Red Rivers in a Yellow Field Edited by Robert M. Craig

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Jimmy Durante used to say, “Everybody wants ta get inta da act!”

A new Vietnam War memoir fulfills that want on a large scale. Vietnam War veteran Robert M. Craig’s Red Rivers in a Yellow Field: Memoirs of the Vietnam Era (Hellgate Press, 526 pp. $29.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) contains autobiographies of thirty-four Principia College graduates from the sixties who served in the war. Only one woman contributes her experience: Elizabeth Pond, a journalist captured in Cambodia by the Khmer Rogue.

The book evolved from conversations at a 50th high school reunion. Craig, a professor at Georgia Tech for forty years, took charge as editor of the project with support from the Principia staff.

Red Rivers in a Yellow Field is exceptional because it highlights the effects of a civilian education that guided people to behave positively in war or in peace. The graduates willingly served in America’s armed forces with deep dedication to duty. Many easily transitioned into successful marriages and business dealings.

Half of the thirty-four Principia grads filled combat roles in Vietnam. Their first-person shoot-’em-up reminiscences are revelatory and spellbinding. The veterans coolly speak about combat—which is to say, they faced ultimate dangers with determination and poise. The actions they describe reflect unselfish heroism.

The variety of their duties—platoon leader, swift boat commander, helicopter pilot, among others—provides insightful views of the inner workings of the war. Slightly more than half of the graduates served in the Navy; the rest were in the Army, Air Force, and Marines. By far, the majority were officers. In Nam, they often met by chance, and shared tight bonds.

Tradition significantly influenced the men’s decisions. Nearly every one of their fathers had served in World War II or Korea, with several family histories extending back to earlier American wars.

Before I read this book, I was unaware of Principia College, which Craig describes as “an independent kindergarten through college school for Christian Scientists; the K-12 campus is located in a suburb west of St. Louis; the college overlooks the Mississippi River, about forty-five miles northeast of St. Louis.”

It is not unusual for students to attend both campuses for sixteen years of education. Many family members attend either or both campuses generation after generation.

“[Principia’s] founder Mary Kimball Morgan held the firm conviction that the purpose of education is to develop self-discipline, character, and the ability to think vigorously, fearlessly, and accurately,” Craig says. He credits dedication to Christian Science for the graduates’ ability “to accomplish whatever was their duty to do, without being harmed or fatigued, and to stay healthy under all conditions.” Post-traumatic stress disorder is not mentioned by anyone of them as a problem.

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The school’s graduates were not robots, however. Some who served during the Vietnam War declined to contribute to the book for “both universal and personal” reasons, Craig says. Their resistance reminded others of the war’s “full picture,” he adds.

As a man without a favorite religion, I admire the Principia graduates portrayed in Red Rivers in a Yellow Field. They met every intention of their school’s training and their familial backgrounds to serve our nation to the fullest.

—Henry Zeybel

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Crash Course by H. Bruce Franklin

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In the coda of H. Bruce Franklin’s Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War (Rutgers University Press, 384 pp. $34.95, hardcover and Kindle) the author ponders what kind of country could “simultaneously produce both as shameful an abomination as the Vietnam War and the as admirable an achievement of the movement that helped defeat it.” Franklin suggests that only when the answer to this question is discerned, will the country cease its hawkishness, and end what he calls the “forever war.”

Libraries and bookstores may have trouble categorizing this book as it tackles history, political philosophy, social commentary, and cultural criticism, all recounted in the first person. Franklin has been a professor at Rutgers University for more than forty years, and has written nineteen books on a variety of topics, including Melville, Star Trek, and oceanography. His Vietnam War books include MIA, or Mythmaking in America and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies.

Though the title, “Crash Course” is suggestive of an analysis of American militarism since World War II, the book is essentially a memoir. In it, Franklin recounts his life from his birth in Brooklyn to his antiwar activities in the 1960s and 1970s.

Crash Course is a highly entertaining read, and Franklin’s talent as a writer is unmistakable. He writes about his humble upbringing as Jewish boy in Brooklyn, his time Amherst College, his work on the New York City docks, his stint as an Air Force navigator, and as a Ph. D. student and professor at Stanford—where he remains the only tenured professor ever fired.

As Franklin weaves his life story with American political history, readers may find themselves nodding or shaking their heads; those on the Gore Vidal side of the Buckley-Vidal Vietnam War debate, up and down, those who agree with William F. Buckley, side to side. If Franklin’s opinions about the military industrial complex are tired and familiar, his prose keeps even a disagreeing reader engaged.

As the book is more personal than analytical, Franklin does not necessarily defend his thesis. He uses the term “forever war” essentially as a polemic to provide a backdrop for his life’s work. His mix of culture, myth, conspiracy, and history can be comically Manichean. To Franklin, the U.S. government is not just consistently erroneous, but sinister. This worldview allows for little nuance. Saying, for example, that the Vietnam War was a misguided tragedy and America was wrong in its entry and execution, does not necessarily mean that the North Vietnamese communists were right, let alone noble and just.

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H. Bruce Franklin

It is conceivable that the answer to Franklin’s concluding thought lies in the dynamism of America, a country that proverbially bends toward justice.

Franklin’s story is his own unique version of the American Dream: He was born poor and through his own guile and talent achieved his own version of success. It was not easy and he was not always treated fairly, but Franklin was ultimately given the freedom to vehemently oppose his government—and later the opportunity to write and teach while being employed by that same government.

Perhaps a better thought experiment is to imagine if that same poor boy in current-day Hanoi or Pyongyang would be afforded the same opportunities.

The author’s website is https://www.hbrucefranklin.com

—Daniel R. Hart

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island by Jim Collins

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Reading Jim Collins’ Vietnam to Thieves’ Island (Partridge Singapore, 188 pp. $28.35, hardcover; $16.08, paper; $3.03, Kindle) is lots of fun. As a memoir, the book overflows with free association, but never completely loses control. Collins’ throwaway asides are inventive gems.

An Australian, Jim Collins recollects his travels and jobs starting in the mid-sixties when he became head engineer of the construction of the Saigon Metropolitan Water Plant in South Vietnam. His rendering of his life as a civilian in a war zone differs significantly from the usual Vietnam War memoirs. In particular, few if any Vietnam War memoirs include accounts of the nationwide ransacking of American-built projects.

Amid disasters, he discovers humor and lessons.

After Vietnam, Collins tell us of his adventures sail-boating the seas of Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Middle East. He meets an array of spellbinding people and describes their seafaring vagabond lives that are as fascinating as his own.

Well into this century, these encounters occur at such places as the Sungei Unjung Club, an hour’s drive south of Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, to Sharm Rabigh on the Red Sea some twenty miles north of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. The world is open to those who seek it, he seems to say.

Collins’endeavors range from Herculean engineering tasks to merely beating customs officials out of a few dollars—or significantly more.

Reading this book resembles listening to a raconteur who says whatever next comes to mind from a bottomless well of experiences. The stories have good and bad endings; several involve visits to “gaols.”

Vietnam to Thieves’ Island has no true beginning, chronology, or ending. Like the story of Jim Collins’ life, it just is.

—Henry Zeybel

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

Fallen: Never Forgotten by Ronny Ymbras and Matt Ymbras

Fallen Never Forgotten: Vietnam Memorials in the USA is an extensive compendium of information on state and local Vietnam Veterans memorials. First published in 2016 by Vietnam War veteran Ronny Ymbras and his son Matthew, the book is out in a new, autographed second edition (RY Airborne, 268 pp., $39.95).

For more info, including how to order a copy, go to the book’s website, fallenneverforgotten.com

 

Wolf by the Ears By Alan Armstrong

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West Point graduate Alan Armstrong served in Cambodia during the last stages of the American war in Vietnam. He fought with the Cambodian government against the Khmer Rouge, and was particularly close to Gen. Lon Non, the brother of Cambodian President Lon Nol. Armstrong flew out of Pnom Penh in 1975 on the last helicopter with American Ambassador John Gunther Dean.

Alan Armstrong is a well-educated person. The title of his new novel, Wolf by the Ears (BookBaby, 338 pp., $16, paper; $6.99, Kindle), shows it. The words come from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote John Holmes in 1820: “As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him nor safely let him go,”  Also, the first paragraph of the book contains two words—“absara” and “sampot”—I had never encountered before.

Armstrong tells a strong and interesting story, and his book was fun to read. The language is strong and very much in the vernacular. Expressions such as “shit weasel,” “whack a mole,” and “pseudo-analytical fartlets” are much in evidence. Shazam and Captain Marvel get a workout as well. Even Howdy Doody and Chief Thunderthud make appearances.

The Fog of War also comes at us like a platoon of spinning anvils, and one of the characters speaks in a Japanese-cum-John Wayne voice. REMFs take a beating in a long rant. I believe this is the most thorough beating we rear-echelon Remington Raiders have been subjected to in recent Vietnam War literature.

The most enjoyable aspect of this novel was the treatment of food and diet. Our hero, Maj. DeRussy is confronted at one point with a main dish of turtle at a state dinner. Most of an entire short chapter is devoted to dealing with DeRussy trying to get this dish down his gullet. DeRussy talks to himself as he tries to eat the dish:

“Get tough, Big Guy. Don’t flash in your plate. Pretend its pasta. DeRussy singled out a piece of something and tugged. He had to wrap his fork around whatever he had latched on to and tug more than once before it snapped up, looking like a piece of strozzapreti.

“It felt like a tapeworm sliding down his throat, the front gaining momentum, the end grudgingly going along. After he swallowed, it occurred to him that anything that fine probably wasn’t a part of the original turtle but was most likely some species of parasite. He hoped that none of it or any of its pals has survived the heat to set up housekeeping inside his head, heart or eyeballs.”

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U.S. Ambassador John Gunther Dean (carrying flag) arriving at Utapao AFB in Thailand, April 12, 1975

This passage evoked memories and fears that I’d brought back with me from Vietnam, where I’d been much more brave than smart when it came to enjoying the meals that were easily available at little sheds alongside backstreets. The food smelled so good, but we were warned that it was deadly. But here I am, more than fifty years later, still alive—not healthy, not even marginally well, but still alive and functioning. If I had it to do over again, maybe I’d be more safety conscious. Maybe not.

I highly recommend Wolf by the Ears to anyone who is curious about what life was like in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The Khmer Republic of the 1970s comes alive on the pages of this novel. Armstrong has a rare gift for making alien cultures interesting and vibrant.

—David Willson

The Life of an Airborne Ranger by Michael B. Kitz-Miller

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“I wanna be an Airborne Ranger; I wanna live a life of danger.” So cadenced our Basic Training Drill Instructor all those years ago. In The Life of an Airborne Ranger: Donovan’s Skirmish (Koehler Books, 332 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) Michael Kitz-Miller presents us with what he calls a “work of fiction” that appears to rely heavily on the lives and stories of people he came in contact with during his time in the Army. A better description of this book might be “autobiographical fiction.”

The book follows protagonist Jack Donovan’s exploits from early childhood, through a stellar and bemedaled military career, to his quick marriage and his next assignments, which apparently will be chronicled in the next two offerings of Kitz-Miller’s proposed trilogy.

I was struck with the thought that young Jack Donovan may be the re-embodiment of Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy of the popular radio serial of the 1940s, in that he’s just too good to be true. He also could be the Audie Murphy of the Vietnam War. He has Dr. Ben Casey-style healing and recuperative skills, as well as just off-the-charts expertise in all things military, including being an expert marksman with every weapon he picks up and uses.

Donovan leaves high school, goes through dead-end jobs and a truncated college effort, and then joins the Army. He finishes at the top of his classes in Basic and AIT. And he does very well in Recondo, Ranger, and Airborne schools. He sees action in the decade prior to the run-up of the Vietnam War. Then Donovan earns a chest full of medals serving in Vietnam, including the Medal of Honor for heroic, life-saving actions during an engagement that becomes known as Donovan’s Skirmish.

He also plans and executes large-scale operations anhqdefaultd develops ARVN training programs during his first tour. After recuperating from many wounds, he takes time away from the military to complete college, and while he’s at it, joins an ROTC unit so he can graduate as an officer. And he meets his future bride, the wonderful Mary Clarke.

In his Author’s Note, Kitz-Miller suggests that “If there are mistakes, inaccuracies, errors they are certainly mine.” Disregarding the book’s literary qualities, this was a tough one to work through because of misspellings, incomplete or missing punctuation, incomplete sentences, and syntactical errors.

One hopes Michael Kitz-Miller will seek better editorial help with his next literary project.

–Tom Werzyn