Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy

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The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.

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Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website, www.jchandy.net

—David Willson

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Sharkbait by Guy S. Clark, M.D.

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At the age of twenty-eight, Guy Clark went to Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. During his 1966-67 tour of duty, Clark flew more than eighty-six combat strike missions in the back seat of the F-4C Phantom and kept a daily journal.

Sharkbait: A Flight Surgeon’s Odyssey in Vietnam (Weeping Willow, 628 pp. $42.50, hardcover; $3.03, Kindle), which overflows with Guy Clark’s exuberance for flying and appreciation for knowing the skilled and courageous pilots with whom he faced death, is based on that journal.

The fifty-year delay in transcribing his journal has not blunted Clark’s opinions. From June 1966, for example, Clark (the medical director of The Osteoporosis Institute and The Arthritis Institute of Santa Barbara) recalls that he had reached “the high-water mark in my lifetime search for adventure! Life is exciting!” At that point, he still had eleven months to go in Vietnam.

To gain a more complete picture of the war, he opted to fly to small and remote outposts by hitching rides in what he calls a C-130 “cattle box car” and other aircraft. Once he flew on an AC-47D Spooky gunship during a strike.

Point of order: Those of us who flew C-130s called them “Trash Haulers.”

In counterpoint to his enthusiasm for dropping bombs and napalm, Clark also writes of his disgust for war, coupled with compassion for those who lose their lives as a consequence.

Beyond his flying stories, Clark establishes himself as a war observer who is distraught by everything going on around him—except for people who cater to him. At the same time, he maintains a mental detachment through devouring books he always wanted to read and by writing his journal and letters to his wife.

Clark describes what he saw and did while stationed at Cam Ranh Bay practically down to each heartbeat of each event. His writing recipe demands details and more details based on his experience, historical facts, quotations (including words from Leonardo da Vinci, Lenin, and Churchill), and random dashes of poetry. He stirs together insights from nearly every day of his year in Vietnam.

The result is a memoir that gives readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about F-4C Phantom and Air Force operations, for starters. Among other topics, Clark covers wasteful military practices, governments, shrews (the animal), the Vietnam War’s purpose, revolutions, lepers, the Air Force and Navy’s work with ground forces, William Faulkner, danger, and personalities—to name a few—along with many admonitions.

His breadth and depth of explanations reminded me of the old joke about the guy who tells you how to build Big Ben when you only want to know the time of day.

To his credit, Clark recognizes this rhetorical weakness and professes that, to him, “there is no such thing as useless knowledge.”

Dr. ClarkFundamentally, he searches for truth but understands the difficulty in finding it. In doing so, Clark reveals himself—whether or not the light is favorable. Facing the facts recorded in his journal puts the older Clark in an eye-to-eye confrontation with his youthful, cocksure, egotistical self. Can either man deny the other?

Clark’s prose is so distinct that it frequently made me smile. His sentences can be diagram-defying marvels of construction. He masterfully belittles people, places, and practices that he dislikes. He possesses a world-class intellect, but occasionally repeats himself.

Despite the drawbacks, Clark’s six-hundred-plus-page memoir provided captivating reading over many long stretches. His feats continually raised the high-water mark of adventure that he set during his first month in country.

The author’s website is guyclarksharkbait.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Mission of Honor by Jim Crigler

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Jim Crigler, author of Mission of Honor: A Moral Compass for a Moral Dilemma (Panoma Press, 326 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), was drafted into the Army and served as UH-1 helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.  A Warrant Officer, he was assigned to the 129th Assault Helicopter Company, and distinguished himself during thousands of combat missions. He has also distinguished himself in many ways as a civilian.

Throughout history, fighting men have been known as warriors. Recently, the term “Air Warrior” has emerged. This book is a great depiction of the men who wore Air Warrior wings in the Vietnam War, and the many challenges they faced every day in all aspects of their lives—before, during, and after their military service.

Crigler writes about being in high school, trying to find his niche in life. He notes the humility needed to admit failure and continue to strive for greatness. He had a moral compass, being true to doing what is right because it is right. He writes of finding a “right direction,” then following that direction, making adjustments along the way as he gained more knowledge in the course of his life.

An important aspect of this autobiography is Crigler’s realization that slowly but surely an emotional “coldness” has to be achieved in order to survive in war. This coldness is something that is achieved slowly enough that a person has little awareness that it is happening. In that regard, Crigler brings out memories of war in an eloquent manner.

He also shows very clearly that achievements in war require great tenacity and courage, but once that level achievement is reached the honors of life begin to be bestowed. I have always had great respect for those who have done this.

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Jim Crigler

Crigler writes of achieving a “oneness” with his mission, something that bestows honor. Honor has to be earned by a person’s actions, not words. Crigler notes this in repeated references to the commitment of his brother warriors, and through his paying tribute to those men.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to veterans, and also to Gold Star families and the families of those who have endured the ravages of war.

The author’s website is missionofhonor.org

—Edward Ryan

Donut Dollies in Vietnam by Nancy Smoyer

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“I’d rather be heard than comforted,” Nancy Smoyer writes near the end of Donut Dollies in Vietnam: Baby-Blue Dresses & OD Green (Chopper Books, 250 pp., $15.00, paper). By that point in the book, Smoyer has fulfilled that goal in this memoir that looks at her time in South Vietnam during the war and its aftermath.

The core of Smoyer’s book describes the pride and dedication she developed toward servicemen as a Donut Dolly in Vietnam in 1967-68. “I still refer to it as the best year of my life,” she writes, “and the worst.”

Smoyer was one of 627 women in the Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, which lasted from 1965-72. The largest number of women in-country at one time, she tells us, was 109 in 1969. All of them were college grads and volunteers. They inherited the nickname “Donut Dollies” from Red Cross workers who performed similar duties in Europe during World War II.

The women worked throughout South Vietnam. They took helicopter to the most forward positions. Their chores varied from serving 3:00 a.m. breakfasts to men girding for at-dawn assaults, to organizing C-ration picnics, to playing made-up games. Talking to the troops for any length of time, Smoyer says, “is the most satisfying part of the job. When we go to the field we just talk to the guys as they work.”

She was twenty-five years old. “We were there to boost the morale of the troops, plain and simple,” Smoyer explains. “Everything I did revolved around the men, and I don’t regret a minute of it.”

Being in-country and exposed to the same threats as the men in uniform, Donut Dollies encountered common war and post-war problems. After coming home Smoyer suffered PTSD, predicated on survival guilt, which was compounded by her brother’s death in action a few months after she returned to the United States.

On a visit to Vietnam in 1993, Smoyer says she overcame her PTSD by learning compassion for the Vietnamese—something that she had not allowed herself to feel before.

The second half of the book deals with post-war events. Many scenes involve emotional encounters at The Wall where Smoyer began serving as a volunteer guide shortly after its 1982 dedication. “Those days when emotions were raw, none of us knew how to act,” she says, “but we connected on such a deep and immediate level.”

Over the years, Smoyer extended her volunteer work to many other areas dealing with veterans. Serving in Vietnam gave her life its ultimate purpose.

111111111111111111111111111111111She closes the book with letters in tribute to her brother—a Marine lieutenant—from his teachers, coaches, and friends.

While telling her story, Smoyer makes references to the experiences of many other former Donut Dollies. She has maintained contact with them through email, letters, tapes, reunions, musings, and conversations.

Like Nancy Smoyer, they have a lasting commitment to helping veterans.

Smoyer is donating proceeds from the sale of her books to the Semper Fi Fund.

—Henry Zeybel

The Odyssey of Echo Company by Doug Stanton

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Doug Stanton’s The Odyssey of Echo Company: The 1968 Tet Offensive and the Epic Battle of Echo Company to Survive the Vietnam War (Scribner, 337 pp. $30, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) centers on the author’s quest to help former infantryman Stan Parker answer the most pressing question of his life: “What happened to me in Vietnam?”

In an effort to deal with his post-war emotional problems, Parker sought to find meaning for himself and his fellow U.S. Army 101st Airborne Division soldiers who were killed and wounded during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Days after graduating from high school in 1966, Parker enlisted in the Army. He won jump wings and learned long-range reconnaissance skills. In December 1967, as a volunteer, he arrived in Vietnam, turned twenty, and was assigned to a recon platoon in Echo Company of the 1st Battalion in the 101st’s 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment. The small unit, he says, was “supposed to be the eyes and ears of the battalion, to find the enemy, to probe, size up, and report to the battalion so that the line companies—the ‘line doggies,’ the other grunt soldiers—can come in and fight.”

The recon platoon operated near Cu Chi in the Iron Triangle. For six months, Parker says, “Nothing ever changes, and yet nothing ever is the same.” He went out on many patrols until he was wounded for the third time in May 1968.

Much of the book focuses on killing and remorse, killing and sorrow, and more killing—and pain. Friends and foe alike suffer. By recording grotesque incidents told to him by Parker and other Echo troops, Stanton (the author of the bestsellers In Harm’s Way and Horse Soldiers) captures the essence of Vietnam War combat.

With chilling, detailed accounts, Stanton shows the disintegration of the minds of men repeatedly exposed to injury and death. Anguish, grief, hate, and sorrow filled their days. Shredding other men with gunfire, they rued their task while knowing it was their salvation: kill or be killed. They recognized their actions as counter-intuitive behavior of man toward his fellow man.

Guilt created conflict in the minds of many Echo Company men. Despite their heroic actions, Parker and others questioned the reasons for the war. At the same time the men built a brotherhood, akin to being in “a new fraternity.” Still, those associations did not last beyond the war.

Based on many firefights described in the book, one could call Parker the consummate warrior. He had total intensity toward a mission. He ignored vulnerability and pain. Best of all, he reacted creatively to apparently unsolvable problems.

“War is really about elimination—eliminating, erasing, wasting, greasing, making nonexistent,” he says. “You kill the other guy, until there are more of you than there are of them.”

For several years, Parker’s post-war life was nearly as violent as his time in Vietnam. As a civilian, he reacted to physical threats with unreserved violence.

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Doug Stanton

Parker and Stanton returned to Vietnam in 2013, with Parker still filled with guilt and questions about his and his unit’s role in the war. They visit places where Parker was wounded. Surprisingly, they befriend a former enemy soldier who fought at one of the sites. That brief encounter created a bonding to help Parker find a modicum of relief from the PTSD that had pursued him after the war.

The book developed from a long acquaintanceship between Stan Parker and Doug Stanton. At its heart, it is Parker’s memoir of the start of his military career based on his own words, along with Stanton’s interviews with other Echo Company soldiers, letters from the time, and official reports and records.

The realistic writing style of The Odyssey of Echo Company flows easily and should appeal to military nonfiction fans.

The author’s website is www.dougstanton.com

—Henry Zeybel

Planet Vietnam By Steve Tate

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Planet Vietnam (CreateSpace, 132 pp., $9.99, paper; $2.99, Kindle) is the account of Steve Tate, who served as a nineteen-year-old with the 229th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Calvary Division in Vietnam in 1968-69. The book follows Tate to Bunker 48, Dau Tieng, Tay Ninh, and finally an aviation unit performing helicopter maintenance.

At the end of the book Tate questions whether he was “in the shit” or in “the rear.” He goes on to talk about “a new type of discrimination” in the Army in which many soldiers looked down on those with rear echelon assignments.

There are many interesting issues relating to the war that Tate addresses. He vividly describes, for example, the widespread use of drugs and alcohol. “Alcohol was responsible for more deaths and destruction than will ever be admitted,” Tate says. He also recounts how “they” planted two bags of pot in his grip when he was out of the barracks in hopes of framing him.

I found a couple of incidents in Planet Vietnam very interesting. In one, a friend of Tate tries to commit suicide when he receives a Dear John letter from his girlfriend near the end of his tour. Tate also writes about a buddy who shot down his own helicopter firing an M79 shell through the top of the chopper. He also mentions seeing UFOs in the spring of 1968 near the DMZ. “We were being buzzed by UFOs,” Tate says, “and never knew, or cared.”

This is a short book in which Steve Tate brings up many topics I wish he would have explored further. Overall, Tate describes the Vietnam War in a unique way, and I would recommend his book.

—Mark S. Miller

Eye of a Boot by Jerry Lilly

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Looking back to when he was twenty years old, Jerry Lilly tells his readers, “I know that to relax can get me killed. I treat the Vietnamese respectfully.”

Much of what he recalls in his memoir, Eye of a Boot (CreateSpace, 160 pp. $24.95, paper), is told in what Lilly calls “progressive present tense.” In this way, readers can get a better sense, he says, of the “urgency, confusion, and intensity of being there.” In other words, Lilly’s style creates the illusion that his men and he are performing their duties right before the reader’s eyes.

From November 1967 to December 1968, Jerry Lilly served as a Marine infantryman in I Corps, most of the time as a squad leader. At first, he resisted taking the position. Then, he says, “someone of higher rank gave me the responsibility. I had to accept it.”

A deep sense of responsibility for his men’s welfare infused Lilly’s behavior. His worries were purposeful and productive. He tried not to expose his squad to VC or NVA attacks, yet he pressed fights with the enemy. In the field, he constantly believed he was under surveillance from an enemy waiting for the most opportune time to pounce.

His description and analysis of this attitude make the book an outstanding study in leadership. Many chapters provide lessons about the right and wrong ways to work with superiors and subordinates. Lilly describes missions that caused him to question the logic and sanity of his company and platoon commanders, but he nevertheless gave them his utmost support and effort.

The intense manner in which Lilly depicts the flow of combat had me reading well into the night. In particular, Lilly describes a two-day recon mission that ended in daylight when he single-handedly pursued and killed with hate and rage. Compassion emerged at the end, of the fighting, though, when the young Marine realized that he must never forget what happened.

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The imbalance of tactical skill and training between Marines and Viet Cong upset him. He stared at bodies and thought, “My God, look what I did to you. I’m sorry.”

Minutes later, what Lilly did paled in comparison to the actions of a fellow Marine who vengefully and barbarously murdered a wounded VC prisoner. In despair, Lilly wondered, “What is shock?” and “What is real?” His concern for his men grew stronger.

Jerry Lilly’s mind, heart, and soul fill every page of Eye of a Boot.

—Henry Zeybel