Making History by Bruce Olav Solheim

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Bruce Olav Solheim is a distinguished professor of history at Citrus College in Glendora, California. As the blurb on the back cover of the second edition of Solheim’s Making History: A Personal Approach to Modern American History (Cognella Academic Publishing, $68.95, paper) notes, this history book is “The Education of Henry Adams meets On the Road.”

In other words, the book is a personal approach to U.S. History. What does that look like? In Chapter One, title “Reconstruction,” the first sentence is: “After basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, my brother Alf was sent to radio school at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi.”

No other American history book would tell us that the author’s brother is named Alf, let alone that he did basic training in Texas. How can this be justified in a chapter about Reconstruction?  Solheim does that quite neatly.

He goes on to say that his brother Alf entered a barbershop in Biloxi with a black airman from Detroit, a friend of his. The friend was asked to leave the barbershop, and Alf got his lesson in the results of Reconstruction in the South: Jim Crow. In Chapter Two, “Rapid Industrialization,” we get the same format—and the same smooth introduction to a difficult concept made clear by the use of a personal anecdote.

In twelve cogent, well-organized chapters, Solheim provides history students introductions to U.S. Imperialism, the Progressive Era, World War I, the Twenties and the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Era, the War in Vietnam, the Conservative Revolution, and the “American Empire in Decline.”

It had been a long time since I studied American history in an organized manner, so I was quite gratified to get this refresher course. I needed it.

Each chapter begins with a one-page comic strip by Gary Dumm, giving pictorial voice to the words that follow. A modest disclaimer: On page 298, at the beginning of the Vietnam War chapter, I am introduced as a comic strip character, sitting at a typewriter in Vietnam, typing a memo for the colonel for whom I worked for a year.

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Bruce Solheim

Bruce’s brother Alf is also in this strip. The text notes that Alf Solheim is a disabled veteran after his two tours in Vietnam, that he suffers from PTSD and from Agent Orange-related leukemia.  Rarely is the butcher’s bill of war made so personal in an American History book.

This fine book is a revolutionary piece of work. It knocks over the apple cart of all clichéd, hidebound history books that don’t even try to reach an audience that desperately needs to know more about the history of their complex country. I thank Bruce Solheim for daring to risk breaking out of the bonds of traditional learning and teaching.

If I were still in the classroom, I would use this book as a textbook every quarter and be proud to do so.

—David Willson

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Da Nang Diary by Tom Yarborough

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Jerry Hall’s Yes Sir, Yes Sir, 3 Bags Full: Flying, Friendships, and Trying to Make Sense of a Senseless War taught me a lot about the world of forward air controllers in the Vietnam War. In it, Hall recreates what it was like flying O-2 Skymasters out of Bien Hoa in 1969-70. For him, the mission took top priority even when it required disobeying orders or regulations. Considering the consequences of those actions came afterward.

In an equally straightforward style, Tom Yarborough adds immeasurably to my knowledge of FACs in Da Nang Diary: A Forward Air Controller’s Gunsight View of Flying with SOG (Casemate, 356 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), which delves into his piloting of OV-10 Broncos with the 20th TASS in 1970-71, including the ultra-secret Prairie Fire FACs operations. If you are unfamiliar with that program, Yarborough tells what you need to know about it.

Yarborough has devoted a significant amount of time to telling the SOG story. He first addressed the subject in 1991 with a book that he has twice expanded. Da Nang Diary tells the “whole story,” despite what Yarborough calls “self-immersion and limited perspective.” The foundation for the book is the twelve-hundred-page diary he wrote during the war.

During two tours, Yarborough flew six hundred combat missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He complements stories about his own adventures with those of other pilots’ heroics. FAC tasks bordered on the unimaginable and resulted in frequent losses. Much of what they did supported SOG teams behind enemy lines outside of South Vietnam.

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In the cockpit

While with Spectre in 1971, one sunny morning I hitched a ride to Laos with a Nail FAC. Orbiting here and there, he flew at extremely low altitudes over the assigned area. The flight reminded me of a cop walking a beat. Nothing dangerous happened, but activity on the ground stopped when the FAC appeared. People disappeared. An extremely enlightening non-event.

Hall and Yarborough have left me with a keen appreciation for the performance of FACs under extreme combat conditions. Young and eager in the midst of war, both men learned that enemies existed within their chain of command—not just among the foreigners who shot at them.

They capably handled foes from both.

—Henry Zeybel

Some Never Forget by R. Cyril West

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Some Never Forget (Molan Labe, 302 pp., $12.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) is the second book in R. Cyril West’s POW/MIA Truth series. His first was The Thin Wall.

Some Never Forget is an intriguing mix of conspiracy theory related to the betrayal of POWs being left behind in Southeast Asia by their government, along with American Indian Tlingit mythology. The latter is an attempt to reap the sort of magic that Tony Hillerman made his own and nobody else has been able to hold a candle to.

West believes there are baskets full of dirty government secrets. It’s hard to argue with that. He begins the story begins in Sitka, Alaska, in 1980, nine years after Walter Greene’s son went missing in the Vietnam War. Greene is tormented about the unknown fate that befell his boy—especially after the Department of Defense suddenly changes his son’s status from MIA to KIA.

Greene sees this clerical change as redolent of meaning. After he gets a warning from a government functionary and weird things start happening on his homestead, Greene is galvanized into action.

He believes it is a lie that all the POWs came home. He wants to get to the bottom of things. We are assured that the end of the novel will make us gasp. It sort of does.

The first page of this paranoia thriller gives us the phrases “Korea Veteran,” “Don’t Tread on Me,” and “Fuck Hanoi Jane.” When I read the third, which is lettered on Greene’s leather jacket, I thought I knew all I needed to know about his mindset. I was pretty much right.

I guess I am in the “anti-American” crowd that Greene wishes to steer clear of.  I hope I am wrong.

The author’s web site is http://www.rcyrilwest.com/some-never-forget

—David Willson

Grunts by Ed Eckstein

The first photograph in Ed Eckstein’s Grunts: The Last U.S. Draft, 1972 (Schiffer, 128 pp., $24.99) is a stark black-and-white shot of ten young men walking single file into the U.S. Army Examining and Entrance Station in downtown Philadelphia in December of 1972. The last one is a pic of four guys in a Jeep at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.

In between, Eckstein’s camera chronicles what happens as the men get processed into the Army at the AFEEs station, get sworn in, arrive at Fort Jackson for more processing, and then go through Basic Training.

Eckstein undertook this assignment nearly five decades ago for a magazine called Youth. “I was probably the first photographer to be embedded in a basic training platoon,” Eckstine says in the book’s short introduction.* “I was given complete, uncensored access to the rituals of basic training during the time I spent there. I hope these photos convey, in unflinching detail, the rigors of basic training, juxtaposed with the vulnerability of the young soldiers.”

That’s exactly what these stark, un-posed, black-and-white, caption-less photos do. The images need no captions. Every one of them will hit home with anyone who went through the process during the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

*Another professional photographer, Dick Durrance, who was drafted into the Army in June 1966, took photographs (also black and white) starting with his time at the induction center at Hamilton, New York. He kept shooting on the train ride to Fort Jackson and at Basic Training there, as well as Infantry Advanced Individual Training (AIT), and throughout his subsequent tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He published a selection of those striking photographs in his 1988 book, Where War Lives.

Four Corners from LBJ by Marty Beebe

Marty Beebe, who served in the Vietnam War in 1969-70, is the author of the novels Orange Bug White Fender and Cussy Rode a ’34.  His latest book, Four Corners from LBJ (CreateSpace, 224 pp., $9.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), is one of the strangest books I’ve read about the Vietnam War.

Beebe tells us it is a work of fiction. It seems to be a work of magical realism. The first half is mostly about a riot at LBJ in Vietnam. In this case, “LBJ” stands for Long Binh Jail. Spelling and sentence structure in this novel are erratic.

Daniel Beebe did the cover of this book in which a prison lookout tower dominates the top half, separated from the bottom half by concertina wire. The bottom half contains a map of the Four Corners area of the Southwest United States labeled “Navajo Reservation.”

Also listed on this map are the Ute Mountain Reservation, Mesa Verde National Park, San Juan National Forest, McGhee Park, Sunray Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, Shiprock, and Farmington. I list them because they are the only way I can get at the subject of the second half of this strange book.

I’ve read a lot about riots in LBJ (the jail) and believe the pages devoted to that subject are fairly accurate. There is a lot of violence on both sides, including the guards and the inmates. Fire hoses and black rubber hoses are used for beatings.

Private Baker is the featured character in the novel and sort of holds the narrative together. The other main character is “a full-blooded Apache” named Sau who serves the purpose of being a mystical and spiritual guide to Baker when he is magically transported from LBJ in South Vietnam to the area of the United States featured on the map.

This is a short book with large print. It is one of the few I’ve read that attempts to deal in a serious way with riots in prison camps in South Vietnam. If you are interested in that elusive subject, read this book. It doesn’t take long to read. But be warned, it is fiction.

—David Willson

Poems in the Keys of Life By Kerry “Doc” Pardue

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Kerry “Doc” Pardue is a 100 percent service-connected disabled veteran. He is a former combat medic who served with the Scouts in the 2/47th Infantry of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam from March 1968 to March 1969.

He tells us that he began to write poetry “to bring about healing” and “to deal with PTSD.” And that he learned two things in Vietnam: Men will die, and no matter what he did, he couldn’t change that. His writings have taught him, Pardue says, that “we did the right thing by going to Vietnam.”

When Kerry Pardue received his notification to report for his physical, he decided “it would be better for me to pick my field rather than be on the front lines as an infantryman.” Why he assumed that would happen, he doesn’t explain. The recruiter suggested that he go for medic training, and that most likely he’d be stationed in some nice hospital. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? The recruiter didn’t inform Pardue that medics also served with the infantry in the thick of the fighting.doc_pardue

As a result of his decision to become a medic, the poems in Poems in the Keys of Life: Reflections of a Combat Medic (PublishAmerica, 100 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $9.95, Kindle) are not about serving in that nice hospital, but about combat. There are titles such as “In the Heat of Battle,” “Playing Chicken with Mortars,” “Gooks in the Wire,” and “Daddy, Why Didn’t You Tell Me About War?”

Here’s a representative poem, “Happy Thanksgiving”

May your turkey be plump

Your potatoes without lumps

Your gravy nice and smooth;

And may your pumpkin pie

Stay off your thighs

I wish all Vietnam War poetry was this straightforward. It is not.

I respect honesty and good old American values. That’s what the reader gets in this small book of poetry.

Kerry Pardue’s website is kerrypardue247.com

—David Willson

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel