Hard to Kill by Joe Ladensack and Joseph A. Reaves

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Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.

Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.

“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”

His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.

Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.

A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to HideA Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.

Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.

Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.

He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.

He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.

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Father Joe 

Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:

“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.

“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.

“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”

Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.

Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.

All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.

Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Phantom in the Sky by Terry L. Thorsen

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Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Terry Thorsen flew for the Marine Corps in the F-4J Phantom as a member of the VMFA-232 Red Devils. He chronicles that experience in his memoir, Phantom in the Sky: A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp. $34.95, hardcover).

Thorsen enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from college. He did not want to go to war, but recognized an obligation to serve his country. On the other hand, he did not want to be an infantryman, fully appreciating that grunts had the toughest—and most dangerous—job of all.

His wife, Jan, and his parents also did not want him to go to war. His wife detested the Marine Corps because of its all-encompassing control of Thorsen’s time and energy.

Thorsen had a love-hate relationship with flying, which he reflects in the book in telling of fascinating, yet occasionally repetitive, incidents that led him to find his niche as an officer and crew member. He does an excellent job capturing the uncertainty he felt at critical stages during his enlistment.

Thorsen flew 123 combat missions from Chu Lai in 1969. The Red Devils employed a large inventory of munitions on targets across I Corps and into Laos and Cambodia. Day and night, their tasks included close-air support, interdiction, flak suppression, rescue, reconnaissance escort, and B-52 escorting.

The book contains a virtually day-by-day account of Thorsen’s air and ground activities. Not unexpectedly, usually uneventful flying tasks often suddenly turned into moments of sheer terror. Night rocket attacks on Chu Lai complicated his negative attitude toward the war.

Flying five missions in twenty-two hours, though, boosted his self-esteem. Supporting or rescuing overwhelmed grunts elevated him to a self-actualizing level. Those flights allowed Thorsen to achieve his full potential as a warrior:

“I didn’t expect thanks or praise,” he says. “Gratification came from a job well done. Lessening the deaths of some of our military combatants satisfied me.”

RIO duty taught him an even more gratifying lesson: An F-4 RIO’s brainpower was a pilot’s best insurance policy. Unhampered by concentrating on flying the airplane (the back seat had no control stick), an RIO sees beyond conventional behavior and recommends actions that save airplanes and lives. Thorsen describes more than enough in-flight incidents to prove that point.

In 1968 when I served in the Vietnam War, our C-130 crew made stops at Chu Lai during the Tet Offensive. We marveled at the base’s continuous flow of fighter activity.  We watched fighters take off, make low-level bomb drops along the horizon, RTB, rearm, and relaunch within what seemed the same hour. We grinned in admiration for zealousness of the Marines in I Corps.

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The book’s title slightly deceives because—as is the case with most Vietnam War memoirs—this book includes the author’s account of his training that preceded combat. Thorsen, that is, writes about his squadron’s year-long preparation for a combat tour of duty. Straight from a rigorous Officer Candidates School that paralleled boot camp and Naval Flight Officer training, he had poor self-confidence because of continuous bouts of airsickness that had nearly kept him from winning his RIO wings. The illness became more frequent during his squadron’s rehearsal for the physically challenging aerial maneuvers it would employ in Vietnam. He had far less frequent airsickness once he got to the war zone.

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Phantom in the Sky rings with authenticity because Thorsen clearly explains his illness, conflicting attitudes, and relationship with a hard-to-please wife. He even recalls interactions that registered his own embarrassment. Furthermore, based on their situations as well as his own, he portrays and evaluates leaders and fellow fliers in clear and honest terms.

The book contains letters that Thorsen wrote home and photographs from his tour. Appendices record the history of Marine Corps units mentioned in the text.

Terry Thorsen came home from the war, took an early discharge, and opened a photography studio that failed during the 1980s recession. He then joined the active Reserves; enjoyed and retired from a crime scene investigator career; raised two sons; and, as he says, after many, many years, “Jan and I divorced.”

—Henry Zeybel

Highway Thirteen by Denis ‘Mac’ McDevitt

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Denis McDevitt dropped out of high school and that was the end of his formal education. He received his draft notice in February 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

McDevitt’s autobiographical Highway Thirteen (Lulu.com, 184 pp., $14.95, paper) is written so far from the standard rules of fiction-writing that it has the feel of an experimental novel such as Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. But this is not an experimental novel; it’s a book in which an inexperienced author is doing the best he can to produce a book about his time in an infantry unit in the Vietnam War.

Hat’s off to Mac McDevitt for how well he does with his skills and with his adventures in the war. Don’t expect fancy things such as apostrophes to demonstrate possession or not quite getting words like “trepidation” right. Still McDevitt does pretty well at telling an interesting story. He has good material, and his novel is better than many I have slogged through in the past ten years.

There’s a useful glossary at the back; the definitions are rough and ready, but adequate. For instance, McDevitt says “hooch” refers to a native hut, but defines it as any place you hung your hat.

Most of the usual stuff a reader encounters in an Vietnam War infantry novel can be found in these pages. Shit burning receives an especially good treatment and is deemed “the stinky science.” Half of a fifty-five gallon drum filled with shit and maggots is not what I had to deal with when I burned shit, but it gets the point across. Wyatt Earp gets a mention on the same page as shit burning is explained.

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The author in country

A riot at Long Binh Jail (LBJ) is discussed. as are Bob Hope, leeches, Miles Davis, Rome Plows, C-ration peaches and pound cake, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, Eldridge Cleaver, REMFs, PTSD, Canned Heat (the rock group, not the fuel), Sharon Tate, the concept that war is money a-go-go, and “chairborne” rangers.

I enjoyed this short book and suspect that it wouldn’t be much better if it had received a rigorous editing.

But you need to read with a forgiving and uncritical eye to get full pleasure from this narrative.

—David Willson

50 Years After Vietnam by Bill Lord

After five decades of trying to forget about the Vietnam War, Bill Lord looks back on his 1967-68 tour of duty in 50 Years After Vietnam: Lessons and Letters from the War I Hated Fighting (222 pp., $13.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Lord enlisted in the Army when he twenty years old. He arrived in Vietnam in September 1967 and served as a rifleman with the 9th Infantry Division. Lord makes good use of many letters he sent home from Vietnam to his mother to help tell his story.

The letters are initially very positive and upbeat, but later in his tour he began to be critical of the war. After Lord came home and got out of the Army, he enrolled at the University of Washington and became an outspoken member of the antiwar movement.

Bill Lord’s Vietnam War story doesn’t dwell on blood and guts, but instead shows what it is like being a young soldier in a war zone. Among many other things, he discusses what he carried in his pack, inflated enemy body counts, and the dangers of “paddy foot.” I loved his description of the hated C-rat, Ham and Lima beans:

“You opened the can and stared at a vomit glaze of green slimy nuggets encased in a congealed white lardy fat substance.”

One chapter deals with the death of a friend in a friendly-fire accident and the moving experience of visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and seeing his friend’s name on The Wall.

Bill Lord went on to a long, distinguished broadcasting career, including serving as an NBC News correspondent and as news director and general manager of WJLA-TV, the ABC News affiliate in Washington, D.C. His many broadcasting honors include the Peabody Award, the duPont-Columbia Award,  and multiple Emmy Awards.

Lord is an excellent writer, and highly recommend his book.

Mark S. Miller

Blue Ghost: Reveille by John W. Harris

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John W. Harris’ Blueghost Reveille (Page Publishing, 162 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a Vietnam War memoir coming fifty years after the author was drafted into Army in May 1968.

Harris divides his book into seventy vignettes, each offering a picture of his life as member of F Troop of the Eighth Cavalry (the “Blue Ghosts”). F Troops was an autonomous unit assigned to the Americal Division consisting of an infantry platoon, an aerial scout platoon, and an armed aerial rocketry platoon.

The infantrymen served as the ground recon and rescue wing of the troop. The platoon, nominally composed of forty infantry soldiers, rarely reached that number. For most of Harris’ tour, the number was in the twenties.

After he finished AIT. Harris was selected to attend a special NCO school at Fort Benning. Following “Shake and Bake” school, he found himself a buck sergeant after less than a year in the Army and on the way to Vietnam to become a squad leader. Despite his inexperience, after Harris got his feet on the ground he quickly adjusted to his new role and responsibilities as a twenty-two-year-old NCO.

Writing with honesty and humor, John Harris walks the reader through the tasks and operations of an infantry platoon. He carefully explains the terminology for the non-initiated. From his arrival in Vietnam on a commercial airliner to his return to Fort Lewis and his discharge a year later, Harris entertains the reader with one adventure after another.

There are hair-raising moments of small unit combat. There are other, less-dangerous vignettes, as Harris covers the mundane and the heroism equally with clarity and detail.  Each of his brief portraits is self-contained, yet the narrative flows with ease.

Of the many stories Harris relates, none is more exemplary than that of Roger Caruthers, his heroism in Vietnam, and his post-war life in a wheelchair. Harris describes Caruthers as a hero in civilian life as an uncle educating three nieces. Caruthers went on to help many others despite his own infirmities with a smile and a happy story for all.

In a fitting tribute, Harris concludes the book with a very poignant piece titled, “Why Did You Go and Leave Me?”

This is a short book filled with honest emotions that’s enjoyable and easy to read. I recommend it anyone, young and old, who seeks a glimpse into the life a citizen soldier sent off to war in a foreign land.

–Bud Alley

 

Walking Point by Robert Kunkel

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As many war veterans have done before him, Robert Kunkel has created a memoir based on short stories he wrote to try to free his mind of haunting memories that caused post-traumatic stress disorder. Along with his own serious physical wounds, Kunkel had several friends killed in action, which ingrained his brain cells with psychological scars for an eternity, he says.

“There are thousands of stories like mine, but each is very different because of perception and what was in the mind at the time of an encounter, whatever that encounter may have been,”  Kunkel notes in Walking Point: A Vietnam Memoir (Thunderbrook, 479 pp. $18.95, paper; $7.95, Kindle).

Bob Kunkel is a savvy guy. His recollections of infantry life are as informative as any Vietnam War memoir I have read. A stickler for detail, he presents an unfiltered view of what took place in his own mind and speculates about the thoughts of others. His descriptions of combat, suffering, and death leave little to the imagination. His stories describe meaningful encounters on and off the battlefield. Bad actors generally receive a comeuppance.

At the same time, many of Kunkel’s stories are humorous. He labels laughter as “a smokescreen to keep from crying.”

He primarily served with B Company, 5th/7th Cavalry in the 1st Cavalry Division, operating out of Camp Radcliff near An Khe. The men of his company were determinedly aggressive against the NVA and Viet Cong during Operations Irving and Thayer in Binh Dinh Province in September and October 1966. The Americans relocated hamlet populations, burned hooches, destroyed food sources, and pursued the enemy with a take-no-prisoners policy. Kunkel reveals both heroics and atrocities performed by his company.

Drafted into the Army earlier that year at the relatively advanced age of twenty-two, Kunkel frequently assumed the role of platoon spokesman by differentiating between what had to be done and what was illogical. He counterbalanced a borderline wise-ass attitude by volunteering for dangerous tasks such as walking point and clearing underground bunkers as a tunnel rat. He was devoted to his fellow soldiers.

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Bob Kunkel

In his first large-scale battle, Kunkel suffered wounds to his head, back, and buttocks. Evacuated to Japan, he spent three painful months convalescing and then willingly returned to the field. Eventually the company commander recognized Kunkel’s inability to carry a full pack due to muscle damage and moved him to guard duty—a job that turned out to be more dynamic than expected.

For several years after returning to civilian life, Kunkel struggled to establish a purpose for his existence. Eventually, he found a “marriage and career made for him,” he explains.

Kunkel spent eighteen years writing Walking Point. He started it in 1999 after retiring from a thirty-three year law-enforcement career. Jean Doran Matua—who owns, publishes, and edits the Tri-County News in Minnesota—helped him with editing and designing the book.

The author’s website is walkingpoint.us

—Henry Zeybel

 

Time in the Barrel by James P. Coan

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During the Vietnam War, the Marine Corps combat base at Con Thien sat three clicks south of the demilitarized zone, always on alert for an incursion by the North Vietnamese Army into South Vietnam. In September 1967, the NVA began an intense bombardment of the Marines in Con Thien that lasted for forty days.

James R. Coan, a Marine lieutenant, led a Third Battalion/Third Division platoon of M-48A3 Patton medium tanks defending the base, his first combat command. He recalls the action from those days in Time in the Barrel: A Marine’s Account of the Battle for Con Thien (University of Alabama Press, 256 pp. $34.95, hardcover and e book).

While in-country, Coan kept a diary that he used to help expand his recollections in the book. He includes a copy of the diary in an appendix. For background, he presents a brief but highly informative history of I Corps prior to his arrival. Six pages of photographs enhance the memoir.

Coan describes Con Thien as a “three-pronged hill mass” and “the finest natural outpost along the entire lengths of the DMZ.” From its high ground, an observer had an unlimited field of view in all directions. On the other hand, the base also stood out as a perfect target.

Hidden within the densely vegetated DMZ, 20,000 NVA troops awaited orders to assault the base, he says. Meanwhile, enemy artillery, mortar, and rocket crews bombarded the base around the clock, once firing more than a thousand rounds in a day. Line of sight sniping with 57-mm recoilless rifles supplemented the NVA daylight firepower.

The situation produced a classic siege that Coan describes in detail. Fear of death—the “danger of enemy shells dropping out of the sky”—was the primary source of apprehension, he says. Every day, Marines died and were wounded. Unpredictable bombardments and sapper attacks; lack of food, water, and military supplies due to road cuts; monsoonal rains and mud; and rat infestation heightened the men’s anguish.

Coan—the author of Con Thien: The Hill of Angels, a 2007 book on the same subject—labels the fire base a “hell hole.” Based on what I saw around the time Coan was there, his description applied to all of northern I Corps. Nights were pitch black and days dimly lit. From I Corps, our C-130 crew carried away the dead in body bags on stretchers.

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In January 1968, the NVA shifted its strategy to besieging Khe Sanh.

Beyond his account of Con Thien, Coan wedges in non-combat material. His memories of screw-ups during high school and college years and the rigorous demands of Officer Candidate School interrupt the drama of the story.

Nevertheless, Time in the Barrel offers a worthwhile perspective of what, at the time, made headline news in America. The book unflinchingly illustrates humans’ ability to cope with the unbearable as a function of duty.

—Henry Zeybel