Through Smoke-Teared Eyes by Johnny F. Pugh

Johnny Pugh was drafted into the Army when he lost his college deferment. He went on to serve in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division beginning in the sweltering heat of July 1966. It was just the first of many shocks for the young biracial New Mexican. Those shocks that took place during his twelve months in country took over his mind and body in ways Pugh never could have expected. He survived combat with only two Purple Hearts, but his soul was destroyed.

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes: The Vietnam War I Fought (iUniverse, 293 pp., $21.95, paper; $3.99, e book) is a wonderfully written narrative of Pugh’s twelve months as an infantryman. It is heart-breakingly honest as Pugh brings the reader into his hooch and lives and walks you with him as he goes through the horror of combat with his unit, Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment.

The writing flows as Pugh leads the reader into the killing zones of Operation Attleboro. You cringe at the brutality of war, along with the insidious nonsense that follows it. Pugh tells of his exposure to the black market and other moral challenges he faced with his buddies. There is little humor and a fair amount of Chicano street language that is easy to follow, but what comes through above all is the honesty of the man as he coped with the ghosts he encountered.

Pugh began writing this book as his health declined. He went back to letters his family had saved from those days and the reader can see him take the words from paper and into the reality he faced. Pugh died in 2011 before finishing his book from the all-too-common ills of the Vietnam War: PTSD, Agent Orange, denied VA treatment, alcohol, drugs, and the hardships our nation put on the backs of its Vietnam War veterans.

The book is a testament to his sheer determination and will to write his story for others to see. Pugh’s third wife and young daughter took on the task of getting the book ready for publication—a labor of love.

The book is important for several reasons. First, it is a written window into just one of the millions of kids our nation’s leaders sent to war under false premises and with false promises. Johnny Pugh was strong enough to write his story. He could easily have been one of thousands who were unable to write it. It is a book that needs to be sent to every politician as they consider sending young people to kill and maim in the name of freedom.

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For some, the book will be a hard read because it exposes many unpleasant truths. The truth of officers, poorly trained, and foggy missions leading to the deaths of friends for no apparent reason. The truth of fear of dying, fear of losing friends, fear of betrayal by those you think are friends. The fear of cowardice or defining courage. These are all in question as one reads Pugh’s story.

Through it all, you see the mind of a young and innocent man grappling with the brutal reality of day-to-day living in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

In the end this is eulogy for Johnny Pugh all of his fellow infantrymen who served in the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

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Lessons in Leadership by General John R. Deane Jr. – Edited by Jack C. Mason

I  believe that Army generals are cut from the same khaki cloth. Young officers find mentors and devotedly follow them until it’s their time to lead; then they collect followers and mentor them. In that way, generals maintain their version of what Kipling called “the thin red line.” Generals live in a world unto themselves.

Lessons in Leadership: My Life in the U.S. Army from World War II to Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 261 pp.; $50, hardcover; $40, Kindle) by Gen. John R. Deane Jr. and edited by Jack C. Mason validates my belief.

Deane graduated from West Point in 1942 and served in the Army until 1977. He fought in World War II and in Vietnam. His father was a well-liked major general, a fact that opened many doors for John Junior, a situation he frequently acknowledges.

John R. Deane, Jr., West Point, Class of 1942

True to its title, Lessons in Leadership provides guidance from Deane accumulated as a staff officer and a commander who attained four-star rank. He often cites his teachers. For example, Gen. James Gavin taught him, Deane writes, to “inspire people to outdo themselves” and then he tells how he built on that idea. Deane also preaches that “substance is more important than form,” words that should be tattooed on the forearms of PowerPoint-crazed staff officers.

He tells stories in a conversational style that flows from topic to topic. He narrates combat experiences in a nonchalant, nearly emotionless, voice. He underplays them and yet delivers the full impact of what took place.

Deane’s writing allows a reader to experience vicariously what he did and to understand exactly why he did it.  In World War II Deane and his men entered combat in October 1944 and engaged in all-but continuous fighting for two hundred days. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and received many decorations as a battalion commander in the 104th Timberwolves Infantry Division led by Gen. Terry Allen, a boyhood idol who became a friend.

Deane’s account of time in the Vietnam War sets new standards for leadership. With the 1st Infantry Division commanded by Gen. William E. DePuy, Deane shared deputy commander duties with Gen. James E. Hollingsworth, whose life is recounted in the new James Willbanks biography, Danger 79er.

The three generals flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside their men in combat. After taking over as the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Deane jumped with men (first man out the door) in February 1967 during Operation Junction City to form a blocking force for two hundred fifty follow-on helicopters with five thousand soldiers.

The three generals ignored criticism of their unconventional behavior. Each man saw himself as “a soldier’s general” and set positive examples at every opportunity. Deane’s troops called him “Uncle John.”

Deane imparts thought-provoking lessons he learned during that time. Eyewitness accounts from soldiers interviewed by Mason support Deane’s recall of many events.

On Feb. 22, 1967, Gen. Deane led the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry out the door of a C-130 north of Tay Ninh City in the first U.S. combat jump since the Korean War, and the only mass jump of the Vietnam War.

Beyond the two wars, Deane commanded forces in Germany, Korea, and the Dominican Republic. He also worked in research, engineering, and force development. Based on these jobs, particularly those in Washington, D.C., he recalls encounters with senior officers and career managers. He explains how to make sound decisions while working with senior people, as well as uncovering weaknesses without getting everybody mad at you.

When you do your job well, he says, you can make enemies. The solution is to do what best meets the objectives of the organization. His discussions of several events in his life read like pages out of Catch 22. A couple of his encounters made me laugh out loud. At the same time, his teaching is priceless.

When describing other men, Deane details not just their actions, but also blends in their personalities and brings them fully to life. He ties together stories, recollections, and rumors to explain controversies about leadership such as Terry Allen’s loss of command of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II. In these passages, his storytelling resembles a Vanity Fair exposé. He ends each account by explaining how it influenced his leadership style and the behavior of his subordinates. He repeatedly credits subordinate commanders for his units’ successes.

With authoritative certainty, Deane categorizes leaders into four groups largely based on a willingness to commit oneself to a task. Category One contains fearless people—beyond a physical sense—who make decisions without fearing personal consequences. Category Two’s people know and feel fear but have a characteristic that drives them onward, such as pride, religion, or family. Category Three is composed of followers of the leaders in the two other categories who need help to conquer their fears. People in Category Four will quit, no matter what happens. These categories apply to civilian as well as military leaders, Deane says.

Credit for the book’s readability must include its editor Jack C. Mason. A few years before his death in 2013 at the age of ninety-four, Deane provided manuscripts to Mason that documented his career. After that, the two men communicated nearly daily.

“When I asked him to explain or expound on something, he replied in detail,” Mason writes. Mason also researched information that broadens Deane’s stories and includes these findings as italicized paragraphs in the text.

A recurring theme is the clash of egos between generals. Deane does not hesitate in naming those he considers worthy of star rank and those who were unworthy. In the latter case, he reduces the image of one general to that of a sobbing infant.

Which is one reason that reading Deane’s book provides more lessons about Army generals than some people might want to know.

—Henry Zeybel

We Leave the Safety of the Sea By Art Elser

Art Elser’s We Leave the Safety of the Sea (Finishing Line Press, 64 pp. $12, paper) is a tiny book that contains a dozen and a half small poems that deal with the American war in Vietnam. There’s lots of pain in these poems and swallowing two aspirin won’t alleviate it. When Elser, for example, follows his shrink’s instructions to chase away nightmares by trying to remember something pleasant in his life, he wakes up with a body next to him that “has bloody stumps where legs should be.”

Art Elser retired from the Air Force in 1979 after serving for twenty years as a pilot, including a 1967-68 tour of duty as as a Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. Elser’s war experiences left him with powerful memories that have ended up in his poetry,

Walter McDonald describes Elser’s poetry as “fierce.” McDonald, a former Vietnam War USAF pilot and an acclaimed poet, ought to know. Hell—he does know. Most of Elser’s poems have” flashbacks so intense they don’t let me go. And isn’t that the point?” McDonald asks. Yes, that is the point.

“Helicopters carrying memories” could have been written by me about my life here in Maple Valley, Washington—if I were a better poet.

As I write on the patio, I hear the whine

of an approaching helicopter.

It doesn’t have the quiet whoosh

of a Jet Ranger carrying executives

to a business meeting downtown,

And it doesn’t have the noisy

wop wop wop of the ancient Huey,

a sound that carries me back to Vietnam,

and to painful memories I can’t forget.

It has the heavy, straining sound

of a Blackhawk the kind that hauls grunts

into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Years from now that sound

will carry them back to fire fights,

explosions, loneliness, fear and

painful memories they can’t forget.

Some days it seems as though helicopters of one sort or another spend all day flying over my house in Maple Valley. You’d think I was in the flight path of an airport in a major war zone.

Elser’s poetry summons up my war memories as effectively as those noisy helicopters do. More so.

                     **********

Elser’s A Death at Tollgate Creek: Songs of the Prairie (Walker Doodle Press, 91 pp., $12.95, paper) is proof that he can write excellent non-war poetry. Still, the poems in this collection are also filled with images of sadness and loss.

I guess I should have expected that from a man who spent two decades as a pilot, including a combat-heavy tour in the Vietnam War.

—David Willson

Blood in the Hills by Robert Maras and Charles W. Sasser

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Co-written by Robert Maras and Charles Sasser, Blood in the Hills: The Story of Khe Sanh: The Most Savage Fight of the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 288 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is a memoir of Maras’ Marine Corps service before, after, and primarily during his experiences when he took part in the April-May 1967 hill fights around Khe Sanh.

The book is organized into forty-six chapters; each is a stand-alone story. The reader gets immersed in virtually non-stop, down-and-dirty, grunt fighting directed at killing the enemy—and surviving long enough to go home.

Combat often has been called interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Khe Sanh hill fights were more like interminable terror punctuated by moments of boredom.

Maras produces some great thoughts and gallows humor in the midst of this interminable terror. To wit:

  • “When the shells exploded, they seemed to blast a hole in the universe through which you caught a glimpse of eternity.”
  • “For those who fight for life, it has a special flavor the protected shall never know.”
  • “It was shooting and killing for breakfast, shooting and killing for lunch, shooting and killing for dinner.”
  • “Golf’s Corpsmen had more guts than a gut wagon in a slaughterhouse”

Maras knew that back in the World, higher-up strategists were moving colored pins around maps. As they did, Maras’s commander would move his troops to mirror the pins. Maras asked himself: “I wonder if God has a map of the universe with colored pins.”

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The Khe Sanh hill fights concentrated around Hills 861, 881N and 881S.

The malfunctioning M-16 is covered at great length throughout this book. Despite their desperation and anger, and knowing the M-16 was defective and unreliable, Maras and his fellow stalwart Marines followed orders and without hesitation assaulted the enemy as if they themselves were kings of the hills—which, in the end, they proved to be.

Blood in the Hills is a must-read.

—Bob Wartman

John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

Danger 79er by James H. Willbanks

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James F. Hollingsworth began his military career in 1940 as a United States Army lieutenant. He retired thirty-six years later as a lieutenant general. The long list of his awards and decorations staggered my imagination.

James H. Willbanks has recreated Hollingsworth’s life in Danger 79er: The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp. $32). “Danger 79er” was Hollingsworth’s call sign in the Vietnam War. The book is an exciting and informative read because it examines the leadership qualities of a man who advocated destroying enemies without compromise despite being accused of overzealousness in delivering death and destruction on the battlefield where his actions matched his theories.

Willbanks is a retired Army infantry officer who was an adviser to the ARVN at An Loc during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Since 1992, he has directed and taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A tireless researcher, he has written fifteen military history books, specializing in the Vietnam War.

Hollingsworth, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one, earned his commission through the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets (as did Willbanks). He commanded 2nd Armored Division tanks from platoon to battalion level in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton. At the war’s end, Hollingsworth was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel with a Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts.

In World War II, his bravery in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe had no bounds, according to people Willbanks interviewed. Writing about Hollingsworth leading his troops in the field, Willbanks says, “Holly was a soldier’s general,” and (to me) that says it all.

Time after time, Hollingsworth’s performance set standards for combat that few men are brave enough or competent enough to follow. Willbanks provides many stirring examples of Hollingsworth’s affinity with grunts in both wars. All amount to lessons in leadership.

Critics challenged Hollingsworth’s approach to combat when he became assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 under Maj. Gen. William DePuy. The two thought and acted alike and were labeled “unguided missiles” and “hip shooters.” Bending to public sentiment against the war, some fellow officers—up to and including the Army Chief of Staff—believed that Hollingsworth and DePuy projected an unacceptable eagerness to kill opponents. Nevertheless, neither man backed down. They lived on the battlefield.

For his second tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, Hollingsworth was assigned by Gen. Creighton Abrams to revitalize the troops in I Corps whose morale plummeted during Vietnamization. Before Hollingsworth completed the task, Abrams moved him to help the ARVN commander at the battle for Loc Ninh and An Loc. Shortly thereafter, Hollingsworth assumed command of the area. His use of air power showed a talent for targeting as if foreseeing enemy movements. Relentless B-52 strikes decided the outcome by stymieing NVA ground attacks, according to Willbanks, who was at the scene. The NVA lost nearly three infantry divisions.

Criticism of Hollingsworth intensified when he received command of combined forces in South Korea in 1973 and turned a defensive master battle plan into a hyper-aggressive offensive strategy. That prevented his earning a fourth star and led to his retirement. As a civilian he continued to speak out on behalf of national defense.

Willbanks presents insightful looks into relationships between general officers. He also shows that, between wars, Hollingsworth served tours at the Pentagon in positions where he met, befriended, and exchanged philosophies with members of Congress and cabinet heads. His devotion to duty and outspoken manner pleased many people while irritating others. With this information, Willbanks provides excellent lessons in management.

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The “Danger 79” statue on the Texas A&M campus

The book’s World War II maps of North Africa and Europe are annotated so that they practically tell the story of the fighting there by themselves. Photographs also enhance the text.

Although Danger 79er primarily tells the story of Hollingsworth, Willbanks expands its scale to history book proportion. He talks about the design and execution of World War II strategy. He also includes inside views about two vital issues of the Vietnam War: the importance of leadership in executing search-and-destroy tactics, and the effects of Vietnamization and what they portended after the Americans departed.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the writing was on the wall; too few people bothered to read it.

I enjoyed all aspects of the book.

—Henry Zeybel

To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel