The Second Team by James C. Downing, Jr.

The title of James C. Downing Jr.’s The Second Team: A Vietnam Pilot’s Journal Account of Faith, Freedom and Flying (Encodable Impact, 404 pp. $17.76, paper; $17.77, Kindle) is not a reference to a skill level. It rather refers to former Army helicopter pilot Downing’s tour of duty in Vietnam, which began in 1966 when he was among those who replaced the first wave of 1st Cavalry Division chopper pilots returning home after tours ended.

Downing begins his story by writing about his less-than-sterling childhood, and then explains how his love of flying came about. His deeply held Christian faith is evident throughout the book; virtually each page contains some mention of his devotion to his personal God. Sometimes during his Vietnam War tour Downing’s faith seemed at odds with his fellow pilots who spent much leisure time carousing at the Officers’ Club. But he persevered.

Downing enlisted in the Army in July 1963, completed helicopter flight school, and was sent to Korea where he was 1st Cav’s Commanding Gen. Hugh Exton’s personal pilot. Downing writes that as his flight hours accrued, he learned valuable lessons on the ground, as well as in the air.

From Korea, Downing deployed to Vietnam, and another assignment with the 1st Cav as a Chinook pilot. To fill an empty slot, he was temporarily assigned as a slick pilot for a few months, then went back to the twin-engine CH-47.

Downing kept a daily journal from his first day in the Army to his last. He leans heavily on those journal entries in this memoir. They contained masses of info on his daily life in Vietnam, and that minutia tends to bog down the story for a reader who isn’t as enamored of flying as the author is. On the other hand, those who appreciate the expertise and finesse required for piloting slicks and Chinooks in combat will be well rewarded. 

Several times Downing repeats stories, and the book contains some spelling and grammatical errors. At times, the book reads as if it was dictated or copied out verbatim from the journal pages. Downing would have benefited from tighter editing and proofing, but the book, in the end, is a good read—a good story from a good man. And a book I recommend.

The author’s website is jamescdowningjr.com

–Tom Werzyn                                                   

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam by William J. Walsh

Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.

Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam. 

His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.

In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.

Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade. 

When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.

Navy nurses aboard the USS Repose in Subic Bay

The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.

After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.

–Marshall Snyder

The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam by Charles U. Smith

Charles U. Smith’s The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 128 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a war memoir that Smith put together with the help of Constance Williams.

In it, Smith explains how he came to construct his story, then takes the reader on a short tour of his childhood growing up in segregated Prattville, Alabama, his high school graduation, and his enlistment in the U.S. Army three months later in September 1964. A less than stellar send-off speech by his school district’s superintendent gave Smith all the impetus he needed to get out of town and make a better life, beginning with joining the military. That, in fact, was the route his four older brothers took.

The strange title refers to the path Smith’s infantry training took—first to Alaska to train as a “snow trooper,” then to Hawaii for some jungle training, and finally, in late 1965, to Ch Chi in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division.

Smith’s describes his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War as more-or-less uneventful, though he recounts near misses and tales of buddies lost, along with descriptions of the daily minutia of life in the warzone. He often speaks about his experiences as a Black man and as a Black soldier; several times Smith repeats stories, which likely is due to the stream-of-consciousness way in which he tells his war story.

After returning home, Charles Smith worked several jobs before settling into a career with Greyhound Bus Lines. He worked as an interstate driver and as a driver-instructor during his 30-plus years with the company.

This is a short book and a quick read—and a good look at one man’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Fire Road by Kim Phuc

The picture has been seared into America’s collective memory since 1972. A nine-year old girl running naked down a road in South Vietnam after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force jet. The photo is almost always accompanied by the story of how Nick Ut, a Vietnamese Associated Press photographer, captured the Pulitzer Prize-wining image, which brought him international acclaim and propelled the young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, onto the world stage.

In 2017, with Ashley Wiersma, Kim Phuc wrote a soulful, deeply religious account of that June 1972 day and the years that followed. In Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace (Tyndale House, 336 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper), she writes about that jet screeching overhead as she ran from the village of Trang Bang on soldiers’ orders:

“Falling from that underbelly were four ice-black bombs. The bombs softly made their way to the ground, landing one by one, somersaulting end over end—whump-whump, whump-whump. These were not the bombs that fell heavily from the sky; no, these bombs all but floated down. There was something sinister in those cans.”

Later, the communist government paraded Kim Phuc before international journalists, all of whom wanted to know how the “Napalm Girl’ was faring. The government repeatedly robbed her of the education she wanted, and her desire to be a medical doctor as a way of repaying doctors the world over who had done their best to alleviate her constant pain.

By a stroke of luck, during a trip to Hanoi, she was introduced to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, one of Ho Chi Minh’s former lieutenants. He took a fatherly interest in her and arranged to send her to Cuba. At first, she felt that being on a Caribbean Island far away from Vietnam would provide solace and a respite from being a propaganda puppet. She would soon be proven wrong. Even thousands of miles away from Vietnam, it seemed that she would never be able to be free of the country’s grip.

“Although Bac [Uncle] Dong had assured me that I would be free from oppressive `minding’ by Vietnamese officials in Cuba, an embassy man had been assigned to me, visiting me in the hospital almost daily, checking in on my goings-on, gathering details to take back to his superiors.”

Kim Phuc

It was in Cuba that Kim Phuc met the man who would become her husband, Bui Huy Toan, a fellow student. They married and she soon expressed her frustrations to Toan over what the Vietnamese government had put her through since 1972.

On their return flight after their honeymoon in Moscow, the idea of defecting began to fester. Her husband at first resisted, but Kim Phuc stood her ground and, at a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, both announced their desire to seek political asylum.

Recent years have found her traveling the world in the cause of peace as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO, and also for her Kim Foundation. She has opened her heart internationally to those less fortunate than she, and Fire Road sheds a wonderfully bright light on her valiant struggle to survive and the peace and love that she found in doing so.

–Marc Phillip Yablonka.

The reviewer is a military journalist and author whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film

Walking Point by Mike Cunningham

Why would an infantryman who fought in in Vietnam decades ago want to share his experiences fifty years later? The answer: because he will never forget what he went through in that war and can no longer put aside the need to pass on his memories. Mike Cunningham’s memoir, Walking Point: An Infantryman’s Untold Story (CreateSpace, 290 pp. $9.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) was written in 2017 to let others know about the wartime experiences that changed his life forever.   

Anyone who has been in a war knows that there are so many parts to that experience that only when they are presented as a composite can the full story be properly told. Mike Cunningham totally understands this as he leads the reader on his journey by knitting together the parts that took him from newbie to combat-experienced trooper.     

In this well-written account Cunningham describes joining the Army at 18 and not long after, in June 1968, being plunked down in the jungle with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 46th Regiment in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in northern II Corps. He shows what it was like initially to know nothing of war and soon learning the hard way that it is no picnic.    

This is a story of fear, courage, and sometimes dumb behavior. Cunningham, for instance, once pointed a pistol he was cleaning in the direction of his best friend and—thinking the chamber was empty—discharged it.

He contrasts even the most mundane experiences in the Vietnam War with those back home. When he describes between movements in enemy-infested jungles with a hike in the woods back home, for example, I knew exactly what he was saying.

Only after Cunningham first witnessed his company suffering casualties did the reality of being in combat totally sunk in. Later, when he learned of civilian atrocities committed by the Viet Cong did he see how difficult it was for the Vietnamese people to endure the war.

Cunningham takes the reader on frustrating and exhausting patrols during which leeches and the crushing heat were constant companions, and with deadly encounters with booby traps while walking point and ambushes always a possibility.

What’s more, rain, mosquitoes, and water-filled foxholes made sleep a nearly unattainable luxury.  

This book captures what life as an American infantryman in the Vietnam War was all about. I truly enjoyed Mike Cunningham’s account of the high and low moments in his war and about the brotherhood he was a part of.      

–John Cirafici

The Grotto: Book Two by Harold G. Walker

Like countless veterans, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Harold Walker began writing a war memoir for his family—in his case, to chronicle his service as a Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The result is The Grotto, a three-volume series documenting his tour of duty, along with his thoughts and meditations and praise for his Marine brothers.

The Grotto: Book Two: Vietnam 1970, Marble Mountain (Dragonfly Publishing, 487 pp. $25, hardcover; $22, paper; $4.99, Kindle) begins in February 1970. Walker was three months into his tour and Vietnamization was underway. American troops were leaving the country as the South Vietnamese took control of combat operations.

In a single day, his squadron, HMM-262 (“The Flying Tigers”), of CH-46 transport helicopters left the Phu Bai Combat Base near the city of Huế. With their fellow squadrons of Marine Air Group Sixteen, they flew southeast to their new home at the Marble Mountain Air Facility outside Da Nang.

Walker’s accounts of time in Vietnam is so inspired that readers will feel that he is speaking to them personally. Each chapter begins with a date, the number of hours Walker had flown to that time in the war, and the total since he completed flight training. He also provides details about key events at home, including the rising protests against the war, and his thoughts about the future of South Vietnam—and the U.S.A.

The Flying Tigers’ job was to ferry Marines and supplies wherever they were needed. They also flew countless “red ink” missions, so named because those combat missions reports were written in red. These included medevac flights and recoveries of Marine recon teams when they were in grave danger. Many missions went satisfactorily. Others did not.

In one disturbing passage, Walker describes how a helicopter nearly crashed after a single bullet struck the aircraft, killing the pilot and badly wounding the co-pilot. The young crew chief, who had some experience flying helicopters, managed to help land the craft safely.

In another, a .30 caliber bullet hit a pilot in the center of his chest plate leaving him stunned but alive. He was able to land, take on supplies, and fly off again, only to crash from being overloaded. Only the men in the cockpit survived.

The author in the cockpit in Vietnam, 1970

Walker also presents a sobering dilemma from one mission when he realized that another pilot—an officer far senior to him—lacked the requisite experience to fly helicopters. The man had long flown A-4 Skyhawk jets, yet he lacked the skills and finesse for rotary-wing flight. Because aviation protocol decreed that a pilot’s word was law, what was a better-qualified co-pilot supposed to do?

After one such flight, a co-pilot formally declared the senior officer pilot unfit to fly. By doing so, the junior Marine risked his career and he knew it. Yet his superiors agreed with him, and the other pilot was removed from flight duties. It was a clear example of moral courage with a Marine putting the good of others far above his own.

The Grotto: Part Two is worth the time, and is ample reason to look forward to the third volume.

The author’s website is haroldgwalker.com

–Mike McLaughlin

A Contradiction of Terms by Joseph C. Maguire, Jr.

Joseph Maguire’s A Contradiction of Terms: A 25th Division Analyst’s Tour in Vietnam, April 1970 to March 1971 (284 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a reflective journal focusing on Maguire’s time in the Army, primarily his tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Maguire enlisted in June of 1969. After Basic Training at Ft. Bragg, he was sent to Fort Holabird’s Army Intelligence School in Baltimore, not far from Dundalk, Maryland, his hometown. Maguire spent a lot of his off-duty time back home.

In March 1970 Maguire received orders for Vietnam. His tour began in April at the Cu Chi Base Camp where he was assigned to the 25th Military Intelligence Company attached to the 25th Infantry Division.

Maguire paints good pictures of his “behind the wire” experiences in Army Intelligence in Vietnam during the war. His candor about his non-combat, clean-living, and relatively uneventful life as an intelligence analyst is refreshing. I found his observations interesting and entertaining. In November, the 25th Division was standing down. Half the men were sent to Hawaii and the other half, Maguire included, were reassigned to Xuan Loc just north of Long Binh. 

His tour ended in March 1971, and Maguire returned home to encounter many Americans who had misguided notions about the Vietnam War and its veterans. Maguire’s analyses of people’s reactions to him and to the war are spot on.

Throughout the book, Maguire includes biographical sketches of his fellow servicemen, describing their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and physical characteristics. I particularly liked how the book’s 43 chapters could stand as interesting stories of their own.

I found A Contradiction of Terms to be a good read with one major flaw. It appears as though no one proofread the book before it went to print as nearly every page has a typo or other slip of the pen. Despite those distractions, the more I read this book, the more I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

— Bob Wartman        

Like Boy Scouts with Guns by Roger S. Durham

Roger Durham’s memoir, Like Boy Scouts with Guns: Memoir of a Counterculture Warrior in Vietnam, (McFarland, 302 pp. $35, paper; $21.99, Kindle) is a change of pace for him. While his previous books deal with the Civil War and other military history topics, this one focuses on his 1970-71 tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

In his revealing Introduction, Durham sets out his views of the ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture and highlights people’s attitudes, motivations, and stereotypes. He explains that his book is about “the men who fought the war while opposing it.” However, throughout the book, there is little mention of opposition to the Vietnam War. He spends much more time describing recreational drug uses, including accounts of him and his buddies getting high just about every day.

In the late sixties Durham attended college as a way, he says, of avoiding the draft. But he flunked out and was soon drafted into the Army. He spent 16 months in Vietnam attached first to the 18th Engineer Brigade at Dong Ba Thin, then with the 35th Engineer Group at Cam Ranh. He writes about his three R&Rs to Sydney where he found his way to a counterculture commune, made a few friends, and continued his drug use.

Throughout his enlistment, Durham was singled out for his ability to type, which landed him in safe, rear-echelon jobs. His father had persuaded him to take a typing class in high school and Durham thanks him for guiding him away from danger.

After returning to The World, Roger Durham went back to college and earned a degree in history. Upon graduation, he put that degree to good use. Ironically, even though he opposed the Vietnam War and flouted Army regulations, he went to work for several state and federal agencies, and wound up spending 24 years operating U.S. Army base museums.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in learning about recreational drug use among the troops in the Vietnam War in the early seventies.

–Bob Wartman

Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.

A Smoldering Wick by Ron Brandon

Ron Brandon’s A Smoldering Wick: A Vietnam Vet Chronicles His Life from Hell to Redemption (CreateSpace, 206 pp. $8.20, paper) is an unmitigated exposure of Brandon’s dark side, the ugly things he did, and his transformation into a good person.

The book opens with Brandon’s childhood, which was loving, yet sometimes violent. He calls his family and home “dysfunction junction.” Although he spent a lot of time at church and reading the Bible, Brandon, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, says he learned very little about life when he was growing up.

In May 1965 he joined the Marine Corps as a way to get away from home—and from civilian life in general. Brandon says he was naïve and immature and a pathetic candidate for any military branch, much less the U.S. Marine Corps. In December 1966 he shipped out to Vietnam and was assigned as a rifleman in the 3rd Marine Division in Quang Tri Provence. He was immediately sent to Razorback Ridge, near the Rock Pile south of the DMZ. A lot of combat ensued. Most of his fighting was done in that area, including at Cam Lo, Con Thien, along Highway 9, Dong Ha, and Khe Sanh.

He describes his tour of duty in 35 short sections, each detailing many combat engagements. He gives an up-close-and-personal picture of the fear, sorrow, and anger that he experienced in the war. He unabashedly describes some of the crazy and stupid things he did, although later in the book Brandon apologizes for much of it.

On Brandon’s return to the world, he was unable to adjust. He gambled, drank, did drugs, and turned to crime. He spent a lot of time behind bars, including a dozen years in prison. He continually struggled with the demons inside his head fueled by PTSD. He did a lot of praying, but mostly to no avail.

Finally Brandon’s life made a turn for the better and he stopped his illicit activities and settled down. Today, with his wife, he runs Unchained Prison Ministry, in which works incarcerated veterans and others in local and state prisons. 

Brandon grew up believing in the power of prayer. While my religious beliefs differ from his, I was able to read his book without judging or naysaying. I recommend it. It was painful at times to read, but overall is an enlightening life story. 

The book’s website is asmolderingwick.com

—Bob Wartman