Eternally at War by Robert Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan

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Tragedy played a big role in the life of Robert G. “Gene” Lathrop. When he was two years old he witnessed a crashed B-17 engulfed in a tower of flames as high as he could see. The fire was “permanently etched into the synapses of [his] mind,” he said. In his early twenties as a Marine Corps pilot, he ejected from an F9F-8 Cougar fighter jet that disintegrated moments after takeoff. His parachute malfunctioned, and he landed in the airplane’s blazing wreckage. Suffering severe burns and multiple bone fractures, he barely survived. A year later, he arrived in Vietnam.

These scenes comprise the opening act of Eternally at War (Age View Press, 332 pp., $14.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) by Lathrop and Jeanette Vaughan. The book is a memoir put together by Vaughan based on Lathrop’s writing about his past as part of a PTSD recovery program. The pacing of the writing brings events to life in an exceptionally vivid manner. Lathrop’s thoughts and behavior blend realistically, magnifying and complementing the other.

For most of his year in Vietnam, 1968-69, Lathrop flew F-4 Skyhawks with MAG 12, VMA-311 Tomcats at Chu Lai. The unit’s mission sent him into battle over I Corps, the DMZ, North Vietnam, and the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. Primarily, he flew close air support for Marines fighting the North Vietnamese Army.

Chu Lai was the hub of Marine Corps flying in I Corps. While trash-hauling during the time Lathrop was in Vietnam, I crewed on C-130s that occasionally landed at Chu Lai. Everything on the base appeared constantly in motion, or as Lathrop said on his first day there, “It seemed like there was a plane taking off or landing every ten or fifteen seconds.” Judging by what I saw countrywide, Marines never rested.

“Overworked” and “overstressed” perfectly describe Lathrop’s experience with the Tomcats. At times, he flew as many as four missions in twenty-four hours. He took part in or witnessed events more devastating than his crash in the Cougar.

Lathrop saw death and destruction on a daily basis. These events tried his psyche, but his devotion to duty overrode doubts about his actions. “As far as I was concerned,” he said, “when I landed, I lived until I flew again. Nothing would impact me if I could help it. Once I learned to live only for the moment, the stress of war didn’t bother me.”

After seven months in the cockpit and against his wishes, Lathrop became commander of a company that guarded the perimeter of Da Nang Air Base, a move that again proved that every Marine is basically an infantryman.

A turning point in Lathrop’s life began when he returned home after thirteen months in country. “Being home was torture,” he said. He wanted to be left alone and avoided contact with people. After-effects of the injuries he received before going to Vietnam made it progressively more difficult for him to fly, so he resigned his commission in 1970.

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Gene Lathrop

Successfully employed as a forester, he grew increasingly restless and depressed. He divorced his wife, gained custody of the younger of his two sons, and remarried. But the bouts with depression came more frequently and lasted longer and longer.

In 1984 he began to suffer the full effects of PTSD. Flashing back to the war, he experienced mental and physical disorders that transcended the worst he encountered in his fiery crash or in combat. Counseling and hospitalization did not help. Anguish and guilt haunted Gene Lathrop until the day he died from heart failure in 2012.

As a victim of fire, Lathrop repeatedly delivered the same punishment to his enemies in the form of napalm, which formed the core of his guilt. At one point he tells us, “From my very first day in Vietnam, I was conscious of the continual emissions of fire.”

That war-induced recognition dictated the images in his mind and the course of his post-war life.

–Henry Zeybel

Creatures Born of War by Wm. Bruce Taneski

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Bruce Wm. Taneski’s Creatures Born of War: A Novel About the World Wars (CreateSpace, 566 pp., $20, paper) is a novel about World Wars I and II and the role of shell shock and battle fatigue.

In the front of the book we are told that “coming soon is a novel about the conflict in Korea and Vietnam.” The author’s credentials are clear—he’s a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran who has experienced first-hand the trauma of war and PTSD, having served in recon units in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade and the 5th Infantry Division. That is not in this book.

In tracing, as Taneski puts it, “the PTSD experience of fictional soldiers, like Jimmy Costigan and Mike McMullen in WWI,” he creates a realistic picture of young men growing up in the early 1900s. Then he shows us their children serving in World War II. This is the most exciting part of the novel due to the author’s skill at showing men at war.

The Bataan Death March figures prominently in this fine novel. We relive the agony of 675 American troops as they take five days to die.

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The author

I collect antiwar quotations and the one I garnered from this book is my favorite: “You know the assholes that allowed the first war to happen are the same assholes that set up the one we are in now. I think we will see more war in our lives. More young men will be sent away and come home screwed up.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

This is a massive book.  It is not a Vietnam War novel, but it prepares the way. The book shows that war—any war—is good for absolutely nothing.

There it is.

—David Willson

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain by Peter M. Bourret

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Peter Bourret served with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment in the 1st Marine Division as a 81 mm mortarman in Vietnam from 1967-68. When he returned home, Bourret he studied at the University of Arizona. He has taught classes about PTSD for the past twenty-five years, and has written two books of poetry: The Physics of War:  Poems of War and Healing and Land of Loud Noises and Vacant Stares.

The 1968 Tet Offensive began soon after Bourret arrived in Vietnam. “The 1968 Tet Offensive, in particular,” he writes, “is key to the development”of his novel, Three Joss Sticks in the Rain (CreateSpace, 271 pp., $21.95, paper).  He doesn’t lie about that.

The story is not presented with an objective omniscient narrator perspective, but rather from four points-of-view: two young members of the Viet Cong—a brother and a sister—and two U. S. Marines, one an 18 year old and the other a 21 year old on his second tour of duty.

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The author

Bourret tries hard to communicate to the reader the complexities of the Vietnam War by presenting back-and-forth, alternating stories. Perhaps he overdoes that a bit—the patriotism and jingoistic attitudes of the VC soon seem like overkill. However, he does a good job showing us the ambushes and firefights from both ends of the action.

A thwarted rape is at the center of this complex novel. The Marine responsible later commits suicide. One of the characters states that “this war never seemed to go away.”  I wish he’d put himself in my place. I’ve been reading about the war since 1964. That’s too long.

We get the usual stuff of Vietnam War fiction in this novel: Ham and motherfuckers, John Wayne, Fighting Leathernecks, and Agent Orange. This Marine Corps novel, though, is a bit better than run of the mill. Read it and learn why you were smart not to be a Marine in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive.

Three Joss Sticks in the Rain is one of the rare Vietnam War novels that takes great pains to show both sides of the war from the point of view of those who fought it. Peter Bourret, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, does an excellent job of doing so. Those who want to read a book that offers a good idea of what the VC were fighting for could do no better than to read this novel.

—David Willson

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

 

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Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.

With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.

The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.

The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.

For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.

Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.

On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.

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Dr. Estvan Toperczer

Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.

Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.

Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.

—Henry Zeybel

The Lawless Side of War by Terrell Reagan

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Terrell Reagan calls his book, The Lawless Side of War: Making Millions in the Vietnam Black Market (BookLocker.com, 259 pp., $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), a “fictional memoir.” He says that the book is loosely based on actual events, explaining that he “has taken creative liberties with many details to enhance the reader’s experience. Names, locations, and other details have been changed and fictional details and characters have been added.”

Reagan goes on to tell us that this is a story of beating the draft, as well as one about “black market transactions that I created, some that I managed and others that I witnessed firsthand.”

This book is not malarkey. I worked for the Inspector General in Vietnam and we investigated many black market schemes, including some like the ones Reagan describes in this book. In other words, I believe this author knows what he’s talking about.

He has nothing good to say about the “long-haired hippies protesting the war.” As if the University of Texas where he went to school had many of those. The author had, he tells us, 254 hours of undergrad work in math and physics in college, and tried to get into the National Guard only to discover that the Texas units were all full with guys like George W. Bush and football players. Reagan didn’t want to take his chances with the draft the way many of us did.

“Every family in the U. S. that had a draft eligible loved one, which totaled in the millions, anxiously monitored the call-ups,” he writes. Well, not every family. Mine, for one, showed no interest in my draft eligibility. Their attitude was: What’s there to worry about? My father was drafted into the Marines in World War II and served on Iwo Jima. His father served in the Philippines and his father served in the Civil War. It’s what you did. You wore a uniform and went to some place where you got shot at. I guess that notion is not universal to all Americans.

So Reagan cut himself a sweet deal and that’s what this book is about. The Inspector General chased guys like him the entire year I was in Vietnam—guys who figured out angles to beat the system. We called them black marketeers and criminals.

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Terrell Reagan

This book delineates black market operations from the inside out. When I was on a team chasing these guys, I found the details boring. Reading this book is no different. The author spices up the narrative a bit with dragon ladies and the like, but to no avail. Changing greenbacks to MPC then to piasters and back again is just not fun to read about. The author claims this is the only book that tells how the currency laundering and black market really worked in Vietnam during the war, and he may be right.

This book confirmed my suspicions about how some sons of the rich and entitled avoided the draft and spent the war wearing civilian clothes, drinking champagne, and eating fish eggs on toast points at soirees hosted by the ambassador. So it goes.

Reagan tells us that with the money he made in Vietnam as “a civilian project engineer,”  he came back to the States and “built a large financially diversified company.” During the late eighties all of his assets were confiscated by the U.S. government, so he moved to London where he created an investment banking company. Today Reagan lives in Dallas.

—David Willson

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Combat Bandsman by Robert F. Fischer

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In January 1968, military enlistments began to decline when Americans entered into a patriotic lull, and Selective Service administrators reflexively sent greetings from Uncle Sam to just about every healthy recent college graduate. That included Robert F. Fischer. A year later, Fischer arrived in Vietnam.

For most of his first year in the Army, he attended a series of schools that eventually qualified him as a personnel management specialist. Upon learning that he could play a trumpet, though, assignment personnel in Vietnam ignored his training and sent him to the 9th Infantry Division band at Dong Tam. Fischer recounts his Army band experience in Combat Bandsman: Memoir of a Tour in Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division, 1969 (McFarland, 256 pp.,  $29.95 paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Generally, Robert Fischer writes like a pro. He deftly weaves together humor, history lessons, insights, and his own unusual experience wrapped in cynicism. But he is a stickler for detail and sometimes tells his story as if a reader has no hint about what Army life in Vietnam was like during the war. Consequently, he explains things such as MPCs, REMFs, Saigon tea, etc. etc. etc. At one point, he devotes four pages to describing an uneventful forty-mile drive from Dong Tam to Saigon.

Combat Bandsman made me wonder why we had bands in a war zone, and Fischer feels the same way. He calls his band the “personal property” of the division commander, “utilized as he pleased for his own enjoyment and that of his subordinates and guests.” Fischer tells how the band performed at daily and weekly base functions, graduations, retreat ceremonies, the general’s mess parties and dances, honor guard ceremonies, awards ceremonies, memorial services, and an endless number of change of command ceremonies that glorified high-ranking officers.

“I never quite understood the frivolities demanded by those in the higher division echelons,” Fischer says. “For them the war was more of an inconvenience than a struggle for survival. The higher the pecking order, the more luxuries and sandbags.”

Along with wanting not to die, Fischer had no desire to kill. Despite his relatively safe job, he still had concerns for his life. The band mostly traveled from job to job in un-escorted trucks. That’s why some band members carried as much firepower as possible, which they never used because they never were ambushed.

Fischer fired his weapon in anger once when spending a night at an ARVN outpost that came under attack. “I grabbed my M-16 and took a position on the berm,” he writes. “Lying on my back to expose as little of my body as I could and using my thumb to pull the trigger, I fired off one magazine rock ‘n roll style over my head.” Before he could reload, the fight ended.

Additionally, the NVA and VC mortared or rocketed Dong Tam practically every night, attacks that killed several of his acquaintances. For a while, incoming arrived at 2200, 0200, and 0400—similar to the “10, 2, and 4” schedule for drinking Dr. Pepper, Fischer says. As a result, he focused on one thought: “Stay alive until DEROS.”

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Combat Bandsman differs from most Vietnam War memoirs in that it contains a Glossary, Chapter Notes, Bibliography, and Index. The notes are exceptionally well written and interesting, but I think their information would have worked  better if they had been incorporated in the text.

At the completion of his tour, Fischer felt disassociated from a “mean and disillusioned” Army with, “an officer corps saturated with career-oriented commanders, totally unclear military objectives, ever-increasing reliance on reluctant draftees to fill the ranks, and dwindling support on the home front displaying disdain for its soldiers.”

And that’s a wrap.

—Henry Zeybel