Missing on Hill 700 by Carrie Pepper

Marine PFC Anthony “Tony” Pepper disappeared in 1968 while attempting to capture Hill 700 in Vietnam, west of  Khe Sanh. Four days later his parents received a telegram that listed him missing in action. The message was the first of six similar telegrams the Pentagon sent to the family in the next six months. A seventh and final message classified Tony as killed in action/body not recovered.

The loss of their only son put the Pepper family members into mourning for the remainder of their lives. Following the deaths of both parents and the estrangement of an older sister, Tony Pepper’s younger sister Carrie took up the challenge of finding his remains. She had been thirteen when Tony died.

Carrie Pepper tells the story of her quest in Missing on Hill 700: How Losing a Brother in Vietnam Created a Family in America (Cottage Ink, 242 pp., $24.95). Vietnam veterans of 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines who had fought alongside Tony Pepper comprised the new family that she created in America—a family dedicated to the remembrance of her brother.

She found these veterans, many with closely involved wives, and built relationships with them through phone calls, email, letters, visits, memorial services, and unit reunions. Carrie Pepper’s research has recreated the last days of her brother’s life. At the same time, she vicariously experienced what he would have gone through had he survived the war because her band of new brothers also shared the good and bad from their post-war lives.

Despite never finding her brother’s remains, Carrie Pepper arranged to have a ceremony to place a tombstone for him in a special section of Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

Tony Pepper in 1967

Strong similarities link Carrie Pepper’s Missing on Hill 700 with June 17, 1967 by David Hearne. The books differ only because a civilian woman wrote one and a former artillery lieutenant wrote the other.

Both stories, however, focus on small infantry units that needlessly suffered high casualty rates. A tragic undercurrent of the stories is that the casualties were young men who willingly followed flawed tactics and indifferent orders.

These accounts recognize a problem common to small unit operations in the Vietnam War. The lessons taught by them deserve to be told again and again.

Each one was an avoidable tragedy.

The author’s website is cottageinkpublishing.com

—Henry Zeybel

June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II by David Hearne

David Hearne’s account of a battle at Landing Zone X-Ray during Operation Billings in Vietnam in June of 1967 begins: “When the killing started, it was slow and deliberate. They were killing us and we didn’t know it.” That happened at noon. “By about 3 P.M. that day,” Hearne recalls, “more than 30 of our men were dead, and a hundred or more wounded.”

A member of A Company, 2nd of the 28th, the Black Lions of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Hearne was a lieutenant and forward observer for a 105-mm howitzer battery. The Americans that day were “two battalions strong, and had artillery and deadly air support,” Hearne says, and then asks, “What sane Viet Cong commander would subject his men to an inevitable slaughter?”

Despite their apparent superiority, the Americans walked to LZ X-Ray and found themselves ambushed, surrounded, and overrun by the NVA 271st Regiment. A stream of Army helicopter gunships, forty-three Air Force fighter sorties, and 8,250 artillery rounds made the difference in turning back two NVA assaults—a massive display of firepower considering that the battle lasted only one afternoon.

Hearne examines the engagement from multiple perspectives in June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II (Subterfuge, 386 pp.; $17.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), including recollections of fellow soldiers. Amid descriptions of the action, he offers biographies of the men linking them to their families and friends back home.

He also intersperses chapters that compare young soldiers to their counterparts in the civilian world. Even after half a century of reflection, the broad dichotomy of their values still disturbs him.

Overall, Hearne presents a grim picture of the destructiveness of weapons of war. He discusses the effects and duties encountered as part of the aftermath of battle: wounds, shock, feelings of guilt and loss, and fulfilling graves registration requirements.

To compensate for high American losses, the 1st Division commanding general claimed victory based on an unconfirmed enemy body count. Hearne likens the battle’s outcome to “a couple of pugilists beating one another up so badly that they both end up in the intensive care ward, with both of their managers declaring their boxer the winner.”

Sixteen pages of photographs and maps support Hearne’s account of the battle. He also includes the official After Action Report.

Books about Xom Bo II are rare. Gregory Murry presented a sergeant’s view of the encounter In Content with My Wages (2015). Hearne recognizes him for providing a “plethora of facts.” Because they fought in different positions on the landing zone, their views differ. Primarily, Murry found significant faults with the American master plan and tactical decisions.

Both books are well worth reading: They show how a quiet day in a war zone can instantly turn into a gruesome nightmare.

The author’s website is david-hearne.com

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments by Gordon L. Rottman

The latest book in Osprey Publishing’s long-running “Elite” series of richly illustrated, concise compendiums of military forces, artifacts, people, and warfare techniques is Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments (65 pp. $19, paper), written by the much-published Gordon L. Rottman, who served with Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, and illustrated by the veteran artist, Adam Hook.

This volume does a fine job focusing on showing and telling the things we American soldiers and Marines carried in Vietnam, along with sections on the combat equipment used by the ARVN, and the Australians. We’re talking about equipment here, not weapons so much—so, we get detailed explanations (and photos and sketches) of all manner of things such as weapon accessory cases, rucksacks, canteens, entrenching tools, machetes, bayonets, flashlights, gas masks, and much, much more.

—Marc Leepson

 

Long Daze at Long Binh by Steve Donovan and Fred Borchardt.

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Long Daze at Long Binh: 24th Evac Hospital South Vietnam, 1966-68—The Humorous Adventures of Two Wisconsin Draftees Trained as Combat Medics and Sent Off to Set Up a Field Hospital in South Vietnam, (DCI Communications, 380 pp., $24.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) is a humorous memoir by Steve Donovan and Fred Borchardt.

Five “out of every six military personnel sent to the Vietnam War were support personnel,” the authors write, “cooks, clerks, mechanics, electricians, engineers, policemen, surveyors, translators, pilots, pharmacists, truck drivers, doctors, nurses, and medics, to name just a few. This is a story of war as seen through the eyes of two of those individuals, It’s a tale that was sometimes hilarious, sometimes heart rending.”

There are 37 chapters followed by a detailed glossary. I recommend checking out the chapter headings before reading the book. You’ll find “Robert Mitchum needs to learn to salute,” “Chuck Connors owes me a tooth,” “Praying for rain and Raquel Welch,” and so on. We are told the book consists of the authors’ best recollections of things that happened fifty years ago. They admit to tweaking the narrative to make the book more interesting and exciting.

These two young men from Wisconsin were stationed at Long Binh the same time I was there. I was eager to compare notes with Donovan and Borchardt. Full disclosure: I know Steve Donovan from our post-war careers.

Donovan and Borchardt served for sixteen months with the 24th Evac. They managed to perform the duties of more than sixteen different military occupational specialties—from hospital orderly to prisoner guard to headquarters clerk. There is nothing about combat in this book.

As I always do, I kept a running list of pop culture names that popped up in the narrative. I won’t weigh down this review with the complete list. Suffice it to say the list includes Arlo Guthrie, Jane and Henry Fonda, Bob Hope, James Brown, and Robert Mitchum. Agent Orange gets good brief coverage.

The unique structure of Long Daze—alternating the two points of view of the authors inside the chapters—gives the reader great contrast and comparison and is the main strength of this accessible and useful book. Yes, it is funny, but it is much more than that. It is a repository of facts and memories from this long-ago time.

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There are no clinkers or clunkers in this book. The authors get it right and they make it all interesting.  Thanks, guys, for producing the best book about REMF life in South Vietnam during this time period.

Nobody will top you any time soon, if ever.

The book’s website is longbinhdaze.com

—David Willson

Combat Talons in Vietnam by John Gargus

The C-130 Combat Talon program was classified Top Secret during the Vietnam War. It operated out of Nha Trang Air Base. From there, six crews with four airplanes flew deep into North Vietnam to drop men, equipment, and leaflets intended to disrupt the enemy’s hierarchy. Navigator John Gargus, a retired USAF colonel, recounts his involvement in the program in 1967-68 in Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew (Texas A&M University Press, 272 pp.; $35, hardcover; $19.25, Kindle).

The Top Secret classification extended to every aspect of Combat Talon ops. For example, a section of the aircraft was partitioned by “heavy duty curtains” to prevent viewing of “sensitive Top Secret” electronic countermeasures equipment by “those who had no need to know,” as Gargus puts it. Conversation and planning for operations were limited to one secure room. Furthermore, crews “never knew the exact content” of bundles they delivered, Gargus says.  Basically, Combat Talon was an instrument of MACVSOG (the covert MACV Studies and Observations Group).

Gargus spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force. He served as the lead navigator for the November 1970 Son Tay Prison raid (for which he was awarded the Silver Star), and later wrote a book about the mission. In 2003, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame.

Gargus tells his story from a “personal perspective enhanced by numerous accounts of [his] colleagues who assisted [him] with their documented inputs.” In his history of the development of Combat Talon equipment, he points out that the air frame has also been called “Stray Goose” and “Blackbird.” He describes the airplane’s specialized performance capabilities—such as the Fulton Recovery System. But more so, he focuses on the disappearance of Crew S-01 in 1967 and the decades-long effort to find the men’s remains and return them to the United States.

He twice tells the story of the loss of Crew S-01. First, as part of his memoir, Gargus gives his eyewitness account of events as they happened, along with his post-war activities to expedite the return and burial of the crew. Second, in an appendix, “The Last Mission of Combat Talon’s S-01 Crew,” he offers a detailed account of the flight originally published as a booklet for the lost crew’s families.

His analysis of procedures for finding MIAs is an education in itself. He explains the intricacies of practices related to communications with next of kin, crash site recovery procedures, identification of remains, and burial and memorial services.

“All Americans should be proud of the way the U.S. government persists in identifying and returning the remains of fallen soldiers,” he writes.

The identified human remains of Crew S-01 reside in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

In an epilogue, Gargus pays tribute to Special Operations. He also provides a remembrance of the seven Combat Talon aircrews lost between 1967 and 2005. Fifty-six illustrations enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

Snowden’s Story by Lawrence F. Snowden

“The Formative Years” is the first of sixty-six unnumbered chapters, or episodes, in retired Marine Corps Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden’s memoir, One Marine’s Indebtedness to the Corps (Turtle Cove Press, 262 pp., $19.95, paper).  In it we learn that Lawrence Fontaine Snoddy, Jr., the only son of Lawrence and Beatrice, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on April 14, 1921. He later changed his name to Snowden.

The memoir is often not presented in chronological order. Why? Because, Gen. Snowden writes, his stories were “recorded here as I happen to think of them.”  Additionally, the lack of an index and a glossary of acronyms is challenging.

Larry Snoddy graduated from The University of Virginia in 1942. He had been involved with glee clubs and sang professionally with local bands such as the Tin Can Quartet.  He was rehearsing with the Tin Can Quartet when the Pearl Harbor attack was announced. He joined the Marine Corps soon thereafter, explaining that his “family dentist, Dr. Sims, baited me with the challenge that I probably was not tough enough to serve as a Marine.”

He was sworn into the Marine Corps Reserves at the Charlottesville Post Office on February 21, 1942. Three months later when he stepped off the train at the Marine Corps Base, Quantico, he heard a Master Sergeant say, “Welcome to Quantico and to the Marine Corps.” With “that simple greeting,” Snowden writes, “I was in my new world, which was to become my Universe for the next thirty-seven and a half years.”

2nd Lt. Snoddy joined the newly created 4th Marine Division in Hawaii, and then fought on Iwo Jima. He describes Iwo as “the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Ocean Area and probably in our national history of war.” He received his first two Purple Hearts after seven days on Iwo and was evacuated to a Guam hospital. He later hitched a ride on a postal flight back his unit on Iwo Jima. Two days later the young lieutenant was wounded again and evacuated.

Many chapters deal with what happened after Snoddy was promoted to Brigadier General in 1968 and changed his name to Lawrence F. Snowden.

Snowden was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work clearing ordnance out of the Korean DMZ after the Armistice ending the fighting was signed. He then held several administrative positions, including  at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in New York City, before his six-month tour in Vietnam as the CO of the 7th Marine Div. at Chu Lai.

Gen. Snowden

He went on to serve as Chief of Staff of U.S forces in Japan and Chief of Staff at U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, before retiring in 1979. In his second career, Snowden served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and as a Hughes Aircraft vice president.

He accepted Gen. Colin Powell’s offer to serve on the commission that investigated the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.

Gen. Snowden died on February 18, 2017, at age 95, a year after this book was published.

—Curt Nelson

Prisms of War by Joe Labriola

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Joe Labriola served with the First Marines in Vietnam and received an honorable discharge. He also received the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart and is confined to a wheelchair. He has been incarcerated for thirty years.

His book of poetry, Prisms of War (Schulman Press, 83 pp., $15, paper), is divided into three sections: “The War Poems,” “The Prison Poems,” and “The Love Poems.” Each section has about a dozen poems; many contain strong images and words worth saying. I liked the prison poems the best and the love poems least. The book itself is a beautiful production with an eye-catching cover.

“The Bush” is a fairly typical poem, although its shorter than many.

The Bush

We awoke to the sound

of the helicopter blades swooshing

and parting the grass in circles.

Dawn came up fast, too fast.

The light burned tired eyes

as we locked and loaded

wondering what hell awaited today.

The praying lamp was lit

for those who still had Gods

while the Sergeant checked quietly

making sure each man has ammo.

Nothing more needed to be said.

Nothing more could be said.

It was a day for killing.

11111111111111111111111111

Joe Labriola

Most of the poems—like this one—are plain spoken. The love poems get a bit more flowery, as love poems sometimes do.

If you like to read Vietnam War poetry, there are a few pieces in this book that are worth your time and effort. These poems are not doggerel, far from it.

To order, write to Joe Lab Defense, PO Box 84, Hopedale, MA 01747 or go to freejoelab.com

—David Willson