Fire to Light by Charles Malone

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Charles Malone was drafted into the U. S. Army, and served a tour of duty in the Vietnam, War with the Provost Marshall’s Office in Saigon. Malone got nowhere near the jungles or rice paddies of Vietnam—along with most of the rest of us who served in Vietnam.

He spent his 1971-72 tour, Malone writes in Fire to Light: A Memoir of Family, Race, and War (Paramount Press, 316 pp., $13.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle), on “the streets of wild and woolly Saigon—a place of crazy traffic, drugs, women, music, graft and tension among the troops as America’s role in the war was winding down.”

This memoir is written like a novel, complete with elaborately reconstructed conversations from decades ago. The country was in the throes of Vietnamization, an ordeal that President Nixon claimed to place a lot of faith in. Those of us who had served in South Vietnam placed no faith in it at all. To most of us it was a con job—another way to bilk money out of the American taxpayer.

Charles Malone grew up in North Carolina in a small town where Jim Crow was a way of life. In the U. S. Army, however, there was no segregation or institutionalized discrimination against African Americans.  Thousands of southern white soldiers had to adapt to that. It wasn’t easy.

Malone includes many anecdotes in his memoir related to the struggle to accept the coming of a new age of race relations. He often marvels when he witnesses African Americans in positions of power, such as master sergeants bossing around white soldiers.

Many statements in the book rankled me, such as “the guys that wound up in Vietnam tended to be those with the least means or smarts to get out of it.” That rankled because I didn’t (and don’t) want to think of myself as that guy.

On the other hand, a few sentences later Malone writes that “None were craftier in figuring out how to stay out of harm’s way than the future chickenhawks, neoconservatives and other ferocious noncombatants who would in the future have no problem pushing other people besides themselves—or their own kids—into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.” No way I’d argue with that.

Charles Malone

Charles Malone

This is an enjoyable, readable book that could have benefited from some judicious editing. Malone says some things twice and some three times. Once was enough.

Still, it was pleasant to encounter a mention of Arlo Guthrie, and also a frank admission that Saigon was “the rear” and a far safer place to spend the war than in the field. It’s brave to say that straight out.

So thanks for this book and thanks for a look at Vietnam War as it wound down.

Early on, Malone makes the point that Vietnam is a stinky place. But to his credit, unlike most authors, he goes on to say that the Vietnamese no doubt thought of Americans as stinky, too.

I’m sure they did, and not just in the way he means.

Malone’s website is charlesmalonewrites.com

—David Willson

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Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson

In Liberating Strife by Steve Atkinson

“Love and war happened simultaneously for me” in the 1960s, Steve Atkinson writes in Liberating Strife: A Memoir of the Vietnam Years: Vol. 1, The Track of a Storm (City Limits Press, 395 pp. $29.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle). This declaration sets the stage for Atkinson exhuming his memories, from a highly personalized perspective, about how that decade’s dynamics influenced him while he was a high school senior and college student from 1963-69. At that time the Vietnam War, he says, “was the root cause of most of the domestic disturbances.”

Atkinson analyzes the pros and cons of the disturbances—communism, thermonuclear weapons, racial conflict, women’s rights, Selective Service practices, illegal drug use, and the antiwar movement—along with trying to find a lifelong mate—in this memoir. He digs up minutia that ought to register a touch of nostalgia among those who lived through the era, and his thoughts might teach a lesson or two to people unfamiliar with those years.

A week after completing graduate school finals, Atkinson became an Army draftee. The book’s second half describes his military training (nothing new here except a drill instructor who becomes a friend) and gives equal time to his relationship with wife-to-be, Bev Minear. He quotes from their letters and spends a lot of time on how they opened each other’s eyes to the enjoyment of intellectual pursuits. He convinced me that they definitely were made for each other.

Suffice it to say that Atkinson did not enjoy Army life. In October 1969, three weeks after finishing AIT, Atkinson went to Vietnam. In Liberating Strife, Vol. 2  (631 pp. $36.99, paper; $7.49, Kindle) he tells the story of his role in the war.

Trained as an infantryman, Atkinson ended up as a clerk typist. During his year in-country, he served at Lai Khe with the 1st Infantry Division Adjutant General; at Di An in the Message Center; and at Long Binh with the 16th Public Information Detachment.

Initially, he worked a twelve-hour, seven-day-a-week schedule. As American units deactivated because of Vietnamization, his workload diminished to an hour a day. He filled his free time by writing letters, reading, watching movies, and listening to music. By mail, Bev and he doted over classical literature and music.

His vices were drinking beer and limited dope-smoking. He describes his gun-toting duties as follows: “Standing guard on the rear perimeter [at Long Binh] is among the experiences that I remember most vividly. I knew it was highly unlikely there would be any trouble, yet there was still the remote possibility that I might be called upon to kill a man that night—an agonizing decision.” Atkinson puzzled over how fate had put him “in this strange little corner of the world,” but was pleased that it played out as it did.

Actually, Atkinson’s heart and mind never left Minneapolis. He intersperses accounts of his activities in Vietnam with information from Bev’s letters and other hometown sources. As he did in Volume 1, he analyzes historical events pertaining to the war and the strengthening of antiwar sentiment. He frequently writes more about problems regarding Bev, his family, and Minnesota than those of the war.

“The most important and beneficial lasting legacy of the Vietnam War was the abolition of the military draft,” he writes. “The draft is both an unwarranted imposition on individual liberty and too powerful and dangerous a tool to put in the hands of our elected leaders.” He labels it “involuntary servitude.” Throughout both volumes, he offers other controversial pronouncements.

With almost the same breath, however, he says, “I can honestly affirm that I do feel a certain pride in my service. I answered my country’s call to duty amid a time of strife and ambiguity. These pages have made it clear that I arrived at that decision in the face of considerable misgivings.”

In Atkinson’s case, love conquered all: Bev and he have been married since he returned from Vietnam. Atkinson, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, focuses his book on their long-distance romance and underplays the war angle. That choice—and his job assignment— eliminated suspense and drama from his story.

The two volumes contain nearly 400 photographs, most taken by Atkinson, and illustrations, all of which were new to me. He shot large batches of pictures on R&Rs to Tokyo and Hong Kong. The collection includes more than two hundred pages made up on three scrapbooks that partially tell his story by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel

Sadec Province: by Gordon Bare

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Gordon Bare’s Sadec Province: A Memoir of War and Reconstruction in the Mekong Delta (Politics and Prose, 160 pp. $17.95, paper) is based on a journal the author kept during his two tours of duty in the Mekong Delta of South Vietnam. Bare served with U.S. Army as an Assistant Province Adviser with Army Advisory Team 65.

A retired Army Reserve Colonel who also worked in middle and high-level positions in the State Department, Bare now devotes time to Team River Runner, an organization dedicated to helping wounded veterans through whitewater kayaking. The proceeds of this book go to that worthy organization.

Sadec Province was initially a slow and laborious read mainly because of the scores of end notes. The reader would have been well served had these notes been embedded in the text or placed as footnotes on their associated pages. That said, this was a very good book for me to read

The first chapters set the stage with history, organizational structures, policy evaluations, and the like, and paint a fairly good picture of a part of the Vietnam War of which not too many of us are aware. The book is more than Bare’s memoir of his time in a small area inside the Delta. It’s a melding of those experiences and what he has learned about the war since then.

He has assembled a trove of information that brings to light obscure information about the war, the mindset of the Viet Cong, hidden successes of Vietnamization, mistakes of American strategists at the highest levels, how the war’s lessons learned are being applied today in the Middle East, and much more.

The final two chapters contain Bare’s afterthoughts and evaluations. Of particular interest to me was that as awful as the Vietnam War was on the people of South Vietnam, no one fled the country by boat. It took a communist regime to accomplish that.

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Also, that it has been suggested that the American war gave the rest of Southeast Asia time to get its act together and limit the falling dominoes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. And that there has been no recognition of the culpability of Americans who denounced the war in Vietnam and then denied that a bloodbath occurred. These statements, and others, have given me a more secure feeling that our involvement in Vietnam was necessary and to a certain extent, successful.

I recommend Sadec Province to anybody who served in the Vietnamization programs—Phoenix, CORDS, USAID, MAGG, MACV—as well as to anybody who served in the Delta or to those simply interested in learning more of behind-the-scenes military activities in Vietnam during the war.

I am glad I read the book. I was truly enlightened.

— Bob Wartman

Vietnam 365 by Karen Angelucci

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In Vietnam 365: Our Tour Through Hell (Acclaim Press, 224 pp., $26.95, hardcover) Karen Angelucci presents a complex narrative based on the Vietnam War tour of former Army Spec 5 David J. McCormack, who served in Vietnam in 1970-71. Angelucci identifies his unit as “the Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 5th Battalion, 2nd Artillery Automatic Self Weapons group located on Duster Compound, attached to 30th ARVN Rangers and a Navy Seal A-Team of 5th Special Forces.”

Angelucci presents the Vietnam War story of McCormack,  a “greenline” guard and master mechanic. In Vietnam he acquired the sobriquet “Billy the Kid,” by which he became widely known both to allied leaders and—according to the book—to vengeful, high-ranking members of the NVA and VC.

This honorary title was bestowed on him due to his legendary coolness and lethality in several encounters with the enemy during his time in III Corps.

Angelucci also describes McCormack’s repeated confrontations with those who outranked him. She writes that NCOs and officers usually backed down in deference to his incredible courage and in-country experience.

In one chapter he karate punches a sleazy chief warrant officer in the nose, then intentionally runs his Jeep over the guy, breaking his kneecap and smashing his foot. In the next chapter McCormack punches a Long Binh Hospital nurse in the chest, knocking her to the floor.

Despite these and other assaults and threats of time in Leavenworth or worse, McCormack always escaped serious punishment. Angelucci writes that he even outsmarted the CIA when agents sent him on a suicidal decoy mission.

She says he also worked with a Vietnamese spy in Cu Chi who informed him of enemy movements in the area. When the spy was captured by the enemy, she identified him to her torturers.

Before leaving for The World, McCormack was debriefed by a friendly master sergeant, who told him: “Moscow, Peking, and Hanoi had [sic] each put up five hundred dollars for your young ass dead or alive. Go home and crawl in a hole and pull the hole in after you. There, no doubt, will be a Soviet Special Forces operative inserted into the U.S. to kill you.”

Readers might raise an eyebrow at some of these tales, but still find the narrative rings true in several of its specifics, primarily those concerning military vehicles and weaponry.

McCormack, who became an auto mechanics instructor in a technical college after serving in Vietnam, offers intricate details of his work as an in-country mechanic. For example:

“So I thought, ‘These military vehicles are literally ‘de-tuned.’ I took string and measured around the crankshaft pulley. I used a tape measure and calculated eighteen degrees before top dead center. That was the factor specification for the ’61 Corvette fuel injection that was what I used on my ’57 Chevy I called the ‘Grey Ghost’; it ran best changing gears at full power shift at 7,200 revolutions back on the street.”

In another passage, he and a fellow Southerner discuss at length and with sentimentality the specifications of their cars back home. It is a believable and poignant moment of escape from the grinding craziness of the war into which these “good old boys” have both been thrust.

McCormack seems to have an unusual story to tell. Perhaps a direct autobiography or a better-documented account would have been more effective in telling it.

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Karen Angelucci

The book includes McCormack’s own in-country photographs and several excellent photos taken by Robert W. Griffin during the war.

One final note: Angelucci quotes McCormack who quotes an Army dog handler who claims he would put black gunpowder into the raw meat of  his “German Shepard hunting dogs.” Then, according to the handler, the dogs, now super-aggressive and with a taste for human flesh, would be set loose to slaughter the enemy.

During this period this reviewer served in III Corps with a unit that had guard dog handlers. He never heard of this bizarre practice.

Is this another in a long and still-growing list of Vietnam War myths?

—Paul Kaser

2D Surgical Hospital by Lorna Griess

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Lorna Griess served as a military nurse for thirty years, two in the Navy and the remainder in the Army. She retired as a colonel in 1990.

Her memoir—2D Surgical Hospital: An Khe to Chu Lai South Vietnam (Xlibris, 108 pp. $22.99, hardcover; $15.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle)—covers 1966-67 when she was twenty-eight years old and primarily tended to wounded soldiers in recovery rooms and intensive care units, working twelve hours a day, six days a week.

“In RR/ICU, every patient was acute, needing instant and constant care,” Greiss writes.

Greiss’s recollection of the time focuses on her duties and surroundings. She does not describe in detail the individual Americans the treated. She talks of a “push,” or mass casualty, and other medical events in general terms. For example:

“Gunshot wounds were always surprises. They took eclectic paths through the body, sometimes diverted by bones and sometimes clean. Medical people had to turn the patient over to find the full damage. Some of the slower rounds made little entry holes but large exit wounds. Chest and abdominal wounds from gunshot or blast injuries sometimes took hours to find and fix all the damage.”

Greiss does describe the impact that her duties had on her psyche. “If I dwell on it now, some of the sights, sounds, and smells are still very real,” she writes. “They were perceived at the height of emotion and are etched forever in my mind. Tears are filling my eyes and cascading down my cheeks as I write this. That was forty-eight years ago, and it is as fresh as yesterday in my mind.”

The book contains thirty-two full-page photographs Griess took. Mainly they show buildings from the locales where she lived, worked, and traveled.

Based on Griess’ closing comments, I believe she wrote 2D Surgical Hospital to help relieve her own war-related emotional problems. She proudly served her nation and paid a price. She has lung cancer attributed to exposure to Agent Orange and mentions PTSD as follows:

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Lorna Griess

“Those of us who made the Army a career had peer support and did much better than those who got out and went back home looking for the same world they left. Many are still seeking treatment today.”

Griess continues to work on behalf of veterans from the Vietnam War as well as returnees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The author’s website is 2dsurgicalhospital.com

—Henry Zeybel

Tiger Bravo’s War by Rick St John

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Tiger Bravo’s War (Currahee Press, 356 pp. $24.99, hardcover; $16.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is packed with almost non-stop action. There are entire books written about single battles. This book chronicles on infantry company’s exploits in no less than three major battles and dozens of smaller, yet intense and deadly, fights.

Rick St John’s writings are wide-ranging. They include Circle of Helmets: Poetry and Letters of the Vietnam War and—believe it or not—lighthearted, children’s stories, a beautiful dichotomy. On the battlefield, warriors like Rick St. John are fearless, aggressive, and totally driven to kill and survive. Underneath, though, the rawhide-skinned, steely-eyed warrior is a good, loving human being with a heart of gold.

Rick St John is a 1966 graduate of West Point who served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division in 1968. His battlefield awards include the Silver and Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart. He retired from the U.S. Army in 1993 as a colonel.

Tiger Bravo’s War starts a bit slowly as St John’s B Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry, 3rd Brigade in the 101st is preparing to depart Ft. Campbell for Vietnam. Stay with it, though, as the Prologue and first chapter set the stage for an exciting tour—and an exciting book.

Because of the unit’s early departure from the States, the first month in-country was dedicated to OJT for jungle warfare. Then, on January 3, 1968, it hits the fan and seldom lets up for the next eleven months. Tiger Bravo became one of the Army’s “hired guns,” amassing staggering combat numbers. Super-hotspots, impossible odds, friendlies in a bind? Tiger Bravo got airlifted in.

The enemy respected and feared the warriors of Bravo Company. It is reported that the NVA and VC would say, “These American soldiers with an eagle patch on their shoulder piled on from every direction. Day or night, under heavy fire or not, they kept coming.”  Having read Tiger Bravo’s War, I believe this is true.

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Rick St John

Throughout the book, St John is honest and objective, and he shows no excessive bravado. In Vietnam he displayed a healthy ability to delegate and to trust the judgement of others. He searched out the special capabilities of every man under his command and used them to the unit’s advantage. He was the quintessential infantry commander, a warrior leading warriors.

Opening with a good glossary that is supplemented in Chapter 1 with a section on Vietnam War “Speak,” the excellent documentation continues with an expansive Bibliography and Notes section at the end. The lack of an index is a minor issue. Maps and photos abound.

Tiger Bravo’s War grew on me. The more I read, the more I wanted to read.

—Bob Wartman