Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud

Frenchy’s Whore by Vernon Brewer II

Vernon Brewer’s Frenchy’s Whore: A Teenage Paratrooper Goes from High School to the Point of the Spear (BookBaby, 242 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), first published in 1994, is an autobiographical novel based on the author’s 1968-69 tour of duty in the Vietnam War with Alpha Company in the 4th Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. It contains snappy dialogue and Brewer shows off a camera’s eye for war action. From beginning to end, the book made me hold my breath, waiting for more.

The title appears to be a loose metaphor for the French and American wars in Vietnam. The plot includes the U.S. stepping into the political vacuum following the 1954 French defeat, and deals with the illegitimacy of the French and American efforts to force democracy upon the people of Vietnam.

As Brewer begins to weave his story, he offers a disclaimer regarding “language-of-the-day” and the widespread use of marijuana by most of the enlisted men in the book. The dialogue borders on the theatrical, including pronunciations and the nicknames of nearly all of the characters. 

The book develops around its subtitle as the main character goes from a home town loser to an Airborne trooper who longs for battle, enemy contact, war souvenirs, and a way to prove himself and come home a war hero.

One of the troopers in the story, nicknamed Frenchy, has an ongoing relationship with a Vietnamese prostitute. After he is gravely wounded, losing both legs in a rocket attack, she wants nothing to do with him, as he no longer represents a way to escape to America.

Brewer, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wrote his book seemingly from his faultless memory for dialogue and the details of daily life of a group of Sky Troopers. This is a well-written book, though using the same font size for the footnotes and the text was a bit jarring.

Still, Frenchy’s Whore is a worthy effort and a good read.

–Tom Werzyn

Legacy of Evil by Ed Marohn

With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.  

Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. A member of Vietnam Veterans of America, he has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.

Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.

Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”

The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the twenty-four-hour-light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.

At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.

The author’s website is writingsfromed.com

–Bill McCloud

Landing Zone by Carlos Arce

Carlos Arce, the author of the multi-volume Landing Zone (983 pp. HEDSA Publishing, Kindle), describes the work as an “illustrated serial-novel about the Vietnam War written by a disabled combat infantry veteran who served in the war during 1969-1970.” The novel is divided into seven volumes with 41 chapters and tells Arce’s substantially autobiographical story. While they are tied together, Arce says that each chapter is also intended to stand as its own story.

What sets this novel apart is the inclusion of 642 photographs, drawings, and graphs pulled from the Internet. The illustrations give the novel an encyclopedic nature. When Arce mentions a weapon in his story you can be sure you’ll see a picture of it on the next page. Same with Agent Orange, snakes, and other Vietnam War things he encountered in Vietnam.

In Volume 1: The Beginning (which we reviewed in these pages in 2016), main character George Vida knows what’s in store when he receives orders to report to Oakland, California, in July 1969. He says he felt “afraid to be afraid.” He had enjoyed his Army training, though, and thought it was “fun” to shoot an M-16 in fully automatic mode and to jump out of airplanes. After his arrival in South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut, the air base the base comes under rocket attack. Vida is knocked to the ground and a guy he had made friends with on the plane is killed.

He’s assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division and is sent to another reception center where he says he received “a crash course on how to go to war.” He’s told to not trust any Vietnamese and quickly realizes that just about everything around him is an extreme threat. He doesn’t feel better when he’s told he’ll be spending most of his time in the jungle.

In Volume 2: The Shock, Vida’s sent out into the field and it’s not long before he sees engages in hand-to-hand fighting with an enemy soldier that involves the two of them biting each other. He casually notes that in hand-to-hand fighting Americans have an edge because of their larger stature.

In Volume 3: Survival, Vida finds himself aboard a helicopter with two uncooperative Vietnamese prisoners. He watches in horror as one of them is thrown out. That’s an awful lot of action for one guy to have experienced in such a relatively short period of time. Arce addresses that by saying the story is based on things he saw and experienced, as well as things other soldiers told him.

One thing that’s similar to many other Vietnam War stories is that the moment Vida meets an Army nurse she is immediately attracted to him.

Volume 4: Resignation finds Vida enjoying his R&R in Bangkok. The three remaining volumes get us back into action, along with ruminations about what the war was really all about. Arce provides a brief history of the war, talks about why the U.S. did not succeed, and goes over our overall military strategy.  

The concluding volume has Vida returning home in mid-1970. We then read, decades after his service, about his feelings about the antiwar movement, the use of Agent Orange, and present-day veteran suicides.

With its illustrations, stories, and historic information, this book is a one-stop shop, especially for those with little knowledge about the Vietnam War.

Carlos Arce concludes this book, which was a labor of love for him, by saying: “I will struggle with my memories and the pain that will always be there, but I was proud then and I am proud now. I was an American soldier and I did what I had to do.”

–Bill McCloud

Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

Red, White, & Blue by Michael Dean Moomey

Michael Dean Moomey’s novel, Red, White & Blue: Life of a Warrior (Archway Publishing, 250 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), is a wild look at one man’s adventurous life in the Vietnam War and later working for the FBI and CIA. Moomey, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy during the war. He says this novel was inspired by actual events.

In the opposite of what you might expect, main character Jake Lewis’ mother pushes him to join the Navy at age 17 to get him out of the house and away from his abusive, alcoholic, World War II-vet father. He is sent to the Philippines to catch his ship where he starts off on the deck-cleaning crew before being moved to loading gun mounts, then later serves as a helmsman on the bridge.

Jake undergoes Special Warfare Training after that, and then takes part in top-secret rescue missions in Vietnam in which he engages in close-combat action. One involves a POW camp in Cambodia run by the Viet Cong. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he volunteers to go to Khe Sanh during the siege. When he and a few buddies take a week of R&R in Taiwan, they get into a bar fight so big they are expelled from the country.

Jake then volunteers to join a team trying to rescue the crew of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea. Then he works with the CIA on a covert operation in Thailand. He’s a senior Studies and Observations Group (SOG) team leader when he begins his third year in Vietnam by re-enlisting and taking part in action in Laos.

If you’re think I’ve revealed the book’s entire plot, think again. What I’ve described here takes place is less than half the book. Jake later goes to work for the FBI and then the CIA. Moomey ends the book with Jake writing: “Well, you’ve heard all of my adventures.”

Michael Dean Moomey writes in a conversational, readable manner. Reading his look is like listening to someone telling you a story—and you hanging on every word. The story is told in a hypnotic fashion that keeps pulling you in.

Red, White & Blue is a great read.

The author’s website is michaeldeanmoomey.com

–Bill McCloud

In the Year of the Rabbit by Terence A. Harkin

Terrence A. Harkin’s new novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), is the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, but Rabbit is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens with Harkin’s Brendan Leary, an American cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following a terrorist attack on the bicycle race he organized.. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served in a USAF photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Together, Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Though he tries to put the past behind him, Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the war. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is, in his own words, “a gunner and a bomb loader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared experiences in the war.

At times, both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side, the book contains many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in the movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. The thoughtfulness and careful prose of In the Year of the Rabbit make Terry Harkin’s second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.

The author’s website is taharkin.net

–Meg Bywater

Warriors and Friends by Jim Hasse

Jim Hasse’s Warriors and Friends: Through the Eyes of His Alter-Ego, a Green Beret Unlocks Forbidden Memories of Vietnam on His Path to Healing (296 pp. $11.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is billed as a collection of 38 short stories. For the most part, though, it reads like a novel divided into 38 chapters. Hasse describes his book as a memoir written in the form of “creative non-fiction” because it’s a fictional retelling of events that really happened. Warriors and Friends is a really fine book, though, whether it’s a creative nonfiction, a novel or a group of short stories.

Hasse spent two years on the ground in Vietnam as a Green Beret sergeant. He later made a career in law enforcement. In the book Hasse’s alter ego is Jay Boone Hanson. In 1965 Hanson is in college listening to a stern professor challenging the males in class to consider what they’re going to do with their lives. What Hanson does is drop out of school and join the Army. The professor is the only person in the book to come across as a caricature. He is reminiscent of the schoolmaster, Kantorek, in All Quiet on the Western Front, who encourages his young students to join the German army.

I bonded early on with Hanson when he went through three months of training at Fort Gordon to become a Communication Center Specialist. I had that same training and, also like me, he would not work very long in that MOS. He makes an unsuccessful stab at Officer Candidate School and then goes through Special Forces training at Fort Bragg before arriving in Vietnam in January 1967.

“I believe I have always had the warrior spirit,” Hanson says, and he sees plenty of action in Vietnam in firefights, ambushes, and raucous nights back at the club. He’s issued large amounts of amphetamines to help him stay awake in the field and serves with a Sergeant First Class who, when in the rear, begins some of his mornings with two double Scotches mixed with buttermilk.

Hanson encounters a Vietnamese orphanage, Montagnard tribesmen, and an atrocity is committed by an American. Many people we read about in the book end up being killed. “The constant presence of death,” Hanson says, “stunned me into appreciating life.”

Once he’s home in Illinois out of the Army and dealing with ex-wives and PTSD, Hanson takes comfort in a companion dog while taking part in therapy groups for war veterans and finding a creative outlet in a veteran writers group.

Hanson says he was “devastated” when he “had to leave combat, Vietnam, and the military.” Later he recalls: “In the past fifty-two years I have thought of Vietnam every day, many times a day, and I am back there again on nights too numerous to count.”

Jim Hasse does a great job telling this story in a way that keeps the reader engaged. Now that I think about it, the idea of making the book’s chapters into short stories works.

–Bill McCloud