Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunner and The Grunt by Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank

In their joint memoir, Massachusetts natives Michael L. Kelley and Peter Burbank give a compelling portrait of America’s role in the Vietnam War in 1965. The Gunner and The Grunt: Two Boston Boys in Vietnam with the First Cavalry Division Airmobile (King Printing Company, 216 pp., paperback) traces the paths Kelley and Burbank took starting with growing up in neighborhoods a dozen miles apart and illustrates their hopes and expectations upon joining the U.S. Army.

Enlisting in 1964, Kelley chose Army aviation; Burbank aspired to be a paratrooper. The two boys from Boston met in Vietnam shortly after their arrival at the 1st Air Cav base at An Khe in the Central Highlands. 

Inspired by a friend who had served with the 101st Airborne Division in World War II, Burbank decided, to the great distress of his parents, to leave high school and pursue his dream. For his part, Kelley finished high school, then put in for a posting in Germany where he hoped to work as an aviation mechanic and become a helicopter crew chief, as well as to enjoy the company of beautiful women and the limitless range of German beers.

To his dismay, Kelley received orders to join C Troop C the 1st Squadron in the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division. Upon learning he was going to Vietnam, Kelley was filled with dread. His sense of impending doom became a certainty that he was a dead man and powerless to prevent it. By contrast, Burbank was ecstatic knowing he would soon be in combat. 

Their training began during the advisory years of America’s commitment to Vietnam. In 1964, the number of U.S. troops in the country was a tiny fraction of the more than 550,000 who would be there four years later. By the end of 1965, the build-up was well underway. On arrival, Burbank and Kelley found themselves in the shadow of the Battle of Ia Drang Valley that was fought by 1st Cav troops only days before. Losses on both sides were shockingly high, and the message was sobering—an American victory in Vietnam would neither be easy nor swift.

Michael L. Kelley

The authors’ accounts of their daily lives during their tours are vivid. For Burbank, minutes drifted into months as he and his friends fought the elements as much as the enemy. Heat and humidity, insects and leeches, and snakes of every kind were constant companions. Every day resembled the one before. The only way he knew it was Sunday was when he was told to take his weekly malaria pill. The war turned into a blur of movement and action, fear and endurance.

When Michael Kelley began the book decades later and invited his friend to participate, Peter Burbank was reluctant. Kelley, however, was insistent, saying, “History untold is history unremembered.”

Burbank agreed, and together they have created a joint narrative of their Vietnam War tours that is well worth the read.

–Mike McLaughlin

Flying With the Spooks by Herbert Shippey

In Flying with the Spooks: Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 242 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) Herbert Shippey tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty, including how “all that good intel” about enemy air activity was collected and put to use. This is an intriguing tale for those of us who had not thought about how the U.S. military gathered that kind of intelligence in the Vietnam War.

Shippey tells a rambling story that includes his background, his Navy enlistment after he was about to be drafted into the U.S. Army after completing graduate school in June 1969, and his recruit and Vietnamese language. The heart of this memoir is Shippey’s recounting of the work he did while assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Support Detachment at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

Shippey flew SIGINT (Signal Intelligence, or Intercept) reconnaissance in several aircraft designed for just such missions: the EC-121 Warning Star, the repurposed, prop-driven Constellation; the P-3 Orion; and the two-engine jet A-3 Sky Warrior. He was the guy who had the head phones on, listening intently (and recording on reel-to-reel tapes) to everything he could gather from the airwaves. Hot intel was relayed directly to pilots for immediate action.

Shippey flew almost daily on patterns that took him over the Gulf of Tonkin and back west over Laos, Thailand, along the North Vietnamese border in unarmed aircraft. His flights were sometimes accompanied by F-4 Phantoms for security, but they were often re-routed when other missions gained priority.

Shippey describes the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, the South China Sea, and the war-torn areas on the ground, as well as American installations and their surrounding towns and villages.

He intersperses travelogue-like observations of the places he visited, things he saw, books he read, music he enjoyed, and conversations he had with fellow self-professed nerds. The book has an index, but a better addition might have been a Glossary of basic Intel terms, including the definition of the word “spook” in intelligence circles.

All in all, Flying with the Spooks was an interesting read,

–Tom Werzyn

We Saved SOG Souls by Roger Lockshier

Roger Lockshier’s We Saved SOG Souls: 101st Airborne Missions in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos During the Vietnam War (300 pp. $21.99, paper; $5.99 Kindle), is Lockshier’s first book—and I hope not his last.

Lockshier enlisted in the U.S. Army in April 1966. After completing Jump School in December, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division’s 101st Aviation Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. A year later, the entire 101st Division was deployed to Vietnam.

Lockshier was a crew chief and door gunner with the 101st’s Black Angel Huey helicopter gunship fire team. Their mission in Vietnam was to support the combat operations of the 101st Airborne, the 5th Special Forces, MACVSOG, and other units. The covert nature of SOG (Studies and Observations Group) meant that only select people could support its operations. That task went to dedicated fixed-wing and helicopter units of the Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Army. In addition, some brave South Vietnamese pilots and crews joined the team.

The bulk of We Saved SOG Souls recounts missions flown by Lockshier and his crewmates in support of the Green Berets supporting secret SOG operations in South and North Vietnam, as well as in Laos and Cambodia. Many of the stories in this book are almost unbelievable, but Lockshier presents them in a way that made me a believer.

Throughout the book he paints vivid pictures of up-close actions—many of them very dangerous ones in enemy-controlled territory. The missions’ objectives included taking enemy prisoners, rescuing downed pilots, conducting rescue operations to retrieve U.S. POWs, and undertaking short- and long-range reconnaissance patrols.

SOG aviators were unsung heroes, mainly because their missions remained top secret for more than twenty years. Time and again, their courage under fire and aviation skills saved the lives of SOG recon teams and larger SOG units. Lockshier returned to the States in December of 1968 with a chestful of medals, and mustered out of the Army a short time later.

I highly recommend We Saved SOG Souls.

–Bob Wartman

Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat by Bob Worthington

Bob Worthington’s Fighting Viet Cong in the Rung Sat: Memoir of a Combat Adviser in Vietnam, 1968-1969 (McFarland, 283 pp., $29.95, paper; $13.99, Kindle) is not the usual Vietnam War combat memoir. Worthington was not a member of a ground unit fighting the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army; instead, he was an adviser to South Vietnamese militia units. 

Worthington had an unusual career prior to the Vietnam War tour of duty he writes about in this book. He was a police officer while in college; served in the Marine Corps and took part in the 1958 landing in Lebanon; was inadvertently commissioned as a Chemical Corps officer, and put in a 1966-67 tour of duty in Vietnam.

Arriving in Saigon for his second tour in August 1968, Worthington was assigned to the Hau Nghia Province Advisory Team as the Trang Bang District Adviser on the Cambodian border. He was responsible for working with his Vietnamese counterpart, a South Vietnamese Army major, on the team’s twofold mission—advising the local Vietnamese military forces and supporting pacification efforts. 

Working with some 500 Vietnamese militia soldiers in the district, Maj. Worthington’s team provided intelligence about Viet Cong targets and supported efforts to stop enemy infiltration of troops and weapons from Cambodia. Speaking fluent Vietnamese was key to his success as an adviser, but his identification with the Vietnamese led to friction with the more kinetic efforts of the nearby U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division units. Despite his successes as an adviser, Worthington was removed from his position in December 1968 and reassigned to another advisory job in Saigon.

In late January 1969, Worthington was reassigned to Rung Sat Special Zone, part of the extensive river delta area south of Saigon where VC units often attacked American ships.  The Vietnamese military units there had been taking bribes from the Viet Cong and the U.S. Navy advisers in the area did not have the expertise to support ground combat operations against them. Working with the Navy advisory team and Navy River Patrol Group, Worthington’s job was to support Vietnamese efforts to break the back of the local Viet Cong.

Worthington’s book—his second Vietnam War memoir—addresses the complexities involved with the U.S. advisers working with Vietnamese units. While advisers had access to intelligence, mobility, and firepower assets unavailable to the Vietnamese militia units, Worthington still needed to traverse jungles on foot or patrol the rivers in small boats. His ability to speak Vietnamese and his personal relationships made him a much more effective adviser.

Worthington describes shooting water buffalos carrying weapons across the Cambodian border from a helicopter and running snatch missions to catch Viet Cong officials. He also suffered a near-fatal hookworm infection and a gunshot wound during his tour.

Bob Worthington in-country

Worthington continued his unorthodox career after coming home from the war. He left the Army to attend graduate school and earned a PhD in Psychology, then rejoined as a psychologist and retired from the Army as a Lieutenant Colonel.

While Bob Worthington’s account of his adventures in Vietnam was well worth reading, the real value of this book lies in his extensive descriptions of the American advisory efforts in the war. He addresses in detail the relationships between advisers and advisees and the role of the advisers in pacification efforts. 

If more U.S. military advisers had spoken Vietnamese as Worthington did, and had more personal relationships with the Vietnamese people, perhaps the war might have had a different outcome.

Worthington’s website is bobworthingtonwriter.com

–Marshall Snyder

Rucksack Grunt by Robert Kuhn

Bob Kuhn writes in a voice filled with self-confident cockiness that masks a quest to learn what life is all about. At the beginning of his memoir, Rucksack Grunt: A Naive Teenage Boy’s Journey to Becoming a Vietnam War Veteran (156 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle), he describes the past as he remembers it “and still struggles today to understand it all.”

Kuhn introduces himself as an “average student with a bad attitude.” He turned 18 in 1970 Focused on marrying his high school sweetheart, he saw the Army as the solution to his future: serve two years, get married, go to college at government expense, and find a good job. So he volunteered for the draft. At that point, his naiveté becomes the book’s major theme.

He completed Basic at Fort Dix, thinking he’d go on train as an MP, but then found out that he was too young for the job: MPs must be at least 19. Disappointed and forgotten by the system, Kuhn performed menial tasks for nearly two months, and then, bored beyond reason, he went home for a week.

When he returned to Dix, a first sergeant understood the situation (no Article 15), and Kuhn ended up as an infantryman with the 1st Battalion, 22nd Regiment, serving a 1971-72 tour of duty in Vietnam. He knew he did wrong by going AWOL, and regrets it to this day.

The guidance of older troops carried the young infantryman through his initial months in the combat zone. For example, when readying himself for field operations, Kuhn had no idea where to begin until a fellow squad member assembled his gear for him. Kuhn later returned the favor for new guys. The book’s unspoken message is that training alone does not adequately prepare a person for war, a state of affairs involving incalculable variables.

Operating in and around Tuy Hoa, Kuhn pulled lots of guard duty, went on night ambush patrols, and took part in three month-long search-and-destroy missions into the Central Highlands. In telling the stories of his tour he details the difficulties common in most Vietnam War memoirs: standing watch alone, challenging the unknown, lugging a rucksack, hacking through the jungle, enduring continuous rain, existing on C rations, and contending with snakes, leeches, and insects.

Bob Kuhn in country

He also briefly discusses military friendship; the Vietnamese people, whom he generally disliked; drug use; and race relations.          

As far as feelings are concerned, Kuhn basically tells what happened and does not deeply analyze his emotional state. He recollects times on night guard duty, for example, when he found a need to pray and God spoke to him “personally one on one, or He spoke to me. It wasn’t anything verbal or audible, but I felt a direct-link communication and understanding. That is where God communicated to me that everything was going to be okay and that I was going to survive this tour.”

That experience still comforts him today, Kuhn says.

Although Rucksack Grunt offers a limited amount of new information, it is an excellent starting point for anyone unfamiliar with the latter stages of the war in Vietnam. Bob Kuhn served during Vietnamization and the drawdown of American forces. His unit did not engage in intense or extended contact with the enemy. The 1st of the 22nd’s major accomplishment was discovering and destroying caches of enemy military supplies.

The book contains a group of interesting photographs that Kuhn took in Vietnam.

His website is rucksackgrunt.com

—Henry Zeybel

Combat and Campus by Peter R. Langlois and Annette Langlois Grunseth

The best parts of war memoirs tell naked truths that leave historical perspective aside and entirely reflect the emotions of the author. Former infantryman Peter Langlois perfectly fills that bill with Combat and Campus: Writing through War (Elm Grove Press, 180 pp. $18.95, paper), particularly when he says, “The enemy was almost god-like. He was everywhere and anticipated our every move.”

The book—put together and written with his sister Annette Langlois Grunseth—contains letters written when Langlois served in Vietnam with Alpha Company, 2/22, of the 25th Infantry Division in 1968-69. His unfiltered descriptions of the carnage his unit endured is as graphic as those in any book I have read. He and his fellow grunts—most of whom were draftees—endured unrelenting combat complicated by poor leadership and inadequate supplies. In operation after operation, the 2nd of the 22nd’s casualties were inordinately high.

Drafted at 23, Peter Langlois had just graduated form the University of Wisconsin with a journalism degree. He wrote letters from Vietnam with a reporter’s point of view, mainly informing his family and friends about events that he experienced during four months of nearly constant exposure to the enemy. His hometown newspaper—the Wausau Daily Record Herald—published a series of his letters.  

Although he was challenged emotionally, Langlois maintained his psychological balance while writing home. “I can’t see how I can keep my sanity,” he wrote, for example, “unless I lose my conscience and sense of justice.” Despite the fact that he did not want to be in Vietnam, Langlois became a squad leader and did everything expected of him.

In 2004 Peter Langlois died at 59 from Agent Orange-induced cancer. Annette Grunseth, an accomplished writer and poet who is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran, collected and arranged her brother’s letters into this memoir. She had attended the University of Wisconsin during Langlois’ tour, and provides a first-person look at student antiwar demonstrations on campus.

Langlois and his 13-year-old interpreter in country

Throughout the book, her powerful affinity for her brother recollects his entire life with thoughtful prose and poetry. Although I am not a fan of the latter, one of Grunseth’s poems brought tears to my eyes. Still grieving over her brother’s post-Vietnam War PTSD, she reveals a deep understanding of the mental and physical effects of war and its aftermath.

Combat and Campus fulfils several tasks in remembering the Vietnam War, its causes, and its participants. The book should jar the memories of old timers (especially those of us who were there) while showing younger readers the toll taken by war on both individuals and nations.

Summarizing why America took part in the war, Peter Langlois wrote: “Basically the major powers in this world haven’t matured enough to realize the virtue of love and compassion.”

Annette’s Grunseth’s website is www.annettegrunseth.com

—Henry Zeybel

The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam by Charles U. Smith

Charles U. Smith’s The Arctic Jungles of Vietnam (CreateSpace, 128 pp. $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a war memoir that Smith put together with the help of Constance Williams.

In it, Smith explains how he came to construct his story, then takes the reader on a short tour of his childhood growing up in segregated Prattville, Alabama, his high school graduation, and his enlistment in the U.S. Army three months later in September 1964. A less than stellar send-off speech by his school district’s superintendent gave Smith all the impetus he needed to get out of town and make a better life, beginning with joining the military. That, in fact, was the route his four older brothers took.

The strange title refers to the path Smith’s infantry training took—first to Alaska to train as a “snow trooper,” then to Hawaii for some jungle training, and finally, in late 1965, to Ch Chi in South Vietnam as a member of the 25th Infantry Division.

Smith’s describes his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War as more-or-less uneventful, though he recounts near misses and tales of buddies lost, along with descriptions of the daily minutia of life in the warzone. He often speaks about his experiences as a Black man and as a Black soldier; several times Smith repeats stories, which likely is due to the stream-of-consciousness way in which he tells his war story.

After returning home, Charles Smith worked several jobs before settling into a career with Greyhound Bus Lines. He worked as an interstate driver and as a driver-instructor during his 30-plus years with the company.

This is a short book and a quick read—and a good look at one man’s unique experiences in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Walking Point by Mike Cunningham

Why would an infantryman who fought in in Vietnam decades ago want to share his experiences fifty years later? The answer: because he will never forget what he went through in that war and can no longer put aside the need to pass on his memories. Mike Cunningham’s memoir, Walking Point: An Infantryman’s Untold Story (CreateSpace, 290 pp. $9.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) was written in 2017 to let others know about the wartime experiences that changed his life forever.   

Anyone who has been in a war knows that there are so many parts to that experience that only when they are presented as a composite can the full story be properly told. Mike Cunningham totally understands this as he leads the reader on his journey by knitting together the parts that took him from newbie to combat-experienced trooper.     

In this well-written account Cunningham describes joining the Army at 18 and not long after, in June 1968, being plunked down in the jungle with Charlie Company of the 1st Battalion, 46th Regiment in the 198th Light Infantry Brigade in northern II Corps. He shows what it was like initially to know nothing of war and soon learning the hard way that it is no picnic.    

This is a story of fear, courage, and sometimes dumb behavior. Cunningham, for instance, once pointed a pistol he was cleaning in the direction of his best friend and—thinking the chamber was empty—discharged it.

He contrasts even the most mundane experiences in the Vietnam War with those back home. When he describes between movements in enemy-infested jungles with a hike in the woods back home, for example, I knew exactly what he was saying.

Only after Cunningham first witnessed his company suffering casualties did the reality of being in combat totally sunk in. Later, when he learned of civilian atrocities committed by the Viet Cong did he see how difficult it was for the Vietnamese people to endure the war.

Cunningham takes the reader on frustrating and exhausting patrols during which leeches and the crushing heat were constant companions, and with deadly encounters with booby traps while walking point and ambushes always a possibility.

What’s more, rain, mosquitoes, and water-filled foxholes made sleep a nearly unattainable luxury.  

This book captures what life as an American infantryman in the Vietnam War was all about. I truly enjoyed Mike Cunningham’s account of the high and low moments in his war and about the brotherhood he was a part of.      

–John Cirafici

A Contradiction of Terms by Joseph C. Maguire, Jr.

Joseph Maguire’s A Contradiction of Terms: A 25th Division Analyst’s Tour in Vietnam, April 1970 to March 1971 (284 pp. $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is a reflective journal focusing on Maguire’s time in the Army, primarily his tour of duty in the Vietnam War.

Maguire enlisted in June of 1969. After Basic Training at Ft. Bragg, he was sent to Fort Holabird’s Army Intelligence School in Baltimore, not far from Dundalk, Maryland, his hometown. Maguire spent a lot of his off-duty time back home.

In March 1970 Maguire received orders for Vietnam. His tour began in April at the Cu Chi Base Camp where he was assigned to the 25th Military Intelligence Company attached to the 25th Infantry Division.

Maguire paints good pictures of his “behind the wire” experiences in Army Intelligence in Vietnam during the war. His candor about his non-combat, clean-living, and relatively uneventful life as an intelligence analyst is refreshing. I found his observations interesting and entertaining. In November, the 25th Division was standing down. Half the men were sent to Hawaii and the other half, Maguire included, were reassigned to Xuan Loc just north of Long Binh. 

His tour ended in March 1971, and Maguire returned home to encounter many Americans who had misguided notions about the Vietnam War and its veterans. Maguire’s analyses of people’s reactions to him and to the war are spot on.

Throughout the book, Maguire includes biographical sketches of his fellow servicemen, describing their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and physical characteristics. I particularly liked how the book’s 43 chapters could stand as interesting stories of their own.

I found A Contradiction of Terms to be a good read with one major flaw. It appears as though no one proofread the book before it went to print as nearly every page has a typo or other slip of the pen. Despite those distractions, the more I read this book, the more I enjoyed it. I recommend it.

— Bob Wartman