Facing the Dragon by Philip Derrick

Phillip Derrrick’s Facing the Dragon: A Vietnam War Mystery Thriller (Sunnyslope Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of fiction. In the preface Derrick tells us that the war in Vietnam was seen differently by every veteran who was there between 1964 and 1973. Events in this novel take place primarily in 1970 at the Second Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment.

Derrick is an Air Force brat who joined the Army and served in Korea during the Vietnam War. He later earned a PhD in history and had a career in higher education.

The main character of this novel scams his way into the Army at the age of fifteen, which was not unknown to happen. Our hero, who has several names throughout the book but is known as Jim Peterson at the beginning, had witnessed the murder of his family while they are touring Carlsbad Caverns. He escaped and sought sanctuary in the Army, which he entered through an elaborate ruse involving stolen records. Derrick makes these events believable because he knows how the Army worked back in the day.

The book has an elaborate back-and-forth structure, due to the murderer having been a German soldier and a criminal his past life. That’s why part of the novel takes place in 1945 in Germany as well as in Vietnam in 1970.

Much of this is a semi-standard Army infantry novel fare, with our hero gradually learning Army lore even though he did not go through Basic Training. The story is filled with many of the usual Vietnam War fiction references such as a “fuck-you” lizard who speaks some English, Donut Dollies, ring knockers, Project 100,000, John Wayne, jungle penetrators, LBJ, Vic Morrow in Combat the TV show, shit burning, and elephants. To his credit, Derrick also mentions other stuff that is not so usual such as Karl May, the German author of Western novels; laterite; and the riots at Long Binh Jail, aka LBJ.

Philip Derrick

We also get the usual funny names that soldiers in Vietnam War novels are saddled with; in this case, Prophet, Big Red, Dimes, Peddler, and the Project. The LBJ riots are handled well, which makes this novel unusual.

I recommend Facing the Dragon to those looking for an unusual Vietnam War infantry yarn. It is well written and well edited, and the narrative moves right along with no boring patches.

The author’s website is https://philipderrick.com

—David Willson

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The Butterfly Rose by Dick Stanley

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Rarely these days are readers granted an opportunity to enjoy an offering so well constructed and presented as Dick Stanley’s novel, The Butterfly Rose (Cavalry Scout Books, 252 pp. $13.08, paper; $.99, Kindle), a three-generation story of an American and a Vietnamese family’s involvement with each in Vietnam.

Stanley, a former journalist who served in the infantry in the Vietnam War, wordsmiths the English language to an almost lyrical presentation.

One example: “It is a valley of flowers but none is more beautiful than the silken, five petal roses that turn many colors in their brief lives, as ephemeral as butterflies fluttering on a green bush.”

The Butterfly Rose centers on a young, Confederate Army officer, Sean Constantine, a large man with a glowing mane of red hair and a beard to match. After participating in The battle of Manassas, he joins the French Foreign Legion. Through a series of events involving his brother, father, black servant, and a stay in Paris, Constantine is posted to a colonial French garrison in the Central Highlands of Vietnam.

His love of roses, developed over the years of his Mississippi youth and his worldly travels, finds a like-minded individual in the 1860s in Vietnam: a village shaman, an old woman skilled in naturopathic and herbal medicines and remedies. She also is a conjurer who converses with the many gods and deities roaming the Vietnamese jungles.

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Dick Stanley

Fast forward a century to a team of American advisers working with an ARVN combat team in that same Central Highlands valley near Que Son. Neal Constantine, a red-headed grandson of Sean, is a member of that American team, working as a historian. He possesses his grandfathers’ 1860s diary and flower guide. And he meets the great granddaughter of the village healer, without knowing about the earlier family connection.

The story toggles back and forth between the centuries, chapter by chapter. Parallels are drawn, including the weather, expectations of higher commands, tactics, ideologies, as well as the relationship between the big, red-headed American and the old healer and their shared interest in the roses that populate the valley.

This novel artfully spans nations, generations, wars and people, and it ties all those strands together with a shared love of flowers and of the short gift we all share with each other—that of life.

—Tom Werzyn

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

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The late Walter Dean Myers’ acclaimed 1988 Young Adult Vietnam War novel, Fallen Angels (Scholastic, 336 pp., $9.99, paper), is today being featured as assigned reading in high school English, history, and social studies classes across the nation.

While written in the first-person and appearing at first glance to be autobiographical, the story is actually a tribute to Myers’ brother, Thomas Wayne “Sonny” Myers, who died in Vietnam in 1968 and to whom the book is dedicated. It’s told through his eyes.

In the book, names have been changed to protect the innocent. But we easily understand the stories of main character Richie Perry and his comrades who serve in an unidentified unit in Vietnam. Though there are a few mechanical and continuity errors—including weapon caliber and nomenclature—Myers gives us a compact, easy-to-read book.

It’s a story told by a young black man in a predominately black unit in a decidedly racially mixed war. Yet it is a story free of the angst, bitterness, hatred, and racism so often found in other novels dealing with the same theme

Meyers begins as Perry finishes high school and realizes that there is no money in the family for college and that the mean streets hold no future. He believes that the military just might be a way out of town. His adventures through the selection and training processes are chronicled with quite readable dialogue.

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We get almost half way through the book before “fallen angels” are referred to. Myers uses the phrase as a metaphor for the random and senseless loss of life and innocence suffered in the war zone.

Some of Perry’s friends and some new guys are wounded, some go home, some stay and re-up. The story contains a balanced mix of experiences and recollections.

As a high school classroom exercise, the novel provides a suitable exposure to the battlefield and its denizens on both sides—as well as a platform for student discussions, conversations, and learning about family war experiences.

There is the potential for healing and sharing, as well as for enjoying a good story about a bunch of young men caught up in a nasty war.

–Tom Werzyn

Men Come Home From Work… Late by Galen Hobbs

The plot of Galen Hobbs’ Men Come Home From Work…Late  (AuthorHouse, 364 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) involves two men escaping from two POW camps twenty years after the end of the American war in Vietnam War. Jake, who is in the Air Force, and Crow, a Navy SEAL, meet by chance and join forces to try to evade the Vietnamese Army.

When they arrive in Laos, they are joined by a Marine named Ed and by a woman named  Michelle, who appears to have no military affiliation.

They are pursued by a drug gang who are trying to kill them. The United States Embassy also wants them dead. They head west with many obstacles to deal with, harboring the hope in their hearts that they might link up with their families.

The book begins with an author’s note that the novel takes no position on the question of whether Americans were left behind “knowingly or unknowingly” in Vietnam as prisoners of war. Hobbs says he made up all characters’ names, places, and incidents.

Before the story begins, there are two pages of the something called “19 Rogers’ Rules.” The first rule is, “Don’t forget nothing.” The book does give the appearance of having included everything necessary to make the story move right along.

Galen Hobbs

This is a complex tale which seems somewhat muddled, but it held my interest.

The book, in essence, does make a case that the Vietnamese kept Americans after the war. However, it failed to convince me that there were any good reasons to do so.

Readers eager for another Vietnam War POW book could do much worse than to read this one.

I read it in one long sitting.

The author’s website is http://www.ghobbsauthor.com

–David Willson

The Last Red-Line Brig  by Peter Carini

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Peter Carini’s The Last Red-Line Brig (Austin Macauley, 320 pp., $25.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $4.41, Kindle) is a work of fiction that is based on a true story. Carini is a short story writer and English teacher in the San Francisco Bay area.

His novel’s hero, Joe Carini, is a youthful renegade, independent thinker, compassionate husband, and a corpsman in the U.S. Navy near the beginning of the Vietnam War. Never an ambitious man, but tended to do an honest day’s work while daydreaming. He had no interest in war or in learning military discipline.

He ends up in the Navy, assigned to a place known as the “red-line brig” among “hardened, unaccommodating Marines and even less friendly inmates.” The brig’s toughest area is called “dimrats,” and it is nothing short of a nauseating torture chamber.

Joe Carini struggles to conform to the standards of his assignment, but pisses off the Marines and his superior officers at every opportunity. This puts him in frequent danger of becoming an inmate in dimrats himself.

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Peter Carini

The characters in this book have the sort of nicknames those of us who have read a lot of Vietnam War novels have become accustomed to:  Pvt. Unibrow, Sgt. Serious, and No Neck.

If you read this book attentively, you will learn the duties of an assignment to a Red-Line Brig, and books that treat military jobs seriously and thoroughly are rare. That makes this one a valuable resource for military scholars and students of incarceration during the Vietnam War.

I found the novel engrossing and hard to put down. It is well edited and well written and tells a good story. Agent Orange is mentioned in one paragraph and the long-term consequences of exposure to that dangerous toxin are emphasized.

Novels of wartime military incarceration are rare. This is one of the very best.

I highly recommend it.

—David Willson

Vietnam Remix by Jack Nolan

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Jack Nolan served for three years, from 1967-70, in Army intelligence. He was stationed at Fort Holabird in Baltimore, and then to Vietnam where he worked in bilateral operations  in Can Tho and Saigon before returning home to train others in that arcane craft.

His novel of civilian-cover espionage, Vietnam Remix (CreateSpace, 316 pp. $16, paper; $4.99, Kindle), takes place astraddle the 1968 Tet Offensive. It follows a team of young men, “The Greyhawk Six.” The group is made up of  “the feisty Irish kid who can sing like an angel; the big, plodding Southerner who can perform complicated math in his head; the rude, feral Cajun who learns compassion; the peace-maker turned warrior; the rich guy from Harlem forced to be what he isn’t; and the earnest Catholic forced to be what he is.”

This small group embarks upon one zany escapade after another. They are all bright guys who effortlessly take part in cockamamie adventures, misadventures, and civilian cover stories that boggle the mind. They dress civilians so they can pass as nonmilitary contractors.

This is a literate, smoothly written, well-plotted novel unlike any others I have read about the American war in Vietnam. I enjoyed it and highly recommend it to anyone who would like to read a book that is well-edited and that goes its own way to produce an entertaining read filled with surprises and many twists and turns.

That said, the book nods in the direction of the familiar a few times. For instance, the song “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” is genuflected to as it is in hundreds of other Vietnam War novels.  Fragging is also considered and the case is made that the war machine is run by a group called The Clerk’s Mafia. Army clerks like to kid themselves that they are the ones in charge of the war, but I (a former clerk) have my doubts.

For a different look at modern war—and for quite a few laughs—read Vietnam Remix. You won’t regret it.

—David Willson

Curse of the Coloring Book by Howard L. Hibbard

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Howard Hibbard quit college in 1967 to volunteer for the Army. He served as an infantry lieutenant in the Vietnam War, including a stint as a company commander.

Hibbard’s Curse of the Coloring Book: A Novel Inspired by a True Story (Ghost Dog Enterprises, 384 pp., $16.95, paper) is based on his combat and legal experiences, along with PTSD, which has been dominant in his life.

The novel, Hibbard’s first, is told in two back-and-forth sections: those dealing with the long ago past when main character Herald Lloyd was young and in Vietnam, and those recounting the recent, current life he is leading as an attorney who messed up some paperwork and whose career is in severe jeopardy. I found myself focusing more on the Vietnam War sections and being much less absorbed in the legal career Herald is fighting to hang onto.

When reading an infantry novel I tend to keep track of recurring motifs, and I did that with this book. The classic song for GIs of the Vietnam War, The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” was referred to so many times I lost track of how many. That’s a first for me. The last reference takes up nearly an entire page and emphasizes the chaotic camaraderie of an entire platoon singing that song loudly and off key.

Another recurring motif—in this book and in many Vietnam War infantry books—is John Wayne, the man and the movie star. Not to mention REMFs, shit burning, fragging and western references such as Wild Bill Hickok, Custer’s Last Stand, “saddle up,” “died with his boots on,” and others. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry collection, Coney Island of the Mind, is the backbone of the book, as Hibbard includes many quotes and references to it.

Much is made of the “fact” that Vietnam was always hot and never cooled off at night. That may have been true in some places, but I got cold enough at night many times in Long Binh to need a wool Army blanket.

Howard Hibbert

Howard Hibbard

The two stories—the legal mess of Herald’s adult life and the youthful adventure in the Vietnam War—were absorbing to a degree. The Vietnam War episodes were what I enjoyed reading. I’ve never been a lawyer so that might be part of the reason.

I did tire of the wacky characters in Vietnam with wondrous nicknames such as Dogman. But I’ve learned that is the price a reader pays for choosing to read a Vietnam War infantry novel.

As for the coloring book in the title, it is easily ignored with no loss of meaning to the novel.

The author’s website is howardlhibbard.com

—David Willson