21 Months, 24 Days by Richard Udden

Richard Udden enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1969 for two years. Not long after a tour in Vietnam, he got an early out, hence the title of his war memoir: 21 Months, 24 Days (CreateSpace, 304 pp., $14.95, paper). I read it. I enjoyed it.

“I did not want to write one of those typical war stories about battles won and lost,”  Udeen says. Instead, he recalls his military career by relating the stories behind photographs he took in Nam as an infantryman.  “I took my pictures between firefights,” he says, “not during them.” The book contains about a hundred pictures.

Udden served in the 2/12th of the 1st Cavalry Division, operating from Fire Support Base Button. His company carried out search and destroy missions along the Cambodian border. Many started with a helicopter assault. He describes them as “like hunting a mountain lion that was lying in wait for you.”

Initially, Udden writes in the innocent voice of the twenty-year-old he was in 1970. He easily accommodated to the rigors of Army training by paying attention and following orders. Proud of becoming a soldier, he knew that he had distanced himself from civilians forever. But the Vietnam War was a mysterious world that constantly presented new problems, physically and psychologically.

As Udden tells his story, the innocence in his voice takes on an overlay of resignation and then self-preservation. To escape the hardship of jungle fighting, Udden volunteered to become helicopter door gunner, but promotion to sergeant (with only ten months of total service) disqualified him for the job.

The frequency, intensity, and duration of firefights greatly increased during his company’s incursion into Cambodia in May and June of 1970. After a booby trap wounded him and killed a close friend, all innocence vanished. Udden simply wanted out of the war. Yet when his wounds healed, Udden did not object to returning to the jungle.

1st Cav troops during the 1970 Cambodian incursion

Like many Vietnam War memoirs, this one contains a large amount of material that will be familiar to readers of military literature. Udden details the use of rifles, Claymore mines, fragmentation and smoke grenades, uniforms, backpacks, C-rations, the P-38, LRP rations, heat tabs, C-4, and other equipment. Once long ago, these objects were wondrous to him; now, he wants the reader to understand their importance to his survival.

He makes a case for smoking marijuana based on the familiar declaration that, among lower ranks, smoking “ganja” was acceptable, but never in the field. A first-time smoker in Vietnam, he eventually learned to roll his own.

The oldest of six children in a blue-collar family, Richard Udden did not get along with his father. Self-reliant practically from birth, he “began work as a young kid” and paid his way through his childhood and teens. He joined the Army partially to leave home. A draft deferment had allowed him to complete a two-year machinist course following high school, and he expected to use that skill in the Army. Manpower needs assigned him to the infantry, which made him feel cheated, but he did not complain.

Again, like many Vietnam War memoirs, this book offers little that is new about humping through the jungle. But a good war memoir’s message is a matter of perspective. In other words, the progression of an author’s actions and feelings about the world before, during, and after exposure to combat often is the most interesting aspect of a war story. I partially judge autobiographies based on how much soul a writer is willing to bare. In this respect, Udden scores high.

He closes on an off-beat note. Back in the States, rather than being despised by the antiwar crowd or looked-down-upon by war hawks, he encountered indifference. Udden had completed the most dramatic period of his life and was “standing tall and feeling good” about himself. But no one seemed to notice or care.

“It was as if I was invisible,” he says.

Wait, wait, Richard. Our parade should be along any moment now.

The author’s website is www.21months24days.com/our-story.html

—Henry Zeybel

The Ghosts of the Green Grass by J. L. Bud Alley

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Invariably, wars produce battles that become historical benchmarks. Not enough can be written or spoken about those events. Arguably, the Vietnam War’s 1965 Battle in the Ia Drang Valley between the Army’s newly formed 1st Air Cavalry Division’s 7th Cavalry and the North Vietnamese Army achieved such magnitude.

Ia Drang’s distinction began with Gen. Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s 1992 book, We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, which examined the entire battle.  J. L. “Bud” Alley has written a  book about just the final stage of that fight—the 2nd Battalion/7th Cavalry’s engagement with North Vietnamese forces at Landing Zone Albany. His book, The Ghosts of the Green Grass (Codi, 393 pp. $29.99), reveals exploits unrecognized in previous writings.

Alley served as a 2/7 second lieutenant in 1965-66. Part of an experimental U2 (untrained second lieutenants) program, he went from college to his unit without attending a basic officer course, although he later received training in combat communications.

His story focuses on more than the fighting.  Alley, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, walks the reader through a chaotic month of assembling the battalion at Fort Benning for deployment to Vietnam as part of the newly formed 1st Cav.  Equipment and manpower shortages hindered planners. Uncertainty about practically everything plagued company grade officers and sergeants.

“I was not sure if a Harvard professor could make sense out of the complexities,” Alley writes.

After thirty days at sea on the USS Rose, the battalion arrived at Qui Nhon in mid-September 1965. Its operational base was at An Khe.

Impulsive and unpredictable leadership stalled the battalion’s development into a fighting force. The Army was thin with experience across the board, Alley says. Six weeks after the battalion arrived in country, its stressed-out commander asked to be relieved.

On November 17, 1965, the day the entire battalion finally deployed in the field, no strategy existed to counter an enemy attack. The day’s plan was simple: march indirectly from LZ X-Ray to LZ Albany to avoid a B-52 ARC Light strike. The battalion’s column stretched from eight hundred to fifteen hundred meters in length. Delays were frequent. “We had no maps or idea of our destination other than to follow the man in front,” Alley writes.

Having never chosen an extraction landing zone, the battalion leaders were uncertain as to which of two cleared areas constituted LZ Albany. When the company commanders gathered to discuss the problem, the battalion came under fire on all sides from NVA forces.

The battle that followed became a fight for survival. Alley graphically describes the intensity of combat that cost the battalion one hundred fifty-five dead and one hundred thirty-four wounded. He weaves in first-hand accounts, his own included, worthy of awe and admiration.

A bitter conclusion to the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley came soon afterward, when Gen. Westmoreland told the 2nd Battalion survivors that they had achieved “a great victory over the Communists from the North.” A year and a half later, units of the 4th Infantry Division fought nearly identical costly battles in the Ia Drang, fights that are described by Robert Sholly in Young Soldiers, Amazing Warriors.

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Bud Alley

As Charles Baker does in his book, Gray Horse Troop, Alley links the 7th Cavalry’s Vietnam War experiences to its 1876 Little Bighorn Battle, but in greater depth. Alley points out many similarities between the “ghosts” of Gen. George Custer’s last days and 2/7’s encounters.

Alley’s book is based on more than fifty interviews with the men, wives, and widows of the Seventh Cavalry fighters, as well as military records and other published and unpublished sources.

Bud Alley earned a master’s degree in history in 2011. But he still possesses a sense of humor. At times, with its wealth of dialogue, The Ghosts of the Green Grass resembles a novel.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.theghostsofthegreengrass.com

—Henry Zeybel

Radiant Angel by Nelson DeMille

Nelson DeMille is one great storyteller. And he has been for three decades. The former Vietnam War 1st Cavalry Division lieutenant has been producing compelling, page-turning, plot-twisting mystery/thrillers with regularity since the Vietnam-War-themed Word of Honor came out in 1985. DeMille’s first-class story-telling ability has reaped dividends: His books always hit the best-seller lists.

So it’s no surprise that DeMille’s seventh John Corey thriller, Radiant Angel (Grand Central, 320 pp, $28), scored big with reviewers and the public when it came out last week. In it, wise-ass former FBI agent and former NYPD homicide detective Corey (now on the federal payroll in New York keeping an eye on foreign spies) gets enmeshed in a dastardly Russian scheme involving a Saudi prince, his yacht, and a small but potentially world-shattering nuclear device.

Much of the action takes place on Long Island—where DeMille grew up and still lives, and a place he often uses in his books. As usual, Nelson DeMille has the endearing but rule-breaking Corey stir up trouble involving his complicated personal life, his bosses, and some very bad guys. There’s also a big helping of the old ultra violence—just what you expect from a top-notch thriller that you’ll sure to see under many a beach umbrella this summer.

—Marc Leepson

The Abundance of Nothing by Bruce Weigl

Bruce Weigl served in Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division from 1967-68, and has written many books of poetry and prose dealing with the war. All are well worth reading. I have all but one or two on my poetry shelves, so this review of The Abundance of Nothing (Triquarterly, 88 pp., $16.95, paper) is coming from a huge fan of Weigl’s work.

I also have heard Bruce Weigl read a time or two, so when I read his poems, I hear his voice in my head.

Somehow I missed this book of poetry by Weigl when it came out in 2012. These poems deal with all of his usual subjects: the Vietnam War, the return from the war and the difficulties of that process, and of course, all the aspects of being a human on this planet.

“Thank You for Thinking of You” has the lines: “Thank you Sergeant X for leaving me/behind on the abandoned LZ,/where all night small arms fire/crackled in the trees along the river,/night of my downfall that won’t go away.”

Weigl tops that powerful memory in the very next line with: “Thank you teacher, coach,/who fondled my dick and balls,/telling me I had to be checked.”  Weigl always has the ability to shock the reader with an image.

Bruce Weigl

The poem that hit me the hardest in this book was “Response to ‘Why Don’t You Write About Something Happy?’”  I’ve been asked that question, too, and the next time I get it, I’ll refer the person who asked to this poem, which, by itself, is worth the price of admission to this fine book. 

I hope I’ve motivated readers to buy and read Bruce Weigl’s thirteenth poetry book. The blurb on the back by Yusef Komunyakaa also highly recommends the book, so you don’t have to take my word for it. 

If anyone would know a fine book of poetry, it is Yusef Komunyakaa.  While you are at it, buy his books, too. 

—David Willson

A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary by Dominick Yezzo

By page six of Dominick Yezzo’s A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself (iUniverse, 94 pp., $11.95 paper) I was totally hooked

The story: A week after he arrived in Vietnam in August of 1968, draftee Yezzo hiked several klicks outside of Camp Evans on an orientation patrol and did a hilltop night observation exercise. In the morning on the way home, the guy next to him screwed up a grenade-throwing drill, killed himself, and wounded Yezzo. Doctors in Quang Tri failed to remove shrapnel from his shoulder, and for the remainder of his tour Yezzo suffered recurring pain.

While recuperating on the hospital ship U.S.S. Repose, he met a childhood friend—a man completely paralyzed by shrapnel in his spine. Yezzo was like a G.I. Joe Btfsplk: If it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have had any luck at all.

As property of 1st Cav’s PSYOPS, Spec4 Yezzo ended up in Phouc Vinh where he found himself adrift in routine, dropping surrender leaflets from helicopters, chauffeuring a major who directed him into an enemy fusillade, guarding prisoners, pulling CQ and KP, and surviving rocket and mortar attacks that killed people around him.

As he put it: “I often wonder if Washington knows about rockets, mortars, bullets, life, death, and this tremendous suffering.” His topmost desire became surviving.

As a short-timer, Yezzo received little consideration from his career-minded superiors who “imposed their ills” upon him. Two months after Yezzo got a puppy from a friend, for example, an MP captain shot the dog to death. Yezzo confronted the captain and called him a “goddamn bum,” but avoided an insubordination charge.

Off duty, Yezzo spent more time with Vietnamese—fluctuating between loving and hating them—than he spent with Americans. A Vietnamese sergeant named So became his confidant. Yezzo’s insignificance was confirmed when he milked a short medical leave for extra days and “Nobody seem[ed] to care.”

Dominick Yezzo

After seven months in-country, Yezzo’s fear for his life led him to smoking dope. “Marijuana,” he writes, “is readily and very easily obtainable to every G.I. in Vietnam.” He also drank to escape from reality. Recognizing his weaknesses, he thought a lot about God and family. Years later, Yezzo’s “journey through himself” culminated in becoming a college literature professor and lawyer.

Yezzo, a VVA member, originally published this ultra-thin memoir of diary entries in 1974, and reprinted it this year. However, his experiences have a timeless quality.

A few of his accounts flashed me back to forgotten events. For example, Yezzo anguished over escorting the body of a Vietnamese boy killed by a booby trap to the boy’s mother. He wrote, “She hated the sight of me and the other Americans with me.” That made me recall airlifting a dead Vietnamese lieutenant to Dalat. His mother and father met our C-130 but refused to look at or speak to anyone on our crew. So it goes.

The book’s most revealing parts are Yezzo’s preoccupation with women: pen pals from home, platonic Vietnamese girlfriends, prostitutes, and bed partners from leave and R&R–particularly an Aussie woman to whom he devotes two full pages. He delighted me by asking, “How can I ever possibly marry one girl? I love so many of them, each for different reasons too.”

Dominick Yezzo’s long-ago immaturity reminded me that once upon a time all of us were equally as young. Yes, so it goes….

–Henry Zeybel