Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunner and The Grunt by Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank

In their joint memoir, Massachusetts natives Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank give a compelling portrait of America’s role in the Vietnam War in 1965. The Gunner and The Grunt: Two Boston Boys in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division Airmobile (King Printing Company, 216 pp., paperback) traces the paths Kelley and Burbank took starting with growing up in neighborhoods a dozen miles apart and illustrates their hopes and expectations upon joining the U.S. Army.

Enlisting in 1964, Kelley chose Army aviation; Burbank aspired to be a paratrooper. The two boys from Boston met in Vietnam shortly after their arrival at the 1st Air Cav base at An Khe in the Central Highlands. 

Inspired by a friend who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Burbank decided, to the great distress of his parents, to leave high school and pursue his dream. For his part, Kelley finished high school, then put in for a posting in Germany where he hoped to work as an aviation mechanic and become a helicopter crew chief, as well as to enjoy the company of beautiful women and the limitless range of German beers.

To his dismay, Kelley received orders to join C Troop C the 1st Squadron in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Upon learning he was going to Vietnam, Kelley was filled with dread. His sense of impending doom became a certainty that he was a dead man and powerless to prevent it. By contrast, Burbank was ecstatic knowing he would soon be in combat. 

Their training began during the advisory years of America’s commitment to Vietnam. In 1964, the number of U.S. troops in the country was a tiny fraction of the more than 550,000 who would be there four years later. By the end of 1965, the build-up was well underway. On arrival, Burbank and Kelley found themselves in the shadow of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that was fought by 1st Cav troops only days before. Losses on both sides were shockingly high, and the message was sobering—an American victory in Vietnam would neither be easy nor swift.

Michael L. Kelley

The authors’ accounts of their daily lives during their tours are vivid. For Burbank, minutes drifted into months as he and his friends fought the elements as much as the enemy. Heat and humidity, insects and leeches, and snakes of every kind were constant companions. Every day resembled the one before. The only way he knew it was Sunday was when he was told to take his weekly malaria pill. The war turned into a blur of movement and action, fear and endurance.

When Michael Kelley began the book decades later and invited his friend to participate, Peter Burbank was reluctant. Kelley, however, was insistent, saying, “History untold is history unremembered.”

Burbank agreed, and together they have created a joint narrative of their Vietnam War tours that is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

No Strings Attached by Jimmy Nowoc

Jimmy Nowoc’s ingenious autobiography, No Strings Attached: My Life Growing Up With the Birth of Rock ‘N Roll (Page Publishing, 400 pp., $37.95), melds a lifelong love of music with his journey from Chicago to Clear Lake, Iowa, to Vietnam, Mexico, and back to Chicagoland, with points in between.

Nowoc begins with his formative memories, then toggles his story back and forth through the years leading to the present day. Deeply rooted within the narrative is a reverence for Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bobber (J.P. Richardson), the three rock ‘n roller artists who perished in a plane crash in an Iowa cornfield in February of 1959. Nowoc carries the reader on a journey that is nostalgic, emotional, and joyous.

In 2010 Nowoc bought a guitar at a charity auction. Never tuned or played, it became a repository of hundreds of autographs from rock music greats. As names were added, Nowoc removed the strings to allow more space for entries, a state of affairs that gives us the book’s book title.

Nowoc includes lots of details in the book about his two-year tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a radio relay specialist with the Army’s 25th Infantry Division. As he takes as through his post-war years, Nowoc writes about rock artists, groups, performances he attended, and songs, which, as I read them, helped me remember where I was, who I was with, and what was going on during those times.

He also writes about popular toys, TV shows, films, and world events. There also are lists of each year’s most popular artists and their songs—which alone is worth the price of admission. Nowoc also includes 54 pages of thumbnail biographies of the greatest rock and rollers.

This in an intriguing, well-written life story. You gotta read this one if you at all love Rock ‘n Roll.

–Tom Werzyn

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

Flying With the Spooks by Herbert Shippey

In Flying with the Spooks: Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 242 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) Herbert Shippey tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty, including how “all that good intel” about enemy air activity was collected and put to use. This is an intriguing tale for those of us who had not thought about how the U.S. military gathered that kind of intelligence in the Vietnam War.

Shippey tells a rambling story that includes his background, his Navy enlistment after he was about to be drafted into the U.S. Army after completing graduate school in June 1969, and his recruit and Vietnamese language. The heart of this memoir is Shippey’s recounting of the work he did while assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Support Detachment at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

Shippey flew SIGINT (Signal Intelligence, or Intercept) reconnaissance in several aircraft designed for just such missions: the EC-121 Warning Star, the repurposed, prop-driven Constellation; the P-3 Orion; and the two-engine jet A-3 Sky Warrior. He was the guy who had the head phones on, listening intently (and recording on reel-to-reel tapes) to everything he could gather from the airwaves. Hot intel was relayed directly to pilots for immediate action.

Shippey flew almost daily on patterns that took him over the Gulf of Tonkin and back west over Laos, Thailand, along the North Vietnamese border in unarmed aircraft. His flights were sometimes accompanied by F-4 Phantoms for security, but they were often re-routed when other missions gained priority.

Shippey describes the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, the South China Sea, and the war-torn areas on the ground, as well as American installations and their surrounding towns and villages.

He intersperses travelogue-like observations of the places he visited, things he saw, books he read, music he enjoyed, and conversations he had with fellow self-professed nerds. The book has an index, but a better addition might have been a Glossary of basic Intel terms, including the definition of the word “spook” in intelligence circles.

All in all, Flying with the Spooks was an interesting read,

–Tom Werzyn

Chico’s Promise by Mike Monahan

This book will keep librarians guessing. Is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it fable, biography, or autobiography? Ultimately, it’s a war story about a warrior who served with valor in the Vietnam War but was ultimately disrespected. In this case, the warrior is a dog.

The dog—Chico—is also the book’s narrator. I know—I was prepared to dismiss a book narrated by a dog, too. But in VVA member Mike Monahan’s capable hands, Chico’s Promise: A Superhero, Lives Saved and a Promise Made! (ThinkMonahan, 150 pp. $25) works. Chico thoroughly describes the U.S. military dog program during the Vietnam War: how dogs were recruited and trained, what they were trained for, what their daily lives were like in country, and the actions they took to save American lives.

Chico, a dog once discarded as too rough and aggressive, and Monahan slowly learned to trust each other when they began working together in Tay Ninh in 1969. By overcoming mutual misgivings, man and dog endured the training and learned the hard lessons that enabled them to become a team that used Chico’s superior canine hearing, sight, and sense of smell to avoid catastrophes and save lives.

Monahan is at his best describing the bond that develops between a dog and its handler. Chico and Monahan forged a hard-earned one in the midst of war. It was that bond—and Monohan’s intense grief at having had to leave his dog in Vietnam—that compelled him to write this book. While it’s factual and often funny, there’s a constant brooding sadness and even a wish for atonement in the background.

Chico puts it bluntly: “Here I am in Vietnam, a decorated war hero, waiting to be put down. The Army calls it euthanized because they don’t want to own the dirty deed, but I know they are about to kill me, and I’m really scared and disappointed.”

In the final minutes of his life, while he lies strapped to a steel table waiting for that lethal injection, Chico tells the story of his memorable life, including the bond that developed after a rocky start with his handler.

Mike Monahan doesn’t disguise his grief or his regret, but that’s how things were done during the Vietnam War. And now Monahan has taken on a project—Chico’s Promise—by forming a nonprofit whose mission is to support no-kill shelters by paying the adoption fees to save 50,000 dogs in Chico’s memory. 

It’s his way of honoring Chico, Monahan’s “partner walking point.”

Monahan’s website is thinkmonahan.com

–Michael Keating

We Saved SOG Souls by Roger Lockshier

Roger Lockshier’s We Saved SOG Souls: 101st Airborne Missions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos During the Vietnam War (300 pp. $21.99, paper; $5.99 Kindle), is Lockshier’s first book—and I hope not his last.

Lockshier enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1966. After completing Jump School in December, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 101st Aviation Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A year later, the entire 101st Division was deployed to Vietnam.

Lockshier was a crew chief and door gunner with the 101st’s Black Angel Huey helicopter gunship fire team. Their mission in Vietnam was to support the combat operations of the 101st Airborne, the 5th Special Forces, MACVSOG, and other units. The covert nature of SOG (Studies and Observations Group) meant that only select people could support its operations. That task went to dedicated fixed-wing and helicopter units of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. In addition, some brave South Vietnamese pilots and crews joined the team.

The bulk of We Saved SOG Souls recounts missions flown by Lockshier and his crewmates in support of the Green Berets supporting secret SOG operations in South and North Vietnam, as well as in Laos and Cambodia. Many of the stories in this book are almost unbelievable, but Lockshier presents them in a way that made me a believer.

Throughout the book he paints vivid pictures of up-close actions—many of them very dangerous ones in enemy-controlled territory. The missions’ objectives included taking enemy prisoners, rescuing downed pilots, conducting rescue operations to retrieve U.S. POWs, and undertaking short- and long-range reconnaissance patrols.

SOG aviators were unsung heroes, mainly because their missions remained top secret for more than twenty years. Time and again, their courage under fire and aviation skills saved the lives of SOG recon teams and larger SOG units. Lockshier returned to the States in December of 1968 with a chestful of medals, and mustered out of the Army a short time later.

I highly recommend We Saved SOG Souls.

–Bob Wartman

Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat by Bob Worthington

Bob Worthington’s Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat: Memoir of a Combat Adviser in Vietnam, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 283 pp., $29.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) is not the usual Vietnam War combat memoir. Worthington was not a member of a ground unit fighting the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army; instead, he was an adviser to South Vietnamese militia units. 

Worthington had an unusual career prior to the Vietnam War tour of duty he writes about in this book. He was a police officer while in college; served in the Marine Corps and took part in the 1958 landing in Lebanon; was inadvertently commissioned as a Chemical Corps officer, and put in a 1966-67 tour of duty in Vietnam.

Arriving in Saigon for his second tour in August 1968, Worthington was assigned to the Hau Nghia Province Advisory Team as the Trang Bang District Adviser on the Cambodian border. He was responsible for working with his Vietnamese counterpart, a South Vietnamese Army major, on the team’s twofold mission—advising the local Vietnamese military forces and supporting pacification efforts. 

Working with some 500 Vietnamese militia soldiers in the district, Maj. Worthington’s team provided intelligence about Viet Cong targets and supported efforts to stop enemy infiltration of troops and weapons from Cambodia. Speaking fluent Vietnamese was key to his success as an adviser, but his identification with the Vietnamese led to friction with the more kinetic efforts of the nearby U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division units. Despite his successes as an adviser, Worthington was removed from his position in December 1968 and reassigned to another advisory job in Saigon.

In late January 1969, Worthington was reassigned to Rung Sat Special Zone, part of the extensive river delta area south of Saigon where VC units often attacked American ships.  The Vietnamese military units there had been taking bribes from the Viet Cong and the U.S. Navy advisers in the area did not have the expertise to support ground combat operations against them. Working with the Navy advisory team and Navy River Patrol Group, Worthington’s job was to support Vietnamese efforts to break the back of the local Viet Cong.

Worthington’s book—his second Vietnam War memoir—addresses the complexities involved with the U.S. advisers working with Vietnamese units. While advisers had access to intelligence, mobility, and firepower assets unavailable to the Vietnamese militia units, Worthington still needed to traverse jungles on foot or patrol the rivers in small boats. His ability to speak Vietnamese and his personal relationships made him a much more effective adviser.

Worthington describes shooting water buffalos carrying weapons across the Cambodian border from a helicopter and running snatch missions to catch Viet Cong officials. He also suffered a near-fatal hookworm infection and a gunshot wound during his tour.

Bob Worthington in-country

Worthington continued his unorthodox career after coming home from the war. He left the Army to attend graduate school and earned a PhD in Psychology, then rejoined as a psychologist and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel.

While Bob Worthington’s account of his adventures in Vietnam was well worth reading, the real value of this book lies in his extensive descriptions of the American advisory efforts in the war. He addresses in detail the relationships between advisers and advisees and the role of the advisers in pacification efforts. 

If more U.S. military advisers had spoken Vietnamese as Worthington did, and had more personal relationships with the Vietnamese people, perhaps the war might have had a different outcome.

Worthington’s website is bobworthingtonwriter.com

–Marshall Snyder

MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971 by Jim Roberts

Jim Roberts’ MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971: Stories from 33 Quebec’s Tour of Duty, (366 pp. $29.98, hardcover; $17.87, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a collection of stories by a patriotic, brave, and humble man about his service in the Vietnam War during Vietnamization.

Roberts was a deferment-carrying high school science teacher who quit his teaching job, gave up his deferment, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1969. He signed up for Infantry OCS and volunteered to serve in Vietnam. 

The new lieutenant arrived in Dong Xoai in Phuoc Long Province on the Cambodian border in April 1970, and he was assigned to Mobile Advisory Team 111 as Senior Adviser to local South Vietnamese Army Regional and Popular Forces (sometimes known as Ruff-Puffs) military units. Roberts and four U.S. soldiers lived among the Vietnamese. By 1971, with Vietnamization in full swing, departing American troops were not replaced, and Roberts eventually found himself as the only American left in camp.

33 Quebec was Roberts’ radio call sign. As part of the five-man MAT team, he and 33 Tango, a sergeant first class, formed a two-man unit advising local Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers on combat operations in the jungles and hamlets. His book tells about his war experiences during this turbulent period of the Vietnam War.

MAT 111 Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1971 is very well written. Roberts presents his 42 true stories in a way that put me at his side through much of it. His penchant for explaining everything works well as a primer for those with little knowledge about the war, as well as a refresher for veterans and others who are familiar with the U.S. advisory effort in Vietnam. The book includes a good number of maps and photographs.

Roberts shares everything in a relaxed manner as he relates his joys and sorrows, his bravery and fears, and his knowledge and ignorance. Throughout the book he displays a high degree of maturity and fairness in his wartime thinking and decision-making. He also describes quite a few dangerous situations which he jokingly refers to as, “A Walk in the Woods,” along with several fast-paced moments of combat.   

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

Rucksack Grunt by Robert Kuhn

Bob Kuhn writes in a voice filled with self-confident cockiness that masks a quest to learn what life is all about. At the beginning of his memoir, Rucksack Grunt: A Naive Teenage Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Vietnam War Veteran (156 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), he describes the past as he remembers it “and still struggles today to understand it all.”

Kuhn introduces himself as an “average student with a bad attitude.” He turned 18 in 1970 Focused on marrying his high school sweetheart, he saw the Army as the solution to his future: serve two years, get married, go to college at government expense, and find a good job. So he volunteered for the draft. At that point, his naiveté becomes the book’s major theme.

He completed Basic at Fort Dix, thinking he’d go on train as an MP, but then found out that he was too young for the job: MPs must be at least 19. Disappointed and forgotten by the system, Kuhn performed menial tasks for nearly two months, and then, bored beyond reason, he went home for a week.

When he returned to Dix, a first sergeant understood the situation (no Article 15), and Kuhn ended up as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, serving a 1971-72 tour of duty in Vietnam. He knew he did wrong by going AWOL, and regrets it to this day.

The guidance of older troops carried the young infantryman through his initial months in the combat zone. For example, when readying himself for field operations, Kuhn had no idea where to begin until a fellow squad member assembled his gear for him. Kuhn later returned the favor for new guys. The book’s unspoken message is that training alone does not adequately prepare a person for war, a state of affairs involving incalculable variables.

Operating in and around Tuy Hoa, Kuhn pulled lots of guard duty, went on night ambush patrols, and took part in three month-long search-and-destroy missions into the Central Highlands. In telling the stories of his tour he details the difficulties common in most Vietnam War memoirs: standing watch alone, challenging the unknown, lugging a rucksack, hacking through the jungle, enduring continuous rain, existing on C rations, and contending with snakes, leeches, and insects.

Bob Kuhn in country

He also briefly discusses military friendship; the Vietnamese people, whom he generally disliked; drug use; and race relations.          

As far as feelings are concerned, Kuhn basically tells what happened and does not deeply analyze his emotional state. He recollects times on night guard duty, for example, when he found a need to pray and God spoke to him “personally one on one, or He spoke to me. It wasn’t anything verbal or audible, but I felt a direct-link communication and understanding. That is where God communicated to me that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to survive this tour.”

That experience still comforts him today, Kuhn says.

Although Rucksack Grunt offers a limited amount of new information, it is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Bob Kuhn served during Vietnamization and the drawdown of American forces. His unit did not engage in intense or extended contact with the enemy. The 1st of the 22nd’s major accomplishment was discovering and destroying caches of enemy military supplies.

The book contains a group of interesting photographs that Kuhn took in Vietnam.

His website is rucksackgrunt.com

—Henry Zeybel