Across The Fence by John Stryker Meyer

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“Across the Fence” refers to secret recon missions run by the SOG (Studies and Observations Group) in Vietnam.  The “fence” is the Vietnam border. SOG teams went out on missions across the border into Laos and Cambodia when U.S. forces were not supposed to be in these neutral countries. Across the Fence: The Secret War in Vietnam (SOG Publishing, 334 pp., $24.95, paper; $3.29, Kindle) is a memoir by  John Stryker Meyer, who was in the Army Special Forces assigned to SOG from April 1968 to April 1970.

Members of the SOG group wore sterile fatigues and carried no IDs or dog tags. The government never admitted they were active-duty troops. If captured or killed, they were spies. They were all known by code names. Meyer’s was “tilt.”

Specials Forces members of SOG were sworn to secrecy. They could not tell their parents, girlfriends, or buddies what they were doing, and they agreed to keep quiet for twenty years. The recon teams consisted of six-to-eight men, and each team had several South Vietnamese Army members. The 219th Vietnamese Air Force transported the recon teams using H-34 helicopters nicknamed “kingbees.” They could take more enemy fire than any other helicopter and still fly.

Stryker’s writing gives vivid accounts of the secret missions into Laos and Cambodia. His description of being plucked from a landing zone in Laos and dangling by a rope under a speeding Kingbee moments before the LZ was overrun by North Vietnamese troops was breathtaking. The NVA knew that these missions were operating across the fence, and a large bounty was placed on SOG heads.

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Meyer (right) in country

 

Most striking about the book is the high volume of photos and the information on what happened to SOG veterans Stryker chronicles. He includes a conversation that took place 31 years later between SOG member Lynne Black and the NVA general his team encountered.

This book gives an excellent first-hand account of little-known Vietnam War operations and the people who carried them out. It’s a great read.

The author’s website is www.sogchronicles.com

—Mark S. Miller

Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s by John Leone

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John Leone’s Us Guys: the Army, the 60’s (CreateSpace, 138 pp., $26.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is short, but well-written. Leone is a master of understatement, which serves to enhance his sharp wit. This nonfiction book is about four men who became friends fifty years ago after serving together in the Army: Leone, Martin Alexander, Tom Lovetere, and Don Garceau. They remain friends today.

Leone calls this a “scrapbook.” He says the stories in the book are not momentous, nor do they deal with calamities. They are about everyday things. There’s something poignant about everyday activities, though, when they are surrounded by war. The stories fasten on small transactions between different cultures in the war zone, memories, and experiences.

The four guys helped start the 187th Assault Helicopter Company, but were sent to different units when they arrived in Vietnam. Throughout the book, Leone talks about each man in individual chapters; there also are contributions written by each guiy

Leone has the ability to tell sharp, detailed narratives, most of which are funny. In the section about the Dominion of the Golden Dragon—the unofficial Navy award given to people on ships that cross the International Date Line—he writes: “To be sure, King Neptune was there with a beard looking astoundingly like a mop from the mess hall, as was Davy Jones, similarly regaled.” The rest of the story had me laughing out loud, as did the photo of the men and an official-looking crossing certificate.

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John Leone

There are other photos of the guys, past and present, as well as images of helicopters, Vietnamese markets, and beaches.

Photos of Vietnamese coins and paper money at first appeared to be a yawn. But as I looked at them, I was transported to Vietnam. Handing a coin that has scalloped edges and exotic engravings to a person whose language you don’t know can last in the mind forever. Proust with coin, you might say.

Leone is offering discounted copies of the book (for $20) to veterans. For info on ordering directly from the author, email Johnleone1@verizon.com

His website is johnleonebooks.com

— Loana Hoylman

 

 

June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II by David Hearne

David Hearne’s account of a battle at Landing Zone X-Ray during Operation Billings in Vietnam in June of 1967 begins: “When the killing started, it was slow and deliberate. They were killing us and we didn’t know it.” That happened at noon. “By about 3 P.M. that day,” Hearne recalls, “more than 30 of our men were dead, and a hundred or more wounded.”

A member of A Company, 2nd of the 28th, the Black Lions of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, Hearne was a lieutenant and forward observer for a 105-mm howitzer battery. The Americans that day were “two battalions strong, and had artillery and deadly air support,” Hearne says, and then asks, “What sane Viet Cong commander would subject his men to an inevitable slaughter?”

Despite their apparent superiority, the Americans walked to LZ X-Ray and found themselves ambushed, surrounded, and overrun by the NVA 271st Regiment. A stream of Army helicopter gunships, forty-three Air Force fighter sorties, and 8,250 artillery rounds made the difference in turning back two NVA assaults—a massive display of firepower considering that the battle lasted only one afternoon.

Hearne examines the engagement from multiple perspectives in June 17, 1967: Battle of Xom Bo II (Subterfuge, 386 pp.; $17.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle), including recollections of fellow soldiers. Amid descriptions of the action, he offers biographies of the men linking them to their families and friends back home.

He also intersperses chapters that compare young soldiers to their counterparts in the civilian world. Even after half a century of reflection, the broad dichotomy of their values still disturbs him.

Overall, Hearne presents a grim picture of the destructiveness of weapons of war. He discusses the effects and duties encountered as part of the aftermath of battle: wounds, shock, feelings of guilt and loss, and fulfilling graves registration requirements.

To compensate for high American losses, the 1st Division commanding general claimed victory based on an unconfirmed enemy body count. Hearne likens the battle’s outcome to “a couple of pugilists beating one another up so badly that they both end up in the intensive care ward, with both of their managers declaring their boxer the winner.”

Sixteen pages of photographs and maps support Hearne’s account of the battle. He also includes the official After Action Report.

Books about Xom Bo II are rare. Gregory Murry presented a sergeant’s view of the encounter In Content with My Wages (2015). Hearne recognizes him for providing a “plethora of facts.” Because they fought in different positions on the landing zone, their views differ. Primarily, Murry found significant faults with the American master plan and tactical decisions.

Both books are well worth reading: They show how a quiet day in a war zone can instantly turn into a gruesome nightmare.

The author’s website is david-hearne.com

—Henry Zeybel

Snowden’s Story by Lawrence F. Snowden

“The Formative Years” is the first of sixty-six unnumbered chapters, or episodes, in retired Marine Corps Gen. Lawrence F. Snowden’s memoir, One Marine’s Indebtedness to the Corps (Turtle Cove Press, 262 pp., $19.95, paper).  In it we learn that Lawrence Fontaine Snoddy, Jr., the only son of Lawrence and Beatrice, was born in Charlottesville, Virginia, on April 14, 1921. He later changed his name to Snowden.

The memoir is often not presented in chronological order. Why? Because, Gen. Snowden writes, his stories were “recorded here as I happen to think of them.”  Additionally, the lack of an index and a glossary of acronyms is challenging.

Larry Snoddy graduated from The University of Virginia in 1942. He had been involved with glee clubs and sang professionally with local bands such as the Tin Can Quartet.  He was rehearsing with the Tin Can Quartet when the Pearl Harbor attack was announced. He joined the Marine Corps soon thereafter, explaining that his “family dentist, Dr. Sims, baited me with the challenge that I probably was not tough enough to serve as a Marine.”

He was sworn into the Marine Corps Reserves at the Charlottesville Post Office on February 21, 1942. Three months later when he stepped off the train at the Marine Corps Base, Quantico, he heard a Master Sergeant say, “Welcome to Quantico and to the Marine Corps.” With “that simple greeting,” Snowden writes, “I was in my new world, which was to become my Universe for the next thirty-seven and a half years.”

2nd Lt. Snoddy joined the newly created 4th Marine Division in Hawaii, and then fought on Iwo Jima. He describes Iwo as “the bloodiest battle in the Pacific Ocean Area and probably in our national history of war.” He received his first two Purple Hearts after seven days on Iwo and was evacuated to a Guam hospital. He later hitched a ride on a postal flight back his unit on Iwo Jima. Two days later the young lieutenant was wounded again and evacuated.

Many chapters deal with what happened after Snoddy was promoted to Brigadier General in 1968 and changed his name to Lawrence F. Snowden.

Snowden was awarded the Legion of Merit for his work clearing ordnance out of the Korean DMZ after the Armistice ending the fighting was signed. He then held several administrative positions, including  at the Marine Corps Recruiting Station in New York City, before his six-month tour in Vietnam as the CO of the 7th Marine Div. at Chu Lai.

Gen. Snowden

He went on to serve as Chief of Staff of U.S forces in Japan and Chief of Staff at U.S. Marine Corps Headquarters, before retiring in 1979. In his second career, Snowden served as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan and as a Hughes Aircraft vice president.

He accepted Gen. Colin Powell’s offer to serve on the commission that investigated the 1983 bombing of the Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon.

Gen. Snowden died on February 18, 2017, at age 95, a year after this book was published.

—Curt Nelson

On the Frontlines of the Television War by Yasutsune Hirashiki

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In On the Frontlines of the Television War: A Legendary War Cameraman in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp., $32.95; $9.99, Kindle), Yasutsune “Tony” Hirashiki describes his experience in the Vietnam War from 1966 to the communist takeover in 1975 working behind the camera for ABC News. The eyewitness accounts of the many phases of the war in this memoir bring events to life as if they had happened yesterday.

In his quest “to become as good as [the famed photojournalist] Robert Capa,” Hirashiki chose to cover the most dangerous assignments in the war. “Many of us dreamed that war reporting would find us fame and recognition within our profession,” he says. For Hirashiki, the dream materialized in the form of a forty-year career with ABC News.

The uncertainty of survival loomed as the primary obstacle to fulfilling that wish. “In many ways, we all felt that we were pushing our luck every time we tried to cover a story,” Hirashiki says. He talks about correspondents who died or disappeared in the war, particularly freelancers.

Hirashiki worked with many famous correspondents. The list includes Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel (who wrote the book’s Introduction), and Drew Pearson. Without a school for combat photography, Hirashiki mastered his skills on the job. Reporters normally operated as a three-man team—photographer, sound man, and correspondent. Hirashiki tells dramatic stories that involve a long list of teammates. He frequently cites these men as teachers and heroes who taught him the finer points of journalism.

His stories are interesting because Hirashiki complements his views with observations by other people who were involved in each incident. Often, this comes from post-war letters that deepen the significance of an event. The acute details of his recollections of a battle in Happy Valley and the chaos leading to the war’s end—which open and close the book—provide highly informative and enjoyable reading.

Following the 1973 ceasefire in Vietnam, Hirashiki temporarily moved to Phnom Penh. He describes the Khmer Rouge assault on that city’s civilians as “scenes from hell.” This gave me the impression that this action was more horrendous than what Hirashiki had seen in Vietnam.

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Tony Hirashiki filming ABC News correspondent Don North during Operation Junction City in 1967

The book’s importance lies in its neutrality. Many people have criticized Vietnam War correspondents, especially television reporters, for promoting antiwar sentiments. On the Frontlines of the Television War, which was edited by Terry Irving, contradicts that opinion by telling the story of a closely knit group of professionals who strove to report what they saw as accurately as possible.

In other words, any distortion in television reporting did not originate in the field.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Wasted Blood by Ken Palmer

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In the new movie T2 Trainspotting,  a character named Sick Boy chides a crony for acting like “a tourist in your own youth.” If he is correct and looking back on former times is forbidden, then Ken Palmer should not have written Wasted Blood: Facing the Music in Vietnam (CreateSpace, 256 pp., $21.99, paper). As a Seabee in the Vietnam War, Palmer experienced a string of strange events and now has finally recollected them in this memoir.

An enlistee, Palmer tells us about his young manhood immediately prior to deploying, while in-country, and for a short time after returning stateside. Mainly, he explains how it felt to be the star of a rock band named “Wasted Blood” as a protest against the war.

With their commander’s encouragement (which including being issued  Fender, Gibson, and Ludwig instruments), Palmer and four other Seabees—Keith, Saul, Ron, and Jerry—formed a band to entertain the troops. Before that each man had played for his own enjoyment. Now, they continued to work ten-hour construction days, and they practiced and entertained during their off-duty time.

Stationed at MCB121 at Red Beach on the Gulf of DaNang, the band traveled to gigs mostly at night in a truck. Providing their own protection allowed them to travel where USO and other shows couldn’t go. Occasionally, for trips to distant camps, they flew by helicopter. Their high-energy performances and willingness to fulfill all requests gained them avid fans who often believed they were professional musicians.

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Seaman Palmer, the guitarist, entertaining the troops

Palmer tells wonderful stories, ranging from sexy to ridiculous, concerning women that he met because of his star status. Recalling these encounters is enough to justify his becoming a tourist in his own youth.

—Henry Zeybel

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny

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We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.

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Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is hornet33.com

—Henry Zeybel