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

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

Grandfather’s Journal by Tom Maxwell

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In an autobiography written for his grandson’s edification, Tom Maxwell chronologically recreates his past in Grandfather’s Journal: A Grandson’s Journey into His Grandfather’s Life (WestBow Press, 140 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $11.95, paper; $3.99, Kindle). The book covers Maxwell’s childhood as he traveled the world with an Air Force father; his military experiences as a Navy pilot and commander; and his career as a highly successful business executive who also ministered to people he calls “the least of these in our prison system.”  Maxwell sets exemplary standards for perseverance and dedication in every pursuit.

His Navy career stretched from 1955-83. He filled all the right squares while rising to the rank of Captain and a posting as an attaché in West Germany where he helped gather Cold War intelligence from the Soviet Union.

In 1967 and 1968 during the Vietnam War, Maxwell deployed twice to the Gulf of Tonkin aboard the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany. He flew two hundred missions in the KA3 Skywarrior, receiving credit for eighty-five “saves” of aircraft in distress. A short time later on a two-month TDY to Danang Air Base, he flew an additional fifty combat missions.

For most of his military career, Maxwell put his job first, even ahead of family needs. Occasionally in times of trouble, he prayed for help, but mainly as wish-fulfillment rather than with confidence in the powers of an almighty deity. Nevertheless, his prayers brought positive results. Then, at the age of forty-two, motivated by intensely focused reading and urging from his wife Betty Ann, Maxwell “accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.”

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Tom & Betty Ann Maxwell

The closing fifth of Grandfather’s Journal describes a life dictated by guidance that resulted from prayer. For thirty years as a civilian, Maxwell produced excellent results in both business relations and in his prison ministry work.

He disappointed me, however, by including only ten pages on his Vietnam War experiences in this book, just half of which dealt with events in the air.

The author’s website is captaintommaxwell.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

Shrapnel Wounds by Tom Crowley

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Tom Crowley’s Shrapnel Wounds: An Infantry Lieutenant’s Vietnam War Memoir (Pacifica Military History, 198 pp. $24.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a how-to book on leading men in combat, circa 1966, although the author sees the same thoughts and ideas as still valid today.

Crowley presents two themes. Mainly, he discusses the traits of a good combat leader, particularly at the platoon level. Secondly, he analyzes the Army’s promotion and rank structures.

The book’s strength is Crowley’s account of combat as a platoon leader in the 25th Infantry Division at Cu Chi. He deals with battle in a vivid and straightforward manner. He says that he worked hard to become a competent and respected officer who cared for his men. Often he proves a point by referring to an encounter. For example, in speaking of fear, Crowly describes a prolonged shootout that occurred after his platoon unexpectedly found a large number of VC in a supposedly abandoned village.

He believes that the best leaders make both physical and emotional commitments to their men. Crowley felt this type of involvement to a high degree in Vietnam, and it took a tremendous psychological toll. After receiving two dozen shrapnel wounds in one battle, despite doctors’ objections and still-open wounds, he returned to his platoon after only a week in hospital.

Crowley once considered a career as an Army officer. A college dropout facing the Vietnam War draft, he instead enlisted and earned a commission through OCS. Watching the contrivances of his peers and superiors with career development convinced him to leave the military at the end of his enlistment because, he says, “I just saw no future in it.”

He determined that an officer’s position in the Army pecking order depended on the source of his commission (West Point at the top, then ROTC, and OCS last) and type of commission (regular Army above reservist). Within that framework, officers maneuvered to complete a combat assignment, earn an efficiency report that reflected great leadership in battle, and win medals, Crowley says. Favoritism based on these many factors determined promotions and assignments. He cites instances in which field activities to achieve such ends cost enlisted men’s lives.

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Based on the self-centered behavior of his contemporaries, Crowley lost faith in the military structure. He believes that Vietnam was a “squad leader’s and platoon leader’s war” and higher levels of command made plans and decisions based on outdated experience, namely set piece battles. He says that reality for “virtually all of the military’s top officers wasn’t the Vietnam War, it was the war for promotion.”

Tom Crowley’s story contains twists and turns that I have not mentioned. That surprised me and gave greater meaning to his leadership qualities. Fundamentally, he has cared about people and has led a meaningful and productive life both in the Army and as a civilian.

The author’s website is www.tomcrowleybooks.com

—Henry Zeybel

Twenty Days in May by John L. Mansfield

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John L. Mansfield served for more than thirty years as an officer in the Army, the National Guard, and the Army Reserve.  His short book, Twenty Days in May: Vietnam 1968 (PublishAmerica, 170 pp., $24.95, paper; $7.96, Kindle), recounts the actions of his unit—Alpha Company, 4th of the 31st Infantry Regiment—during twenty harrowing days at the height of the Vietnam War.

What makes this book unique is that—aside from the recollections of then 2nd Lt. Mansfield—it also uses his unit’s daily staff journal, its daily situation reports, official history, and radio logs, as well as several memoirs written by men in his company.

These twenty days in May represented a very hostile and intense period for Alpha Company. They had 69 wounded in action and nine killed. Most of the action revolved around the taking of Nui Lon, also known as Ghost Mountain. Mansfield, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, gives an excellent account of what it’s like to be an infantryman.

Along the way, he demonstrates some of the difficult choices facing Army infantry officers. Mansfield shows how a good officer leads from the front, not the rear. He follows orders, even after his platoon is tired and undermanned and facing a well-equipped NVA regiment.  Mansfield demonstrated this in his decision to follow orders to advance up Nui Lon at night, even though it placed his platoon at greater risk.

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John Mansfield

This is a serious book spiced up with a couple of humorous incidents, such as Mansfiled admitting to the CO that his weapon was accidently fired and scrambling to buy replacement ammo on the black market so no one would know.

The book’s true message for me lies in the last paragraph in which Mansfield talks about Tom Brokaw annointing those who came of age during World War II the “greatest generation.” Mansfield believes the men in his company in Vietnam should be considered the greatest generation.

“They went where they were sent by their government and did as soldiers have always done throughout the years, their duty as they saw it,” he writes. “These men are the real heroes and my greatest generation.”

— Mark S. Miller