Camp Frenzell-Jones by Ray Bows and Pia Bows

Ray Bows knows how to do his homework. Since retiring as a Master Sergeant from the U.S. Army in 1983, he has researched military records and written extensively about the Vietnam War.

Camp Frenzell-Jones: Home of the Redcatchers in Vietnam (Bows, 192 pp., $15, paper) is his eighth book. Pia, his wife, began collaborating with him in 2001. In their books the Bows’s pay tribute to people, events, and locales that otherwise might be forgotten. Ray Bows served with the Redcatchers of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam during 1967-68.

The book explains the naming of the main base of the 199th on the northern edge of Long Binh Post in honor of Herbert “Herb” Frenzell and Billy C. Jones, who died on January 21, 1967. The two infantrymen were the 199th’s first combat casualties in the Vietnam War.

The book tells their life stories. We learn that they became friends in the Army despite coming from drastically different backgrounds. Frenzell, an unmarried college dropout, had enlisted; Jones, a blue-collar husband with two children, was drafted. After reaching Vietnam, they developed negative feelings about the war, which are reflected in many letters they sent home. Nevertheless, they conscientiously spent their short in-country lives in the field on search and destroy missions. Both received posthumous Silver Stars for gallantry.

Many restored photographs, along with some taken from 8-mm film footage shot by Frenzell, fill out the book—and the personalities of the men.

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PFC Bows, 1953

Like good historians, the authors include a bibliography and index. Their  research also provides a 199th Infantry Brigade Order of Battle, which lists lineage, decorations, and awards for the brigade’s battalions and support units.

I recommend going to the authors’ website at www.bowsmilitarybooks.com where you can find book-ordering information. My visit gave me a broader appreciation of the depth to which self-motivated writers dig to prevent the price paid by those who took part in the Vietnam War from being forgotten.

—Henry Zeybel

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Vietnam Revisited by Patrick O’Regan

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The title of Vietnam Revisited: A Memoir of the Vietnam War (CreateSpace, 298 pp., $12.08, paper) tells the story: Patrick O’Regan reflects on journal entries he made as an infantryman in 1969-70. The book recreates his war experience while superimposing (in italics) his current thinking on that experience.

I try to read Vietnam War memoirs as if I’d never read another one on the subject. In that way, every book builds a distinct personality. Pat O’Regan owns the agenda: He picks his topics and tells me as much or as little as he wants me to know about them. O’Regan had both eyes wide open and his brain in overdrive as he strove to record everything he saw while writing his war journal entries. Based on his depth of thought, a more appropriate title for the book might be “The Nature of Mankind.”

“Innocence” and “inexperience” best describe O’Regan’s mentality as a twenty-two year old draftee, a state of mind that he deconstructs by using what he has learned since the war. He puts this new knowledge to work to re-evaluate himself, people, and situations he encountered in the Army. In his journal, he frequently gets into dialogues with himself, going so far as to label his younger persona as a “whiner.”

The book has dual themes. The most pronounced is O’Regan’s soul searching about the damage inflicted on him by a loveless relationship with his parents. Interactions with his superiors frequently trigger traumatic recollections of childhood, plunging him into self-analysis.

The second theme concerns military operations, emphasizing strategy, leadership, courage, fear, and luck. O’Regan’s discontent with leaders at high levels goes far beyond ever being assuaged. Nevertheless, in many ways, Army life provided the first “family” that cared about him.

Initially assigned to mortars with the “Old Guard,” the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, and living on fire bases, he decided that  war was “a bore,” and “a lot like being in jail” because he “moped around all day long,” lonely and depressed. He thought: “If I’m to be here, I want to be a real soldier.”

O’Regan repeatedly requested, but was denied, reassignment to the field. Months of complaining wore down his commander, who moved him to a Recon platoon. O’Regan served eight months with that unit and experienced ambushes, counter-ambushes, fear, greater fear, hunger, endless rain, dehydrating heat, sores, cuts, leeches, and every other agony natural to infantrymen. He complained, but did it primarily in his journal.

In describing the rigors of war, O’Regan emphasized the interdependency between men. He participated in his share of firefights and saw two of his best friends killed in action. Later, he advanced to E-5 and became a squad leader, proud to realize forty-four years later that he never lost a man in combat.

Seventeen pages of photographs show the men of the 199th. His skinny T-shirted and bare-chested friends look like warriors from another planet compared to today’s bulked-up and heavily armored infantrymen. Their expressions reveal none of the hardships that they had to endure.

At times, Vietnam Revisited was a difficult book to read because O’Regan is too honest about his feelings. His approach to then-and-now triggered me to recall much of my misbehavior during twenty years of military service in the Air Force. For example, his conclusion that exposure to combat does not justify “a callous disregard for the feelings of others” struck a personal note: I share the eternal stain of such ill behavior.

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Being shot at and blowing up trucks in Laos did not turn my crewmates or me into superior beings, but avoiding the first and accomplishing the second boosted our egos. Now I wonder what we accomplished. I have not seen my fellow fliers since retiring and likely never will, which deepens the mystery of our accomplishments.

Near the end of the book, the debate between the O’Regan’s personalities of yesterday and today reaches several climaxes. “The mind determines the toughness of the experience more than the actual incidents one encounters,” he writes.  On the topic of courage, he says: “Trauma in battle is often no different than what happens to people in civilian life.” His follow-on argument dims the luster of warfare.

Pat O’Regan writes that war is extraordinary and never-to-be-forgotten. Yet, he writes: “There is no more reason to dwell on war than a thousand other, perhaps less captivating, incidents of life.”  That sentiment might serve as O’Regan’s legacy to all.

I admire authors who bare their souls when recalling war experiences. Their stories ring with authenticity. Other recent books of that caliber include Calm Frenzy by Loring Bailey, Jr.; Fearful Odds by Charles Newhall III; Memoir of Vietnam by William Fee; and—not so recent but perhaps the ultimate—Think Snow by Kenneth Kinsler. I recommend them.

—Henry Zeybel

I Came Home, But It Wasn’t Me by Bruce Wm. Taneski

Bruce Wm. Taneski’s I Came Home, But It Wasn’t Me: The Memoirs of a Vietnam Combat Veteran as a Recon Scout ‘LRRP’ (CreateSpace, 338 pp., $19.95, paper; $5.99, Kindle) comes full circle when he sits on his pack and eats a can of C-Ration spaghetti and meatballs while looking down at one of the two NVA soldiers he had shot dead a few minutes earlier.

“Don’t mean nothing,” he thought. But deep down inside, he knew it did.

Eight months earlier, as an FNG literally stained from head to foot with blood and guts, he had stared in disbelief at a gunner who casually ate a can of peaches while his helicopter lifted off with the dismembered remains of men Taneski had helped put into body bags.

Writing this book was part of Taneski’s treatment for PTSD, initially diagnosed in 1982. Along with his forty-five-year-old memories, he used after-action reports, maps, and letters he wrote home as source material. His subtitle spells out his wartime duties.

An Army enlistee, VVA life member Bruce Taneski arrived in Vietnam less than two months after he turned eighteen. By then, he had completed Basic, Infantry AIT, and parachute training. He stood five-ten and weighed 110, about the size of his field pack. Eager and a quick study, the teenager talked his way into Recon with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, 4/12. The unit operated out of FSB Nancy, near Long Binh.

Because his story is therapeutic, Taneski explains everything in detail, down to the nuts and bolts of his P-38 can opener. At times, he writes with the innocence of a young man seeing the world for the first time. He shares the teachings of his sergeants, which Taneski took to heart to succeed in Vietnam. He particularly admired Sgt. Soakley, who mentored him. Much of this true story describes “many of the mundane missions we went on,” which involved “just humping through the jungle fighting the red ants, leeches and mosquitoes.”

Bruce Taneski

Taneski’s year peaked with two major operations. The first was the 199th’s final six-day sweep before returning to Fort Benning. The operation captured thirty-three NVA, while destroying an enemy hospital, training camp, and five hamlets. The second was a 5th Infantry Division engagement against a new NVA base camp near the DMZ, where Taneski finished his last months in-country.

Bruce Taneski’s obsession with detail occasionally flags. For example, he does not mention years as such. I worked out that he served in Vietnam in 1970 only because he mentioned the Year of the Dog, and I looked it up.

Nevertheless, the book clearly tells who Bruce Taneski is and why, which is its purpose.

—Henry Zeybel

Stone Pony by Stephen Paul Campos

Stephen Paul Campos enlisted in the U. S. Army in 1968 to avoid being drafted. He thought that if he enlisted, he would not be sent to fight in Vietnam. This myth was encouraged by his recruiter, no doubt.

As it turned out, Compos not only served in Vietnam with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade from 1968-69, but he put in another year of service when he returned to the United States. Campos wrote his novel, Stone Pony: Forgiven but Not Forgotten (Tate Publishing, 384 pp., $25.99, paper), he says, “to set the record straight.”

Several aspects set this memoir apart from other combat infantry rifleman books. The two main differences are the horrific accounts of so-called friendly fire incidents, and the frequent mention of God. More than once, Campos refers to Vietnam as “this land that God even seemed to hate.” He also writes that the first friendly fire incident “shakes him to his core.”  That’s the first of several uses of that phrase.

Compos bitterly complains about women back in America who “burned their bras trying not to conform.” I searched for one verified incident of bra burning in America at the time, and found none. I did find plenty of draft card burning and some flag burning.

Campos says draft card burners “should have been sent to Nam, not us.” That strikes me as strange because Campos also writes, “we felt proud to be there to defend the world from communism and to bring peace to Vietnam.” So, in essence, he’s saying that defending and bringing peace should be a punishment. And would he really have wanted to be fighting next to a man who had been sent to Vietnam as a punishment for burning a draft card?

Campos was glad to leave Vietnam behind. He refers to the place as a “hellhole of a country filled with death, despair and sorrow.” He also calls that land “this living hell hole.” He feels that “our military was doing a stellar job in the field. We had won every battle we fought in Nam.”

Campos believed that when he returned to America there would be a “great celebration for us.” That did not happen. “Joy turned into a nightmare,” he writes, when he hears protesters chanting, “baby killer, murderer, loser.”  That’s when he says his war just started because he’d expected people to be screaming, “Welcome home. You won the war. We’re proud of you.”  He was in shock. “It was a political war,” he writes. “We were not allowed to win.”

Stephen Paul Campos

We encounter John Wayne more than once, and we run into Ozzie and Harriet. Not David or Ricky, though. We “get out of Dodge” and we get a list with Audie Murphy, John Wayne, and James Stewart as American heroes who always win and end up with the girl. We hear about Black VD, Dear John’s, Tarzan and Jane, and the Bob Hope Show, which Campos attended but freaked out when he saw it was being filmed.

“I was hoping none of my friends or family would see me on television,” he writes. “They might think I was enjoying myself over here and not really fighting a war.”

Campos almost died of malaria because he was raised to mistrust doctors, but he pulled through. Perhaps the high fever muddled his memories a bit, as he refers to John Wayne as being in To Hell and Back.  That film starred Audie Murphy; Wayne was not involved.

Stone Pony is one of the more graphic and honest of the infantry memoirs, especially where the recounting of multiple friendly fire incidents is concerned.  If that is what you are looking for, I recommend this book.

—David Willson

 

 

Tours of Duty Edited by Michael Lee Lanning

Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel Michael Lee Lanning is one of the most prolific Vietnam veteran writers. Many of his twenty-one military-themed nonfiction books deal with the Vietnam War.

That includes the well-received memoirs he wrote about his tour of duty in the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam (1987) and Vietnam 1969-1970: A Company Commander’s Journal (1988), as well as Inside the LRRPs: Rangers in Vietnam (1988), Inside the VC and NVA: The Real Story of North Vietnam’s Armed Forces (1992), and Inside the Crosshairs: Snipers in Vietnam (1998). He also wrote a comprehensive guide to Vietnam War films called Vietnam at the Movies (1994).

 

Lee Lanning

Lanning’s latest book is Tours of Duty: Vietnam War Stories (Stackpole, 288 pp., $18.95, paper), a collection of tales from some forty other Vietnam War veterans that Lanning collected and edited.

Virtually all are told by men who served combat-heavy tours of duty. Don’t therefore look between these covers for the voices of cooks, clerks, truck drivers, or other support personnel. Many of the tale tellers—like Lanning—served with the 199th.

Lanning chose not to put names with these first-person stories. But, he says, he can “personally testify to the veracity of some because ‘I was there.’ Others were related to me over the years by soldiers whom I hold in high regard. Names have been left out to protect both the guilty and innocent.”

The author’s website is www.michaelleelanning.com

—Marc Leepson