transformed his material into a novel by coming up with a plot centering on a huge cache of emeralds. The emeralds make everyone in the book rich, but not without a lot of Sturm und Drang and plot twists. I enjoyed the novel but would probably have appreciated a straight memoir just as much.

Angels in the Balance is very well written and well plotted for a Vietnam War thriller. The title was a puzzler to me until angels started showing up. Elements of the religious and the supernatural play a huge role, far more so than a reader might expect.

The angels appear when needed to pull characters out of certain-death situations. They do their angelic work with a minimum of angelic fuss. At first, I was a bit troubled by the angels, but found myself getting used to them in short order. The author and the main character often ponder the ineffable—which I wound up doing myself.

There also are lots of references to classical scholarship, and it helps if you are familiar with enough Greek and Latin stories to understand the importance of the main character’s name, Troy Leonidas. If not, I recommend looking them up in a classical dictionary.

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Michael Ganas

The novel is rich with references to Sgt. York, John Wayne, shit burning, Agent Orange, Tarzan, Green Berets, the Old West, wagon trains, Indians, pot use, and tons of other Vietnam War generation era popular-culture terms.

I recommend Angels in the Balance highly to those hungry for a helicopter-centered Vietnam War thriller with a different twist on the subject.

This book is twisted up like a Belgian pastry.

–David Willson

The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson