Vietnam Warrior Voices by Mark Masse

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Mark Masse is a professor of literary journalism at Ball State University. His new book, Vietnam Warrior Voices, Life StoriesCaputo,  Del Vecchio, Butler, O’Brien (Mark Henry Masse, 94 pp., $5.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is a work of literary journalism. It is based on a series of interviews Masse did with the four “warrior voices” of the subtitle.

In about seventy pages of text, Masse gives the reader the pith of what these writers have tried to accomplish in their books.  He gives the impression that all four have been tormented, angry souls at some time in their lives. Maybe that is a characteristic of most authors who write books that deal with war. War is not a happy subject.

I got a good sense of what these men have accomplished in their lives and in their writing careers. Plus, this book would have motivated me to read their books—if I had not already read all of them. I am motivated to reread John Del Vecchio’s novel, The Thirteenth Valley, as I didn’t much like it the first time I read it a long time ago.

If I were still teaching a Vietnam War literature course, I would use this book as an introductory text. It would work well for that purpose.

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Mark Masse

I’ve met Bob Butler and Tim O’Brien, and my impression of them and of their work is about the same as Masse’s. So I figure that the portraits he draws of the other two, Del Vecchio and Philip Caputo, are equally accurate.

I find myself asking why I’ve not met Caputo or Del Vecchio. I don’t know; maybe I lacked the motivation. Certainly both of them have been out on the road giving talks and signing books—the purgatory of authors who wish to sell books.

I suggest buying and reading at least one book by each of these guys—they are worth that much effort.  They have all worked hard at their craft and have achieved some notice, even as fame and fortune have—by and large—eluded them.

The author’s website is markmasse.com

—David Willson

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The Mighty Jungle by John A. Bercaw

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John A. Bercaw served in the U. S. Army, as well as in the Marine Corps and the National Guard. He spent a year in South Vietnam as a helicopter pilot and his experiences form the background of The Mighty Jungle (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $8.75, paper; $2.99, Kindle). In addition to this thriller, Bercaw is the author of Pink Mist, a memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam.

This novel has two main characters: a warrant officer pilot near the end of his time in the Vietnam War, and a young and very green infantry lieutenant. When their helicopter is shot down and crashes in the jungle, all the others are killed and these two characters are thrown together to attempt to evade capture and survive in that very hostile environment.

Bercaw is very graphic about what they encounter in the “mighty jungle.” Insects and other creepy crawlies the least of it. Spoiler warning: The green lieutenant does not make it. The warrant officer manages to barely survive capture (and torture) by the enemy, and ends up back in the safety of the U.S. Army. He is treated fairly and with compassion, which surprised me.

Dieter Dengler—the Navy pilot who was shot down, captured, and escaped his captivity in Laos—is cited. The Mighty Jungle has much of the flavor of Dengler’s classic book, Escape from Laos, and I was impressed that Bercaw had done his research so well.

This is an engrossing and exciting thriller and I very much enjoyed reading it. The song, “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” is quoted and never has it been more appropriate. The extreme misery of being lost in a jungle has never been portrayed with more intensity and realism. I put the book down with gratitude that my tour of duty in Vietnam did not involve any such adventure or risk.

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Bercaw in country

The aspect of the novel that unnerved me the most was the worms. The two characters eat worms and also produce them from both ends of their bodies.

I figured that the worms would do them in. I was half right. The medical personnel who work on the survivor are much focused on the small creatures who inhabited his body.

Showers, soap, and poison soon bring them under control, but the psychic trauma is not so easily dealt with.  Time and the love of a good woman helped some.

There’s a lesson in that.

—David Willson

Raeford’s MVP by Rick DeStafanis

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Raeford’s MVP (CreateSpace, 452 pp., 16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is the third Vietnam War-themed novel by Rick DeStefanis, who served with the 82nd Airborne Division from 1970-72.  We reviewed the previous books—Melody Hill and The Gomorrah Principle on these pages.

This book focuses on Billy Coker, who is 19 years old and erving in the Central Highlands of South Vietnam during the war. He left behind the love of his life, the chubby Bonnie Jo Parker, in Raeford, Mississippi. Bonnie happens to have an amazing voice and a pretty face, the way many big girls in small American towns do.  She gives him a good luck piece to wear. Spoiler alert: It does the trick.

When Billy arrives back home, he struggles with psychological problems and with connecting with his old friends. Some of his best friends make an effort to help him, a very good thing.

But the war becomes Billy’s life and he has a terrible problem shaking it off. The fog of battle gets a mention. So does John Wayne.  And Puff the Magic Dragon. Agent Orange is not ignored.

Billy finds a honkytonk that has an “old Son House tune on the jukebox.”  I would love to find that place. I’ve never encountered Son House on a jukebox.  Wilson Pickett sings “Land of a 1000 Dances,” and Jane Fonda gets kicked around years before she takes her trip to North Vietnam.

DeStefanis has written an honorable book that will hold most readers’ attention.

The author’s website is rickdestefanis.com

—David Willson

Melody Hill by Rick DeStefanis

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Rick DeStefanis served as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne from 1970-72.  He brings his military experiences as a paratrooper and infantry light weapons specialist to every page of his novel, Melody Hill (CreateSpace, 364 pp., paper; Kindle), a prequel to his award-winning The Gomorrah Principle).

Duff Coleridge leaves behind Melody Hill, Tennessee, when he joins the Army and heads to Vietnam. While in country, he somehow manages to stumble into the shadow warrior realms and gets involved in black ops. A beautiful woman is, of course, involved. And naturally she is half French and speaks perfect English.

Does she really love Duff, or is she just using him to get information for her own devious purposes? Duff’s immediate boss seems to be as crooked and untrustworthy as possible, and Duff seems headed for an early grave in the jungles of South Vietnam.

Duff’s boss, codenamed Spartan, is dealing black market arms to the VC, and that is not even the worst of his sins. Duff, however, can’t get to the bottom of it all without placing himself at ultimate risk. Will he carry on, expose Spartan, and get the girl, or will he end up dead in a water-soaked ditch with a bullet in his head? You might be surprised at the answer.

If you read and enjoyed The Gomorrah Principle, this book will be right up your alley.  John Wayne gets two mentions, but Rick DeStafanis is much more interested in pop songs such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Moon River,” and “Sea of Love” than in 1950s cowboy movie stars. Which is refreshing.

The author’s website is http://rickdestefanis.com/vietnam-war-novel-melody-hill

—David Willson

Big Mother 40 and Render Harmless by Marc Liebman

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After I finished reading Cherubs-2, Marc Liebman’s book that was billed as the third in a series with Lt. Josh Haman as the main character, I looked up other books in the series, which I swiftly realized were written and published earlier than the third book. I’m not bothered by reading series novels out of the sequence they were published, especially when they were written out of chronological sequence.

Big Mother 40 (Fireship Press, 402 pp., $19.95, paper; $7.50, Kindle) is another great read from Liebman—a retired Navy captain who served in the Vietnam War. This one focuses on the use of Navy helicopters in rescue operations during the war. Of course, there is also a military adventure story to go along with the education in how Navy helicopters were used in rescue missions in Vietnam.

Render Harmless (Fireship, 544., pp., $21.95, paper; $6.50, Kindle) finds Lt. Haman on an exchange with Fleet Air Arm in 1976 when the Red Hand starts setting off car bombs. There is lots of detail on car bombs, but not enough detail that I felt able to build and safely detonate one when I finished this exciting thriller.

Those who enjoyed any one of Marc Liebman’s novels featuring Josh Haman are more than likely to enjoy all of the rest of them as well.

I know I did.

The author’s website is MarcLiebman.com

—David Willson

Lincoln Park by James Westergreen

516ip8jobul-_sx331_bo1204203200_James Westergreen served in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. His novel Lincoln Park (Black Rose Writing, 242 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) starts off in Quang Phu in Vietnam’s Central Highlands in late 1969. The first paragraph is about leeches and Americans wading the paddies, mostly likely working in the Phoenix Program. I was hooked enough to keep reading.

The back cover blurb tells us that this book is a wartime thriller ranging “from the pleasure districts of Saigon to the back-alleys of Chicago.” MP Cpt. Tobias Riley is on a quest for vengeance as his buddies are double-crossed and their bodies litter the pages.

Naturally, there is an American deserter who joins up with a mysterious Madam who runs a heroin ring out of a hotel in Cholon. I spent a lot of time in Cholon, but never ran into anything exciting. But that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to read a novel about the time I spent in Cholon; it’d be too boring, and this novel is far from boring. The bloody exploits of villain Jack Flash in his Phoenix Program role keeps the pot boiling with his connections to “Air American pilots, Chinese warlords and rogue soldiers.”

The characters are running a race to the first to retrieve a lost C-47 full of heroin. The colorful, all-American language keeps the book anchored in the times: We read about Terry and the Pirates, Roy Orbison, OK Corral, My Lai and Lt. Calley, the Moron Corps, Davy Crockett, Audrey Hepburn, Jackie Kennedy, Steve McQueen, Jim Morrison, Brigit Bardot, Nancy Sinatra, The Monkees, Glen Miller, Flash Gordon, Agent Orange, “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,” Geronimo, Saddle Up, Most Ricky Tick, FTA, righting with our arms tied behind our backs, Indian Country, the light at the end of the tunnel, Peace with Honor, cannon fodder, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—the list goes on and on.

Westergreen creates a verbal tapestry with this language, which holds the sometimes frantic plot and story lines together. The language is almost another character in this frantic and hectic thriller. The author is a superb word craftsman.

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James Westergreen

Double-cross and vengeance color most of the pages in this fast-paced book. Fans of wartime thrillers will love it.  Good luck in finding another book more filled with the violence associated with modern war and illegal drugs run amok.

Westergreen has made his career writing gritty action novels. He has hit new highs in this one.  Buy it and enjoy.

The author’s website is https://jwestergreen.wixsite.com/author

—David Willson

Cherubs 2 by Marc Liebman

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Marc Liebman was commissioned as an ensign in the U. S. Navy in 1968.  He entered the Naval Aviation Training Command and put in a twenty-four year Navy career, retiring as a captain.  He’s a Vietnam War veteran and also served in the first Persian Gulf War. He’s the author of several military thrillers, of which Cherubs 2 (Fireship Press, 464 pp., $19.99, paper, $9.99, Kindle) is the more recent.

For non-Navy veterans (like me), “Cherubs” refers to altitude increments of 100 feet. Cherubs 2 means that the aircraft is at 200 feet. “During a combat rescue, there are four main elements: the survivor, the helicopter or helicopters tasked to pick up the survivor, the airplanes flying close air support, and the individual coordinating the rescue effort,” Liebman explains.

He brings alive the above schematic for helicopter rescues of downed flyers. Such rescues provide much opportunity for character conflict and dynamic scenes of conflict. You need one good guy who stands above the others, and you also need a bad guy, or at least a flawed character who will be in conflict with the hero.

Our hero is easy to spot as this book is among a series named after him. Josh Haman is the guy.  The fellow he is most often in conflict with is Lt. Steve Higgins, Naval Acadamy graduate, class of ’66, “and don’t you forget it.”  Lt. Jr. Grade Josh Haman, on the other hand, is a ROTC product. Higgins has everything going for him, but he is fatally flawed. He is risk averse.

Being risk averse in a combat situation, especially when an important part of your job is to go into harm’s way to rescue downed flyers, is a recipe for being labeled a coward. The novel’s plot boils down to striking a balance between labeled insanely reckless or being so cautious as to be thought of as yellow to the bone.

There is a lot more to this novel than that. Josh Haman is Jewish, which leaves him open to name calling from Higgins, including “Jew bastard,” and “Kike bastard.” Being an officer in the military during an unpopular war leaves them both open to being egged and spat upon. We also encounter REMFs, the body count, almost overwhelming military gobbledygook, and complaints about trying to fight a war “with our hands tied behind our backs.”

“Indian Country” is the place that downed flyers are retrieved from. It also is the place where real-life flyer Dieter Dengler spent most of a month evading capture by the enemy.

I found this novel engrossing, and eagerly await the next one in this series. The series is literate and witty and historical enough to teach me stuff I’m interested in, but without ever being boring. I highly recommend it.

The author’s website is MarcLiebman.com

—David Willson