Journey Into Darkness and Battle At Straight Edge Woods by Stephen Menendez

Stephen (Shorty) Menendez served in Vietnam with Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry Regiment in the 25th Infantry Division. He has written two books about his tour of duty. His second, Battle at Straight Edge Woods (CreateSpace, 126 pp., $12.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is, in essence, an essay about on engagement that took place on April 7, 1970.

Menendez was designated the company tunnel rat due to his special training and his special physical attributes—being under five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. This action near Nui Ba Den Mountain is sort of an afterthought to his much bigger book, Journey Into Darkness: A Tunnel Rat’s Story (St. John’s Press, 158 pp., 2004). If after reading that book, you wish to read Menendez writing mostly about combat, I recommend Battle At Straight Edge Woods.

Journey is not available to read on Kindle, so it was a struggle for me to read the physical book as I had to use a magnifier due to my failing eyesight. But so great was my motivation to read Menendezs’ book that I persisted.

The cover of Journey says: “He takes you deep into those enemy tunnels, making you taste the acrid gunsmoke and feel the cold black earth. Shorty’s below ground battles are nothing less than incredible.”  That blurb, combined with the great cover photo of Shorty peering out of a tunnel with a flashlight in one hand and a Ruger .22 pistol in the other (and a smile on his elfin face), totally sold me. I expected it to be a straightforward memoir.

But once I had read a few pages, I discovered that Journey Into Darkness is historical autobiographical fiction. The hero is named Mendez, not Menendez. The author tells us that all the names in the book are fictitious and “this is a story like any other. Some of it is true but mostly it is fiction.”

The book contains only two detailed accounts of Mendez descending into a tunnel in Vietnam. One comes near the beginning; the other near the end. I was disappointed as I was led to believe that the book contained non-stop, action-packed tunnel exploits.

Instead, most of the book deals with the details of a reunion of Mendez’s platoon. This is interesting stuff, but it is not what the book packaging and blurbs led me to expect. It made me wonder if the writer of the cover blurb had even read the book.

The author’s description of being in a tunnel deep underground armed with only a pistol and a flashlight was detailed and scary. I could feel the onset of claustrophobia just from reading the book, but there was no underground battle. That episode made me hunger for more.

The book is structured around the reunion and an encounter with a VC general who invites the men to return to Tay Ninh in Vietnam to revisit their battleground. The general has a hidden agenda based on a desire for vengeance for the men of the platoon having been responsible for the death of his nephew—the last of the general’s blood line.

The author deals with many of the perennial concerns of Vietnam War writers: Agent Orange, the notion that we didn’t lose the war, shit burning (which becomes almost a litany in the book), rage at the sight of the enemy’s flag, and the idea that Vietnam veterans not get “much of a homecoming.”

If you are interested in reading about the travails of having a unit reunion and about what a return trip to an old Vietnam battleground might be like, this is an excellent book for you, well-written and well-narrated by the author. The parts that deal with the protection of a firebase near the Cambodian border and the running of patrols all day looking for VC and the ambushes at night of “Chargin’ Charlie” Company make great reading.

I would have loved more of that and less of the reunion. Perhaps if the book had been honestly packaged as being about the reunion, I would have avoided the feeling that I had been snookered.

So if it is combat you wish to read about, Battle at Straight Edge Woods is the better choice of these two books—even though there is no tunnel rat underground battling.

—David Willson

Missions of Fire and Mercy and Chopper Warriors by William E. Peterson

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William E. Peterson enlisted in the Army at eighteen, signed up to be a Huey helicopter crew chief, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. College bored him, and left-wing professors irritated him. He wanted to leave behind Carney, Michigan, apple orchard country. He wanted to fly at breakneck speed at treetop level above the jungles. He wanted adventure. Peterson’s served in Vietnam with the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Air Cav, AKA The Ghost Riders.

Peterson did everything in his tour that involved the Huey, and it is all in his memoir, Missions of Fire and Mercy: Until Death Do Us Part (CreateSpace, 302 pp., $21.99, paper) in exciting and exacting technological detail. If you hunger to read accounts of choppers in action in Vietnam, these books are for you.

The main body of Missions of Fire and Mercy consists of letters Peterson wrote home to his parents, friends, and his girlfriend Cindi. I give them credit for saving these great letters and for thereby helping Bill Peterson write graphic descriptions of the horror he dealt with in Vietnam on a daily basis.

When Peterson, a Swedish-American boy, arrives in country, he gets more than he bargained for. He even drinks some coffee, which he had never liked. He does not yearn for the lutefisk, but he states that his “faith in God has never been stronger. Even while stitching the area with machine gun fire, I find myself praying silently or maybe even audibly to Him for His protection. I firmly believe God has a timetable for all of us.”

As many Vietnam veterans have before him, Peterson notes how beautiful the country was, then says: “It’s a shame we are ruining it with bomb craters, Agent Orange, and burned out villages.”

Peterson expresses often how he feels about the fighting, calling it an “ugly, nonsensical war.”

“When I volunteered for this duty, I truly believed in this war—thought it was necessary to help stamp out communism, protect our freedoms—all that stuff,” he says. “Anymore, I think America has made a big mistake by coming here in the first place.”

But he then goes on to say: “We have the firepower available to put an end to this war in short order. If the politics could be put aside, we could win this war…”  That is a big if. Plus, when has politics ever been put aside?

Peterson comments that he had the utmost respect for his enemy, that “they were fantastic and determined warriors.” He goes on to say that the guerrilla war they engaged in was a hard one for Americans to fight.  “Sure, we killed a lot of them with massive firepower,” he says, “but the next day those who had not been killed were back at it again.”

The 1968 Tet Offensive is at the center of Missions of Fire. We encounter Clint Eastwood in his movie, Hang ‘em High, Raquel Welch in Bob Hope’s Christmas Show, and John Wayne westerns. Peterson also tells us the “guys in the rear really have it made.”

We once again hear that the AK-47 is much more reliable than the M-16, which jams when it gets sandy, and that Agent Orange was used without any thought that it might have harmful effects on humans. We meet Chris Noel in a mini-skirt and she is just as sweaty as the “rest of us.”  We also encounter shit-burning, and are told that Peterson is in a “God-forsaken war,” even though he has total faith that God is watching out for him.

Peterson’s Chopper Warriors: Kicking the Hornet’s Nest (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $17.95, paper) is mostly more of the same, although it also includes the work of other writers. All of them are pretty good, although Peterson is the best of the lot, and he is excellent. He is a gifted storyteller who mostly avoids the usual clichés of recent Vietnam War memoirs.

We find one in this book, however, in Larry Troxel’s “Double Security.”  After a big firefight, one of the VC bodies is “that of the barber who has been working on base and cutting our hair.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one. 

I enjoyed James De Bose’s “Four Killer Agents.” It is an excellent entry on spraying defoliants from C-130s in Operation Ranch Hand. His recollections of the nasty, oily stuff blowing back into the airplane and saturating his clothes, hair, and skin is chilling.

 

The author in Vietnam

Those who want more chopper adventures should read both of these books and spend an afternoon living the life of a Huey crew chief, but without the life-long nightmares and PTSD that are the likely benefits of the actual experience.

 

 

I’m going to order the books by Stephen Menendez, who has a fine piece in the Chopper Warrior book. I’m eager to read of the exploits of a man who was under five feet tall and who weighed less than 100 pounds and spent his tour as a tunnel rat. I hope to have reviews of his books—Into the Darkness and Battle at Straight Edge Woods—in this space one of these days.

Peterson’s website is http://missionsoffireandmercy.com

—David Willson

Battle at Straight Edge Woods by Stephen (Shorty) Menendez

In Battle at Straight Edge Woods (CreateSpace, 107 pp., $12.99, paper) VVA member Stephen (Shorty) Menendez has written a brief account that focuses on a tough battle that he and other members of C Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Infantry of the Army’s 25 Infantry Division fought on April 7, 1970, in thick jungle near the Cambodian border.

Menendez, who was the company’s tunnel rat, uses spare prose with a good measure of reconstructed dialogue, as well as excerpts from letters from fellow veterans of the battle, to tell his story.

“This is our remembrance of a horrible battle fought on April 7, 1970,” he writes. “It’s been a painful memory to dredge up but we all felt it should be heard and remembered. A lot of tears were shed while writing these memories. I pray that those who fell that day rest peacefully in God’s hands.”

All profits from book sales are being donated to the Charlie Company Veterans Relief Fund.

—Marc Leepson