Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.
The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.
Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.
We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.
Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.
This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.
At the age of 21, Tom McGurn flew UH-1H helicopters in the Vietnam War during his 1969-70 tour of duty. A member of the 192nd Assault Helicopter Company in the 10th Combat Aviation Battalion of the 1st Aviation Brigade he operated out of Landing Zone Betty at Phan Thiet.
McGurn recounts his combat tour in Check Ride: Some Had It Better; Some Had It Worse (Deeds, 284 pp. $31.95, hardcover; $19.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) finding meaning in life-threatening wartime tasks, even ones that took the lives of comrades.
I am a big fan of helicopter pilots. The deeds they perform in machines that truly should not get off the ground fascinate me. McGurn shares such feats with a humble view of the past, progressing from rookie copilot to the company’s senior command pilot. Seemingly, he and his fellow helicopter crewmen were on duty every day.
He recounts his year in Vietnam in a writing style that takes the reader along for the ride. McGurn, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, piloted UH-1H slicks, aircraft armed with machine guns fired from side doors by volunteer door gunners. Slicks primarily supplied ammo, water, food, and mail to grunts in the field. During medevac helicopter runs McGurn’s crew brought out the dead and wounded. They also regularly inserted and extracted LRRP teams, led combat assaults, and performed other missions conjured up by mobile warfare thinkers at the upper command levels.
McGurn displays boundless admiration for the grunts he and the other slicks carried. In citing the communal strength of infantrymen, he says, “As a squad, their courage, competence, and rationale is multiplied by ten. That is the true potency of any Military.”
He describes once-in-a-lifetime flights that cheated death. More than once McGurn flew in and out of situations that challenge one’s imagination and once had a UH-1H practically shot out from beneath him. One time he actually backed into a poorly configured landing zone.
His recollections of maneuvering in total darkness during night flights in search of grunts in distress in the deepest jungle convey a precariousness that far transcends normal thoughts of danger. McGurn strengthens his storytelling with quotes from other helicopter pilots and official reports.
There also are touches of black humor. While racing for a bunker during a mortar attack on LZ Betty, for example, his roommate grabbed him to use as a shield when a round landed much too close. Similarly, he describes flying early-morning sniffer missions in search of effluents unique to human beings. He made the most of it by observing that the jungle “was so beautiful this time of day, everything so tranquil, light ground fog over the streams, sun streaming through the lush vegetation… etc.”
McGurn served with the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division as a Tactical Operations Officer in the Iraq War in 2004-05. After 40 years as an Army aviator, he retired in 2008 as a Chief Warrant Officer Four.
Edward Fedrick’s Darkness Bravo: A Soldier Remembers 1966-1967, 1968-1969, (Covenant Books, 326 pp. $33.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) contains 36 chapters of nearly nonstop, close-up, Army grunt action in the Vietnam War. It was a sheer pleasure to read.
Ed Fedrick joined the Army in January 1966. He took a train from Memphis to Ft. Benning for Basic and AIT. He then found himself in Vietnam, based near Quan Loi not far from the Cambodian border, assigned to Bravo Company in the 2nd/8th of the 1st Infantry Division. He received two Purple Hearts during his first tour; after volunteering for a second tour he received two more.
Fedrick fought in five big battles, but most of the book is filled with details of his everyday, small daylight patrols and night ambushes. His descriptions are filled with so many details that you feel you are there with him. At one point during his two tours of day, Fedrick’s company had 54 consecutive days of enemy contact.
Throughout the book, he paints pictures filled with weapon and ammo weights, the pros and cons of different weapons, methods he and others devised to overcome the jamming problem of the M-16, physical characteristics of fellow soldiers, and tales of leadership and bravery.
Ed Fedrick is painfully honest with his feelings about himself and his combat brothers. He speaks of himself as being mediocre and sometimes inadequate. But when you finish reading Darkness Bravo, you’ll find out that he is totally adequate—and a true hero.
Going on patrols an ambushes, his quiet thoughts included things such as, “I know I’m going to die today,” “I’m not going to live through this,” and the same thoughts in other words. Nearly everything he says about his fellow soldiers is complimentary.
After leaving the Army, Fedrick joined the Memphis Police Department. He has retired and with his wife Louise lives in the hills of Tennessee.
Darkness Bravo opens with a good Glossary that will be helpful to the uninitiated. The last 27 pages of this excellent book are filled with beaucoup pictures of Fedrick, his fellow Big Red One soldiers, and his wife. I suggest looking through these pics before reading the book to meet many of the people Fedrick writes about.
Two minor complaints: I would like to have seen a map of his areas of operation and a Table of Contents, or at least chapter titles on the page headers.
That aside, Darkness Bravo is flawlessly presented. Put reading this one on your bucket list.
Albert Viator’s An Accidental (PSY) Warrior: One Soldier’s Recollections of the Psychological Operations Efforts during the Vietnam War (Palmetto Publishing, 278 pp. $19.99, paper) is, as the subtitle says, a recounting of the author’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War as a psychological warfare (PSYOPS) specialist.
Al Viator enlisted in the Army in 1967 with the hope of obtaining an education in journalism. He signed up for three years, made it into the Army’s Defense Information School, and received a dual MOS of 71R 20 (journalism) and 71Q 20 (broadcasting). He then volunteered to go to Vietnam—not to save the world from communism, but to get on-the-job training in his two occupational specialties.
The plan was to as a broadcaster for the Armed Forces Vietnam Network Radio or as a journalist with the Stars and Stripes newspaper. But to his dismay, Viator was assigned to the 4th PSYOPS Group in Saigon and then sent to the 6th PSYOPS Battalion in Bien Hoa. After a few months, he was transferred to the 199th Light Infantry Battalion in Lai Khe.
For most of his tour, Al Viator was on his own and found himself in many combat situations. Infantry units wanted him on hand to broadcast messages over a high-powered PA system to try to get enemy troops to defect. When he wasn’t slogging through rice paddies with the grunts, Viator could be found in a Huey or aboard a small plane littering the landscape with paper leaflets promoting the Chieu Hoi program, which encouraged enemy troops to come over to the South Vietnamese Army
Viator completed his tour in Vietnam, put in another year in the Army stateside, and mustered out in 1970. After earning a degree from Boston University, he spent more than 30 years traveling the world as a journalist and a video producer for National Geographic, ESPN, PBS, CNN, and other media outlets.
In a very casual manner, Viator tells a lot of interesting stories in his war memoir. Throughout much of the book I felt as if I were having a conversation with him and could envision many of the places he described.
I enjoyed reading An Accidental (PSY) Warrior and highly recommend it.
Richard Moore’s An Officer’s Journey: Coming of Age in the Vietnam Era, (203 pp. $10, paperback; $1.99, Kindle) is written in the form of a journal covering Moore’s first engineering job after college and his two years in the U.S. Army, including one in the Vietnam War.
Rick Moore graduated from college in May 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering. Having also completed ROTC training, he was immediately commissioned a 2nd lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. For a few months, while awaiting his active-duty reporting date, he worked as a field engineer for a company that designed, fabricated, and installed large steel tanks.
In September, he reported to Fort Belvoir and spent a year teaching engineering principles and techniques to enlisted and commissioned Army personnel assigned to the Corps of Engineers. While at Belvoir, he received orders for Vietnam, where he served the balance of his two-year commitment as a platoon leader in the 815th Engineer Battalion in the 18th Engineer Brigade at Camp Dillard in the Central Highlands.
With the front cover showing the author in battle gear and toting an M-79, you might think the book contains accounts of wartime action. It doesn’t. In An Officer’s Journey Moore describes his thoughts about the possibility of attacks, but none took place during his tour of duty. Moore and others have surmised that the VC and NVA purposely did not often bother engineers, believing that they would win the war, and the more roads the American military built, the better shape they would be in when they eventually took over.
When the war strategy changed from search and destroy to Vietanamization, morale began to deteriorate. Moore discusses problems with drugs, booze, racial strife, and deteriorating discipline.
Throughout the book, Moore is painfully honest about his actions and his feelings. He seems to have been affected by some of the same issues experienced by other Vietnam War veterans. Like many American troops, his overriding goal was to survive unscathed, go home, and get out of the military.
The two main themes in this book are Rick Moore’s personal dealings with life in general and his descriptions of civil engineering and road construction activities.
Busted: A Vietnam Veteran in Nixon’s America (McFarland, 173 pp. $19.99, paper), originally published in 1995, is a reissue of the third volume of W.D. Ehrhart’s three-part memoirs. That is good news, since Bill Ehrhart is one of the most significant American poets of the war in Vietnam, and it’s important to keep all of his works in print.
The first books of the series are Vietnam-Perkasie: A Combat Marine Memoir (1983) and Passing Time: Memoir of a Vietnam Veteran Against the War (1989). Ehrhart also has written many books of poetry and essays dealing with his Vietnam War service—and with war in general.
While you might think it’s best to have read the first two books in a series prior to reading the third, in Busted Ehrhart fills in all the backstory you need. The book begins just a few days after the end of the previous one. It’s not divided into chapters or broken up in any way. It just starts and goes in pretty much of a stream-of-consciousness style.
After completing his Marine Corps service and graduating from college, Bill Ehrhart took a job as a seaman on an oil tanker. He was busted by the Coast Guard for possession of pot, was fired, and faced federal charges unless he agreed to give up his seaman’s card, which he had no plans to do. In the book Ehrhart describes what he was thinking then and comments on the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the impeachment of Richard Nixon.
Ehrhart says his first night at boot camp on Parris Island was “the most terrifying experience of my life,” due to the harassment of the drill instructors. It didn’t help that a DI told him he was “going to die on this island.” That’s a lot to handle for a seventeen year old.
Then came orders for Vietnam. “What I found in Vietnam bore no resemblance to what I had been led to expect by Lyndon Johnson and Time magazine and my high-school history teachers,” Ehrhart writes (he would later become a high-school history teacher himself.). Because of his Vietnam War service, he says, “I had become something evil, but I did not know what it was or how it happened or why.”
He later joined the antiwar movement, then decided to go to sea in an attempt to escape the political and social chaos in the U.S.A. That’s how he ended up in his cabin in port at Long Beach, California, when his door banged open.
“I was scared shitless” are the first four words in the book. He later told his mom, “I’ve been smoking dope ever since Con Thien.” Then said, “So marijuana is illegal, but it’s okay to drop napalm on gooks.”
From time to time, Ehrhart—who received the Vietnam Veterans of America Excellence in the Arts Award in 2008—writes about Vietnam War atrocities and his visits from the hallucinatory ghosts of men killed in combat. The book ends with the conclusion of his trial.
Bill Ehrhart thinks like a poet and writes like one. And what he has to say is important. That’s why all of his books no longer in print should also be re-issued.
At first impression, Girls Don’t: A Woman’s War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 256 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle) seems implausible and irreverent. The cartoon illustrations on the book cover don’t help, but they accurately reflect the colorful, rebellious personality of Inette Miller, a 23-year-old journalist who married her draftee boyfriend in order to follow him to Vietnam in 1970. Their marriage was an ill-kept secret.
Besides being an unusual chronicle of the war, this memoir is a coming-of-age story. An emerging feminist who protested the war in college, Miller fought her own “war within” of conflicting pressures and emotions.
From 1965-73, a total of 1,742 accredited American reporters covered the Vietnam War. Only 232 were women. Half were in country less than a month and most, Miller claims, never left Saigon.
In contrast, Girls Don’t begins with Miller in a Medevac helicopter out of Khe Sanh. The chopper is hit and then “the worst” happens. Miller–who covered the war for Time magazine—lived to tell the tale, but the reader doesn’t know fully what the worst was until later in the book.
Covering January 1970 to March 1971, Miller draws from her journal and letters she sent home. Written mostly in the present tense, her descriptions and dialogue seem pulled verbatim from those sources, giving the narrative a sometimes disjointed, but vivid, flow.
Miller’s tone often seems naïve, or at least cringe-inducing. She describes skies above Quang Tri, for example, as “crystal blue like a chlorinated swimming pool” and the Ho Chi Minh Trail as “visible from above as a dirt road through a country fair.”
As events unfold, though, her voice evolves, and her observations become more insightful. Most notable are her descriptions of three trips into Cambodia. The first came when she flew to Phnom Penh in March of 1970, where she was “the only Western correspondent to enter Cambodia in years,” she says. (You have to take her word for it; some statements inspire skepticism).
In May she went with other journalists on a short press junket, which she compares to “a fifth grade field trip.” On the way there, an Army private told Miller: “I liked the Vietnamese when I got here. Now I hate them. They’re out to get us. I just want out of here. I want to go home.”
In June, she hitchhiked with two other reporters from Saigon to Phnom Penh, and saw burned villages and bodies and barely camouflaged landmines left on dirt roads by the Viet Cong.
Other chapters are equally vivid. Descriptions and reflections about life in Saigon, her marriage, Army pettiness, and the impact of the American presence on Vietnamese social and cultural norms are all intertwined. Many anecdotes are tragic; others ironic and humorous.
Assigned as a typist in the Army Provost Marshall’s office, Miller’s husband was busted after displaying antiwar cartoons around his desk. When not on duty, he donned civvies and curled up in “a private world” with Miller in a room she rented from a Vietnamese family.
Occasionally, her husband joined her to watch American movies with generals and colonels. During M*A*S*H, they “laughed [their] fool heads off” while the officers sat in “stony silence.”
On the streets of Saigon, they took once had to take cover as a sniper fired at motorcyclists. When an Army truck hit a 12-year-old boy and roared off, they stopped to help, only to be surrounded by an angry mob.
The Medivac that barely made it back, Miller writes in the last chapter, had its tail “wrenched apart” and its body riddled with jagged holes—“the most dramatically destroyed helicopter I’d ever seen bring its crew and passengers back alive.”
By this time she has matured, and, in her telling, won the respect of male colleagues and combatants. Still, at that moment she felt “utterly exposed, raw and vulnerable.” The approval she had been seeking,” she realized, “had been my own.”
Inette Miller wanted to go home. With her husband’s tour of duty ending, they returned stateside in April 1971. Fifteen years later, they divorced.
In Charlie Rangers at War: An Infantry Soldier’s Journal, Vietnam (CreateSpace, 310 pp. $12, paper; $5.40, Kindle), Darrel Gibson provides a gripping account of his own Vietnam War experiences, as well as those of many fellow infantrymen. As an RTO in the Army’s 1st Infantry Division’s 1/16th Infantry (and later with the 9th Infantry Division’s 5/60th), Gibson was well placed to observe events, which he documented daily in a pocket notebook he kept wrapped in plastic.
These notes are the foundation for this book nearly fifty years later, which Robert Cooper, his former platoon and company commander, helped Gibson put together. In 2017, Cooper was very ill, yet he worked tirelessly with Gibson through long, heavily detailed conversations by phone to craft this compelling history.
Gibson volunteered for the draft in January 1968, leaving his native Kansas City, Missouri, for six months of training, then arrived in Vietnam the following summer.
Among the book’s many assets, a few deserve mention. First, by offering his own recollections and those of Cooper’s, Gibson adds those of other men from his platoon. Each man recounts his own experiences of the same action. When Gibson puts them together, they become a layered image of how, step by step, each action was fought. There are vivid details of the acrid smell of burnt gunpowder, the sight of enemy rocket-propelled grenades streaking close to the ground toward the Americans, and the near impossibility for the men to hear each other—let alone coordinate movements—as the lead is flying.
Then there are the descriptions of American tunnel rats who descended into the VC’s massive network of heavily reinforced and supplied tunnels. Filled with weapons and ammunition and supplies of nearly every kind, the tunnels also contained medical and maintenance facilities. These detailed accounts drive home the massive challenges American troops faced against a highly motivated enemy.
At the end of each chapter Gibson provides detailed accounts of the men in his unit who were killed in action. From the start, he drives home the point that each was more than a statistic—that his loss created a void in the world that could never be filled.
Richard Foster’s Kilo 3: The True Story of a Marine Rifleman’s Tour from the Intense Fighting in Vietnam to the Superficial Pageantry of Washington, D.C. (Outskirts Press, 298 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $33.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a well-told memoir focusing on a couple of years in the life of a teen-aged Marine—years filled with hellish combat.
This is one of those memoirs that does not deal with the author’s life before or after his military service. It starts off with a nighttime ambush patrol in the Vietnam War, and then stays focused mainly on a period of just a few months.
Foster joined the Marines at 17. He had been a rebellious teenager growing up in Henrietta, Texas, near the Oklahoma border, when he sensed he was being called to serve his country by fighting in the Vietnam War. After completing boot camp, he spent six months at sea because the Marine Corps didn’t send men to Vietnam until they were eighteen. Before going to the war, when home on leave, fellow Marines told him: “You can go home all you want, but you can never be at home again. Your childhood is over.”
Once in Vietnam, one of the first things Foster heard was someone say, “Ain’t no heroes here, just survivors.” When he was sent to the 3rd Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment he was told he would be “seeing a lot of shit.” Foster joined Kilo Company because, he says, “they recently got wiped out.”
During his Vietnam War tour of duty Foster spent time in Dong Ha, Da Nang, Cam Lo, Con Thien, and Khe Sanh. He writes about jumping into five-man fighting holes, holding his .45 in his lap while getting a quick haircut from a Vietnamese barber, taking sniper fire, what it was like to go two months without a shower, and having to retrace your steps to get out of a minefield. There also are depictions of close-combat fighting and a helicopter crashing for a reason I had not heard of before.
A short but important part at the end of the book finds Foster being recruited for the prestigious Marine Corps Color Guard at the Marine Corps Barracks in Washington, D.C. He accepted the job with mixed feelings.
As to why he wrote his book, Foster writes: “As other wars erupt around the world, it’s never too late to understand the misery and brutality of fighting on the ground or the detached glitter of Washington that continues unabated.”
Overall, his war story is not that much different than those told in many other Vietnam War memoirs, but Foster’s better than most at telling it. The book includes one of the most evocative collections of photos that I’ve seen in a memoir.
Larry Duthie’s Return to Saigon: A Memoir (OK-3 Publishing, 295 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.77, paper; $11.77, Kindle) focuses mainly on the author’s time in Vietnam, which actually began a few years prior to his military service there during the war, and includes a visit he made to the country three decades later.
Duthie’s father was an engineer who took a job in Saigon in 1959 and moved with his family to Saigon. The author spent his senior year of high school attending the American Community School not far from Tan Son Nhut Airport.
In 1965 Duthie enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After a series of coincidences, he was selected from the enlisted ranks to train as a naval aviator. The following year he was in the seat of an A-4, attacking enemy targets in North Vietnam. Among other things, Duthie was shot down near Hanoi, and saved by a helicopter rescue crew that performed heroically under fire.
Throughout the book, I was tickled to read snippets of information of events yet to come, then quickly returned to the present. Later, out of the blue, these events would appear. This was done in a manner that flowed seamlessly, as in a conversation.
Duthie did a great job enabling me to visualize the action as I read. His terminology and descriptions are suitable for aviators and non-aviators alike.
I found two things that Duthie wrote about unsettling. One was that American policymakers’ large egos got in the way of proper action and lives were lost. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, for instance, once was aboard a ship and sat in on an air attack briefing. Because of his presence, the order-of-battle was not presented to the pilots. As a result, a pilot was shot down.
Another instance involved the Air Force rescue team that had extracted Duthie from impending capture after he was shot down. The helicopter had headed back to rescue his wingman who had also been shot down. A Navy admiral denied them permission to do so, stating, “The Navy takes care of its own.” Then a Navy rescue team failed in their attempt to extract that pilot. He was captured the next day and died in captivity as a POW.
Two minor complaints: I would have liked to have seen a map identifying Yankee Station and some of the land targets, as well as a few more images.
Duthie’s degree in journalism and his years in newspaper publishing are apparent in the book’s impeccable writing and editing. For that reason alone it was a very enjoyable read. But add to that the story Duthie tells, and Return to Saigon is a must read.