A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

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Triumphant Warrior by Peter D. Shay

In 1966, the United States Navy begged eight battle-weary UH-1B gunship helicopters from the U.S. Army. They re-named them Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three Seawolves; shipped them to Vinh Long in Vietnam; and thereby established air support for inland riverine operations of the Navy’s fiberglass-hulled Patrol Boat River fleet. When CDR Robert W. Spencer arrived at his headquarters in Vung Tau to lead the Seawolves, no other Navy officer was assigned there, so he essentially reported to himself.

Peter D. Shay tells that story as a departure point in Triumphant Warrior: The Legend of the Navy’s Most Daring Helicopter Pilot (Casemate, 240 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle). In it, he provides the history of HA(L)3 and glorifies the exploits of LCDR Allen E. “Wes” Weseleskey.

Back then, Shay flew with the Seawolves. Today, he specializes in putting together Vietnam War-era oral histories for the Naval Historical Center. An avid researcher, he conducted nearly fifty interviews with former squadron mates for Triumphant Warrior.

Shay’s narrative jumps from person to person but still develops personalities. Every man is vitally alive on these pages, often with death nearby. Similarly, he jumps from event to event without missing a beat. He grabs your attention and does not let go.

Shay describes the difficulties inherent in organizing a new squadron to perform a specialized task. He provides lessons in how to—or perhaps how not to—organize and run a war. The unit suffered growing pains from too much enthusiasm with too little experience, which caused avoidable crashes, accidents, and fires. Along with detailing the demands of the unit’s task, Shay tells the story of Weseleskey.

Practically upon arrival in HA(L)3, Weseleskey was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for a couple of gutsy close support missions. Then he pre-empted his commander’s authority, lost his slot, and was exiled to a desk, even though his misstep improved the squadron’s combat capability.

After two months of processing paperwork, Weseleskey returned to the cockpit as an assistant OIC. He focused on improving the combat skills of the unit’s least-experienced pilots until the Viet Cong attacked Vinh Long at the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Shay recalls long-ago events as if they happened yesterday, which adds a sense of urgency to his writing. He recreates the 1968 Tet Offensive as if he is still surprised by it. Most revealingly, he provides a list of high-ranking leaders who daydreamed or actually slept through the January 31 Tet kickoff.

Both Navy and Army helicopters operated from Vinh Long, so pilots and crewmen turned into infantrymen when the Viet Cong overran the airfield. Shay describes the attack using the recollections of dozens of people, including the NVA general who led the Viet Cong. His cross-section of memories produces a lucid picture of the frantic pace of the fighting.

Weseleskey led the action on the ground and also flew forty-six missions during the next two weeks. His ultimate heroics, though, came a month later while flying support for surrounded ARVN troops and rescuing two wounded Army Ranger advisers and a wounded ARVN soldier.

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Weseleskey and Shay

To pick up the three men, Weseleskey performed flying feats that violated most of his squadron commander’s restrictions. Subsequently, the commander placed Weseleskey under arrest and threatened him with a court martial. Shay’s description of the action and its aftermath provides a wealth of information for arguments about judgment, leadership, and awards.

Eventually, Weseleskey received the Navy Cross. He retired as a captain after thirty years of service. In the book, Shay keeps the discussion alive—forever, if he has his way—making a case that Weseleskey deserves the Medal of Honor.

HA(L)3 was decommissioned on March 16, 1972. The Navy Reserve, however, commissioned two new helicopter attack squadrons in 1976 and 1977. Modified versions of those units have flown special warfare and search-and-rescue missions in Middle East operations.

—Henry Zeybel

Two Suns of the Southwest by Nancy Beck Young

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“The chief difference between Goldwater and Johnson,” writes Nancy Beck Young, “was the former wanted to be right and the latter President.”

In her new book, Two Suns of the Southwest: Lyndon Johnson, Barry Goldwater, and the 1964 Battle Between Liberalism and Conservatism (University Press of Kansas, 304 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $34.95, e book), Young analyzes the 1964 presidential election between these two distinct Southwestern personalities—and their diametrically different visions for the future of America.

Nancy Beck Young is a professor of history at the University of Houston and the author of many books on American history. They include Why We Fight: Congress and the Politics of World War II and Forgotten Feminist: Lou Henry Hoover as First Lady.

This accessible, succinct book (207 pages of text) is billed as the “first full account of this critical election and its legacy for U.S. politics.” Despite its concision, the book is thorough and well researched, though Young at times relies too heavily on secondary sources.

She starts with the 1952 election of Republican Dwight Eisenhower and concludes with an embittered Goldwater unwilling to concede to Johnson on election night 1964. Her depiction of the Republican Party regrouping around the moderate Eisenhower in the mid-1950s is somewhat inflated, as the schism between the moderate and conservative wings of the party would fester and manifest itself in 1964.

The book mostly ascribes to the conventional academic orthodoxy on conservatism and liberalism, which weakens the overall thesis. When Johnson, for example, abides the overt racism of the all-white Mississippi delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention, Young writes that he was being “pragmatic.” And she sees Johnson’s reaching out to disaffected Southern voters by employing the Eastern elite straw man as unifying and expansive. When Goldwater does the same thing, Young says he is appealing to the electorate’s basest instincts .

In drawing a distinction between the two candidates, Young sporadically indulges in both overstatement and contradiction. She writes that LBJ’s message was “universal” and his liberalism was “consensus;” whereas the Republicans looked to “destroy.” Johnson is lauded for embarking on “lawmaking in a nonpartisan, statesmanlike way,” but then we learn that this statesman describes his strategy for cajoling votes by saying: “somehow I gotta get my hand under their dress.”

Young compares Johnson to Eisenhower in seeking to forge a “mainstream, moderate political movement,” but later she discredits LBJ for ignoring the Democratic Party apparatus, and deems him the country’s “most liberal president.”

The book focuses almost exclusively on domestic politics and policy, which accurately describes the race, but Young misses an opportunity to explore the election’s foreign-policy ramifications. In her overview of the Kennedy-Johnson Administration, for example, there is little discussion of the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Crisis, or the wars in Vietnam and Laos. The tremendous irony of Johnson’s position as the candidate of peace and considered judgment and his later decision to steeply escalate the Vietnam War is not analyzed.

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Nancy Beck Young

Though her “sun” allegory can become a bit tiresome and forced (Johnson’s “sun of inclusivity,” and Goldwater’s sun as “dark”), Young’s conclusion about Goldwater’s desire to be right and Johnson’s to be President is an exceptionally apt analysis of the race. Young is proficient in detailing and explaining the ideologies and personalities of the two candidates, but can over conflate the two. Goldwater, that is, lost the race in part because of his self-described “extremism,” but much more so because he was a horrible political candidate for national office.

Did Barry Goldwater’s ideas ultimately defeat Lyndon Johnson’s? Perhaps, but Goldwater’s form of conservatism was given credibility due to government mendacity that started with Johnson’s handling of Vietnam.

Notwithstanding these critiques, this important and thoughtful book carefully examines an election that because of the inadequacy of Barry Goldwater as a candidate—and the rout by Johnson—is often overlooked.

–Daniel R. Hart

Preston by Philip McKinney

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Philip McKinney served in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour of duty in 1967-68 at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in South Vietnam. His novel, Preston (168 pp., $20, paper; $7.19, Kindle), is set in the 1970s in the titular fictional Michigan town.

The main problem with the book for me was that it had no page numbers. Also, I learned far more about the town of Preston than I wanted or needed to know. It’s a small town with some fabulous scenery in the northwestern section of Lower Michigan. The most recent thing that happened there that was of interest to me took place 11,000 years ago when the last glaciers withdrew from the area.

One of the narrators of  this novel loved his job working for a newspaper in Traverse City about forty miles away from Preston. Then he moved to Preston. He was a little ahead of the so-called Boomers and when he attended Michigan State in East Lansing, and so neither the draft nor the Vietnam War had become controversial.  By the time the war and the draft became an issue, he had finished his degree, gotten married, and had a child.

The war does not loom large in this book. Another narrator —an Air Force Vietnam War veteran—only briefly refers to war in a few conversations. That makes the novel essentially a biography of the town of Preston. It is easy to read and moves right along. I’ve never read another book like it, and I’m not sure I feel a need to do so.

I recommend this book highly to those who wish to read a book that is unlike any other you most likely ever have read.

The book’s lack of page numbers annoyed at first, but then I got used to it.

–David Willson

Walker Bulldog vs T-54 by Chris McNab

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Once again, the author and editor Chris McNab and Osprey Publishing have pitted tanks against each other—this time in McNab’s latest Osprey Duel Series book, Walker Bulldog vs T-54: Laos and Vietnam 1971-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The tanks’ real-life confrontations occurred late in the American war in Vietnam during the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

The United States provided the light Bulldog T41 for the South Vietnamese Army; the Soviet Union supplied the T-54 main battle tank to the North Vietnamese Army.

McNab presents a complete picture of each machine. An expert in military technology, he has written more than a hundred titles in his twenty-year career.

Johnny Schumate’s paintings of battle scenes and Alan Gilliland’s illustrations of the tanks’ interiors are complemented by many photographs. In particular, gun sight target views for each tank add authenticity to the narrative.

In essence, Bulldog vs T-54 is two books in one, with the first resembling a tech order. It reviews the tanks’ design and development and goes over performance specifications such as fuel consumption and armor reliability. An excellent visual layout with explanations of warhead killing power provides a thought-provoking comparison between the M41’s 76mm and the T-54’s 100mm guns.

A different comparison of the tanks and their crews fills the second half of the book. McNab briefly describes the strategic background leading to the ARVN move into Laos for Lam Son 719 and the NVA (aka, the PAVN)’s nationwide Easter Offensive. He then delves into manpower numbers, morale, and United States-versus-Soviet-and-Chinese methods of training tank crews.

Tank warfare during Lam Son 719 differed significantly from what happened during the Easter Offensive the following year. McNab’s coverage of combat is supported by statistics and analysis. His discussion of battlefield tactics finds weaknesses among both South and North Vietnamese leaders.

His first-hand accounts of battles were not as complete as I wanted, but they still revealed outcomes that surprised me. He indicates that much of the information I was looking for has not been made public by the PAVN. McNab’s final conclusions are evenhanded and somewhat predictable from the start, although both sides experienced extremely unpredictable short-time results along the way.

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I have not included the finer points of McNab’s observations and conclusions to avoid spoiling surprises for readers. I had never considered tanks as a significant part of the Vietnam War. McNab, however, woke me up to their role and taught me lessons about their use in different types of terrains.

On the other hand, I took part in Lam Son 791, and according to my flight log, our AC-130 Spectre gunship crew flew 27 interdiction and three TIC missions into Laos during the operation. The ARVN incursion backed up PAVN traffic to around Tchepone, and we shot 477 cargo and fuel trucks during the operation without finding one tank.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Unfortunate Sons by Joe Tyson, Sr.

The subtitle of Joe Tyson, Sr.’s Unfortunate Sons: The Beginning of Marine Corps Tanks in the Vietnam War and How I Survived Vietnam as a Marine Tanker (Friesen Press, 552 pp., $31.49, hardcover; $27.49, paper; $6.99, e book) covers the seventeen months in 1965 and 1966 that Tyson served as a young Marine tanker with B Co. in the 3rd Tank Battalion. In his book, Tyson describes the daily routines of patrols and combat situations. The story unfolds from his “internal foot-locker” of memories, as Tyson puts it.

Before he went to Vietnam, Tyson witnessed a mid-air helicopter collision that resulted in nine deaths and was on board a C-130 that made a rough landing in a blizzard and ended up sideways in a cornfield. He had been in the Marines for nearly two years when he volunteered for duty in Okinawa, “the Party Capital of the Marine Corps,” as Tyson puts it.

When Tyson arrived in Da Nang in March 1965, his unit was among some of the first tanks to deploy in the Vietnam War. His tank company operated around Marble Mountain in support of the 9th Marine Regiment.

Tyson and the members of his platoon had their time in-country involuntarily extended twice. All that time, he points out, they never saw a USO show or received any R&R on China Beach.

For the first five months the tankers were not involved in much action. But then things became more serious, including regular mortar attacks. When that happened, Tyson says, routine daily inspections ended and everyone began carrying loaded weapons.

The men seemed to spend most of their time battling heat, bugs, and snakes, but also had to be constantly on alert for anti-tank mines and grenades tossed at them.

Tyson carried with him a reputation for always saying what he was thinking. That led to a few run-ins with officers, usually lieutenants. He points out several times how decisions in Vietnam often were more trustworthy when they were made by someone with experience in-country, regardless of rank.

His time consisted of conducting sweeps with infantry, some company-sized and some with just a few squads. Some days there would be no enemy contact, other days a lot.

Joe Tyson, Sr.

As the months dragged on, Tyson and many of his fellow Marines become bitter over how the war was being fought, mainly because they felt that nothing was being accomplished. Looking back, he has nothing positive to say about members of the peace movement back home.

Tyson uses a lot of detail, especially in describing the firing of tank weapons, which becomes pretty repetitive by the end of the book, although that could be his point.

The book is filled with much reconstructed dialogue, Tyson’s way of pulling the reader into his story.

Dozens of photographs are spread throughout the book.

—Bill McCloud

The Life and Times of a Survivor by Marie Sweeney Heath

The Life and Times of a Survivor: Before, During, and after Vietnam (Christian Faith Publishing, 40 pp., $12.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is Marie Sweeney Heath’s self-described “brief autobiography” of her life before, during, and after she served in the Vietnam War. Short chapters describe how she survived nursing school, Army Basic Training, the war, and life after coming home.

The author’s father served in the Army in the South Pacific during World War II. After a few years as a firefighter in Boston, he rejoined the army at the start of the Korean War. This time he would stay in for twenty-eight 28 years.

After graduating from high school Marie Sweeney entered nursing school, then went into the Army Student Nurse Program. Following Basic Training, she worked for a short while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., before receiving orders for Vietnam. She told her family she wanted “to go where I can do the most good for my country and where I can provide medical care for those who need it.”

She landed in Saigon in early 1966. Being assigned to a base camp in Qui Nhon she volunteered to serve for six weeks in a small tent hospital in An Khe. Getting back to Qui Nhon she ended up marrying Bob Sweeney, an Army officer stationed there. For their honeymoon the couple went to Okinawa for a week.

During the war Marie Sweeney found it helpful to use “inappropriate humor” as a way of dealing with the daily stress. She says you couldn’t survive if you couldn’t laugh. It’s a technique she continues to use today.

Part of her time was spent helping treat Vietnamese patients in a leprosarium. Returning to the United States, she worked in obstetrics while stationed with her husband at Fort Ord. The couple resigned their commissions in September 1967, moving to Wisconsin then to Missouri and Virginia.

Her on-going story of survival has her dealing with the loss of a son and the death of her husband. She would be widowed for more than twenty-five years before remarrying in 2017.

Marie Sweeney Heath’s personality comes through in reading her book. Clearly she would be fun to talk to and you feel she has a lot more stories she could tell.

Having served as a nurse in Vietnam puts her in a group that every Vietnam veteran I’ve known places at the top of the list of people they love, honor, and respect the most.

Two dozen photos are crammed into this brief book.

–Bill McCloud