The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

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Robert F. Curtis’s The Typhoon Truce, 1970: Three Days in Vietnam when Nature Intervened in the War (Casemate, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a most unusual story of humanity in the middle of war. It is a story about heroism, skill, and soldiers’ abilities to put their missions first despite any personal dangers they encountered. This book is a report of the kind of activities that seldom happen in war, but when they do, history deems it important to remember them for posterity.

In October 1970 in the area between Da Nang and the DMZ , the names “Joan” and “Kate” took on a sinister meaning. Joan proved to be the name of a ferocious typhoon that flooded northeast Vietnam. Less than a week later came Kate, another devastating typhoon. Due to the unceasing, torrential rain that accompanied the storms, untold numbers of Vietnamese were left stranded in the valleys surrounded by rising floods.

The heart of this book is the story of how American Chinook pilots risked their lives to airlift endangered Vietnamese citizens to higher ground. While the flying was extremely difficult and dangerous, the pilots and crews—as in much of the Vietnam War—were never quite sure who the enemy was.

This book is not a rush-to-the-climax kind of read. The author takes the reader into the middle of the activities almost to the point where you can feel the rain and tension. The gradual movement from the beginning of the rain to the actual rescue missions seems to take quite a while. At first, this can be rather disconcerting, but waiting is also the name of the game in awaiting the approach of a typhoon.

Several chapters describe daily life in a helicopter unit. Readers who have had similar experiences in Vietnam will have an easy time relating to the author’s vivid descriptions of the men and their equipment. Great detail is given to the capabilities of the pilots. Many former pilots might recall that helicopters are sometimes called “a collection of various loose parts flying in close formation.”

The men of C Company, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division were given the call sign “Playtex” prior to leaving the United States. Curtis explains that while most of the men involved did not know the origin of this name, it was because they gave such good support.

The Typhoon Truce was unspoken and unplanned. It came about because people were in trouble and other people saw a way to help. The author does a great job explaining the mindset of the flying crews who never knew if they would face appreciation or gunfire from the people they were trying to rescue.

2015125669cec98b33dCurtis—the author of Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond—has a unique way of moving sideways as well as forward in telling his story. Many times he interrupts the action to fill in personal details of the men involved to bring a greater depth of understanding.

I believe this story will stimulate much conversation among former Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crews. I would be surprised if it did not elicit similar examples of kindness from other veterans in the midst of a devastating war. Reading this book is a mission strongly recommended.

—Joseph Reitz

Fearful Odds by Charles W. Newhall, III

Throughout his life Charles W. Newhall, III has engaged the world with ferocious intensity. The son of a World War II Army Air Corps colonel, Newhall was raised to uphold his family’s military tradition, which extends back to the Civil War. That guidance and his reading as a student at military schools instilled an ethos encompassed by warriors from all of history.

Before reading his book—Fearful Odds: A Memoir of Vietnam and Its Aftermath (Bibliotheca Brightside, 260 pp.; $34.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle)—I studied its nineteen pages of photographs. They provided background that better prepared me to understand commitments far deeper than the accommodations that have guided me from day to day. The book is complex because Chuck Newhall continually poses provocative questions about values and leadership in war and peace.

As a platoon leader with 1/327 of the 101st Airborne Division, Newhall spent six month patrolling the ridge lines of the A Shau Valley in 1968-69. His normal order of march was “point man first, slack man (M-60 machine gun), me.” That was Newhall’s way of setting an example as a leader.

Helping to fulfill their part of America’s search and destroy strategy, his men were minnows on a fishhook to attract NVA forces camped in Laos. They often came under fire from, Newhall says, “Russian artillery guided by Russian and Chinese advisers located a mile away.”

When they did engage the NVA in South Vietnam, his platoon did not always get the firepower they needed to complete the destroy part. Instead, they shared air support with Marines at Khe Sanh. “The net result is that whoever is losing the most men gets air support,” Newhall says. The Americans were always outnumbered due to the proximity of NVA camps to the border. Air power, Newhall concludes, “is great when you have it.”

Despite Chuck Newhall’s superior military education and his strong desire to engage the enemy, twice within a week his platoon was decimated. The first time came on his third day as a leader. His Prologue describes this action, a lifetime worth of death and destruction. But Newhall seeks no solace and accepts responsibility for all that befell his men and himself.

Newhall does not filter what he saw and did. He admits that his men paid back for what they suffered. He speaks of mutilating, scalping, eating flesh, and bowling with a heads of the NVA dead. He himself cut the throat of a wounded enemy soldier.

Charles W. Newhall, III

The author candidly discourses on good and bad relations with superiors and subordinates. In the field, he learned and he taught. He recalled feats of historic figures such as Hannibal and Crazy Horse to guide his behavior. Like King Henry V, he strove to form a band of brothers within his undermanned platoon.

He overcame wounds and other hardships and rhapsodizes over love for battle: “Whoever has lived the life of a warrior can love no other; war becomes the incomparable mistress of your heart, an addiction of unimaginable intensity.”

During the last half of his one-year tour Newhall served as a staff officer. His highly personalized value system created difficulties in civilian life, including in his marriage. That dilemma is the crux of book’s last section.

Newhall earned an MBA from Harvard and attacked the world of venture capital as zealously as he entered combat. Living in Boston amid beautiful gardens, artfully decorated mansions, and upper-crust friends, Newhall’s nights were haunted by ghosts from the A Shau Valley. He enjoyed big business success, but it soon was negated by the transformation of his wife’s personality, the collapse of their marriage, her suicide, and the unraveling of his psyche.

Newhall has spent thirty years fighting PTSD. His closing chapters aim at helping others with the disorder. He emphasizes the necessity of having expert guidance—in his case, a noted psychiatrist. Most touching, he includes passages from his wife’s diary and her final note, which deal with his failures as a husband and father.

Beyond all else, sharing those stunning revelations shows the depth of Chuck Newhall’s courage as a man devoted to improving the lives of others.

The author’s website is www.fearfulodds.com

—Henry Zeybel

Sorry About That by Dick Denne

Dick Denne is a man who can think for himself, an ability that caused him a lot of trouble.

Halfway through Sorry About That: A Story from A Soldier’s Heart (CreateSpace, 172 pp., $15.95 paper, $2.99, Kindle), I almost stopped reading because I thought I saw what was coming: a my-country-right-or-wrong teenager who fights valiantly only to be punished for figuring out that the Vietnam War is totally wrong and for teaching that message to his fellow soldiers. But I continued reading, discovering that Denne’s punishment was worse than anything I imagined.

Dick Denne writes about his 1966-67 experience in Vietnam, which consisted of eight months in the jungle as an RTO and four months as a Huey door gunner, surviving four helicopter crashes. He goes on to describe years in and out of military prisons. His story is exceptional and well told.

Denne grew up as somewhat of a prodigy. His life’s goal was to become a standup comedian, and he started developing routines at age three. Along with performing in high school revues and plays, he studied history on his own. At age twelve, he learned to parachute and made it a weekend sport.

Expecting to be drafted, at seventeen Denne enlisted in the Army and signed up for duty with Special Services as an entertainer. Personnel demands detoured him into an 11 B infantry slot with the 327th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. Denne’s quick wit and sense of responsibility made basic, AIT, and jump school easy.

Dick Denne

Denne managed to land a gig as an entertainer on his second night in Vietnam. During in-processing a sergeant recognized Denne’s misassignment and arranged for him to perform at the NCO club. He bombed.

At the same time, the 327th and a superior-size NVA force were locked together in battle near Trung Luong. On his third day in-country, Denne joined that fight and remained in the field for the next eight months. His accounts of using humor to break the tension while waiting for combat to begin are memorable.

The transformation from model soldier to model protester is at the core of the book. Denne’s conscientious attitude made him a highly reliable infantryman and door gunner. It also made him speak out passionately after determining the war was wrong. The upshot: he was sent to prison within five months after returning from Vietnam.

For two years, until he received an honorable discharge, Denne alternated between military prison life and going AWOL. The abuse and torture he and his cellmates suffered matched the atrocities that took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Undoubtedly, Denne was a victim of PTSD, but nobody recognized the problem at that time.

He credits his change in belief to thinkers such as Martin Luther King, Noam Chomsky, Bertrand Russell, and the mysterious Tiger Man, whom he met while fighting alongside Montagnards in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. Denne lightens his philosophical sections with references to movies, television and radio shows, novels, songs, and poems. And he shares his conversations with Harvey, his six-foot-tall Pooka.

“What is the personal cost of war?” Denne asks. His answer is that combat influences every day of a soldier’s life that follows. Consequently, a nation must have an irrefutable reason for prosecuting war; otherwise, the nation betrays the citizens who do the fighting.

—Henry Zeybel

Company of Heroes by Eric Poole

During the first five months of 1970, wherever the men of Bravo Company (3rd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division) operated, NVA troops seemed to be waiting for them. That was a time of what became know as Vietnamization when the South Vietnamese Army was supposed to be able to defend itself. Yet Bravo’s men found themselves in combat almost every day.

Bravo Company participated in three big operations during early 1970. Its first assignment was to drive the 7th Battalion, 22nd NVA Regiment, 3rd Division off Hill 474, a Central Highlands stronghold. The hill lacked tactical significance beyond the one thousand enemy soldiers quartered there.

In an initial sweep of the hill, four of Bravo’s men were killed instantly in an ambush. Bravo followed a routine of search and destroy tactics, battling the enemy, withdrawing, and starting over. Its encounters were grim and swift. By mid-March, hunting the enemy yielded diminishing returns as the NVA exfiltrated what had become a siege site.

Reassigned to the Crow’s Foot, southeast of Pleiku, Bravo continued search and destroy operations. Enemy booby traps frequently supplemented ambushes. In one encounter, “Of the first ten men in line, [Richard] Clanton was the only one not wounded,” Eric Poole writes in Company of Heroes: A Forgotten Medal of Honor and Bravo Company’s War in Vietnam (Osprey, 296 pp., $24.95). Again, firefights were short and costly to both sides.

Bravo’s next assignment was to support the incursion into Cambodia to cut trails that fed NVA supplies into South Vietnam. In Cambodia, Bravo found itself undermanned, outnumbered, and without air or artillery support. Nevertheless, in four days, Bravo found and destroyed an NVA  field hospital, more than forty other buildings, tons of rice, and livestock. On the fifth afternoon, NVA soldiers trapped Bravo’s Second and Third Platoons in an open clearing, killing eight men and wounding twenty-eight others.

During this encounter, Spec 4 Leslie H. Sabo, Jr. died in action nearly single-handedly fighting off a large enemy attack. That feat of valor earned him the Medal of Honor, but it was not awarded until 2012. The long delay resulted from the fact that the only account of Sabo’s heroism had been misplaced among his military records.

Eric Poole

The medal set the stage for this book. Author Eric Poole is a newspaper reporter from Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, Sabo’s hometown. Having never served in the military, Poole heavily relied on stories told to him by dozens of Bravo Company members who fought alongside Sabo. He conducted interviews from 2007-14.

The book centers on Austrian-born Sabo and his family, detailing both civilian and military life. The story of Sabo’s family contains twists and surprises thanks to Poole’s excellent investigative skills. And Poole does the same with the men he interviewed.

He weaves episodes from their pre-war civilian lives with what they experienced in Vietnam. Like Sabo, Bravo’s infantrymen were primarily draftees. Poole also recounts the stories of the eighteen Bravo Company members killed in action. He unobtrusively explains the history behind the war in general and gives details of battles, summoning comparisons from earlier conflicts.

To close the circle, the book explains the effort related to rescuing Sabo’s paperwork. It also details the PTSD, divorces, and other emotional turmoil that combat gave to many of Bravo’s soldiers, their wives, and their widows after the war. More than two dozen of Sabo’s comrades attended the presentation of his Medal of Honor by President Obama.


I believe that too many Vietnam War grunts never received the honors they earned. That is why books such as Company of Heroes are important.  They chronicle people and events on the verge of disappearing.

A researcher on Sabo’s case said, “The guy got lost in the shuffle and I didn’t care for that.” He added: “That company got the shit kicked out of it for a while. That seemed not to be right.”

Along with Sabo’s medal, Poole’s book gives full voice to the exploits of Bravo Company, which have been overlooked for far too long.

—Henry Zeybel

Surprised at Being Alive by Robert F. Curtis

It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.

Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.

Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.

As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.

He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”

The book solidly supports Curtis’ claims and reinforces opinions held by other Vietnam helicopter pilots such as Bill Collier and Jim Weatherill in their recently published memoirs.

Robert F. Curtis

Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.

The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”

After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.

During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”

I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.

On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.

—Henry Zeybel

The Crouching Beast by Frank Boccia

Forty–five years ago the 101st Airborne Division went into South Vietnam’s A Shau Valley as part of Operation Apache Snow. The objective: to find, engage, and kill the 29th NVA Regiment on Hills 937, 900, 916, and Hill 800.

That battle is the basis of Frank Boccia’s chilling book, The Crouching Beast: A United States Army Lieutenant’s Account of the Battle for Hamburger Hill, May 1969 (McFarland, 472 pp., $40, paper). It’s a personal story of the 101st Airborne’s struggle to capture what became known as Hamburger Hill.

In forty chapters of small observations, exact conversations, clear insights, action, consequences, and emotions we learn how one of four under-strength 101st companies fought to destroy an entrenched NVA regiment on Dong Ap Bia mountain less than two miles from Laos in I Corps almost due west of Hue in Thua Thien Province.

In eleven sustained days of repeated, brutal combat assaults up a forty-degree vertical bamboo-infested mountain, with sawgrass-patch covered, vine-snarled ridges, draws, trails, v-shaped ravines, and stump-tough triple canopy forest, the men of the 101st’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th infantry—together with other Screaming Eagle troopers—lost  ninety two killed and nearly 500 wounded.

Nearly 2,000 American and ARVN troops engaged some 1,200 heavily dug-in, camouflaged NVA regulars in one of the most brutal battles of the Vietnam War. Some have likened what happened there to the carnage of on Iwo Jima. The NVA lost some 630 men, but Montagnard peoples of Laos say that about 400 were dragged off the mountain during the two-week siege.

For 1st Lt. Frank Boccia, a 25-year-old, Georgetown-educated, Italian-born junior officer who commanded a platoon in the 187th (the Rakkasans), it was a six-month, hideous odyssey from arrival to the crest of Hill 937 in May of 1969.

After nearly eleven full days of sustained fighting featured close-quarter assaults, crashed helicopters, a blinding rainstorm that turned the mountain to engulfing mud, and miscalculations of who and how many were holed-up in the mountain, the battle against a heavily fortified enemy came to a close.

Boccia

A unique feature of Boccia’s book is his uncanny accuracy recreating locations, reconstructed conversations, the weather, the sounds, and the personalities of the troopers who slogged up Hamburger Hill ten or more times until it was taken.

Also clearly articulated is the harshness and near brutality of Lt. Col. Weldon F. Honeycutt, AKA  “Black Jack,” who sent his troops repeatedly up the hill only to have them driven back by .51 caliber Chinese communist machine guns, small arms fire, grenades, RPGs mines, and booby traps. Rivers at the base of the Hill featured mosquitoes, snakes, leeches, fog, and soil that was a combination of rotting putrid vegetation, dead body parts, and stray animals.

Yet as Boccia settled in and got to got to know his men, this English Literature graduate and draftee came to learn how to lead his men to fulfill their mission. His short descriptions of the men he served with are both spot-on and finely crafted. This is a fine officer any man would be happy to serve with.

By the time Boccia’s men left Hamburger Hill on June 5, Alpha Company had thirty percent casualties; Bravo Company (Boccia’s unit) had fifty percent; Charlie Company had sixty percent after replacements; and Delta Company suffered over seventy-five percent.  During World War II units that sustained fifty percent casualties were classified as destroyed.

Throughout the book Boccia and his platoon suffer under-strength engagements, crashed helicopters, men blown to pieces by RPGs and heavy machine guns, confused and fragmented leadership, and true valor from nearly everyone who survived.

PFCs did incredible things; RTOs performed under unimaginable danger; helicopter pilots medevaced men away in overloaded, defenseless light observation choppers; medics did not give up no matter the terror; machine gunners stayed and fought when death was only twenty meters away.

Near the end, a nearly illiterate trooper stands up during the battle and curses the NVA, screaming that his “Rakkassans are going to kick their asses, and take this damn mountain, no matter what it takes.” They do.

In the end, Boccia and his men are spent, but hey have fulfilled their mission. And they served their nation with honor. We should stand in awe of their accomplishments.

—Robert M. Pacholik

100 Monkeyz by T.A. Drescher

T. A. Drescher served in the U. S. Army from 1967-69. That included a tour of duty in Vietnam with Company C of the 2/17 Cavalry, 101st Airborne Division, the “Ready Reactionary Force.” He received a chestful of medals, including the Bronze Star. Since 1986, Drescher has been serving two life sentences without parole at Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia.

The introduction to his book 100 Monkeyz: A Monkey Memoir (Taos Press, 420 pp., $16.95, paper) tells us that this is a collection of short stories.  A few pages into the book, though, it becomes apparent that the chapters are not short stories, but chapters in Drescher’s memoir. They are presented in a mixed chronology, as the author goes hither and thither in time, juxtaposing a boyhood scene with a scene from his Vietnam War tour or with some other time in his life. This is an effective story-telling method for Drescher, and it kept me reading.

Occasionally there is a small flash to his current state, “Now I’m an old man crippled with arthritis,” he tells us. I read on, eager to find out more about where he is, and how he ended up there.

100 Monkeyz contains no account of a trial nor any clear account of the legal mechanisms that put the author in prison for life. The people he confesses to killing are characterized as bad guys—men who preyed on the weak, men who needed killing. Drescher says that he never cared for bullies.

He came home from Vietnam “like a ticking time bomb.” He felt naked without a gun, so immediately went to a pawn shop and bought a Browning Hi-Power 9 mm pistol, which he carried for many years. He recounts seeing “Baby Killer” signs in the airport when he returned and says he detoured around demonstrators because he was “much too dangerous for a confrontation with them.”

After serving in Vietnam, Drescher worked various hustles. That included being deeply involved with the Hare Krishna Movement and buying cars cheap and selling them for a lot more than he paid for them.

Drescher’s thirty years in prison is addressed, but not with the detail that he devotes to his time in Vietnam, which is disbursed throughout the book.The juxtapositions make it clear how his war-time service influenced the rest of his life due to PTSD. Drescher says the VA was in denial “about PTSD, Agent Orange, or any of the other effects from the war.” The VA, he notes, “gave soldiers the third degree and [they] were browbeat over voicing their complaints. Small wonder that many of us ended up in American penitentiaries after the war ended.”

I found his insider’s look at the Hare Krishna movement fascinating and often humorous.  The Hare Krishna farming and dairy cow sequences caused me to laugh out loud more than once.  Because of their dedication to the sanctity of the life of cows, the Krishnas’ dairy cattle herd kept increasing in size, but their rocky piece of land grew no hay at all, so all the hay had to be purchased.  Drescher estimates that the milk their cows produced cost upwards from $150 per cup. The cows, it turned out, were very expensive pets.

T.A. Drescher

Their farm produced tons of zucchini squash, acorn squash, and tomatoes, but the cows would not eat that stuff. So the farm had to be abandoned.

Drescher’s Vietnam War accounts are powerful and riveting. “Our air assaults into hot LZs were legendary, not the John Wayne kind,”  he writes. By that, Drescher means that as soon as the men hit the ground, they suffered immediate casualties because of the disastrous leadership of their lieutenant colonel, who was chasing a promotion. The colonel was above the men in a helicopter, sending them straight into the bullets of snipers.

Later, his own men fragged his tent.  “Our leaders lived for body count,” Drescher writes. And some died for it. 

Drescher feels that casualties due to friendly fire increased when drug use got heavy and common in the 101st.  His description of a thirsty infantryman slogging through rice fields with nothing to drink but “brownish, treated iodine laced water” in a plastic canteen made me thirsty. I drank a bottle of mountain spring water to get through that section and thanked my lucky stars that I’d served in the rear with the beer and the gear during my Vietnam War tour.

Drescher says of the rear: “No mosquitoes, or heat stroke.  No foul drinking water or blisters on their feet. They are too intelligent for that.”  Or lucky.

Drescher goes on to say: “No one gets a free ride for what they have done.” I guess that is the core of the philosophy of this memoir.

I highly recommend this book to readers who realize that but for a stroke of luck they could be homeless, in prison, or a suicide. I can easily see myself in one of those groups.   Drescher asks: “Can there be such a thing as an innocent person?’’  Probably not.

The book’s website is www.100monkeyz.com/about-us.html

—David Willson