Fate Unknown by Galen G. Mitchell

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Fate Unknown: Reflections of a Combat Tour (Labuela, 420 pp., $19.95, paper: $5.99, Kindle) pays tribute to the men of A Company of the 1/327th in the 101st Airborne Division during their deployment to Vietnam in 1965-66. The book follows the unit—called “Abu Company”—from its arrival by ship at Cam Ranh Bay to An Khe, and then through operations around Phan Rang, Tuy Hoa, and Dak To.

The author, retired Army 1st Sgt. Galen G. Mitchell, led an Abu weapons squad that spent eight months in the field. One of the more fully trained men in Abu, Mitchell had enlisted at age seventeen in 1961. He shipped home early from Vietnam after being shot in the face.

The book’s subtitle labels these stories as “Reflections,” and that is exactly what Mitchell provides. He pulls no punches analyzing combat and life in the field. The accounts of frequent encounters with the NVA provide a flow of facts and opinions about the learning curve of the Screaming Eagles, one of the first infantry units sent to Vietnam. He relates the behavior of men in his platoon to how their actions provided lessons for others.

Proud of his fellow warriors, Mitchell immortalizes them in chapter after chapter: Sgt. John T. Humphries, RTO Raymond T. “Rocky” Ryan, Pfc. Manual F. Fernandez, Staff Sgt. Billy R. “One Zero” Robbins, Pfc. Jimmie Lee Stacy, Lt. Eugene R. New, Pfc. James D. Wilson Sr., Pfc. Blair “T-Bird” Funderburk, Staff Sgt. Milton E. McQueeney, Spec.4 Reuben L. “Sweet Daddy Grace” Garnett Jr., and many more.

The strength of Mitchell’s memoir is his ability to personalize these men, both survivors and those killed in action. He respects his fellow soldiers without reservation.

“I can truly say that throughout my career, the best unit I ever served with was Abu,” he writes. In 1971 Mitchell served a second tour in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Mitchell’s experience of platoon-level combat more than qualifies him as an expert on the subject. Two chapters I found especially informative were “Collateral Damage” and “Gut Check,” which contain Mitchell’s deepest insights into casualties and leadership. He repeatedly lauds support fire provided by artillery and air power, from helicopter gunship strafing to B-52 carpet-bombing.

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101st Airborne troopers in Vietnam

The last third of the book concentrates on his unit’s battle near My Phu, where Mitchell was wounded, and another near Dak To, which took place after his medical evacuation. He makes a sound case in faulting his Brigade Commander, Maj. David H. Hackworth, for the high American casualty count in both engagements. He chastises Hackworth for favoritism, a dearth of camaraderie, and, more so, for a lack of tactical savvy.

Mitchell also strongly criticizes Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara for mismanagement of the war, particularly the heartless treatment of men in Project 100,000 after the fighting stopped.

Although the book focuses on the men of Abu, Mitchell briefly mentions his childhood and his long Army and civilian careers. He devotes a chapter to explaining the origin and tradition of the Abu mascot.

Many photographs distributed throughout the book greatly enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel

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

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

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

Echoes of a Distant Past (revised) by Eraldo Lucero

Eraldo Lucero’s Vietnam War memoir, Echoes of a Distant Past, first published in 2012, has recently been reprinted in a revised edition (CreateSpace, 190 pp., $35.38, paper).

You can read our 2012 review at vvabooks.wordpress.com/2012/10/06/echoes-of-a-distant-past-by-eraldo-lucero

Women Made Me Do It by Tony Marlin Buchanan

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For Tony Buchanan, life and two tours as an advisor to a Vietnamese Ranger Company (in 1966-67) are inexorably wrapped up in the arms of two women he had loved since childhood. Buchanan, who joined the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve in 1957 as an underage E-1, went on to serve three stints in the 101st Airborne Division and as a MACV advisor in 1966.

In Buchanan’s memoir, Women Made Me Do It (Warwick House, 105 pp., $9.95), he writes about his ten-year rise from Private E-1 to Staff Sergeant and his difficult assignment with an under-strength South Vietnamese Ranger Company. He spells out the details of a scrappy, tough, lonely childhood and how he grew to manhood in the rice paddies, jungles, and villages near Xuan Loc.

Throughout all of it, Tony Buchanan longed for the love, tenderness, and comfort of two different women who sheltered and embraced him: Frances and, later, Linda.

Buchanan was one of nine children who grew up in grinding poverty in Brevard, North Carolina. Constant movement plagued his early years. Eventually the family returned to North Carolina, but Buchanan’s father drifted in and out of the picture. They struggled to eat, to live, to get by. At one point, the family lived out the summer in a tent.

Tony Buchanan’s long-suffering mother held the family together. Schooling was spotty, difficult, and ended for him in seventh grade.

He caddied at a golf course, got into scrapes with his brothers and older boys, developed into a pint-sized boxer, and didn’t take kindly to sitting still in class. He stole a car, went on a joyride, vandalized property, and learned his way around street people. He was headed for worse trouble when he met Frances, his first love.

But after Frances dumped him, Buchanan freaked out. The next morning the five-foot-three, 117-pound, fifteen-and-a-half year old visited five military recruiters. The Coast Guard recruiter told him to get the family Bible and write in it that he was eighteen years old. That bit of mischief got him into the Coast Guard Reserve.

After six months active duty, he came home. Frances spurned him again, so at age eighteen Buchanan transferred to the U.S. Army. He had Infantry School at Ft. Benning and jump school at Ft. Campbell. In 1961 he got married, but almost from the beginning the marriage began crumbling. His wife moved back home, he had a string of new lovers, and then Buchanan volunteered for the Vietnam War.

He served with a Ranger Advisory Team working with a South Vietnamese Ranger Company that was dispirited, under strength, and underpaid. Visits from ARVN family members in the field, corruption, and patronage plagued the unit. American advisors could make recommendations, but did not command the units they worked for. Morale was often dangerously close to mutiny.

A U.S. Army Ranger working with South Vietnamese forces circa 1966

Buchanan tried to instill American-style discipline, but learned that the company did better with guerilla-style raids, night ambushes, and hit-and-run ops. His street smarts helped make him effective—and lonely for women. Throughout the next year, Buchanan sought out prostitutes and ignored his stateside family.

Buchanan served well, and instilled a fighting edge in the men he advised. He also was wounded, went through a divorce, and faced near exhaustion from combat.

Buchanan—who received  the Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal, Purple Heart, and Vietnamese Ranger Badge—was discharged in September 1967. He found his second great love, Linda, in 1978.

In his memoir Buchanan’s writing is honest and direct. But a weakness of the book is that he does not explore his emotional responses to the traumatic events in his life. His mother instilled toughness in him, so maybe we should not complain too much about the small details of a true warrior.

—Robert M. Pacholik