Going to See the Elephant by H.R. McCoy

H.R. McCoy served in Vietnam with the 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. “I needed to tell our story, the story of the combat soldier in Viet Nam, the man that did his best in a war not of his making, nor of his liking,”  McCoy writes in Going to See the Elephant (CreateSpace, 388 pp., $16, paper).

In the novel’s “forward” we are told that “the veterans of the Viet Nam War have not forgotten that they were forced to fight a war that could not be won the way it was fought.” McCoy goes on to describe American soldiers in Vietnam as “a stalwart band of young men, determined to do our best to root out Communism.”

The story in this adventure novel begins in Key West, Florida, in May 2015, so the entire novel is futuristic. There are sizable and frequent scenes in which Bill, the main character, drifts off and gives the reader a couple of pages of recon war experiences. Those are well-written, believable, and engrossing.

McCoy rants about the poor leadership during the war—rants I tend to sympathize with. Such as the fact that the war was “run by a bunch of old men using outdated tactics and no understanding of the enemy.”

He also complains that the news media told lies to the American people about the Tet Offensive, making the public believe that Tet was a defeat for Americans, when it was an overwhelming victory. The comments about how the U. S. government sprayed us with defoliants and then denied any connection between the spraying and the cancers Vietnam veterans developed later hit home with me.

U.S. troops during the 1968 Tet Offensive

“Repeat after me, young man,” McCoy writes, “‘The Army does not give a flying shit about you.’  You represent mere cannon fodder to them.” Hard to argue with that.

Bill becomes involved in a plan to go back to Vietnam and win the war, using what he learned forty years ago to do things right this time. He says American troops were forced to fight a worthless war, but they will form a group of old infantrymen who “shared the dream of making Viet Nam free.”

They put together a fighting force of 9,600 men in thirty-two camps in Vietnam. The way it is done causes me to label this book the most preposterous of all the Vietnam War-related novels I’ve ever read. The war veterans drift into Vietnam as members of tour groups, or as individual tourists. They arm themselves by buying weapons on the economy to start, and later by taking them from the Vietnamese military.

Today’s Vietnamese communist army is no match for these men in their sixties. This small army captures five choppers, fourteen deuce-and-a-half trucks loaded with weapons, and six jeeps with machine guns. They begin to wreak havoc on the Vietnamese army, aided by some of the local population who are sick of communism.

At one point, Bill asks the reader, “Would we be judged misfits, crackpots, and just another group of crazy Viet Nam vets?”  I won’t give away the answer to that question.

If you’ve hungered to go back to Vietnam to fight again, unencumbered by the leadership of William Westmoreland, perhaps this wish-fulfillment book is for you.

—David Willson


Mekong Mud Dogs by Ed Eaton

Ed Eaton’s Mekong Mud Dogs: The Story of Sgt. Ed Eaton (Eaton, 278 pp., $17.45, paper), is a recounting of the author’s experiences with B/3/60 of the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam. Read this book if you have the stomach to face confronting the worst of the Vietnam War on a daily basis.   

My experience was photographing the second phase of the Tet Offensive around Saigon and Cholon during early May of 1968 when  Eaton company and other 9th Infantry Division units slugged it out in house-to-house fighting in a factory complex near the edge of Cholon, as well as in rice paddies adjacent to the Kin Doi Canal ship channel, while snipers and 107mm rockets lobbed death from a distance. The American grunts, artillery, and helicopter gunships did their best to destroy them.

I was one of the hated FNG/REMFs Ed Eaton speaks not so fondly of in his book. He, on the other hand, was an 11B10, Light Weapons Infantryman, based on a spit on land next to the My Tho River deep in the Mekong Delta, serving as part of the Mobile Riverine Force.

In eighteen bruising chapters, we get almost every sight, taste, smell, instinct, comment, and attitude an infantryman shares with his buddies. They are in the business of killing at close range. We get details about sighting in on a enemy’s torso, steadying the rifle, and dropping the charge for the kill. Ed Eaton does not waste time or mince words about the experience. He fought, and he survived. That says enough.

Eaton earned his Combat Infantryman Badge the hard way—by patrolling, walking point, checking on his guys, helping medevac out the wounded and dead, surviving multiple deadly ambushes, and killing with an M-16, a M-79 grenade launcher, and later with an XM-21 match-grade sniper rifle.

Ed Eaton

Early on, Eaton survived a 55-gallon drum mine explosion on a Navy Supply Tender ship after which he was forced to swim through a river of oil, find a hatch, get through it into another compartment of oil, and then swim toward the deck of a ship that was sinking in mid-river and listing badly as she settled on the bottom.

From there, we move to multiple search and clear insertions, search and destroy missions, “recon-by-blood” probes, and chilling remain-over-night occurrences where mosquitoes, leaches, immersion foot, ringworm, sheer exhaustion, and probing VC are the only things you focus on. Ten year-old C-rats with canned fruit salad and stale pound cake are all that you eat—if you can force them down.

Ed Eaton moves up from being a basic infantryman, to point man, to sergeant, to platoon leader, to platoon sergeant, and eventually to an elite sniper school in Vietnam. It is a ghastly experience in which his humanity, his fears, his losses, and his resignation that death is near at every moment, are ever present. Yet he soldiers on. What we have here is a good man doing his best in utter hell.

As his tour progresses, Eaton’s vigilance stays focused on movement in the shadows, shapes that do not look right, distances to tree lines, booby traps and punji sticks, along with mud, the damnedest stickiest, oozing, slimy, filthy, shit-filled canal water, and utter exhaustion. Near the end of his tour he interacts with REMFs, drinks too much beer, “shines-on some bullshit” to NCOs and officers, and slides closer to a PTSD crackup.

During a brutal all-day firefight, Eaton crash-lands hard, damaging his spine, and then works feverishly to rescue a Captain who was also badly wounded. The images, smells, and emotions eat away at him in long, sleepless nights afterward.

After coming home, Eaton can no longer hunt (something he loved doing), and crashes through jobs, college, alcohol, women, and more alcohol. He damn near dies in another plane crash. After that, he begins a four-decade long recovery.

Ed Eaton, despite his feelings toward FNGs, REMFs, and dumb-ass lieutenants, has told a fine story of a tortured man who is rebuilding himself, after surviving the Vietnam War. Read it if you want to know the truth of what war can do to humans who experience it at the combat level.

The author’s web site is www.mekongmuddogs.com

—Robert M. Pacholik



Welcome Home by Ross Lewis

Ross Lewis’s Welcome Home: A Monument to Honor: An American Tribute to Vietnam Veterans (216 pp., paper, $37) is a large-format, heavily illustrated book that is a part of a wider project to—as Ross puts it—“foster a unique and powerful American legacy which honors the men and women who served in Vietnam as dedicated, loyal citizens who represented the treasured and cherished values of America’s commitment to preserve our natural human freedoms in the world.”

Lewis served as an Army Signal Corps officer from 1966-68, leading a platoon of the 127th Signal Battalion in the 7th Infantry in Korea. After his military service, Ross worked at WCBS-TV in New York for ten years directing nightly newscasts. He went on to become a professional photographer and then established a program for special education children in New Jersey with multiple disabilities.

For his book Ross traveled to fourteen states to interview Vietnam veterans, photograph them, and collect their war-time photos. Fifty-five veterans’ stories and their then-and-now photos make up the bulk of the book.

Ross Lewis

Among the veterans featured is Herb Worthington, a long-time active VVA member who was drafted into the Army in August of 1969. Worthington had a combat-heavy tour of duty in 1970-71 with 9th Infantry Division’s 2nd of the 60th Infantry Regiment.

Not long after arriving in Vietnam, he became “a tough soldier in a brutally hot and dangerous environment, which tested him daily,” Ross writes.Life “was a daily struggle to survive the harsh conditions and endless hours in the field,” Worthington told Ross.

In one firefight, he said, “I can remember that the only thing I heard was my heart. [I] didn’t hear anything other than my heart beating.” It was “amazing what you can withstand. And my thing was I always reacted the right way.”

The author’s website is  www.welcomemonument.com

—Marc Leepson

After Incoming by Alan Hodgkinson

Alan Hodgkinson was part of the San Francisco Haight Ashbury scene in the late 1960s when he was drafted into the U. S. Army. He served in the Mekong Delta as a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division. Today he lives in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. After Incoming (Portella Publishing, $5, e book), first published in paperback in 2001, is his first novel.

This is another Vietnam War infantry novel that made me grateful that I spent my thirteen and a half months in country typing memos rather than slogging through rice paddies. Thank you, dad, for insisting I take typing in high school. (He told me that typing might one day save my life.)

Jack, After Incoming‘s main character, sees the world as divided into two sections—those who are Vietnam War combat veterans and those who are not. He calls those who are not “noncombatants,” or more baldly, “Rear Echelon Mother Fuckers.”

Jack, like the author, served in Vietnam with Company A 3rd of the 60th of the 9th Infantry. He is fixated on Mia, the girl he left behind in a small village, which has since been destroyed. After he comes home his letters to her are returned and Mia does not write. Jack has an album full of photos that he hides from his new wife, and spends lots of time poring over the pictures, remembering that golden time with Mia.

Alan Hodgkinson

Jack visits a VA hospital on the cliffs above San Francisco Bay where he receives all the Valium he wants, but where he gets nothing else that can help. The Valium does not do anything for his problems: panic attacks, jumpiness, flashbacks, nightmares.

It’s three years since he got back and Jack wonders how long it will take for these problems to blow over. All he wanted to do was get back home and get on with his life, but he is stuck in the bunker of his mind.

Jack classifies the man he sees at the VA as one of those “dickheads with college deferments who got all the good jobs while we were in the jungle fighting a war.”  The author’s description of the VA hospital rings true for that time when the war was still underway, describing it as an “old cement, and poorly staffed edifice” that provides “marginal care for wounded veterans.“

The women in this novel are mostly not sympathetic. Jack gets asked by one of them, Judy:  “Are all you Vietnam veterans this screwed up?’

The combat veterans we meet in this novel are pretty much all screwed up. Jack fantasizes about robbing a bank with an infantry veteran friend. They decide to steal a helicopter. But since neither of them can fly,  they would have to kidnap the pilot, too. That hare-brained plan never gets off the ground.

Near the end Jack goes to a bridge and considers doing himself in by jumping, but he doesn’t. He has met a pretty waitress, Audrey, who resembles Mia, and who seems to be kind to him. Also a friend working at a sawmill tells Jack there is a job there for him as a grader, someone who checks out the quality of the wood for $7 per hour. All Jack wants is to be able to enjoy life the way he thinks other people do.

The reader is left with the possibility that Jack might get himself together and leave the horrors of his war in his past. This novel is unusual in the degree of sympathy that the main character shows for the people of Vietnam. I suspect it is his love of Mia that makes that possible.

Mia is presented in realistic and sympathetic detail. That, too, is a rarity in a war novel. Respect is also shown to the “little men who magically sidestepped daily dropping of thousands of pounds of American bombs.”

Bob Hope, Bob Dylan, Jane Fonda, C-Rats, leeches, Agent Orange,  P-38’s, friendly fire, a colonel in a helicopter far above calling for more body count,  the Animals’ ”We Gotta Get out of this Place—all get mentions in this powerful novel of the aftereffects of the Vietnam War.

For those readers who want to know about the hazards of a Vietnam War infantryman’s tour of duty and the difficulties of fitting back into American society, this book is a bargain to read on your Kindle. I was a REMF in Vietnam and glad to be one, especially after this refresher course in the life of a grunt.

—David Willson