The Sea Swallows by Henry F. Dagenais

Henry F. Dagenais’s The Sea Swallows: Campaigning in the South Vietnam Delta with Chinese Catholic Exiles (Henry F. Dagenais, 448 pp., $13.99, paper) is a memoir of the author’s first Vietnam War tour, from September 1967-68. During that eventful tour of duty Dagenais served as a MACV advisor leading a small team of American troops working with a group of exiled Nationalist Chinese Catholics (the Sea Swallows) in An Xuyen Province in southernmost South Vietnam in IV Corps.

Dagenais begins at the beginning with his flight to Vietnam and ends a year later with getting on a plane “to the United States, the land of the big PX and home.” In between, he provides details of his memorable year in the war zone.

“The sequence of events,” he writes, “is as accurate as memory and some old notes serve me.” Dagenais says he consulted no government documents and “made no attempt to ensure my account coincides with what anyone else has written. It is as I remember the events, from my position on the ground at the time.”

Using much reconstructed dialogue, Dagenais details his work on hearts and minds and military missions against the Viet Cong in the Delta. “Daily operations,” he writes, “consisted of patrolling outlying hamlets and known areas of VC activities such as tax collecting and recruiting. Patrols were usually platoon size, 15 to 25 men, and had the mission of gathering intelligence and providing assistance and protection for the local population.”

In his area of operations—about 500 square kilometers—American and South Vietnamese forces controlled less than twenty percent of the territory. The Viet Cong, Dagenais writes, “could move rather freely throughout large portions of the area with little interference from government forces.”

—Marc Leepson

Pointman by Robert L. Owens

Robert L. Owens’s Pointman: A Novel of Love, War and Drugs (Delizon 310 pp., $12, paper) is that rare autobiographical Vietnam War novel published in France. The title character, the pointman, is Spec 4 Warren Steele, who wishes “he could snort a vial of heroin to relax.”  He also says that “walking point was like taking a stroll with the Grim Reaper.” This thought comes to him when he is doing his job. 

The reader encounters Steele and this thought on the first page of the book. That’s when I realized this Vietnam War novel was trying to do something very different. 

There’s a photo of Owens on the back cover of the book in a boonie hat and full field gear in 1970. He entered the U. S. Army after graduating from the University of California-Davis and served in the Mekong Delta and in the Cambodian invasion with the 9th Infantry Division. Owens received the Bronze Star, Combat Medical Badge, and Purple Heart Medal. It’s very likely that the details that make Doc Tyson, the platoon medic, come alive are taken from the author’s own experience.

Owens tells us about the characters we’ll be spending time with in this book. “None were truly educated,” he says. “Most were barely out of high school and none represented the upper echelons of society…poor boys from thousands of little towns, with no power or voice, being shipped to the slaughterhouse.”  Nobody has said it more succinctly than that.

There is a love story at the center of this novel between Butterfly, a Vietnamese girl who works in a bar, and Sergeant Brooks. Forces conspire against this love, none more powerful and malign than Lieutenant Gomez who is “hunting Captain’s bars and glory and success.”  Then there is Major Van Tri Quan, a member of the Binh Xuyen organized crime syndicate that controld the local heroin trafficking and who Steele winds up dealing with.

 Robert Owens

The ticket-punching Gomez volunteers his twenty men to go into Cambodia to search for the “Commie Central Office,” (COSVN) a concept that was more myth than actuality. Gomez says that everyone but him is a draftee so even if they all die, no big deal. He places no value on his life as he has nothing going but being an Army officer.

The platoon had been patrolling the flat Mekong Delta rice paddies, but soon they are humping the steep, triple-canopied jungle of the mountains in Cambodia. I’m not spoiling the suspense by saying that they don’t do well, especially the newbie, PFC Arthur “Tiny” Wellington who can’t take it and overdoses on heroin on guard duty when he was supposed to be watching for bad guys creeping up on the platoon.

We encounter many of the same phrases and motifs found in many other Vietnam War novels and memoirs: leeches, Audie Murphy, Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, fragging, “Don’t mean nothin’,” the thousand-yard stare, shit burning, baby killers, war mongers, Agent Orange, and getting too short for this shit.

We also get something unusual: well-realized characters, good, bad, and in between, an involving plot, and a story that is compelling and interesting from the first page of the book until the last.

I enjoyed reading Pointman.

—David Willson