Legend by Eric Blehm

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Eric Blehm’s Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret’s Heroic Mission To Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines,  a well-received account of Army Master Sgt. Roy P. Benavidez’s life, is now out in paperback (Crown, 288 pp., $16).

On February 24, 1981, President Ronald Reagan presented the Medal of Honor to Benavidez for his extraordinary courage under fire in dense jungle during a clandestine May 2, 1968, mission in Cambodia. Benavidez, on his second Vietnam War tour of duty, was honored for what he did after a twelve-man 5th Special Forces recon team found itself penned in by hundreds of NVA troops.

As we noted in our review in the print edition of The VVA Veteran, the heart of the book is Blehm’s fine account of the battle action. He fleshes out the narrative with a short sketch of Roy Benavidez’s life before he joined the Army, and weaves in a solid accounting of Vietnam War historical background. The result is a readable, meaty narrative that tells the complete story of one of the most notable Medal of Honor recipients of the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

The Grunt Padre by Daniel L. Mode

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Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born into an Italian Catholic family. His heroic life is told cradle to grave in The Grunt Padre: The Service & Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967  (CMJ Publishers, 202 pp., $15.95, paper) by Daniel L. Mode.

Father Mode, a chaplain in the Navy Reserves, traces  the life of Capodanno, a Navy Chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient, from his birth on Staten Island in New York, through his time at the Maryknoll Seminary in  Ossining, New York, to a mission in Taiwan, and finally to his Marine Chaplaincy in South Vietnam. That’s where the “Grunt Padre” said his last Mass, on Hill 327 near the village of Dong Son, in September of 1967.

Vince Capodanno was born on February, 13 , 1929, and “grew up during the most patriotic time in American history,” Mode writes, “with Victory Gardens, War Bonds, and blood drives. The World War 2 armistice was signed just before young Vince decided he would enter the Marknoll Seminary.”

Fr. Capodanno was ordained in June of 1958. He soon set sail for Taiwan, his first missionary assignment, where he enjoyed the teaching despite his difficulty learning the local dialect. But the language barrier had a positive effect—making him a better listener. Later in Vietnam, Mode writes, “he would attract the confidence of young Marines partly because of his unique capacity to hear what they said and what they didn’t say.”

Nineteen-sixty-five was a watershed year for Fr. Capodanno. His six-year term in Taiwan ended and he wrote to the Navy Chief of Chaplains in Washington about joining the Chaplain Corps, asking to serve with the Marines in Vietnam.

In November, 1965 Fr. Vince became Lt. Capodanno at the Naval Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. After completing a three-week course at the Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton, he went to Vietnam during Holy Week in 1966 when American casualties averaged 400 a month.

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Why did Fr. Capodanno leave the relative safety of mission work for wartime ministry? “In October, 1966 a reporter in Vietnam asked him why he became a chaplain and he answered, ‘I joined the Chaplain Corps when the Vietnam War broke out because I think I’m needed here as are many more Chaplains.'” He was “drawn to the cutting edge where he would not just be a Catholic priest, not just a military Chaplain; but a Marine,” Mode adds.

He was assigned to the 7th Marine Battalion headquarters at Chu Lai. Eight months later he was transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion. In January 1967 he extended his Vietnam tour by six months, which put Fr. Capodanno on a path for that final Mass on September 3. The next day, during Operation Swift, Fr. Capodanno was killed in action while ministering to wounded Marines.

The details of that fatal afternoon that resulted in Fr. Capodanno receiving the Medal of Honor are presented by the author in this thoroughly researched account. Reading these and the testimonials bring the reader as close as possible to the firefight without being there.

—Curt Nelson
 
                                      

Choosing Courage by Peter Collier

Peter Collier’s Choosing Courage: Inspiring Stories of What It Means To Be a Hero (Artisan, 240 pp., $18.95) is an image-heavy children’s book (aimed at fourth to eight graders) that presents stories of American military heroism from World War II to the wars in Afghanistan, along with a short chapter on civilian heroes in the 21st century.

Collier’s chapter on the Vietnam War contains profiles of three well-known Medal of Honor recipients (Sammy Davis, Alfred Rascon, and Bud Day), and two lesser known men who received the military’s highest honor for courage under fire: Thomas Norris and Michael Thornton. The chapter opens with a three-page summary of the war’s history that is accurate, if exceedingly brief. Collier then details the exploits of the MOH recipients and includes sidebars on combat medics, American POWs, and SEAL training.

The civilian section contains essays by Vietnam War MOH recipients Jack Jacobs and Allen Lynch, as well as an account of Vietnam War veteran Rick Rescorla’s heroic actions at the World Trade Center during the September 11, 2001, attacks.

—Marc Leepson

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.

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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