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

Just Another Day in Vietnam by Keith M. Nightingale

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Trickery initiated a little-known battle at Soui Long Creek 75 miles northeast of Saigon during the Vietnam War in 1967. A highly trained Viet Cong pretending he was a Chieu Hoi defector led a battalion of ARVN Rangers into a fight with a VC division. In what he calls “my initial introduction into combat in Vietnam,” retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale describes the action that ensued in Just Another Day in Vietnam (Casemate, 264 pp.; $34.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) in an unusual manner.

As he puts it, the book “is 95 percent fact and 5 percent speculation.” Relying exclusively on his narrative and a dozen photographs to recreate the event, Nightingale provides no notes or bibliography.

The book is not a memoir, though, but rather the “combined stories of all who served that day” on both sides of the battlefield, he says. An adviser with the ARVN Rangers, Nightingale refers to himself as “the lieutenant.”

He tells a fascinating tale. In begins in 1965, when the general who commanded North Vietnamese military forces in South Vietnam decided to accelerate actions against South Vietnamese and American troops to try to convince the American public that they could not win the war. He clandestinely moved and advantageously arrayed 2,000 men of the 5th Viet Cong Division to a site on Soui Long Creek.

South of there, a VC laborer defected to the Americans supposedly in hope of returning home. Under interrogation, he haltingly revealed information on building a nearby VC camp, which was new intelligence to Americans. He fearfully agreed to lead forces to the location. With approval from an ARVN general, Americans sent the a Ranger battalion to destroy the camp and its forces.

Nightingale’s account of the give and take of the ensuing battle provides minute details of uncanny certainty that override his warning about speculation. His recollections of fighting during an afternoon, night, and the following day revolve around heavily attrited and surrounded Rangers; ambushed, as well as battered and stalled U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry troops en route to rescuing the Rangers; and disciplined masses of Viet Cong infantrymen. He summarizes one attack on the 11th as a “short sudden cacophony of death.”

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Nightingale in Vietnam 

The descriptions of behavior among men of both sides provide captivating reading, particularly concerning a sense of responsibility among leaders. Suffice it to say that the trickery backfired.

Nightingale’s writing style differs significantly from most I have read about the Vietnam War. It often contains touches of poetic writing and passion. For example, he addresses death and destruction in a voice bordering on poetics, yet infused with scientific nomenclature. In viewing a corpse, he writes:

“The eyes, no longer in existence, become tunnels into the tributaries of the cranium” and “The cambium layer lay exposed with a dark blotchy stain around its circumference composed of bone matter and blood.” One of his descriptions of the Vietnamese landscape resembles a view of a beautiful woman’s body.

In many respects, the book provides an education in infantry tactics. Along with the action, Nightingale explains how weapon systems operate and the coordination of manpower necessary to attain maximum results from them. Nightingale served two tours in the Vietnam War. The first with the 82nd Airborne Division working with the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion and the second with the 101st Airborne Division. He retired as a colonel in 1993.

—Henry Zeybel

Quang Tri Cadence by Jon Oplinger

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A Golden Oldie. That’s my category for Quang Tri Cadence: Memoir of a Rifle Platoon Leader in the Mountains of Vietnam (McFarland, 220 pp. $19.99, paper) by Jon Oplinger. The book is a reprint of the original 1993 edition.

Oplinger served in D Company with the 2nd/5th of the Army’s First Cavalry Division in 1968. His writing is lively, to the point, and humorous as he shows the drama and trauma of combat. His reflections on the behavior of young soldiers and old commanders fascinated me. More so, the practicality of Oplinger’s actions delighted me. At the platoon level he understood that everything he and his men possessed beyond their bodies was expendable—an attitude that went unappreciated by his superiors.

He shows how uncertainty prevailed during his platoon’s day-after-day, usually unproductive ambushes and search-and-destroy missions. Yes, he includes de rigueur topics such as subsisting on C-rations, humping heavy loads, and navigating through jungles while lost, but his explanations rest on an undertone of amazement more than anger.

Oplinger enlisted in the Army after flunking out of college. He earned a commission through OCS, went to Vietnam, and suffered wounds that hospitalized him for seven months. He returned to civilian life as a student at Kent State University just in time for the May 1970 riots.

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Oplinger

People who do not read the white spaces might classify Quang Tri Cadence strictly as a downer. But WTF—for most people, the entire Vietnam War was a downer.

Downer or not, Oplinger made me both laugh and shed a tear more than once over the trials of the infantrymen caught up in the thick of things.

Jon Oplinger is a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Maine at Farmington.

—Henry Zeybel

Tap Code by Carlyle “Smitty” Harris

More than a few American aviators have written about their time as prisoners in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Tap Code: The Epic Survival Tale of a Vietnam POW and the Secret Code that Changed Everything (Zondervan, 256 pp. $26.99, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle);  $26.99, audio CD), a memoir by retired Air Force Col. Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a POW for nearly eight years, differs because it intersperses chapters of his wife Louise’s experiences during his time in captivity. The two of them exemplify the highest form of dedication to the nation from an American military family.

Sara W. Berry, an author and publisher, helped Smitty and Louise Harris finish the book, which he had started writing in the late 1970s.

In the Vietnam War, Smitty flew the F-105, and on April 4, 1965, became the sixth American shot down over North Vietnam. He is best known for recalling a Second World War tap code that a sergeant taught him during an after-class chat at survival school. After he was captured, Smitty taught the code to fellow POWs who passed it on to others.

The code provided a communication system in an environment in which guards enforced silence and prisoners spent long periods in solitary confinement. In his memoir, A P.O.W. Story: 2801 Days in Hanoi, Col. Larry Guarino says that the code was “the most valuable life- and mind-saving piece of information contributed by any prisoner for all the years we were there.”

Smitty Harris’ account of his imprisonment parallels what other POWs have recorded over the past forty-five years. All of them, including Harris, endured brainwashing, torture, starvation, untreated illnesses, and isolation at multiple prison camps in the Hanoi area, including the infamous Hanoi Hilton. He recalls the names and behavior of fellow POWs, focusing on their ability to comply with the Code of Conduct. He emphasizes the importance of a religious belief in maintaining a positive mentality. “GBU”—God bless you—was the most frequent message tapped out in prison, he says.

Louise Harris also coped with challenges she never expected. She and the couple’s two daughters had accompanied her husband to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. When the United States began to bomb North Vietnam, his F-105 squadron deployed to Korat Air Base, Thailand. Five weeks after Smitty Harris was shot down, Louise gave birth to their only son.

As “the first MIA spouse to return to the States,” Louise Harris encountered military regulations that were unfair to her and the children. Consequently, she faced down the Secretary of the Air Force and leaders of the VA, thereby helping clear the path for wives of those Americans who would be subsequently taken captive.

She solved another major problem by phoning the president of the General Motors in Detroit—collect. After settling in Tupelo, Mississippi, Louise Harris went on to play a role in planning procedures related to the POWs’ release.

Smitty Harris gained his freedom in 1973. He and his wife smoothly blended back together,  raised their children, and happily settled in Tupelo following his Air Force retirement. He explains how readjusting to life back home was not as easy for other POWs and their wives.

Americans who spent time in Hanoi prisons shared a deep friendship and enjoy frequent reunions. They recognize themselves as a breed apart.

—Henry Zeybel