Heart of Gray by Richard W. Enners

 
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Richard W. Enners’ Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy Enners: Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam (Acclaim Press, 256 pp., $26.95) is a shining tribute to the author’s older brother. The book commemorates a life of honor and achievement, from junior high school to the Vietnam War, where Raymond Enners died. It is clear from the beginning that he was a team player who always left ego behind to make sure his team did well.

Richard Enners tells how early experiences built Ray’s character and led to his leadership abilities. He uses lacrosse and his brother’s expertise in the game as an example of the Ray’s natural-born talents. As a young boy in an important game, for example, Ray had a chance to score a goal but instead passed the ball to a teammate so he could reach a personal milestone. “Ray certainly had the guts, but was not interested in the glory,” his brother writes.

Such leadership carried through to the Vietnam War in which Ray served after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. His brother—also an Academy graduate—discusses Ray’s life at West Point, from drills to dinner.

Raymond Enners went to Vietnam in 1968 where he used “influence, not authority, to lead his teammates,” Richard Enners writes. 1st Lt. Ray Enners led his unit, Alpha Co., in the Americal Division’s 1/20th Inf. Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade with courage and friendship. His men never suffered low morale, thanks primarily to his leadership.

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Richard Enners

Even Ray’s death on September 18, 1968, in a vicious firefight with the NVA near Ha Thanh showed his lack of selfishness, as well as his courage and humanity. He died in a rice paddy as he saved others. For this, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for dedication, bravery, and valor.

Heart of Gray is filled with extraordinary detail from Ray’s entire life. The fight in which Ray fought and died is described so well that the reader can easily envision the action. Even his R&R is chronicled in detail. There also are testimonies from former classmates, war buddies, and friends, all glowing with respect and admiration for Raymond Enners.

—Loana Hoylman

 

 

Each One a Hero by Michael March

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Michael March served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam from July 1967 to July 1968. In his autobiographical Vietnam War novel, Each One a Hero: A Novel of War and Brotherhood (Hellgate Press, 316 pp., $19.95, paper), the main character, a college drop out who gets drafted into the Army, spends time driving an APC just like the main character does in Larry Heinemann’s Close Quarters, one of the best early (1977) Vietnam War novels.

Each One A Hero gives no challenge to Close Quarters, but it is a worthy effort. The reader encounters the notion that the VC fight their war by arming whores with razor blades in their vaginas. It also asks the question, “Why don’t they give up?” as they are hopelessly out-manned and outclassed, or so the Americans seem to think. Certainly the results of the U.S. body counts seemed to indicate so.

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Michael March

Ann Margaret, Annette Funicello, the Freedom Bird, Woody Woodpecker, and a lot of the usual American pop culture stuff we find in Vietnam War novels gets name checked in this book. The Tet Offensive and the Light at the End of the Tunnel get a workout, too. Magical realism even rears its head, along with Buddy Knox and his great fifties rock and roll song “Party Doll.”

Each One a Hero is well written and is a quick read. The hero returns from his Bangkok sex-capades with his “dick hurting like a bastard.” He was singing the blues right out of “House of the Rising Sun.” That makes me glad I chose not to take my R&R in Thailand.

There is some humor in this book, but it’s hard to laugh at the hero’s predicament as he prepares to return home. I’m sure he figured it out.

—David Willson

Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

The Last of the Annamese by Tom Glenn

 

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Tom Glenn’s The Last of the Annamese (Naval Institute Press, 336 pp., $29.95) is a love story. It is not a sentimental love story, nor is it a soap opera. It is a clear story of the last days of South Vietnam—a story of the love between individuals and love for a dying country.

The main thread is an affair between an American, Chuck Griffith, and an aristocratic Vietnamese woman, Tuyet, who is married to a disfigured peasant who has the noblest heart of all the characters. But the background story is of the Vietnam War after most of American troops have left. It is about Amerasian children left behind in orphanages, Vietnamese women who do not know what has happened to their husbands, the American troops who try to tell the truth of what is happening. Whether the U.S. government cares about the truth is unclear; are the Americans in charge deaf, or do they wish to disrupt any evacuations?

The novel begins calmly with the meeting of the two protagonists and progresses to fear and panic as South Vietnam begins to unravel. It is the mark of a fine writer that you cannot tell how he does this without changing his style, but the message is undeniably clear: South Vietnam is falling and failing, and people are trying to survive.

Against the panic of being overrun, Glenn conveys the peaceful heart and philosophies of one man, the courageous South Vietnamese Army officer who is married to Tuyet. Thanh evolves into the strongest, most compassionate, dauntless character in the book. Against all odds, he comes to embody the heart of the Buddha in a way that suggests that the people in the South will endure and survive whatever horrors await.

Glenn’s writing is clear and calm and remains so throughout the book. And yet, toward the end, as Saigon is being bombed and people are dying, there is an urgency to everything. The calm of the rest of the book reflects the way people ignored what was really going on. When confronted with bombs, attacks, and the advancing enemy, the urgency and human panic comes through loud and clear.

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Tom Glenn

Every character is painted with only a few strokes with such talent that you know these people, or think you do. And yet, none are clichéd or simple. You can smell the fish sauce, the streets, the flowers, the air. You can feel the black smoke from crashing planes, the humidity of the place, the darkness of the interiors, the whisper of silk ao dais.

You can feel the grief of all that is lost, but it is never a grief too heavy to read. In a Shakespearean way, the heavy emotion is off stage, implied with subtle writing. Glenn describes emotions that his characters go through, but he does so with spare strokes and thorough knowledge. Above all, this beautiful book shows that the trauma of war is the great equalizer for those directly involved.

Tom Glenn spent thirteen years as an undercover NSA employee working on covert operations in Vietnam, and escaped when the North Vietnamese took Saigon in May of 1975.  We reviewed his novels The Trion Syndrome and Friendly Casualties on these pages in 2015 and 2016.

—Loana Hoylman

Vietnam Reflections by Michael T. Keene

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In Vietnam Reflections: The Untold Story of the Holley Boys (Ad Hoc, 246 pp., $14.71, paper), Michael T. Keene presents a story about people and places that would be overlooked elsewhere. The most important people are eight men who died in the Vietnam War. They all came from Holley, New York, a small town on the Erie Canal: Ronald P. Sisson, Howard L. Bowen, David D. Case, John P. Davis, George W. Fischer, Jr., Paul Mandracchia, Gary E. Bullock, and Gary L. Stymus.

The loss of eight men from a town of approximately 1,800 was one of the nation’s highest Vietnam War death toll for any community. Keene recreates the men’s lives through letters they sent home, official documents, and more than sixty interviews with their families, friends, and fellow soldiers.

An avid researcher, Keene opens the book with a history of Holley and recognition of the town’s prominent citizens as far back as 1802. He alternates chapters about the Boys with episodes arranged chronologically from Vietnam’s history, such as the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, the 1963 Diem assassination, and the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident. This provides relevance between the deaths and the progress of the war.

The biographies of the eight offer many stories from their childhood and teen years but only limited information about their activities in the war. An award citation, an after-action report, and a condolence letter shed light on the war-zone lives of a few of the men. Enemy fire killed six of the eight. The first died in 1965 and the last in 1970. Their average age was slightly under twenty-three.

They were typical young Americans of their time. Growing up, they went to the same high school and took part in sports, marching band, Boy Scouts, and hot rod racing. Keene traces the occupations and lineages of some of their families.

Keene’s book brought to mind Beyond the Names: A Tribute to the Clermont County, Ohio, Vietnam War Dead, a work of love and admiration for forty men killed in the Vietnam War from Clermont County, Ohio. Gary L. Knepp wrote the book as a way to keep the sacrifices of the men from fading into obscurity.

Similarly, Eric Poole’s Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam tells of a company that lost eighteen men, all of whom are still fondly remembered by their comrades. Based on seven years of interviews, that book weaves together episodes from the men’s pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam.

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Michael Keene

Books such as these are important because too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honor and recognition they earned. These books chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing and, in that manner, set examples for today’s young men and women who do not face the challenge of involuntary military service.

Vietnam Reflections contains four appendices, including one that analyzes the influence on the war of ten leaders such as Richard Nixon, Vo Nguyen Giap, and William Westmoreland.

Keene served two tours in Vietnam with the Marines. He has written many books about the people of upper New York State.

His website is ad-hoc-productions.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One Step at a Time by Greg Burham

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In One Step at a Time: A Navy SEAL Vietnam Combat Veteran’s Journey Home: Including his Hike from Alaska to Mexico (Phoca Press, 214 pp., $85) we follow former Petty Officer Greg Burham from his discharge in 1972 as he decides to exchange combat boots for hiking boots.

Burham’s childhood set the direction for physical and mental tenacity, from marveling at a man who rowed solo across the Atlantic Ocean to challenging himself with skill tests.  “I can say the seed was planted for me to take a long trip myself under my own power,” he writes. “Even as a very young person, doing physical or athletic things made me feel better about myself.”

Burham readily took on the “sink or swim” motto of intense Navy SEAL training and a subsequent seven-month tour of duty in the Vietnam War near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta beginning in late 1970. In 1972, Burham decided to leave the Navy after his four-year hitch. “Even as I was getting ready to muster out of service,” he says, “I still considered staying in and trying to get my degree at night.”

Burham faced unexpected barriers when he returned home to Kalispell, Montana. At the University of Montana he was confronted by another student who asked him how many kids he had killed, and who “thought it was terrible the government would give a baby killer money for college. I bit my tongue, but the words stung.”

In May 1974 he turned his thoughts to hiking from Alaska to Mexico into action. He postponed college, left his job, and sold his car. Burham’s boots hit the Alaskan tundra in July, launching a remarkable trek accentuated by natural beauty and the almost daily offers of rides (which he always declined), food or drink, hiking and camping advice, or just plain conversation with strangers he met on the trail.

There were times in which Burham enjoyed being alone with nature. “The sun was shining and the daisies were nodding in the breeze,” he wrote in his journal about one such occasion. “As much as I liked the company of the people I met along the way, I also enjoyed my solitude.”

Possibly an August item is the most significant entry in Burham’s log. He wrote: “My two month milestone marked a second event in my life. The next day, August 20, was six years since I had enlisted in the Navy. This was also officially my Discharge Day.” Alongside Gita Creek in Alberta, Canada, Burham reached life-altering decisions. He decided not to re-enlist in the Navy, and also reached an important emotional plateau. To wit: “Even though I came back to a country that was relentlessly negative to military veterans like me, on this day, I only felt a sense of satisfaction.”

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Burham trekking

 

While trekking, Burham’s diet varied from occasional home-cooked meals to small-town cafe fare, Dairy Queen ice cream, freeze-dried packs, and grocery store “pig-outs” including peanut butter, crackers, cupcakes, Grape-Nuts, powdered milk, and an arid turkey sandwich he consumed at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Climate surprises greeted the hiker many times. Approaching the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Burham wrote: “The weather changed every five minutes, from sun, to rain, to sleet, back to sun, and then rain again.” Then came one more physical challenge.

“It was a tiring 30 mile climb from the desert floor in Fredonia to the top of the Kaibab Plateau (at around 7,900 or 8,000 feet elevation), making for a long day.”

At his final step in Sonoyta, Mexico, he began a new life phase, starting a career as a youth counselor while dealing with his own PTSD. Married and the father of three, Burham, went to work for the VA, counseling veterans from World War II through the current war in Afghanistan, including Russian veterans, until his retirement in 2007.

—Curt Nelson

 

To Hear Silence, 2nd Edition, by Ronald W. Hoffman

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Two years ago, we reviewed Ronald W. Hoffman’s memoir, To Hear Silence: Charlie Battery, 1st Battalion 13th Marines, The First 15 Months (July 1, 1966-October 5, 1967): The True Vietnam Experience Supporting the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines (CreateSpace, 412 pp., $16.99 paper; 9.99, Kindle). This memoir focuses on Hoffman’s Vietnam War experiences with Charlie Battery.

In the book’s new second edition, Hoffman has added a Prologue, in which he sets out what he calls “events that eventually pulled us into this undeclared, limited political war.” He begins that historical journey with the Second World War and ends it fifteen pages later by saying, “And thus, the United States politically lost its first war ever.” By emphasizing the political entanglements in the Vietnam War, Hoffman quietly emphasizes the high degree of dedication shown by Marines (and other fighting men) who actually took part in the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel