In Liberating Strife by Steve Atkinson

“Love and war happened simultaneously for me” in the 1960s, Steve Atkinson writes in Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years: Vol. 1, The Track of a Storm (City Limits Press, 395 pp. $29.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). This declaration sets the stage for Atkinson exhuming his memories, from a highly personalized perspective, about how that decade’s dynamics influenced him while he was a high school senior and college student from 1963-69. At that time the Vietnam War, he says, “was the root cause of most of the domestic disturbances.”

Atkinson analyzes the pros and cons of the disturbances—communism, thermonuclear weapons, racial conflict, women’s rights, Selective Service practices, illegal drug use, and the antiwar movement—along with trying to find a lifelong mate—in this memoir. He digs up minutia that ought to register a touch of nostalgia among those who lived through the era, and his thoughts might teach a lesson or two to people unfamiliar with those years.

A week after completing graduate school finals, Atkinson became an Army draftee. The book’s second half describes his military training (nothing new here except a drill instructor who becomes a friend) and gives equal time to his relationship with wife-to-be, Bev Minear. He quotes from their letters and spends a lot of time on how they opened each other’s eyes to the enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. He convinced me that they definitely were made for each other.

Suffice it to say that Atkinson did not enjoy Army life. In October 1969, three weeks after finishing AIT, Atkinson went to Vietnam. In Liberating Strife, Vol. 2  (631 pp. $36.99, paper; $7.49, Kindle) he tells the story of his role in the war.

Trained as an infantryman, Atkinson ended up as a clerk typist. During his year in-country, he served at Lai Khe with the 1st Infantry Division Adjutant General; at Di An in the Message Center; and at Long Binh with the 16th Public Information Detachment.

Initially, he worked a twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. As American units deactivated because of Vietnamization, his workload diminished to an hour a day. He filled his free time by writing letters, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. By mail, Bev and he doted over classical literature and music.

His vices were drinking beer and limited dope-smoking. He describes his gun-toting duties as follows: “Standing guard on the rear perimeter [at Long Binh] is among the experiences that I remember most vividly. I knew it was highly unlikely there would be any trouble, yet there was still the remote possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man that night—an agonizing decision.” Atkinson puzzled over how fate had put him “in this strange little corner of the world,” but was pleased that it played out as it did.

Actually, Atkinson’s heart and mind never left Minneapolis. He intersperses accounts of his activities in Vietnam with information from Bev’s letters and other hometown sources. As he did in Volume 1, he analyzes historical events pertaining to the war and the strengthening of antiwar sentiment. He frequently writes more about problems regarding Bev, his family, and Minnesota than those of the war.

“The most important and beneficial lasting legacy of the Vietnam War was the abolition of the military draft,” he writes. “The draft is both an unwarranted imposition on individual liberty and too powerful and dangerous a tool to put in the hands of our elected leaders.” He labels it “involuntary servitude.” Throughout both volumes, he offers other controversial pronouncements.

With almost the same breath, however, he says, “I can honestly affirm that I do feel a certain pride in my service. I answered my country’s call to duty amid a time of strife and ambiguity. These pages have made it clear that I arrived at that decision in the face of considerable misgivings.”

In Atkinson’s case, love conquered all: Bev and he have been married since he returned from Vietnam. Atkinson, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, focuses his book on their long-distance romance and underplays the war angle. That choice—and his job assignment— eliminated suspense and drama from his story.

The two volumes contain nearly 400 photographs, most taken by Atkinson, and illustrations, all of which were new to me. He shot large batches of pictures on R&Rs to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The collection includes more than two hundred pages made up on three scrapbooks that partially tell his story by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel


Sadec Province: by Gordon Bare


Gordon Bare’s Sadec Province: A Memoir of War and Reconstruction in the Mekong Delta (Politics and Prose, 160 pp. $17.95, paper) is based on a journal the author kept during his two tours of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Bare served with U.S. Army as an Assistant Province Adviser with Army Advisory Team 65.

A retired Army Reserve Colonel who also worked in middle and high-level positions in the State Department, Bare now devotes time to Team River Runner, an organization dedicated to helping wounded veterans through whitewater kayaking. The proceeds of this book go to that worthy organization.

Sadec Province was initially a slow and laborious read mainly because of the scores of end notes. The reader would have been well served had these notes been embedded in the text or placed as footnotes on their associated pages. That said, this was a very good book for me to read

The first chapters set the stage with history, organizational structures, policy evaluations, and the like, and paint a fairly good picture of a part of the Vietnam War of which not too many of us are aware. The book is more than Bare’s memoir of his time in a small area inside the Delta. It’s a melding of those experiences and what he has learned about the war since then.

He has assembled a trove of information that brings to light obscure information about the war, the mindset of the Viet Cong, hidden successes of Vietnamization, mistakes of American strategists at the highest levels, how the war’s lessons learned are being applied today in the Middle East, and much more.

The final two chapters contain Bare’s afterthoughts and evaluations. Of particular interest to me was that as awful as the Vietnam War was on the people of South Vietnam, no one fled the country by boat. It took a communist regime to accomplish that.


Also, that it has been suggested that the American war gave the rest of Southeast Asia time to get its act together and limit the falling dominoes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that there has been no recognition of the culpability of Americans who denounced the war in Vietnam and then denied that a bloodbath occurred. These statements, and others, have given me a more secure feeling that our involvement in Vietnam was necessary and to a certain extent, successful.

I recommend Sadec Province to anybody who served in the Vietnamization programs—Phoenix, CORDS, USAID, MAGG, MACV—as well as to anybody who served in the Delta or to those simply interested in learning more of behind-the-scenes military activities in Vietnam during the war.

I am glad I read the book. I was truly enlightened.

— Bob Wartman

Vietnam 365 by Karen Angelucci


In Vietnam 365: Our Tour Through Hell (Acclaim Press, 224 pp., $26.95, hardcover) Karen Angelucci presents a complex narrative based on the Vietnam War tour of former Army Spec 5 David J. McCormack, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. Angelucci identifies his unit as “the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 5th Battalion, 2nd Artillery Automatic Self Weapons group located on Duster Compound, attached to 30th ARVN Rangers and a Navy Seal A-Team of 5th Special Forces.”

Angelucci presents the Vietnam War story of McCormack,  a “greenline” guard and master mechanic. In Vietnam he acquired the sobriquet “Billy the Kid,” by which he became widely known both to allied leaders and—according to the book—to vengeful, high-ranking members of the NVA and VC.

This honorary title was bestowed on him due to his legendary coolness and lethality in several encounters with the enemy during his time in III Corps.

Angelucci also describes McCormack’s repeated confrontations with those who outranked him. She writes that NCOs and officers usually backed down in deference to his incredible courage and in-country experience.

In one chapter he karate punches a sleazy chief warrant officer in the nose, then intentionally runs his Jeep over the guy, breaking his kneecap and smashing his foot. In the next chapter McCormack punches a Long Binh Hospital nurse in the chest, knocking her to the floor.

Despite these and other assaults and threats of time in Leavenworth or worse, McCormack always escaped serious punishment. Angelucci writes that he even outsmarted the CIA when agents sent him on a suicidal decoy mission.

She says he also worked with a Vietnamese spy in Cu Chi who informed him of enemy movements in the area. When the spy was captured by the enemy, she identified him to her torturers.

Before leaving for The World, McCormack was debriefed by a friendly master sergeant, who told him: “Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi had [sic] each put up five hundred dollars for your young ass dead or alive. Go home and crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after you. There, no doubt, will be a Soviet Special Forces operative inserted into the U.S. to kill you.”

Readers might raise an eyebrow at some of these tales, but still find the narrative rings true in several of its specifics, primarily those concerning military vehicles and weaponry.

McCormack, who became an auto mechanics instructor in a technical college after serving in Vietnam, offers intricate details of his work as an in-country mechanic. For example:

“So I thought, ‘These military vehicles are literally ‘de-tuned.’ I took string and measured around the crankshaft pulley. I used a tape measure and calculated eighteen degrees before top dead center. That was the factor specification for the ’61 Corvette fuel injection that was what I used on my ’57 Chevy I called the ‘Grey Ghost’; it ran best changing gears at full power shift at 7,200 revolutions back on the street.”

In another passage, he and a fellow Southerner discuss at length and with sentimentality the specifications of their cars back home. It is a believable and poignant moment of escape from the grinding craziness of the war into which these “good old boys” have both been thrust.

McCormack seems to have an unusual story to tell. Perhaps a direct autobiography or a better-documented account would have been more effective in telling it.


Karen Angelucci

The book includes McCormack’s own in-country photographs and several excellent photos taken by Robert W. Griffin during the war.

One final note: Angelucci quotes McCormack who quotes an Army dog handler who claims he would put black gunpowder into the raw meat of  his “German Shepard hunting dogs.” Then, according to the handler, the dogs, now super-aggressive and with a taste for human flesh, would be set loose to slaughter the enemy.

During this period this reviewer served in III Corps with a unit that had guard dog handlers. He never heard of this bizarre practice.

Is this another in a long and still-growing list of Vietnam War myths?

—Paul Kaser

2D Surgical Hospital by Lorna Griess


Lorna Griess served as a military nurse for thirty years, two in the Navy and the remainder in the Army. She retired as a colonel in 1990.

Her memoir—2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam (Xlibris, 108 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)—covers 1966-67 when she was twenty-eight years old and primarily tended to wounded soldiers in recovery rooms and intensive care units, working twelve hours a day, six days a week.

“In RR/ICU, every patient was acute, needing instant and constant care,” Greiss writes.

Greiss’s recollection of the time focuses on her duties and surroundings. She does not describe in detail the individual Americans the treated. She talks of a “push,” or mass casualty, and other medical events in general terms. For example:

“Gunshot wounds were always surprises. They took eclectic paths through the body, sometimes diverted by bones and sometimes clean. Medical people had to turn the patient over to find the full damage. Some of the slower rounds made little entry holes but large exit wounds. Chest and abdominal wounds from gunshot or blast injuries sometimes took hours to find and fix all the damage.”

Greiss does describe the impact that her duties had on her psyche. “If I dwell on it now, some of the sights, sounds, and smells are still very real,” she writes. “They were perceived at the height of emotion and are etched forever in my mind. Tears are filling my eyes and cascading down my cheeks as I write this. That was forty-eight years ago, and it is as fresh as yesterday in my mind.”

The book contains thirty-two full-page photographs Griess took. Mainly they show buildings from the locales where she lived, worked, and traveled.

Based on Griess’ closing comments, I believe she wrote 2D Surgical Hospital to help relieve her own war-related emotional problems. She proudly served her nation and paid a price. She has lung cancer attributed to exposure to Agent Orange and mentions PTSD as follows:

Lorna Greiss

Lorna Griess

“Those of us who made the Army a career had peer support and did much better than those who got out and went back home looking for the same world they left. Many are still seeking treatment today.”

Griess continues to work on behalf of veterans from the Vietnam War as well as returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

Tiger Bravo’s War by Rick St John


Tiger Bravo’s War (Currahee Press, 356 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is packed with almost non-stop action. There are entire books written about single battles. This book chronicles on infantry company’s exploits in no less than three major battles and dozens of smaller, yet intense and deadly, fights.

Rick St John’s writings are wide-ranging. They include Circle of Helmets: Poetry and Letters of the Vietnam War and—believe it or not—lighthearted, children’s stories, a beautiful dichotomy. On the battlefield, warriors like Rick St. John are fearless, aggressive, and totally driven to kill and survive. Underneath, though, the rawhide-skinned, steely-eyed warrior is a good, loving human being with a heart of gold.

Rick St John is a 1966 graduate of West Point who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1968. His battlefield awards include the Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 as a colonel.

Tiger Bravo’s War starts a bit slowly as St John’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 3rd Brigade in the 101st is preparing to depart Ft. Campbell for Vietnam. Stay with it, though, as the Prologue and first chapter set the stage for an exciting tour—and an exciting book.

Because of the unit’s early departure from the States, the first month in-country was dedicated to OJT for jungle warfare. Then, on January 3, 1968, it hits the fan and seldom lets up for the next eleven months. Tiger Bravo became one of the Army’s “hired guns,” amassing staggering combat numbers. Super-hotspots, impossible odds, friendlies in a bind? Tiger Bravo got airlifted in.

The enemy respected and feared the warriors of Bravo Company. It is reported that the NVA and VC would say, “These American soldiers with an eagle patch on their shoulder piled on from every direction. Day or night, under heavy fire or not, they kept coming.”  Having read Tiger Bravo’s War, I believe this is true.


Rick St John

Throughout the book, St John is honest and objective, and he shows no excessive bravado. In Vietnam he displayed a healthy ability to delegate and to trust the judgement of others. He searched out the special capabilities of every man under his command and used them to the unit’s advantage. He was the quintessential infantry commander, a warrior leading warriors.

Opening with a good glossary that is supplemented in Chapter 1 with a section on Vietnam War “Speak,” the excellent documentation continues with an expansive Bibliography and Notes section at the end. The lack of an index is a minor issue. Maps and photos abound.

Tiger Bravo’s War grew on me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

—Bob Wartman

Coffins of Tin by J.C. Handy


The pseudonymous J. C. Handy was drafted into the U. S. Army and served a tour in Vietnam in 1967. The prologue of his fine novel Coffins of Tin: The Unseen Angels of Viet Nam (Batlemente, 387 pp., $19.99, paper; $24.99, hardcover) informs us that the “remains of 58,193 soldiers were repatriated to American soil by Graves Registration personnel throughout Viet Nam.  Thirty-nine years after the war’s end, these compassionate and brave individuals die a little each day from invisible wounds inflicted by all they had seen and done to reclaim the Fallen. Coffins of Tin is the story of but a few.”

Graves Registration (GR) is the subject of the book. It opens in October 1967, and we are immediately introduced to the main character, Mitch McCasey. We follow him throughout his time in Vietnam. McCasey is stationed in Da Nang Air Base, aka Rocket City. He arrives, in fact, during a mortar barrage.

My first thought upon reading the first page of this novel is that Mitch would be in Vietnam for the Tet Offensive. I was right, but I had to get through most of this big book before that time arrived. During those many months we are introduced to every aspect of Graves Registration.

Mitch is a Conscientious Objector, and he is assigned by a vindictive sergeant to GR. Mitch accepts the assignment, even though he had the right to reject it. He accepts the assignment and the reader is not told why, although Mitch readily accepts every bad thing that comes his way. I had the thought that Mitch was paying penance for some sin that we don’t know about.

It turns out that I was right about that, but by the time we learn what the sin is, the book is just about over. By that time we have witnessed Mitch falling in love with a Donut Dolly named Beverly, who, like Mitch, is from Chicago. She’s blonde and petite like Sandra Dee and “as American as apple pie.” That works well, as we are told that Mitch resembles Bobby Darin.

Capt. Garcia runs GR and provides protection for “the remains,” which is what the bodies are called—and also for those who work for him. Dignity and respect are always priorities and are always maintained.

When I was stationed at Tan Son Nhut, I remember eating lunch with some GR guys. There was always room at their table in the mess hall. They exuded the faint odor of formaldehyde, which put a lot of soldiers off.

Handy introduces us to each function of GR as Mitch is, and we learn along with him. He learns to chart the remains as they arrive in body bags, which are not called body bags. They had a special name, as did everything in GR.


Graves Registration personnel prepared transfer cases in Vietnam for shipment home. From “Assuming Nothing: How Mortuary Practices Changed During The Vietnam War” by Donald M. Rothberg in the Aug/Sept. 2001 print issue

This book is unlike any other I’ve read about tours of duty in the Vietnam War. But some things are similar, including the fact that John Wayne is mentioned several times. But far more space is devoted to charting and embalming than to any of the many dead horses of Vietnam War literature.

I highly recommend this well-written novel to all readers, as never before has the horrendous cost of war been more clearly explained—and in a way that is never boring.

Warning: The book tells a sad tale. How could it not? The relentless numbers of death are presented, both in the abstract and in the loss of characters we come to have affection for.

Read this book and weep. I dare you to do otherwise.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website,

—David Willson

Sharkbait by Guy S. Clark, M.D.


At the age of twenty-eight, Guy Clark went to Vietnam as a U.S. Air Force flight surgeon. During his 1966-67 tour of duty, Clark flew more than eighty-six combat strike missions in the back seat of the F-4C Phantom and kept a daily journal.

Sharkbait: A Flight Surgeon’s Odyssey in Vietnam (Weeping Willow, 628 pp. $42.50, hardcover; $3.03, Kindle), which overflows with Guy Clark’s exuberance for flying and appreciation for knowing the skilled and courageous pilots with whom he faced death, is based on that journal.

The fifty-year delay in transcribing his journal has not blunted Clark’s opinions. From June 1966, for example, Clark (the medical director of The Osteoporosis Institute and The Arthritis Institute of Santa Barbara) recalls that he had reached “the high-water mark in my lifetime search for adventure! Life is exciting!” At that point, he still had eleven months to go in Vietnam.

To gain a more complete picture of the war, he opted to fly to small and remote outposts by hitching rides in what he calls a C-130 “cattle box car” and other aircraft. Once he flew on an AC-47D Spooky gunship during a strike.

Point of order: Those of us who flew C-130s called them “Trash Haulers.”

In counterpoint to his enthusiasm for dropping bombs and napalm, Clark also writes of his disgust for war, coupled with compassion for those who lose their lives as a consequence.

Beyond his flying stories, Clark establishes himself as a war observer who is distraught by everything going on around him—except for people who cater to him. At the same time, he maintains a mental detachment through devouring books he always wanted to read and by writing his journal and letters to his wife.

Clark describes what he saw and did while stationed at Cam Ranh Bay practically down to each heartbeat of each event. His writing recipe demands details and more details based on his experience, historical facts, quotations (including words from Leonardo da Vinci, Lenin, and Churchill), and random dashes of poetry. He stirs together insights from nearly every day of his year in Vietnam.

The result is a memoir that gives readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about F-4C Phantom and Air Force operations, for starters. Among other topics, Clark covers wasteful military practices, governments, shrews (the animal), the Vietnam War’s purpose, revolutions, lepers, the Air Force and Navy’s work with ground forces, William Faulkner, danger, and personalities—to name a few—along with many admonitions.

His breadth and depth of explanations reminded me of the old joke about the guy who tells you how to build Big Ben when you only want to know the time of day.

To his credit, Clark recognizes this rhetorical weakness and professes that, to him, “there is no such thing as useless knowledge.”

Dr. ClarkFundamentally, he searches for truth but understands the difficulty in finding it. In doing so, Clark reveals himself—whether or not the light is favorable. Facing the facts recorded in his journal puts the older Clark in an eye-to-eye confrontation with his youthful, cocksure, egotistical self. Can either man deny the other?

Clark’s prose is so distinct that it frequently made me smile. His sentences can be diagram-defying marvels of construction. He masterfully belittles people, places, and practices that he dislikes. He possesses a world-class intellect, but occasionally repeats himself.

Despite the drawbacks, Clark’s six-hundred-plus-page memoir provided captivating reading over many long stretches. His feats continually raised the high-water mark of adventure that he set during his first month in country.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel