The Dancing Leaves Fort Hamilton Brooklyn By Pierre Gerard

Yakova Lynn, the widow of Pierre Gerard, has followed the wishes of her husband, a U.S. Army Vietnam War veteran, in dedicating the posthumously published  The Dancing Leaves: Fort Hamilton Brooklyn (Merriam Press, 416 pp., $22.95, paper) to disabled American veterans.

Pierre Gerard (a pseudonym) had a distinguished military history. He was raised an Air Force brat by his Strategic Air Command pilot father. His French mother, a native of Le Havre, was a war bride.  His uncle was a highly decorated Korean War veteran. We reviewed his first novel, Le Havre: A Riveting Expose for Our World Today, on these pages in 2015.

Gerard served in the U.S. Army Security Police at Soc Trang during his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty. Afterward, his professional career, his wife tells us, was spent as a “dedicated librarian.”  The Dancing Leaves deals with Vietnam War veterans at the Brooklyn VA Hospital, along with espionage, the Mafia, undercover agents, and crime bosses. This is a complex story—and one that at times confused this reader.

The very first page of this long novel refers to “rear echelon crap” and to a lifer as being a “regular John fuckin’ Wayne.”  So from the start, the author flies the colors of the sort of novel it is likely to be.

Of course, the biggest clue about the nature of this novel is the title.  Dancing Leaves is not a title that made this potential reader eager to read a Vietnam War novel, or to even suspect that this was one. Luckily, the book is much better than the title. At least a thousand times better.

I highly recommend The Dancing Leaves to those who are jones-ing to read another Vietnam War novel—-one that walks down some paths than are usually not trod.

The book also contains some worthy poetry and a lot of images, which sets it apart from the vast majority of Vietnam War novels. Some of the photographs made me shudder, as they show Vietnamese prisoners blindfolded in those red and white napkin-like affairs that indicate these poor fellows are likely to be shot.

—David Willson

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RVN by Tim Gingras

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Tim Gingras is a former U. S. Navy Corpsman who served on active duty in the 1970s.  In his novel, RVN (Outskirts Press, 156 pp., $28.95, hardcover; $14.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle) eighteen-year-old Charlie Kinane is drafted at the height of the Vietnam War. He avoids going into the Army by joining the Navy as a hospital corpsman. He chooses pharmacy tech training, thinking that would keep him out of blood-and-guts experiences.

Then Charlie goes to Vietnam and is send to the 3rd Marine Division at Khe Sanh, a base  infamous for being constantly under heavy attack. Charlie’s primary duty is to keep track of medical supplies, especially controlled medications used for the treatment of pain. When Charlie is sent as a replacement corpsman on an overnight search-and-destroy mission outside the wire, he confronts everything he had been working hard to avoid.

Charlie keeps close track of the days he spends in Vietnam. He had to put in a one-year tour of duty that it would end in August 1967, so if he survived, he would hold the military to “this one-year thing,” as he refers to it. (I believe that in the Marines the Vietnam War tour of duty was thirteen months.)

Charlie’s duties include dealing with malaria, trench foot, leaches, delousing, burns, nausea, and countless other medical things including suturing. He works with female personnel and feels so strongly about one nurse’s  bad qualities that he discusses fragging her. He ultimately decides that fragging is “basically murder,” which he was against personally.

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Tim Gingras

Movies were available for Marines stationed on base and they watched The Sand Pebbles, Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, The Dirty Dozen, and Charlie’s favorite, In Like Flint.

I recommend this small but interesting book to all who are curious about the life of a Navy Corpsman in the Vietnam War.

–David Willson

For Good Reason By James D. Robertson

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For Good Reason (Black Opal Books, 482 pp., $29.99, hardcover; $19.49 paper; $3.99, Kindle) is James D. Robertson’s debut novel. A Vietnam War veteran, Robertson edited two non-fiction books dealing with that war:  Doc: Platoon Medic (1992) and Steel My Soldiers’ Hearts (2002).

The plot of For Good Reason revolves around Danny Mulvaney, a Vietnam veteran who writes a best-selling memoir twenty years after coming home from the war. As a result of his notoriety, Danny gets an invitation from a mystery woman to return to Vietnam, where he had almost died. When he arrives, old nightmares return and his Danny’s past begins to unravel.

Danny had one of those mothers, common during the 1950s, who believed that everything happened for a reason. He didn’t know if that passed for wisdom or just pure poppycock, but he loved his mother, so he joined the military with the notion that bolting for Canada was wrong, and that he must do his best not to let down his family or his country.

In the course of his eventful Vietnam War tour of duty, Danny was wounded, decorated for heroism, betrayed, faced a court martial, and rescued an officer from his college town by disobeying orders and entering the enemy-infested U-Minh Forest.

This is a large, well-written book that has everything in it, including—figuratively speaking—the kitchen sink. REMF’s are castigated as “candy asses;” John Wayne and the Lone Ranger “saddle up;” and Vietnamese prostitutes have razor blades hidden in their vaginas from whence they emerge to do serious damage to American manhood.

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Robertson

VC territory is referred to as “Indian Country.” “The Green Machine” rears its ugly head, as do Bob Hope and Johnny Cash. Donut Dollies are relabeled “Biscuit Bitches,” a new one to me.  Tiger cages are used to torture captured Americans. Great expanses of the Vietnam countryside are defoliated.

The question is asked, “What are they gonna do—send me to Vietnam?”

This long book book requires a huge commitment of time and energy, but is one of the best written of the recent Vietnam War novels.

I am glad I plowed through the entire thing.

—David Willson

True North by Roger Rooney

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The hero of Roger Rooney’s novel True North (Volcano Mountain, 296 pp., $19.95, paper; $0.99, Kindle), Jack Burns, is one of the few Australians serving in the Vietnam War in the early 1960s. As much as he hopes it will provide him some distinction, Burns’ path seems destined for disappointment. Or worse.

Burns arrives in country with energy and ambition. But there’s heat and chaos and the frustration of working as an adviser in a place where advice is the last thing anyone wants to hear.

Rooney tells of Burns’ growing disenchantment with the war, along with the story of a young North Vietnamese woman who is with a detachment of NVA troops heading south to make war on the Americans. She, too, is disenchanted. Readers will wonder whether their paths will cross.

Burns wants to remain optimistic, but he cannot escape the conflicting directives of the war. The ARVN’s track record suggests that its objective is not winning the war, but preventing another next coup against President Ngo Dinh Diem, South Vietnam’s American-backed leader. Before being installed as Prime Minister, Diem was a religious mystic in Bruges, Belgium. His only qualification for the job was his staunchly anti-communist views.

Burns isn’t on the ground long before someone sets him straight: The apparent truth he sees isn’t real.

“Charlie owns the night and has damn near paid off his mortgage on the day,” Rooney writes. “That little man is on the march straight to this very room. He’d be here in a few days if it wasn’t for our airstrikes and choppers. The South Vietnamese don’t go on search and destroy missions. They go on search and avoid missions.”

Nevertheless, Burns is eager to get to the front. Too soon, he gets his wish.

As Ryan “launched himself into the water, he saw a yellow fireball explode and flames suck high into the air and spray burning jelly across the paddies,” Rooney writes. “He gulped down a huge breath as small tornadoes whipped amongst the rice stalks, caught in the rising heat like satanic spears intent on puncturing the heavens. He hurled himself into the water, grabbing frantically for a fistful of rice stalks. His only hope was to anchor himself as deep as possible underwater.”

Later, as the battle rages on and monkeys shriek in the branches above, the young NVA woman is captured. She will try to warn Burns away from a booby trap. But it’s too late.

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Rooney

Burns is badly wounded. He’ll land in the hospital and, from there, descend into a hell of opium and despair. We are left wondering, and perhaps hoping, that we’ve seen a glimpse of a connection that may yet take place.

Both he and the young woman, Tran, are characters we care about. Rooney’s development of their stories is smart and well-told. There are taut, wonderfully descriptive passages that carry us through to an ending that is as hard and desperate as the war itself.

Readers will forgive occasional inconsistencies in the writing, although there are a disconcerting number of typographical errors in the book. Nevertheless, True North is well worth a read.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Rat Six by Jack Flowers

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Clifford Price, the hero of Jack Flowers’ novel Rat Six (Page Publishing, 452 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $22.95, paper; $9.99 Kindle), like hundreds of thousands of other young Baby Boomers, was drafted into the U. S. Army and served in the Vietnam War. His grandfathers had served in the First World War and his father in World War II.

After being selected for OCS, Price served in the Army Corps of Engineers. He arrived in Vietnam in 1968. For a few months he commanded a platoon of bridge builders, but then volunteered to lead the 1st Infantry Division Tunnel Rats, one of the most dangerous jobs in the war.

In his new job Price was eligible for the Combat Infantryman Badge, a goal of sorts for him.  His mindset was antiwar, but as a tunnel rat that attitude was not one that would enable him to survive. Price and his fellow tunnel rates descended into tunnels armed only with a flashlight and a pistol and their training in how to ferret out the enemy below.

The tunnel rats navigated the tunnels, seeking intelligence, and then would destroy the tunnels and any food and other materiel stored there. The novel well communicates the terror that the tunnel rats felt when they went under ground and pursued the enemy in his own very alien habitat.

In the novel, our hero must deal with a soldier who has made this pursuit of the enemy in the tunnels his domain—a man called Batman. His actual name is Bateman and he had been in Vietnam for several tours, making a career of being a tunnel rat.

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Jack Flowers

Sgt. Bateman is a scary guy who nobody dared mess with, but Price has to mess with him when put in charge of the tunnel rat team. Most of the drama and conflict in this novel has its source in the battle between Price and Batman, who had seized control of the tunnel rat team through the force of his personality and his success in killing the enemy.

This novel held my attention, and I recommend it to anyone who has interest in the underground war in Vietnam between our tunnel rats and the entrenched VC who were totally at home in the dank, dark recesses of Vietnam’s vast tunnel complexes.

The author’s website is ratsix.com

—David Willson

Augie’s War by John H. Brown

augies-war-cover-frontThe blurb on the back of John H. Brown’s novel Augie’s War (Black Rose Writing, 233 pp., $16.95, paper; $.99, Kindle) says it is “an outrageously funny, but deadly serious novel of war, family and coming of age.” Brown was drafted into the Army and served in Vietnam in 1969-70 as an enlisted man in a rear-echelon job with the Americal Division. After getting out of the Army, he worked in public relations, and today writes a wine-and-food column in the Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette-Mail.

I can tell from reading the novel that it was a challenge for John Brown to turn his Vietnam War experiences into an action-packed, spell-binding novel. But he has come up with an amusing and very-well-written book.

In it, the reader learns a lot about how the Office of Awards and Decorations works, as that is where the hero, Augie Cumpton, spends his Vietnam War tour of duty. Much of this comic novel is padded with Augie’s flashbacks to life back home in the family bakery.  In Vietnam, his job entails doing paperwork for medals and awards. He is blackmailed by the threat of friendly fire if he does not do as he is told.

During the course of the novel the reader encounters many of the usual things that Vietnam War novels seem to be required to include. That includes more than one mention of John Wayne—one being “a black John Wayne,” along with Red Cross Donut Dollies, rocket attacks, R&R, “We Gotta Get Outta This Place,” the Domino Theory, the Tet Offensive, the Black Clap, shit burning, Sgt. Rock, Ham and Motherfuckers, Bob Hope, and REMFs.

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John H. Brown

Not to mention the admonition that you should keep your head down during rocket attacks—and a few dozen other familiar tropes. Despite my cavils, I highly recommend this novel, including the Italian bakery sequences.

That’s mainly because of my surprise—and gratification—at finding one more worthy Vietnam War REMF novel. At this late date, I’d given up that another one might appear. And I suspect this book won’t provoke a flood of more fictional REMF material.

I’d like to be wrong about that.

The author’s website is augieswar.com

–David Willson

Knight’s Blessing by R.T. Budd

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Telling a story through flashbacks is not an uncommon device. But in R.T. Budd’s hands, we see a story that unfolds through the memories of a man who is trapped between sanity and derangement caused by what he has seen in the Vietnam War.

In Knight’s Blessing (Strategic Book Publishing, 496 pp., $32.50), the lead character, Steven Blessing, is a newly arrived grunt whose naiveté will shrink as his disillusionment grows.

We will come to like Blessing, the Knight, and we’ll care about what happens to him. The journey from wide-eyed new guy to seasoned veteran is told in a series of short chapters, each of which is a vignette—some coarse, some funny, some tragic.

There’s Blessing, leaping out the door of his helicopter to land on his belly, low-crawling in firing position as his comrades laugh and applaud. How was Blessing to know it was a secure LZ?

There’s Blessing, torn between the savvy instinct to remain in a rear-echelon job and his relentless desire to prove himself on patrol, ridiculed by for volunteering for hazardous duty.

Over time, he will turn cynical.

“We had to cover some 50 kilometers before nightfall to complete the mission, and that’s what the war in Vietnam was all about—completing the mission. A little one here, and a little one there; no matter how small or insignificant they seemed, complete them all, one at a time, and then move on to another one. They all meant something to someone, didn’t they? All the little missions were like pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle, being put together by someone important, somewhere, who supposedly knew what the completed picture looked like. Or did they?”

Through it all, Blessing appears, somehow, to be blessed. Whenever disaster strikes, there’s a warning voice inside his head. He struggles to understand why. Are they premonitions? Is it just a horrific dream? Or is he merely psychotic?

As a member of his team puts it, “Some of these guys over here are going to have some really bad problems when they get back to the World that nobody’s ever going to understand.”

The book begins with its lead character speaking directly to the reader, telling us that some of what we’ll read is simply fiction, although, he says, it’s actually true.

The themes are not new. There’s politics and chaos, slaughter and survival, brawls and beer. And an overwhelming sense of devastation.

The pseudonymous Rudd, a retired Army Major who served with the First Cav in Vietnam, doesn’t dig too deeply into what it all means. Ultimately, we may come to believe that he has chosen simply to spread clues through the jungle, leaving us unsure of his intent. He tells us that he will invent some of the language in the book and that if we understood it all, we might chuckle over his choice of words.

Were the warnings a manifestation of Blessing’s guilt? Are they reformed memories? Are they the voice of his guardian angel?

Who knows? But Knight’s Blessing is an easy read and an entertaining one.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue