Love Poured Out for Viet Nam by Trena Chellino

Chester and Mary Travis were Christian missionaries to French Indochina and Vietnam from 1925-75, where, according to Trena Chellino, they “experienced an abundant measure of Christ’s indwelling and overflowing life.”

The Travis family, with their five children, were taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, but that part of their time in French Indochina is not explored much in Chellino’s Love Poured Out of Viet Nam: First-Hand Account of Chester & Mary Travis and Their 50 Years of Ministry in a Country at War (Living Stones, 251 pp., $5.99, Kindle).  I would have liked to read a lot more about those years.

I enjoyed this book as it is one of the few I have read in which people are actually happy to be in Southeast Asia. Keep in mind that Chester and Mary Travis were there for most of fifty years with their children. I have countless books by young Americans who spent a year or so in South Vietnam, and do nothing but complain about the people, the heat, the smell, and the food. The Travis family does none of that.

When they left Vietnam in February 1975, they cried. They did not go on about the glories of getting on a Freedom Bird. They were 82 and 77 by then, and it had been a dozen years since they had had a furlough. Long past retirement age, the couple admits, though, that they “were getting really tired.”

Their point of view about the war and about life in Southeast Asia was fascinating to me. President Nixon, they say, “resigned after a political blunder.”  Really? They also say that Americans were weary of the war so the United States refused to defend South Vietnam.

The couple continued to minister to the South Vietnamese during the entire war.The book contains chapters about hair-raising escapes over bad roads and driving cars that barely run. Chester Travis is a genius auto mechanic, so he kept old vehicles running long after they should have given up.

Trena Chellino

The journey via ship to the U. S. is described as “six weeks of tears” as they couple contemplated “the dark cloud of communism” that now “spread all over Vietnam.” What kept the Travis family strong throughout their time in Vietnam was the goal of providing “deliverance from Satan’s power and to be out in the sunshine of God’s infinite love.The hope was to reach “the hearts of hopeless, helpless, miserable human beings who were trapped far from God in a web of darkness.”

The Viet Cong murdered Christian missionaries in 1962 and the family was at serious risk when they took to the roads to visit remote villages where Chester Travis worked as an outdoor evangelist. They would sit with the Vietnamese in their huts and eat steaming hot rice with Nuoc Mam sauce.They learned to enjoy the taste and the odor. They endured malaria and dysentery while ministering to their assigned district of four provinces. This area contained a million people.

Lessons can be learned from this book. Chester and Mary Travis learned the language fluently and the customs, and they truly loved the Vietnamese people.

Qui Nhon, their home base, was at times a target for communist attacks, and it is a miracle they did not die. The chapter on Tet ’68 is one of the most interesting of the war-related chapters. The family was asked or told to evacuate to Bangkok, but refused to go. Five missionaries died during Tet—or as the Travises put it, they were “at home now with the Lord.”

I enjoyed reading this fine book and highly recommend it to readers who are hungry to read about brave Americans who went to the war zone to bring a better life to millions of South Vietnamese. They did not expect, or wish for, a parade when they returned home to America.

—David Willson

 

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The Exec by Robert J. Moir

 

Robert Moir graduated from the University of Virginia in 1964. He attended on an NROTC scholarship, and entered the U.S. Navy after graduating. After being promoted to lieutenant, Moir received orders for PBR (Patrol Boat, River) training. It was 1966 and he was trained to patrol the rivers of South Vietnam on a heavily armed boat. He arrived in South Vietnam in March 1967.

Moir spent his tour of duty doing something I was completely unaware of when I was in the war zone. My only exposure to the rivers of South Vietnam was when we had water skiing parties. I noticed no PBR’s on those junkets.

It never occurred to me while I was in Vietnam that the U. S. Navy was patrolling those rivers. I thought the Navy was confined to large ships miles offshore, with the men safe and sound and eating great meals three times a day. Every page of Moir’s  book, The Exec: A Vietnam Memoir (Carolina Time Press, 226 pp., $19.99, hardcover; $12.99, paper), ruptured that ignorant point of view.

The book is organized into long chapters, but is dated like a diary and often reads like one written by a literate and questioning young man with a fine education. “Our mission as I understand it, is to make our assigned waterways secure for friendly vessels and to deny the enemy their use for transport of weapons and combat supplies,” Moir writes.

I was amazed at how often Moir bumped into men he had known in college at the University of Virginia. The Vietnam War was a small world for U-Va. grads.

Moir makes a few trips to Saigon to do administrative errands and  banking. His descriptions of the hotels and bars on Tu Do Street are so accurate they made me nostalgic for Saigon circa 1967. The writing is lively and fun—except when the war intrudes.

The most interesting part of the book begins with the chapter call “Backstretch” when Moir returns to My Tho from his R&R in Bangkok in November 1967, and My Tho comes under attack.  The next chapter, “Tet—War Up Close,” is even more exciting with lots of gripping combat scenes.

I’ve read a few PBR books and this one is as detailed and exciting and well-written as they get. Moir works in an office for part of the last section of the book, but gets dragged away from the paperwork during the Tet Offensive. There they were, “sailors about to be overrun by main force VC troops,”  he says. “Half the city was in flames.”

Moir ended his tour as the exec of River Section 533. He was responsible for “533’s personnel, patrol scheduling, assigned patrol areas, experiences with river traffic and hot spots, boat readiness, weapons inventory and logistic support.”

His fine writing makes all of this interesting and easy to read. From the sections about remote duty on the Co Chien to his very different duty in My Tho, the author finds reasons to comment on the war. He quotes Eisenhower saying that the United States should avoid a ground war in Asia unless our survival is at stake.

“The VC seem so embedded,” he writes. “Can we really hope to stabilize this chaotic place enough to foster democracy and help improve their standard of living? Even then, how long is it going to take?’’  Good questions.

Moir’s mission to deny the enemy use of the waterways to supply arms for attacks on South Vietnam’s cities was shown to be a failed one when the Tet Offensive blew up. The mission had to be radically redesigned after that event. By that time, though, Robert Moir was done with his tour of duty and had happily left South Vietnam and the war behind.

I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking to know the role of the PBR in the Vietnam War and the impact of the war on a well-educated and perceptive young man.

—David Willson

Team 19 in Vietnam by David Millie

Team 19 in Vietnam: An Australian Soldier at War  (University Press of Kentucky, 411 pp., $40) is an Australian army officer’s (and pilot’s) account of his year (1968-69) of service in the Vietnam War in Quang Tri Province in the northeast corner of the former South Vietnam near the DMZ.

Millie was an advisor to ARVN troops, and effectively became a liaison to American army units as well. A point he makes repeatedly is that the ARVNs could be an effective force, despite what American grunts thought. Difficulties in communications often were the true reasons for ARVN ineffectiveness when working alongside Americans.

Millie tells of many ARVN engagements in his detached, after-action style. The South Vietnamese troops come across as heroic, unwilling, and foolhardy—much as any group of conscripts.

Conscription was universal for males who were of age, but often you could get out of it by joining local militia or police forces. Also, if ARVN soldiers lacked motivation, it may have been because of the corrupt bureaucracy that ran things. For one thing, they often served without pay. Their pay went to officials in their villages or provinces who were supposed to pass it on, and often didn’t. As a writer, Millie is pretty dry, reflexively insisting on the passive voice. Here he is describing his return to Quang Tri Province in 2012: “The tour objectives were centered on friendship, pilgrimage, and veteran curiosity.” This, in fact, was an exhilarating personal trip, not a cautious diplomatic probe. It’s as though Millie can’t break the habit of impersonal after-action reports.

                                           David Millie

Millie’s comments on the legacy of the Vietnam War are conventional, but deeply felt, and contain some striking insights. He feels that the struggle between communism and democracy in Vietnam took all the oxygen out of fighting elsewhere in Southeast Asia, allowing fledgling democracies to stabilize and put down their own insurgencies. Presumably, he’s referring to Thailand or the Phillipine, or even Indonesia. It’s an interesting thought.

David Millie emerges as a devout Catholic, a dedicated family man, and a principled officer who believed in his mission. As a commander, he sometimes had to discipline fellow Aussies with drinking problems, or those who had broken down under the stress. Millie’s remedies went by the book, but also were thoughtful and compassionate. He seems like a commander any soldier would be glad to have. In the 1970s, Millie became active in the settlement of Southeast Asian refugees to Canberra, of which he is justifiably proud.

In the end, despite his dry style, Millie has given us penetrating insights into the ARVN side of the Vietnam War, and into Australia’s unique contribution.

—John Mort

Assignment in Samarra by Frank M. Smart

22222222222222222222222222222Frank M. Smart was drafted into the Army in 1964 and served on active duty for seven years. He arrived in Dong Ha in May of 1968, and was assigned to the First Cavalry Division’s 42nd Public Information Detachment. His MOS was 71Q20, Combat Reporter. He had received his military education at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, the same place I learned to be an Army stenographer. 

Smart’s Assignment in Samarra (Tate Publishing, 192 pp., $12.99, paper) “is a work of fiction,” the author says. It’s a handsome little book, with a title that echoes that of John O’Hara’s first novel, Appointment in Samarra. That echo is all that Smart’s novel has in common with O’Hara’s book, however, other than it also is set in the Middle East. On the first page, the hero gives a short speech about the deja vu of being in another “God forsaken hell hole,” and how he doesn’t want to die to make Islamic fanatics free.

He then expresses disgust for South Vietnam’s ARVN troops, who, he says, were “perfectly willing for me and my fellow soldiers to die to make them free, but they were not necessarily willing to die for it.” The implication is that ARVN troops avoided casualties in South Vietnam. I checked the statistics, and ARVN troops did die, in at least three times the numbers as American troops did.

Frank Smart

I’ve read criticisms elsewhere about the bravery of ARVN troops, but one cannot question their fatalities. Brave or not, they died. Maybe they died hiding under their mothers’ beds, but they did die. It’s a myth that they did not.

Jack Spraggins, the hero of this book, is a Vietnam veteran who gets picked, at a handsome fee, to go to Iraq with a seven-member fact-finding group. They go there to investigate allegations of bribery, graft, and poor workmanship. He and his committee are ambushed and Jack uses his Vietnam-War-honed fighting skills to defeat a large contingent of insurgents with weapons he obtains in a manner that can only be called divine intervention.

Jack is unsure if the cavalry will come in and save him and his cohorts in time. I won’t ruin the suspense, but will say that the reader is told that there will be a sequel with more of Jack’s derring-do. The next time it looks as though he will be going into Southeast Asia to rescue American POWs, which has been a life-long obsession. He knows they are there.

This short thriller will please those who agree with Smart’s vision of the world. He has a lot of positive things to say about Vietnam veterans, always a refreshing change. And he mentions a lot of American icons, including John Wayne, who is quoted non-ironically saying “Saddle Up.”

That’s always a good thing to do in times of crisis.

—David Willson