The Nightmare of The Mekong by Terry M. Sater

In The Nightmare of the Mekong: A True History of Love, Family, and the War in Vietnam 300 pp., $23.50, paper) Terry Sater shares his time in the service in great detail with the reader. The book is filled with personal vignettes and covers his experiences from boot camp to combat and home again.

Using letters he saved from family and friends—along with remembrances from his war buddies—Sater grabs the reader, inducts him into military service, and pulls him along on the journey of young man as he experiences the transformation from civilian to serviceman—from ballplayer and carefree youth to adult life—amid the grit and boredom of war in a foreign nation.

The book is full of details from that time of innocence as dreams were shattered and new ones emerged.  Sater’s tender side shows in his letters home to his girlfriend Judi and to his family. Tedium and boredom leap from the pages—along with longing to be home again.

Sater, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is a Navy man. Trained in several schools as an electrician, he ends up manning a machine gun on a boat in the Mekong Delta. The writing evokes the fear and sweat Sater and the other young Brown Water Navy sailors experienced.  The smells of cordite and gunpowder seem real as he describes horrific experiences.

For example, this, from his diary entry of Thursday, August 22, 1968:

“ I just came off an op, fifteen or sixteen miles south of Saigon. Found three guys from my class in Riv Ron 11 were killed. That makes six. God, I am in a daze. The snipe on Freddie’s boat was blown off the boat.  They haven’t found his body.”

Sater makes his personal story one any veteran can relate to. He writes descriptively and clearly and follows chronology to a tee. He also briefly addresses how the U.S. blundered into the war in Vietnam.

This is a good book full of details and photographs. It’s a complete recounting of a year in a full life that is dedicated to those who did not come home from that faraway and foreign place.

The author’s website is thenightmareofthemekong.com

–Bud Alley

Brown Water Runs Red by Bob Andretta

 

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In his 1961 minor classic, Among the Dangs, George P. Elliott tells the story of an anthropologist who becomes a member of a primitive jungle tribe. The anthropologist’s deep immersion in the tribe’s culture ends when he realizes If he “had stayed there much longer I would have reverted until I became one of them until I had lost myself utterly.”

Eight years later, U.S. Navy Lt. Bob Andretta brought much of that fiction to life for himself as an advisor to Vietnamese Coastal Group 14, stationed fifteen miles south of Danang.

In six months with the Group, Andretta was struck by lightning, shredded by shrapnel, blown off a boat, and shot through both legs. After receiving his third set of wounds, he turned down a third Purple Heart and forfeited an opportunity to leave Vietnam early. His desire to help the Vietnamese outweighed all other considerations.

Andretta relates his Vietnam War experiences in Brown Water Runs Red: My Year as an Advisor to the Vietnamese Navy Junk Force (CreateSpace, 428 pp., $20, paper; $8.75 Kindle). Many of the operations he writes about were new to me.

As the leader of three Americans assigned to Group 14, Andretta immersed himself in the war and Vietnamese culture. He participated in practically every search and destroy mission; observed every social custom; doctored children infected with boils and other illnesses; and built a maternity ward and a two-room school for the hamlet of Doi.

Along with South Vietnamese sailors, Andretta worked closely with Ruff-Puffs—Regional Forces (RF) and Provincial Forces (PF). The Navy delivered Ruff-Puffs to coastal or waterway sites where they patrolled on foot. When possible, everyone engaged the enemy with firepower from water and land.

Despite the depth of his involvement, after a few weeks or so, Andretta said, “I felt so isolated; like I had gone to a different world.”

Andretta writes in a straightforward, conversational style that gives the book a humorous tone. He does not hide his feelings, and it is easy to relate to him. His knack for depicting personality traits brings characters alive. His scenes of the aftermath of battle clearly support his transition from a dedicated warrior to a man who abhors war.

He learned by doing. While hospitalized at Danang with an amoebic abscess of the liver, he helped unload CH46 helicopters overflowing with Marines killed and wounded in the A Shau Valley. Even though he had already been seriously wounded, the carnage shocked him.

Shortly after, following another Group 14 “great victory” at “ambush corner” on the Thu Bon River, he saw the napalmed remains of enemy soldiers (men, women, and children) and experienced an epiphany: “Suddenly I hated the country. I hated this place. I hated the war. I hated the people. I wanted out.”

After six months of search and destroy missions, he understood that his men “were just the bait. The artillery and aircraft had done the rest.” Only the body count mattered to his superiors, he decided.

Andretta He accepted a transfer from Group 14 to ragtag Group 13, north of Danang. Group 13 saw little action. Nevertheless, Andretta worked hard to improve a dismal area. From that point, the book resembles an interesting travelogue more than a combat saga.

Ignoring his antiwar sentiments, Andretta connived to participate in a final sweep with a nearby Army unit; the helicopter in which he rode was shot down. He said, “It did not take much reflection to conclude that I was more than just a bit crazy.”

Then he accompanied a SEAL team on a “special patrol” that ended in a shootout. “There was no time to be frightened; only to shoot well,” he said. Outnumbered, the SEALs fled: “That was probably the fastest I have ever run,” Andretta noted.

After he completed his tour, Andretta flew to San Francisco, and encountered a “not very pleasant homecoming, and that’s an understatement” from war protesters.

By remembering his Naval Academy classmates killed in action, Andretta repeatedly conveys the remorse felt by  survivors for friends who died in the war. He recognizes that many survivors never achieve release from their sorrow.

Andretta enhances his narrative by blending an excellent collection of photographs with the text, rather than lumping them together in the middle of the book.

After retiring from the Navy in 1972 due to combat-related disabilities, Andretta became a lawyer and then a judge. He stepped down from the bench in 2007. His wounds still cause him problems that require surgery.

—Henry Zeybel

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

Three Tastes of Nuoc Nam by Douglas Branson

Douglas Branson served in Vietnam in 1966-67 in the Navy as a Lieutenant JG. He was twenty-two years old then, and he has now produced Three Tastes of Nuoc Mam: The Brown Water Navy & Visits to Vietnam (Hellgate Press, 312 pp., $19.95, paper), a memoir about those long-ago experiences and trips he took  to Vietnam in 1995 and 2011—hence the title.

The back cover blurb informs the reader, “this is the story of the ‘Brown Water Navy,’ the garage band flotilla to do the job” of protecting the coast of South Vietnam against Viet Cong ambushes and smuggling.”

Because I served in Vietnam in 1966-67, the same period as the first section of this book, I found that section of the book the most interesting. I had no awareness at that time of a Brown Water Navy and didn’t hear a thing about it until many years later. It seemed like a well-kept secret.

When I saw the movie Apocalypse Now I got a glimpse of Americans on a boat on what was supposed to be a Vietnamese river, but that seemed to be more like Joseph Conrad’s famed literary novel Heart of Darkness than anything I knew about the Vietnam War. Also, Branson refers to the coast as the domain of the BWN, not the rivers.

As I started reading this book, I wondered how soon I’d encounter Swift Boats and if I’d find John Kerry’s name in these pages. Swift Boats are mentioned on the first page of the Preface, and John Kerry comes up in a discrediting mention on the very next page.  I immediately began to wonder if the author had been one of the cabal of Vietnam veterans who shrilly and brilliantly conspired to keep Senator Kerry from becoming president of the United States.

Also in the Preface, the author mentions three things I’ve encountered before in books by Vietnam veterans: that Army Special Forces troops “were notorious for wearing necklaces of Viet Cong ears”; that the troops in the field were required to fight the war with one had tied behind their backs; and that when Vietnam veterans returned home we were vilified as killers and losers. The Preface also goes on to say that the war was “unwinnable” and that the American presence was “unwise or even foolish.”

Near the end of this Preface, Branson informs the reader this book is creative non-fiction, that not all events described happened to him or in the way he recounts. He says the portrayals may represent “amalgrams,” which was a new word to me. Good luck in finding that word in your dictionary. I would have said “composites.”

John Kerry is mentioned again early on in book when Branson writes of his “alleged heroism as a Swift Boat officer in charge.” Kerry seemed to be like a toothache that Branson can’t ignore. Kerry appears again a few pages later when Branson questions his “much ballyhooed heroics,” as Swift Boats were not supposed to be on the rivers where those heroics happened.  Branson makes it clear that he is not a “Swift Boater” in the political sense. He says he keeps his mouth shut around them to avoid being vilified himself.

In fewer than one hundred pages the reader learns about the routine of Branson’s tour in the BWN—99 percent boredom and one percent pure terror: searching sampans, patrolling at night without lights, dealing with sudden large waves which threatened to sink his small boat.

Douglas M. Branson

Suddenly Branson is back home in an airport bar, trying to drink a gin and tonic, when he is run out of the place by a person screaming at him that he’s a baby killer. Refreshingly, the screaming culprit is not the legendary braless hippy girl, but is “a middle age, balding business man, dressed in a pin striped suit.”

A few months later, Branson entered law school and became a target of opportunity.  Everyone else in the school was antiwar, and they wouldn’t leave him alone. He had problems concentrating on his studies.  “I came back a war veteran into a hotbed of feelings and sentiments I could not comprehend,” he writes.

Branson’s chapter “Homecoming” was the one I most identified with, but I would have appreciated more details about his personal life, and some insight into how he coped with law school, and successfully made it through that process and became a successful attorney. Little is given to the reader about that story.

The final two sections of the book deal with the author returning to Vietnam, including to Phan Tiet, where he had been stationed during his tour of duty. His first return is in 1995.  His second is in 2011, and the changes in those sixteen years in the direction of a more modern Vietnam make for interesting reading. The bad smell of open sewers and the manufacture of the stinky fish sauce called nuoc mam are gone. Streets are paved and lighted.

“Vietnam is booming,” Branson says, “developing, attracting visitors, tourists, new businesses and bringing in dollars and Euros.”

This would be a useful book for a veteran to read prior to a trip to Vietnam as Branson does not mince words about anything. He makes it clear that there is no shortage of golf courses and resorts in Vietnam and that they are aimed at the Japanese.  Branson also makes it clear that he prefers Hanoi to Saigon as a place to visit, and he also tells the reader which tourist sites to visit and which to detour around.  He advises skipping most museums and most guided tours.

Read this honest and sometimes amusing book to discover Branson’s detailed reasons for his opinions. I have some trouble with his opinions about Agent Orange, as he seems to state that AO is a short-lived problem that does not pass on to the next generations.  This is my one major problem with Branson’s book. He says that the effects of Agent Orange have “a short half life, not extending into the generation following those born during the war.”  I don’t think so.

—David Willson