Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson

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Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud

Back in the World by Joe Lerner and Herman Kaufman

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The late Joe Lerner was assigned to the American embassy in Laos in an undercover espionage posting before his return home from the Vietnam War. Later, while attending college, he wrote extensively on his readjustment to civilian life. Herman “Kid” Kaufman was posted to the American embassy in Laos as a communications technician. He knew Joe Lerner there, and mentored him during his college career. Kaufman completed Lerner’s memoirs with his own recollections, and the result is Back in the World: A Composite Novel: Returning to the World Can Be So Much Harder than Leaving (Booklocker.com, 264 pp. $21.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle).

The characters in Lerner and Kaufman’s book are entirely fictional. The events may be real happenings that have been fantasized into fiction, but are not intended to portray historic events.  Readers who know some Vietnam War history may object to the authors’ twisting of the war’s timing, but this is done out of dramatic necessity.  The public’s ill treatment of Vietnam veterans is true in many cases.

The authors compare the Vietnam War with World War II by noting that the killing of evil Nazis and treacherous “Japs” was easily justified. “I grew up with John Wayne telling me so,” they write. The so-called Big War, the Real War, and the Good War was a morality melodrama, an all-star production.  As the authors put it: “Our righteous chevaliers sallied forth to vanquish the evil hoards.”

They characterize the American military in Vietnam as ten percent defective. “No matter how fucking clear you make anything to the troops, ten percent of them never get the word. They’re fucking clueless.”

They go on to state the military’s raison d’être: “Everyone who joins the service helps to kill people. It’s the purpose of the military. What does it matter who actually pulls the trigger or drops the bomb?”

When Joe, the book’s hero, arrives back home in the World, he discovers that a myth has preceded him. “You dudes got the black syph and I don’t know what all. Hey, I’m clean. I ain’t taking no chances. They’re keeping some of you guys over there on an island ‘cause they can’t cure you. Don’t tell me you believe that old sea story?”

Our hero ends up out in a drizzly street, with seagulls shrieking at him. No love for him, not even a short time.

Homecoming is bleak for Vietnam veterans. What will become of Joe Lerner?  Nothing good.

–David Willson

In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

Vietnam Blues by D.R. Van Wye

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D.R. Van Wye’s novel, Vietnam Blues (Thackery-Sterling, 292 pp. $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), takes us back to the war in Vietnam for several months in 1971. It’s a time when the fighting is winding down, not that that reduces the threat of danger for those who remain as combatants on all sides.

Van Wye was a U.S. Army infantry officer during the war, serving as a military adviser to South Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta. Most of his story takes place in Ben Tre Province in the Delta in southern South Vietnam. Occasional references are also made to Can Tho, Dong Tam, and My Tho.

Van Wye should be complimented for giving the points of view of many different people. He boldly uses the first chapter to illustrate the difficult, dangerous position the South Vietnamese populace found itself in in 1959. I consider this a bold move because Van Wye lets the reader know that the book is not going to be only about American characters, but will tell a larger story.

Villagers in the South were being pulled in different directions as they were regularly visited by troops backing the government and those with the revolutionary forces. While many only wished to remain neutral in those dangerous times, most were forced to take a side.

We “must be on one side or the other,” one character says. “There is no normal living.”

The first chapter is well written and should capture the interest of readers. The next chapter moves to 1971 and the arrival in-country of Capt. Henry Hoyt. He joins a group of American military advisers working to pacify a region known as “VC Island.” The story then basically alternates between chapters about Americans and their Vietnamese allies, and chapters about the the Viet Cong.

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D.R. Van Wye

I enjoyed reading this novel, especially as it built toward the end. A minor issue: At times, a character awkwardly explains terminology to a new guy. There also are a few large information dumps that almost made the novel begin to read like a textbook.

But, overall, Vietnam Blues is a well-told, interesting story.

One character pretty well sums up the American experience in the war Vietnam. “We’ll be remembered by the junk we leave behind,” he says. “That and all the sorrows. I wonder, do they think we made things better?”

The book includes a glossary, timeline, and two maps, and is a sequel to Van Wye’s 2014 novel, Saving Ben Tre.

–Bill McCloud

Delta Sierra by Larry R. Fry

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Delta Sierra: A Novel of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 410 pp., $19, paper) is Larry R. Fry’s first novel, but he sharpened his skills having written two nonfiction books dealing with family history, a textbook on computer programming, and Cowboys and War, a worthy book of poetry.

Delta Sierra is described as “a novel of air combat over North Vietnam.” It concentrates on the price paid by the men who flew those missions. Gary Bishop Deale, the novel’s protagonist, flies daily bombing missions over North Vietnam and Laos.

The point is made that both of these countries are heavily defended by modern weapons supplied by Russia and China. So in a sense, he is at war with Russia and China, but this fact is not confronted.

While Gary is fighting this war, his wife, Allison Faith Deale, is in graduate school in North Carolina working in a marine lab. She is aware of the dangers that Gary faces on a daily basis and tries to wait patiently for his return—if that happens.

The novel deals with real events, such as what happened to Col. Jack Broughton when he stood up for his men in an incident that should not have led to his being punished. Broughton is the author of Thud Ridge, a classic 1969 memoir about air combat in the Vietnam War.  That is still the book to read for information on this subject.

Delta Sierra covers the same territory. I recommend it highly to those who cannot get enough of this subject.  It’s written in short chapters and is easily enjoyed in short bursts.

–David Willson

Emmet and the Boy by Terence O’Leary

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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