Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel

Ghosts and Shadows by Phil Ball

Phil Ball’s memoir, Grunts and Shadows: A Marine in Vietnam, 1968-1969  (McFarland, 224 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) tells the story of a young and—by his own admission—somewhat naïve Marine. It would be a nice selection for a reader not familiar with the Vietnam War. It also might make a good reading assignment for a high school AP English class.

Phil Ball, who died after the book came out, wrote a nicely developed presentation of his experiences as a Marine grunt who served in I Corps, the northern-most area of South Vietnam. He arrived in-country during 1968 after the Tet Offensive, and focuses his story on his assignment to Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, which began operating close to Khe Sanh.

Ball takes the reader from his first days as a brand-new recruit in San Diego, through boot camp at Pendleton, to shipping out to Vietnam. Then he covers his tour in-country, and follows that with a heartfelt chapter on his return to civilian life. In a conversational style—leavened with some well-remembered  (or well-reconstructed) dialogue—he tells his war and post-war stories.

The book reads well, with appropriate military and battlefield jargon that doesn’t weight down the narrative. Ball described his buddies without the addition of drama or unnecessary rhetoric.

Ball also recounts his adventures during a Tokyo R & R, which included meeting a young Japanese woman, blowing all his money, and over-staying his leave. The return to Vietnam (and his temporary incarceration) provides perhaps a been-there-done-that for some of us.

Ball also describewsome of the racial tensions he saw and lived with in Vietnam, the disbelief and disillusionment with his own command structure and personnel, as well as the daily, all-pervading undercurrent of fear and unease.

In his Epilogue, Ball recountes twenty-plus years of great and small challenges he faced after coming home from the war. That includes dealing with the VA on several levels. He describes his realization that his diagnosis of PTSD may have laid to rest many questions and concerns. This book is the result of a cathartic, story-telling effort to release those demons and fears.

This is a readable, well-edited book, now it its second edition.

–Tom Werzyn

R.E.M.F.:  Vietnam’s Other GIs by John Vandevanter Carter

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John Vandevanter Carter was born and raised in Iowa and attended the University of Iowa before and after he served as a U.S. Army officer in the Vietnam War. His memoir, R.E.M.F.: Vietnam’s Other GIs (Sunbury Press, 468 pp. $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), is much more than a commentary on the Vietnam War. It’s also about race relations in Vietnam during the war, and no book has treated the in-country Vietnam War drug culture more thoroughly than this one.

Van Carter served in Vietnam in 1970-71, the period that the war was beginning to wind down, and when drugs and race relations had started to become serious problems. I’ll mention here that I wrote a book, a novel, based on my tour of duty in Vietnam as an Army enlisted man, 1966-1967.  My book, REMF Diary, is very different from Carter’s.  There is almost no mention of drugs or race relations in the book, as during that period of time those issues were minor. Plus, I was writing from the point of view of an enlisted man.

Carter, on the other hand, was sent to Vietnam  in July 1970 as an infantry officer. However, due to his poor eyesight he served his entire tour of duty in the rear as an executive officer. Carter was stationed at Phu Tai at Camp Humper Stone.

Carter devotes much space in his book to his relationship with a young Vietnamese woman with whom he fell in love—and to describing the rampant corruption that the Americans brought with them to Vietnam. Carter himself participated in the corruption. He smoked carloads of marijuana, frequented houses of prostitution, defied the authority of the Army, and even visited an opium den. He struggled to get some of his men off of their addictions to heroin, and was successful with some.

Carter’s memoir is very well written and employs much humor. It is the best Army officer memoir I have read that deals with service in the rear. Carter’s wit and humor are evident on virtually every page. They make the book stand head and shoulders above most Vietnam War infantry memoirs.

Plus, he doesn’t beat the same old dead horses. I didn’t notice a single reference to John Wayne or Audie Murphy, for example, which was fine with me. Carter does deal with Agent Orange, baby killing, the Black Syph, fragging and crotch rot, which he was cursed with for much of his tour of duty.

I highly recommend Van Carter’s R.E.M.F. to those searching for a Vietnam War book that deals with that conflict from a different angle.

–David Willson

A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam by Michael E. Tolle

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The strength of A Spear-Carrier in Viet Nam: Memoirs of an American Civilian in Country, 1967 and 1970-1972 (McFarland, 201 pp. $35.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle) derives from author Michael E. Tolle’s ability to reconstruct his youthful observations of what turned out to be a failed mission.

The book is “not a researched work of history,” Tolle says. A self-professed libertarian conservative of white privilege, he primarily worked from memory to draw a picture of a politically and economically corrupt South Vietnam. The broad cultural gap between American expectations and Vietnamese values, he says, doomed most projects on which he worked as a civilian.

Tolle’s first adventure in South Vietnam followed his sophomore year at Georgetown University. He spent that summer as a volunteer for the World Relief Commission, a Protestant missionary organization, in Da Nang. After graduating from college and completing a year of Vietnamese language training, he served a second tour with the U.S. Agency for International Development as an Assistant Relief/Rehabilitation Officer with MACV Advisory Team 38 in Bac Loc and Saigon.

His father’s position as a USAID education adviser helped Tolle enter diplomatic ranks as “both the youngest and lowest-ranking member of the USAID staff in Viet Nam,” he believes. “I made no policy while there, but only executed the policies of others,” he says.

Despite his underling status, Tolle accepted responsibilities beyond his pay grade and found himself engaged with a profusion of problems. His ability to circumvent rules (or the lack thereof) allowed him to perform remarkably well. Working mainly with refugees, Tolle’s tasks included:

  • Dealing with more than 10,000 Cambodians—overwhelmingly farmers with no belongings—who were fleeing ethnic cleansing.
  • Distributing building materials such as cement and 4-by-8-foot sheets of corrugated steel.
  • Finding use for food provided by America—such as bulgur wheat and a mixture known as CSM—that the Vietnamese considered inedible. Concurrently, guarding highly desirable vegetable oil from theft.
  • Preventing corruption and deceit that surrounded any project that involved doling out money to local contractors.
  • Briefing general officers who appeared to be merely filling squares.

In discussing his interactions with American and Vietnamese leaders, Tolle eventually resigned himself to their selfish behavior. “Siphoning off” America’s “copious material wealth was an understood fact of life at every level,” he says. Likewise, the Vietnamese ignored American pacification strategies.

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Michael Tolle

An assignment to Saigon made Tolle’s final year in-country relatively pleasurable. His American wife had a job in the city, and together they enjoyed short visits to Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Tolle looks back on the war as a “transformative experience” for him. With a career in Foreign Service in mind, he had attended Georgetown because of its strong international relations program. By the end of his service in Vietnam, however, he determined that he “was simply not suited for that kind of work.”

Tolle also has written What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania: From Main Street to the Malls, and They’ve Been Down So Long, Getting Up’s Still On Their Minds, both of which deal with the demise of Pennsylvania steel mills.

His website is michaeltolle.com

—Henry Zeybel

Still Come Home by Katey Schultz

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Katey Schultz’s Still Come Home (Apprentice House Press, 241 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.29, Kindle) is a work of literary fiction. Many books are written by people who have a story to tell and do so the best they can. Schultz, on the other hand, is a gifted writer who focuses in this book on a three-day period in 2009 in Afghanistan and on three main characters.

Aasey, seventeen, lives in “a village the size of a flea” in the middle of a war. Three years earlier her entire family had been murdered, victims of false rumors, and she was forced into a rushed marriage to her father’s cousin. She feels trapped in a culture that forces her to dangerously push boundaries as she longs for more independence.

U.S. Army 2nd LT Nathan Miller is on his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan. His six-year marriage is shaky. That situation is not helped by his life being one of saying “goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye.”

Rahim, Aasey’s husband, who is twenty-three years older than she is, finds himself working for—but not with—the Taliban. He’s torn between shielding his wife from the horrors he’s seen and dealing with her independent streak, which sometimes makes him want to “shove her into the wall.”

Miller is preparing to lead his men away from their routine of watching movies and playing pickup football games to one final humanitarian mission. His unit gets orders to drive their armored vehicles fifty kilometers across the desert to do something a helicopter drop could have handled in a few hours. But the Army knows you get a better sense of what’s going on in an area by being on the ground.

So Miller and his men prepare to go to the village of Inmar, Aasey’s home, just as she has become concerned about the Taliban’s renewed presence there. After all, it was the Taliban who “stole everything from her but her own heartbeat.” One bright spot in her life is the friendship she’s developed with a younger, mute orphan boy.

Miller has never gotten over the death of an NCO on a previous tour. He begins to question the rules of engagement and increasingly considers the brass to be giving orders for a different war than the one he and his men are fighting.

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Katey Schultz

An old battered paperback copy of a Merriam-Webster dictionary becomes almost a character in the story and there is at least one major surprise.

It’s a shame that in the decades since the end of the Vietnam War, wars are still taking place for people to write about. On the other hand, it’s a blessing that we have novelists like Katey Schultz to tell stories of those wars in an enlightened and empathic manner.

The author’s website is kateyschultz.com

–Bill McCloud

Unremembered Victory by Dennis H. Klein

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Unremembered Victory (Truth in the Hills Press, 176 pp. $8, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a short historical novel by Dennis H. Klein. It deals with American military concerns and actions along the DMZ between North Korea and South Korea in 1968. Klein says all the stories in the book are true, but he uses “poetic license” in telling them.

The focus of the story is on what’s been called the 1968 “DMZ War” or sometimes the “Second Korean War.” Klein says all the characters are based on people he served with or met during his twenty-one months in Korea.

Four thousand American troops found themselves stationed near the DMZ a fifteen years after the Korean War ended in a stalemate. These men were considered neither the best nor the worst of what America had to offer. It was commonly believed that the best troops at the time were serving in Vietnam. But so, it was believed, were our worst troops because of Secretary of Defense McNamara’s lowering of the mental standards to fill out numbers for the war in Vietnam.

Plus, the West Point graduates serving as officers in Korea were rumored to have graduated in the bottom third of their class. As if that wasn’t enough, it seemed that the equipment sent to Korea was all “antiquated junk” because the good stuff was going to Vietnam.

Assuming this is basically true, that left a Second Infantry Division with average troops and questionable equipment and a second-rate officer corps to face the North Korean Army, the fourth largest in the world, which was hell bent on invading South Korea.

With North Korea’s seizure of the U.S.S. Pueblo in January 1968, Americans along the DMZ went from their usual “state of high lollygag,” as Klein puts it, to preparing for a war that “could start anytime. Clerks, mechanics, medics and cooks were now infantry soldiers.” There were firefights up and down the line and the extremely lethal North Korean commandos were known to sometimes cross surreptitiously into the South.

Students in South Korea began marching in protest—not against the possibility of war with the North, though. They were in favor of a war in order to unite North and South Korea.

Washington did not want to fight another war while engaged in Vietnam so the Army’s job was to control things so they didn’t develop into a big news story. Yet there also was talk of the possible use of nuclear weapons. While this didn’t become a major war, it was certainly war enough for the American troops on the ground.

“Once you are north of the fence long enough, you are out on the line in your head all the rest of your days,” was a commonly expressed thought.

A phrase heard in writers’ circles is if you can’t find the book you want to read, then write it. That’s what Klein has done, maintaining that the Vietnam War “should not be the only story told of our generation.” The 1968 face-off with North Korea was a “victory,” as opposed to our defeat in Vietnam, which, he says, “forever brands us as a bunch of losers.”

This is an interesting look at a story in danger of being lost in the mists of history.

–Bill McCloud

The Deserter by Nelson DeMille & Alex DeMille

The Deserter (Simon & Schuster, 544 pp., $28.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle; $49.99, audiobook) is the first novel by Nelson and Alex DeMille, a father and son team of writers. The father (Nelson) has written many best-selling thrillers, several of which deal with the Vietnam War. This one is little different than his previous novels. The Deserter features two new DeMille characters: Scott Brodie and Maggie Taylor.

The plot is a familiar one. The two protagonists journey to the heart of darkness—this time in Venezuela—in search of a bad guy, Former Army Delta Force Capt. Kyle Mercer, who has committed evil acts. Mercer has been spotted in Caracas in a part of the city that is off  limits to all but the worst criminals.

The team must enter this section of the city and somehow convince Capt. Mercer to return with them to civilization for trial and punishment. Brodie is suspicious of his partner, primarily because he thinks she’s a secret CIA operative.

The team goes up river in a boat which they steal, and which is hardly dependable. When Mercer has been captured, things go wrong, which is what this reader expected.

The novel is filled with the usual hairpin plot twists and black humor that I expect from a thriller from Nelson DeMille, who served a Vietnam War tour of duty as a 1st Cavalry Division LT. It is impossible to discern which portions of the novel were written by father and which by the son. Does that really matter?  Not to me.

There is much talk of black ops, winning hearts and minds, and raising rhubarb. Even Rambo gets a mention. Also being in “a world of shit.” The Vietnam War comes up several times, as does the Mekong Delta, “beans, bandages and bullets,” and Vietnam veterans.

I found the novel to be involving and fun to read. It was a bit on the long side, but for fans of DeMille that is a good thing.

The book’s page on Nelson DeMille’s website is nelsondemille.net/books/the-deserter

–David Willson