Each One a Hero by Michael March

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Michael March served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. In his autobiographical Vietnam War novel, Each One a Hero: A Novel of War and Brotherhood (Hellgate Press, 316 pp., $19.95, paper), the main character, a college drop out who gets drafted into the Army, spends time driving an APC just like the main character does in Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, one of the best early (1977) Vietnam War novels.

Each One A Hero gives no challenge to Close Quarters, but it is a worthy effort. The reader encounters the notion that the VC fight their war by arming whores with razor blades in their vaginas. It also asks the question, “Why don’t they give up?” as they are hopelessly out-manned and outclassed, or so the Americans seem to think. Certainly the results of the U.S. body counts seemed to indicate so.

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Michael March

Ann Margaret, Annette Funicello, the Freedom Bird, Woody Woodpecker, and a lot of the usual American pop culture stuff we find in Vietnam War novels gets name checked in this book. The Tet Offensive and the Light at the End of the Tunnel get a workout, too. Magical realism even rears its head, along with Buddy Knox and his great fifties rock and roll song “Party Doll.”

Each One a Hero is well written and is a quick read. The hero returns from his Bangkok sex-capades with his “dick hurting like a bastard.” He was singing the blues right out of “House of the Rising Sun.” That makes me glad I chose not to take my R&R in Thailand.

There is some humor in this book, but it’s hard to laugh at the hero’s predicament as he prepares to return home. I’m sure he figured it out.

—David Willson

The Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.

The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?

The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.

Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.

Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.

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Tom Glenn

Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.

You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.

Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.

—Loana Hoylman

Phoenix Mistress by Frank Wadleigh

 

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Frank Wadleigh’s Phoenix Mistress (iUniverse, 208 pp., $24.95; $14.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is written in the first person, but the book is a novel and the characters are fictional—except for famous people. The book takes place in Saigon in 1969-71, which is when the author worked as a senior intelligence analyst at MACV on the controversial Phoenix pacification program. All of the details in the book on Phoenix, Wadleigh says, are true.

Often the book reads more like a memoir than a novel, but that is not unusual for books of this sort. The main character, a computer scientist, is assigned the job of investigating the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. He is shocked that innocent civilians are targeted and tortured. He protests and when those protests are ignored, he faces a moral dilemma.

Then he meets the title character.  She is pictured on the cover of the book.

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Frank Wadleigh

This novel is engrossing and well-written. As this is a historical novel, expect to come across a lot of facts and names. I recommend it to those who wish to read a book about this particular aspect of the non-combat side of the Vietnam War.

Wadleigh tell us he was “directly involved in the Pacification program headed by William Colby who became CIA Director after the war.” So he knows what he is writing about.

—David Willson

 

The Big Buddha Bicycle Race by Terence A. Harkin

Terence A. Harkin’s The Big Buddha Bicycle Race (Silkworm Books, 446 pp., $6.99, Kindle) and its sequel, In the Year of the Rabbit, are set in Ubon, Thailand, where Harkin served with the U.S. Air Force’s AAVS Detachment 3 during the Vietnam War. He’s currently at work on his third novel, Tinseltown Two-Step, set in Los Angeles and Chiang Mai. Harkin, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent twenty-five years as a Hollywood cameraman. His time in the Air Force well prepared him for that job.

Big Buddha is a work of fiction, but it often reads like a memoir of Harkin’s time in Thailand. He titles the book’s segment with dates such as “April 1970-March 1970,” and provides detailed place names, such as the 136th Photo Squadron at Norton Air Force Base, California, HQ of the Aerospace-Audio Base, California, Acronym AAVS, pronounced “Avis” in Air Force speak.

The main character, Airman Leary, failed to read his USAF enlistment contract closely, overlooking the words “Needs of the Air Force,” so he ended up closer to the war than his recruiting sergeant said he would. As a result, the reader learns a lot about the real-life duties and experiences of airmen in a photo squadron.

Airman Leary, a cameraman with the 601st Photo Squadron in Ubon, decides that it is a propitious time to put on a bicycle race “to keep up unit morale” because Nixon and Kissinger are going to visit. A bicycle race of “lovable Americans riding through the countryside to win Thai hearts and minds” would send a message to the world when featured in Life magazine and Stars & Stripes.

There is some resistance from the North Vietnamese 599th Transportation Group so things don’t go quite as planned. It turns out that the race didn’t work well as a celebration of the war winding down—or, more accurately, as the war began to fail to wind down as promised. Where is that light at the end of the tunnel?  Let’s pedal our asses toward it as hard as we can and see what happens.

Harkin has come up with an enjoyable read. The book, however, offers more information about the workings of a Photo Squadron in Southeast Asia than any of us will ever need. Or want. We get some of the same popular culture references we’d expect from such a novel: John Wayne westerns, John Ford, Babe Ruth, and Muhammad Ali. But there also are some not so likely ones:  Harmon Killebrew, Pinkie Lee, Guy Lombardo, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Suzy Wong, Wilfred Owens war poems and The Anderson Platoon. 

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Terry Harkin

This is a perfect book for a movie lover to read if he also wishes to get credit for reading a book about our war in Southeast Asia. Did I mention that Airman Leary is a white kid from the Boston suburbs who is a drummer in a band and that he loves the music of Otis Redding, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke?

That adds a layer of cultural meaning to the book. Probably the one thing this book does not need is another layer of cultural meaning. Consider it a bonus.

The author’s website is http://www.taharkin.net

—David Willson

A Long Healing Come Slowly by Jim Carmichael

 

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Jim Carmichael is a Marine who served a combat-heavy thirteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1967-68. He survived the 1968 Tet Offensive and spent seventy-seven days at Khe Sanh. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1997. A Long Healing Come Slowly: A Novel about PTSD and its Effects on Suffering Individuals and their Families (LifeRich, 536 pp., $44.95, hardcover; $33.99, paper) is his Carmichael’s first novel. He intends to write a sequel.

The Preface describes this book as a fast read which it really is not. It is a large book that gives the history of multiple generations of a family with much involvement in America’s wars.  Also, the book has some axes to grind. For instance, the author claims that “This country is also rapidly outlawing the mention or open display of God or his Law.”  If our country has, I’ve failed to take notice of it.

In a nutshell, this novel, Carmichael tell us, is about “a family living with a veteran who has PTSD.” That is no lie, and the author totally nails what that is like, missing no nuance in describing it. He traces the origins through multiple wars as the book’s veteran characters are still alive and involved in the family. Novelists have that control.

The veterans in this novel have experienced and survived, sort of, the worst of America’s modern wars, including the Bataan Death March, and they are available and willing to testify about their trauma. Spoiler alert: I was shocked when the novelist killed off his main character. I sat and pondered and reread the chapter to make sure that it really happened. First time for me to get hit with that in a Vietnam War novel. A member of the Greatest Generation shoots himself with his pistol.

He was one of those veterans who came back from World War II and chose to work his demons to death by making a good life for his family. I am familiar with that method as that was how my father dealt with his Iwo Jima Marine Corps demons. Repression and demanding control and a smooth peaceful life. Until his war came home. His wife thought the war was over. But was it?

111111111111111111111111111111111111This novel makes the point that the war is never over. The military was not into anger management, so veterans had no idea what to do about their anger. Then the real cost of war becomes apparent. And often veterans are thrown to the wolves.

Prison is full of them. So are cemeteries.

This is an engrossing novel and I look forward to the sequel, which will, I hope, address the many loose ends left hanging at the end of this book.

Carmichael has done a superb job of showing how a veteran with PTSD can masquerade as a perfect family man, and how his cover can get blown by a disturbing incident and knock the whole apple cart of a perfect American family totally out of kilter.

Read this book and weep. I did.

The author’s website is alonghealing.com

—David Willson

 

 

For No Good Reason by Steve Banko

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Steve Banko dedicates his firs novel, For No Good Reason (No Frills Buffalo/Amelia Press, 318 pp., $14.95, paper), to the 1st Cavalry Division Garryowen troopers of Company D, 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry who fought and died on December 3, 1968. Banko served sixteen months in Vietnam where he was wounded six times and received the Silver Star in addition to his four Purple Hearts.

For No Good Reason is a blood and guts Army infantry novel. My impression is that Banko drew heavily on his own wartime experiences for the narrative. In the acknowledgements he informs the reader that John Holcomb, his good friend, died saving Banko’s life on December 3, 1968, and that Holcomb was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor. Banko made it home to grow old and bald.

For No Good Reason namechecks both the usual and the unusual, including John Wayne, Audie Murphy, Sgt. York, Racquel Welch, Goldie Hawn, and Superman. Shit is burned in the rear and we are admonished to get the hell out of Dodge, and that we “gotta get out of this place.” The place is Indian Country where Pancho Villa is also making a stand. The “hurting kangaroo” I encountered was new to me. I predict I’ll not see him again.

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Steve Banko

The writing is made up of short sentences and punchy expressions. Here is a typical example:

“I was thinking of our next move when some screaming and shooting came from our right. Our two buddies got a bead on the machine gun when he opened fire on us and assaulted from behind it. It was like John Wayne and Audie Murphy came flying to our rescue. They were shooting and screaming and acting all kinds of crazy. When one gook fell from the tree, we got the message and started shooting too. When we stopped to reload, everything was quiet.”

Banko’s prose hooks the reader and never lets go.

I recommend this war thriller to those who have not overdosed on infantry action books.  It moves right along, never stopping for idle moments.

—David Willson

Escape from Saigon by Michael Morris and Dick Pirozzolo

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Michael Morris served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as an infantry sergeant in Northern I Corps, taking part in the Tet Offensive. Dick Pirozzolo served the war in 1970-71 as an Air Force information officer in Saigon where he helped conduct daily press conferences known as the “Five O’Clock Follies.”

Their novel, Escape from Saigon (Skyhorse, 264 pp., $24.99) deals in detail with the month of April 1975, during which thousands of people scrambled to get out of Vietnam prior to the North Vietnamese takeover. Lots of suspense is built in this novel as we get to know many of the various people trapped in what rapidly becomes a besieged city.

One of my favorite characters is a long-haired, hippie-looking former GI who returns to Saigon to rescue his Vietnamese wife’s relatives. One of them does not want to leave as she is convinced it would not be so bad to be in Saigon under the communists. Also, she has a lover she does not want to leave behind. Our hero speaks fluent Vietnamese, which he uses to his advantage.

wall02The American ambassador is portrayed as more than half crazy. He does not want to leave and sees no reason to do so. He takes some convincing.

The near-total confusion and breakdown of a great city is well portrayed and works well as a cliffhanger thriller. I highly recommend it to those who are interested in what it was like at the end in Saigon in April 1975.

I was safe at home in Maple Valley, Washington in April of 1975, but part of my heart was in Saigon, the Paris of Southeast Asia. I shed a tear when I heard the announcement on the radio, and I shed a few tears reading this fine thriller.

–David Willson