In the Mouth of the Dragon John B. Haseman  

Retired U.S. Army Col. John B. Haseman served 18 of his 30-year career in Asia. That included two and a half years in Vietnam during the war. He tells the story of his second Vietnam War tour in his new memoir, In the Mouth of the Dragon: Memoir of a District Advisor in the Mekong Delta, 1971-1973, (McFarland, 277 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle).

Haseman served his first Vietnam War tour in 1967-68 with the 9th Military Intelligence Detachment in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division in relative security at Bearcat Base, Dong Tam, and My Tho. In his second tour he served as a District Advisor, a task for which he volunteered and extended.

He returned to the combat zone at a time when the drawdown of American military units was well underway. Most of the time Haseman, his boss, and one enlisted man were the only Americans working for a South Vietnamese Army commander in charge of Popular Force and Regional Force soldiers—men, as Haseman puts it, “fighting for their family, for their friends, for their neighbors” against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army. No regular force ARVN units operated in their area.

His ability to befriend officers and enlisted men brought Haseman success as an advisor. He was an eager student of Vietnamese culture and shares what he learned by taking part in the everyday lives of everyday soldiers. Best of all, he developed close ties with U.S. Air Force Covey Forward Air Controllers and successfully coordinated air support strikes, which made him popular among the men.

Haseman worked for twelve months at Ham Long and six months at Mo Cay, both located in the Mekong River Delta southwest of Saigon. The whole time he slogged through patrols alongside PF and RF troops.

Following his first fight, Haseman wrote: “Cordite from my M-16, fired in anger for the first time at an enemy. Relief when the firing stops and the wonderful, sensual feeling of adrenaline still pumping. And the feeling of savage delight at learning we killed four VC and suffered no friendly casualties.”

As time went on, friendly casualties increased. After two superiors were wounded, Haseman became head of his district. The operational pace increased and on most days Haseman was either on a field operation, coordinating air strikes, or both. One afternoon he coordinated 26 separate air strikes. 

In analyzing events surrounding the Spring Offensive and a three-week Battle for Tan Loi, Haseman discloses bits of information new to me and far too surprising to spoil by mentioning them here. Suffice it to say, they make up the best part of the book.

I recommend In the Mouth of the Dragon to anyone who believes the Vietnam War was worthless. As Haseman shows, the U.S. chose to help people who desperately needed and wanted our help; there just weren’t enough of them.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam Beyond by Gerald E. Augustine

Stories from two wars dominate Vietnam Beyond (Dorrance Publishing, 226 pp. $40, paper; $35, Kindle), a memoir by Gerald E. Augustine. In it, Augustine emphatically damns his year as an infantryman in the Vietnam War. He then recounts the incalculable price paid by his three sons, his wives, and himself a decades-long war with the physical and psychological effects they suffered because of his exposure to Agent Orange and wartime stresses.          

The U.S. Army drafted Augustine in 1965 when he was “enjoying the best of times” during summer break from classes at the University of Connecticut, he says. Shortly after training, he went to Vietnam and served with the 196th Light Infantry Brigade and the 4th Infantry Division as a machine gunner and rifleman operating out of Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng during his 1966-67 tour of duty. After first building a base camp at Tay Ninh, his brigade underwent an almost nonstop cycle of ambush patrols and search-and-destroy missions.

Augustine repeats bits of what others have said about the Vietnam War, but his writing style’s directness and youthfulness freshen the topics. In a chapter titled “The Daily Grind,” he succinctly sums up the pros and cons of infantry life: the M16 rifle (absolutely new to him), jungle rot (on his private parts), humping equipment (he was his platoon’s pack mule), dealing with the locals (be kind to children), fire ants and snakes, and operations Attleboro, Cedar Falls, Gadsden, and Junction City. 

He sums up his combat experiences by noting that he and his fellow troopers were “performing the tasks at hand in order to bring each other home alive. Individually we became extremely cautious.”

Augustine does not dwell on close calls. He does not labor over points of controversy; he states his opinions and moves on. He shows surprise and regret when men of authority misuse their power. He resignedly endured that type of exploitation in the Army and later in civilian life.

The second half of the book deals with Augustine’s post-war life. Except for his twenty-two months in the Army, he has lived for 76 years in Middletown. Again in a straightforward manner, he spells out exactly how marriage, parenthood, and financial responsibilities frequently overwhelmed him.

Marriage failures turned him into a workaholic. Eventually a series of hobbies provided touches of normalcy: bodybuilding, street rodding, running races, biathlon events, scoutmaster duties, veterans groups, and kayaking.

Gerald Augustine dedicates Vietnam Beyond, which includes many photographs he took in Vietnam, to all the recipients of the Combat Infantryman Badge.

—Henry Zeybel

We Had to Get Out of That Place by Steven Grzesik

“I was young and lived by impulsive decisions, Steven Grzesik admits midway through We Had to Get Out of That Place: A Memoir of Redemption and Betrayal in Vietnam (McFarland, 215 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). Grzeski served two tours in the Vietnam War as a Light Weapon Infantryman at Dau Tieng, a Ranger with the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi, and a helicopter door gunner at Chu Lai. The book reflects the torturing of human spirit as revelatory as any I have read.           

With the concentration of a clinical psychiatrist, Grzesik analyzes his youthful exposure to warfare. As a skinny and bullied New York City kid, he escaped tough guys, uncaring parents, and poverty by moving to Greenwich Village and joining the counterculture until he suffered a psychotic reaction to LSD. On being drafted in 1967 at age 20, he says, “I was rescued by the Army. The rigors of basic training hardened me mentally and physically.” Outshining his draftee peers instilled him with confidence.        

Grzesik challenged many of his officers and NCOs. With an outsider’s mentality, he says, “I just was never in well enough to be buddies with any superior.” Nor was he subtle about displaying his feelings. He once aimed his M16 at a sergeant who treated him unfairly and pointed an unsheathed machete at another sergeant who physically threatened him. Later, Grzesik punched a lieutenant who insisted on making him obey a regulation overlooked by virtually everybody else. In lieu of a court-martial, he accepted a second tour of duty in Vietnam.

Despite the conflicts that Grzesik instigated, he was a conscientious soldier. He hated officers and NCOs because of the way they treated new personnel, particularly in Vietnam War field operations. He despised the FNG label. He felt that officers had the rank, but enlisted men did the work. He believed that superior rank provided no excuse for taking advantage of lower-level soldiers and called it out.     

The sincerity with which We Had to Get Out of That Place looks back on the Vietnam War overwhelmed me. Grzesik wanted to be a good soldier, but found it difficult as he was trying to survive the war. In the book, he repeatedly emphasizes that he did not want to be killed in a war that had no meaning. He switched jobs in hopes of surviving the war but ended up performing more dangerous duties. At times, his actions ignored reason and resulted in near disaster.

25th Infantry troops in-country

Grzesik’s desire for fairness from sergeants led him to all-but-escape infantry duty on his first Vietnam War tour, but not on his second.Taking advantage of his previous in-country experiences, he joined the Rangers. When his unit disbanded, he found himself jobless and went on a pharmacological spree while whoring his way around Saigon.

His descriptions of the drug and prostitution scenes make compelling reading. Arrested and again facing a court-martial, he showed his warrior mentality by volunteering to be a Huey helicopter door gunner, which turned out to be a mind-boggling experience. At that point in the book, I could not put it down and read far into the night.

Grzesik provides heartfelt insights into his passage into adulthood. Of his time in the counterculture, for example, he says, “The Age of Aquarius was not coming. It was a lie.” Recalling the war, he says, “Vietnam was a National Geographic moment gone terribly wrong.” Walking on patrol, he thought, “I felt like a man new to prison.” After the fact, he writes, “I cried because the greatest effort in my life meant nothing.”

We Had to Get Out of That Place informed and entertained me in many ways as it resurrected memories of my own similar thoughts and behavior. Grzesik sums up much of his existence by telling his reader, “I was fifty-seven years old before I mellowed enough to be a great husband to anyone.”

—Henry Zeybel

Smallwar by Larry Kipp

Larry Kipp’s Smallwar: My Twenty-Seven Months as a Medic in Vietnam (Hellgate, 262 pp. $12.95, paperback; $5.99, Kindle) is a wonderfully written and crafted book. This memoir from the first-time author is informative, personal, and heartwarming.

Kipp enlisted in the U.S. Army in March 1967 because, he says, he “wanted to help people” and being a medic seemed to be the best way to go about doing that. After training, he went to Vietnam and became an airborne medic for more than two years with the 44th Medical Brigade as part of a Dustoff helicopter crew.

The book’s 70 free-standing mini-chapters are presented in loose chronological order and resemble a long, informative conversation taking place over an extended period. Some are simply a few paragraphs on a single page; others are multiple pages in length. Some are informative; some are deeply personal; some are observational. The entry describing Doc Kipp’s R&R during which he met his Peace Corps-serving brother in Borneo was particularly well done.

Smallwar is a page turner that invites the reader go on to the next vignette—and the next one. Kipp—who earned a PhD in Biology and taught at several universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada after the war—provides a close look at what his airborne war was all about. He tells of the daily grind of flights to retrieve the wounded and dead from the battlefield, but without angst and drama that so easily could have slowed down his story.

His “Afterthoughts” section alone is well worth the price of admission. In it, Kipp writes from the heart about the changes he went through as he served his country in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, even those only casually interested in the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam: A Marine’s Chronicle of Change by Byron C. Mezick

Byron “Butch” Mezick was a troubled young man when he joined the Marine Corps. He had barely graduated from high school and was described as “arrogant, resentful of authority, and without direction.” He enlisted in 1963 because a friend joined and he had few options.  Before his four years were up, Mezick had transformed to a U.S. Marine with leadership skills. Vietnam: A Marine’s Chronicle of Change (310 pp., $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is his memoir of his time in Vietnam.

He starts the book with a description of an incident that happened when he was a corporal in charge of a squad and let his men drink beer on his first patrol in Vietnam. He was court-martialed. Mezick then flashes back to how he got to that moment.

Among other things, Mezick got drunk on the train to boot camp and wasn’t the world’s best trainee. The DIs called him a “scuzzy hog” who was “lower than whale shit.” You won’t bet on him finishing, but gradually his “neighborhood’s negative influences [faded] away like an early morning fog yielding to the rising sun,” and he made it out of boot camp.

However, there would be bumps in the road. Mezick got drunk and arrested after boot camp. He was court-martialed early in his Vietnam War tour with Bravo Company of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines. (He later served with Headquarters Company in 3rd Marines in the 3rd Marine Division.) That court-martial proved to be a deep hole to climb out of. 

Mezick’s first firefight came after his unit stumbled into an ambush. Soon after, his mentor was killed and Mezick transitioned into a cold-blooded killer. He then gradually learned to be a leader and was promoted accordingly. He became a squad leader of Combined Action Platoon working with the South Vietnamese Popular Forces in Loc Dien and Loc Bon villages. 

The CAP Marines lived in or near villages and were effective in countering local VC. Mezick took this Hearts and Minds job seriously. He tried to integrate Vietnamese culture into his experience. That included eating some meals that were almost harder to get though than being in a firefight. He became a seasoned and savvy NCO. When Mezick left Vietnam, his counterparts begged him to re-up, but he had a wife and baby waiting for him at home, and declined.

Mezick writes well and the book is neither too technical nor a collection of war stories. He did see action, but does not exaggerate to titillate. As he puts it: “War is noise, confusion, screaming, and fear.” He is matter of fact about his experiences and candid about mistakes he made.

Mezick

Life’s transitions are a theme in the book, as Mezick chronicles his remarkable transformation from high school loser to Vietnam War veteran. Another theme is leadership as Mezick uses the book to pass on leadership lessons he learned in country.

The book is not a critique of the war, although Butch Mezick’s experiences with the ARVN and the PF are not exactly examples of the efficacy of Nixon’s Vietnamization policy. He is not bitter toward the Marines Corps. In fact, he is proud of the man that it molded.  

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It combines a memoir of an interesting Vietnam War tour of duty with a tutorial on leadership in war.

–Kevin Hardy

From the Rice Paddies to the Jungle by Ed Dull

Ed Dull’s memoir, From the Rice Paddies to the Jungle (Author House, 133 pp. $21.95, hardcover; $12.99, paper), is a small book filled with a big heart and lots of love.

Dull, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has constructed a different sort of a memoir. It doesn’t focus on battles, bullets, troops, planes, helicopters, but is built around his letters home and their “messages from the front.”

After his 1968-69 tour of duty as an infantry platoon leader with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in South Vietnam, Dull plugged back into society, went to law school, and made a life for himself and his family. And he said little about his year in the Vietnam War.

After his parents died, Dull came across a box containing all of the letters he’d sent home, along with letters he had sent to friends and neighbors in his small hometown of Mt. Vernon, Illinois—letters his parents had collected and stored. The book began with finding that cache of letters.

Each chapter of the book tells the story of a month of Ed Dull’s year in-country. He starts them with a sketch of that month’s experiences and then adds the letters he sent home.

In August 1968, as a newly minted Army ROTC infantry lieutenant, Ed Dull took command of a 199th platoon in Long Binh. In his book, Dull takes the reader through the locations, missions, and actions of his unit. The letters home frame his feelings and responses to the events of each month; some positive and motivating, others,not so much.

This book is an offering born of family love and loyalty and is refreshing to read.

The book’s website is fromthericepaddiestothejungle.com

–Tom Werzyn

Once We Flew Vol. II by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Joseph Michael Sepesy’s Once We Flew, Volume II: Aftermath (Lulu.com, 306 pp. $24.95, paper; $10, Kindle) is the sequel to the author’s memoir detailing his experiences as a Huey helicopter pilot with the 1st Cav and the 1st Aviation Brigade flying some 2,200 combat hours during his three years in the Vietnam War. This volume focuses on the Sepesy’s life and times after coming home and leaving his Army service behind.

The book is uniquely constructed; the chapters are chronological and are titled as such. At the top and at the bottom of each chapter—before and after the copy—are epigraphs, a series of shorter paragraphs pushed to the margin. They’re informational items that expand on the words in the chapters and also relate to Sepesy’s post-military PTSD challenges. The format at first appears disjointed and cluttered, but as we read on, what Sepesy is doing becomes evident and the book reads well.

After coming home from the war, Sepesy became a special-education teacher in some of the rougher areas of his native Northeast Ohio. He takes the reader through his preparation for teaching, and details some of his classroom and administrative adventures. The epigraphs explain developments that will, in later years, prove to be symptoms and manifestations of his as-yet-undiagnosed PTSD.

Through the years, health issues developed directly related to injuries suffered in a crash landing in Vietnam. Sepesy describes his challenges and continually fills in bits of information with the epigraphs.

During is counseling sessions with VA therapists he was introduced to ballroom dancing.  As his PTSD became more evident and his medical issues more acute, ballroom dancing became very effective therapy. On the dance floor his pain falls away and his balance issues fade as he concentrates on the mechanics of the dance.

Some chapters are almost stream-of-consciousness narratives, another interesting, non-standard construct. A reader might profit from first reading Volume I as there are references in this book that would be clearer with the first book under your belt. Perhaps a short Glossary of military terminology would be good as well.

This is a good telling of one Vietnam War veteran’s efforts to rise above the PTSD gripping his psyche and his world.

Sepesy’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Tom Werzyn

Bravo Troop by William Watson

In William Watson’s Bravo Troop: A Forward Observer’s Vietnam Memoir (McFarland, 278 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle), actions explode out of nowhere without a visible enemy as vehicles and men detonate mines; RPGs blast tanks and APCs; napalm and flame baths obliterate the landscape; and Lt. Watson is in the midst of it all.

Watson served as an artillery forward observer with armored Bravo Troop of the 3rd Squadron, 4th Cavalry in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division from January 10 to July 18, 1969. The book deals with his six months in Vietnam without referencing the rest of his life, although Watson tells us he received a commission through ROTC at Princeton and earned a law degree from Harvard prior to going on active duty.

Bravo Troop primarily conducted road sweeps of highways used by convoys that hauled supplies from Cu Chi near Saigon north to Tay Ninh City and points between. That task included finding mines and protecting trucks from ambushes by NVA and VC troops. Bravo also searched out enemy soldiers and bunkers in surrounding forests and inserted and extracted LRRP teams.         

In recounting what he saw and did, Watson tells enlightening stories about large battles. He writes in a style that coolly reports vivid actions with minimal emotion. In describing his first full-scale firefight, for example, he says, “It was a noise that I had never imagined.”

At times, the narrative held my attention because Watson used an authoritarian voice that said, “Here is what we did and what you should know. Take it or leave it.” Units Bravo operated with suffered heavy casualties and were grossly undermanned. The NVA usually set the pace for encounters.  

Watson’s recalling of events from each and every day of his tour of duty risks boring a reader with details of unproductive exercises and mundane activities. As he puts it: “The real ratio of routine to excitement involved much more routine than I have reported.”

But those short descriptions create a strong feeling for his overall adventure—good and bad. For example, he says, “At the morning briefing Headley said today would be a lot like yesterday, and it was,” and later admits that it “is clear now that I was often unaware of much that was going on around me.”

Personal notes, maps, and cassette tapes from back in the day combined with newly found copies of the Squadron Duty Officer’s Log from the National Archives provided the material for the day-by-day accounts. Although Watson received a Purple Heart and eight Bronze Stars (five for valor), he downplays his heroics.

I don’t know how much information about the Army has slipped my mind during the past fifty years, but Watson taught me more than I thought I knew about being a soldier in the Vietnam War. His recollection of an in-country 25th Infantry new-guy course is eye-opening and excellent. His flowing accounts of maneuvers in the field taught me new knowledge. I frequently referred to the book’s excellent map of Bravo’s operating area.

The young lieutenant’s behavior and subtle reactions to war in general emphasize the shortcomings of the entire Vietnam War effort without a word of preaching. 

—Henry Zeybel

Entwined with Vietnam by Theodore M. Hammett

For a guy who joined the U.S. Marine Corps because his father (a World War II Marine) threatened to disown him if he didn’t, Theodore M. Hammett has an interesting, if offbeat, tale to tell of of his 13 months as the 3rd Medical Battalion supply officer in 1968-69 in South Vietnam. That story makes up half of his memoir, Entwined with Vietnam: A Reluctant Marine’s Tour and Return (McFarland, 287 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). The second half is an account of Hammett’s second Vietnam “tour” as director of an HIV/AIDS project from 2008-12.

A 1967 Harvard-graduate ROTC Marine lieutenant, Hammett did not see combat; drank heavily (often blacking out); frequently ignored military discipline; and seriously disliked the Vietnamese people, the Corps, and the war itself.

But he loved the girl he left behind and saved their letters and tapes, which he uses as the foundation for his recollections in this memoir. He also relies on quotes from like-minded Vietnam War veterans—including Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, and Lew Puller—who were closer to the action.

Above all, as Hammett recreates his Vietnam War experience, he relies on the words and music from songs of the era, which he constantly listened to back in the day. In the Forward, fellow Marine W.D. Ehrhart perfectly sums up one aspect of the book: “The whole first half of this memoir is like strolling through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.”

Hammett dissects himself without apology. He admits to ambivalent feelings centered on a “persistent difficulty” he had that ended in what he calls the “dual cowardice” of fearing to fight in the war and fearing to speak out against it.

Hammett is not immune, however, to understanding what surrounded him. He sees his share of wounded and dead men at Phu Bai and Quang Tri hospitals. Late in his tour, he transcends his “tedious and boring endless paperwork” by voluntarily driving into the field with truck convoys, flying in a damaged C-130, and taking a seat on a helicopter night close support mission. A chapter titled “Seeking Danger” suggests his willingness to confront the issues faced by Vietnam war grunts.

Hammett shaking hands with Gen. Leonard F. Chapman, Jr., the Commandant of the Marine Corps in Quang Tri in 1968. Photo by Gretchen Ertl for The New York Times

Hammett says that during his first tour he saw the Vietnamese “variously as the reason for [his] misery.” He also discusses other Vietnam War aspects, including separation from home, the politics of war, needless casualties, and weak leadership.

As a post-war civilian, Hammett mainly worked for Abt Associates, an organization designed to improve people’s lives worldwide. He specialized in AIDS/HIV prevention among drug users, which led to training sessions for the Chinese government and then training of Chinese and Vietnamese. With Dr. Doan Ngu as his first true Vietnamese colleague and unofficial mentor, Hammett grew captivated by the country of Vietnam.

The second half of Entwined with Vietnam resembles an upbeat tour guide’s look at the culture, landscape, and climate of Vietnam. Hammett’s diverse experiences enlightened me. They are well worth reading. At the same time, Hammett recognizes the weaknesses of the Vietnamese government.

He and his wife (the girl who waited for him during his first tour) lived in Hanoi for four years as he continued working to better humanity. Hammett emphasizes that the Vietnamese people today welcome Americans, noting that “more than three-quarters of the people in Vietnam were born since the America War ended in 1975.”

In essence, his second “tour” was in a very different nation than the one in which he took part in a war five decades ago.

—Henry Zeybel

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