My War & Welcome to It by Tom Copeland

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Like most teenagers of the time, Tom Copeland had no burning desire to fight in the Vietnam War. But he was drafted into the Army and served for a year in Vietnam with the 1st First Infantry Division. His tour of duty in the war is the centerpiece of  My War and Welcome To It (Sunbury Press, 191 pp. $$19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), which is written in a voice ranging from youthful humor and wonderment to one of great fear of being killed. He prefaces this autobiography by saying: “I was aged beyond my years. I became an old man before my time.”

Copeland describes his life growing up in Southeastern New Mexico, mostly outdoors; getting drafted in August 1966; going through infantry AIT; operating from Lai Khe with a ground surveillance team with the Big Red One’s 2nd Battalion/2nd Regiment in 1967-68; and returning home and working his way up a corporate ladder. The last part was the most difficult.

He  describes military life largely by concentrating on the good and bad behavior of men of all ranks. Copeland highlights individualists such as a trainee who got away with impersonating the boot camp commander and drill sergeants, even in their presence.

He saw plenty of action, including fighting Viet Cong forces at Prek Loc II and Phu Loi, in the Ong Dong Jungle during Operation Paul Bunyan, and at Ong Thanh. Copeland writes in detail about the wounded and dead-and-maimed bodies in only one of those operations, Ong Thanh. That battle, he says, “marked a change in the way I saw the war and the value of human life.”

After the war, Copeland suffered decades of emotional stress involving his family, work, and schools without recognizing that he had post-traumatic stress disorder. In 2003, his nephew displayed PTSD symptoms following three deployments to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Copeland forced the young man to seek medical help. That’s when he realized he had the same emotional problems and went to the VA for treatment.

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Tom Copeland in country

In 2013, Tom Copeland went back to Vietnam to try to ameliorate the negative effects of combat that lingered within him. He and other Vietnam War veterans placed commemorative plaques and flowers at battle sites where friends had been killed.

The book’s concluding chapter is a deeply insightful distillation of the trauma serving in the Vietnam War inflicted on him. He closes that section—and the book—by letting us know that the war is still with him.

“Don’t think for a minute I have forgotten those things that took place years ago,” he writes, “They have just become easier to live with.”

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

363 Days in Vietnam by Michael Stuart Baskin

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Michael Stuart Baskin, who was drafted into the Army during the height of the Vietnam War, classifies himself as among the large majority of troops who served in country who weren’t “grunts” but “have ALL kinds of stories to tell, even if they’re not ‘war’ stories, per se.”

Boredom and solitude filled the first 130 days of Baskin’s time with the Americal Division, as he recreates it in 363 Days in Vietnam: A Memoir of Howitzers, Hook-Ups & Screw-Ups from My Tour of Duty, 1968 to 1969 (Primedia eLaunch, 215 pp. $13.75, paper; $3.98, Kindle)

Wandering around LZs Cherry Hill and Fat City near Chu Lai, he had no official job and made no friends. He occasionally served as a “man Friday” to a supply sergeant, frequently stood guard duty, and often endured KP, which he calls “cruel and unusual punishment.”

On Day 130, he volunteered for, and began a job in, the Fire Direction Center (cinched by his high AFQT math score). Life among howitzer personnel pleased him, and he writes about nearly everything he learned within that environment. His group rotated among LZs: Fat City, Dottie, back to Cherry Hill, and Buff.

On Day 303, Baskin survived a large-scale Viet Cong attack on LZ Buff that killed eight Americans and wounded twenty. Afterward, Baskin and two other men buried 27 Viet Cong in a mass grave.

A week of R&R in Singapore, which he describes at length, provided Baskin’s other unforgettable main event in Asia.

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Michael Stuart Baskin

In a quiet manner, he portrays himself as a victim made to serve in the war. He felt as if “the powers that be were simply keeping us busy.”

He notes that countless men similar to him are examples of how the United States government needlessly stole a year from too many young men’s lives. He learned a moral:  Don’t send American troops to fight for a country unless that country is fully committed to helping itself.

I say, Amen to that.

Photographs shot by Baskin support every part of his story.

—Henry Zeybel

Up-Close & Personal By Robert C. Bogison

71fyhgjx9llUp-Close & Personal: In-Country, Chieu Hoi, Vietnam 1969-1970 (415 pp. $17.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a gritty memoir, a very personal account of what the Vietnam War was like for Robert C. Bogison.

To me, the purpose of the book is to document the unique role of the 720th Military Police Battalion, or the “Bushwackers” as they were known in Vietnam. Bogison enlisted in the Army in 1968, went to MP school, and was assigned to the Bushwackers in Vietnam in July 1969. This unit performed many of the ambush and reconnaissance duties of infantry troops and their contributions have never been recognized. His company, Bogison says, was the only combat infantry company in the history of the U.S. Military Police Corps.

Bogison, a retired Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective and life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, is an excellent storyteller. I found his descriptions of firefights and friendly fire incidents very vivid and real. He especially shows how difficult living conditions were in the wet, muddy, insect-infected Mekong Delta.

One memorable incidence Bogison describes in great detail began when his squad retrieved the remains of GIs killed on the Mekong River after a helicopter crash. The MPs ignored orders and stayed on their boat as they figured out how to fish the bodies from the river. When they finally achieved their objective, Bogison and company were threatened with courts martial for disobeying orders and were told they were going to the stockade for 99+1 years. This ended up never happening.

Aside from stories about the horrors, pain, and discomfort experienced in Vietnam, Bogison recounts several humorous incidents. For example: He describes a rash he had on his arms not caused by jungle rot; it came from putting his ammo bandoleers on backwards. He also tells of losing a bet dealing with whether or not his unit came upon pink elephants. They did—the pachyderms had rolled around in red clay.

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Robert Bogison

Then there was the time his squad was attacked by stone-throwing apes throwing who were unhappy because the men disturbed their sleep. They also developed a method to ride surfboards between waves created by their river boats’ wakes.

What is remarkable to me is how fifty-plus years later Bagison could write such a detailed and moving account of his tour in the Vietnam War.

I recommend it to anyone who wants an accurate account of what it was like to serve in an MP unit in the trenches in the Vietnam War.

–Mark S. Miller

Fun, Fear, Frivolity by Ian Cavanough

Ian Cavanough’s, Fun Fear Frivolity: A Tale of the Vietnam War by an Aussie Grunt (352 pp., $4.99, Kindle) is a very interesting look back at his months of training in the Australian military and his year of service in South Vietnam in 1970 and 1971.

With a high-school education, Cavanough volunteered for National Service, similar to the American draft. He reported for training at Kapooka Base, near Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales in July 1969. He then went through several months of basic training, followed by infantry and jungle training.

Traveling in Australia he was expected to wear civilian clothing “because of the controversy surrounding the Vietnam War,” Cavanough writes. Some days during training he and fellow soldiers were not even allowed to go into the nearest town because of demonstrations against the war.

In South Vietnam he was based at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province as a member of the Second Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment/New Zealand Battalion. Their general area of operations seemed to be in a pretty swampy region between Saigon and Vung Tau.

Cavanough points out that the Australian military’s experience in South Vietnam was quite different than that of the Americans. The Australians mostly confined themselves to one province, Phuoc Tuy, and did not throw lots of resources into the war, nor engage in large battles.

The self-described “dumb grunt” tells most of his stories from the infantryman’s level. There’s no big-picture description of the war here, nor would I expect there to be. Cavanough writes his story in a conversational manner, as if his readers were circled around him holding on to every word.

Since his platoon spent more than 300 days out on operations, he seems to take great pleasure in detailing his few days of in-country R&R at Vung Tau. He devotes an entire chapter on Vung Tau, which he titles “Rest in Country and the Bar Girls!” During my year in Vietnam I was based at the airfield at Vung Tau where I worked alongside Australians on almost a daily basis. Cavanough insists on noting in his book that the Australians stationed in Vung Tau were “not involved in actual combat,” as he and his buddies frequently were.

As for his combat experiences, Cavanough writes: “It’s a strange feeling being shot at. You can hear each round as it passes overhead … crack, crack, crack, crack, crack. You then hear where the rounds are coming from as a thud, thud, thud, thud, thud. You know exactly where the shooter is even though you can’t see him.”

 

Australian troops landing at Vung Tao in 1965

Cavanough uses a great deal of humor in relating the experiences he shared with mates, such as guys he refers to as Digger, Johnny Three Fingers, Killer, Moon, and Wooly. He peppers the story with quite a bit of Australian slang. That required this American reader to pay closer attention and to engage more with the author and the book. That’s never a bad thing.

The book includes a few operational maps from the time and a great many interesting photographs. I enjoyed reading it.

Cavanough is offering an emailed version of the book to Vietnam Veterans of America members at no cost. Email him at iancavanough@gmail.com and when you do please mention you read about his book on The VVA Veteran‘s Books in Review II page.

–Bill McCloud

Fifty Years in a Foxhole By Charles Kniffen

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Fifty Years in a Foxhole (Sunbury Press, 266 pp. $19.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is an account of Charles Kniffen’s seven months in the Vietnam War with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in 1966.  It is also a mosaic of the years since the war and the author’s struggles with PTSD. Kniffen writes with a rich style that has very vivid descriptions.

Some examples: “The Chief and I lounged like lizards in our bunker, playing with rats, chewing pineapple, and relaxing in the silence of the moment. Any time nothing is happening is a good time.” and “Or he’d manage to stay out of harm’s way, which was a tall order in these parts. Harm was as abundant and slick as a weasel in a tub of duck necks.”

I found two of Kniffen’s Vietnam War stories particularly well done. The first is about an ambush with a newbie named Henderson. Kniffen describes the noises in the jungle at night and the fear that NVA sappers were getting ready to attack. The choice was whether to blow the ambush or be quiet and hide. The second story involves Operation Prairie Map during which the author was wounded three times and survived a long night waiting to be medevaced out the next day.

The book jumps around and is hard to follow at times. In each chapter Kniffen tells a Vietnam war story, then flashes forward to say something about an incident from his life after the war. The after-war accounts were especially hard to follow

Kniffen talks about his ex-wife Claire and his two kids, Jim and Ivy. His also sprinkles in accounts of many sexual adventures with women such as Penny, Cindy, and his current wife, Rhonda. All of that left me asking many questions about his life that were left unanswered. Such as what happened to his first wife, why was his son in jail, how did he meet Rhonda, what motivated him to get an education and how long did it take to recover from his wounds. The book would have been much easier to follow if it was written in chronological order.

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Charles Kniffen

I found Kniffen’s epilogue the most interesting part of the book. “It was a stupid war motivated by fear of the unknown and, as is so frequently the case, political chicanery,” he writes. “Veterans of recent wars are more than usually afflicted with PTSD because these wars have been entirely without sound cause or purpose even after the supposed ‘lessons’ of Vietnam regarding unwinnable and inane military forays abroad.”

These opinions could have added some excellent perspective to the main sections of the book. Overall, though, the writing is first class and there are interesting sections, even as some readers may find it difficult to follow.

–Mark S. Miller

Fighting Shadows in Vietnam by Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.

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The most interesting section of Fighting Shadows in Vietnam: A Combat Memoir (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle) describes the U.S. Army’s 1970 invasion of Cambodia as author Michael P. Moynihan, Jr.—who was wounded as an RTO with the 1st Air Cavalry Division—experienced it.

Shortly after graduating from high school, Mickey Moynihan volunteered for the draft to continue his family’s tradition of serving in the military. His father had fought in the Pacific during World War II, and his brother had been a Marine in Nam during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Five-five and 130 pounds, 19-year-old Moynihan found the physicality of infantry life a challenge beyond expectations. Constantly on patrol, however, he grew accustomed to living in the jungle. He perfectly presents the rigors of infantry life in the Vietnam War with stories about a three-day sweep of Nui Ba Ra (White Virgin Mountain) in search of the enemy while struggling merely to reach the hilltop.

His view of the Cambodia invasion reflects additional struggles. Following what appeared to be last-minute plans, his and another 1st Cav company captured 326 tons of North Vietnamese weapons and supplies. They blew up more than they hauled away. As Moynihan describes the scene, chaos ruled every activity. After being wounded in Cambodia, Moynihan became a waiter in the commanding general’s mess at Phuoc Vinh.

Readers familiar with the Vietnam War might feel bothered by Moynihan’s recitation of information hashed over in innumerable other memoirs. For example, he explains C-rations, C-4 explosives, the P-38 can opener, Claymore mines, and every-day grunt duties.

At the same time, he evaluates relationships between soldiers in his own personalized terms. Moynihan’s insights center on what he learned about people through physically and mentally challenging events. He enjoyed the unity and fellowship that linked his fellow lower-ranking troops.

The death of friends, however, gave him powerful survivor-guilt feelings. In this regard, he experienced what I read as the onset of PTSD when he saw a dead comrade in Cambodia. His reaction: “I felt sick in a way I had never known before. It was an illness of both body and mind—deep sadness, a poisoning of the heart.”

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Moynihan

Moynihan righteously complains about officers who considered young infantrymen as interchangeable and expendable. He saw self-serving officers as enemies. As a waiter in the CG’s mess, he gained insight into the chasm that separates officers from each other and the true distance between them and enlisted men.

“War took from me the innocence of youth,” he says, “and led me to dark places. It shaped me into the man I am today.”

Moynihan exudes tremendous pride for his role in the Vietnam War, and does not hesitate to display it through his philosophical thoughts on humanity and warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hump by Al Conetto            

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Vietnam War historians consider the fighting that took place the Ia Drang Valley on November 14-17, 1965, as the first major engagement between U.S. Army forces and the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The battle became immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. The movie based on Gen. Moore and Galloway’s book further glorified the event.

Showing full respect toward the 1st Cavalry Division that fought in the Ia Drang, Al Conetto questions that battle’s precedence by citing Operation HUMP in which U.S. Army and PAVN/Viet Cong contingents clashed in War Zone D on Hill 65 nine days earlier—from November 5-9, 1965. Conetto describes the earlier encounter in The HUMP: The 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, in the First Major Battle of the Vietnam War (McFarland, 216 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle). Conetto contends that that engagement changed the nature of the Vietnam War from a hit-and-run guerrilla action to a contest between large-scale American and enemy main force units.

During Operation HUMP, Lt. Conetto led a rifle platoon. “This is my story,” he writes. “This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what I experienced, what I read and what I believe. This is my truth, but it is also” the men of his battalion’s “story.”

Conetto builds his case with many interviews from former comrades, grim photographs, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) Staff Journal and the After-Action Report, a citation for Medic Lawrence Joel’s Medal of Honor, a Presidential Unit Citation, chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and his own service record.

HUMP began with an air assault by U.S. and Australian troops on November 5. The first two days “passed with no contest other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance,” Conetto says. Intense fighting began on the morning of November 8 when a U.S. platoon met a much larger enemy force and suffered almost 100 percent casualties with “nerve shattering speed.”

He describes the fighting from the viewpoints of individual soldiers and shows that Hill 65 was a bloodbath on both sides. Those killed in action numbered 49 Americans, one Australian, and 403 PAVN. Five days later,fighting on a larger scale began in the Ia Drang Valley and, Conetto says, “America quickly forgot the HUMP.”

On a second tour in Vietnam, Conetto commanded a company before transferring to G2 as the briefing officer for a commanding general.

In The HUMP, Conetto sandwiches the story of Hill 65 between a history lesson he calls “The Road to War,” which also includes glimpses of his childhood and his post-war life. The latter section is arguably the book’s highlight because it details the destructiveness of Conetto’s PTSD and his slow and painful progress in learning to regulate—but never conquer—it. His recollections and conclusions about post-combat feelings and behavior revived several attitude issues of my own that I had thought were long gone.

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In the broadest terms, Conetto gives readers their money’s worth by providing two short books in one.

An excellent companion piece to The HUMP is retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale’s Just Another Day in Vietnam, which takes place in 1967. Comparing the two books’ episodes of combat shows how platoon-level tactics barely changed during the two years after Operation HUMP and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley fighting supposedly altered the nature of the war.

—Henry Zeybel