And the Redbird Sings by Phillip Dowsett

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Phillip Dowsett tells the reader in the Preface to his memoir, And the Redbird Sings: You are not Alone. You Are Loved. There is Hope. (338 pp., $14.95, paper’ $4.99, Kindle), that he does not want his words to hurt anyone and that he does not want to contribute to the pain that most of us are already in.  Dowsett describes himself an old, blown-up war veteran, a recovering drug addict and alcoholic, and that this book was not easy for him to write.

While reading this book I had no notion that it had been easy to write or that Dowsett’s life had been easy to live. Far from it. He says he “was stuck in the darkness of my living nightmare for twelve years before a Veterans Outreach Center opened near my home.”  And that he’d survived “twenty-five years of frightening nightmares and suicidal depression.”

The painful memories of his childhood, of the Vietnam War, and of homelessness and an alcohol and drug-addicted life have been his to face and try to deal with. Dowsett, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, had served aboard a heavily armed Navy gunboat as a radioman in Vietnam and had been seriously wounded several times, ending up in Naval hospitals for weeks at a time.

Dowsett’s memoir takes place in 1967-68 when his unit, River Assault Squadron Nine, conducted search and destroy missions in the Mekong Delta south of Saigon. He was prepared for this service by an all-American boyhood that involved playing in creeks, fields, and woods where he lived the fantasies of being Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, and Jim Bowie.

Dowsett also grew up with seventeen years of a violent father and an insane, violent mother. When he returned home after serving in Vietnam, he learned there would be no parades, that he would not be celebrated as a hero, and that even though he’d fought valiantly, he returned to be treated as a criminal. He learned quickly not to trust the VA, and to be wary of antiwar protesters who chanted at him about killing babies.

He’d spent almost two years living aboard a small ship, LST 1148, but nobody was interested in hearing about this aspect of his service. He saw antiwar protesters as rich college kids who scorned him for having served in the Navy. He’d spent his time in Vietnam bathing in Agent Orange-laced river water, and he would soon reap the effects of the poison he and millions of other Vietnam War veterans were been exposed to.

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Dowsett eventually learned that nothing good comes from alcohol and drugs. He managed—with the help of those who loved him—to turn over a great number of leaves and makes something good of himself.

This is a powerful story and one well worth reading. I enjoyed it and it held my attention.

—David Willson

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Through Smoke-Teared Eyes by Johnny F. Pugh

Johnny Pugh was drafted into the Army when he lost his college deferment. He went on to serve in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division beginning in the sweltering heat of July 1966. It was just the first of many shocks for the young biracial New Mexican. Those shocks that took place during his twelve months in country took over his mind and body in ways Pugh never could have expected. He survived combat with only two Purple Hearts, but his soul was destroyed.

Through Smoke-Teared Eyes: The Vietnam War I Fought (iUniverse, 293 pp., $21.95, paper; $3.99, e book) is a wonderfully written narrative of Pugh’s twelve months as an infantryman. It is heart-breakingly honest as Pugh brings the reader into his hooch and lives and walks you with him as he goes through the horror of combat with his unit, Company A of the 2nd Battalion of the 27th Infantry Regiment.

The writing flows as Pugh leads the reader into the killing zones of Operation Attleboro. You cringe at the brutality of war, along with the insidious nonsense that follows it. Pugh tells of his exposure to the black market and other moral challenges he faced with his buddies. There is little humor and a fair amount of Chicano street language that is easy to follow, but what comes through above all is the honesty of the man as he coped with the ghosts he encountered.

Pugh began writing this book as his health declined. He went back to letters his family had saved from those days and the reader can see him take the words from paper and into the reality he faced. Pugh died in 2011 before finishing his book from the all-too-common ills of the Vietnam War: PTSD, Agent Orange, denied VA treatment, alcohol, drugs, and the hardships our nation put on the backs of its Vietnam War veterans.

The book is a testament to his sheer determination and will to write his story for others to see. Pugh’s third wife and young daughter took on the task of getting the book ready for publication—a labor of love.

The book is important for several reasons. First, it is a written window into just one of the millions of kids our nation’s leaders sent to war under false premises and with false promises. Johnny Pugh was strong enough to write his story. He could easily have been one of thousands who were unable to write it. It is a book that needs to be sent to every politician as they consider sending young people to kill and maim in the name of freedom.

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For some, the book will be a hard read because it exposes many unpleasant truths. The truth of officers, poorly trained, and foggy missions leading to the deaths of friends for no apparent reason. The truth of fear of dying, fear of losing friends, fear of betrayal by those you think are friends. The fear of cowardice or defining courage. These are all in question as one reads Pugh’s story.

Through it all, you see the mind of a young and innocent man grappling with the brutal reality of day-to-day living in the infantry in the Vietnam War.

In the end this is eulogy for Johnny Pugh all of his fellow infantrymen who served in the Vietnam War.

—Bud Alley

Lessons in Leadership by General John R. Deane Jr. – Edited by Jack C. Mason

I  believe that Army generals are cut from the same khaki cloth. Young officers find mentors and devotedly follow them until it’s their time to lead; then they collect followers and mentor them. In that way, generals maintain their version of what Kipling called “the thin red line.” Generals live in a world unto themselves.

Lessons in Leadership: My Life in the U.S. Army from World War II to Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 261 pp.; $50, hardcover; $40, Kindle) by Gen. John R. Deane Jr. and edited by Jack C. Mason validates my belief.

Deane graduated from West Point in 1942 and served in the Army until 1977. He fought in World War II and in Vietnam. His father was a well-liked major general, a fact that opened many doors for John Junior, a situation he frequently acknowledges.

John R. Deane, Jr., West Point, Class of 1942

True to its title, Lessons in Leadership provides guidance from Deane accumulated as a staff officer and a commander who attained four-star rank. He often cites his teachers. For example, Gen. James Gavin taught him, Deane writes, to “inspire people to outdo themselves” and then he tells how he built on that idea. Deane also preaches that “substance is more important than form,” words that should be tattooed on the forearms of PowerPoint-crazed staff officers.

He tells stories in a conversational style that flows from topic to topic. He narrates combat experiences in a nonchalant, nearly emotionless, voice. He underplays them and yet delivers the full impact of what took place.

Deane’s writing allows a reader to experience vicariously what he did and to understand exactly why he did it.  In World War II Deane and his men entered combat in October 1944 and engaged in all-but continuous fighting for two hundred days. He rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and received many decorations as a battalion commander in the 104th Timberwolves Infantry Division led by Gen. Terry Allen, a boyhood idol who became a friend.

Deane’s account of time in the Vietnam War sets new standards for leadership. With the 1st Infantry Division commanded by Gen. William E. DePuy, Deane shared deputy commander duties with Gen. James E. Hollingsworth, whose life is recounted in the new James Willbanks biography, Danger 79er.

The three generals flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside their men in combat. After taking over as the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Deane jumped with men (first man out the door) in February 1967 during Operation Junction City to form a blocking force for two hundred fifty follow-on helicopters with five thousand soldiers.

The three generals ignored criticism of their unconventional behavior. Each man saw himself as “a soldier’s general” and set positive examples at every opportunity. Deane’s troops called him “Uncle John.”

Deane imparts thought-provoking lessons he learned during that time. Eyewitness accounts from soldiers interviewed by Mason support Deane’s recall of many events.

On Feb. 22, 1967, Gen. Deane led the 2nd Battalion of the 503rd Parachute Infantry out the door of a C-130 north of Tay Ninh City in the first U.S. combat jump since the Korean War, and the only mass jump of the Vietnam War.

Beyond the two wars, Deane commanded forces in Germany, Korea, and the Dominican Republic. He also worked in research, engineering, and force development. Based on these jobs, particularly those in Washington, D.C., he recalls encounters with senior officers and career managers. He explains how to make sound decisions while working with senior people, as well as uncovering weaknesses without getting everybody mad at you.

When you do your job well, he says, you can make enemies. The solution is to do what best meets the objectives of the organization. His discussions of several events in his life read like pages out of Catch 22. A couple of his encounters made me laugh out loud. At the same time, his teaching is priceless.

When describing other men, Deane details not just their actions, but also blends in their personalities and brings them fully to life. He ties together stories, recollections, and rumors to explain controversies about leadership such as Terry Allen’s loss of command of the 1st Infantry Division during World War II. In these passages, his storytelling resembles a Vanity Fair exposé. He ends each account by explaining how it influenced his leadership style and the behavior of his subordinates. He repeatedly credits subordinate commanders for his units’ successes.

With authoritative certainty, Deane categorizes leaders into four groups largely based on a willingness to commit oneself to a task. Category One contains fearless people—beyond a physical sense—who make decisions without fearing personal consequences. Category Two’s people know and feel fear but have a characteristic that drives them onward, such as pride, religion, or family. Category Three is composed of followers of the leaders in the two other categories who need help to conquer their fears. People in Category Four will quit, no matter what happens. These categories apply to civilian as well as military leaders, Deane says.

Credit for the book’s readability must include its editor Jack C. Mason. A few years before his death in 2013 at the age of ninety-four, Deane provided manuscripts to Mason that documented his career. After that, the two men communicated nearly daily.

“When I asked him to explain or expound on something, he replied in detail,” Mason writes. Mason also researched information that broadens Deane’s stories and includes these findings as italicized paragraphs in the text.

A recurring theme is the clash of egos between generals. Deane does not hesitate in naming those he considers worthy of star rank and those who were unworthy. In the latter case, he reduces the image of one general to that of a sobbing infant.

Which is one reason that reading Deane’s book provides more lessons about Army generals than some people might want to know.

—Henry Zeybel

Blood in the Hills by Robert Maras and Charles W. Sasser

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Co-written by Robert Maras and Charles Sasser, Blood in the Hills: The Story of Khe Sanh: The Most Savage Fight of the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 288 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle) is a memoir of Maras’ Marine Corps service before, after, and primarily during his experiences when he took part in the April-May 1967 hill fights around Khe Sanh.

The book is organized into forty-six chapters; each is a stand-alone story. The reader gets immersed in virtually non-stop, down-and-dirty, grunt fighting directed at killing the enemy—and surviving long enough to go home.

Combat often has been called interminable boredom punctuated by moments of terror. The Khe Sanh hill fights were more like interminable terror punctuated by moments of boredom.

Maras produces some great thoughts and gallows humor in the midst of this interminable terror. To wit:

  • “When the shells exploded, they seemed to blast a hole in the universe through which you caught a glimpse of eternity.”
  • “For those who fight for life, it has a special flavor the protected shall never know.”
  • “It was shooting and killing for breakfast, shooting and killing for lunch, shooting and killing for dinner.”
  • “Golf’s Corpsmen had more guts than a gut wagon in a slaughterhouse”

Maras knew that back in the World, higher-up strategists were moving colored pins around maps. As they did, Maras’s commander would move his troops to mirror the pins. Maras asked himself: “I wonder if God has a map of the universe with colored pins.”

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The Khe Sanh hill fights concentrated around Hills 861, 881N and 881S.

The malfunctioning M-16 is covered at great length throughout this book. Despite their desperation and anger, and knowing the M-16 was defective and unreliable, Maras and his fellow stalwart Marines followed orders and without hesitation assaulted the enemy as if they themselves were kings of the hills—which, in the end, they proved to be.

Blood in the Hills is a must-read.

—Bob Wartman

Jellybeans in the Jungle by Bob Whittaker

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When Bob Whittaker was a student in the sixties, his sympathies were with the antiwar movement. He was working as a primary school teacher in western Queensland in Australia when he was drafted into the Aussie army in 1969.

In his memoir, Jellybeans in the Jungle: From Teacher to NASHO and Back (EIEIO, 165 pp., $32, AUD, hardcover; $7.50, AUD, e book), we learn the details of recruit training, after which Whittaker was assigned to the 7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, which deployed to Vietnam in 1970.

Whittaker describes his service in Vietnam which included deadly encounters with the enemy as well as humdrum service in the rear where he worked as a projectionist—a job he’d learned as a civilian teacher on a similar Bell and Howell machine. We also learn a lot about R & R in Bangkok.

Whittaker writes about his re-entry problems after coming home to Australia. He encountered many of the same sorts of prejudices that Americans did when they returned home from the Vietnam War. He had no brass band waiting for him in Toowoomba.

Whittaker says that in the book he focuses mostly on the lighter aspects of his tour of duty. But he also describes incidents of friendly fire and includes a discussion of the effects of carpet bombing on the indigenous population, as well as details about Agent Orange and what it did to the people and environment in Vietnam—and what it did to him personally. He is convinced that one of his offspring was born dead due to his extreme exposure to the highly toxic defoliant.

“More than thirty-five years later, in the summer storm season at my home in Toowoomba, the sound of distant thunder reminds me of the rumbling sound of B-52s carpet bombing suspected North Vietnamese concentrations,” Whittaker writes.

Whittaker in the jungle

I was especially interested in the comments he makes about the ARVN being not good soldiers and that there were “some very good American units.” He goes on to say, though, that he didn’t “trust the Americans after witnessing a live-fire demo” during his first week in-country.

The jellybeans of the title (and featured on the cover) do appear in the book, but how they appear is too complicated to explain here. Buy this fine book and read more about jellybeans than anyone needs to know.

For ordering info, go to the book’s website, jellybeansinthejungle.blogspot.com

—David Willson

Fire to Light by Charles Malone

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Charles Malone was drafted into the U. S. Army, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam, War with the Provost Marshall’s Office in Saigon. Malone got nowhere near the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam—along with most of the rest of us who served in Vietnam.

He spent his 1971-72 tour, Malone writes in Fire to Light: A Memoir of Family, Race, and War (Paramount Press, 316 pp., $13.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), on “the streets of wild and woolly Saigon—a place of crazy traffic, drugs, women, music, graft and tension among the troops as America’s role in the war was winding down.”

This memoir is written like a novel, complete with elaborately reconstructed conversations from decades ago. The country was in the throes of Vietnamization, an ordeal that President Nixon claimed to place a lot of faith in. Those of us who had served in South Vietnam placed no faith in it at all. To most of us it was a con job—another way to bilk money out of the American taxpayer.

Charles Malone grew up in North Carolina in a small town where Jim Crow was a way of life. In the U. S. Army, however, there was no segregation or institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.  Thousands of southern white soldiers had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy.

Malone includes many anecdotes in his memoir related to the struggle to accept the coming of a new age of race relations. He often marvels when he witnesses African Americans in positions of power, such as master sergeants bossing around white soldiers.

Many statements in the book rankled me, such as “the guys that wound up in Vietnam tended to be those with the least means or smarts to get out of it.” That rankled because I didn’t (and don’t) want to think of myself as that guy.

On the other hand, a few sentences later Malone writes that “None were craftier in figuring out how to stay out of harm’s way than the future chickenhawks, neoconservatives and other ferocious noncombatants who would in the future have no problem pushing other people besides themselves—or their own kids—into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No way I’d argue with that.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

This is an enjoyable, readable book that could have benefited from some judicious editing. Malone says some things twice and some three times. Once was enough.

Still, it was pleasant to encounter a mention of Arlo Guthrie, and also a frank admission that Saigon was “the rear” and a far safer place to spend the war than in the field. It’s brave to say that straight out.

So thanks for this book and thanks for a look at Vietnam War as it wound down.

Early on, Malone makes the point that Vietnam is a stinky place. But to his credit, unlike most authors, he goes on to say that the Vietnamese no doubt thought of Americans as stinky, too.

I’m sure they did, and not just in the way he means.

Malone’s website is charlesmalonewrites.com

—David Willson

Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson