Behind My Wings by BJ Elliott Prior

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As a stewardess for the Military Airlift Command in 1969-71, BJ Elliott Prior developed a life-long love for members of the armed forces. Back then, she served on flights that carried troops to and from South Vietnam. Often she saw the same men before and after their tours. Decades later she found Vietnam War veterans and interviewed them about their participation in the war. She  has recorded their experiences, with the help of Linda Lou Combs Wiese, in Behind My Wings: Untold Stories of Vietnam Veterans (Burkhart, 228 pp. $15.99, paper).

The stories come from former officers and enlisted men who talk about the past in similar ways: search-and-destroy missions, living in the jungle, exposure to Agent Orange, massive artillery and air firepower, emotional swings, PTSD, failed marriages. At the same time, Prior finds idiosyncrasies that give each man individuality.

She examines the apprehension of young men en route to a war they did not fully understand and the fragmented personalities of those who survived combat with drastically altered values. She describes one veteran who talked “as though part of him was left back on those battlefields.”

The book’s subtitle notwithstanding, most of these accounts add little new information about the Vietnam War. However, the mens’ observations rank beyond the ordinary when described through Prior’s innocent eyes. She suffers when they suffer and pays a psychological price along with them.

Behind My Wings is not totally gloom and doom. The MAC routing from California to Vietnam included aircrew rest stops in Hawaii, Guam, Philippines, Okinawa, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea. They provided opportunities for romance, which “was everywhere during our layovers,” Prior writes. “We were quite young, fun and wild.” How wild? Prior had “Coffee Tea or Me” embroidered on her garment bags.

Prior went on to put in a forty-year career as a flight attendant with Continental Airlines, which contracted MAC flights during the Vietnam War.

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BJ Elliott Prior

Her two years with MAC exceeded by a year the airlines’ recommended time frame for attendants’ “well being.” Afterward, in the midst of “drinking and dating to fill the void and pain in [her] life,” Prior says, she began a “journey with God.”

She accents Behind My Wings with passages from the Bible. “My story is God’s glory,” she says.

The author’s website is behindmywings.com

 

—Henry Zeybel

A Soldier’s Story by Richard F. Hogue

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Just the other day, I was thinking about something that happened twenty years ago. No big deal, right, in a life that spans eight-plus decades?

That evening I picked up A Soldier’s Story: Forever Changed: An Infantryman’s Saga of Life and Death in Vietnam by Richard F. Hogue (Richlyn Publishing, 418 pp. $17.93, paper; $5.49. Kindle).  In it, Hogue talks about a lot of men who got killed—eight from his platoon in one morning. Seven from his NCO class. Only one was older than twenty-one.

Hogue went on and on until I felt a distinct rush of guilt for the many years I have enjoyed while other equally deserving soldiers didn’t.

As well as anyone who tackled the topic, he makes the point that in his unit “we were expected to perform like men, while most of us were still boys.”

“Hound Dog” Hogue served as a squad leader—and occasionally platoon leader—for the Third Herd of the 25th Infantry Division, which operated out of Cu Chi. For six months in 1969-70, he led Reconnaissance in Force missions that included the usual medley of helicopter assaults, setting up night ambushes, and being ambushed. Then he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He was twenty-three years old.

“I had taken only a few steps when I heard a seemingly muffled explosion different from any other explosion I had heard in Vietnam,” he writes. “I immediately felt a terrific force and a blast of heat from the explosion, and in what seemed like slow motion, I fell backward onto the ground.

“I slowly raised my head to see what had happened to me. What I saw scared the hell out of me. Blood was squirting out of my lower left leg with every beat of my pounding heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to bleed to death. Lord, don’t let me die this way.’”

Hogue’s account of his medical treatment and recovery pays tribute to the many people who saved him. Much later, he says, “After seeing my friends killed in action, I knew I was fortunate.”

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Hogue provides an interesting perspective on serving in Vietnam in a chapter titled “My War, Was It Worth It?” He had volunteered for the draft. After looking back on his wounds and post -war life, he concludes: “So my personal answer to the question…is ‘Yes.’”

A Soldier’s Story follows a path similar to We Were the Third Herd: An Infantryman’s Story of Survival in America’s Most Controversial War, Vietnam, which Hogue published in 2003. The latest book includes a detailed account of Hogue’s 2013 visit to Vietnam with fellow Third Herd veterans.

—Henry Zeybel

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

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Thanhha Lai was born in Vietnam and moved to Alabama at the end of the American war.  She now lives in Kansas with her family.  Inside Out and Back Again (HarperCollins, 277 pp. $16.99, hardcover; $7.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is written in free verse.  This children’s book—a bestseller that won the National Book Award when it come out in 2011— tells the story of Ha and her family’s journey from Saigon to America.

Thanhha Lai decided to use poetry to tell her story rather than a novel or short stories. It starts in Saigon in 1975,  the Year of the Cat. The reader gets a poem dated February 11, Tet, in which everyone eats sugary cakes and wears new clothes. It is a time for starting over.

The next poem is dated February 12, and the reader realizes the book is written as a journal in poetry.  At the end of the book we are on January 31, Tet, once again. In between, we get a year of Thanhha Lai’s life, her journey, and that of her family.

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Thanhha Lai

 

Here’s a brief sample from “Life in Waiting,” one of the poems that offers a taste of the author’s voice and great talent.

A routine starts/as soon as we settle/into our tent.

Camp workers/teach us English/mornings and afternoons.

Evenings we have to ourselves.

We watch movies outdoors/with images projected/onto a  white sheet.

Brother Quang translates/into a microphone,/his voice sad and slow.

If it’s a young cowboy/like Clint Eastwood,/everyone cheers.

If it’s an old cowboy,/like John Wayne,/most of us boo/and go swimming.

The Disney cartoons/lure out the girls,/who always surround/Brother Vu,

begging him to break/yet another piece of wood.

I can still hear them begging/when I go sit with Brother Khoi,

who rarely speaks anymore/but I’m happy to be near him.         

This is a fine book, both sad and funny–and not just for children.  Read it.  The Vietnamese point of view is elusive and seldom appreciated.

—David Willson

Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

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“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

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Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is short, but well-written. Leone is a master of understatement, which serves to enhance his sharp wit. This nonfiction book is about four men who became friends fifty years ago after serving together in the Army: Leone, Martin Alexander, Tom Lovetere, and Don Garceau. They remain friends today.

Leone calls this a “scrapbook.” He says the stories in the book are not momentous, nor do they deal with calamities. They are about everyday things. There’s something poignant about everyday activities, though, when they are surrounded by war. The stories fasten on small transactions between different cultures in the war zone, memories, and experiences.

The four guys helped start the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, but were sent to different units when they arrived in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Leone talks about each man in individual chapters; there also are contributions written by each guiy

Leone has the ability to tell sharp, detailed narratives, most of which are funny. In the section about the Dominion of the Golden Dragon—the unofficial Navy award given to people on ships that cross the International Date Line—he writes: “To be sure, King Neptune was there with a beard looking astoundingly like a mop from the mess hall, as was Davy Jones, similarly regaled.” The rest of the story had me laughing out loud, as did the photo of the men and an official-looking crossing certificate.

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John Leone

There are other photos of the guys, past and present, as well as images of helicopters, Vietnamese markets, and beaches.

Photos of Vietnamese coins and paper money at first appeared to be a yawn. But as I looked at them, I was transported to Vietnam. Handing a coin that has scalloped edges and exotic engravings to a person whose language you don’t know can last in the mind forever. Proust with coin, you might say.

Leone is offering discounted copies of the book (for $20) to veterans. For info on ordering directly from the author, email Johnleone1@verizon.com

His website is johnleonebooks.com

— Loana Hoylman

 

 

June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II by David Hearne

David Hearne’s account of a battle at Landing Zone X-Ray during Operation Billings in Vietnam in June of 1967 begins: “When the killing started, it was slow and deliberate. They were killing us and we didn’t know it.” That happened at noon. “By about 3 P.M. that day,” Hearne recalls, “more than 30 of our men were dead, and a hundred or more wounded.”

A member of A Company, 2nd of the 28th, the Black Lions of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Hearne was a lieutenant and forward observer for a 105-mm howitzer battery. The Americans that day were “two battalions strong, and had artillery and deadly air support,” Hearne says, and then asks, “What sane Viet Cong commander would subject his men to an inevitable slaughter?”

Despite their apparent superiority, the Americans walked to LZ X-Ray and found themselves ambushed, surrounded, and overrun by the NVA 271st Regiment. A stream of Army helicopter gunships, forty-three Air Force fighter sorties, and 8,250 artillery rounds made the difference in turning back two NVA assaults—a massive display of firepower considering that the battle lasted only one afternoon.

Hearne examines the engagement from multiple perspectives in June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II (Subterfuge, 386 pp.; $17.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), including recollections of fellow soldiers. Amid descriptions of the action, he offers biographies of the men linking them to their families and friends back home.

He also intersperses chapters that compare young soldiers to their counterparts in the civilian world. Even after half a century of reflection, the broad dichotomy of their values still disturbs him.

Overall, Hearne presents a grim picture of the destructiveness of weapons of war. He discusses the effects and duties encountered as part of the aftermath of battle: wounds, shock, feelings of guilt and loss, and fulfilling graves registration requirements.

To compensate for high American losses, the 1st Division commanding general claimed victory based on an unconfirmed enemy body count. Hearne likens the battle’s outcome to “a couple of pugilists beating one another up so badly that they both end up in the intensive care ward, with both of their managers declaring their boxer the winner.”

Sixteen pages of photographs and maps support Hearne’s account of the battle. He also includes the official After Action Report.

Books about Xom Bo II are rare. Gregory Murry presented a sergeant’s view of the encounter In Content with My Wages (2015). Hearne recognizes him for providing a “plethora of facts.” Because they fought in different positions on the landing zone, their views differ. Primarily, Murry found significant faults with the American master plan and tactical decisions.

Both books are well worth reading: They show how a quiet day in a war zone can instantly turn into a gruesome nightmare.

The author’s website is david-hearne.com

—Henry Zeybel

Snowden’s Story by Lawrence F. Snowden

“The Formative Years” is the first of sixty-six unnumbered chapters, or episodes, in retired Marine Corps Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden’s memoir, One Marine’s Indebtedness to the Corps (Turtle Cove Press, 262 pp., $19.95, paper).  In it we learn that Lawrence Fontaine Snoddy, Jr., the only son of Lawrence and Beatrice, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on April 14, 1921. He later changed his name to Snowden.

The memoir is often not presented in chronological order. Why? Because, Gen. Snowden writes, his stories were “recorded here as I happen to think of them.”  Additionally, the lack of an index and a glossary of acronyms is challenging.

Larry Snoddy graduated from The University of Virginia in 1942. He had been involved with glee clubs and sang professionally with local bands such as the Tin Can Quartet.  He was rehearsing with the Tin Can Quartet when the Pearl Harbor attack was announced. He joined the Marine Corps soon thereafter, explaining that his “family dentist, Dr. Sims, baited me with the challenge that I probably was not tough enough to serve as a Marine.”

He was sworn into the Marine Corps Reserves at the Charlottesville Post Office on February 21, 1942. Three months later when he stepped off the train at the Marine Corps Base, Quantico, he heard a Master Sergeant say, “Welcome to Quantico and to the Marine Corps.” With “that simple greeting,” Snowden writes, “I was in my new world, which was to become my Universe for the next thirty-seven and a half years.”

2nd Lt. Snoddy joined the newly created 4th Marine Division in Hawaii, and then fought on Iwo Jima. He describes Iwo as “the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Ocean Area and probably in our national history of war.” He received his first two Purple Hearts after seven days on Iwo and was evacuated to a Guam hospital. He later hitched a ride on a postal flight back his unit on Iwo Jima. Two days later the young lieutenant was wounded again and evacuated.

Many chapters deal with what happened after Snoddy was promoted to Brigadier General in 1968 and changed his name to Lawrence F. Snowden.

Snowden was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work clearing ordnance out of the Korean DMZ after the Armistice ending the fighting was signed. He then held several administrative positions, including  at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in New York City, before his six-month tour in Vietnam as the CO of the 7th Marine Div. at Chu Lai.

Gen. Snowden

He went on to serve as Chief of Staff of U.S forces in Japan and Chief of Staff at U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, before retiring in 1979. In his second career, Snowden served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and as a Hughes Aircraft vice president.

He accepted Gen. Colin Powell’s offer to serve on the commission that investigated the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.

Gen. Snowden died on February 18, 2017, at age 95, a year after this book was published.

—Curt Nelson