America’s National Treasures by Rodney L. Kelley

In America’s National Treasure: Biographical Sketches of the United States Military Personnel Killed in Action on the Deadliest Day of the Vietnam War—January 31, 1968 (262 pp. $15, hardcover; $10, paper, $7, Kindle) retired U.S. Army Col. Rodney Kelly has produced a tribute to the 247 American servicemen who died in Vietnam on that bloody day—the first day of the 1968 Tet Offensive. American losses that day were the highest in any twenty-four hour period during the Vietnam War.

Kelley served in 1970 in Cambodia and later as MACV senior advisor for a Mobile Advisory Team in Phu Yen Province in South Vietnam. His military career stretched from 1969-99.

America’s National Treasure honors 12 airmen, 164 soldiers, 59 Marines, and 12 sailors. Each man’s life story is set down on a single page and each story captures something important and interesting about the man’s life. There also is a photograph and comments from family and friends for each entry. I applaud the effort that Kelley put into gathering the men’s biographies. Each one tells a story of innocence and dedication; altogether, they America’s citizens at their very best.

Five Security Policemen at Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa were among the twelve Air Force personnel who died that day. They were the first line of defense confronting a surprise attack by overwhelming numbers of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Their actions delayed the enemy until additional units responded to defend the airfields they defended. I was in-country during Tet, and turning the pages of Kelley’s book brought back memories of how much Air Force members at all levels admired the valiant response of the Security Police. One of those men, Reginald Victor Maisey, Jr., received the Air Force Cross for his courage under fire that day.

Seven corpsmen stood out from among the twelve Navy casualties. They selflessly gave their lives caring for Marines locked in battle at Hue. The reflexive spontaneity of their responses also became a topic of great admiration among my peers. Navy Cross recipient Daniel Benedict Henry was one a corpsmen casualties. Only one of the men was older than twenty-three.

The youngest Army and Marine men bore the brunt of casualties suffered on that day in battles throughout South Vietnam. Forty of the fifty-nine marines were killed in action, generally by small arms fire, lost their lives in Hue. The majority were nineteen years old.

Turning the pages of the book and reading the biographies turned into a distinct lesson in humility. The section devoted to the 164 Army casualties seemed endless. Most were nineteen- or twenty-years-old and many had been in the service less than a year, rushed through training and sent to battle.

Most died while fighting in small groups overrun by enemy forces of superior size. They experienced everything (arguably more) that happened to men from other services, including ambushes, helicopter shoot downs, and death by friendly fire. The vast majority were shot by small arms or shattered by mortar shells or rockets.

Half a century after the event, reading about so many deaths in such a short time offers a lesson in self-sacrifice. Even opponents of the Vietnam War should be impressed by the devotion of so many young men to their nation, right or wrong. With America’s National Treasure, Rodney Kelley has produced a guide for future employment of forces if the right people read it.  

A story of boyhood friends—Owen Garnet, 20, and William Goldberg, 21—typifies the core of the book. One enlisted in the Army while the other was drafted. Their Army service numbers were sequential. Owen Garnet died at Long Binh on the first day of Tet; nine days later, Billy Goldberg was killed in action in the Mekong Delta.

They were buried in Miami on the same day.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hidden History of America at War by Kenneth C. Davis

Maybe I take things too literally, but I expected to find both hidden and untold information in Kenneth C. Davis’s The Hidden History of America at War: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette, 416 pp., $30). Davis, the author of the best-selling “America’s Hidden History” book series, in this book offers up his interpretations of six pivotal battles in U.S. history. In addition to Yorktown and Fallujah, he discourses on the Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War; the Balangiga Massacre in the Philippine War; Berlin in World War II; and Hue in the Vietnam War. Each entry is well written, decently researched, and cogently analyzed.

In the Vietnam War chapter, however—and this is a big “however”—there wasn’t anything “hidden” or “untold” in Davis’s dissection of the 1968 Battle of Hue and its impact on the course of the Vietnam War. During the last four decades there have been many examinations of that pivotal battle. Davis, in fact, leans heavily on two of them: Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1971, and Stanley Karnow’s classic one-volume history of the war, Vietnam, A History, which was published in 1983. He also makes use of Neil Sheehan’s brilliant A Bright, Shining Lie, a biography of John Paul Vann and a history of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1988.

These and other secondary sources are the only works that Davis cites as sources in this chapter, another strong indication that nothing new, hidden, or untold appears on these pages.

Even the title of this Vietnam War chapter—“The ‘Living-Room War’”—is not new. “Living-Room War” was the title of an article by Michael J. Arlen that appeared in the October 15, 1966, New Yorker magazine and the 1969 book of the same name. In the article and book Arlen examined the impact of the barrage of nightly TV coverage of the Vietnam War on American TV.

In his introduction, Davis infers that the 1901 Massacre at Balangiga took place during the Spanish-American War, which began and ended in 1898. Ironically, a lot about the 1899-1902 Philippine War—which Davis never mentions by name—can be considered hidden, if not untold.

Few Americans today can remember the barest details of that conflict, in which some 4,200 U.S. military personnel perished fighting a guerrilla-type insurrection in the Philippines after we handily defeated the Spanish there.

Around 126,000 Americans fought in that controversial guerrilla war, which history books today treat as little more than a footnote to the short, bombastic Spanish-American War that preceded it.

The author’s website is http://dontknowmuch.com/books/the-hidden-history-of-america-at-war

—Marc Leepson

Run Between the Raindrops by Dale Dye

Dale Dye served multiple tours in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1970 as a Marine Corps combat correspondent. He rose through the ranks and retired as a Captain after putting in twenty-one years. In Vietnam, Dye survived thirty-one big combat operations—including the Battle of Hue during Tet ’68. In his novel Run Through the Raindrops (Warriors Publishing Group, 254 pp., $14.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) Dye writes brilliantly about the long, bloody fighting in Hue City.

That battle is familiar to those who have seen the movie Full Metal Jacket or read the novel upon which the movie was based, Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers. It is almost as though the main character of Dye’s novel, also a combat correspondent, is a character from Hasford’s book.

The scenes, language, and action have much overlap with Full Metal Jacket. If you loved Hasford’s book or the movie, this new Author’s Preferred Edition of Run Between the Raindrops will please you on every page.

About a sixth of the way through, there is a friendly fire incident in which two Hueys roar up a canal and strafe Marines trying to cross on a makeshift bridge. The scene is described so cinematically it is hard to believe that I’ve not seen it in a movie. As a matter of fact, I’d like to see this book made into a movie.

Our hero carries an NVA pack crammed with the stuff he needs to be a combat correspondent—everything he owns, he tells us. There is room in there for canteens full of vodka. The vodka came from a trade with rear-echelon troops for war souvenirs.

Dye writes that REMFs would take bartered war materiel home and claim they got the stuff in combat. This is a universal trope in novels about the Vietnam War. I never met a valor-stealing REMF, but there must be one or two out there somewhere.

Dye fills his novel with memorable characters such as Philly Dog, his partner Willis, and Reb the Southerner. The action and the language are a delight, and I’ve read too many novels to be easily impressed. I wish all the Vietnam War writers who have come late to the game would read this novel and try to do as well as Dye does.

Dye wrote this novel long ago; when it was published in 1985, it was mostly ignored. I hope this new edition will get more attention. It deserves to be on the small shelf of classic books about Marine Corps battle action in the Vietnam War.

Run Between the Raindrops has a lot of dark humor. That makes it easier to read the many violent scenes and not wince too badly when characters suffer serious wounds.

Combat correspondents, Dye writes,  are “just glorified grunts, my man.  We go where you go and watch what you do, maybe even write a few stories, shit like that. When it gets messy, we add some firepower. No big thing.”

The book also contains trenchant observations on the nature of war.  Dye writes: “That’s what counts in a war of ideas. How the fight turns out is less important than the fact that you forced it on the enemy and made it as bloody as possible.”

Dye does not forget about John Wayne, “saddle up,” those “chicken-shit ARVN’s”, the Phantom Blooper, the problems with M-16s, and the Black Syphilis. But the freshness of his language elevates this book above 90 percent of Vietnam War novels.

When he tells us of “dragging the dead along like floppy pull-toys” and has his main character adapt a Bill Cosby riff on Custer and the Indians to Gen. Giap vs. General Westmoreland, the book enters new territory.  Also, this is the first Vietnam War book I’ve read that compares the look of worn out American troops to Coxey’s Army. I enjoyed that one.

Dale Dye

I loved the ironic lament near the end about “no parades, no free beers, nothing but pity which is worse than being ignored. There it is and thanks very much for your service.”

That ranks right up there with Dye’s comment on the Marine Corps: “That’s a lot of tradition but not much progress.”

Those who want to read more about the Marine Corps in Vietnam, especially in the Battle for Hue City, are advised to seek out and buy this fine novel most ricky-tick.

—David Willson