No Greater Love by John A. Siegfried and Kevin Ferris

The November 1968 Vietnam War battle for Nui Chom Mountain, in which PFC Michael Crescenz lost his life at age 19, lasted for a week. Midway through it, Crescenz’s Americal Division’s 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry company walked into an ambush and was pinned down. One G.I. was killed instantly and four wounded.

Chaos reigned until PFC Crescenz grabbed an M60 machinegun and advanced on the nearest machinegun bunker. He killed the men in it and disabled their weapon. He then attacked two more bunkers with the same result. Wounded in the thigh, Crescenz shielded a medic tending to a casualty under fire and said, “I got this, doc. No problem,” then advanced on a fourth bunker and was mortally wounded.

Military historian John A. Siegfried and former Philadelphia Inquirer editor and columnist Kevin Ferris tell the story of Michael Crescenz’s uncommon valor in No Greater Love: The Story of Michael Crescenz, Philadelphia’s Only Medal of Honor Recipient of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 190 pp. $26.86, hardcover; $20.95, Kindle).

Crescenz was the second of six brothers, all of whom grew up and attended the same Catholic schools in Philadelphia. The authors recreate the boys’ childhoods based on interviews with many of their neighbors. They flesh out Michael Crescenz’s two months in-country out with letters he sent home and interviews they did with his fellow soldiers.

While growing up, Michael and his brother Charles excelled in everything they tried. They were outstanding athletes, tough competitors, and protectors of the bullied. Their West Oak Lane neighborhood was the core of their world. After graduating from high school, Charles enlisted in the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam; Michael later joined the Army. Their father had served in World War II and their grandfather in World War I.

In parallel with Michael Crescenz’s story, the authors include an informative history of the Medal of Honor. A chapter on a 1970 posthumous MOH presentation by President Nixon for the families of 21 Vietnam War recipients—including Michael Crescenz—highlights the power the medal bestows today.

In 1968, he was buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, a six-minute drive from where he grew up. Later his brother Joe replaced Michael’s plain gravestone with a government-issued white marble marker.

That change was not enough for Joe Crescenz, though, after he visited Arlington National Cemetery where more than 400 Medal of Honor recipients are interred. So he enlisted his brothers in a campaign to move Michael’s body to Arlington.

Initially, the plan met strong opposition from federal administrators. But a Catholic bishop intervened and made all the arrangements, from exhumation to reburial.

After more than a week of ceremonies that included motorcades and convoys, old comrades lay Michael Crescenz to rest in Arlington National Cemetery in 2008. The authors recreate these events with deeply moving recollections from the men involved.

Since then, many organizations have honored Michael Crescenz. Most notably, in 2014, the VA hospital in Philadelphia was renamed the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. A larger-than-life statue of Michael in full combat gear holding an M60 stands guard at the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The book’s array of excellent color photographs adds additional distinction to Michael’s short life.

—Henry Zeybel

Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

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.

Eric Poole

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