The Travelers by Regina Porter

Regina Porter, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, did her Vietnam War homework for her new novel, The Travelers (Hogarth, 320 pp. $27, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Among other things, she interviewed a university historian who teaches a Vietnam War in Film class; read John Darrell Sherwood’s Black Sailor, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet During the Vietnam Era; and researched the Vietnam Women’s Memorial to learn about the contributions of American female troops during the Vietnam War.

The novel begins with a two-page list of characters, which is kind of a key to the meaning of the book. Porter also offers a brief statement of time, which helps the reader some. “This novel,” she notes, “travels from the mid-fifties to the first year of President Obama’s first term.” The list of settings includes Long Island, New York, and the former South Vietnam. Even with this attempt to help the reader, though, the book sometimes comes across as a hodgepodge of events, characters, and places.

Mostly I enjoyed the book, but only by turning it into a game by keeping track of  all the references to the Vietnam War. They mounted up rapidly and made it possible for me to view The Travelers as a Vietnam War novel. The story deals with Agent Orange, the Tet Offensive, the Gulf of Tonkin, Nixon’s war, the South China Sea, and Vietnam veterans more thoroughly than many literary Vietnam War novels do.

Porter places many of her characters in Vietnam where they do the things that young men were said to do during the war. Sex and drugs are given a lot of space, and the troops suffer psychologically by their involvement with those things. My painstaking mining of the text for Vietnam War references was rewarding, but likely would not be the way most readers will deal with the book.

The Travelers contains a fair number of photographic images, many related to the Vietnam War, including one of two sailors pressing pants on the USS Intrepid. The chapter entitled “I Know Where the Poison Lives” has a nice photo of the USS Oklahoma City and a powerful introduction to Agent Orange, including the line: “That shit ate up our daddy’s intestines.”  Porter goes on to discuss how Agent Orange affected Blue Water Navy veterans who served on aircraft carriers off the coast of South Vietnam during the war.

The role of African Americans in the Vietnam War is presented in the lives of the black characters, especially Eddie Christie, who serves on an aircraft carrier. During the war he is introduced to the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and it becomes an anchor to his life in a sea of racial unrest.

One reviewer calls the book unlike anything she’s ever read. That’s true for me as well.

–David Willson

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Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

Shooting Vietnam Dan Brookes & Bob Hillerby

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Network television captured the lightning and thunder of the Vietnam War and gave a new dimension to war reporting. Same-day combat action appeared on evening news programs as correspondents presented graphic footage of death and destruction in color. In comparison, Americans at home saw World War II and the Korean War mainly through black-and-white still photographs, primarily in the widely read weekly Life magazine.

Shooting Vietnam: The War by Its Military Photographers (Pen & Sword, 251 pp.; $32.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) by Dan Brookes and Bob Hillerby recreates the 1966-67 world of black-and-white news photography, along with accounts of the lives of military combat photographers in the Vietnam War. Both authors served with the 69th Signal Battalion.

Bob Hillery fills the first half of the book by explaining how some in-country photographers were really infantrymen with cameras. He took part in more than a hundred air assault missions with the 1st Cavalry Division and says, “I’d come to think of the danger, fear and adrenaline rush as being normal and couldn’t understand why some of the shooters tried to avoid going to the field.”

Attached to the 1st Cav’s B Troop, 1/9th, he describes working side-by-side with American soldiers at their best. The unit’s nickname was “The Headhunters,” and it was considered “the Cav of the Cav,” he says.

Dan Brookes then describes the jobs of behind-the-line photographers stationed at Tan Son Nhut and Cam Ranh Bay. Certain to be drafted, he enlisted to get a Lab Technician assignment, which he calls “a million dollar experience (that I wouldn’t give a nickel to do over).”

Brookes and his fellow “lab rats” developed and printed film and produced slides for highly classified briefings. Working regularly scheduled eight-hour shifts, they had free time to explore Saigon and its environs and photograph people and places. Occasionally, they manned the base perimeter when the VC attacked nearby—but they did not experience combat.

Separated by three years, the older Hillerby faced the war like a half-mad avenger. Brookes, on the other hand, wandered through the war zone partaking in coming-of-age experiences. Their slight age difference clearly reflects the distinctive moods of the time.

The book wraps up with two thought-provoking articles. Brookes revisits the My Lai massacre to discuss the responsibilities of photographers who encounter and record these kinds of dire events. Tony Swindell confirms Bob Hillerby’s account of the grunt-like existence of combat photographers, a situation that was not fully evident to Swindell until he found himself continually under fire in the hellhole of LZ Bravo near Duc Pho during 1968-69.

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Army photogs CPT Roger B. Hawkins, SFC Harry Breedlove, & Spec5 Ken Powell

Swindell offers a passage that, to me, clearly summarizes a grunt’s existence: “I used to lay on top of our bunker and look into space, wondering if aliens were watching us. If so, they probably figured we were packs of violent apes and turned their attention elsewhere.”

His spellbinding stories and photographs are the best part of the book. They raised question after question in my mind. His analyses of the Pacification and Phoenix programs thoroughly exemplify the misdirection and futility of the war.

Shooting Vietnam‘s importance lies in its examination and explanations of duties about which I had limited knowledge. I suspect many readers will feel the same.

The book is enlightening.

—Henry Zeybel

 

 The Off-Islander by Peter Colt

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Peter Colt spent twenty-four years in the Army Reserves. During that time he served in Kosovo in 2000 and in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. Colt, who was born in 1973, got to know many Vietnam War veterans and Green Berets while serving in the Reserves. He grew up on Nantucket—the island referred to in the title of his new book, The Off-Islander (Kensington, 240 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle).

Colt’s first novel is more about the death of the lifelong friendship of Andy Roark, a P.I., and Danny Sullivan, a lawyer, than it is about anything else, which includes trying to find a missing person, the long-gone father of a client. Andy and Danny are refugees from Boston’s Southie, where they were raised. Danny is annoyed with Andy because he has not found a stable job, or a wife, kids, house, mortgage, or dog.

Andy’s Karmann Ghia needs a new clutch and he needs a job to get the money to fix it. So he takes the job and flies to San Francisco to meet with the client and hear what she has to say. The last time Andy was in San Francisco he had just come home from the Vietnam War and got stared at for his short hair and called a “baby killer” in a bar.

In the Army Andy did Recon work and came away from that experience with disdain for supply clerks, jerks, and bottle washers who seemed to later claim they’d served in the Special Forces. He was a Green Beret, just like the man in the song. He went out and found the enemy and killed him or helped him get killed by artillery or bombs. He and his fellow Green Berets trained small, hard, nut-brown Montagnards to kill, too.

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Peter Colt

Andy notes that he worked in a dangerous part of a dangerous, stupid part of the war where the enemy threw their best men at him and his fellow Green Berets, and put bounties on their heads. When Andy came home, he had a lot of trouble trying to be a normal person, going to college, and fitting in. It was chaos; whereas in the war, things made sense to him.

His search for the missing man, Charles Hammond, is confused and difficult and seems destined to fail, but Andy persists despite attempts on his life and a distinct lack of support from Danny Sullivan.

By the end of the book, Danny and Andy are no longer friends and the reader has been taken for a long, exciting ride in pursuit of the missing man.

We are told that this is not the last of the Andy Roark novels. I look forward to the next one.

The author’s website is peter-colt.com

–David Willson

 

On the Shores of Welcome Home by Bruce Weigl

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It has been a long wait for this new book of poetry from Bruce Weigl as his previous collection, The Abundance of Nothingcame out in 2012. The great poet (and fellow Vietnam War veteran) Yusef Komunyakaa said then that Weigl’s poems often gazed into “the hellish, heavenly mechanics of life and death.” The poems in his new book, On the Shores of Welcome Home (BOA Editions, 104 pp., $17, paper; $9.99, e book), continue that scrutiny.

Weigl—who now has written more than twenty books of poetry, translations, and essays—served in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division from 1967-68 and his work is heavily influenced by his participation in the war. All of his poems are of high quality and all should be purchased for any collection of literature dealing with the Vietnam War. This latest group deals with the difficulty of returning from war and adapting to a new life; all deal with life and death matters.

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Bruce Weigl

On the Shores of Welcome Home, in which Weigl meditates on the ghosts and the grace one encounters in life’s second act, justly received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award for 2019.

The poem that follows from the book is “Modern Paradox Sutra Fragment,” which exemplifies Weigl’s skills:

 

A sex offender father broke the jaw

Of his four-year-old cerebral

Palsy son in an unspecified act

Of rage. Change yourself the teacher tells me

Again, and again because you can’t change anyone else.

Knowing things ensures heartbreak.  Not knowing

Is worse. Change yourself the teacher says;

Make more room for the suffering of others

Is what he means. Make more room and then let it

Flow through you. Let the broken-jawed little

Palsied boy who couldn’t even understand

His own poor life flow through you, and let his

Blurred screams flow through you and not through you

To feel them deeply and then to let them go.

 

I found it hard to let this poem go. It lingered in my consciousness as do many of Bruce Weigl’s poems. They have a way of sticking in the brain like jungle thorns in the torn flesh.

–David Willson

Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Rene J. Francillon

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In 1988, Rene J. Francillon’s fascination with Navy aviation led him to publish a comprehensive account of U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the Vietnam War. Now a 30th anniversary edition of that book—Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975 (Eirl Aerosphere Research, 256 pp. $69.99: $5.99, e book)—presents an expanded version of his original work.

Francillon began writing about air power in 1958. His experience in the aerospace industry served him well in the fifty-eight books he wrote, the twenty he edited, and more than four hundred-plus articles he penned about current and historical military and civilian aircraft. His writing won awards worldwide.

The new version of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is fifty pages thicker with scores of photographs of aircraft and their carriers. The original book contained merely black-and-white photographs, all of which are included in the new edition. Every image has a caption that complements information in the text.

Best of all, Francillon includes data about virtually every aspect of aircraft carrier combat operations. For example, he lists every war cruise for each of seventeen attack carries, including squadrons and aircraft involved, victories and losses by names of fliers, and periods on line. He does the same for four antisubmarine carriers. Suffice it to say that the information that Francillion consolidated from a wealth of Navy sources comprises a statistician’s dream.

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Rene Francillon

Naturally, Francillon provides a history of American strategy and tactics employed during the years under discussion. Furthermore, he highlights the life story of the U.S.S. Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any aircraft carrier deployed in the Vietnam War.

Rene Francillon—who was born in Italy in 1937, raised in France, educated in Switzerland, and lived most of his life in the United States—died shortly before publication of this anniversary edition of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.

His wife Carol completed the project. For e-book ordering info, go to bookshout.com/publishers/eirl-aerosphere-research

—Henry Zeybel

A Genuine American Citizen Soldier by Al Navarro

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The heart of a citizen soldier contains non-militarized republicanism filled with a sense of public duty and civic virtue, according to historians. American Revolutionary War soldiers typified that ideal. World War II warriors solidified the image because the citizen soldiers in that conflict fought for international freedom. The Vietnam War might have been the citizen soldier’s final endeavor with the ending of the draft in 1973.

Alberto (Al) Navarro assumes the mantle of a citizen soldier in A Genuine American Citizen Soldier (362 pp. $25, paper; $4.99, Kindle), an autobiographical novel in which he becomes Arcadio Polanco, a Panamanian who enlists in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War summer of 1966 to qualify for American citizenship. At the urging of his wife, Navarro wrote the book as a history lesson for his children.

Navarro’s novel primarily deals with 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War at the age of 21 when he was stationed at Hoi An with the 37th Signal Battalion. He admits to taking liberties with his descriptions of combat action and characters. As a result, Polanco’s insights into leadership, strategy, and combat go beyond a grunt’s point of view. For example, his description of action during the 1968 Tet Offensive has depth that reflects research. In particular, he lauds the battle skills of Republic of Korea soldiers.

Most emphatically, Polanco/Navarro understood his destiny. He earned promotions and medals by seeking and performing duties beyond his pay grade. Disappointment did not daunt him. Promised a non-combat assignment upon enlisting, he became an outstanding citizen soldier when sent into the war zone.

Navarro’s style of writing contains conversations and accounts of routine activities that occasionally slow development of the story line. Otherwise, he clearly delivers his true-to-life message of how a person must repeatedly overcoming obstacles to reach a goal.

Al Navarro—the president of Vietnam Veterans of America’s Chapter 343 in Houston—completed active duty in the Army after completing his three-year enlistment. He went on to serve in the Army Reserve and Army National Guard from 1972-2002, retiring as a Sergeant Major.

Following his naturalization process in December 1969, Navarro proudly says he became “a GENUINE AMERICAN CITIZEN.”

—Henry Zeybel