Missing on Hill 700 by Carrie Pepper

Marine PFC Anthony “Tony” Pepper disappeared in 1968 while attempting to capture Hill 700 in Vietnam, west of  Khe Sanh. Four days later his parents received a telegram that listed him missing in action. The message was the first of six similar telegrams the Pentagon sent to the family in the next six months. A seventh and final message classified Tony as killed in action/body not recovered.

The loss of their only son put the Pepper family members into mourning for the remainder of their lives. Following the deaths of both parents and the estrangement of an older sister, Tony Pepper’s younger sister Carrie took up the challenge of finding his remains. She had been thirteen when Tony died.

Carrie Pepper tells the story of her quest in Missing on Hill 700: How Losing a Brother in Vietnam Created a Family in America (Cottage Ink, 242 pp., $24.95). Vietnam veterans of 2nd Battalion, 26th Marines who had fought alongside Tony Pepper comprised the new family that she created in America—a family dedicated to the remembrance of her brother.

She found these veterans, many with closely involved wives, and built relationships with them through phone calls, email, letters, visits, memorial services, and unit reunions. Carrie Pepper’s research has recreated the last days of her brother’s life. At the same time, she vicariously experienced what he would have gone through had he survived the war because her band of new brothers also shared the good and bad from their post-war lives.

Despite never finding her brother’s remains, Carrie Pepper arranged to have a ceremony to place a tombstone for him in a special section of Arlington National Cemetery in 2007.

Tony Pepper in 1967

Strong similarities link Carrie Pepper’s Missing on Hill 700 with June 17, 1967 by David Hearne. The books differ only because a civilian woman wrote one and a former artillery lieutenant wrote the other.

Both stories, however, focus on small infantry units that needlessly suffered high casualty rates. A tragic undercurrent of the stories is that the casualties were young men who willingly followed flawed tactics and indifferent orders.

These accounts recognize a problem common to small unit operations in the Vietnam War. The lessons taught by them deserve to be told again and again.

Each one was an avoidable tragedy.

The author’s website is cottageinkpublishing.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Unaccounted by Michael McDonald-Low

Michael McDonald-Low’s Unaccounted (First Edition Design Publishing, 364 pp., $19.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) begins with a startling statistic: More than 83,000 American military personnel—the overwhelming majority from World War II— have been listed as missing in action.  The military did not systematically search for MIAs until after the Vietnam War, the author points out, when the families of those unaccounted for demanded answers.

Unaccounted looks at the service of, and search for, Clifford D. Van Artsdalen, an American soldier who went missing in May 1968 at the beginning of the second Tet Cffensive. Using a unique style of storytelling, the author presents a fictionalized account of the war from Van Artsdalen’s perspective, starting with his first duty station at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and ending with his presumed death in the Que Son Valley. McDonald-Low intersperses this retelling with personal experiences and interactions he had as Van Artsdalen’s platoon leader, along with details gathered from after-action reports.

Convincing reconstructed dialogue and descriptions put the reader firmly in the combat boots of the two main characters in Vietnam. The story starts with McDonald-Low waking in the present, drenched in sweat, from a nightmare that has haunted him for decades—the day when, as a platoon leader with Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, he and his men walked into an ambush along the hills of Que Son Valley.

The Author

The events leading up to the ambush are what the author attempts to reconcile through this retelling—could something have happened that would have spared the lives of Van Artsdalen and other men? Was there some crucial detail that he missed?

When Van Artsdalen is shot and goes missing, the book leaps forward to the present, where McDonald-Low is advising a JPAC recovery team searching for Van Artsdalen’s remains. The last third of the book describes the team’s recovery efforts in Hawaii and Vietnam. Without giving too much away, the recovery team is only marginally successful, but its endeavor enables McDonald-Low to confront Van Artsdalen’s death.

Inattentive readers may miss the shift in POV when a new chapter starts, as there’s not much change in tone. Plus, sometimes chapters skip weeks, months, or even years in a non-linear fashion. But overall, McDonald-Low’s book does an excellent job portraying the chaos of battle and the similar thoughts and emotions of officers and enlisted men.

Unaccounted evokes Clifford Van Artsdalen’s war experiences and the ultimate sacrifice he paid—even if it took 44 years for him to be accounted for.

The author’s website is www.unaccounted.net

—James Schuessler