Combat Pay by David R. Bublitz

David R. Bublitz’s Combat Pay (Main Street Rag Publishing Company, 72. pp. $14, paper) is divided into two sections: “War” and “Home.” Each contains more than a dozen poems. The “War” section touches on subjects you’d expect: Reveille, field stripping, living on base, dry fire, basic training, being drafted, and the like. 

“Home” contains the poems “Faith,” “Army Wife,” “My Father is a Spent Shell,” “Combat Pay,” “Walking Dad,” “Infidelity,” “When You Hear the Air Raid Warning,” and “Sleep Smoking.”  

The poems are mostly short and easy to understand. I found them worth reading and even fun to read. Here, for example, is “Fighting Weight:” 

My father’s hands never young

Return from the desert red

Where the folds of his palms

And finger prints used to be.

He’s reduced to 150 pounds bound

For home in the bed of the truck.

My dad’s finally back.

I tell a friend I produce

A picture, Dad’s one knee up

And arms loose across.

The friend looks and frowns.

Where’s the rest of him?

That’s a good question. A page or two later comes the poem, “My Father is a Spent Shell.” Some of the answers to that question are in this poem.

The poems in this book are tough to read in one sitting, but worth the effort. It’s an effort. I happily made it, and encourage others to do the same.

David Bublitz’s Facebook page is: facebook.com/combatpay

–David Willson

The Hidden Key by David E. Grogan

David E. Grogan’s The Hidden Key (Camel Press, 250 pp. $15.95, paper) is the third book in his Steve Stilwell series of thrillers. Stilwell is an attorney who works for himself in Virginia. He previously served as a U.S. Navy attorney with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps–as did the author.

The action kicks off immediately as we learn that a member of the American military has smuggled an ancient clay-tablet out of Iraq and taken it back with him to the U.S. Something takes place in the very first chapter that lets you know that just about anything is likely to happen in this book. There’s more action in the first two chapters than in many entire books.

Stilwell, who is going through a divorce, has been out of the Navy for six years. Casey Pantel is a partner in his law office. She barely survived an Army helicopter crash. Phan Quốc Cường also works for him. He once saved Stilwell’s life. In return, Stillwell helped him and his family escape from Vietnam.

Stilwell meets with a wealthy client and we learn that an active black market in antiquities has been in place since the beginning of the Iraq War. Museums and historical sites have been looted for items that are solde to raise money for Al-Qaida. Before long, his client is dead.

The tablet falls into, then out of, Stilwell’s hands. It appears that it’s not an ordinary tablet from the distant past. There’s something unique and important about this tablet. The writing on it may be a key to an ancient map of Babylon, or even the prized map itself. Or a Babylonian map of the world. Bad guys have killed in an attempt to obtain it. The good guys are after it as well, in the guise of FBI Agents Crosby and Fields who are assigned to the bureau’s Art Crime Team.

The holy Shroud of Turin becomes a plot point, as does the legendary Fountain of Youth and the biblical Garden of Eden. The action takes place in Maryland, Missouri, and Virginia, as well as in Italy, India, and Bahrain. Grogan includes several important female characters in a novel with a bit too much stilted dialogue.

Retired Navy Capt. Dave Grogan

Overall, the book reads like something written in the 1930s, perhaps by Sax Rohmer, the English novelist who created Dr. Fu Manchu.  At one point Grogan writes, “Steve felt like a detective in a B movie.”

This is a B novel—more in the “boys own adventure” genre than a sophisticated thriller. Still, it was fun to read.

The author’s website is davidegrogan.com

–Bill McCloud

A Quiet Cadence by Mark Treanor

Mark Treanor’s A Quiet Cadence (Naval Institute Press, 392 pp. $29.95) is a great Vietnam War novel.

Treanor—a Naval Academy graduate who led a Marine rifle platoon and commanded an artillery battery in the Vietnam War—tells the war and post-war stories of nineteen-year-old Marine Marty McClure. It begins on the day McClure sees “the dead man above the trees” as he is about to go into the bush. It’s just his fifth day in country.

McClure is an assistant gunner in a rifle company in which the company clerk is the guy with the most scarred face in the unit. The guys are all young. Some have young wives at home, and a couple of them are pregnant. The first Marine to greet him says, “Welcome to shit city.” McClure’s platoon is known as “the frat house” because every member in it went to college.

McClure is looking forward to his first firefight, but hopes it’s a small one. In fact, his actions under fire fall short of his expectations. He is slow to react as he watches a buddy kill “the running man.”

Back at the base camp after a few weeks in the bush means being able to heap mashed potatoes and real butter onto your battered tin chow tray. Then a shower and some sleep and before long you head back out again. McClure encounters the body of a VC and is surprised to see that it’s a young female wrapped in ammunition pouches, an AK-47 next to her.

“Her lips were raised in what looked amazingly like a pucker, as though she were waiting for a lover’s kiss,” Treanor writes, “her nipples incongruously hard.”

Treanor does a great job describing how claustrophobic it feels to tramp through the jungle fearing triggering a booby trap with each step. He also evokes the Marines’ frustrations as they try to ferret out an all-but-invisible enemy:

“We saw no enemy the day Corrie lost his leg.”

“We saw no enemy the day Cavett had his foot blown off and the new guy was ripped up by shrapnel.”

“We saw no enemy on the day Prevas lost his leg.”

The men want revenge, but McClure says there was “no one to kill, no one to pay back. We were all scared.”

When the wished-for action comes, McClure for the first time sees a buddy killed in a firefight. This makes things “somehow more personal,” and he becomes fixated on payback.

The last third of the book deals with McClure’s life after coming home from Vietnam and after leaving the Marines. What he didn’t leave behind was survivor’s guilt. He suffers through continuing nightmares as he attempts to escape the war. The quiet cadence of the title refers to his attempts to continue on with life by focusing on taking things one step at a time.

Mark Treanor

This is a powerful, unrelenting look at the experiences of a Marine serving at the height of the Vietnam War and the personal battles he continues to fight for decades after his return home.

A Quiet Cadence is a major work of combat fiction. It has my full-throated recommendation.

–Bill McCloud

Rice Roots by Robert R. Amon, Jr.

Robert R. Amon Jr.’s Rice Roots: The Vietnam War: True Stories from the Diary of a U.S. Combat Advisor (Legacies and Memories, 328 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper) is a historically accurate page-turner about the Vietnam War.

Amon skillfully used his personal diary from his time in-county as a starting point as he put together this readable memoir of his ’69-’70 tour of duty with a series of South Vietnamese Army units in the Mekong Delta.

As a newly minted, well-trained infantry lieutenant, Bob Amon—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—was assigned to a Mobile Advisory Team, which consisted of five men charged with advising and working with small ARVN units. He spent his entire tour in the field, separated from American military activities and base camps. Part of his war story deals with the experiences of the men he served and fought with; those sections enliven the running story line. 

Amon toggles between his journal entries—which are printed in italics—with expansions of the narrative and bits of recreated dialogue. The writing draws the reader into the story, and affords a larger view of the war. He also includes the occasional letter home to underscore and complement the story. With this format, we experience one man’s intimate view of the war in remote villages in the Mekong Delta.

Bob Amon’s in-country diary

Amon’s telling of his story is not minute-by-minute battlefield reporting, nor is it a chronology of his life from cradle to jungle. Instead, he relates, in well-constructed prose, the daily routine of one group of soldiers helping another working side by side and fighting a war as best they can.

Amon, to close his story, describes his return to Vietnam more than twenty years after his tour of duty, accompanied by his wife, visiting towns and villages where he served.

He took photos during his tour, and brought albums of them with him. He was able, through those pictures, to meet with former comrades and enemies, as well as relatives of those he served with and advised.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and well-produced book, and one that I was doubly intrigued with.

That’s because I served in the same Delta areas as Amon did a year before he arrived in Vietnam. My efforts were not in a combat role, but in gathering local intelligence that he relied upon to execute his mission.

The book’s website is riceroots.com

–Tom Werzyn

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Tango 1-1 by Jim Thayer

A lot of soldiers from both sides of the battlefield get killed or seriously wounded in Jim Thayer’s memoir, Tango 1-1: 9th Infantry Division LRPs in the Vietnam Delta (Pen & Sword, 168 pp. $32.95). Thayer decided to re-enlist in the Army, he writes, looking for a fight. He found it in the heart of the Mekong Delta. Seeking to test himself “in the arena of combat,” he volunteered to serve in the 9th Infantry Division’s Long Range Patrol Detachment.

Thayer tells us that Vietnam War LRPs worked in teams of five to six heavily-armed men who relied on stealth and surprise to operate deep behind enemy lines. In South Vietnam, they deployed into areas controlled by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army; their mission was to kill enemy soldiers or capture them for interrogation.   

The book opens with Thayer’s arrival in Vietnam in 1968. He wastes no space on the trivia of stateside training: LRPs learned on the job. Writing primarily from “the memory of an old warrior,” he “corroborated the facts with surviving members of his unit,” he says. Each of his fifty-four short chapters is a story within itself.

Thayer had a genuine affinity for finding a fight—even with fellow soldiers. In the latter case, his aggression usually was justified. His leadership talent was unquestionable. His selfless attitude and actions in the field quickly qualified him to lead a LRP team.

Thayer’s passion for war did not wane despite his suffering a wound that sent him to Japan for six weeks of rehab midway through his 1968-69 tour of duty. Afterward, he voluntarily returned to his unit, eager to “get some pay-back” for the death of a young teammate, as well as for himself, he says.

Paralleling his own experience, Thayer—who died earlier this year—relates noteworthy actions of other LRP (aka LRRP or “Lurp”) teams. He pays a huge tribute to his Company Commander, Capt. Dale Dickey and to his Platoon Leader, Lt. Robert Hill. He also lauds two South Vietnamese soldiers named Bao and Dien from the Provincial Reconnaissance Unit for their loyalty, knowledge of the countryside, and extraordinary ability to find booby traps. They accompanied him on every mission.

The book overflows with recollections of the LRPs’ determination to confront the enemy. Thayer’s story about Dickey’s effort to accomplish an un-accomplishable mission borders on insanity. Unbelievably, using the same tactics and stymied repeatedly, Dickey did not lose a man. I read that chapter three times. The book also taught me about tactics that I had not known such as Parakeet flights, which proved costly to both sides.

A 9th Infantry Division LRRP team in Vietnam

As if the war alone were not an adequate challenge for him, Thayer also had to cope with a wife who decided to divorce him. He accepts his share of their marital disaster, but his wife’s bitterness could fill a book of its own.

Tango 1-1 contains an eight-page gallery of color photographs of Thayer and his teammates. It has no footnotes, bibliography, or index.

In 1969, the LRPs evolved into Rangers but performed the same mission. During the Vietnam War, slightly less than five hundred soldiers served as LRPs and Rangers with the 9th Infantry Division. Twenty-six were killed in action. Thayer’s memoir presents an insightful history that’s representative of those warriors.

—Henry Zeybel    

Cameras, Combat, and Courage by Dan Brookes

Decades ago Dan Brookes and Bob Hillerby decided to tell the stories of Army and Marine combat photographers in the Vietnam War. Unfortunately, along the way, Hillerby died in an accident. Nevertheless, late in 2019, Pen & Sword published Shooting Vietnam: The War by Its Military Photographers with both men as its authors.

Their accounts of the grunt-like existence of their fellow Vietnam War military combat photographers made me see them as infantrymen with cameras. As I put it in my review: “Their spellbinding stories and photographs raised question after question in my mind.”

Now Dan Brookes has produced a second volume about cameramen in action in the Vietnam War: Cameras, Combat and Courage: The Vietnam War By The Military’s Own Photographers (Pen & Sword, 216 pp. $32.95). The new book follows a format similar to the first volume: It presents autobiographies of eight photographers alongside their photo work.

Assigned to the U.S. Army’s 221st Signal Company and the 69th Signal Battalion, they shot front-line activities with both still and motion picture cameras. The book includes many pages of frames from footage of field operations.

Above all else, the second volume reconfirms the risk and drama associated with photographing armies in time of war. The men recollect their roles in operations large and small across the span of the war, including the 1968 Tet Offensive, Lam Son 719, the incursion into Cambodia, Operation Medina, and the siege of FSB Ripcord.  

I was surprised to learn through these stories that photographers usually worked independently, choosing when, where, and with whom they went into the field. Because they were in their early twenties, not surprisingly, the photographers often chose to partake in haphazard adventures. Brookes’ recounting of their experiences provide excellent reading.

Brookes pays deep tribute to the only Vietnam War photographer who received the Medal of Honor, Cpl. William T. Perkins, Jr., who smothered a hand grenade with his body to save the lives of fellow Marines. Brookes also immortalizes five 221st photographers killed in the downing of Ghost Rider 079, a UH-10 Huey helicopter.

Haddon Hufford on the job with the 1st Cav in Vietnam

Brookes closes the book’s photographic display with a gallery of stills focusing on Vietnam’s people, cities, and countryside.

Cameras, Combat, and Courage is a fitting follow-up to Shooting Vietnam. Both merit a center shelf position in your library because they are books you will pick up time and time again.

—Henry Zeybel

What We Inherit by Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Finding truth forms the foundation of What We Inherit: A Secret War and a Family’s Search for Answers (Unnamed Press, 275 pp. $26, hardcover; $12.99, Kindle). In her first book, the writer and editor Jessica Pearce Rotondi has put together an excellent account of her family’s gradual unfolding of facts regarding her Uncle Jack Pearce’s fate following the 1972 loss of his AC-130 in the skies over Laos during the Vietnam War.

Jessica Rotondi describes the family’s effort by interweaving two quests. The first, which stretched from 1972 to 2008, was undertaken by her grandparents, Ed and Rosemary Pearce, and her mother Linda Pearce. Following Linda Pearce’s death in 2009, her daughter vigorously resumed the second: her search for the same answers after discovering a closet filled with boxes of material dealing with whether her uncle was initially killed or survived and went missing in action.  

Ed Pearce’s conviction that his son survived the destruction of his airplane had continually compounded the question. In World War II, Ed had been a B-17 gunner, and was shot down over Germany. He spent nineteen months as a prisoner in Stalag 17. He visited Laos in 1973, but found nothing confirming his son’s fate. His face-to-face discussions with American military authorities highlight the book’s many contentious episodes. Linda Pearce also was a tireless fact finder. During a 1975 trip to Paris, for example, she singlehandedly confronted the Vietnamese and Laotian ambassadors to France.     

Jessica Rotondi is an excellent writer—and one deeply involved with her topic. Much of what she reports in the book is based on official transcripts. She recreates the tenseness of the times and brings people vividly to life. She also provides insights into the work of the Pentagon’s Joint Casualty Resolution Center and the Central Identification Laboratory.

Jessica Rotondi’s involvement culminates in 2013 with a harrowing but fulfilling hike through the jungle in Laos where her uncle’s airplane had crashed. This part of the book offers a study in determination and fortitude—a fitting climax to all that the family endured.

The book’s website is jessicapearcerotondi.com/book

—Henry Zeybel

Destiny Returns by Douglas Volk

Destiny Returns (Danjon Press, 415 pp. $14.99, paperback; $3.99, Kindle) is the third novel in The Morpheus Series by Douglas Volk. These books get under my skin and find a home in the part of my brain that responds to terror. Volk is a very seductive storyteller.

This time we’re dealing with kinky sex, blackmail, fraud, embezzlement, and contract murder. All that is held together by The Curse, which we first encounter at the beginning of the first book in this series,The Morpheus Conspiracy. The Curse comes about following a mysterious, brutal, incident that took place in South Vietnam involving an American soldier and Vietnamese civilians in late 1970. Volk describes it vividly in The Morpheus Conspiracy, and I’ve never been able to get out of my head. The Curse expresses itself through Somnambulistic Telepathy, which gives people the ability to travel into other people’s dreams and carry out acts of violence against them.

This book begins twenty years after the previous one, The Surgeon’s Curse ended. It’s 2006 and Chicago is dealing with of murders, most of them involving street gangs. Charlotte “Charly” Becker has been a cop for five years, but is a rookie detective assigned to homicide, a department known as “the flying shit storm.” Her father is retired from the same department and had a reputation as a brilliant detective.

The first case she’s assigned to take the lead on involves the murder of a dominatrix, apparently at the hand of a professional gunman. But, of course, nothing’s ever as simply as it seems. Hoyt Rogers, one of the main partners in a large law firm and a long-time city councilman—is a client of the murdered woman. Charly Becker finds out he has serious money troubles. Not to mention being the brother of a notorious mass murderer known as The Surgeon.

As Rogers’ troubles worsen, his appearance goes through big changes, his personal hygiene goes downhill, as his mental state deteriorates. It seems The Curse is back and the horror is about to begin all over again. At the same time, Detective Becker has to deal with pressure from the department to solve the murder, along with political complications because of Rogers’ position with the city, and a reporter who keeps pestering her for details about the case.

These books tell nightmarish tales. Horrible things keep happening. You think things can’t get worse, but then you turn the page and they do. I consider Volk to be a master of dialogue. It always rings true.

I encourage readers to start with the first book in the series and read your way through. That will give you a better sense of the over-all vibe that’s going on here—the malevolence that underlies everything.

This book is popular entertainment, one that can help us get through these stressful pandemic days.

–Bill McCloud

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

Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud

Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV by Stephen Wynn

mystery-of-missing-flight-f-belv

Stephen Wynn examines the gamut of flying difficulties in attempting to solve the Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV (Pen and Sword, 192 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). Said mystery: the disappearance of a Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner on a routine flight from Vientiane to Hanoi on October 18, 1965.

The airplane, which belonged to the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC), carried nine delegates from India, Canada, and Poland who monitored hostilities in Indochina. One of the nine, a sergeant in the Canadian army, was Wynn’s uncle, a fact that significantly stimulated his search for a solution to what happened to the airplane, its passengers, and crew—and to this book.

Wynn uncovered data on the aircraft’s maintenance, its French crew’s proficiency, the terrain it overflew, the day’s weather, the probability of mistaken identity, Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese antiaircraft weapons, and even the insight of a clairvoyant. He also includes an in-depth review of regional politics at the time of the plane’s disappearance.

Although an on-and-off search for F-BELV continued until 2002, no wreckage has been discovered. Nevertheless, Wynn reaches a definitive conclusion as to the plane’s fate, which we will not reveal here.

Following a thirty-year career as an English police constable, in 2010 Wynn began writing books. He has produced more than a book a year since then, six of which he has co-written. Events in England—such as the stories in Pen and Swords’ “Towns and Cities of the Great War” series—had been his principal topic until now.

Solving the Mystery of Missing Flight F-BELV repeatedly veers off into discussions about America’s role in the Vietnam War. The tone of Wynn’s comments contains a fatalistic puzzlement over how a great nation committed itself to such a blunder-filled endeavor. He emphasizes the negative effects that the Central Intelligence Agency and Air America had on the progress and outcome of the war. His conclusion: “The biggest influence in South Vietnamese politics wasn’t communism, but the continuous interference by elements of the CIA.”

Along with those bashings and the F-BELV mystery, Wynn provides inside facts on his uncle and the ineptitude of the ICSC, which was established in 1954 to enforce the Geneva Accords following the end of the French Indochina War. It was made up of members from then pro-communist Poland, anti-communist Canada, and neutral India.

For old timers, this slim book brings back an evening’s worth of head-shaking memories—with pictures.

—Henry Zeybel