Brothers in the Mekong Delta by Godfrey Garner

Godfrey Garner possesses exceptional storytelling skills. Along with that talent, he has definitive psychological insights about life and about war. He puts that all together in Brothers in the Mekong Delta: A Memoir of PBR Section 513 in The Vietnam War (McFarland, 192 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), a memoir of his 1967-68 tour of duty.

 “Following a lengthy break in service,” Garner writes early in the book, “I reentered the U.S. Army Special Forces and fought in Afghanistan where missions were planned and often rehearsed for at least a week.” In his book Garner briefly compares that experience to his Vietnam War tour as a naïve young man.

“Vietnam wasn’t a clean war,” Garner says. “Missions in Vietnam were conceived in the morning and carried out in the evening. Though we were all trained pretty well before deploying to Vietnam, once in the country, we realized that there were no training protocols that could have equipped us for what we encountered. It became more and more unconventional on a daily basis.” Later, he adds, “We never planned ahead. We reacted.”

Garner crewed on—and then captained—a 30-foot Riverine Patrol Boat based at the Sadec River Division 513 compound. Navy PBR crews were the cops of the Mekong Delta waterways. They also provided transportation and fire support for SEAL team operations.

He tells his story through the eyes of a twenty-year-old who is still a teenager at heart, as were the men with whom he crewed and spent most of his free time. Befriended for life by Jack Anderson, David Taylor, and Billy Moore, Garner recollects the “new normal” education of them all. “In many ways,” he says, “Vietnam served as a sort of ramped-up kindergarten of life. Our average age was 19.”

Between nearly daily patrols, while lounging and sharing two-dollar PX quarts of Jack Daniels, they discussed survival and death. “We spent a lot of time talking about inane things,” Garner says. “It was our way of seeking balance at times when we didn’t even realize we had lost it.”

Garner also includes accounts of combat. He reports on good results and bad ones, including watching an explosion and fire consume two close friends. Stories about combat during the 1968 Tet Offensive are his best reporting.

His voice projects adult certainties fogged at times by childlike awe in response to the extraordinary. His ability to drag forth memories from fifty years ago amazes me. His descriptions of interactions between friends and foes repeatedly delighted me.

As much as it is a war memoir, Brothers in the Mekong Delta also resembles a textbook on finding direction for the future. The book should be mandatory reading for high school students.

Finding design within a kaleidoscope of emotions, Garner wraps up his observations with a mini-sermon that serves as a grisly reminder of the “strange maturity” brought on by war and the difference between “good” and “right” in combat. Both ideas translate to everyday living. He suggests that understanding the difference of the latter borders on a sacred miracle.

Garner in Afghanistan

In opposition to such absolute certainty, Garner cites a remark by David Taylor that concluded a deep philosophical discussion:

“Course, you realize how seriously fucked up that actually is.”

Garner is his own best example of applying method toward outcome. Today, he is a professor at Mississippi College, as well as an adjunct at Tulane University and Belhaven University in Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. In addition to his doctorate in counseling psychology, he is working on a second PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Godfrey Graner retired from the Army in 2006. He wound up serving two military and six civilian government-related tours in Afghanistan as an intelligence analyst. He has written several books and more than fifty magazine articles on counterinsurgency.

—Henry Zeybel

A Trucker’s Tale by Ed Miller

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Ed Miller’s A Trucker’s Tale: Wit Wisdom, and True Stories from 60 Years on the Road (Apollo Publishers, 186 pp., $22, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a notably refreshing little book.  Over the years, I’ve spoken to any number of folks who have riding in a big rig on their bucket lists; Miller’s book is a wonderful opportunity to vicariously clear that item off your list.

Miller begins his 18-wheeler tales of adventure as a youngster on the family farm in rural North Carolina. Then he brings us along with a breezy, conversational, and at times delicately profane story that reads like an extended bar-stool homily.

Reared by a family of truckers, Miller recounts dozens of anecdotes from a group of folks right out of central casting: neighbors, parents, grandparents, siblings.

In the late 1960s, after a halfhearted college effort, Ed Miller tells us, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and volunteered for the Seabees based in part on his familiarity with trucks and heavy equipment. He hoped the Navy would help to further his training and experience with trucks.

Miller soon found himself in the Vietnam War sitting in the driver’s seat of a semi-truck in Da Nang.  His chapter on boot camp and advanced training with his Seabee battalion alone is worth the price of admission. The antics he relates are well worth reading. His in-country stories are as fun as they can be in a war zone, and certainly are an interesting view of a side of the war that most of us are unfamiliar with.  

Returning from the service and moving through his work in  the trucking industry, Miller keeps us turning pages—if only to see if he can outdo himself describing yet another on-the-road incident.

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Ed Miller

Interestingly, laced through most of the stories is a subtle undercurrent of personal honesty, and a sense of honor and performing good deeds. Miller is a Knight of the Highway because of his helpfulness and can-do spirit. He briefly addresses the decline of that sense of duty and service today.

In this, his first book, Ed Miller has come up with a well-written and well-edited one. It moves along nicely; you can read it in just about one sitting.

If you’ve ever driven trucks, or wanted to, you’ll be nodding in agreement all the way through this one.

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam 1967-1971 by John Lund

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John Lund’s Vietnam, 1967-1971: Danger, Affliction, Toil, Heartbreak, and Stolen Years (Fuzion Press, 308 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is quite an engaging book. Lund takes us on a journey aboard the aircraft carrier Hancock on all three of his deployments on Yankee Station, the Navy’s designation for flight operation battle positions in the South China Sea off the coasts of North and South Vietnam.

Rich with photographs and some nicely descriptive narrative, this offering is—most likely unintentionally—structured like a screenplay. Lund has combed through the correspondence he shared with his new bride throughout his time in the Navy and has produced a unique book.

After you get into it, you can almost hear the intonations of Jack Webb or Peter Coyote narrating and reading the letters as the story toggles back and forth between Lund’s missives to his wife and his telling of the bulk of his aboard-ship story. At times, the writing is mildly salty, but not distractingly so.

Lund begins with background on himself and his family; focusing on things and people that shaped his approach to his Navy job as a machinists mate in the engine room of the Hancock, a World War II-era era aircraft carrier pressed into service for the Vietnam War.  That includes meeting his future wife in high school, one of those fabled love-at-first-sight encounters.

The back cover of the book quotes Capt. Greer, the ship’s commander, saying that the Hancock was “plagued with personnel shortages, inadequately trained personnel, lacked critical talent, equipment reliability that had not been assured, a long list of discrepancies, a criminally short time to marry the ship with the air wing, and with knowledge of predictable casualties.”  That statement forms the base for Lund’s story and his subtitle, “Danger, Affliction, Toil, Heartbreak, and Stolen Years.”

Striving to do the best he could during his tours of duty, Lund earned letters of commendation during all three of his deployments, and rose to the post of Top Watch. His descriptions of engine room conditions (heat, humidity, mechanical failures, and other difficulties) make for an interesting and engaging read, even for someone who never served in the Navy. The book did need a bit more explanation of Navy lingo, though.

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USS Hancock refueling on Yankee Station, 1968

Returning from his third deployment, his last voyage  Lund mustered out as he left the Hancock without a backward glance. As a new civilian, he began experiencing medical and mental challenges that brought him face-to-face with the VA and its bureaucracy. His physical afflictions very likely were caused by frequent exposure (as many other Blue Water Navy sailors were) to Agent Orange, asbestos, and other toxic chemicals.

In the book, Lund comes across not as bitter, but surely disappointed, about it all. This was a nice read—a story well told and an enlistment well fulfilled.

The book’s website is mmsnipe.com

–Tom Werzyn

Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud

Survival Uncertain By Lee Cargill

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In writing about the Vietnam War experiences of eight 1963 U.S. Naval Academy graduates in Survival Uncertain (253 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), Lee Cargill focuses on Lt. Jim Kelly Patterson, the only one that did not return home.

Cargill thoroughly describes the sustained but unsuccessful effort to rescue Patterson, the navigator and bombardier of an A-6A Intruder that was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 SAM missile on May 19, 1967. The plane’s pilot became a prisoner of war for six years, but Patterson simply disappeared.

Cargill broadly speculates about Patterson’s destiny, including the idea that he became “Moscow Bound”—traded to the Soviet Union by heavily indebted North Vietnam. Extensive post-war searches in Vietnam have failed to resolve Patterson’s fate, and he has attained legendary stature, although officially listed as KIA.

Among the seven other men (including himself) Cargill writes about, four were pilots, two served aboard ships, and one was a road construction engineer. Aside from being in the USNA Class of ’63, all of the men took part in Cargill’s wedding party at Annapolis on graduation day.

The men speak for themselves with Cargill providing continuity. Their stories are exciting, particularly those dealing with search-and rescue-missions. A few of them were troubling, however, such as a helicopter pilot reporting: “[We] knew the location of the downed pilot but were not allowed to enter the airspace over North Vietnam until clearance was received from Washington, DC, which took over an hour.”

The participants do not make a big issue about the voids in leadership and unproductive tactics because such stories often have been told before. Nevertheless, the rancor felt for higher headquarters mismanagement persists.

Cargill completes the book’s combat action with an appendix that provides details about the combat deaths of members of the USNA Class of 1963.

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Capt. Cargill

As a postscript, Cargill discusses court martial charges that he and five others faced based on a sailor’s death aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier in 1981. His study of the case provides a detailed look into the military justice system.

As the ship’s XO, Cargill was found not guilty of all charges. The administrative aftermath of the case, however, effectively ended Capt. Cargill’s career progression, and he chose an early retirement from the Navy.

Survival Uncertain confirms the camaraderie and mutual esteem that Annapolis graduates have for each other. Their unified spirit forms a foundation for Navy operations, most effectively during desperate times.

Profits from sale of the book will be donated to non-profit organizations that benefit young people, Cargill says.

The book’s website is https://survival-uncertain.com/

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the West Side to the Wardroom by Matthew J. Coffey

With the days dwindling down to a precious few for many Vietnam War veterans, the urge to tell all grows more compelling. A third generation sailor, Mathew J. Coffey, fulfills a need to recognize his family’s military achievements in his new memoir, From the West Side to the Wardroom: An Irish-American Journey (Xlibris, 142 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $3.99 Kindle).

Coffey, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent his one-year, 1968-69 tour of duty as a lieutenant aboard the USS Caddo Parish (LST-515), a World War II Class 491 LST that arrived in Vietnam in December 1965. Coffey recounts his wartime experiences in the middle part of the book. After four years of active duty, Coffey spent twenty years in the Navy Reserves and retired as a Captain.

With three-to-four page vignettes, Coffey sandwiches descriptions of his Navy hitch between slices of stories about his pre-war and post-war lives. He also includes details of the war-time achievements of his grandfather and father, veterans of the two World Wars.

To me, the book’s greatest value lies in Coffey’s reflections about people, events, and places from the past. For example, he vividly and evocatively describes a tough Italian Catholic chaplain, a bizarre funeral, and, of course, his ship’s wardroom. His short stories provide an education in themselves.

The Caddo Parrish in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, 1969

The book concludes with “The Pass Down Log”—a stage play with a cast of Matthew, his wife, father, and grandfather—which zeroes in on dynamic times in the family’s  history.

All proceeds from sale of the book go to an eighty-two-year-old priest—one of Coffey’s former high school teachers in Mineola, New York—who today works with poor people in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel