Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam War Refugees in Guam by Nghia M. Vo

When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.

Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.

Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.

For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.

Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.

Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.

I highly recommend Vietnam War Refugees in Guam.

–Bob Wartman

Wesley Fishel and Vietnam by Joseph Morgan

“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.

A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.

If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.

While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.

Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.

Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.

Fishel and family in Saigon, 1956

After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.

Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.

Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.

Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”

–Daniel R. Hart

A War Tour of Vietnam by Erin R. McCoy

Erin McCoy’s A War Tour of Vietnam: Cultural History (McFarland, 206 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle) covers the years 1940-75 in a mere 190 pages of text. McCoy’s ambitious goal of exploring the “culture, history and popular music in the countries most affected by the Vietnam War, i.e. North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and of course, the United States,” though, falls a bit short.

McCoy devotes a chapter to each of these years, but the popular music she writes about in all the chapters is all American. Plus, her music reviews and references are sometimes somewhat oblique.

While McCoy touches on many cultural topics, she occasionally goes off on tangents. Nearly half of the chapter about the year 1969, for example, deals with the music of that year, and, for some reason, we also get details about a trip she took to Puerto Rico. That and other recitations of day-to-day, personal activities subtracted from the book.

That said, McCoy does bring interesting facts and observations to the page. And the book reads well, and would be valuable to casual readers who are not part of the Vietnam War generation.

–Tom Werzyn

The Erawan War, Vol. 2 by Ken Conboy

Ken Conboy’s The Erawan War, Vol. 2: A Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974.  (Helion 78 pp., $29.95, paper) is an account of the largest CIA operation of the Cold War, in which the agency fielded an army numbering perhaps eight indigenous divisions. This second volume of a two-volume history, seamlessly follows the first one in describing the evolving nature of operations during the last five years of American involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.   

Although Volume 2 can stand alone, it is immensely helpful to have read Vol. 1’s 1961-69 history. Like the first, Vol. 2 captures much of the secret war in Laos, including its complexity. It focuses on CIA-trained guerilla units recruited from the hill tribes of Vietnam and Thailand. In operations against North Vietnam’s heavily guarded and vital Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos teams penetrated defenses, destroyed supply-laden trucks, and gathered intelligence. Equally impressive, they conducted attacks inside North Vietnam itself.

Although in the greater scheme of things these missions were pinpricks, President Nixon pushed for them as a means of applying pressure on Hanoi. The real test, however, came when guerilla regiments found themselves pitted against regular North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) divisions. Many PAVN units, known for their aggressiveness in South Vietnam, were also fighting in Laos.

The CIA out of necessity recruited increasing numbers of Lao tribesmen and Thai volunteers, and formed new battalions to fight in the rapidly expanding war. President Nixon was so pleased by their successes that he conveyed his admiration directly to the Thai prime minister. But the CIA-led paramilitary campaign could not stop the PAVNs steady advance.

Thai battalions became essential to operations in the Plaine des Jarres region, trying to stall advances made by the PAVN. It is evident that the large-scale war in Laos was in many ways as important as the war in Vietnam.  

The book details the significant amount of combat airlift flown by USAF helicopters in Laos. USAF Combat Controllers and Forward Air Controllers also played an important role supporting operations there. U.S. military assets based in Thailand and South Vietnam were crucial to successes on the battlefield, in particular when U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes.

Hmong fighters in Laos with an American military adviser

Conboy’s Erawan War books reveal the tragedy of this story: that men and boys recruited from the hill tribes by the CIA struggled against an enemy with seemingly unlimited manpower and weaponry. It’s to their credit that these irregular forces frequently working with Thai special forces, infantry, and artillery were able to resist for so long against the advancing PAVN and its Pathet Lao allies. The tragedy was that with the end of all American involvement in the conflict the hill tribes were left to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences at the hands of vindictive Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.

This concise, heavily illustrated book contains much information about a part of the Vietnam War that little known to the American public. The two volumes are a necessary read in order to truly understand the immensity of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

–John Cirafici

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici

Those Left Behind by Jack McCabe

Vietnam War veteran Jack McCabe is a good writer and determined investigator. In 2016, he heard about the crash of a CH-47A Chinook helicopter named “Love Craft” on July 10, 1970, near Cu Chi in which two crew members and seven passengers lost their lives. The survivors and the families of those who perished, he later learned, felt the effects for the rest of their lives.

That story and its aftermath fill the pages of McCabe’s new book, Those Left Behind (366 pp. $19.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle), which is based on extensive interviews with the survivors and the wives, girlfriends, and friends of men who died, as well as archival research.

We first meet these men as children turning into adults from the time they leave high school and shortly thereafter enter the military. They know they are going to end up fighting in a war, more than likely as infantrymen.

Facing a second tour, Elroy Simmons answers his wife Barbara’s questions, “Why are you going? Why do you have to go?” by saying, “I just have to go,” and walking away. He kisses his five-year-old daughter goodbye and tells her, “See you when I get back.” She replies, “You’re not coming back.” That exchange reflects the mood of the entire book and every thought in it rings true.

McCabe—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served two tours with the Army’s 1st Aviation Brigade in Vietnam in 1970-72—shifts from telling one man’s story to another’s with short accounts of their lives, including their tours in Vietnam. The grunts who perished, who served in the 14th Infantry Regiment, came to realize that there was no way they were going to change things in Vietnam, so their focus shifted to taking care of each other—and coming home alive.

Midway through the book, three men who are part of a helicopter crew join the story. By then it is July 9, 1970, and the reader has developed a relationship with the seven enlisted men who would climb aboard as passengers on “Love Craft” the next day.

McCabe describes the destruction of the helicopter with grim detail in a chapter titled “Inferno.” The aircraft carried twenty men and had just been refueled to capacity. North Vietnamese soldiers attacked it with a barrage of rocket-propelled grenades. Nine Americans were killed, and the survivors suffered severe injuries.

2nd Platoon, D Company, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, Cu Chi, 1970

The second half of the book focuses on what happed after the crash with the dead and wounded. McCabe discusses every step in the process of treating casualties during the Vietnam War. His details transcend anything I have read about the casualty system.

He covers multiple duties expected to be carried out with precision: mortuary activities related to identifying remains of shattered and burned bodies; evacuation of the critically injured to Japan for stabilizing treatment; casualty notification of next of kin (“probably one of the most difficult assignments in the service,” McCabe says); transportation home; funerals; returning to duty; and living with loss. In doing so, McCabe fills over a hundred pages with respect, sadness, and grief.

Those Left Behind bluntly reminds the reader of the high price of war paid by combatants and those dear to them on the battlefield and afterward. The book should be on library shelves in every American high school—even in Texas where I live.

McCabe’s website is jackmccabe.net

—Henry Zeybel

U.S. Navy Special Warfare Units in Korea and Vietnam by Eugene Liptak

Eugene Liptak’s U.S. Navy Special Warfare Units in Korea and Vietnam: UDTs and SEALS, 1950-1973 (Osprey, 64 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a well-illustrated, concise look at Navy Special Ops in the two wars fought by the U.S. following World War II.  

The first two chapters focus on UDT (Underwater Demolitions Team) operations during the Korean War. Those small units conducted missions that had been refined during the Second World War: beach reconnaissance and demolition of obstructions and marking underwater mines and other potential landing craft obstacles. 

The UDT frogmen also found themselves undergoing highly dangerous Korean War missions inserting agents and guerillas behind enemy lines. Adding to the risks of landing on enemy beaches, the lightly armed teams were minimally able to defend themselves. There also were unusual missions that included destroying fishing nets.

Why were we destroying and capturing Korean fishing nets and sampans? Simply put, the nets were destroyed to curtail fish as a source of food for the North Koreans.

In the Vietnam War UDT units supported U.S. Marine amphibious assaults on Vietnamese beaches that attacked Viet Cong enclaves. As always, frogmen were the first to hit the beaches to evaluate approaches and mark safe channels. They also fought VC in the vicinity.

UDTs in the Vietnam War operated independently and in support of a new concept in U.S. Navy Special Warfare ops: SEAL (SEa, Air and Land) teams. Military historian Liptak discusses the primary UDT and SEAL missions in Vietnam, including intelligence gathering, senior enemy official abductions, and night ambushes.The primary areas of responsibility were the Mekong Delta and the Rung Sat Special Zone, a difficult region of thick mangrove thick swamps east of Saigon. 

Other SEALs led paramilitary forces of indigenous anti-communists organized into Provincial Reconnaissance Units.They conducted missions similar to those of Operation Phoenix that targeted Viet Cong troops and sympathizers throughout South Vietnam. Another task was rescuing prisoners of war and downed airmen.

A SEAL Team in country ready to move out on an operation

This book discusses the SEAL teams’ weapons, such as the Stoner 63A1 squad automatic rifle and the Swedish K submachine gun, as well as the vessels used for water transport, and SEAL platoon and squad organization.

This abbreviated overview of UDT and SEAL operations provides an informed, interesting, and fact-filled account of their work in two wars. It should be read.

–John Cirafici

The Battle of Hue 1968 by James H. Willbanks

The 1968 Tet Offensive was the Vietnam War’s watershed moment. Only months before MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland had told Congress that victory could be just two years ahead. In the aftermath of Tet, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election and sought the means to extricate America from an unwinnable war.     

North Vietnam was equally frustrated on the eve of Tet 1968 by the direction its struggle had taken following the big American troop building began in 1965. The longer the war continued on American terms the less likely victory could be achieved. Hence, the North was willing to take a huge gamble by fully committing to a general offensive.

With initial success, so the plan went, a general uprising would be sparked against the Saigon government. A key part of the plan was to seize the city of Hue and then, while firmly in control there, proclaim a revolutionary government in the South. That’s how the stage was set for one of the most important battles of the war.

In the summer of 1967 the North Vietnamese Politburo planned a major offensive that would attack provincial capitals and Saigon during the 1968 Tet truce when many South Vietnamese troops would be on leave. A series of attacks would be launched in the fall in remote regions to draw U.S.and ARVN forces away from the population centers. On the eve of Tet the largest feint was a sustained attack on the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh that drew away sizeable U.S. and ARVN forces. The General Offensive began on January 30 with the ancient imperial capital city of Hue seized the following day by a large North Vietnamese force.

In The Battle of Hue 1968: Fight for the Imperial City (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $19.20, Kindle) by the veteran military historian James H. Willbank gives the backgrounds of all the key players on both sides of the fighting. We learn that the NVA established a command structure (The Hue City Front) dedicated solely to taking and holding Hue and the surrounding area, as well as the avenues of approach. Initially the Front including 10,000 troops; it grew to some 20,000. They faced a large force of U.S .Marine and Army units and ARVN troops, including elite airborne and Marine units.  

U.S. Marines outside the Citadel in Hue, February 13, 1968

This concise, very well written and informative account carefully walks the reader through the battle from the moment that NVA soldiers, dressed in ARVN uniforms, took control of one of the city gates and opened it to advancing troops. Once inside, the North Vietnamese tenaciously held onto Hue for 25 days, the longest sustained fighting of the war.

Willbanks goes on to describe in detail the difficulties involved in urban street warfare and house-to-house fighting and the costly engagements that finally forced the NVA out of the city. During the occupation, the NVA and Viet Cong rounded up thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and executed them.     

This book is an outstanding account of one of the Vietnam War’s major battles. It is supported by detailed maps and by many excellent photographs. It is well worth reading.

–John Cirafici

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman