Somebody’s Catching Hell by Peter Smith

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Peter Smith served as a U.S. Marine Corps aerial photo interpreter in DaNang in the Vietnam War, including during the 1968 Tet Offensive. His novel, Somebody’s Catching Hell (Prospect Publishing, 343 pp. $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle), is based on his experiences in the war. We learn, among other things that the Marines doing his job placed themselves seriously at risk taking their pictures.

The book contains a useful glossary, as well as an informative epilogue. The epilogue informs the reader about what happened to some of the novel’s characters.  “The Marines who fought at the ARVN Compound and Da Nang River Bridge during the 1968 Tet Offensive had varied civilian lives after mustering out of the Marine Corps,” Smith writes. “Some were successful and some were not.”

The novel examines the Vietnam War from the point of view of those who should not have been involved directly in engaging the enemy, but who sometimes did not manage to avoid combat in close-quarters. Often in hair-raising circumstances.

Duke Dukesheirer and his buddies have dreams of stealing flight attendants’ silk panties, and those fantasies keep them going. The book mostly concentrates on Duke and his buddies and their relationships with each other and the locals, which makes for a nice contrast. Duke stares down a stereoscope looking for potential North Vietnamese rocket sites “until his eyeballs begin to look like a contour map of Mount Suribachi.”

The writing is descriptive and sharp. Details about the warp and woof of Marine wartime headquarters came alive on the page for this reader.

Anyone who wishes to learn more about this ostensible non-combat arm of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War should give Somebody’s Catching Hell a close reading.

I enjoyed the book, and highly recommend it.

–David Willson

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Hiroshi’s Story by Richard Rajner

Richard Rajner’s Hiroshi’s Story: The Journals of a Japanese Soldier in Viet Nam, 1941-1968 (Austin Macauley, 500 pp., $37.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper; $4.95, Kindle is a massive, dense novel. Rajner does not break up the story into chapters, parts, or books. He doesn’t even use space breaks between paragraphs. The novel just begins and takes off, almost in a stream-of-consciousness form.

It’s a design that, surprisingly to me, worked with this book. At first, it seem like reading the book would be a daunting task. But once I started, I seemed to be naturally carried along by the story, with no place to rest until the end.

Rajner, who served three tours in the American war in Vietnam, offers up a fictional account of the 5,000 Japanese troops who remained in Vietnam following World War II and who became part of the Viet Cong guerrilla movement in the south.

Hiroshi Watanabe and Matome Tanaka, cousins from a small farming village, join the Imperial Japanese Army right after high school. Growing up doing farm work gave them the strength to survive fairly brutal military training when many sons of factory workers and shopkeepers fell out along the way.

Being sent immediately into the war with China, they served as part of an antiaircraft unit. Two years later, in 1941, they found themselves being shipped to Indochina. By a “peculiar” diplomatic agreement, the occupied Vichy French government allowed Japan to occupy its colonies in Southeast Asia.

The boys were excited to be assigned to an airbase 30 kilometers north of Saigon—a city known as the “Pearl of the Orient” because of its “wide variety of delights.”

Before long, they learned that Imperial Japanese forces were about to take over all of Southeast Asia. By the summer of 1944, however, things were looking much different. For the first time in 2,600 years the Japanese were about to lose a war.

A faction of the Japanese government encouraged the thousands of Japanese soldiers in occupied lands to join local resistance groups after the war to continue to fight the Americans and their allies. With no hesitation, Watanabe and Tanaka decide to fight on as “the Emperor’s soldiers” by joining the newly formed Vietnamese Army.

Revenge is their sole motivation—a desire to punish the Western powers for defeating Japan. They consider themselves instruments of retribution. Specifically, they would  fight until the Vietnamese people had become fully independent.

While fighting against the French colonial government, Watanabe and Tanaka become weakened from combat wounds and disease and are allowed to become farmers, morphing into a soldier-farmer role. They marry Vietnamese women, and raise families.

When the French are defeated in 1954, however, Vietnam remained a divided nation due to a “poorly negotiated” peace treaty. So the two men continue in their roles as soldier-farmers. They dream of someday returning to their homeland, taking their families with them.

But soon they’re fighting against the Saigon government, which they’ve been told is propped up by Western powers. It’s a fight the two will continue to be a part of until it ends for them in 1968.

Rajner’s story, after 500 pages, ends without having built to a climax. It ends, appropriately, as if to say this is the way things are, as they always have been, and as they always will be.

Hiroshi’s Story is a major work of Vietnam War fiction.

—Bill McCloud

A Marine’s Daughter by Al Hague

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Jon Milo has a recurring dream whose meaning he cannot fathom. In Al Hague’s novel, A Marine’s Daughter: Semper Fi (Gatekeeper Press, 314 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle), Milo is tormented with the fragmented memory of a bloody Vietnam War fight outside the wire at a remote camp.

Milo recalls only portions of what happened that night. He remembers leading a couple of squads of Marines toward a village rumored to be threatened by Charlie. He splits up his team, only to see the first squad pinned down in the middle of a rice paddy by a savage ambush. Milo sends out the rest of the men in a flanking maneuver, then decides to take the pressure off by charging into the enemy fire with his M-60 on his hip.

When he wakes up later, injured and on board a hospital ship, Milo has no idea what happened. Did his men survive? Was the mission a disaster? And, ultimately, did he let his men down?

Flash forward to a gray-haired Milo whose health has begun to fail. He has yet to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, for fear he’ll recognize the names of the men he led out on that mission.

Hague’s most effective story-telling device is toggling between scenes of war with a young Milo and present day, when Milo’s now-adult daughter is working secretly to arrange a reunion of her father’s old team. Some of the men have been searching for him for decades. And they have a surprise in store.

Hague weaves in a personal story as well. Milo is afraid he’s dying. Daughter Sara is afraid she is failing to live. Both are struggling to find meaning in their lives. In Milo’s case, it is a bit of aging, and perhaps Agent Orange shares part of the blame.

He was offended by the antiwar protests that erupted stateside. He wonders if he will ever be able to forgive his country for the way he and his men have been treated. But Milo will take a chance on a new life, as will Sara.

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Al Hague and Brady

When his old comrades show up, Milo learns that he broke the back of the VC assault with that M-60 charge. The men have put together statements and documentation to petition for recognition for Milo, who will be awarded a Silver Star for saving the squad.

Hague served in Vietnam in 1965-66 as a Marine NCO. His prose can be clunky, but he’s created characters we care about.

The author’s website is amarinesdaughter.com

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales from the Morgue

In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

Vietnam Blues by D.R. Van Wye

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D.R. Van Wye’s novel, Vietnam Blues (Thackery-Sterling, 292 pp. $13.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), takes us back to the war in Vietnam for several months in 1971. It’s a time when the fighting is winding down, not that that reduces the threat of danger for those who remain as combatants on all sides.

Van Wye was a U.S. Army infantry officer during the war, serving as a military adviser to South Vietnamese forces in the Mekong Delta. Most of his story takes place in Ben Tre Province in the Delta in southern South Vietnam. Occasional references are also made to Can Tho, Dong Tam, and My Tho.

Van Wye should be complimented for giving the points of view of many different people. He boldly uses the first chapter to illustrate the difficult, dangerous position the South Vietnamese populace found itself in in 1959. I consider this a bold move because Van Wye lets the reader know that the book is not going to be only about American characters, but will tell a larger story.

Villagers in the South were being pulled in different directions as they were regularly visited by troops backing the government and those with the revolutionary forces. While many only wished to remain neutral in those dangerous times, most were forced to take a side.

We “must be on one side or the other,” one character says. “There is no normal living.”

The first chapter is well written and should capture the interest of readers. The next chapter moves to 1971 and the arrival in-country of Capt. Henry Hoyt. He joins a group of American military advisers working to pacify a region known as “VC Island.” The story then basically alternates between chapters about Americans and their Vietnamese allies, and chapters about the the Viet Cong.

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D.R. Van Wye

I enjoyed reading this novel, especially as it built toward the end. A minor issue: At times, a character awkwardly explains terminology to a new guy. There also are a few large information dumps that almost made the novel begin to read like a textbook.

But, overall, Vietnam Blues is a well-told, interesting story.

One character pretty well sums up the American experience in the war Vietnam. “We’ll be remembered by the junk we leave behind,” he says. “That and all the sorrows. I wonder, do they think we made things better?”

The book includes a glossary, timeline, and two maps, and is a sequel to Van Wye’s 2014 novel, Saving Ben Tre.

–Bill McCloud

Delta Sierra by Larry R. Fry

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Delta Sierra: A Novel of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 410 pp., $19, paper) is Larry R. Fry’s first novel, but he sharpened his skills having written two nonfiction books dealing with family history, a textbook on computer programming, and Cowboys and War, a worthy book of poetry.

Delta Sierra is described as “a novel of air combat over North Vietnam.” It concentrates on the price paid by the men who flew those missions. Gary Bishop Deale, the novel’s protagonist, flies daily bombing missions over North Vietnam and Laos.

The point is made that both of these countries are heavily defended by modern weapons supplied by Russia and China. So in a sense, he is at war with Russia and China, but this fact is not confronted.

While Gary is fighting this war, his wife, Allison Faith Deale, is in graduate school in North Carolina working in a marine lab. She is aware of the dangers that Gary faces on a daily basis and tries to wait patiently for his return—if that happens.

The novel deals with real events, such as what happened to Col. Jack Broughton when he stood up for his men in an incident that should not have led to his being punished. Broughton is the author of Thud Ridge, a classic 1969 memoir about air combat in the Vietnam War.  That is still the book to read for information on this subject.

Delta Sierra covers the same territory. I recommend it highly to those who cannot get enough of this subject.  It’s written in short chapters and is easily enjoyed in short bursts.

–David Willson

Wolf by the Ears By Alan Armstrong

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West Point graduate Alan Armstrong served in Cambodia during the last stages of the American war in Vietnam. He fought with the Cambodian government against the Khmer Rouge, and was particularly close to Gen. Lon Non, the brother of Cambodian President Lon Nol. Armstrong flew out of Pnom Penh in 1975 on the last helicopter with American Ambassador John Gunther Dean.

Alan Armstrong is a well-educated person. The title of his new novel, Wolf by the Ears (BookBaby, 338 pp., $16, paper; $6.99, Kindle), shows it. The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote John Holmes in 1820: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go,”  Also, the first paragraph of the book contains two words—“absara” and “sampot”—I had never encountered before.

Armstrong tells a strong and interesting story, and his book was fun to read. The language is strong and very much in the vernacular. Expressions such as “shit weasel,” “whack a mole,” and “pseudo-analytical fartlets” are much in evidence. Shazam and Captain Marvel get a workout as well. Even Howdy Doody and Chief Thunderthud make appearances.

The Fog of War also comes at us like a platoon of spinning anvils, and one of the characters speaks in a Japanese-cum-John Wayne voice. REMFs take a beating in a long rant. I believe this is the most thorough beating we rear-echelon Remington Raiders have been subjected to in recent Vietnam War literature.

The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was the treatment of food and diet. Our hero, Maj. DeRussy is confronted at one point with a main dish of turtle at a state dinner. Most of an entire short chapter is devoted to dealing with DeRussy trying to get this dish down his gullet. DeRussy talks to himself as he tries to eat the dish:

“Get tough, Big Guy. Don’t flash in your plate. Pretend its pasta. DeRussy singled out a piece of something and tugged. He had to wrap his fork around whatever he had latched on to and tug more than once before it snapped up, looking like a piece of strozzapreti.

“It felt like a tapeworm sliding down his throat, the front gaining momentum, the end grudgingly going along. After he swallowed, it occurred to him that anything that fine probably wasn’t a part of the original turtle but was most likely some species of parasite. He hoped that none of it or any of its pals has survived the heat to set up housekeeping inside his head, heart or eyeballs.”

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U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean (carrying flag) arriving at Utapao AFB in Thailand, April 12, 1975

This passage evoked memories and fears that I’d brought back with me from Vietnam, where I’d been much more brave than smart when it came to enjoying the meals that were easily available at little sheds alongside backstreets. The food smelled so good, but we were warned that it was deadly. But here I am, more than fifty years later, still alive—not healthy, not even marginally well, but still alive and functioning. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d be more safety conscious. Maybe not.

I highly recommend Wolf by the Ears to anyone who is curious about what life was like in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Republic of the 1970s comes alive on the pages of this novel. Armstrong has a rare gift for making alien cultures interesting and vibrant.

—David Willson