Rice Roots by Robert R. Amon, Jr.

Robert R. Amon Jr.’s Rice Roots: The Vietnam War: True Stories from the Diary of a U.S. Combat Advisor (Legacies and Memories, 328 pp., $27.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper) is a historically accurate page-turner about the Vietnam War.

Amon skillfully used his personal diary from his time in-county as a starting point as he put together this readable memoir of his ’69-’70 tour of duty with a series of South Vietnamese Army units in the Mekong Delta.

As a newly minted, well-trained infantry lieutenant, Bob Amon—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—was assigned to a Mobile Advisory Team, which consisted of five men charged with advising and working with small ARVN units. He spent his entire tour in the field, separated from American military activities and base camps. Part of his war story deals with the experiences of the men he served and fought with; those sections enliven the running story line. 

Amon toggles between his journal entries—which are printed in italics—with expansions of the narrative and bits of recreated dialogue. The writing draws the reader into the story, and affords a larger view of the war. He also includes the occasional letter home to underscore and complement the story. With this format, we experience one man’s intimate view of the war in remote villages in the Mekong Delta.

Bob Amon’s in-country diary

Amon’s telling of his story is not minute-by-minute battlefield reporting, nor is it a chronology of his life from cradle to jungle. Instead, he relates, in well-constructed prose, the daily routine of one group of soldiers helping another working side by side and fighting a war as best they can.

Amon, to close his story, describes his return to Vietnam more than twenty years after his tour of duty, accompanied by his wife, visiting towns and villages where he served.

He took photos during his tour, and brought albums of them with him. He was able, through those pictures, to meet with former comrades and enemies, as well as relatives of those he served with and advised.

This is a well-written, well-edited, and well-produced book, and one that I was doubly intrigued with.

That’s because I served in the same Delta areas as Amon did a year before he arrived in Vietnam. My efforts were not in a combat role, but in gathering local intelligence that he relied upon to execute his mission.

The book’s website is riceroots.com

–Tom Werzyn

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Waging the War Within by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley

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Waging the War Within: A Marine’s Memoir of Vietnam and PTSD (McFarland, 209 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), by Tim Fortner with Elizabeth Ridley, pretty naturally divides into three parts. The first third of this relatively short book covers Fortner’s life before the Marines, then comes a recounting of his military experiences, mainly in Vietnam, and then a look at his post-war life up to today.

Fortner admits he was never concerned about grades in school but did, he says, “set new records for sexcapades in the back of a Chevy.” He writes that during his senior year of high school he had sex with one of his teachers over a four-month period, including at least once in the school building. He tried college but quickly dropped out.

With the draft breathing down his neck, he joined the Marines. It was late 1966 and Fortner was 18 years old. After serving stateside, he volunteered for Vietnam, arriving in-country in August of 1968.

Fortner was assigned to a CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter in Medium Helicopter Squadron 262 in the First Marine Air Wing based at Quang Tri Province in the far north of South Vietnam. He worked in the maintenance shop, and also flew as a gunner when not needed there. There are good descriptions of some of the missions he took part in, along with stories about a stolen Jeep, the accidental firing of a rocket on base, and the fragging of an NCO.

A bizarre episode involves Fortner taking his R&R in Hawaii, usually the place where married men met their wives. He asked to go there so he could spend time with his mother, who flew in from California. The story gets better when, Fortner says, they stealthily took a flight to San Francisco for a couple of days. More excitement: The plane he took back to Vietnam lost an engine, forcing it to return to Hawaii. Instead of staying in the airport as ordered during the delay, Fortner went back to the hotel to extend his visit with his mother.

On Okinawa, on the way home from Vietnam, Fortner took part in what he calls a “pretty unbelievable” massive food fight, then returned to San Francisco where he says he was spat on at the airport. After finishing his last few months in the Corps, he moved back home. One of his first jobs involved him digging around and removing a septic tank. After the job, disgusted with how his clothes smelled, he stripped naked and drove home. He had his mother spray him down with water while he scrubbed his body. She then threw him a towel.

After a failed relationship, a suicide attempt, and time in a “psych ward,” as Fortner puts it, went to the VA for help with hearing and back issues and was surprised to later be awarded a 100 percent service-connected disability rating for PTSD. Fortner has nothing good to say about his stepfathers, rear-echelon personnel in Vietnam, officers in general, and Jane Fonda.

Some of his stories push up to the edge of credulity, but I accept his description of the book as a “true” memoir. True or not, it’s not one that I’d recommend to my sons.

–Bill McCloud

A Dove Among Eagles by Linda Patterson

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Linda Patterson is a powerhouse of determination. Her energy emanates from a core of emotions connected to her brother Joe Artavia’s heroic death in combat in Vietnam, a sacrifice she wants remembered forever. Her instincts regarding love and respect are flawless. Her patriotism, as she expresses it in her memoir, A Dove Among Eagles: How the Sister of One Paratrooper Changed the Lives of Tens of Thousands in Vietnam and Beyond (Silver Linings Media, 212 pp. $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), overpowered me.

In one instance, her belief in America’s righteousness in world affairs astounded me to a degree that I challenged her logic. But I accepted it. She is unbeatable.

Growing up, Linda Patterson had three younger brothers for whom her mother made her responsible. Mom cared for the children, but also enjoyed drinking and husbands: She married five times. At the age of 14, she ran away from the turmoil of the household. She still watched over her youngest brother, Joe, though, even after he joined the Army and went to Vietnam in 1967 where he served in the 101st Airborne Division.

Amid much of the American public’s aversion to the Vietnam War, Linda Patterson’s concern for her brother peaked when he wrote to her and suggested she could raise the “low and dropping” morale in his company “as high as the clouds” by getting their hometown, the City of San Mateo, California, “to adopt us.”

That request turned Linda Patterson’s life around. Her involvement with that idea created a relationship between San Mateo and the men of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 327th Infantry in 101st’s 1st Brigade that is still tight today. To show that the people of San Mateo truly cared about the men of A Company, Linda Paterson flew to Phu Bai in Vietnam and lived for two weeks among the troops, an experience that she describes in detail in the book.

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Visiting wounded troops in Vietnam 

She organized a 1972 homecoming with a full-scale, three-day celebration in San Mateo—including a parade—for all 130 men in the company. She then induced the city to install a Screaming Eagles museum in its main library. In 2016, she guided the construction of a monument at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, to honor the 792 men of the 1/327th who perished in the Vietnam War.

She accomplished all this while dealing with personal issues that stretched her emotions to their limits. Foremost was the death of her brother Joe. She also had to deal with marital, parenting, and employment problems. She did so with remarkable fortitude.

Based on her success with her brother’s unit in Vietnam, in 1991 Linda Patterson formed America Supporting Americans to work to have other towns and cities adopt military units fighting in the Middle East, a program that is going strong today.  The book includes an excellent collection of photographs of  projects Linda Patterson has championed.

I once heard Tony Curtis—yes, that Tony Curtis—say, “Living is such a wonderful experience you do not want to deny it.” Good, bad, and otherwise, he seemed to tell us. Linda Patterson’s life parallels that motto and is well worth reading about in her book.

—Henry Zeybel

Yesterday’s Soldier by Tom Keating

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After graduating from Stonehill College’s Holy Cross Seminary in Massachusetts, but denied further advancement to ordination as a Catholic priest, Tom Keating surrendered to the inevitable and volunteered for the draft in 1968. Army Basic Training and Infantry AIT, along with his superior skill with weapons, overpowered Keating’s semi-monastic religious life style. And he began to concentrate on “how to survive and kill in battle,” Keating writes in his memoir, Yesterday’s Soldier (153 pp., $16.99, paper), and he moved on to Officer Candidate School.

As his infantry training continued, Keating re-evaluated this character transformation, and once again followed his religious training. Not wanting to kill people or order others to do so, he sought conscientious objector status.

In the first half of Yesterday’s Soldier Tom Keating does an excellent job explaining the dynamics of attaining conscientious objector status as an active-duty soldier during the Vietnam War. His recollections provided me with new knowledge and insights about a punishing, tedious, and sinister process. How sinister? Keating’s best friend became an Army Criminal Investigation Division agent assigned to evaluate the sincerity of his religious beliefs.

Although a Defense Department policy limited the number of conscientious objectors serving in the armed forces, Keating won his case: He would not be assigned a combat role or issued a weapon for the rest of his tour in the Army.

Nevertheless, he owed the military one more year of active-duty service. Without a job specialty, he was sent to Vietnam. On his arrival, Keating lucked out when a college friend classified him as an administrator and assigned him to a job with the 1st Logistical Command at Long Binh.

Keating’s writing style flows smoothly. I enjoyed reading his stories about the Vietnam War. But his book offers little new information about life behind the lines.

There are descriptions of surviving close calls during rocket, mortar, and sapper attacks on Long Binh. He tells of giving up his “seminarian virginity” in a Saigon bathhouse. Issued a Jeep, he chauffeured officers and performed other minor chores. He befriended a housemaid who was Catholic. R&R in Australia was a highlight of his tour. And then he came home.

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Tom Keating

Tom Keating found a different world than the one he had left two years earlier, especially within the Catholic Church. As part of a continuing evolution of character, his limited exposure to death had magnified his perception of the past. He determined he “could never return to that world, not after Vietnam. That world had collapsed.”

So he began a new life, earning a master’s degree in education and teaching high school for eight years before starting a long career in corporate communications.

The author’s website is tomkeatingwriter.com

—Henry Zeybel

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