The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

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Robert F. Curtis’s The Typhoon Truce, 1970: Three Days in Vietnam when Nature Intervened in the War (Casemate, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a most unusual story of humanity in the middle of war. It is a story about heroism, skill, and soldiers’ abilities to put their missions first despite any personal dangers they encountered. This book is a report of the kind of activities that seldom happen in war, but when they do, history deems it important to remember them for posterity.

In October 1970 in the area between Da Nang and the DMZ , the names “Joan” and “Kate” took on a sinister meaning. Joan proved to be the name of a ferocious typhoon that flooded northeast Vietnam. Less than a week later came Kate, another devastating typhoon. Due to the unceasing, torrential rain that accompanied the storms, untold numbers of Vietnamese were left stranded in the valleys surrounded by rising floods.

The heart of this book is the story of how American Chinook pilots risked their lives to airlift endangered Vietnamese citizens to higher ground. While the flying was extremely difficult and dangerous, the pilots and crews—as in much of the Vietnam War—were never quite sure who the enemy was.

This book is not a rush-to-the-climax kind of read. The author takes the reader into the middle of the activities almost to the point where you can feel the rain and tension. The gradual movement from the beginning of the rain to the actual rescue missions seems to take quite a while. At first, this can be rather disconcerting, but waiting is also the name of the game in awaiting the approach of a typhoon.

Several chapters describe daily life in a helicopter unit. Readers who have had similar experiences in Vietnam will have an easy time relating to the author’s vivid descriptions of the men and their equipment. Great detail is given to the capabilities of the pilots. Many former pilots might recall that helicopters are sometimes called “a collection of various loose parts flying in close formation.”

The men of C Company, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division were given the call sign “Playtex” prior to leaving the United States. Curtis explains that while most of the men involved did not know the origin of this name, it was because they gave such good support.

The Typhoon Truce was unspoken and unplanned. It came about because people were in trouble and other people saw a way to help. The author does a great job explaining the mindset of the flying crews who never knew if they would face appreciation or gunfire from the people they were trying to rescue.

2015125669cec98b33dCurtis—the author of Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond—has a unique way of moving sideways as well as forward in telling his story. Many times he interrupts the action to fill in personal details of the men involved to bring a greater depth of understanding.

I believe this story will stimulate much conversation among former Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crews. I would be surprised if it did not elicit similar examples of kindness from other veterans in the midst of a devastating war. Reading this book is a mission strongly recommended.

—Joseph Reitz

Dead Dog Tales and Devil’s Breath by William Fick

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Fick served with the First Marine Air Wing in Da Nang and Chu Lai in Vietnam in 1967-1968.  Dead Dog Tales and the Devil’s Breath (CreateSpace, 268 pp., $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is Fick’s first novel, and is quite experimental in narrative.

How experimental? For one thing, large parts of the novel are told by Conan the Wonder Dog. The main character is Garbot Fastman. We are introduced to him by finding out about his childhood as an overprotected asthmatic who needs an inhaler and shots to keep breathing.

Even though he has a childhood that seemed designed to preclude service in the military, Fastman ends up serving as a Marine in the Vietnam War, assigned to an A-6 squadron. Lance Corporal Fastman works twelve hours on, twelve hours off, doing drudge work.

“Once, Garbot and one of his favorite crane drivers laid down, fuzed and racked 84-500 pound bombs in thirteen minutes, a record he could never match again.”  That quote gives an idea of his military job and the attitude he brought to it.

Fastman is transferred to Chu Lai in time for the 1968 Tet Offensive . I encountered in this novel something unnerving that I have seen before in Marine Corps books, that Marines often liked to fly as door gunners in Army helicopters during what time off they could find. They did it for fun.

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Lots of other usual Vietnam War novel stuff enriches this book: “We Gotta Get Out of This Place, “it’s the only war we got,” “Good Morning Vietnam,” the smell of Vietnam being “jet fuel, garbage and human waste,” John Wayne, Iwo Jima, the concept of avoiding the draft by joining the Marines, and being spat upon in airports by hippies.  Garbot also gets accused of being a baby killer.

Garbot comments about missing the 1967 “Summer of Love.”  I missed it, too.  Many of us did.

The VA is never mentioned positively. The VA policy in the late 60s—that a veteran student had to be in college for three months before any money was sent—is criticized, and for good reason. One more bad thing our fathers, veterans of WWII, did not have to deal with.

The question actually gets asked: “Hey, what are they going to do, send me to Vietnam?” After Garbot is home, the novel becomes an adventure tale of sorts involving drug smuggling, diamond smuggling, and other escapades.

This statement that sums up this interesting book: “Just as the Depression and World War II had defined his father, so Garbot slowly came to understand that, like it or not, he was defined and dominated by Viet Nam. He thought about it every day.”

Like Garbot, I think about Vietnam every day, too. I hope that war has not defined and dominated my life. If you think it has, please don’t tell me.

—David Willson

The Hunter Killers by Dan Hampton

Dan Hampton is a retired USAF F-16 pilot who flew in the Iraq War, the Kosovo conflict, and the first Gulf War during his twenty-year military career. He also is the author of—among other books—the best-selling 2012 memoir Viper Pilot. Lt. Col. Hampton turns his attention to the Vietnam War in his latest book,The Hunter Killers: The Extraordinary Story of the First Wild Weasels, the Band of Maverick Aviators Who Flew the Most Dangerous Missions of the Vietnam War (Morrow, 352 pp., $27.99)

Hampton offers up two related stories in The Hunter Killers: his in-the-trenches air combat chronicles of the titular Hunter Killer Wild Weasel flyers in the Vietnam War (“an elite group of men”), and his detailed and opinionated analysis of the history of the Vietnam War.

The air-combat sections zero in on pilots who flew the U.S. aircraft known as Wild Weasels. These were most often F-105 and F-100 jet fighter bombers with new, secret electronic countermeasure equipment that detected, suppressed, and destroyed North Vietnamese missile and anti-aircraft sites. In these sections, Hampton uses the words of surviving Wild Weasel aviators to creatively recreate often dramatic and dangerous missions over enemy territory.

In his extensive sections on the history of the Vietnam War, Hampton focuses on the use of American air power, but also offers his opinions on the war’s origins and the policy making of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.  Hampton places the blame for outcome of the war on both civilian political leaders and the top military leadership, especially Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Gen. William Westmoreland.

It is “simplistic,” he writes, to blame civilian amateurism alone since professional military officers expect this from any administration. However, those in uniform who fail others in uniform are more culpable.” He then points his finger directly at Gen. Westmoreland, accusing him of ignorance and incompetence. If the MACV commander “didn’t now how to better conduct the war,” Hampton writes, “he should have known. Others did.”

Hampton says the war’s “most significant strategic error” was “neither recognizing nor admitting that the conflict was a civil war.” He also deals with the issue of how Vietnam veterans were treated when we came home from the war. Some “were welcomed home and others, to our national shame, were not,” he notes.

Hampton goes on to praise the effectiveness of the Hunter Killers–“they did win,” he says. “The Vietnam War might have been ambiguous, but the courage of those who fought it was not. Certainly as long as America has men like this then it shall remain America. Their legacy lives on today, and when we once [again] go to war against those would destroy us, then we will know what to do—men like the Hunter Killers showed us how.”

The author’s website is www.danhampton.org
—Marc Leepson

A Hard Decision by Westley Thomas

Westley Thomas served with the U. S. Marines in Vietnam from 1966-68 and in the Marine Reserves from 1975-77. The action in his book, A Hard Decision (AuthorHouse, 136 pp., $23.99, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $$3.99, Kindle), we are told, “takes place during and after the Vietnam War era, on Staten Island in the North Shore area.” This is a two-act play with many short scenes.

One of my favorite scenes is the one in which a captured American is interrogated by a VC, who—in the most astonishing coincidence of all time—happens to be the guy who used to be his barber. I’ve encountered the trope of the VC barber again and again in Vietnam War fiction, but Thomas takes this to an illogical extreme. I enjoyed it—in a perverse way.

Here’s some dialogue, illustrating the disconnect between the American troops in Vietnam and the Viet Cong fighters:

VC soldier #1:  (yanking Captain Dickenson from the chair) Get up you bastard, hold still. This is how we treat American prisoners. Move, I’m no longer your barber, you bastard. I am your enemy and you are my prisoner.

(VC interrogator and VC soldier #1, laughing)  

Captain Dickenson: “How could you? You who have cut my hair so many times and given me shaves as my own personal barber and houseboy? I thought we were friends!”

This short play is filled with bad things that happen to Vietnam veterans, and it ends in terrible violence. I can’t imagine how this play would be staged, but I would love to see it to find out.

Plays don’t benefit from being read, in my opinion, but should be seen when performed. But A Hard Decision held my attention to the very end.

—David Willson