On Blood Road by Steve Watkins

Steve Watkins is a former professor of journalism, creative writing, and Vietnam War literature, and the author the Ghosts of War series, which includes Lost at Khe Sanh and AWOL in North Africa.

His new YA novel, On Blood Road (Scholastic, 288 pp., $17.99, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) is one of the best books of any sort that I’ve read dealing with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the “Blood Road” of the title of this book.

Watkins has created a believable sixteen-year-old character named Taylor Sorenson who manages to get himself captured in South Vietnam during the war, made a prisoner of the VC, and marched toward the Hanoi Hilton. He does not make it there, but has many adventures in transit. Just about every bad thing that can happen to a person in that situation happens to the young man, including losing a leg.

Taylor is the son of one of the architects of the American War in Vietnam. He flies to Saigon with his mother to spend time with his father who is busy running the war. When the NVA find out, they see him as a potential bargaining chip in negotiations.

The author presents the reader with most of the usual things that a Vietnam War infantry novel would deal with. That includes John Wayne, Agent Orange, napalm, and Puff the Magic Dragon gunships. Taylor’s main captor is a young VC who speaks French, which Taylor is fluent in, so there is no need for them to speak Vietnamese.

The book is very poetically written, perhaps a bit more poetical that a typical sixteen year old would write, but Taylor is not a typical teenager in any way. He is against the war when he arrives in Vietnam, but that is no advantage to him. The publisher tells us that death “waits around every bend,” and that is certainly true in this book.

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On Blood Road is aimed at the teen-aged reader, but I found it very readable and informative and doubt that any teenager would struggle to read it. Adult readers would also find the book well worth reading.

I am glad that I got a chance to read this superb book and highly recommend it to young and old.

—David Willson

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Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson

Augie’s War by John H. Brown

augies-war-cover-frontThe blurb on the back of John H. Brown’s novel Augie’s War (Black Rose Writing, 233 pp., $16.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) says it is “an outrageously funny, but deadly serious novel of war, family and coming of age.” Brown was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an enlisted man in a rear-echelon job with the Americal Division. After getting out of the Army, he worked in public relations, and today writes a wine-and-food column in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail.

I can tell from reading the novel that it was a challenge for John Brown to turn his Vietnam War experiences into an action-packed, spell-binding novel. But he has come up with an amusing and very-well-written book.

In it, the reader learns a lot about how the Office of Awards and Decorations works, as that is where the hero, Augie Cumpton, spends his Vietnam War tour of duty. Much of this comic novel is padded with Augie’s flashbacks to life back home in the family bakery.  In Vietnam, his job entails doing paperwork for medals and awards. He is blackmailed by the threat of friendly fire if he does not do as he is told.

During the course of the novel the reader encounters many of the usual things that Vietnam War novels seem to be required to include. That includes more than one mention of John Wayne—one being “a black John Wayne,” along with Red Cross Donut Dollies, rocket attacks, R&R, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” the Domino Theory, the Tet Offensive, the Black Clap, shit burning, Sgt. Rock, Ham and Motherfuckers, Bob Hope, and REMFs.

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John H. Brown

Not to mention the admonition that you should keep your head down during rocket attacks—and a few dozen other familiar tropes. Despite my cavils, I highly recommend this novel, including the Italian bakery sequences.

That’s mainly because of my surprise—and gratification—at finding one more worthy Vietnam War REMF novel. At this late date, I’d given up that another one might appear. And I suspect this book won’t provoke a flood of more fictional REMF material.

I’d like to be wrong about that.

The author’s website is augieswar.com

–David Willson

Knight’s Blessing by R.T. Budd

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Telling a story through flashbacks is not an uncommon device. But in R.T. Budd’s hands, we see a story that unfolds through the memories of a man who is trapped between sanity and derangement caused by what he has seen in the Vietnam War.

In Knight’s Blessing (Strategic Book Publishing, 496 pp., $32.50), the lead character, Steven Blessing, is a newly arrived grunt whose naiveté will shrink as his disillusionment grows.

We will come to like Blessing, the Knight, and we’ll care about what happens to him. The journey from wide-eyed new guy to seasoned veteran is told in a series of short chapters, each of which is a vignette—some coarse, some funny, some tragic.

There’s Blessing, leaping out the door of his helicopter to land on his belly, low-crawling in firing position as his comrades laugh and applaud. How was Blessing to know it was a secure LZ?

There’s Blessing, torn between the savvy instinct to remain in a rear-echelon job and his relentless desire to prove himself on patrol, ridiculed by for volunteering for hazardous duty.

Over time, he will turn cynical.

“We had to cover some 50 kilometers before nightfall to complete the mission, and that’s what the war in Vietnam was all about—completing the mission. A little one here, and a little one there; no matter how small or insignificant they seemed, complete them all, one at a time, and then move on to another one. They all meant something to someone, didn’t they? All the little missions were like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, being put together by someone important, somewhere, who supposedly knew what the completed picture looked like. Or did they?”

Through it all, Blessing appears, somehow, to be blessed. Whenever disaster strikes, there’s a warning voice inside his head. He struggles to understand why. Are they premonitions? Is it just a horrific dream? Or is he merely psychotic?

As a member of his team puts it, “Some of these guys over here are going to have some really bad problems when they get back to the World that nobody’s ever going to understand.”

The book begins with its lead character speaking directly to the reader, telling us that some of what we’ll read is simply fiction, although, he says, it’s actually true.

The themes are not new. There’s politics and chaos, slaughter and survival, brawls and beer. And an overwhelming sense of devastation.

The pseudonymous Rudd, a retired Army Major who served with the First Cav in Vietnam, doesn’t dig too deeply into what it all means. Ultimately, we may come to believe that he has chosen simply to spread clues through the jungle, leaving us unsure of his intent. He tells us that he will invent some of the language in the book and that if we understood it all, we might chuckle over his choice of words.

Were the warnings a manifestation of Blessing’s guilt? Are they reformed memories? Are they the voice of his guardian angel?

Who knows? But Knight’s Blessing is an easy read and an entertaining one.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Wizard and Me by Gary Gill

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Gary Gill’s Wizard and Me: Or How We Survived Vietnam and Evolved into Real Human Beings (AuthorHouse, 230 pp., $13.99, paper; $3.99, e book) is fictional, but the events are not. Gill is a veteran of the Vietnam War who served in a tank battalion—as do his two main characters. Gill’s real-life unit took part in the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

His small, readable, and engaging novel covers some familiar territory. It features the 2/34th Armor and a battalion of M-48 tanks. The familiar Vietnam War novel (and memoir) territory includes mentions of John Wayne, Rambo, shit-burning , newbies, dapping,33 beer, the fog of war, and “Indian country.”

There is a character called Sgt. Rock who thinks that Vietnam should be bombed back into the Stone Age. The characters listen to Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Roger Miller’s “Dang Me.” They chew Red Man and when fear strikes, they experience puckered assholes.

We are informed that 19 million gallons of Agent Orange were dumped on the war zone and that Rome plows took care of the rest of the jungle. The Bob Hope Show makes an appearance and the troops are labeled baby killers, rapists, and murderers. The wizard of the title is Spec 4 Merlin James Hogan, who receives a Silver Star for courageous actions under fire.

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The novel is written in the language of the time and the place. Here’s a sample:

“Demetry had come in country not long after I was assigned to 2/34th and, as it turned out, he ended up replacing me on the back deck when Red made me the loader for Double Deuce.”

Gradually the reader gets used to the special language and can easily figure out what is happening.

This is a novel easily read in one sitting, and most people probably will rip right through it.  I recommend it to those curious about American tanks in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

Facing the Dragon by Philip Derrick

Phillip Derrrick’s Facing the Dragon: A Vietnam War Mystery Thriller (Sunnyslope Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction. In the preface Derrick tells us that the war in Vietnam was seen differently by every veteran who was there between 1964 and 1973. Events in this novel take place primarily in 1970 at the Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Derrick is an Air Force brat who joined the Army and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. He later earned a PhD in history and had a career in higher education.

The main character of this novel scams his way into the Army at the age of fifteen, which was not unknown to happen. Our hero, who has several names throughout the book but is known as Jim Peterson at the beginning, had witnessed the murder of his family while they are touring Carlsbad Caverns. He escaped and sought sanctuary in the Army, which he entered through an elaborate ruse involving stolen records. Derrick makes these events believable because he knows how the Army worked back in the day.

The book has an elaborate back-and-forth structure, due to the murderer having been a German soldier and a criminal his past life. That’s why part of the novel takes place in 1945 in Germany as well as in Vietnam in 1970.

Much of this is a semi-standard Army infantry novel fare, with our hero gradually learning Army lore even though he did not go through Basic Training. The story is filled with many of the usual Vietnam War fiction references such as a “fuck-you” lizard who speaks some English, Donut Dollies, ring knockers, Project 100,000, John Wayne, jungle penetrators, LBJ, Vic Morrow in Combat the TV show, shit burning, and elephants. To his credit, Derrick also mentions other stuff that is not so usual such as Karl May, the German author of Western novels; laterite; and the riots at Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.

Philip Derrick

We also get the usual funny names that soldiers in Vietnam War novels are saddled with; in this case, Prophet, Big Red, Dimes, Peddler, and the Project. The LBJ riots are handled well, which makes this novel unusual.

I recommend Facing the Dragon to those looking for an unusual Vietnam War infantry yarn. It is well written and well edited, and the narrative moves right along with no boring patches.

The author’s website is https://philipderrick.com

—David Willson

The Butterfly Rose by Dick Stanley

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Rarely these days are readers granted an opportunity to enjoy an offering so well constructed and presented as Dick Stanley’s novel, The Butterfly Rose (Cavalry Scout Books, 252 pp. $13.08, paper; $.99, Kindle), a three-generation story of an American and a Vietnamese family’s involvement with each in Vietnam.

Stanley, a former journalist who served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, wordsmiths the English language to an almost lyrical presentation.

One example: “It is a valley of flowers but none is more beautiful than the silken, five petal roses that turn many colors in their brief lives, as ephemeral as butterflies fluttering on a green bush.”

The Butterfly Rose centers on a young, Confederate Army officer, Sean Constantine, a large man with a glowing mane of red hair and a beard to match. After participating in The battle of Manassas, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of events involving his brother, father, black servant, and a stay in Paris, Constantine is posted to a colonial French garrison in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

His love of roses, developed over the years of his Mississippi youth and his worldly travels, finds a like-minded individual in the 1860s in Vietnam: a village shaman, an old woman skilled in naturopathic and herbal medicines and remedies. She also is a conjurer who converses with the many gods and deities roaming the Vietnamese jungles.

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Dick Stanley

Fast forward a century to a team of American advisers working with an ARVN combat team in that same Central Highlands valley near Que Son. Neal Constantine, a red-headed grandson of Sean, is a member of that American team, working as a historian. He possesses his grandfathers’ 1860s diary and flower guide. And he meets the great granddaughter of the village healer, without knowing about the earlier family connection.

The story toggles back and forth between the centuries, chapter by chapter. Parallels are drawn, including the weather, expectations of higher commands, tactics, ideologies, as well as the relationship between the big, red-headed American and the old healer and their shared interest in the roses that populate the valley.

This novel artfully spans nations, generations, wars and people, and it ties all those strands together with a shared love of flowers and of the short gift we all share with each other—that of life.

—Tom Werzyn