Finally, Home by William R. Winders

William Winders’ Finally, Home (243 pp. $40, paper) is an amalgam of personal interviews and material gleened from reference materials. The interviews are mainly with Vietnam War veteran and former POW Dan Hefel, the subject of this very good book.

On Dec. 4, 1968, Daniel H. Hefel drove from his home near Buena Vista, Iowa, to the U.S. Army recruiting office in Dubuque and enlisted. In April 1969 PFC Hefel found himself in South Vietnam at Camp Sally as a 101st Airborne Division riflemen toting an M79 grenade launcher. For the next few months he took part in many large and small-scale actions from the A Shau Valley to the DMZ. Neither the NVA nor the VC could slow Hefel down, but a mosquito disabled him for a few weeks with a dose of malaria.

During this down time, Dan Hefel applied for and got permission to transfer to a 101st Aviation platoon as a Huey door gunner. He soon began flying missions manning an M60 machinegun.

On February 5, 1970, his chopper crashed near the A Shau Valley. The pilot died. Hefel and two other crew members survived, only to be captured by the NVA. They were transported to Hanoi and thrown in POW camps.

In Finally, Home, Dan Hefel recalls his POW experiences, which included recovering from a broken back and other crash injuries and dealing with torture, loneliness, and mental anguish. At one point, the prison doctor performed an emergency appendectomy on him without anesthesia.  After being held for three-plus years, on March 27, 1973, Hefel, along with 590 fellow American POWs, was released.

A year after returning to the U.S., Hefel was declared disabled due to his combat injuries and retired from the Army as a staff sergeant. He returned to Iowa, reunited with his family and friends, got married, raised a family, and is now living the American Dream on his Harley.

Finally, Home is a very good book, loaded with pictures, maps, and drawings. I recommend reading Sgt. Dan Hefel’s story.

—Bob Wartman

The book is available from Winders’ newspaper, The Dubuque Leader, 1527 Central Ave., Dubuque, IA 52001.

Paper Dog by John B. Kubisz

In Paper Dog: The True Life Story of a Vietnam War Dog (Elm Grove Publishing, 180 pp. $27.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper) former U.S. Army veterinarian John Kubisz tells the true story of a Vietnam War scout dog named Paper. Kubisz treated the seriously injured dog when he was the CO of the 764th Medical Detachment at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969.

Kubisz’s publisher says that he “clearly has much in common with Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H,” so, being a fan of the TV series, I was excited to have this book in my hands. As I began to read, I did see some similarities between his life story and Dr. Hawkeye Pierce in the popular TV sitcom and Hollywood movie.

But I also was disillusioned with Kubisz’s disdain for the Army. When most of us had to deal with less-than-stellar superiors, red tape, or insufficient materiel, we sucked it up and made the best of it while trying to follow military SOP. Kubisz, on the other hand, did it the Hawkeye Pierce way. One main reason for SOP is to enable a smooth transfer of duties when personnel are replaced. When Kubisz and his ragtag crew rotated back to The World, their replacements were left to deal with a nonstandard operation.

That said, this book is well written, well presented and a pleasure to read. Kubisz performed amazing—even heroic—feats with Paper and his other patients. He showed great compassion for the dogs and their handlers and he improved the level of veterinary care for all the U.S. war dogs in Vietnam.

The story of the dog named Paper and his 101st Airborne handler Tom Hewitt makes up nearly half of the book and is heartwarming and insightful.

Paper Dog contains a lot of good information and many photos. Be prepared to meet an Army officer with very little military bearing, but do read this well-written and very interesting book.

–Bob Wartman

Palace Gate by Richard L. Brown

Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.

The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.

Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.

We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.

Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.

This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.                                                   

–Tom Werzyn

Truth Is in the House by Michael J. Coffino

Michael Coffino’s new book, Truth Is in the House: A Novel Inspired by Actual Events (Koehler Books, 364 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $7.49, Kindle), considers the important effects that geography and environment have on the development of an individual’s personality. In this case, he focuses on the Highbridge neighborhood of the Bronx in New York City in the 1960s and the jungles of Vietnam during the war. Coffino grew up in the Bronx, and served in the U.S. Army in 1968-70.

The two main characters are Jimmy O’Farrell and Jaylen Jackson. O’Farrell is an only child. His  parents emigrated to the U.S. in 1957 from Ireland and they live in New York City. Jackson is an African American living with his brother and parents in segregated Dublin, Mississippi, where his family, Coffino writes, has to “navigate the mine-laden fields of Jim Crow terrain.”

In separate violent physical incidents O’Farrell is the victim of a gang-related attack and Jackson’s brother suffers an injury in a racially motivated assault. After a few other racial incidents, Jackson’s father goes missing and his mother takes her two sons out of the South and into New York City.

By 1965, as the Vietnam War escalates, Jimmy and Jaylen are finding success playing basketball at separate schools. The two meet on a playground basketball court, but then go their separate ways.

O’Farrell drops out of college and is quickly drafted. When he reports for induction, he ends up being inducted as a draftee into the Marine Corps. At about that same time Jackson enlists in the Marine, and their time at Parris Island overlaps. They both end up in South Vietnam in the fall of 1967.

Michael Coffino

At first, it was jarring to read about Jimmy and Jalen being in high school, then on almost the next page, in basic training, and then fighting in Vietnam. But, I really liked about how Coffino handled those transitions, as that’s pretty much how fast things seemed to move at the time.

Another thing I really liked was how Coffino made the military experiences of the two young men only about ten percent of the book. The rest sketches their lives before the war and the afterward.

What they experienced and learned in the military and in the Vietnam War stays with Jimmy and Jalen the rest of their lives, and giving plenty of space to their post-war lives works well in the depiction of the over-all lives of these men.

One of the book’s themes is learning to develop a strong moral code. As a result we see characters in Vietnam reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

Truth Is in the House is a great look at two young men growing into, and then out of, their military experiences and at the effects they have on their neighborhoods—and their neighborhoods continue to have on them.

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

—Bill McCloud

The Bridge Generation of Viet Nam by Nancy K. Napier and Dau Thuy Ha

Nancy K. Napier and Dua Thuy Ha’s The Bridge Generation Việt Nam: Spanning Wartime to Boomtime (272 pp. $15, paper; $3.69, Kindle) is an interesting book on several levels. It is at once jarring and revealing. It was jarring to me, a Vietnam War veteran, because Napier and Ha refer to the conflict as the “American War.” It was revealing in that they chronicle—through interviews, observations, and essays—the progress that has taken place in the entire country of Vietnam since the end of the war in 1975.

Napier is a Distinguished Professor Emerita at Boise State University. She managed an extension program developed by Boise State and funded by the Swedish government that brought an MBA and Business Management curricula to the National Economics University in Hanoi. Dua Thuy Ha is a Boise State alum who lives and works in Vietnam.

The book lives up to its subtitle by dividing recent Vietnamese recent history into three segments: “War,” from the early 1950s into the 1980s; “Hunger,” from 1975 to 1990; and “Launch,” from the early 1990s to today. The Bridge Generation is a term the authors give to Vietnamese people born in the late 1950s and early 1990s, as their lives “bridge” the three eras.

The authors interpret the eras from their perspective living in Hanoi, and the narrative is filtered by that and by the Vietnamese government’s communist ideology. That said, the book contains an engaging history of the Boise State project and its successes in preparing leaders for the new, emerging Vietnam. The book’s interviews were conducted with a wide variety of Vietnamese people of differing ages, experiences, economic levels, jobs, and goals.

Napier’s personal asides about living in Vietnam contain some interesting moments, including the vagaries of translations of English idioms and slang; food availability and preparation; and private conversations under the eye of the communist government. She extolls the emergence of Vietnam’s economy on the world stage and the resilience of the people who are making it happen.

This book presents, in a scholarly light, the progress that the Vietnamese have made as they seek their new position on the world stage.

Nancy Napier’s website is https://nancyknapier.com

–Tom Werzyn

Shadows of Saigon by Mark R. Anderson

Mark R. Anderson’s Shadows of Saigon (Old Stone Press, 285 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, e book), tells a story that more and more of us can relate to. It deals with an aging Vietnam War veteran looking back on his life and realizing the significance that his war experiences continued to play long after the fighting ended. Anderson served in the U.S. Navy Reserves and wrote this book to honor his father and uncle who both served in the war.

Grady Cordeaux, 68, is a Louisiana farmer who lives alone and has no family. R.C. Carter, 72, is his neighbor and also is a Vietnam veteran. Unlike Grady, R.C. is happily married and has been for several decades. R.C. says the two of them went to war as young men but were old when they came home. “Their rural farm upbringing shaped Grady and R.C. into the men they became,” Anderson writes, “but while they were still teenagers, they also experienced the trauma of war, which changed them forever.”

With no warning, Grady suffers an apparently severe heart attack. His first thought is about who will take care of his dog. He arrives at a hospital and the testing and treatments begin with R.C. frequently at his bedside. As he lies in bed with a newfound sense of mortality, Grady begins to think back on his life.

His memories from high school days include being a hero on the football field, falling in love, and having just enough run-ins with the law to be given a choice by a judge between jail and military service. June 1970 when he arrived at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for basic training was his first time outside Louisiana. Anderson portrays Grady’s time in basic more like something you’d see in a movie about Marine Corps boot camp rather than what it was like on an Army training base in 1970. It’s unlikely Army D.I.s would have yelled in the faces of trainees on the first day, calling them “sorry scrotum sack of pus monkeys” and “worse than dick cheese.”

Within days of arriving in the Mekong Delta Grady was moving through swamps and rice paddies and survived his first firefight. Grady planned to stay faithful to his girlfriend, even though he met a beautiful Vietnamese woman in Saigon (see the book’s cover). We read several letters he received from home. Over time those letters began telling the story of a nation turning more and more against the war.

.Anderson does a good job weaving Grady’s story through the times he’s fading in and out of consciousness in the hospital bed. When you intentionally bring back memories of the past, you often encounter issues that have yet to be resolved. For Grady—and for many of the rest of us—the time for dealing with those issues is beginning to run out.

–Bill McCloud

Check Ride by Thomas McGurn

At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.

McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.

I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.

He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.

McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”        

He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.

His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.

McGurn (center) and crew in Vietnam

There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”

McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.

—Henry Zeybel

Come Now the Angels by Susan Kummernes

Come Now the Angels: Five Marines in Vietnam: A Woman’s Story of Love, Death, War, & Hope (A Seat at the Table Publishing, 353 pp. $14.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) the debut novel of Florida author Susan Kummernes, centers on a U.S. Marine Corps gun team stationed in Con Thien near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam in 1967.

Their charismatic gunner, Jesse McGowan, an all-American boy from Maryland, is based on the author’s own first love, who was killed in Vietnam. Fighting alongside him are Mike Redd, an African American from Georgia; Chingas Ramirez, a Mexican American from New York City; Angel Santiago, a Cuban immigrant who settled in Chicago; and John Beau Parker from Florida. Though from diverse backgrounds, the men are forever bonded by their shared experiences in the war.

In between the chapters about the Marines are those detailing the memories of Annie Miller, Jesse’s childhood sweetheart-turned-Washington Post reporter—and a fictional stand-in for Kummernes herself. While on a trip to New Orleans in 2006, Annie encounters a group of Vietnamese Americans protesting the city’s decision to dump the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina in their neighborhood. She meets Lucky Dai, whom she learns is the daughter of Mike Redd and his wife, a Vietnamese nurse named nicknamed Tweet.

Susan Kummernes wrote and researched Come Now the Angels for twelve years, a dedication that shows in the accuracy of the battle scenes and the impressive detail of the 1960s settings. That Kummernes drew from her own experience as well as from outside sources is evident in the level of personal care she shows for her characters and their stories.

The novel’s strengths are somewhat overshadowed by bits of contrived dialogue and Kummernes’ tendency to over explain the social and political context of the story (at one point, Jesse talks so pedantically about the Domino Theory that even the other characters get annoyed). That said, Come Now the Angels is a poignant and compelling novel and would be an excellent choice for anyone interested in the social and emotional effects of the Vietnam War on generations of Americans.

This may be Kummernes last novel. When asked recently by the book and author website Pretty-Hot.com what was next for her, she responded, “As a writer? Nothing.”

Kummernes is donating all proceeds from book sales to Vietnam Veterans of America. Her website is susankummernes.com

–Meg Bywater

Chariots in the Sky by Larry A. Freeland

Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.

The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”

The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.

St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.

Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.

St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.

Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”

On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.

St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”

In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.

Freeland’s website is larryfreeland.com

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam 1972: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South by Charles Melson

Charles D. Melson’s Vietnam 1972: Quang Tri: The Easter Offensive Strikes the South (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is interesting on several levels. It’s about the hard-fought battle to retake Quang Tri during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive and the crucial role the South Vietnamese Marines (VNMC) played in defeating the NVA. It also is an account of the U.S. Marine Advisory Unit’s role during the offensive. 

Charles Melson, as a former Marine Corps Chief Historian, has an in-depth familiarity with his book’s subjects, especially the Vietnamese Marines and their American advisers. Before jumping into the central thesis of the battle for Quang Tri, Melson dwells on the culture and traditions of the VNMC. As a side note he addresses the political alliances between elite units and their benefactors. 

In 1972 the VNMC had a special relationship with South Vietnamese Vice President Nguyen Cao Ky. The Vietnamese Airborne, in contrast, was aligned with Ky’s rival, President Nguyen Van Thieu. That situation likely played a role in the poor command relationships in the Marines, including senior officers who were more political than professional.

Both units were highly reliable combat forces that formed the strategic reserve of the South Vietnamese military. Before the narrative moves on to the Easter Offensive Melson provides a detailed account of the orders of battle of both sides and descriptions of key personalities.  

The pace of the book picks up once Melson begins his play-by-play description of the Easter Offensive’s thrust across the DMZ and the fall and recapture of Quang Tri. The rapid NVA divisions heavily equipped with armor and air defense systems brought out the very best—and the disgraceful worst—in the South Vietnamese forces. Most glaring was the lack of effective leadership and operational sense at the most senior levels of command.  

This happened as some South Vietnamese units, mainly the Marines, tenaciously fought to prevent a North Vietnamese breakthrough to Da Nang and Hue and what would have been an envelopment of South Vietnamese forces. The fall of Quang Tri City was a major setback for the South Vietnamese because it had tremendous symbolic value for the North and was a humiliation for the South.

South Vietnamese troops entering Quang Tri City, late July 1972

The final chapters of this history capture the bitter struggle by both sides as the South’s Marines and Airborne Division supported by Rangers defeated the North’s best units in ferocious fighting. After 138 days of occupation, Quang Tri was finally liberated by South Vietnamese forces.

For some, it may be an eye-opener to learn about South Vietnamese units that had no reluctance to take on the best the North had to offer—and to defeat them. For that alone, it’s worth the time to read this short, heavily illustrated book. The excellent maps, illustrations, and photos are a real plus.

–John Cirafici