Bait by James D. McLeroy & Gregory W. Sanders

baitThe title of James D. McLeroy and Gregory W. Sanders’ Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc Special Camp (Hellgate, 318 pp., $26.95) refers to Gen. William Westmoreland’s use of a “lure and destroy” defensive attrition strategy, which he believed complimented his search and destroy offensive attrition strategy. Both were later called into question.

McLeroy was on the ground, participating in the May 1968 battle at Kham Duc. Sanders came arrived in-country a bit later. Their ten-plus years of research and collaboration has resulted in this excellent book. It’s been a good while since this reviewer has read such a superbly researched and well-written Vietnam War military history book.

A prologue and a fact-filled preface detail the people, places, and things—from both sides of the battlefield–covered in the book. Visits, interviews, searches of archival records, and many personal conversations are woven into the book. The authors provide more than twenty tightly spaced pages of sources. The end notes following each chapter are as interesting as the narratives they support.

The story takes us into meeting rooms in the White House, the Pentagon, MACV, and on down through levels of field command, right to the battlefield. McLeroy and Sander, without rancor, correct errors that have been allowed to stand as fact and provide insights into operational decisions and their results.

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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down while attempting to land during the fighting at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak Special Forces Camp airfield.

They begin with a modern-day visit to the battle site, then flesh in the back-story leading up to the May 10-12, 1968, engagement at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak U.S. Army Special Forces Camp in western I Corps up against the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also touch briefly on the SOG operations that operated out of this camp.

In a telling worthy of the best Tom Clancy and Brad Thor thrillers, the authors recount earlier skirmishes and the subsequent Mother’s Day battle with a tightly packed and crisply flowing time line, toggling among at least a half dozen locations. We follow decision trees and commo exchanges that had an impact on all the players on the ground and in the air.

The story of the encounter in which at least two NVA regiments tried to overwhelm the heavily outnumbered defenders kept this reader turning the pages.

Bait is a great read—a fact-filled telling of a largely unremembered battle.

–Tom Werzyn

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Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel

Big Bang by David Bowman

 

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David Bowman’s Big Bang (Little Brown, 624 pp., $32, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle) is a posthumously published historical novel by an acclaimed author who died in 2012 at the age of fifty-four.

This giant book is as intense and as dense as a documentary as Bowman follows the lives and happenstances of nearly all of the newsworthy people who lived from 1950-63, the period of time the novel covers. Bowman’s close friend, the novelist Jonathan Lethem, tries his best in a lengthy introduction to prepare the reader for what will come in the book.

I have not read Bowman’s previous novels: Let the Dog Drive, Bunny Modern, or This Must Be the Place, so I was unprepared for his writing style and narrative methods. It says on the front of the book that it is a novel. But it is not a novel in the tradition of a Louis L’Amour western, say; it’s much more akin to Laurence Sterne’s classic 18th century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.

If you flip through the pages of Big Bang, you’ll notice that the characters have familiar names such as Ngo Dinh Diem, Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Dr. Spock, Jimi Hendrix, J.D. Salinger, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Norman Mailer, and dozens of other real-life headliners

The chapter headings fit with the names. It’s not until Book II that this reviewer, looking for references to the Vietnam War, found “The American Embassy, Saigon, South Viet-Nam, 1963.”  Many much earlier chapter headings, such as “Cody, Montana, 1955-1956,” also interested me.

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Bowman

It’s hard not to think of this book as a massive writing achievement, especially upon learning of the head injury that Bowman suffered as a young man, and the cerebral hemorrhage that caused his early death.

I am tempted to find one of his earlier books and take a shot at reading it to see if that might help me get a better understanding of Big Bang—which was a challenge.

Meanwhile, I ruminate about the book and find myself thinking of it more as a series of small bangs or whimpers than I do as one Big Bang. There are hundreds of small bangs, in other words, but they never seem to add up to the huge noise that the title words lead us to expect.

—David Willson

Highway Thirteen by Denis ‘Mac’ McDevitt

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Denis McDevitt dropped out of high school and that was the end of his formal education. He received his draft notice in February 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

McDevitt’s autobiographical Highway Thirteen (Lulu.com, 184 pp., $14.95, paper) is written so far from the standard rules of fiction-writing that it has the feel of an experimental novel such as Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. But this is not an experimental novel; it’s a book in which an inexperienced author is doing the best he can to produce a book about his time in an infantry unit in the Vietnam War.

Hat’s off to Mac McDevitt for how well he does with his skills and with his adventures in the war. Don’t expect fancy things such as apostrophes to demonstrate possession or not quite getting words like “trepidation” right. Still McDevitt does pretty well at telling an interesting story. He has good material, and his novel is better than many I have slogged through in the past ten years.

There’s a useful glossary at the back; the definitions are rough and ready, but adequate. For instance, McDevitt says “hooch” refers to a native hut, but defines it as any place you hung your hat.

Most of the usual stuff a reader encounters in an Vietnam War infantry novel can be found in these pages. Shit burning receives an especially good treatment and is deemed “the stinky science.” Half of a fifty-five gallon drum filled with shit and maggots is not what I had to deal with when I burned shit, but it gets the point across. Wyatt Earp gets a mention on the same page as shit burning is explained.

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The author in country

A riot at Long Binh Jail (LBJ) is discussed. as are Bob Hope, leeches, Miles Davis, Rome Plows, C-ration peaches and pound cake, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, Eldridge Cleaver, REMFs, PTSD, Canned Heat (the rock group, not the fuel), Sharon Tate, the concept that war is money a-go-go, and “chairborne” rangers.

I enjoyed this short book and suspect that it wouldn’t be much better if it had received a rigorous editing.

But you need to read with a forgiving and uncritical eye to get full pleasure from this narrative.

—David Willson

Descent by D. S. Lliteras

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D.S. Lliteras is the author of fourteen books in a variety of genres. His acclaimed Vietnam War novels are Viet Man, Syllables of Rain and In a Warrior’s Romance. He has also written many critically praised biblical classics, including: The Master of Secrets, The Silence of John, Jerusalem’s Rain, Judas the Gentile, and The Thieves of Golgotha.

Descent: A Novel (Rainbow Ridge Books. 216 pp., $16.95, paper)  is an exciting return to Lliteras’ biblical series. In it, Danny Lliteras shows off his skill with military fiction, and the result is another fine, poetic, spiritual novel. The title derives from, as the cover blurb explains, “Jesus’ resurrection and ascension that preceded the descent of the spirit—an event that purportedly made saints of ordinary men and women.”

Lliteras, who served as a U.S. Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War, has shown that he has mastered the war genre novel set in South Vietnam. He has branched out in this new novel into the realm of history as the book is set near Jerusalem immediately following the crucifixion of Christ. Lliteras captures the flavor of a place occupied by Roman Legionnaires who ride roughshod over the local populace, striking terror into the hearts of ordinary villagers.

When the squads of Romans ride into the village on a search-and-destroy mission looking for Legionnaires who had deserted, I could feel the fear that they brought with them. The Legionnaires exercised the same decorum as a squad of U. S. Marines in Vietnam pursuing a Viet Cong sapper. I felt as though I was hurled back in time to the Vietnam War, and felt that warfare had changed little from Roman times to the 1960s. The fight against an elusive and mostly unseen enemy by occupying forces unfamiliar with the culture and habitat rang true in every scene.

I identified with the outsiders to the village: Flaccus, a Roman deserter, and Jeshua, a Judean healer and rogue. Both men are where they ought not to be and are in serious jeopardy if they were found out. They try to hide within the community of disciples. Evading the authority of Rome is a nice trick if they can pull it off.

You can feel drama and tension on every page. The military language works well to increase the tensions I felt in the pit of the stomach.

I recommend this novel to fans of Lliteras’ biblical books and his military books. He has   produced another winner.

—David Willson

Vietnam Abyss by Michael J. Snook

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Michael J. Snook’s Vietnam Abyss: A Journal of Unmerited Grace (Southwestern Legacy Press, 234 pp. $25, hardcover; $16, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is the author’s journal of his struggles from April 14, 1996, to November 5, 1998. It details how he ultimately found God and a new wife and pulled himself out of his dark times.

Snook is a veteran of the Vietnam War, but barely discusses his experiences in Vietnam in this book, which he wrote with Michael J. Snook. The book, instead, focuses on Snook’s battles with alcoholism, PTSD, and mental illness. After his service in the Vietnam War, Snook was divorced, lost his job, and went back to Vietnam to work.

This is not a feel-good book and is hard to follow in places. It also is unpolished and repeats the same stories. On the plus side, Snook uses lists in his journal—an interesting approach.

Here’s one example, in which he debates what to do with his life:

Retire and screw it all,

Live on the street,

Get drunk,

Kill myself

The last thirty pages describe how the author escaped from alcoholism and PTSD, found romance and God, and now lives a useful and happy life.

This book is not for the faint of heart, but may be useful to those suffering from the same problems that Michael Snook faced.

—Mark S. Miller

Float by David Eyre

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David Eyre’s darkly comic 1990 Vietnam War novel, Float, has long been out of print. We just learned, however, that the book has been available in electronic form since 2017 (Shannon Eyre, 393 pp., $9.99, Kindle).

Float, Eyre’s first (and only) novel is very, very good. It’s a funny, well-crafted story centering on Navy Lt. J.G. John Paul Dubecheck, who finds himself lost in the moral and physical morass of the Vietnam War. Dubecheck is realistically portrayed as a cynical survivor who gets in over his head time after time in the war zone.

Among many other misadventures, he has not-satisfying sex with at least four women: a U.S. Marine nurse hooked on heroin; a stateside hippie during an LSD trip while on R&R; a South Korean singer; and a Vietnamese prostitute.

Eyre, who served as a Navy officer in the late sixties, pulls all this off splendidly—the characters, the physical places, and the dialogue. The plot is a tad thin at times, but the book is densely packed with weird, wired moments in the war.

—Marc Leepson