Gold in the Coffins by Dominic Certo and Len Harac

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Dominic Certo’s highly praised first novel, The Valor of Francesco D’Amini, was published in 1979. So it has been a long wait for his next one, Gold in the Coffins (Harmita Press, 268 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle).

Certo served with the 7th Marines in Vietnam.  Co-author Len Harac is “a frequent participant in military-style tactical training programs.”

A terse blurb on the back cover accurately sums up this well-written thriller. “Gold in the Coffins follows the story of a tight band of retired Marines who bonded during a bloody tour of duty in Vietnam, only to find themselves facing a darker enemy back home, the demons of Wall Street.”

The hero, Donnie DeAngelo, enters into a “diabolical venture” with a Wall Street power broker who plans to force DeAngelo into bankruptcy and then loot his company and leave him and his friends with nothing. This world of IPOs and reverse mergers is a mystery to me, but the authors handle the ins and outs of it deftly, making it seem as evil as I always suspected it was.

This system was the one that Donnie and his buddies thought they had fought to protect, but they find that it isn’t set up to protect them. It is mentioned more than once that these Marines did not get heroic welcomes when they returned home. Mention is also made of “all the Napalm, Tear Gas, Agent Orange and explosives” they were exposed to and the possibility that they might have wrecked their brains.

Donnie DeAngelo was a Navy Corpsman who served with the Marines in Vietnam. The loyalty and tight teamwork that was built then is brought in play back home to save the day. I am not going to give away the ending, but I will say that evil Wall Street is defeated in a way that I only wish could happen in real life more often.

The VA is name-checked several times and not in a flattering manner.  John Wayne is also discussed. To wit: “John Wayne never taught us how to deal with losing our amigos, just how to walk tall and kick ass. I wonder why they leave that part out of the movie scripts?”

This is a thoughtful and exciting thriller with lots of Vietnam War references. The flashbacks to the war are the strongest parts of the book.  I’d like to see another war novel from Certo, but until then, this book will do just fine.  I highly recommend it.

Certo’s website is http://dominiccerto.com

—David Willson

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

 

 

ASA Trilogy by Robert Flanagan

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Bob Flanagan served sixteen years in the Army Security Agency, which is the focus of his ASA Trilogy from Connemarra Press and AuthorHouse: Involuntary Tour (324 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $22.99, paper, 2009), Dragon Bait (336 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper, 2011), and Fall Off (392 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper).

Prior to his Army service, Flanagan had served in the Marines for seven years. “Though neither protagonist is Flanagan, the characters must, of necessity, embody much of his life, philosophy, experiences, and biases,” his publisher says.

Flanagan began keeping a journal in Vietnam in the spring of 1964, he says, “with the intent of producing a novel.” He continued that practice until late fall of 1969. I believe that his novels benefit from that journal keeping because he has come up with pages packed with telling details of military life. Other readers might disagree, as they might find the thicket of military jargon daunting.

Flanagan anticipated that potential problem and addresses it: “If there is one element for which I feel some explanation is due, it is the heavy use of slang, military jargon, acronyms, and other terminology more familiar to military and military veterans than to the general public,” he writes. Flanagan says he wanted to portray “events and characters within a military world as truly as possible.”

He has done that. In fact, no one has done it better, not even James Jones in From Here to Eternity or his other masterworks. I was thrilled to read this trilogy, which is close to a thousand pages and deals with the life, loves, and military career of David Winter.

Flanagan presents us with three thick novels filled with memorable characters. Some we see off and on again throughout the entire length of the trilogy. Others we meet briefly and they are gone forever. I became so attached to the recurring characters, especially WO David Winter, that I was sad when I finished reading the third volume.

It took me a while to get into the rhythm of Flanagan’s writing. He is not writing for junior high school students—far from it. His writing is demanding, but rewarding. For instance: “The demand for bodies for that distant conflict was insatiable, swallowing them whole, ingesting, assimilating all into its bowels, converting into waste, vomiting out others in a partially consumed state, forever changed.” I’ve never read a better description of what the Vietnam War did to those of us it gobbled up.

David Winter is described as not being “a war junkie, a militant groupie,” and he wasn’t. But in the course of almost one thousand pages his part in the Vietnam War changes him in many painful ways—especially painful to those of us who have grown to love him. We root for him, and it is hard when he seems about to be crushed by the War Machine.

Winter is often on the edge of cataclysms that destroy others, but which spare him, or seem to. Winter’s dear friend Brenner at one point states his mantra: “There is no God but irony.” There is plenty of irony in these three novels. So if you are born deaf to irony, these books will be a challenge.

For those who don’t like to get your Vietnam War history by reading historical novels, I recommend that you read Unlikely Warriors: The Army Security Agency’s Secret War in Vietnam 1961-1973 by Lonnie M. Long and Gary Blackburn. That book offers an organized history of the ASA.

Flanagan’s books are not chronological and sometimes seem to be written to deconstruct any possible logical view of the military.  Also, Flanagan offers episodes of apparently supernatural events, or at least magical realism, in which the reader butts up against people who cannot be explained scientifically. I enjoyed those occurrences, but I can see where some might be hornswoggled or nonplussed by them.

Flanagan does a better job than most  in showing what he calls “the barricaded worlds” of Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa, Can Tho, Nha Trang, Plei Ku and other U.S. military installations in Vietnam. I spent a lot of time in three of those barricaded worlds, and attest to the truth of what he writes about life in those special military worlds.

Flanagan also does a brilliant job evoking the world of the sneakers and peepers of ASA, whose endemic motto was, “In God we trust; all others we monitor.” The world of military monitoring is nowhere more fully explored than in this trilogy. Probably the thing Flanagan does best is to show the effect on his main character of “what it would be like to suddenly know all you had believed in was a shopworn joke.”

We get references to John Wayne, Indian Country, My Lai, Terry and the Pirates, Operation Ranch Hand and Agent Orange, Graham Greene, Sergeant Rock, Hemingway, Robert Ruark, and Isak Dinesen.  Because I spent thirteen months in Vietnam working for the Inspector General, I especially enjoyed the rant about the “persnickety ways” of the I.G. Funny stuff.  Yes, we were a chicken-shit outfit; I don’t deny it. We reveled in it.

I loved these three books, “the whole phantasmagorical magilla,” to steal a phrase from Flanagan. If you loved Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and John Ashmead’s The Mountain and the Feather, Flanagan’s books are for you.

If you want a challenge, if you want to immerse yourself in this military world, read these books. You will be rewarded beyond measure.

—David Willson

A Common Virtue by James A. Hawkins

James A. Hawkins served eleven years as a U. S. Marine, and is a veteran of the Vietnam War. His Marine Corps Vietnam War novel, A Common Virtue (Naval Institute Press, 240 pp., $29.95), takes place during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Paul Jackson, an eighteen-year old recon Marine sniper, is the lone survivor of a massacre on a hillside. This is the information we are given in the cover blurb. It goes on to say that the book “is about growing into manhood in a toxic America and a world gone mad.”

That is the true subject of this first novel. I had expected and hoped for a Marine Corps adventure novel. The author seems filled with bitterness about America. The book begins with a brief author’s note in which Hawkins mentions that Marines “returned to a thankless nation.”  Later he says that Marines served in a war “that even today America despises.”

That led me to believe that Hawkins is pissed off about not getting a homecoming parade in which Sousa’s “Semper Fidelis” was played. I hoped this attitude would not undermine the entire novel. I also hoped that the book contained no anti-Jane Fonda rants and no scenes of returning veterans being treated badly in an American airport by a braless hippy chick.

The writing in this novel is for those who are deaf to cliché and insensitive to plodding prose. Someone, for example, actually says, “We’re all gonna die.” And Hawkins writes: “His scarred face looked as if it had been burned by napalm and somebody had put it out with a garden rake.”

On the very same page we get: “The malevolence in his voice chilled Rivers to the bone.” All the way to the bone? As I read that my expectations for the novel sank even lower.

We get the usual John Wayne references found in Marine Corps books:  “John Wayne routine,” “John Wayne incarnate,” and “instructions on how John Wayne would use a knife to cut a throat.”  We get two references to “feather merchants,” and countless “saddle up’s.” I lost track of how many times they got out of Dodge, but there were at least five of them.

We get a mention of lima beans and ham, which I was thankful for, but when I read, “happier than a pig in shit,” I was compelled to ask myself, how happy is that pig? I believe that pigs actually prefer to be clean whenever they can be. When an NVA is shot, he “dropped like someone slugged in the stomach with a baseball bat.”  I’ll bet he did not.  And it was likely to be “darker than midnight in a coal bin” when that happened.

We get a reference to “hippy bastards,” and when our hero passes through an airport, he has to deal with “a large gathering of long haired, scantily clad demonstrators” One of their signs reads, “Welcome Home, Baby Killers.”

Were the “scantily clad” demonstrators wearing bikinis? I’d love to know since I went to a lot of antiwar rallies and never encountered anyone who was scantily clad. I wish I had been so lucky.

Civilians are casually described as “fat, dirty.” REMFs are mentioned countless times in the novel—never in a kind way.

The one true villain in this novel is a REMF Marine Corps officer, who vilely undermines the authority and credibility of the hero, Paul Jackson, causing the deaths of many Marines.

I would have liked to have read a lot more of Marines in combat, and more about the setting up of the “two-man reconnaissance-team concept in the Vietnam War” and a lot less social commenting.  My theory, based on the author’s comments, is that Hawkins could not help himself. The book was his chance to express long-lived bitterness, and he let it rip whenever he could jam it in.

It does not benefit what could have been an exciting Marine Corps novel about an exceptional teenaged Marine. At least Jane Fonda went unmentioned.

—David Willson

American Titan by Marc Eliot

Marc Eliot is a biographer who specializes in telling the lives of movie stars. So it’s no shock that his latest bio is American Titan: Searching for John Wayne (Dye St./HarperCollins, 413 pp., $28.99). In his engagingly written, thick narrative Eliot covers the details of Wayne’s personal life, never straying far from the ins and outs of his movie career.

The book includes Eliot’s interpretations of, as he puts it, “how the films reflected his personal life, and how in turn, he reflected himself in his films.”

Part of that personal life was the ironic fact that the man who came to personify the American fighting man in the 1940s, 50s and 60s in a series of memorable film roles never served a day in the military. In fact, as Eliot shows, John Wayne fought hard to avoid serving in World War II, which the United States entered when he was thirty-four years old.

In 1942, Wayne told his draft board that he was the sole supporter of his family and that “an old shoulder injury made him ineligible,” Eliot writes,  “although it didn’t seem to bother him much when he was working as a stuntman or riding horses or throwing punches” in the movies.

His decision to avoid serving in the war, his wife Pilar later said, was the reason that Wayne became “a super-patriot for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home.”

John Wayne was a strong Vietnam War hawk who lobbied for four years to make a film about Green Berets in the war. Why? To “take on the [antiwar] protesters” and “take on the enemy,”  Eliot says.

John Wayne and David Janssen in The Greet Berets

He convinced he Pentagon to cooperate on The Green Berets, which was primarily shot at Fort Benning beginning in August of 1967.The movie came out in June of 1968 to scathing reviews led by Renata Adler in The New York Times, who called it “so unspeakable, so stupid, so rotten and false in every detail” and “vile and insane.”

Eliot’s bottom line on The Green Berets: It’s “an odd artifact of self-aggrandizement, a monument to America’s mistaken involvement in a war that killed more than fifty thousand GIs.”

There’s one minor mistake in the section on the movie. Eliot calls the famed VC booby traps “Punjab sticks,” not the correct name: punji stakes.

The author’s website is www.marceliot.net

—Marc Leepson

Hearts, Minds, and Coffee by Kent Hinckley

Kent Hinckley served in Army Intelligence in Vietnam. His novel, Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey (Reyall, 282 pp., $14.95, paper), begins in January of 1970. The author informs us that “the time period corresponds to my tour in Nha Trang as a lieutenant.”

Hinckley was against the war, but served anyhow—like many of us. He salutes all the men and women who answered their country’s call.

The novel’s protagonist, Slater Marshall, is an officer who participated in ROTC purely as a way to pay for his college education.  “After being in Vietnam for forty minutes, he concluded he should have escaped to Canada as many draft-dodgers had done.”

Slater is targeted as a dissident during his advanced infantry training. When he arrives in Vietnam, he and four others of his sort are made Special Forces, according “to the needs of the service,” and placed in the middle of “Indian Country” to keep their ears open. Nothing they learn, however, is ever listened to.

They are given M-14s with only blanks to shoot, no live ammunition. But they make do and forge powerful bonds with each other and with the inhabitants of the village of Phan Loc.

You may have already discerned that this is not a typical Vietnam War infantry novel. It is a fable, a satire, and a dark comedy. Often it evoked for me Asa Baber’s classic Vietnam War-themed novel, Land of a Million Elephants, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Slater’s hero is anti-Nazi German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Slater adopts Bonfoeffer’s philosophy that when you are thrust into adversity, you accept it and take action—even if it places your life in jeopardy.

The coffee of the title relates to a coffee plantation that is the dream of the local VC leader. Slater and his men make it possible for him and the community to realize that dream.That is one way they wage peace—through economic development.

Kent Hinckley

This satire touches virtually all the bases that we expect to be touched in such a novel, and it is the stronger for it.  We hear the Animals sing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” We learn that the ARVN are not well-trained or well-equipped to fight. We find out about hearts and minds that must be won; shit is burned; and the heat and stink of Vietnam is evoked.

Agent Orange and napalm rain down. John Wayne is mentioned,. and the men are told to “saddle up and move out.” Ham and lima beans are eaten, with gusto.

When they rotate out of Vietnam, they are called “baby-killers” in the airports—in this case at Sea-Tac, the very airport I flew into when I returned home. The soldiers are described honestly. To wit:  “They believed in their government, Jesus, and apple pie. They thought they made America free.”  I remember being one of those soldiers.

Hinckley has written a great Vietnam War novel. I salute him and the characters of his book who jumped off the page and into my mind. I wish I had encountered them when I was in Vietnam, but my tour was real life, not a fantasy.

The author’s website is www.kenthinckley.com

—David Willson

A Date with Vietnam by Steven Weathers

Steven E Weathers’ memoir, A Date with Vietnam (CreateSpace, 288 pp., $12.81, paper), starts off with the author telling us about his problems with authority in high school. I quickly found myself wondering how he’d do with military rules and authority given the fact that the relatively mild high school structure troubled him. Weathers says he wanted to be treated as an adult, and thought that he would get that in the military.

I also wondered how soon we’d get a reference to John Wayne. We did not have long to wait. “I grew up watching John Wayne movies and I especially liked his military films when I was a kid,”  Weather says. He goes on to praise Wayne for playing military characters “so true to life.”  Weathers grew up “in a family and a society that made you feel it was your duty to go fight communism.”

He was told “to join, not wait to be drafted. Guys who are drafted are treated like shit.” This sounds like Army recruiter talk, and it is a lie.  Weathers’ recruiter told him, that in his opinion, “a bunch of jungle backwoods pack rats wouldn’t hold up long against the American military machine” in Vietnam. The recruiter also told him that losers get drafted and that second-class soldiers are the first to be sent to the fighting.  Another lie.

Steven Weathers viewed serving in the Army as a patriotic duty—and his ticket to manhood. This point of view was not unusual for men to have in the mid 1960s.

A small-town Indiana boy of seventeen, a high school dropout who knew how to type, Weathers took the military aptitude tests and ended up as an Army clerk typist. He was sent to Okinawa, “a cushy assignment on an island paradise.”  At seventeen he was too young to go to Vietnam, but as soon as he turned eighteen, Weathers volunteered for the war zone.

Assigned to the 18th MP Battalion, Weathers was happy to have escaped small-town boring America. He makes the usual observations about Vietnam upon arrival. He is hit in the face by the hottest air he had ever experienced. He comments on shit-burning, but says he never got assigned that dirty detail. He mentions the steel wire on the windows of the bus that took him to his assignment.  Protection against grenades, he says.

Weathers

Weathers next went to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 4th Transportation Command, where he lived in the Le Lai Hotel in Saigon. He discovered that he was considered a REMF and explains what that is.

He and his roommate spent their off duty time “drinking, smoking pot and frequenting the local whorehouse.” Weathers’ job consisted of typing up disposition forms, memoranda, and the occasional classified documents twelve hours a day, seven days a week.

After betting promoted to E-4, his job changed. He became a harbor pilot escort, using a jeep as transportation, and also PBRs ( patrol boat, river.) On one mission his jeep came under fire. His passenger, a harbor pilot, was killed; Weathers narrowly missed death himself.

This memoir offers a good description of the impact that Tet 1968 had on Weathers’ life, and life in general in Vietnam for soldiers with assignments such as his. After Tet, Weathers was moved out of the hotel and into more a typical barracks living situation. Later, while riding in a helicopter, he fell out at about fifty feet, and survived only because he landed in a grove of trees that cushioned his fall.

The main strength of this memoir is its unabashed honesty, especially about Weathers’ behavior and that of his best friend.  He tells us about kicking Vietnamese off of their bicycles while driving his jeep if they impeded his progress. He says he enjoyed “kicking gook ass” in bars.

Like many other rear-echelon troops, Weathers had a mama san to clean and polish his boots and do his laundry. Like many others who served in Vietnam, his favorite song was the Animals’  “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”  He expressed outrage at a culture that sold dogs and cats and other pets in the marketplace for dinner items.

When Weathers came home in 1968 after two tours of duty, he partied for thirty days. But his parents were at him about moving out and getting a job. So he went back to the grocery store job he had left to join the Army.

Civilian life was hard. He had two dismal marriages. Weathers joined the Army Reserves where he found the structure and camaraderie he missed from his time in Vietnam. Weathers became a Senior Track and Wheel Inspector, and later a drill instructor. He received many honors and medals, and stuck with the Reserves until retirement.

Eventually he even found true love. She had been married for sixteen years to a man she called “a crazy Vietnam vet.”

This memoir is an honorable and honest addition to the canon of Army Vietnam War memoirs. I enjoyed reading it. There were many familiar chords in it reflecting my own REMF tour of duty in the Vietnam War–and also many differences.

—David Willson