Mended Wings by Colin P. Cahoon

Colin Cahoon’s Mended Wings: The Vietnam War Experience through the Eyes of Ten American Purple Heart Helicopter Pilots (Valor Press, 249 pp. $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a compilation of ten stories Cahoon put together honoring men who were wounded in acting flying rotary-winged aircraft in the Vietnam War. Cahoon, who served as an Army helicopter pilot in the mid-1980s, also is the author of two novels, The Man with the Black Box and Charlie Calling.

Mended Wings is based on many interviews Cahoon conducted and a good deal of research he did into the part helicopters played in the Vietnam War. Each chapter contains a concise account of the often chaotic and bone-chilling events that resulted in a pilot getting wounded. Cahoon also skillfully includes the details of the pilots’ early years, military careers, and post-war lives.

Cahoon’s first-hand knowledge of helicopters helps him describe many aspects of the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of helicopters in the Vietnam War. He also goes over each mission’s objectives, risks, planned and unplanned events, and end results, along with the pilots’ reasoning and state of mind.

As I began reading a chapter, I was invariably drawn to the photos at the end. I had to see the faces of of the pilots as I read their stories. That way I could practically see, hear, and sometimes feel the chaos inside the helicopters when they were hit, sometimes from close range. In several cases, the pilots volunteered to extend their tours or to serve second tours of duty in the dangerous skies of South Vietnam. There must be hundreds of similar stories and I would love to see Cahoon do another book with more of them.

Reading this book, I felt each chapter was almost a book in itself. I always believed Vietnam War helicopter pilots to be warriors. This book leaves no doubt in my mind that they were some of the bravest, most dependable, and most valuable assets of that war. 

I highly recommend Mended Wings.

The author’s website is colinpcahoon.com

–Bob Wartman

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America by Michael H. Cunningham

Michael Cunningham’s Lost in Vietnam, Found in America: A Saga of Vietnamese Boat People (258 pp. $16.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is Cunningham’s fifth book, two of which are novels. The former Americal Division infantryman who served in Vietnam in 1968-69 wrote Walking Point, a memoir about that tour of duty.

After his discharge, Cunningham spent nearly 30 years working for the U.S. Customs Service and retired in 2007. Since then, he has been a veterans advocate and has supported philanthropic projects in Vietnam.

In writing Lost in Vietnam, Found in America, Cunningham set out to show the plight of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese Boat People who fled their country after the communists took over South Vietnam in 1975. He does this very well by focusing on the travails of one family of seven, including five children.

The first half of the book describes life in Vietnam under communism and the very difficult and dangerous process of fleeing that country. The balance of the book describes the delays and uncertainties associated with emigrating legally from Vietnam and assimilating into American culture.

Lost in Vietnam, Found in America also shows how Vietnamese people during the American war went about their daily lives, traveling freely and unmolested between villages and cities. Sometimes even younger children traveled alone to and from school and to the homes of friends and relatives in other villages. Americans are so used to reading about the Vietnam War’s battles, ambushes and booby-traps that we can lose sight of the fact that millions of ordinary Vietnamese citizens did their best to live normal lives during the conflict.

Cunningham is even-handed with his observations and evaluations of people, places, and events. He gleaned most of his information from first-hand sources, primarily ordinary Vietnamese people. His book illuminates a historic event that should be remembered and studied to help prevent its recurrence.

I highly recommend Lost in Vietnam, Found in America. Mike Cunningham has done a very good job presenting his story.

–Bob Wartman

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

em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud

The Second Team by James C. Downing, Jr.

The title of James C. Downing Jr.’s The Second Team: A Vietnam Pilot’s Journal Account of Faith, Freedom and Flying (Encodable Impact, 404 pp. $17.76, paper; $17.77, Kindle) is not a reference to a skill level. It rather refers to former Army helicopter pilot Downing’s tour of duty in Vietnam, which began in 1966 when he was among those who replaced the first wave of 1st Cavalry Division chopper pilots returning home after tours ended.

Downing begins his story by writing about his less-than-sterling childhood, and then explains how his love of flying came about. His deeply held Christian faith is evident throughout the book; virtually each page contains some mention of his devotion to his personal God. Sometimes during his Vietnam War tour Downing’s faith seemed at odds with his fellow pilots who spent much leisure time carousing at the Officers’ Club. But he persevered.

Downing enlisted in the Army in July 1963, completed helicopter flight school, and was sent to Korea where he was 1st Cav’s Commanding Gen. Hugh Exton’s personal pilot. Downing writes that as his flight hours accrued, he learned valuable lessons on the ground, as well as in the air.

From Korea, Downing deployed to Vietnam, and another assignment with the 1st Cav as a Chinook pilot. To fill an empty slot, he was temporarily assigned as a slick pilot for a few months, then went back to the twin-engine CH-47.

Downing kept a daily journal from his first day in the Army to his last. He leans heavily on those journal entries in this memoir. They contained masses of info on his daily life in Vietnam, and that minutia tends to bog down the story for a reader who isn’t as enamored of flying as the author is. On the other hand, those who appreciate the expertise and finesse required for piloting slicks and Chinooks in combat will be well rewarded. 

Several times Downing repeats stories, and the book contains some spelling and grammatical errors. At times, the book reads as if it was dictated or copied out verbatim from the journal pages. Downing would have benefited from tighter editing and proofing, but the book, in the end, is a good read—a good story from a good man. And a book I recommend.

The author’s website is jamescdowningjr.com

–Tom Werzyn                                                   

Jungle Combat by Gemma M. Jablonski

Gemma Jablonski’s Jungle Combat: A Combat Pilot’s Tape Recorded Transcripts from Vietnam, 1968-1969 (299 pp. $27.99), paper; $15.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War time capsule. That’s because it is not based on memory, but consists of a series of edited transcripts of tapes recorded by John Astle during his Vietnam War tour of duty in 1968-69. Jablonski, a long-time friend of Astle, transcribed the audio tapes.

John “Ace” Astle went to Vietnam as a Marine aviator. During his year flying helicopters he kept an audio diary on a small tape recorder, sending the tapes home on a regular basis. He also regularly received tapes from home. He recorded many of the tapes while he was in the latrine, which is why he told his family not to “try to read anything into the tone of my voice.”

The entries are arranged chronologically, running from June 1968 to June 1969 where they appropriately, and abruptly, end with the last tape.

Astle was stationed at Marble Mountain, part of the Da Nang complex, where he flew large CH-46s. When the young lieutenant first arrived there he heard were rumors of impending attacks by the Viet Cong. On a recording he made on his second day in-country he said: “One thing I will say about Vietnam is that I don’t think I’m going to like it very much and will probably be happy to end my tour and get back to the States.” Hearing the sounds of artillery fire in the distance, he said that it wouldn’t be long before he would begin flying “out into bad guy land.”

After Astle’s first few flights he reported that he was “kind of disappointed” that he didn’t get shot at. Later, I read his accounts of several several life-and-death adventures, I couldn’t help wondering why he was “writing” about such things home to his mother. Most of the participants in the war I know tried to keep their families in the dark about the day-to-day dangers they faced. Astle, on the other hand, seemed to have no desire to hold anything back.  

He talks about a rocket attack on the base, a mortar attack, and about sixteen men who were lost in a helicopter crash. He talks more than once of having been in “a shit sandwich.” One time a bullet came into the cockpit. Another mission ended with twelve holes in the helicopter. And he talks of mid-air collisions. I can’t help but wonder how much additional stress was put on his family as they listened week-by-week to so many hair-raising stories.

The transcribed tapes do, however, make for an interesting, immensely readable book. Every veteran has a story and each deserves to be heard. This book has an easy, consistent flow, and the credit for that goes to Jablonski.

One thing that puzzled me was the more than three dozen instances in which this Marine aviator referred to his helicopter as an airplane. There may have been pilots who did that, but I think it would have been extremely unusual.

The book’s website is authorgemma.com/jungle-combat

–Bill McCloud

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam by William J. Walsh

Dr. William J. Walsh served as a U.S. Navy surgeon aboard the hospital ship USS Repose off the coast of South Vietnam in 1966-67. His memoir, Navy Surgeon: Vietnam (Dorrance, 162 pp., $14, paper; $9, Kindle) is a series of stories about his shipmates and the wounded Marines and Vietnamese he treated. The stories, which are not in chronological order, sort of resemble the TV series M.A.S.H. set in the Vietnam War aboard ship in the South China Sea.

Dr. Walsh never felt he was a true Navy officer. While serving as a medical resident in the summer of 1966, his application for an additional year of training was rejected as the senior staff doctor knew that Walsh would soon be drafted. Walsh then volunteered to serve in the Navy. Almost immediately after he was inducted, Walsh was sent to Vietnam. 

His military training consisted of two days of orientation films and a class by a Chief Petty Officer on how to salute. Since he knew he was going to serve on the Repose, Walsh carefully studied the proper procedures for requesting permission to board a Navy ship. After several days traveling by jet, C-130, and a Marine UH-34 helicopter, he landed on the Repose and was unceremoniously sent below decks—and never had the opportunity to request permission to board.

In each of the book’s short chapters Walsh concentrates on a single event or person. For example, in one chapter he notes that the Repose was the only Navy ship at the time that had women on board and describes the uniqueness of that situation. He writes that Army and Marine helicopters would buzz the ship at low levels, trying to see if any female nurses were sunbathing on the deck. The nurses were so popular with the men that the ship required that they had to be accompanied by a male officer while ashore.

Most of Walsh’s stories involve treating the many Marines, South Vietnamese troops, and Vietnamese civilians on the hospital ship. Although assigned as a General Medical Officer, Walsh performed hundreds of major surgeries, more operations in a year than most civilian surgeons would perform in a decade. 

When the medevac helicopters began arriving, the medical staff would stage near the flight deck, triage the casualties, and then work their way through the cases, often spending 12 hours or more in the operating rooms. In one chapter, Walsh describes some unusual cases he had to deal with, such as parasitic worm infestations and Marines attacked by tigers, snakes, and sharks. Walsh and his fellow doctors, many of whom were drafted into the Navy, were extremely proud of the survival rate of their patients.

Navy nurses aboard the USS Repose in Subic Bay

The most poignant story in the book involves the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. On July 29, 1967, a flight deck fire on this ship killed 134 sailors and wounded 161. All of the dead sailors were evacuated to the Repose, along with most of the wounded. Every wounded sailor, many of whom were badly burned, survived.

After his Vietnam War tour Dr. Walsh spent another year in the Navy at the New London Submarine Base hospital before continuing his medical training and becoming an orthopedic surgeon. He writes that he thinks about his time on the Repose every day, and returned to Vietnam in 2015 to visit battlefields where the Marine casualties he treated fought and were wounded.

Navy Surgeon: Vietnam is a short book, but well worth reading for its unique perspective on the Vietnam War.

–Marshall Snyder

Blackhorse Tales by Donald C. Snedeker

Donald C. Snedeker’s Blackhorse Tales: Stories of 11th Armored Cavalry Troopers at War (Casemate, 304 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99 Kindle), is one of the best books I have read about U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War.

Snedeker served in 1969-70 as a platoon leader with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) Regiment. The unit operated in the hotly contested War Zones C & D north of Saigon in places such as An Loc, Zuan Loc, Di An, Gia Ray, Bien Hoa, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Nui Ba Den, Tay Ninh, and the Ho Bo Woods, and farther west into Cambodia.

Although he awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Snedeker writes very little about himself in this, his second book about the regiment. The first was The Blackhorse in Vietnam, which came out in 2020. His new book is almost entirely about other Blackhorse troopers and a few attached units. Through scores of interviews, they share their experiences, perspectives, and evaluations.

While writing about one combat engagement after another, Snedeker, who is the unit’s long-time historian, includes many photos, maps, and drawings. Blackhorse Tales is well designed with seven chapters interspersed with “Combat Vignettes.” The chapters include many details about Vietnamese civilians and allies, animals, terrain and weather, and how all of that affected every aspect of the lives of the troops.

These men literally lived in their APCs and tanks. Some spent months in the bush before returning to base camp. They set up fire support bases that were more like night defensive positions, and frequently were on the move. One trooper said he felt like a gypsy living in his track and constantly moving to other positions. 

Reading Blackhorse Tales, I was even more impressed with the mobility and effectiveness of armored troops in the jungles and through the rice paddies of South Vietnam. It is estimated that in its 67 months in country, the 11th Cav drove their tracked and wheeled vehicles over some 23-million miles of terrain and that the unit’s air group had flown some 250,000 sorties.

I truly enjoyed and appreciated Don Snedeker’s work in Blackhorse Tales. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam by Charles U. Smith

Charles U. Smith’s The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 128 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a war memoir that Smith put together with the help of Constance Williams.

In it, Smith explains how he came to construct his story, then takes the reader on a short tour of his childhood growing up in segregated Prattville, Alabama, his high school graduation, and his enlistment in the U.S. Army three months later in September 1964. A less than stellar send-off speech by his school district’s superintendent gave Smith all the impetus he needed to get out of town and make a better life, beginning with joining the military. That, in fact, was the route his four older brothers took.

The strange title refers to the path Smith’s infantry training took—first to Alaska to train as a “snow trooper,” then to Hawaii for some jungle training, and finally, in late 1965, to Ch Chi in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division.

Smith’s describes his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War as more-or-less uneventful, though he recounts near misses and tales of buddies lost, along with descriptions of the daily minutia of life in the warzone. He often speaks about his experiences as a Black man and as a Black soldier; several times Smith repeats stories, which likely is due to the stream-of-consciousness way in which he tells his war story.

After returning home, Charles Smith worked several jobs before settling into a career with Greyhound Bus Lines. He worked as an interstate driver and as a driver-instructor during his 30-plus years with the company.

This is a short book and a quick read—and a good look at one man’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Fire Road by Kim Phuc

The picture has been seared into America’s collective memory since 1972. A nine-year old girl running naked down a road in South Vietnam after her village was napalmed by a South Vietnamese Air Force jet. The photo is almost always accompanied by the story of how Nick Ut, a Vietnamese Associated Press photographer, captured the Pulitzer Prize-wining image, which brought him international acclaim and propelled the young girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, onto the world stage.

In 2017, with Ashley Wiersma, Kim Phuc wrote a soulful, deeply religious account of that June 1972 day and the years that followed. In Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness & Peace (Tyndale House, 336 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper), she writes about that jet screeching overhead as she ran from the village of Trang Bang on soldiers’ orders:

“Falling from that underbelly were four ice-black bombs. The bombs softly made their way to the ground, landing one by one, somersaulting end over end—whump-whump, whump-whump. These were not the bombs that fell heavily from the sky; no, these bombs all but floated down. There was something sinister in those cans.”

Later, the communist government paraded Kim Phuc before international journalists, all of whom wanted to know how the “Napalm Girl’ was faring. The government repeatedly robbed her of the education she wanted, and her desire to be a medical doctor as a way of repaying doctors the world over who had done their best to alleviate her constant pain.

By a stroke of luck, during a trip to Hanoi, she was introduced to Prime Minister Pham Van Dong, one of Ho Chi Minh’s former lieutenants. He took a fatherly interest in her and arranged to send her to Cuba. At first, she felt that being on a Caribbean Island far away from Vietnam would provide solace and a respite from being a propaganda puppet. She would soon be proven wrong. Even thousands of miles away from Vietnam, it seemed that she would never be able to be free of the country’s grip.

“Although Bac [Uncle] Dong had assured me that I would be free from oppressive `minding’ by Vietnamese officials in Cuba, an embassy man had been assigned to me, visiting me in the hospital almost daily, checking in on my goings-on, gathering details to take back to his superiors.”

Kim Phuc

It was in Cuba that Kim Phuc met the man who would become her husband, Bui Huy Toan, a fellow student. They married and she soon expressed her frustrations to Toan over what the Vietnamese government had put her through since 1972.

On their return flight after their honeymoon in Moscow, the idea of defecting began to fester. Her husband at first resisted, but Kim Phuc stood her ground and, at a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, both announced their desire to seek political asylum.

Recent years have found her traveling the world in the cause of peace as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO, and also for her Kim Foundation. She has opened her heart internationally to those less fortunate than she, and Fire Road sheds a wonderfully bright light on her valiant struggle to survive and the peace and love that she found in doing so.

–Marc Phillip Yablonka.

The reviewer is a military journalist and author whose latest book is Vietnam Bao Chi: Warriors of Word and Film