Heart of Gray by Richard W. Enners

 
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Richard W. Enners’ Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy Enners: Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam (Acclaim Press, 256 pp., $26.95) is a shining tribute to the author’s older brother. The book commemorates a life of honor and achievement, from junior high school to the Vietnam War, where Raymond Enners died. It is clear from the beginning that he was a team player who always left ego behind to make sure his team did well.

Richard Enners tells how early experiences built Ray’s character and led to his leadership abilities. He uses lacrosse and his brother’s expertise in the game as an example of the Ray’s natural-born talents. As a young boy in an important game, for example, Ray had a chance to score a goal but instead passed the ball to a teammate so he could reach a personal milestone. “Ray certainly had the guts, but was not interested in the glory,” his brother writes.

Such leadership carried through to the Vietnam War in which Ray served after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. His brother—also an Academy graduate—discusses Ray’s life at West Point, from drills to dinner.

Raymond Enners went to Vietnam in 1968 where he used “influence, not authority, to lead his teammates,” Richard Enners writes. 1st Lt. Ray Enners led his unit, Alpha Co., in the Americal Division’s 1/20th Inf. Regiment of the 11th Infantry Brigade with courage and friendship. His men never suffered low morale, thanks primarily to his leadership.

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Richard Enners

Even Ray’s death on September 18, 1968, in a vicious firefight with the NVA near Ha Thanh showed his lack of selfishness, as well as his courage and humanity. He died in a rice paddy as he saved others. For this, he received the Distinguished Service Cross for dedication, bravery, and valor.

Heart of Gray is filled with extraordinary detail from Ray’s entire life. The fight in which Ray fought and died is described so well that the reader can easily envision the action. Even his R&R is chronicled in detail. There also are testimonies from former classmates, war buddies, and friends, all glowing with respect and admiration for Raymond Enners.

—Loana Hoylman

 

 

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Tragedy at Chu Lai by David Venditta

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David Venditta’s Tragedy at Chu Lai: Reconstructing a Deadly Grenade Accident in a U.S. Army Classroom in Vietnam, July 10, 1969 (McFarland, 212 pp., $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is the story of the author’s hunt to find out exactly what caused the death of his cousin, U.S. Army Warrant Officer Nicky Venditti.

David Venditta, a retired journalist, conducted a twenty-one-year investigation, wading through official misinformation and uncovering hitherto unknown facts. The two men were cousins, but the spelling of their last names differs because part of the family reverted to the original spelling—Venditti—that officials at Ellis Island had altered two generations earlier.

In 1969, The Daily Local News of West Chester, Pennsylvania, attributed Nicky Venditti’s death to “wounds suffered in action about a week after he arrived in the war zone.” The assumption was that “a rocket got him,” David Venditta says. In 1994, curiosity led him to contact the newly organized Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and ask about his cousin’s death. The Friends told him the death was listed as a “non-hostile” casualty. That motivated David Venditta to try to find out exactly what happened.

The book’s first half recreates Nicky Venditti’s life through childhood, elementary and high school, military training as a helicopter pilot, and arrival in Vietnam. The last half reveals his cousin’s extensive research into the matter from the time he contacted the Friends in 1994 until he wrote the book in 2015.

The author learned that an “instructor unknowingly discharged a live grenade” during classroom instruction and that was what killed Nicky and two other soldiers. Slowly but methodically, David Venditta looked through paperwork from virtually every available government source and interviewed one hundred thirty people from all levels of command, as well as friends of those who died.

Most significantly, the author learned that no meaningful investigation or conclusive report had resulted from the incident. Repeatedly finding the Army remiss in its approach to the three deaths, David Venditta tried to find a guilty party worthy of punishment. Eventually he found and interviewed the instructor who had detonated the grenade. His confrontation and conversations with the man constitute the climax of the book.

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The author, a pic of his cousin, and his pilot helmet

Guilt for what happened is never clearly established. The possibility of sabotage existed. David’s relations with the instructor provide an excellent psychological study about the acceptance of responsibilities related to war. “What if?” and “Stuff Happens” influenced the thinking of both men.

When I finished reading the book, I had mixed feelings about David’s investigation and his conclusions.

I intend to pass the book on to my brother-in-law, who (like David Venditti and unlike myself) did not serve in the military. I look forward to hearing his opinion. To me, many of the author’s questions are unanswerable—perhaps even unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about them.

David Venditta’s encounters with military personnel and military procedures steered him toward another project, interviewing more than a hundred veterans of both World Wars, the Cold War, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He published accounts of these men in another book, War Stories:  In Their Own Words.

—Henry Zeybel

The Grunt Padre by Daniel L. Mode

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Vincent Capodanno was the youngest of ten children born into an Italian Catholic family. His heroic life is told cradle to grave in The Grunt Padre: The Service & Sacrifice of Father Vincent Robert Capodanno, Vietnam, 1966-1967  (CMJ Publishers, 202 pp., $15.95, paper) by Daniel L. Mode.

Father Mode, a chaplain in the Navy Reserves, traces  the life of Capodanno, a Navy Chaplain and Medal of Honor recipient, from his birth on Staten Island in New York, through his time at the Maryknoll Seminary in  Ossining, New York, to a mission in Taiwan, and finally to his Marine Chaplaincy in South Vietnam. That’s where the “Grunt Padre” said his last Mass, on Hill 327 near the village of Dong Son, in September of 1967.

Vince Capodanno was born on February, 13 , 1929, and “grew up during the most patriotic time in American history,” Mode writes, “with Victory Gardens, War Bonds, and blood drives. The World War 2 armistice was signed just before young Vince decided he would enter the Marknoll Seminary.”

Fr. Capodanno was ordained in June of 1958. He soon set sail for Taiwan, his first missionary assignment, where he enjoyed the teaching despite his difficulty learning the local dialect. But the language barrier had a positive effect—making him a better listener. Later in Vietnam, Mode writes, “he would attract the confidence of young Marines partly because of his unique capacity to hear what they said and what they didn’t say.”

Nineteen-sixty-five was a watershed year for Fr. Capodanno. His six-year term in Taiwan ended and he wrote to the Navy Chief of Chaplains in Washington about joining the Chaplain Corps, asking to serve with the Marines in Vietnam.

In November, 1965 Fr. Vince became Lt. Capodanno at the Naval Chaplain School in Newport, Rhode Island. After completing a three-week course at the Field Medical Service School at Camp Pendleton, he went to Vietnam during Holy Week in 1966 when American casualties averaged 400 a month.

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Why did Fr. Capodanno leave the relative safety of mission work for wartime ministry? “In October, 1966 a reporter in Vietnam asked him why he became a chaplain and he answered, ‘I joined the Chaplain Corps when the Vietnam War broke out because I think I’m needed here as are many more Chaplains.'” He was “drawn to the cutting edge where he would not just be a Catholic priest, not just a military Chaplain; but a Marine,” Mode adds.

He was assigned to the 7th Marine Battalion headquarters at Chu Lai. Eight months later he was transferred to the 1st Medical Battalion. In January 1967 he extended his Vietnam tour by six months, which put Fr. Capodanno on a path for that final Mass on September 3. The next day, during Operation Swift, Fr. Capodanno was killed in action while ministering to wounded Marines.

The details of that fatal afternoon that resulted in Fr. Capodanno receiving the Medal of Honor are presented by the author in this thoroughly researched account. Reading these and the testimonials bring the reader as close as possible to the firefight without being there.

—Curt Nelson
 
                                      

Shadow Commander by Mike Guardia

 

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Mike Guardia, the author of  Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn—Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero (Casemate, 240 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), is a military historian who served in the U. S. Army as an armor officer.  His previous books include Hal Moore:  A Soldier Once… and Always.

When Donald Blackburn was a young Army officer in World War II in the Philippines he escaped taking part in the infamous Bataan Death March, and organized Filipinos to fight the Japanese. Later Blackburn helped set up U.S. Special Forces operations in Vietnam.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought that the first part of the book would be a lot like the tales my grandfather, Homer Willson, regaled me with as a boy.  Grandpa pursued Moros in the jungle of Mindanao in 1910 when he was an Army private in the aftermath of the Philippine War. There is little of that immediacy and danger communicated, however, in this book’s Philippine section.

“It was an excruciatingly slow process fraught with betrayals, intrigue, manhunts and the inevitable close calls with the Japanese,” Guardia says, describing  Blackburn’s work organizing guerrillas scattered about Northern Luzon. Much of the time Blackburn was seriously ill with malaria.

The weapons his men had were not always the best. Many of his soldiers preferred to fight with Bolo knives rather than use the unreliable Enfield rifles. Plus, he was outgunned by the Japanese. Provisions were delivered by submarine. That included dynamite, Thompson submachine guns, rifles, bazookas, grenades, and grenade launchers.

Blackburn fought in more than fifty battles, large and small, throughout Northern Luzon. His war in the Philippines ended on August 14, 1945, after four years of fighting. He had started as a lieutenant and came home a colonel. Col. Blackburn went home and received no ticker tape parade, but he did not want or expect one.

Blackburn began his involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1957 at the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group headquarters in Saigon. The author tells us that “Blackburn’s first tour (1957-58) was not a very gratifying year.”

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Mike Guardia

Later, in 1964, Blackburn was part of Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a secret, deceptively named group that had (among other missions) the disruption of the Ho Minh Trail. Guardia tells us that the war in Vietnam was hamstrung by political mismanagement from the beginning, over-cautious rules of engagement, and the dubious strategy of “hearts and minds,” as well as too much emphasis on high-tech gizmos and not enough thought about boots on the ground.

Blackburn was part of the raid on Son Tay Prison, during which no American POWs were rescued. The military considered it a tactical success, but an intelligence failure.  After that, Blackburn returned to Sarasota, Florida, and retired.  He died on May 24, 2008, “A true hero of the Army Special Forces,” Guardia writes.

I’m sure that Donald Blackburn had exciting tales to tell of his time in the Philippines and in South Vietnam. I also believe he was highly trained to be modest and also circumspect, so those tales never got told. I wish I could have heard him tell them.

—David Willson

Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio by Rex Gooch

Rex Gooch was a helicopter pilot with the Lighthorse Air Cavalry in the Vietnam War in the Mekong Delta in 1971. When attending Lighthorse reunions years later, he heard stories about another pilot named Ace Cozzalio, and wrote a narrative of his life: Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio (Lighthorse Publishing Co., 292 pp., $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle).

During his eighteen months in Vietnam, Allen Ace Cozzalio was shot down six times. On several other occasions he brought his Loach back home so damaged from enemy fire that it was no longer flyable. He received every medal for valor except the Medal of Honor.

As a newly arrived 2nd Lt.  in December of 1967, Cozzalio was assigned to D Troop, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry, which was attached to the 9th Infantry Division as its recon unit. They were named the “Bastard Cav” because they were a stand-alone cavalry unit attached to an infantry division.

The image of a rogue, renegade, rebel appealed to the D Troopers; it was a perfect match for Ace Cozzalio. Soon after he arrived, the unit began wearing yellow scarves and white Stetsons; some officers carried sabers. Ace Cozzalio donned a full 1860s cavalry uniform at Lighthorse award ceremonies and other special occasions.

Among his legendary exploits, Cozzalio, after seeing a Huey crash and explode in flames, landed his OH-6 Loach nearby and he and his crew chief rescued the unconscious pilot and co-pilot. Cozzalio and his crew chief received the Soldier’s Medal for their actions that day.

On another occasion he landed the Loach on a canal berm where he had spotted an armed male tossing his weapon aside and jumping into the canal. Cozzalio donned his Stetson cavalry hat, grabbed his trusty saber, then jumped into the canal. He began poking around in the murky water until his blade found flesh and he took the VC prisoner—mostly likely the only enemy soldier in the Vietnam War captured with a cavalry saber.

Ace Cozzalio in his 1860s cavalry uniform

Following the 9th Infantry Division’s Battle of Phu My, Cozzalio was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for performing an incredible act of bravery  Seeing that a 90-man unit crossing an open field was pinned down by NVA machine gun fire from a reinforced bunker, he landed his Loach on top of the bunker while his gunner jumped out and tossed a grenade into it. Cozzalio lifted off just before the grenade exploded and destroyed the bunker.

After twenty years of service, Lt. Col. Cozzalio was discharged from the Army due to heart trouble caused by the rare Epstein-Barr virus. Seven years later, while undergoing a heart transplant procedure, he died at the age of 46.

Rex Gooch has written a fast-moving, fascinating account of a legendary helicopter pilot who died much too soon—and of the others he flew alongside in the Mekong Delta. This book belongs on the bookshelf of any veteran—pilot or passenger—who experienced flying in a helicopter in Vietnam.

The book’s website is http://fifthcavalry.com

—James P. Coan

Twelve Days in Viet Nam by Alex Liazos

Alex Liazos’s Twelve Days in Viet Nam: The Life and Death of Nicholas Conaxis (238 pp.,  $14, paper) is a tribute to a young soldier from eastern Massachusetts who was drafted into the Army and who died in Vietnam in on May 5, 1968. As the title indicates, he had arrived in Vietnam just twelve days before.

As Liazos shows, Nicholas Conaxis’s twenty years were not easy ones. He came from a poor family and from age one lived in several foster homes. Still, he came through that rough childhood as a friendly, admired, intelligent young man who wrote unusually observant letters to young friends, family members, and a teacher. The letters are the best part of the book.

Conaxis, who served in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division’s A Battery, 6th Battalion, 29th Artillery, was opposed to the war, got drafted, questioned military practices and foreign policy, and sympathized with the Vietnamese. He was killed in an ambush in the Central Highlands.

Much of the book is about Conaxis’s life before the Army and tells a great deal about the foster care system, along with personal details of the young man’s life and the observations of the author.

Nick Conaxis’s teen-age experiences, including hitchhiking to California, and his responses to Army life—as well as his initial impressions of Vietnam and the war—should resonate with many Vietnam veterans today.

That includes this passage from a letter he wrote to his friend Bill Beckler: “I’m currently at Pleiku and war becomes a stark reality of piercing fear and unmitigated discomfort. The agony of human suffering can only be comprehended after a direct involvement. Vivid stories by wounded G.I.’s inspire awe and then a deep feeling of sympathy for the wounded and dead.”

Alex Liazos found and interviewed more than fifty people who had known his subject, including some Army buddies. His research is careful and as thorough as he could be forty years after the man’s death. The author, a retired sociology professor, was born in Albania and was separated from his own family for many years. He acknowledges in the book that he identifies closely with his subject’s youth.

The book’s website, which contains info on purchasing, is http://twelvedaysinvietnam.org

—James R. Wagner