There Was a Time by George H. Wittman

There Was A Time (Casemate, 312 pp. $24.95, paper; $11.49, Kindle) by George H. Wittman is a work of historical fiction dealing with the last few weeks of World War II in Southeast Asia. The hook is that we follow the exploits of a handful of Americans working closely with communist Vietnamese forces against invading Japanese troops. Wittman served in the U.S. Army during and after the Korean War.

The novel centers on a handpicked OSS team led by Maj. John Guthrie and his second in command, Capt. Edouard Parnell, both veterans of combat in the European theater. The team is parachuted into Tonkin, in far northern Vietnam, to lead the effort on the ground working directly with Ho Chi Minh’s rag-tag Viet Minh guerillas against the Japanese for control of what was then known as Indochina.

They’ve been told to get the Vietnamese to start “kicking some Jap ass.” One problem is understanding the complex Vietnamese political situation. Another big issue is dealing with the French who want to regain control of their Indochina colony, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Among the complicating factors is that the British were supporting the French because the Brits wanted to regain their own colonies, primarily India, after the war. Ho Chi Minh wanted the French and the Americans to be fighting the Japanese.

Guthrie, a labor lawyer in civilian life in Gary, Indiana, had been considered a “hard charger” after being awarded a Silver Star. He suffered from occasional nightmares, and even more frequent stomach ulcers.

Wittman

Both Ho Chi Minh and the head of the Viet Minh military forces, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, end up meeting these Americans. Giap is depicted as dour man mainly because of his hatred for the French.

Ho is impressed by the American plan to give the Philippines independence after the war and believes the best chance for independence for Vietnam lies with cultivating a close relationship with the U.S. What he wants from Americans in the near-term are supplies, military equipment, and weapons.  

After a night-drop, the OSS team gets lost and is ambushed by a Japanese squad before encountering friendly Vietnamese who, as part of Ho’s Viet Minh guerrillas, have been helping rescue shot-down U.S. in pilots in northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh promise to help this small American group in return for receiving better weapons.

The title is a reference to this very short period of time in 1945 during which the U.S. and the communist nationalist leadership of Vietnam fought together as allies. During that time key decisions were made that would have a big impact on the Vietnamese and American people for generations to come.

George Wittman drops us into the middle of this chaotic time and place with a book that is nothing short of a riveting read.

The author’s website is georgehwittman.com

–Bill McCloud

The Five O’clock Follies by Richard Brundage and David Billingsley

The Five O’clock Follies (Critical Communications, 306 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a comic novel that looks at the Vietnam War through the experiences of three close friends. Co-author Richard Brundage served two tours in Vietnam; the first with D Troop of the 17th Cavalry, and the second conducting daily press briefings as an Operations Officer at the Da Nang Press Center. Co-author Billingsley is a novelist and meteorologist.

In a story that plays like a buddy movie (but with three guys), three GIs—Brunell, Donovan, and Hosa—bond while going through jungle warfare training together in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. A year later, after having served apart in Vietnam, the three wind up at Fort Knox learning to command tank units. They love to clown around and there’s lots of wisecracking and shenanigans going on in the book. At the same time, the men know they would give their lives for each other.

The three receive separate assignments for their second tours in the war zone in 1969, but all end up in the far northern part of South Vietnam. Brunell, the main character, monkeys with his orders to get himself assigned to a cushier job with Armed Forces Vietnam Network, and takes over the press center at Phu Bai. He and his buddies continue to run into each other during the following year. Hosa is a pilot in Da Nang; Donovan’s work is so secret he can’t even say that he can’t talk about it.  

This humorous novel consists of many skit-like comic moments, some involving pranks. The buddies concoct fake orders. They have drag races with Army trucks down an airfield runway at night without lights.

Hosa takes part in the most dangerous missions. Donovan remains secretive. He’s the thinker in the group, the straight man, the voice of reason. Brunell settles in at the press center, and then gets reassigned to Da Nang. “Five O’clock Follies” is the term that war correspondents came to use for the military’s daily briefings, considering them basically to be foolish, untruthful, and repetitive.

This is an enjoyably humorous look at men at war with the enemy, as well as with their own military bureaucracy. But it’s mainly a double love story: a traditional love affair between a man and a woman, and the love three men have for each other as they share wartime experiences.

That kind of love is one of the few positives that can come from war. It is worth celebrating.

–Bill McCloud

Vietnam What? by Gianni Ruffo

Vietnam What? 2 (223 pp. $10.99, paper) by Gianni Ruffo is a fictionalized account of a Catholic priest’s adventures in the Vietnam War during multiple tours of duty in the late 1960s. Ruffo lives in Italy, and has had a long-time interest in the military history of the Vietnam War. This book is a sequel to Vietnam What? and begins where the first one ended, but with a new protagonist.

The story opens at Khe Sanh in early 1968. A Catholic Army chaplain is temporarily at the besieged combat base because his job has him traveling throughout South Vietnam delivering religious aids to chaplains of all denominations. The priest tells a soldier that his name is Bud. The man says, “As in beer? From now on, you’ll be Father Beer for me.” The priest readily accepts the nickname.

As the priest experiences attacks on the base he begins to question why the U.S. is waging the war. As he flies out of embattled Khe Sanh, he prays for the men remaining there.

The priest continues to see action. A helicopter he is in takes enemy rounds as it is coming in for a landing. Another time he’s a passenger in a cargo plane that crashes. He also has a Jeep blown out from under him, and is taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a few days before being rescued. But it’s not just the priest’s adventures we follow. Several chapters contain action stories he is told by hospitalized troops he visits.

The priest takes a short leave to Vatican City, then is sent to Quang Tri, and then to Cam Ranh Bay. Then he secretly joins a Red Cross committee visiting three prison camps around Hanoi. This priest certainly gets around.

This book is not written in typical paragraphs, but presented in quite long ones, many covering a few pages. It seems almost to have been written in a stream-of-consciousness manner.   

In Vietnam What, Bud the priest is a fearless man who never hesitates putting himself in danger to help a fellow human being. It’s a shame this is a work of fiction.

–Bill McCloud

Echo Among Warriors by Richard Camp

Echo Among Warriors: Close Combat in the Jungle of Vietnam (Casemate, 288 pp. $22.95, paper) by Richard Camp is an intense, you-are-there, fictionalized consideration of close-quarters fighting during the American war in Vietnam. The final ten chapters are as realistically and breathlessly action-packed as you will read anywhere.

Col. Camp served for 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty as a company commander with the 3rd Battalion, 26th Marines. He has written 15 military history books, including a recent biography of USMC Gen. Raymond Davis.

All of the action in Echo Among Warriors takes place during two days in the fall of 1967 in dense jungle near Khe Sanh, an area in which Col. Camp saw action. The story is told in alternating chapters through the eyes of American and North Vietnamese participants.

It begins with Marines searching through the jungle for a reported NVA troop buildup in the area. At times, the men follow sandal prints as they move “deep in Indian Country.” They come across a heavily used trail at the same time they receive intelligence from Montagnard tribesmen that large numbers of North Vietnamese troops are heading their way.

A short time later contact is made. Heavy fighting ensues. From this point, the story alternates chapters, taking us into the minds of the troops on both sides. Sometimes an action will be taken by the NVA in a chapter, and we read the result from the American side in the next one.

There’s a lot going on here. We read of men being captured by both sides, booby-trapped bodies, hand-to-hand fighting, fighting through pain, and the “stink of death.” When large helicopters land, they stir up elephant dung. Men fail to use proper radio procedure while under stress. Incoming artillery rounds land a little too close. There are fears of accidentally engaging other Americans at night, resulting in “intramural firefights.”

Since this book only covers two days it includes quite a bit of welcome detail and minute-by-minute dialogue. A glossary explains the mil-speak so that the dialogue is both realistic and those unfamiliar with the terms can look them up while the rest of us rip along with the story.

The novel is dedicated to the late military historian Eric Hammel. I’m sure he would be pleased to be associated with this heroic story.  

–Bill McCloud

The Rains on Tan Son Nhat by Christopher McCain-Nguyen

In The Rains on Tan Son Nhat (469 pp, $16.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) Christopher McCain-Nguyen offers a decades-long love story centered on the American war in Vietnam. The novel personalizes the ups and downs of the war years, which culminated in a great sense of loss and defeat. The author came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 1966. A business entrepreneur with an interest in linguistics, McCain-Nguyen says his debut novel is a “25 years’ labor of love.”

The plot revolves around U.S. Air Force Maj. James Saito, a Japanese-Irish American intelligence officer in Saigon in 1967. He meets Emily Bach Mai, a young woman of Vietnamese and Jewish-German heritage who is an Air Vietnam receptionist manager and the airline’s Chief Public Relations Officer—a girl with “mysterious eyes.” The two fall in love, even though Mai is engaged to a physician named Chung who is likely working secretly for the communists. It’s not lost on James and Mai that they are both children of two heritages.

Chung tells Mai he must immediately leave for an indefinite period of time. While he is gone, she learns that he is, indeed, “an agent for the other side.” Meanwhile, James is readily accepted by Mai’s family and friends mainly because he speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Chung, working at a small, makeshift Viet Cong field hospital with only primitive equipment, begins developing a sense of political confusion. While Chung is away the relationship between James and Mai deepens.

McCain-Nguyen frequently steps back from the main storyline, as if hovering overhead, and offers background information about what was going on in the war. In doing so, he ends up giving the reader much of the history of Vietnam and of the American war. At important points in the story he tends to point out that what’s happening has been mostly dictated by fate with humans having very little control over their lives.

This novel, like the war, is long and sad. Some may find it hard to forget.

–Bill McCloud

em by Kim Thuy

Kim Thuy’s em (Seven Stories Press, 160 pp. $21.95) is a poetically written short novel focusing on the heart of the Vietnamese people. The one-word title refers, Kim Thuy says, “to the little brother or little sister in a [Vietnamese] family; or the younger of two friends; or the woman in a couple. I like to think that the word em is the homonym of the verb aimer, ‘to love,’ in French.” The novel is translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

Kim Thuy and I arrived in South Vietnam in the same year. Her mother gave birth to her in Saigon in 1968. At just about the same time I landed at nearby Binh Hoa to start my tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Thuy left Vietnam with her family following the communist takeover and now lives in Quebec in Canada.

She says that she writes true stories “incompletely told,” in which “truth is fragmented,” and that our hearts may shudder while reading them. Her new book’s first sentence is, “War, again.” As you read on, you can’t help but mourn for the children of Vietnam: those who were orphaned, those who never knew their American fathers, and all of those who suffered as a result of the war.

We read how French rubber tree plantation managers were forced to negotiate with Americans about the number of trees to cut down to clear the way for vehicles to pass through. In exchange, they were promised protection against U.S. bombs and defoliants.

Thuy writes that combat zones “were likely the only places where human beings became equal to each other through their mutual annihilation.” We read of a young girl carried away from violence and danger by her nanny yet, “Like a cut flower, her childhood faded before it had bloomed.”

We witness the horror of the My Lai massacre. “No one suspected that they were going to set fire to the huts while shooting their weapons with the same eagerness at chickens and humans.” For some involved, “Time would recede, become virgin again, and would begin anew at the origin of the world.” A survivor is unable to remember faces because, “maybe war machines don’t have a human face.”

There is a brief love affair, but even love is orphaned following an accidental death. There are orphans who become prostitutes out of necessity. A young boy with an American father is as completely orphaned as a child can be since he doesn’t even have a name. There are “child-adults.” There are orphans who find other abandoned orphans and bond with them.

We witness the immolation of monks. We watch as Operation Babylift takes thousands of orphans away from the war-torn country. But even there we witness tragedy as the first plane explodes in the air. We watch as the city of Saigon falls to the communists in 1975. And then when it looks like everything has ended, the long-term effects of Agent Orange remain. Always—and still—there is Agent Orange.

In the chapter titled “Points of View,” Thuy writes: “The Americans speak of the ‘Vietnam War,’ the Vietnamese of the ‘American War.’ The distinction is perhaps what explains the cause of that war.”

Kim Thuy ends her unforgettable, softly told story with a reminder that all Vietnamese people, “no matter where they live, descend from a love story between a woman of the immortal race of faeries and a man of the blood of dragons.”  

–Bill McCloud

Landing Zone by Carlos Arce

Carlos Arce, the author of the multi-volume Landing Zone (983 pp. HEDSA Publishing, Kindle), describes the work as an “illustrated serial-novel about the Vietnam War written by a disabled combat infantry veteran who served in the war during 1969-1970.” The novel is divided into seven volumes with 41 chapters and tells Arce’s substantially autobiographical story. While they are tied together, Arce says that each chapter is also intended to stand as its own story.

What sets this novel apart is the inclusion of 642 photographs, drawings, and graphs pulled from the Internet. The illustrations give the novel an encyclopedic nature. When Arce mentions a weapon in his story you can be sure you’ll see a picture of it on the next page. Same with Agent Orange, snakes, and other Vietnam War things he encountered in Vietnam.

In Volume 1: The Beginning (which we reviewed in these pages in 2016), main character George Vida knows what’s in store when he receives orders to report to Oakland, California, in July 1969. He says he felt “afraid to be afraid.” He had enjoyed his Army training, though, and thought it was “fun” to shoot an M-16 in fully automatic mode and to jump out of airplanes. After his arrival in South Vietnam at Tan Son Nhut, the air base the base comes under rocket attack. Vida is knocked to the ground and a guy he had made friends with on the plane is killed.

He’s assigned to the First Air Cavalry Division and is sent to another reception center where he says he received “a crash course on how to go to war.” He’s told to not trust any Vietnamese and quickly realizes that just about everything around him is an extreme threat. He doesn’t feel better when he’s told he’ll be spending most of his time in the jungle.

In Volume 2: The Shock, Vida’s sent out into the field and it’s not long before he sees engages in hand-to-hand fighting with an enemy soldier that involves the two of them biting each other. He casually notes that in hand-to-hand fighting Americans have an edge because of their larger stature.

In Volume 3: Survival, Vida finds himself aboard a helicopter with two uncooperative Vietnamese prisoners. He watches in horror as one of them is thrown out. That’s an awful lot of action for one guy to have experienced in such a relatively short period of time. Arce addresses that by saying the story is based on things he saw and experienced, as well as things other soldiers told him.

One thing that’s similar to many other Vietnam War stories is that the moment Vida meets an Army nurse she is immediately attracted to him.

Volume 4: Resignation finds Vida enjoying his R&R in Bangkok. The three remaining volumes get us back into action, along with ruminations about what the war was really all about. Arce provides a brief history of the war, talks about why the U.S. did not succeed, and goes over our overall military strategy.  

The concluding volume has Vida returning home in mid-1970. We then read, decades after his service, about his feelings about the antiwar movement, the use of Agent Orange, and present-day veteran suicides.

With its illustrations, stories, and historic information, this book is a one-stop shop, especially for those with little knowledge about the Vietnam War.

Carlos Arce concludes this book, which was a labor of love for him, by saying: “I will struggle with my memories and the pain that will always be there, but I was proud then and I am proud now. I was an American soldier and I did what I had to do.”

–Bill McCloud

Sunshine Blues by Bob Calverley

In his new novel, Sunshine Blues (526 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle), Bob Calverley tells two stories that are not really all that connected —except for the fact that they take place at the same time. Calverley was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1967 and served a 1968-69 tour in Vietnam with the 187th Assault Helicopter Company in Tay Ninh.

Sunshine Blues, his third novel, is set in 1968. Half of it centers on Jimmy Hayes, a crew chief in an Army assault helicopter company. While he’s half-way through his tou, his sixteen-year-old pregnant girlfriend, Gloria Doran in Detroit experiences a trauma-causing incident and then discovers that her life is being threatened. Plus, Gloria still has whip marks on her back she received at the hands of her evil stepfather. She experiences PTSD every bit as much as her boyfriend will.

Gloria witnessed two deaths in Detroit while men were mysteriously dying around Jimmy in South Vietnam. While coming to the end of a difficult pregnancy, Gloria learns that Jimmy is missing after surviving a helicopter crash that killed three other men. She doesn’t know that he’s been captured by some sort of Vietnamese militia unit and taken deep into a tunnel complex where he will be put on trial for murdering Vietnamese civilians.

Bob Calverley in country

That scene comes off as a surreal incident that works well, especially when you consider many of the bizarre aspects of the American war in Vietnam.

Calverley says stories he heard at reunions of his Vietnam War unit are in the novel, though he admits that “Year after year the stories keep getting better. The line between fact and fiction blurs with the passage of time. Or maybe it’s the consumption of the adult beverages.”

The novel includes a maniac who likes to chop off fingers, arson, child abuse, drug trafficking, flight crew fatigue, illegal nightclubs, money laundering, murder, organized crime, police abuse, sabotage, suicide, and international sex trafficking. It’s divided into more than sixty short chapters that keep the action moving—and moving around. At one point three consecutive chapters are entitled “Cu Chi,” “Detroit,” and “Nui Binh.” Plus, each story could stand alone if told separately.

All of which makes Sunshine Blues an unusual book. I found the sections on Jimmy’s Vietnam War experiences to be quite intriguing—and the strongest part of the novel.  

The author’s website is bobcalverley.com/sunshine-blues

–Bill McCloud

Incident at Dak To by Louis Edward Rosas

Incident at Dak To (257 pp. $14.95, paper; $4.99, Kindle) by Louis Edward Rosas is a very enjoyable military-procedural science fiction story that brings to mind pulp novels of the Vietnam War era. If this book had been serialized in a monthly science fiction magazine 50 years ago it would have been well received.

In the book, we learn that Army Capt. Jay Swift wrote his Vietnam War story in a pocket journal in 1967, making it possible for him to relate it to us today. Swift and his buddy Fred Mason apparently worked for the CIA in Vietnam. They experienced combat in the war and still occasionally wore their Army uniforms, but mainly worked in civilian clothes. When asked what they did they said, “We are field analysts.” Their official job was to “locate and acquire exotic foreign technologies,” meaning things the Soviets and Chinese may have been ahead of the U.S. on, with the goal of reverse-engineering the stuff to our nation’s advantage.

They get called off an assignment in the Middle East to go to Vietnam to investigate an object of unknown origin that’s been recovered from a crash site near Dak To. The site, Rosas writes, “is smack in the middle of an enemy tunnel complex that was nearly overrun by combined NVA and Viet Cong forces. Whatever crashed there is of deep interest to them.” The recovered object was placed in a supposedly secure vault in the basement at the American Embassy, but then disappeared.

There had been reports of a fast-moving aircraft that “appeared as a glowing light in the night sky.” The object seemed to carry a “radiation signature,” and Swift’s initial thinking was that his assignment probably didn’t have anything to do with the war, and that whatever the object was had just dropped into the war zone. The two men are put up in an air-conditioned room with bulletproof windows in Saigon’s Caravelle Hotel where they worked day and night trying to get to the bottom of the mystery object.

The fun kicks in when Swift is told of “a blue-white fireball,” a “large impact crater,” a weird fog that suddenly appeared, and M16s that were strangely disabled. Then come missing witnesses, dissolving bullets, and encounters with Men in Black who walk through walls and always seem to be one step ahead of Swift and Mason.

This fast-moving story is told sometimes in third person, other times in first person, in cinematic-like form. Louis Edward Rosas, whose father served in the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, never gets in the way of his storytelling as he takes the reader on a wild ride.

–Bill McCloud

Red, White, & Blue by Michael Dean Moomey

Michael Dean Moomey’s novel, Red, White & Blue: Life of a Warrior (Archway Publishing, 250 pp. $35.95, hardcover; $17.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle), is a wild look at one man’s adventurous life in the Vietnam War and later working for the FBI and CIA. Moomey, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, served in the U.S. Navy during the war. He says this novel was inspired by actual events.

In the opposite of what you might expect, main character Jake Lewis’ mother pushes him to join the Navy at age 17 to get him out of the house and away from his abusive, alcoholic, World War II-vet father. He is sent to the Philippines to catch his ship where he starts off on the deck-cleaning crew before being moved to loading gun mounts, then later serves as a helmsman on the bridge.

Jake undergoes Special Warfare Training after that, and then takes part in top-secret rescue missions in Vietnam in which he engages in close-combat action. One involves a POW camp in Cambodia run by the Viet Cong. During the 1968 Tet Offensive he volunteers to go to Khe Sanh during the siege. When he and a few buddies take a week of R&R in Taiwan, they get into a bar fight so big they are expelled from the country.

Jake then volunteers to join a team trying to rescue the crew of the USS Pueblo, which was captured by North Korea. Then he works with the CIA on a covert operation in Thailand. He’s a senior Studies and Observations Group (SOG) team leader when he begins his third year in Vietnam by re-enlisting and taking part in action in Laos.

If you’re think I’ve revealed the book’s entire plot, think again. What I’ve described here takes place is less than half the book. Jake later goes to work for the FBI and then the CIA. Moomey ends the book with Jake writing: “Well, you’ve heard all of my adventures.”

Michael Dean Moomey writes in a conversational, readable manner. Reading his look is like listening to someone telling you a story—and you hanging on every word. The story is told in a hypnotic fashion that keeps pulling you in.

Red, White & Blue is a great read.

The author’s website is michaeldeanmoomey.com

–Bill McCloud