My Story…And I’m Sticking To It—I Think! by George R. Partridge

patridge_george-book-cover

“In the beginning God created the Heavens and the Earth… and in 1933, me!” George R. Partridge says in My Story… And I’m Sticking To It—I Think! (Partridge Covey, 376 pp. $24.99, paper; $9/99.Kindle). At this memoir’s core is Partridge’s recollection of his thirty-three-year military career, which began in 1951. He also records the life histories of his parents, wives, children, fellow flyers—and even his pets—from his birth to today.

At heart, George Partridge is a fighter pilot who periodically suffered through desk-bound assignments. To attain that boyhood goal, he enlisted in the Air Force and qualified for and completed the Aviation Cadet program.

Like many pilot memoirs that span the Vietnam War, the chronological narrative of My Story is familiar. After earning his wings, Partridge perfected his flying skills during everyday training missions and unit exercises. Primarily, he flew the F-94C, F-89, and F-100 and encountered his share of aerial drama. His travels around the world landed him in Vietnam three times.

His first assignment there came well before the big American troop buildup when he served as a radar site controller at Tan Son Nhut from September 1961 to February 1962. His unit vectored South Vietnamese Air Force fighters to provide close air support for “outposts under attack,” Partridge says. He and his men were limited to wearing only civilian clothes when off duty.

His second tour was at Lai Khe as a forward air controller with the First Infantry Division—the Big Red One—from October 1965 to February 1966. He spent most of his time in the field, frequently under fire. Concurrently, he flew fifty-six combat missions in the O-1/L-19 Bird Dog.

Again, at Tan Son Nhut, Partridge concluded his Vietnam War service as a Fighter Duty Officer for the 7th Air Force Tactical Air Control Center from June to September 1972.

Regarding the war, Partridge provides details only of his time with the Big Red One—the highlight of the book. He presents insight into territory that few Air Force personnel experienced, and teaches lessons he learned during those months.

partridge_george-recent-225x309

Col. Partridge

As the book’s title hints, Partridge has a talent for one-liners that add humor to his storytelling. For example, he lessens the awe of a near miss between two F-100s (“so close as to fill most of my field-of-vision”) by saying:

“We would have come to a meeting of the minds—literally.”

He then slips in: “A mid-air will ruin your day!” You can almost hear a rim shot.

This memoir is one example of the fact that more Vietnam War veterans need to “speak now and forever rest in peace.” Men into their eighties, like Partridge, are running low on time, but still have knowledge to share. Individual reflections refine the truths of our war.

Memoirs resemble votes about the past. Historians tally the yeas and nays.

—Henry Zeybel

Advertisements

Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines by David Gerhardt

Vietnam War veteran David Gerhardt waited forty-four years before deciding to write his memoir, Vietnam: The Last Combat Marines: Military and Political Times of the Baby Boomer War (G. Hart, 297 pp. $15, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Gerhardt served in a variety of positions during his time with the 1st Marine Division in I Corps in 1970 and 1971. Starting out as a combat grenadier, he later worked for a while as an awards writer before becoming a squad leader. His platoon would be among the last Marines to leave the field.

He served during a time that’s been often associated with drug use, fraggings, and other forms of insubordination. Gerhardt pulls no punches when talking about these subjects.

He seemed especially concerned about what he saw as “the degeneration of the armed forces” as a result of the lowering of entry standards in order to provide an adequate supply of young men for the war. It was because of this that he believed he had to deal with an “enormous number of problem soldiers.”

Like many veterans, he wants to distinguish between Vietnam, the country, and Vietnam, the war. He writes, for example, that “Vietnam had the most beautiful night sky I will ever know.” And that it was “a war where rules were broken, and this was sometimes a place without rules.”

He interestingly notes that his men would occasionally camp in a cemetery, thinking it would be safer because “the natives were not going to wake up their dead with a rocket attack.”

A memorable part of the book is the author’s description of a time when one of his squads encountered a small group of Viet Cong face to face. It happened so suddenly that it startled both sides and no shots were fired.

Gerhardt confesses that he was the only man in his entire platoon who usually did not wear a helmet or flak jacket while in the bush. He says he did that because he was worried about carrying around extra weight. Now, looking back, he knows that he was wrong about that.

The book’s subtitle implies a cultural emphasis that can be seen in this comment about the occasional push to maintain haircuts among the troops: “Lifers hated gooks, but they hated hippies more.”

I really liked the way the book include dozens of end notes. They deal with such things as Agent Orange, casualty numbers among helicopter crews, Kit Carson scouts, the types and dangers of malaria, and diagnoses that could result in medical deferments from the draft.

ixhvadk7_400x400

David Gerhardt

Being among the last Marines to leave the Vietnamese jungles and rice paddies—and recalling the losses his and other units had suffered—Gerhardt writes: “We instinctively understood that we would never be capable of celebrating our time in the Republic of South Vietnam.”

I liked the book’s structure. Being divided into six parts with six or seven shorter sections in each part added to its readability.

More than a dozen photos are included, as well as post-war updates on five of the more memorable men Gerhardt served with.

–Bill McCloud

Recon by Fire by Mark Paloolian

51br8gvtril

Mark Paloolian was drafted into the Army and served a year in the Vietnam War. Recon by Fire: Fighting with the 1st BN 5th (Mech) Infantry in Vietnam (Hellgate, p. 150 pp., $12.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is the story of Paloolian’s military experience from 1966-68. In it, he chronicles his recruitment, training, and deployment to Vietnam as an infantry armored personnel carrier driver with the  5th Mechanized Infantry Battalion in the 25th Infantry Division. This is Paloolian’s second book. His first, Brutality: The Tragic Story of Stanley Ketchel, the Michigan Assassin is a boxing history published in 2007.

Recon By Fire is a short book with many illustrations, a detailed glossary, and two appendices which contain statistics about the war and military draft conscription numbers from 1917-73. The twelve short chapters deal with the details of driving and operating armored personnel carriers. We learn quickly that you don’t ride inside the machine. That was a good way to die.

Paloolian started writing fifty years after he’d served in Vietnam. The stories and photographs are his, but the experience of being in this war is universally unique and “sadly universal on Planet Earth,” as he writes.

Chapter Two gives an excellent overview of what the author’s training at Fort Knox was like. Soon he is in Vietnam and in the field working bridge security. His first firefight is described eloquently. I kept getting the feeling of déjà vu and then remembered Black Virgin Mountain, a very similar memoir written by Larry Heinemann, who also wrote Close Quarters, the classic novel of life and service in the Vietnam War in a mechanized Army unit.

Recon By Fire is a more workmanlike book than Heinemann’s memoir and novel. Close Quarters is a fine literary novel that takes its place on the short shelf of classic books about service in the Vietnam War.

I highly recommend that a reader read both books and make some comparisons. That would be an instructive exercise for a student of the Vietnam War. Paloolian went back to Vietnam thirty years after he came home from the war. His observations about how the country had changed are intelligent and worth reading. It’s a trip I never made, but I can see where it would be worth the time and the trouble to do so.

 

11111111111111111111111111

Paloolian in Vietnam in 1967 with APC hit by an RPG

Mark Paloolian mentions many of the usual things that former infantrymen can’t seem to resist cataloging in their memoirs: John Wayne, Agent Orange, free fire zones, VC tunnels and booby traps, the “Land of the Big PX,” shit burning, friendly fire, the movie Platoon, and many more.

His ability to type saved his life, Paloolian writes. I have to agree. My entering Basic Training with typing skills also went a long way toward saving my life. My D in high school typing made me a man among men in the U.S. Army of 1966.

–David Willson

From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General by Harold M. Koenig

6e09f67b1ab001c87eaed1e1d811806340965931

In the spirit of Horatio Alger, the title of Harold M. Koenig’s book tells the whole story: From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General: A Physician’s Memoir (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

Koenig won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, but attended classes for only a year because he lost hearing in one ear. Categorized as 4-F—medically unfit for military duty—he worked his way into Baylor University Medical School in 1962.

He was set to graduate in 1966 when the Vietnam War sped up. The Navy needed doctors and—ignoring his 4-F status—enticed him to enlist by offering an Ensign’s commission and paying his college loans. In exchange, Koenig agreed to serve three years following his internship.

He and Deena Prescott married in 1965. They had three sons who all became Navy officers. Deena accompanied her husband on his first assignment in Japan, from 1967-69. “I was happy I would not be going to Vietnam,” Koenig says. Thereafter, he mentions the Vietnam War only fleetingly.

His memoir chronologically works through a thirty-two year career in the Navy. It held my interest because Koenig held many jobs in many locations and provides details and perspectives about all of them. His competence in solving problems earned him increasingly difficult trouble-shooting assignments that built a reputation as an effective leader. He feared no confrontation and made patients’ welfare his primary concern.

Koenig says the hardest job he had was when as “junior to about two-dozen captains,” he commanded the re-accreditation of the Navy hospital in San Diego. His chapter on those two years of duty teaches lessons about how to cope with one nightmarish problem after another. Success in that job cinched his promotion to admiral.

Koenig repeatedly worked for the same bosses and gave them his total loyalty. He also never forgot those who worked for him.

09-9004-2On his way to the top, he continued to solve difficult problems. They included:

  • finding medical manpower for the first Iraqi War
  • improving TRICARE and Medicare for troops and their dependents
  • working with—and against—members of Congress on Base Realignment and Closure
  • remedying a shortage of doctors
  • attending meetings that frequently improved policies, especially inter-service sessions.

Koenig closes his memoir by recalling his social life and travel during his Navy years. His perks included lunching at the White House with President Clinton, marching among the midshipmen at Army-Navy football games, and flying with the Blue Angels. Fact-finding travel took him to virtually every military hospital in the United States and to dozens of places around the world.

The message from Koenig’s memoir: Hard work and friendships pay off.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memoirs of a Rotor Head by Patrick Michael Ramsey

A justifiable bitterness pervades Patrick Michael Ramsey’s Memoirs of a Rotor Head (Mennonite Press, 152 pp. $31.01, paper; $3.99, Kindle). In 1970-72, Ramsey flew back-to-back Vietnam War tours as a UH-1 pilot. He survived everything the enemy threw at him, but also saw close friends get killed. Now he is dying from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants. And he feels betrayed.

With the draft breathing down his neck, Ramsey enlisted in the Army late in 1967, and was inducted on January 8, 1968. “First and foremost,” he says, “I am an America serviceman” who has “flown in harm’s way to protect the freedom of Americans.”

The first half of his memoir shows how Ramsey prepared for, and then participated in, the Vietnam War.  Amid a climate of hyperactivity bordering on chaos, Pat Ramsey joined the 7th Air Cavalry at the beginning of the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

With only thirty hours of combat flying, Ramsey was upgraded from copilot to pilot. Simultaneously, he took charge of crew assignments. Furthermore, because he went through infantry AIT, Ramsey was assigned command of a twenty-man platoon and helicoptered into the field as a grunt. To my disappointment, he provides few facts in his book about that responsibility beyond expressing his joy in hearing “that wop-wop-wop of the rotor blades” of helicopters en route to extract his unit.

His view of the war reflects nervous dedication to tasks that were questionable from their beginning. He admits to living for the excitement of facing danger, but an excitement tempered by near disasters. His stories gave me the impression that his unit operated with minimal leadership. The men seemed to do whatever they thought necessary at any moment. Losses were the consequence.

Ramsey complements stories about his experiences by giving history lessons about the war. In them, he summarizes Vietnamese history and America’s role in it.

Displeased with the paperwork mentality of a peacetime Army, Pat Ramsey ended his military career as a captain in 1973. From there, he sold insurance, married, divorced, raised a daughter as a single parent, and for five days a month flew CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters for the National Guard.

After twenty years, with pension money in his pocket and a daughter off to college, he resumed his search for adventure and became a medevac pilot for Life Star. Six years of “from fully asleep to fully alert in thirty seconds,” as he puts it, was enough, so Ramsey enrolled at Kansas State and earned a second bachelor’s degree in three semesters. He then joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He later worked as a National Park Service Ranger in six parks in twelve years—all of which he describes in travelogue-like language in the book’s second half.

In 2007 doctors told Ramsey he had Parkinson’s Disease, “for which there is no cure, only death,” as he puts it. Three years later, the VA conceded that his problem was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. In his memoir, Ramsey calls for accountability by the manufacturers of defoliants that were used in Vietnam.

Five pages titled “Everything I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Helicopter Crewman in Vietnam” summarize his war experiences and close Memoirs of a Rotor Head on a note of gallows humor.

Ramsey is donating all profits from the book’s sale to a veterans service organization.

—Henry Zeybel

The Grotto by Harold G. Walker

41lcpsc3ekl._sx331_bo1204203200_

Harold G. Walker learned to fly helicopters for the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, but he did not know why until he arrived in country. As he puts it: “I didn’t become aware of any reason for the war until I was in it.”

Walker writes about his first three months of flying CH-46D Sea Knight missions in The Grotto Book One: Phu Bai, Vietnam 1969-1970 (Dragonfly, 463 pp. $19.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle). Book Two, which will cover his next nine months flying from the Marble Mountain Air Facility in Da Nang, will be published in September.

Walker calls his writing style “literary nonfiction” because “very few names have been changed.” He lists “current interviews, conversations recalled, reviews of declassified material, and reflections of document-able situations” as his sources. He adds credence to his stories by including photographs of most of his cohorts the first time he mentions them.

Walker’s view of war includes successes and failures. He tells nightmarish stories that made me rethink the entire theory of helicopter flight—let alone employing such machines in combat. He lauds the Marine Corps with brief combat history lessons and frequently pays tribute to the valor of Grunts (a word he always capitalizes).

He does not glorify his own accomplishments, but relishes telling of the heroics of men who flew alongside of him.

At Phu Bai, Walker joined HMM-262 as a first lieutenant copilot. “We did everything: combat troop assaults, medevac, resupply, reconnaissance inserts and extracts, routine administrative support, VIP, humanitarian assistance,” he says, “and any other type of flight imaginable.”

chu-lai-731x1024

1st Lt. Walker, Chu Lai, 1970

Amazingly, in his memoir Walker duplicates the temperament of the man he was fifty years ago at age twenty-four, as he reflects the awe he felt toward his duties and squadron mates. After his first Third Force insert, he writes, he felt “strangely at peace.”

During his first medevac, he “couldn’t help but think how exciting this was. It was surreal.” Afterward, he thought, “I had no further aspirations.”

Accounts of interpersonal relationships dominate parts of the book. Significant tension existed between men of different ranks, experience levels, and ages—primarily among the officers. Walker and his fellow young lieutenant FNGs occasionally misbehaved like college kids. Machismo dictated their behavior. After a couple of months, they christened their eight-man hooch “The El Mossy Grotto,” then, “The Grotto,” a gathering place for the young to distance themselves from higher-ups who frequented the Officers’ Club.

After serving in Vietnam, Walker became a Huey pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. In 1991, his squadron was activated for the first Persian Gulf War. He retired in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

His website is haroldgwalker.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

418jpvwojll._sx331_bo1204203200_

Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

4759d5125dae9889f885be535ceafc1f

The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud