Under Fire with ARVN Infantry by Bob Worthington

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Over the years American Vietnam War veterans have written countless books about their war experiences. In Under Fire with ARVN Infantry: Memoir of a Combat Advisor in Vietnam 1966-1967 (McFarland, 240 pp. $29.95, paper), Bob Worthington brings us a story, as the subtitle indicates, of an American adviser assigned to the South Vietnamese Army, the ARVN. By his reckoning, during the U.S. involvement in Vietnam starting in 1945, more than 66,300 American advisers worked with the South Vietnamese military.

In a relatively short and compact book, we are introduced to a side of the conflict not commonly considered or explored. All of us in Vietnam knew there were advisers for most everything, but back then didn’t think about it all that much.

Worthington begins his story in the late 1950s when he was out of high school and not ready to handle college. So he enlisted in the Marines in early 1957. He takes us along on his adventures in boot camp and his release from the Marine Corps two years later to return to college. From the Marine Reserves he transferred to Army ROTC and then to active duty.

He got married, and he held a series of jobs at home and overseas. Before he went to Vietnam Worthington completed Special Warfare Training and the Military Assistance Training Advisor course at Ft. Bragg, as well as Vietnamese language school at the Presidio. In-country, Capt. Worthington worked with ARVN units in Da Nang, Hoi An, An Hoa. and other areas of I Corps.

Worthington relates his experiences and reactions using little direct dialogue, opting instead for indirect quotes and attributions. He goes into detail about encounters with the NVA and VC, replying primarily on his daily journals and unit histories. The Vietnamese officers and personnel he worked with are well portrayed. His descriptions of riding on an O-1 Birddog and on board a fire mission with a Snoopy Gunship alone are worth the price of admission.

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Worthington (left) in Vietnam

He briefly goes into “oft ignored” inter-service rivalries, and the derisive attitude of some U.S. officers about the Advisory programs. After a second tour as an adviser in 1968-69, Worthington left active duty and earned a Master’s and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. He was involved with research on returning troops and POW’s, and was a psychological consultant with the Army’s Health Services Command.

Worthington found success in civilian life as a writer, University of New Mexico professor, and business owner. Under Fire with ARVN Infantry is a good story by a good man—and a good soldier.

—Tom Werzyn

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Vietnam: There & Back by Jim “Doc” Purtell

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“Truth cuts to the bone,” according to Jim “Doc” Purtell.

He uses a truth-above-all writing formula in Vietnam: There & Back: A Combat Medic’s Chronicle (Hellgate Press, 182 pp. $12.95, paper; $4.99. Kindle) to examine his year with Charlie Company of the 1/6th in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade operating out of Chu Lai in 1968-69.

After growing up in rural Wisconsin with eleven brothers and sisters, Purtell enlisted in the Army to escape a domineering father. He was nineteen years old when he arrived in the war zone. Before entering the Army, he knew nothing about Vietnam and had never traveled more than ninety miles from home.

Purtell readily recalls the trauma he felt throughout eight months in combat. He frequently uses the word “scary” to describe life-threatening situations—and those come before the shooting begins.

As a medic, he experienced the downside of humping with the infantry: Back-to-back-to-back ambushes on the same day; a mortar salvo that instantly killed four men; needlessly taking one hill and then another; and being constantly undermanned and overworked.

In his unit, medics normally served six months in the field and then moved to duty at the LZ Bayonet Medical Clinic. A shortage of medics, however, kept Purtell in the field for two additional months, a time when the intensity of his company’s combat encounters increased disproportionately.

Short-timers often insisted on walking close to him in case they were injured. Using this tactic, three men suffered wounds beyond Purtell’s ability to save them. He describes such horrendous events bluntly and succinctly: For example, “Busse had been hit in the heart, and blood was gushing out of his chest with tremendous force.”

Medic school had emphasized how to treat people in a hospital and not on the battlefield, he says. He believes that the trainees were not shown what battle wounds really looked like because the instructors feared the wash-out rate would soar. As a result, Purtell felt guilty that the inadequate training forced him to learn doctoring under fire.

At times, he records his emotions in a voice brimming with puzzlement, plus a touch of naivety. He repeatedly questions why he joined the Army, his role in life, and the meaning of his existence. Occasionally, he appears to be a stranger to himself.

Purtell tells of one incident that still haunts him. At the same time, he describes his heroics in a matter-of-fact tone that strongly relies on what others have said about his actions. He gave me the impression that he unselfishly risked his life out of respect for the men with whom he served. Their needs were the impetus for his devotion to duty.

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People, he writes, “have a better understanding of what we went through over there,” he says. Furthermore, reliving the war gave him a clearer understanding of his life’s course. Doc Purtell worked strictly from memory and says that once he started writing the book,  he found himself “typing as quickly as my fingers would hit the keys.”

The final product contains seven photographs that include him, but he forgoes notes, bibliography, or an index.

Following the war, Purtell earned BA and MA degrees that led to a career in veteran counseling.

His website is jimpurtell.com

—Henry Zeybel

Catkiller 3-2 by Raymond G. Caryl

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Raymond G. Caryl’s Vietnam War story is a unique one. Manning U.S. Army fixed-wing Cessna 0-1 Birddogs, he and other 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company pilots flew under the operational control of the Marine Corps.

Tasked with search-and-destroy missions in I Corps, Marine infantrymen needed airborne visual reconnaissance to guide close air support, but the Marines didn’t have adequate aircraft or pilots. So Gen. William Westmoreland assigned the job to the Army’s 220th RAC.

Closing a gap in the Marine order of battle filled Caryl with pride. His recollection of that time in Catkiller 3-2: An Army Pilot Flying for the Marines in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 264 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $29.95, Kindle) reflects his admiration and adulation for the Marines he served with in the war.

Carly and the 220th flew out of Phu Bai during 1967-68. Students of the war might recognize familiar information and situations in this book, but in most cases Caryl provides new twists to old tales. Plus, his explanations of events have depth.

The book also includes the bigger picture and serves as both a personal memoir and a unit history. Along with describing the missions that he flew for the Marines, Caryl blends in spur-of-the-moment ops such as helicopter rescues and sorties in support of Special Forces troops. He puts the reader in the pilot’s seat by amazingly recalling opening covers, toggling switches, and removing safety pins, along with the other actions required to fly the Birddog.

The training conducted by the Marines and the development of new aerial observer skills by the 220th pilots played a big part in the combined operation, which developed smoothly. Caryl labels the effort as “just a little different,” but he then points out events well beyond the Birddog norm such as hazardous flying over the demilitarized zone.

Caryl knows whereof he speaks. His aviation career stretched from 1966-2004. After six-and-a-half years on active duty, he flew for the Army Reserve and National Guard, as well as both the U.S. Forest Service and the Customs Service. He ended his civilian career as a contract helicopter pilot fighting forest fires. He summarizes his 3,200-plus hours in helicopters by saying, “I survived.”

Catkiller 3-2 contains eight pages of photographs, a bibliography, and an index, but no footnotes

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Catkiller crews at Vinh Long Airfield

In summarizing his adventures, Caryl closes with words of advice that I have given when talking to young men about career choices:

“Do not reject serving in the U.S. military as a stepping-stone to lifelong success and satisfaction.”

—Henry Zeybel

Circus of the Absurd by James O’Leary

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In Circus of the Absurd (Focused Publishing, 375 pp. $15.95, paper; $5.95, Kindle),  James O’Leary definitely reigns as ringmaster. Based on the cover or the title page, the book’s contents are either “Notes from the Clown Car, Vietnam 67-68,” or “A Novel Look at our War in Vietnam.” In both cases, “absurd” rings true.

The novel also serves as Jim O’Leary’s war memoir. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he says he had input from “several fellow Vietnam veterans” at an Orlando VFW post.

The book’s stories live up to the “circus” in the title: Practically everyone Leary describes had an act. Usually it was a scam to make money or to abuse power. O’Leary himself tried illegal money exchanging and ghost writing before settling on black market PX Courvoisier cognac. That income financed his acting-out desires. Along the way, he met many interesting people with clever schemes, such as manufacturing and selling counterfeit war souvenirs.

O’Leary’s storytelling has no boundaries. His ability to embellish events reminded me of Carl Hiaasen‘s talent for amusing readers. He examines whatever trips through his mind. At one point, he resolves the arguments surrounding John Kennedy’s assassination. Occasionally, I tuned him out, but his determination to entertain soon won me back. The humor often hides within irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and ridicule.

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O’Leary’s main desire centered on carnal pursuit of women. His success in this quest proved formidable and made me recall the escapades in Tom Jones. Sexually, there was no such thing as too much, but friendship also counted.

Trained as an armor crewman, O’Leary’s bachelor’s degree in journalism earned him a job as an Army information specialist USARV headquarters at Tan Son Nhut and, later, Long Binh. He worked days and met his obligations, but his nights were free and Saigon’s women called. A twenty-three year old draftee with no real responsibility, he behaved more like a man on vacation than a soldier in a war zone. He describes one day as “doing my perpetual tourist thing.”

Not unexpectedly, the war intruded on his pleasure and O’Leary witnessed the deaths of friends and foes, along with being a target himself. Defending a base perimeter constituted his major contribution to the war, and that too turned farcical. He finished his tour by returning to Saigon from a Bangkok R&R amid the 1968 Tet Offensive, a tale that could stand alone as a novella.

O’Leary’s wartime journey followed a path well worn by others, but his approach was highly personalized. Here’s his summary of the Vietnam War:

“I had to hand it to LBJ. If you’re going to hold a war, do it somewhere warm, with an abundance of beautiful women, a low cost standard of living, and a very benign attitude toward unbridled sex, smoking dope, and other assorted hedonistic pursuits.”

Even a one-way ticket to Hell might possibly provide first-class seating.

—Henry Zeybel

Firebase Tan Tru by Walter F. McDermott

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After listening to the problems of war veterans for thirty years as a licensed clinical psychologist, Walter F. McDermott has written his own memoir: Firebase Tan Tru: Memoir of an Artilleryman in the Mekong Delta, 1969-1970 (McFarland, 218 pp.; $29.95, paper; $15.99. Kindle). McDermott served in Vietnam as an enlisted man with the 2nd Battalion, 4th Artillery Brigade of the 2nd Field Force attached to the 9th Infantry Division. His book’s main themes are fear of being killed and incompetent leadership by officers.

For McDermott, fear of dying in combat emerged simultaneously with the realization that he would be drafted. He attributes a similar reaction to most other draftees. He attempted to beat the system with ploys such as claiming conscientious objector status and volunteering for officer candidate school, but abandoned those ideas, opting to serve two years as a draftee.

In the opening chapter, McDermott expresses disgust with the military’s authoritarian culture. One reason: His psychology degree made him feel superior to the high school graduates commissioned by completing OCS. Later, though, he says that the Vietnam War “is where I received my real education.” During Basic and AIT, McDermott challenged officers and NCOs, and suffered punishments that confirmed their authority over him.

McDermott deplored the certainty of rank that prevailed when questionable issues arose in the war zone, and he provides excellent examples of poor decision-making based on that certainty. For example, during a search and rescue operation, a captain pulled rank and overrode an artillery solution that McDermott and two other enlisted men drew up. The resultant misdirected fire killed fourteen Vietnamese civilians and four water buffalo. According to McDermott, families of the dead received compensation of forty dollars for each human and seventy dollars for each animal. The captain received a written reprimand.

Working primarily in the Tan Tru tactical operations center, McDermott plotted targets and took pride in his duties. He helped draw up more effective patterns of firepower. Despite forming friendly working relations with a few forward observer captains, McDermott says, “Negative encounters with our officers prevented me from ever developing a firm respect for our officer class.” Above all, irrational ranting by colonels disillusioned him about the purpose of the war.

McDermott experienced combat in the field humping with infantrymen as a radio telephone operator for artillery forward observers. On Tan Tru, he endured frequent enemy rocket, mortar, and small arms attacks. He vividly describes an advancing string of 107-mm rockets that utterly terrified him and his bunker mates. In this and other passages McDermott unhesitatingly shows both up and down moments in his life.

As men close to him were killed, McDermott’s attitude toward the war transitioned from a self-survival and anger against the enemy to unadulterated hatred for them. As a result of self-analysis, he says, “I cannot forgive the Vietnamese communists for the despicable inhuman violence they displayed against American and ARVN soldiers, as well as toward Vietnamese civilians.”

The intensity of McDermott’s feelings is meaningful considering that his negative emotions still persist fifty years later. It led him to graduate studies in clinical psychology. In 2012, he wrote a book called Understanding Combat Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He calls his effort to help veterans and their families as “more than a job… a crusade.”

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McDermott at Brigade HQ, Tan An

McDermott’s writing is easy and enjoyable to read even when he covers everyday routines, such as eating C-ration, living alongside rats, and burning shit, which are part of every grunt memoir that I have read. He also examines issues of greater complexity: the Vietnamese mentality, North and South; religion; weddings; drinking; and the news media.

McDermott filled gaps in my education with detailed recollections about fragging attempts that never were investigated and the permissive drug use that permeated Firebase Tan Tru.

Point of information, however. McDermott writes: “Spooky gunships proved so successful that after the war our Air Force expanded and updated the concept of ground attack aircraft by heavily arming the C-130 Hercules transport airplane.”

The fact is that AC-130 Spectre gunships supported troops in Cambodia and Vietnam and destroyed thousands of trucks in Laos during the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

The Other Side of Rock and War by Billy Terrell and Rich Podolsky

As the reader begins to be drawn into Billy Terrell’s The Other Side of Rock and War: One Man’s Battle to Save His Life, His Career, His Country, and the Orphans He Left Behind (National Foundation of Patriotism, 234 pp., $18.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) it feels as if the book is simply a transcription of a long stream-of-consciousness interview with co-author Rich Podolsky. There are repeated references to the same occurrence, the same people, and the same author’s reaction—often within the same few paragraphs.

On the positive side, we get to accompany Terrell through a hardscrabble upbringing in and around Philadelphia and Newark and Asbury Park, New Jersey. He introduces us to a decidedly and interestingly dysfunctional group of family members, as well to a less than optimal childhood. He also nominally covers his family’s entry into this country and their progression to the time frame of the story.

Born William Torsiello, Billy Terrell shares with us his early sense of isolation from friendships, in and outside his family, and his turn to music and comedy as a means to counter those feelings. His developing music career was cut short by an invitation from his local draft board during the Vietnam War.

Torsiello wound up in Vietnam in Tuy Hoa, near Phan Rang, as a member of an Army Quartermaster Unit.  A few chapters take us through his deployment. He also tells of his involvement with local orphanage, working with other GIs working to assuage some of the misfortunes that befell civilians in the Vietnam War.

On his return to the States, William Torsiello became Billy Terrell, a man who went through a long roller coaster of successes and failure in the music business. His up-and-down life also was punctuated with alcohol abuse, failed marriages, and health challenges.

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Billy Terrell

Throughout the book, Terrell describes interactions with greats and near-greats in the popular music and stand-up comedy scenes from the fifties to the eighties. Terrell has a remarkable discography. He wrote, sang, and produced much music from 1965-2017, and later worked as a successful stand-up comedian.

At the end of the book Terrell takes us with him on a 2013 visit back to the Mang Lang Orphanage at Tuy Hoa, and notes the closure it brought for him as he provided funds to help assure the institution’s future.

Billy Terrell’s story is at once one of self-promotion and of measurable success—a good outcome from bad circumstances.

–Tom Werzyn

 

Every Day is Extra by John Kerry

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One of the most emotional passages in former Sen. John Kerry’s memoir, Every Day is Extra (Simon & Schuster, 640 pp., $35, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle), comes when he recounts the attacks on his record as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam during the 2004 presidential campaign. Not so much because it was an attack on him personally, but because “Swift Boating” has since become a term that political campaigns use as shorthand to describe the tactic of using smears and lies to attack a candidate’s character.

It is “horrific,” he writes, because it dishonors all those whose fought and died on South Vietnam’s rivers, casting their sacrifices as a lie.

Kerry faults himself for following the advice of his own campaign advisers to ignore the attacks as trivial and not to fight back forcefully. The irony is that the admiral who organized the campaign had written a glowing commendation for Kerry and his crew in 1969.

Kerry—who went on to become Secretary of State—acknowledges that many veterans hated the antiwar movement of which he became a part. “No parades, no thank you for their service.” What brought together Vietnam Veterans Against the War was that feeling of alienation. “I understand that undercurrent of resentment,” he writes, which in turn was also directed at veterans who opposed and demonstrated against the war.

Kerry’s statement about understanding such resentment characterizes much of the book’s tone. He is reflective, analytic, and measured. Indeed, many of his emotions seem understated.

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Lt. Kerry and shipmates, 1969

His best-known antiwar actions came when he joined other veterans depositing their medals on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and asking in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “How do you ask a man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man for a mistake?”

Nonetheless, Kerry had misgivings about leaving his medals on steps where politicians walked. He proposed instead that the medals be placed solemnly on a table covered by a white tablecloth and then be collected and returned to the Pentagon. Other VVAW leaders outvoted him.

Kerry became involved in VVAW after noticing an advertisement in Life magazine with “the image of a rifle with a fixed bayonet planted in the ground with a helmet hanging on top. It was a powerfully evocative symbol. It meant that there were a lot of guys out there who felt as I did.”

Many veterans at VVAW meetings had what is today commonly called PTSD and were “seriously messed up.” Some were in wheelchairs, missing eyes or limbs, or self-medicating.  Before VVAW became a force against the war—which occurred “without any singular moment of decision, without debate”—it sponsored Vietnam veteran support groups.

Like many organizations, VVAW struggled to get off the ground financially and internally. Kerry began pulling away from the disorganization. “Within VVAW there were suddenly too many different agendas competing for priority,” he writes, “some of them controversial.” There were differences over issues of class, drug use, tactics, opposition to the Vietnam War or all wars, as well as a contingent who believed America was “rotten to the core” and those who wanted to put the country “back together.”

Kerry’s activism turned to electoral politics, with the memoir describing his rise to leadership in the Senate and as Secretary of State. It includes his work with the late Sen. John McCain on the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs and its exhaustive search tracking down every rumor about live POWs who had been left behind. The senators even conducted a surreal inspection underneath Ho Chi Minh’s tomb in Hanoi—“walking around a mass of tubes, compressors and pumps” and opening doors to make sure there were no hidden tunnels or cells.

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Senators Kerry and McCain in 1985

At almost 600 pages of text, one wishes that an editor had trimmed the memoir more thoroughly. The first two chapters, “Childhood” and “Bright College Years,” recounting his lineage and his life and travels in Europe as the son of a Foreign Service office might be particular candidates, if only because they reinforce Kerry’s image of elitism, which occasionally dogged him in public life.

For all its length, the memoir is still worth reading. Chapters can be skipped or skimmed in order to focus on more engaging ones, such as the description of in-county Swift Boat operations.

The title Every Day is Extra is compelling and appropriate. It represents an attitude about life that “summarizes how a bunch of guys I served with in Vietnam felt about coming home alive.” It also honors those who did not—with a promise not to waste the gift of a single day in making a difference.

“There are worse things than losing an argument or even an election,” Kerry writes.

The Vietnam War shaped John Kerry’s view of the world and his mission in life. It is reflected on every page of the book.

–Bob Carolla