Company Grade by Henry “Rocky” Colavita

The back-cover blurb on Henry “Rocky” Colavita’s Company Grade: Memoir of an Angry Skipper (Hellgate, 276 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells us to expect an “engaging, often funny memoir.” And that’s what Colavita came up with in this well-written book, beginning with his earliest memories of wanting to join the Army and to be a police officer.

His father’s Army career as a transportation officer took the Colavita family to many duty stations and assignments. As a student at Virginia Tech, Rocky Colavita joined Army ROTC, and received his commission as a 2nd lieutenant when he graduated.

The book includes lots of reminiscing about college life and early ROTC training. Colavita went through Infantry AIT, Ranger and Airborne Training, and Vietnamese Language School.

During his first tour in Vietnam he was assigned to an Airborne Advisory Team with MAAG, the predecessor of MACV. While working with a Vietnamese Airborne unit, Colavita was wounded and medevaced stateside for treatment and recuperation.

After recovering from his wounds he did a stint at the Army War College, then went back to Vietnam for a second tour, commanding Delta Co, 2nd/8th in the 1st Cavalry Division. Colavita’s call sign was Angry Skipper-6. He provides lots of good war stories about his second Vietnam War tour. After that, he finished a 20-year career as an Army officer.

Colavita joined the Fairfax County (Virginia) Sheriff’s Office after he retired, rose to the rank of Major, and retired a second time. Colavita devotes only five pages to his law enforcement career. After enjoying what came before, I expected more great stories and anecdotes.

–Tom Werzyn

Pop Smoke by Bill Lindsay

Pop Smoke: The Story of One Marine Rifle Platoon in Vietnam: Who They Were, What They Did, What They Learned (Palmetto, 222 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $19, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is former Marine Bill Lindsay’s memoir of his time in the Vietnam War. Lindsay says the names in his book are fictitious, but the events are not. I found the book a refreshingly solid retelling of one man’s experiences without having to put up with outlandish tales that so many other memoirs seem to contain.

The first sentence of the first chapter, “My Arrival,” puts us in the plane Lindsay is on entering South Vietnam’s air space on February 6, 1970. I liked that.

This book knows what it is. It’s a description of a military tour of duty in the Vietnam War, pure and simple. The last chapter, “My Return,” should probably be titled “My Departure,” because the book ends as Lt. Lindsay is flying home from Vietnam. There’s nothing in this book about his life before or after the war. This book is focused.

Assigned to the First Marine Division, Lindsay flew into Da Nang and wound up in the Third Battalion of the Seventh Marine Regiment at LZ Baldy. His unit was in the thick of things, facing both Viet Cong and the NVA. Their success was measured by body count.

Someone handed him a flak jacket stained with mud or blood and told him he would be a platoon commander with India Company because they needed a new one. Lindsay says he never found out what happened to the previous platoon commander—and he never asked.

He had dreamt of commanding a platoon in combat after a challenge a Marine instructor had given him based on Ernest Hemingway’s words: “The only way to truly be a warrior and experience war was to be a soldier, on the front lines. You need to see the enemy and be able to look him in the eyes as you engage him in combat. That is the only way to really consider yourself a warrior.”

He was then told that the life expectancy of a new second lieutenant infantry platoon commander in Vietnam was “under an hour.”

Lindsay’s war experiences included going more than a month without a shower and losing thirty pounds while subsisting on a diet of C-rations. He trudged through monsoon rains. There were ambushes and times he’d sit down and cry as he thought of the dead and wounded. He put up with medical treatment for intestinal worms and malaria.

Bill Lindsay

When word came that it was his time to go home Lindsay was told that the helicopter picking him up would be there in a few hours. It was that quick.

His first reaction was that he wanted to remain with his men, but that request fell on deaf ears. He flew out with sad thoughts that “so many had been killed or wounded during my tour. I was leaving without a scratch. That fact seemed so unfair.”

And with that, Bill Lindsay’s Vietnam War story ends—a story of only his actual time in-country.

It’s a story that consistently rang true and is one of the best Vietnam War memoirs I’ve read.

–Bill McCloud

Flashbacks by R. Dean Jerde and Tom Pisapia

Disappointingly, R. Dean Jerde appears or is quoted only sparingly in his own book, Flashbacks: A Vietnam Soldier’s Story 50 Years Later (Luminaire Press, 260 pp. $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). His war story—as a member of a searchlight battalion during his December ’67-to-January ‘69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—could have been a much more interesting one if he had put more of himself into his own book. Jerde and his co-author Tom Pisapia, instead, have providing a lot of well-known information about Agent Orange, PTSD, the VA’s mistreatment of Vietnam War veterans, and the negative reception we received upon returning to the U.S. from the war.

As indicated by the book’s title, Pisapia put Flashbacks together after a series of conversations, meetings, and interviews he had with his old friend Jerde and his brother over the span of about a year. During those sessions Jerde’s recollections, by his own admission, amounted to a series of mostly unrelated flashbacks to his time in Vietnam. 

Upon returning to the states after his tour of duty, Dean Jerde married, began a family, and immersed himself deeply into his chosen occupation as a carpenter. He buried his wartime experiences, not speaking about them, even to his wife, for fifty years. Not until his retirement with time on his hands and the advent of the conversations and meetings with his brother and with Tom Pisapi, did some of the stories and experiences come out, along with symptoms of his long-carried PTSD.

As can be the case with self-published books, Flashbacks could have used a fact checker and more editing as it contains more than a few spelling, syntax, and punctuation errors.

Flashbacks, in short, is a book that needs more story and a bit of polish.

Pisapia’s website is tompisapia.net

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam by Chinook by Edward Corlew

During his year as a Ch-47 Chinook crewman in the Vietnam War, Edward Corlew grew “distressed, depressed, and plagued by guilt.” He had joined the Army after his freshman year of college, and became a man and matured faster during his tour of duty than he had planned, he says.

Raised in a strong Christian family from a farming community, Corlew enlisted for an assignment in helicopter maintenance with the assurance that he would safely serve behind the battle lines. Instead, he ended up working as a crew chief/gunner and flight engineer on CH-47 Chinook helicopters during the entire 1968 Tet Offensive.

Corlew crewed with B Company of the 228th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Air Cavalry Division at Red Beach and LZ Sharon. B Company Chinooks flew every day in support of 1st Cav, 101st Airborne, ARVN, and Marine Corps units in I Corps. 

The Chinook’s primary tasks were rescue and resupply, but its crews reconfigured the aircraft into weapon platforms by adding machine guns that gave them a 360-degree field of fire to counter the masses of North Vietnamese troops who attacked during Tet ‘68.

“For several months, I saw more destruction of life, equipment, beautiful cities, and innocent Vietnamese people than I can explain or expect anyone to understand,” Corlew says. He clearly describes those and his other experiences in Vietnam by Chinook: A CH-47 Crew Chief During the Tet Offensive (McFarland, 191 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), a well-told memoir.

Corlew survived three shoot-downs. The semi-miraculous outcome of one defies imagination. Whatever the situation, though, he had his stuff together. His accounts of many missions he flew during the fighting at Hue, Khe Sanh, and in the A Shau Valley provide insights beyond the norm. Crew chiefs and flight engineers played vital roles in determining the capabilities of damaged but possibly flyable aircraft, and Corlew clearly explains the dynamics of their interactions with pilots. He vividly portrays the frantic, yet controlled, reactions of crewmen during crashes.

His story of action in the A Shau Valley amounts to one long description of losses and near disasters because the territory had been heavily fortified by the NVA, which had controlled the area for years. At one point, enemy antiaircraft weapons and Chinook mechanical failures depleted the company’s usable aircraft from sixteen to four in a matter of days.

B Company flew and got shot at every day. They also endured mortar attacks and infiltration by the NVA practically every night at LZ Sharon, a desolate, primitive landscape fifteen miles south of the DMV. Sandbagged tents were the only hint of civilization on the LZ. Crews provided the base’s defense and prolonged sleep was a rarity.

Paperwork was haphazard, but Corlew guesstimates that he put in a thousand hours of combat flying. His seventeen Air Medals indicate a helluva lot of time in the air. In two years of service, he attained the rank of Spec. 6.

Corlew writes about the necessity of killing people—armed, unarmed, or any possible threat. Doing so, a desire to survive took over his psyche and dominated his actions. “We had no choice but to fight in order to survive,” he says.

Occasionally, Corlew questions the purpose of war and a Christian’s role in it. He left the Army in 1969 and was emotionally troubled by what he had gone through for decades. Despite that, he earned a college degree and married. In 2005, with help from old friends and VA counselors, Corlew finally learned to put his emotional demons to rest. He closes the book by harshly criticizing antiwar activist Jane Fonda, Navy Lt. John Kerry, and Congress.

Vietnam by Chinook reconfirmed my belief that helicopter missions amounted to the most dangerous flying of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Reach for More by David M. Szumowski

Reach for More: A Journey from Loss to Love and Fulfillment (Dementi Milestone Publishing, 152 pp. $20, paper; $7.50, Kindle) by David M. Szumowski is an inspirational look at how one man refused to let the fact that he had been blinded in the Vietnam War determine what the rest of his life would be like. The story describes everything David Szumowski accomplished despite what many would have considered a handicap, leading up to being appointed a Superior Court judge in California.

Szumowski grew up in upstate New York. Both of his parents had been in the Army and served in France during World War II. The oldest of four boys, he took ROTC in college and after graduating in 1967 he was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. After training at Ft. Knox and Jungle School in Panama, he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969.

On March 20, Szumowski, an 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment tank platoon leader, was wounded during a day of heavy fighting near Dau Tieng. He had been in Vietnam for only forty days and had experienced only one firefight. The five 48-ton tanks under his command were patrolling near the Michelin rubber plantation when they came under attack. The last thing, literally, that David Szumowski saw was a flash of light.

He was immediately taken to a field hospital in Bien Hoa where he learned, after two weeks, that his war was over—and that he would never regain his sight. The young lieutenant was flown to Camp Zama, Japan, where he stayed for about three weeks. His next stop was stateside at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C.

Szumowski was medically retired from the Army, and then went through a 16-week rehabilitation program designed to teach him how to live without sight. He learned Braille, but realized he would never read a book in that manner because of how long it would take. He began listening to recorded books, instead, and believes he has “read”to more than 5,000 since then.

The bulk of Reach for More deals with Szumowski’s decision to attend law school, his short-lived private legal practice, a decade of service as a Deputy District Attorney, and an even longer period as a judge in California.

Judge Szumowski

Szumowski has kind words to say about the VA. Even though the agency “is currently under scrutiny for its lack of care to veterans,” he writes, “I am one veteran who benefitted greatly from VA programs and have only high praise for their programs and care.”

According to Szumowski success in life is the result of “playing the hand you are dealt, seizing opportunities that present themselves, having faith in God, and never giving up.”

There are several photos in the book, including an especially moving one of the author at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Szumowski represents very well the many veterans of the Vietnam War who have risen above physical problems they brought home and continue to serve as inspiring examples of the indomitable human spirit.

–Bill McCloud

Body Count Soldiers by Charles H. Smith & Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam by Edmond J. Cubbage

Vietnam War veterans have entered the twilight of their lives and many of us have yet to tell our stories, which have much to say about a controversial war and about ourselves during that time. The distance between that war and most of us is now a half century and the time remaining to capture the experience of being in the Vietnam War is growing shorter.     

Two U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division veterans have reached back many years, collected their memories, produced books about their very personal experiences. The books are Charles Smith’s Body Count Soldiers: Vietnam through the Eyes of a Draftee (117 pp., $15.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) and Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam, (173 pp., $19.99, paper and Kindle). They are welcome additions to the Vietnam Ware memoir genre.

Charles Smith, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, presents his one-year odyssey as a young infantryman as a collection of day-to-day vignettes and observations. Because Smith was a draftee, he naturally addresses the unfairness of the Selective Service System and how privileged young men benefitted with exemptions, allowing them to avoid being drafted and serving in the war.

I was able, as one of many young enlistees who came from the underclass, to appreciate his thoughts. His comments about the distance he experienced between draftees and soldiers who enlisted brought back memories. I remember sitting around a campfire as the two groups jokingly commented on how each guy found himself in Vietnam by referring to each other by their serial number prefixes, “US” for draftees and “RA” for those who enlisted. The gist was that the RA’s were fools because they had joined the Army, while the US’s were there only because they were forced to be—as if it made any difference.

Many of Smith’s memories of being in the field are unembellished and low key. He describes what thousands of us faced: mosquito bites, dirt clinging to sweat-covered bodies, enemy fire, friendships, and sometimes tension between soldiers. And exposure to Agent Orange.  

He also recalls a question put to him and heard by too many of us when came home: “How many people did you kill?  When hearing that mindless question there is no way that I know to bridge the gap between those who fought in a war and those at home asking the question. After returning home, as Smith did, I became totally opposed to our involvement in the war and also angry about how the My Lai incident made all of us who served in Vietnam suspect in the eyes of many.

Body Count Soldiers was easy to read, enjoyable, and filled with shared experiences.

Edmond Cubbage’s Just a Kid from Swampoodle to Vietnam is similar to Body Count Soldiers, yet has significant differences. Once again, it was interesting to read about another Vietnam War veteran’s experiences and realize how much they were like my own. Like Cubbage, I had gone through airborne training before serving in Vietnam. 

However, I was taken aback when, as an aside, Cuggage inexplicably offers an unfounded explanation about why so many paratroopers were killed during World War II’s D-Day’s assault. Perhaps he did it to make sure the reader was paying attention.     

What’s more, when discussing the destructive consequences of Agent Orange, Cubbage cites a statistic that is inconsistent with the available data. Perhaps, when someone is trying to grasp the magnitude of that toxic chemical’s impact he can be forgiven for exaggerating to make a point.

The book is more rewarding when Cubbage focuses on his personal, down-to-earth experiences. He took me right back to ‘Nam the moment he brought up C-rations and mentioned ham and limas. “We all hated ham and lima beans; they were the worst,” Cabbage writes. As someone else once said, a can of ham and limas is “deadlier than a landmine.”  

It is Cubbage’s remembrances of the small things like the rations and the long nights in the jungle waiting and waiting for something to happen that capture so well the experiences many of us had in Vietnam. His descriptions of up-close combat will be familiar to war veterans. 

Cubbage’s memoir reads as if it is a series of passages excerpted from a young man’s journal, written as he is passing through an unfamiliar world shaped by the Army and combat in Vietnam.    

Both memoirs are honest reflections of what the war was really like for those who carried the burden of the conflict on their shoulders.

–John Cirafici

An American Soldier in Vietnam by Joseph J. Snyder

Joseph J. Snyder’s  An American Soldier in Vietnam (Sheridan Books, 95 pp. $19.95) may just be the most concise memoir ever written about a draftee’s two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 95 pages of large text that includes 32 pages of sharply focused colored photographs that he took, Snyder tells his Vietnam War story, leaving out mundane facts and highlighting the foibles of military life.

He weaves short bursts of political criticism into his accounts of being pulled out of graduate school, receiving Vietnamese language and intelligence training, serving with the 25th Military Intelligence Company around Cu Chi and into Cambodia, and returning home to complete his master’s degree.

Snyder’s year in-country began in March 1970, a time of turmoil during the drawdown of American forces. After describing unusual events that he observed, he often allows the reader to reach his or her own conclusion about what was right or wrong. In that respect, his stories provide a lot of subtle humor.

Recognized by his commander for his ability to complete tasks, Snyder frequently operated on his own interrogating and judging the fate of prisoners, procuring counter-intelligence, and handling refugees. His off-duty freedom led to interesting experiences, particularly a strange R&R in Japan.

He returned home as an Spec. 5 with a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster. Snyder later suffered two amputations resulting from exposure to Agent Orange–something he barely touches on in the book.

Joseph J. Snyder

In civilian life, Snyder built a family and careers as a U.S. Civil Service Commission investigator and as a writer, journalist, author, editor, and occasional publisher for four decades.

Joseph J. Snyder’s insightful Vietnam War memoir might make an excellent eye-opening gift for anyone considering a military career. Times have changed, but personalities and the system remain fixed.

Snyder knows that and shows it in this book. 

—Henry Zeybel

The Last Helicopter by Jim Laurie

Jim Laurie’s The Last Helicopter: Two Lives in Indochina (FocusAsia, 366 pp. $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a book that almost demands that a reader, upon completing it, sits back and digests what has just happened.

The book begins with Laurie, a budding, 22-year-old foreign correspondent, stumbling into Cambodia in early 1970 on one of his first assignments. While attending a military briefing he meets and befriends Soc Sinan, a young Khmer woman who was working for a French tractor company. The relationship that developed endures, often at a distance, off and on, for more than 50 years. 

Laurie covered the last years of the Vietnam War for NBC News, and later for ABC News. In 1975, he witnessed the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge, and left Soc Sinan behind as he fled on the last helicopter out of Phnom Penh. This was the first—but not the last—time that Laurie’s career, hubris, and self-interest combined to separate the couple.

After leaving Indochina, Laurie went on to report on wars and political upheaval throughout the world in a career what would span more than five decades.

In his book Laurie offers the reader his views of the hostilities that took place in Southeast East Asia, China, and elsewhere. In that regard, we get a foreign correspondent’s look at things that most people only get to see from a distance.

After the fall of Phnom Penh, Soc Sinan was forced into Khmer Rouge labor camps for more than four years. Laurie’s interviews with her provide a stunning look into the inhumanity that took place. Her commentary alone is worth the price of the book.

During the intervening time, Laurie continued to search for Sinan, and finally found her. The story of her rescue and departure from Indochina makes for page-turning reading.

Jim Laurie honored Sinan’s request for her ashes to be spread upon the Mekong River off the banks of her native Cambodian village birthplace. Her Buddhist spirit, he writes, reached back to those in attendance.

This is an interesting book. It’s well written and edited, and is a rare and refreshing departure from the usual battle-heavy books about the Indochina wars. 

The book’s website is jimlaurie.com/the-last-helicopter

–Tom Werzyn

Saigon to Pleiku by David Grant Noble

The U.S. Army sent twenty-two-year-old David Noble, a recent Yale University graduate, to Intelligence school and then to Vietnam as a member of the 704th Intelligence Corps Detachment in May 1962. At the time, according to Noble, American forces in Vietnam numbered barely 4,000, mainly advisers working with the South Vietnamese to save that nation from communist control. Starting as a believer in the cause, draftee Noble describes his transformation into a dissenter in Saigon to Pleiku: A Counterintelligence Agent in Vietnam’s Central Highlands, 1962-63 (McFarland, 204 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle).

An ability to speak French fluently offered Noble—a photographer and writer—the chance to pass as a civilian translator in Vietnam. More importantly, knowing the language allowed him to converse with many Vietnamese who had learned the language during French colonial times. None of the Americans Noble met, including his detachment head, spoke Vietnamese. And few Americans knew anything about the country.

Noble spent the first half of his tour in Saigon. His description of the city captures its mood and pace, which caused me to recollect and want to relive events I experienced there. He also tells fascinating stories about his achievements as a greenhorn spy. In particular, he developed friendships with a Vietnamese police chief and an Indian Army major who worked for the International Control Commission helping supervise the 1954 Geneva Accords. Information gathered from these sources elevated Noble’s stature with a hard-nosed commander who had initially belittled him.

Accordingly, the commander chose Noble and a master sergeant nearing retirement to start a branch of the detachment at Pleiku, the first of its kind in II Corps. The sergeant turned out to be a homesick alcoholic and soon allowed Noble to run the operation, which he did with enthusiasm.

Noble befriended civilian officials, businessmen, and Central Highland Montagnard tribesmen. He traveled extensively outside of Pleiku. He describes in detail the creation and dedication ceremony of Plei Mrong, part of a new Montagnard Strategic Hamlet program; a Viet Cong attack there two weeks later that killed and kidnapped villagers and burned down their homes; and the interrogation of 21 VC soldiers captured during the attack—another learn-as-you-go task he had to deal with.

Montagnard female militia unit in Pleiku, 1962. Photo by the author.

Timely actions and informative written reports earned Noble a letter of commendation from his hard-nosed commander, who praised him for producing “consistently outstanding results.” He later received the Army Commendation Medal.   

The book’s stories are beyond the norm. Noble leans heavily on about 60 letters he sent home and his mother saved. He uses long quotes from the letters to buttress his storytelling. The quotes often repeat what he has already written. This redundancy is acceptable, though, because the letters are highly informative.

He emphasizes that Saigon to Pleiku is a memoir about “what happened to me” and “not the story, whatever that may be.” He mentions, however, that in the pre-Gulf-of-Tonkin-Resolution days, secrets were secrets, and some are still secret today. The powers that be stymied Noble’s recent searches for reports he wrote.

Noble ends the book with a look at “The War at Home.” The section contains his thoughts about the peace movement, which he presents using newspaper articles, additional personal letters, journal entries, and even a caustic letter he wrote to President Richard Nixon. By then, Noble had become a dedicated opponent of the war and had attended many antiwar rallies and marches.

In my mind, the final section may have been unnecessary. Earlier in the book Noble had declared that Vietnam was “a land of peasant farmers caught in a political drama beyond their control,” and for me that says it all.  

Many excellent photographs Noble took of people and places in Vietnam in 1962 appear throughout the book.

The author’s website is davidgrantnoble.com

—Henry Zeybel

Bullets, Blades & Badges by D. L. Curtis

D.L. Curtis’ Bullets, Blades and Badges: Adventures of an Adrenaline Junkie (Chevalier Publishing, 130 pp. $7.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a neat little book. Curtis brings us an upbeat series of stories and anecdotes tied together with an account of his multi-pronged careers: as an Army airborne paratrooper in the Dominican Republic and later in South Vietnam, then as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, an off-shore helicopter pilot serving oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and lastly as a Dallas Police Department officer.

In an obvious labor of love, Curtis takes the reader along for a ride through reminiscences that start with his birth, literally, and end with his retirement as a decorated beat cop. It’s a true and interesting story of one man’s life experiences that doesn’t contain lots of blood and gore or a phalanx of curse words. Plus, you can easily finish reading it in an afternoon.

After his first Vietnam War tour as an infantryman, Donald Curtis mustered out of the Army. But he soon rejoined to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot. His accounts of his tours of duty in the war are light on battlefield specifics, but this broad-brush presentation carries the spirit of his exploits.

Curtis’s first literary effort is a well-edited and executed stream-of-consciousness book. It’s also truly enjoyable.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn