On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki

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In On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp., $32.95; $9.99, Kindle), Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki describes his experience in the Vietnam War from 1966 to the communist takeover in 1975 working behind the camera for ABC News. The eyewitness accounts of the many phases of the war in this memoir bring events to life as if they had happened yesterday.

In his quest “to become as good as [the famed photojournalist] Robert Capa,” Hirashiki chose to cover the most dangerous assignments in the war. “Many of us dreamed that war reporting would find us fame and recognition within our profession,” he says. For Hirashiki, the dream materialized in the form of a forty-year career with ABC News.

The uncertainty of survival loomed as the primary obstacle to fulfilling that wish. “In many ways, we all felt that we were pushing our luck every time we tried to cover a story,” Hirashiki says. He talks about correspondents who died or disappeared in the war, particularly freelancers.

Hirashiki worked with many famous correspondents. The list includes Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel (who wrote the book’s Introduction), and Drew Pearson. Without a school for combat photography, Hirashiki mastered his skills on the job. Reporters normally operated as a three-man team—photographer, sound man, and correspondent. Hirashiki tells dramatic stories that involve a long list of teammates. He frequently cites these men as teachers and heroes who taught him the finer points of journalism.

His stories are interesting because Hirashiki complements his views with observations by other people who were involved in each incident. Often, this comes from post-war letters that deepen the significance of an event. The acute details of his recollections of a battle in Happy Valley and the chaos leading to the war’s end—which open and close the book—provide highly informative and enjoyable reading.

Following the 1973 ceasefire in Vietnam, Hirashiki temporarily moved to Phnom Penh. He describes the Khmer Rouge assault on that city’s civilians as “scenes from hell.” This gave me the impression that this action was more horrendous than what Hirashiki had seen in Vietnam.

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Tony Hirashiki filming ABC News correspondent Don North during Operation Junction City in 1967

The book’s importance lies in its neutrality. Many people have criticized Vietnam War correspondents, especially television reporters, for promoting antiwar sentiments. On the Frontlines of the Television War, which was edited by Terry Irving, contradicts that opinion by telling the story of a closely knit group of professionals who strove to report what they saw as accurately as possible.

In other words, any distortion in television reporting did not originate in the field.

—Henry Zeybel

 

PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three by Robert Scholten

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Robert Scholten’s Vietnam War experiences resurfaced in 2007 during six weeks of  VA therapy sessions. He has collected them in PTSD & Psalm Twenty-Three: Coming Up Out Of PTSD’s Trench (Westbow Press, 128 pp., $30.95, hardcover; $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle).

Scholten, who is a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, was troubled from minute one when he joined Charley Battery of the 4th Battalion, 60th Artillery attached to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam in September 1970. He immediately began counting down the days to the DEROS date on his long-timer calendar. He inscribed his personal mission on his boonie hat: “I’m a-going home – heaven or Chicago.”

Nicknamed “Preacher” because he constantly read his Bible, Scholten says he is “a praying man from a praying family.” His trust in God and his devotion to prayer and scriptural knowledge were central to his Vietnam War tour of duty.

Scholten came to learn that his emotional welfare was way down on his unit’s priority list, behind maintaining the Duster track vehicle, cleaning weapons, guarding the firebase, and placing crew members before self. He describes Charley Battery as “a tight-knit group who learned mutual trust and comradeship under extreme stress that would snap a civilian like a dry twig under a horse’s hoof.”

“Looking back forty-five years later, I have to admit that first night with my Unit had major impacts on my life,” he writes. During that first week Scholten couldn’t sleep, troubled by thoughts of his family praying for his safety and his own prayers centering on not having to “take a life.” Those thoughts and prayers “and Scripture readings started mingling with previous war movies and television shows” to keep him awake.

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Duster Gunner Robert Scholten completed his year in Vietnam thanking God that he had lost no members of his crew. PTSD was an unknown when he flew home.

Many years later, realizing he was “haunted” in the “PTSD trench,” Scholten writes, “I didn’t leave Vietnam alone, I brought my crew and Section members with me in my heart and soul. To this day I can see, taste, smell, feel, and hear the times we were in the Duster engaging the enemy.”

–Curt Nelson

Wasted Blood by Ken Palmer

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In the new movie T2 Trainspotting,  a character named Sick Boy chides a crony for acting like “a tourist in your own youth.” If he is correct and looking back on former times is forbidden, then Ken Palmer should not have written Wasted Blood: Facing the Music in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 256 pp., $21.99, paper). As a Seabee in the Vietnam War, Palmer experienced a string of strange events and now has finally recollected them in this memoir.

An enlistee, Palmer tells us about his young manhood immediately prior to deploying, while in-country, and for a short time after returning stateside. Mainly, he explains how it felt to be the star of a rock band named “Wasted Blood” as a protest against the war.

With their commander’s encouragement (which including being issued  Fender, Gibson, and Ludwig instruments), Palmer and four other Seabees—Keith, Saul, Ron, and Jerry—formed a band to entertain the troops. Before that each man had played for his own enjoyment. Now, they continued to work ten-hour construction days, and they practiced and entertained during their off-duty time.

Stationed at MCB121 at Red Beach on the Gulf of DaNang, the band traveled to gigs mostly at night in a truck. Providing their own protection allowed them to travel where USO and other shows couldn’t go. Occasionally, for trips to distant camps, they flew by helicopter. Their high-energy performances and willingness to fulfill all requests gained them avid fans who often believed they were professional musicians.

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Seaman Palmer, the guitarist, entertaining the troops

Palmer tells wonderful stories, ranging from sexy to ridiculous, concerning women that he met because of his star status. Recalling these encounters is enough to justify his becoming a tourist in his own youth.

—Henry Zeybel

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson

 

To Hear Silence, 2nd Edition, by Ronald W. Hoffman

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Two years ago, we reviewed Ronald W. Hoffman’s memoir, To Hear Silence: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience Supporting the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; 9.99, Kindle). This memoir focuses on Hoffman’s Vietnam War experiences with Charlie Battery.

In the book’s new second edition, Hoffman has added a Prologue, in which he sets out what he calls “events that eventually pulled us into this undeclared, limited political war.” He begins that historical journey with the Second World War and ends it fifteen pages later by saying, “And thus, the United States politically lost its first war ever.” By emphasizing the political entanglements in the Vietnam War, Hoffman quietly emphasizes the high degree of dedication shown by Marines (and other fighting men) who actually took part in the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Doc by William Clayton Petty

 

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In his chapter titled “Impressions” in Vietnam Doc: An American Physician’s Memoir (Life Rich, 156 pp., $29.30, hardcover; $12.99, paper) Dr. William Clayton Petty bases his conclusions about the Vietnam War on the gore and suffering he witnessed in the operating rooms of the 24th Evacuation Hospital at Long Binh. What Petty saw and did made him question his basic values of life, particularly in regard to war.

That chapter reflects everything Petty had previously written about his responsibilities during a 1969-70 tour of duty in Vietnam centered on “administering anesthetic to soldiers wounded in combat,” as he says. Primarily his patients came to Long Binh directly from battlefields. “The majority of an anesthesia provider’s time during surgery was concentrated in giving blood and fluids,” he writes, often in “large quantities.” His personal record was 108 units to one soldier.

In this area, Petty all but offers a short course on how to fulfill the two needs, especially for men on the verge of death. His zealousness for his task created within me a grisly interest in medical procedures I had barely ever thought about. The book contains twenty-eight pages of photographs, a dozen of which show the equipment used by anesthesiologists in the war zone.

Other chapters titled “Saving Lives,” “People,” “Our Allies,” and “The Enemy” provide insights into the behavior of friends and foes. Petty emphasizes the dedication with which he and his fellow docs selflessly devoted their efforts toward helping anyone in need, including Viet Cong fighters and their sympathizers.

In “Impressions,” Petty asks himself, “Why did I go to Vietnam?” His pre-departure mind provided two answers: The Oath of Hippocrates must be served. And democracy must prevail.

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In country, he learned many unexpected lessons:

  • Lots of troops did not want to serve there.
  • “A daily diet of horror” upset his intellect.
  • His relationship with God got re-arranged.
  • America’s privileged classes generally avoided participating in combat—or serving in the military.
  • Body counts lied.
  • War endeavors created knee-deep waste.
  • Survival frequently meant people “now lived with injuries not compatible with life in previous wars.”
  • The enemy was “resilient, tough, smart, courageous, and willing to sacrifice anything to re-unite Vietnam.”
  • From beginning to end, the war was “an enormous deception by America’s leaders.”

Afterward, Petty suffered through a legacy of disorders. When he reached sixty, long-dormant symptoms came alive and triggered severe PTSD. His analysis of how to treat that problem provides another short course in doctoring.

Overall, Vietnam Doc digs deeply into unfamiliar medical knowledge.

—Henry Zeybel

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel