Back in the Day by Steve Heuton

Back in the Day (Dorrance Publishing, 220 pp. $18, paper) is a coming-of-age novel set during the Vietnam War. It covers high school, the draft, the war, bar fights, and run-ins with the law. Heuton served in Vietnam in 1970 with the U.S. Army.  

It’s the late 1960s and Jimmy Reno is a high school student. The story begins a tad uncomfortably as Jimmy notices his younger sister’s “butt wiggle” as she runs, grins, and observers, “Little sister was growing up.” Before long Jimmy and his pal Stan go out looking for girls who “put out.” Jimmy is 17 and occasionally gets grounded. He has typical girlfriend problems.

Jimmy also is the center for the football team. One of the stars is John Milner, which I remembered is the name of the cool, car-racing fifties guy in American Graffiti. After they graduate from high school, Stan joins the Marines and Jimmy winds up in the Amy. His girlfriend Angie goes off to college.

Jimmy reports to Fort Lewis for eight weeks of Basic Training at the book’s half-way point. Then we follow him through eight more weeks of Advanced Individual Training. Next stop: Vietnam.

“It was hot, humid and it stank,” he says upon arriving in-country. “I could hardly breathe the first couple of days. What a shit hole!”

Arriving at his assigned unit, Jimmy learns that he is the new weapons man. His main job is to repair broken weapons. After seeing some early action, he thinks he’ll never see his girlfriend again.

Heuton is a fine writer and his story goes racing along. In the end, though, it winds up being nothing more than light entertainment. No harm, no foul.

–Bill McCloud

Girl from the Racetrack by Robert Brundrett

Robert Brundrett enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1969. He was sent to South Vietnam, where he served as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Navy. He spent time at river and coastal-support bases and worked for the Navy Construction Bureau in Saigon.

Those experiences inspired his novel, Girl from the Racetrack (Orange Frazier Press, 254 pp. $22.95, paper).Joe Savage, who roomed with main character Charlie Strickland in college, tells the story of his buddy’s romance with a South Vietnamese woman after the men are reunited in South Vietnam in 1972.

Charlie, whose job is working with the South Vietnamese Navy on a design for a swift river craft, grew up with a love for horses, especially race horses. In Saigon, he goes to Phu Tho Race Track to take in the action. That’s where he meets a jockey named Kim and her trainer and father, Binh.

Charlie is invited to visit the family on their horse farm. Romance is in the air immediately, but first the bond must winds up being forged in adversity as Charlie and Kim get a friend out of jail and barely survive a mortar attack. Later, they hide in a barn during the NVA’s Easter Offensive. Their escape involves horses, naturally. The romance proceeds fairly smoothly, but there are snags below the calm surface. After all, this is a fictional romance.

Part of the intrigue is Kim’s brother Bao, who may be a Viet Cong operative, and Charlie may be spying on him. There’s also Charlie questioning what we are doing in Vietnam and wondering if South Vietnam wouldn’t be better off reunited. Although he doesn’t let his misgivings affect his relations with Kim’s family, an Ugly American character—Charlies’ racist superior—believes that the Vietnamese people are inferior and not worth the effort.

I assume this story of Charlie and Kim was either inspired by a romance that the author was involved in or that he knew the couple. Building on that, this is a rare time when I would have wished for a true story to be more enhanced for entertainment purposes.

I review a lot of war movies, some based on true stories. Usually, those movies are not good history lessons because they stray too far from their source material. In this case, I wish Brundrett had jazzed the story up a bit. The plot teases some espionage, but doesn’t deliver.

Aside from a couple of danger-filled moments, Charlie and Kim’s romance goes pretty smoothly. The greatest hurdle the couple have is navigating the red tape necessary to get Kim to America.

The war is on the periphery in this book; it seldom takes center stage. Charlie’s job is far from the jungle. Which makes Girl from the Racetrack an unchallenging story set in a war. But Brundrett is a competent writer, and if you are a romantic and don’t want death to seep into your novel reading, you might like this book.

–Kevin Hardy

Her Father’s Land by Jeff Kelly

Jeff Kelly served a tour of duty in the Vietnam War in 1968 with the U.S. Marine Corps and wrote about it a 2001 memoir, DMZ Diary. Kelly has now produced a novel, Her Father’s Land (Booklocker.com, 418 pp., $22.02, paper; $2.99,Kindle), which is inspired by his experiences in Vietnam.

He served at a fire base built on the site of a razed hamlet. The gravestones caused him to wonder what it must have been like for the villagers to abandon their homes there, along with the graves of their ancestors. So Kelly has set Her Father’s Land at Fire Base Alpha-3, the closest American base to the DMZ, and interweaves the stories of U.S. Marine, North Vietnamese Army, and Viet Cong characters into the novel.

With Alpha-3 within range of North Vietnamese artillery, the new battalion commander, Col. Favors, is not thrilled about being a sitting target. He feels Marines are best used in an aggressive manner. One of his best men is Lance Cpl. Tim “Monk” Montgomery.

An NVA officer named Huang Van Nhu is in charge of operations against Alpha-3. He and the main character, a female Viet Cong cadre named Tran Xuan Ha, are a couple. Ha goes undercover to get information from an incompetent, cowardly Marine lieutenant named Jones who uses connections (his uncle, a U.S. Senator) to transfer to USAID. 

Getting himself out of Alpha-3 gives Jones chance to go after the beautiful Ha and—like most lotharios—he thinks she really digs him. To get her in bed, he’s soon blabbing secrets that get Marines killed.

The love triangle of Nhu, Ha, and Jones is the core relationship in the book. The second half follows the trio as Ha and Nhu attempt to get the kidnapped Jones to the North so he can be used as a political pawn. Meanwhile, battles rage around Alpha-3.

Kelly tries to avoid the flag waving in many Vietnam War novels and movies by being evenhanded. Since he limits himself to a few main characters, he is able to develop them well. Jones comes off as a stereotypical ugly American, but the others are all good examples of combatants sincere in their dedication to their side. Favors and Nhu are worthy adversaries and anyone would want Monk or Ha in their squad. 

Jeff Kelly

Kelly writes well with few flourishes. This is not a romance novel. He walked the walk so he is able to get into the heads of his Marine characters. Monk, for example, processes a buddy’s death in less than a minute. He goes from shock to acceptance, eliminating the denial and grief phases, “a skill they all mastered well,” as Kelly puts it.

He goes on to describe combat and weapons like someone who has seen the elephant. The noise from an AC-47 Spooky, Kelly writes, is like “a wail of banshees, a choir of tortured souls, a technological song of megadeath.” On the other hand, Kelly’s choice of not dumbing things down might cause not well-versed in Vietnam War military lingo to have Google handy.

Jeff Kelly has seemingly read Vietnamese memoirs because Nhu and Ha are not stick figures. You won’t root against them. I hope.

The main theme of the novel is that the war was a conflict of American technology and firepower versus the enemy’s zeal—an elephant trying to kill a mouse with a sledgehammer.    

–Kevin Hardy

Follow the Gold by Timothy I. Gukich

If you read enough novels about the Vietnam War, you eventually will find one in which a REMF is the hero. One of those rarities is Timothy I. Gukich’s Follow the Gold (303 pp. $15.99, paper; $5.99, Kindle). Gukich was working for the IRS when he was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam. The same is true for his protagonist, Timothy Gardner. It’s safe to assume the book is at least partly autobiographical. 

The novel begins with Gardner’s last day in country. It then flashes back to his arrival in Vietnam where “[e]very place looked like something bad had happened.” It’s October 1969, so that is only a mild exaggeration. 

Gardner is assigned to CMAC (Capital Military Assistance Command) as a lowly clerk.  However, since he was an IRS agent, his commanding officer quickly takes advantage of Gardner’s skills as a forensic accountant to investigate black marketeering involving MPCs. It seems like a boring assignment, but with the help of his roommate Sharpe, Gardner turns sleuth.

Sharpe is a Special Forces operator and seemingly the opposite of Gardner, yet they quickly become friends. When Sharpe is not working with the Phoenix program, he is happy to help Gardner navigate the shadier side of Saigon. 

Gardner’s ferreting uncovers a connection to some C.I.A. “snoops” who are using Air America for shady business dealings. Much of the digging takes place during Gardner’s off hours, so a good bit of the book has him doing typical REMF tasks, such as guard duty. Along the way, he befriends an ARVN sergeant and a general.

I know I had you at IRS agent turned REMF, but here’s why you might want to read the book even if that doesn’t lure you. Gukich is a good writer. He is sincere in his desire to teach a little about the war to the point where he includes a bibliography, which is very rare in a novel. He did his research and adds information to this memoir disguised as a novel. He gives good descriptions of the M-14, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and Agent Orange, among other things. And, of course, you’ll learn probably more than you want to about military payment certificates, aka “funny money” or “monopoly money.”

I enjoyed the book, but in some ways it was unfulfilling. Although Gukich warns that some embellishment occurred, the problem for me is that he does not embellish enough. Without giving away the ending, it’s another clue that Gukich was writing about his own experiences and I wondered if Sharpe’s story might not have been more exciting. 

That said, Timothy Gardner is an appealing nerd who does not avoid danger and his relationship with Sharpe is intriguing. Plus, you’ll learn who the names of the seven generals who died in Vietnam.

–Kevin Hardy

The First Door is the Final Exit by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil

The First Door is the Final Exit (235 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $13.99, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by Timothy Kenneth O’Neil. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Tim O’Neil spent the entire year of 1969 in South Vietnam. He was assigned to the 25th Infantry Division, the Wolfhounds, and dedicates the book to “the men that died and the women who tragically suffered.” 

The novel has a tri-part structure. The plot follows Winson, the book’s protagonist, Winston, a 25th Division grunt, and his squad through their year in South Vietnam. Their in-country experiences are intertwined with those of Winston’s girlfriend Veronica, who is in nursing school back home. Occasionally O’Neil throws in current events to remind the reader what was happening on the home front.

Winston is an all-American boy. As soon as he graduates from college, he is drafted. He is a reluctant warrior, but not a troublemaker. He gets through his tour of duty by reminding himself that it’s just one year and then he can start his real life back home with Veronica. 

He goes to Nam as naïve as most cherries. He is put into a heterogeneous squad whose “complexion was the opposite of those who created the war.” Winston fits in immediately and befriends a like-minded guy named Rufus. They share a love of weed; in fact, the platoon has a reputation for being a unit of heads. 

Between bull sessions and toking, the squad is sent on missions typical of the war in 1969. The first is to the Michelin Rubber Plantation where they search a few abandoned huts and then return. They wonder why they had to wade through a leech-infested swamp just to be picked up on the other side.  

Questioning the war, in fact, is a theme of the book, but the novel is more anti-tactics than antiwar. The squad goes through a variety of leaders, ranging from the gung-ho to the cautious. The grunts are seldom told why they are doing things that can and do get them killed. 

Meanwhile, Veronica is waiting for the return of her man. Her chats with her friends parallel Winston’s with his buddies. For drama, she is being stalked by a Casanova.

There are countless good memoirs about the war. O’Neil takes that genre and fictionalizes it into a story of a grunt’s tour, adding a girlfriend back home to give a taste of how the war affected women and their boyfriends in Vietnam. And he throws in snippets of 1969 events showing the country going through some seismic social and political shifts.

U.S. infantrymen in the Michelin Rubber Plantation

The main focus, though, is on Winston and his squad. The characters are well-developed and each has a distinct personality. The book has a lot of dialogue, all well-written, and the jargon is appropriate for grunts. O’Neil enhances the story with grammatical flourishes. He is creative with his similes, such as describing the plane Winston arrived in county on as being like a womb. One distracting element is that the book could have used better editing.

If you haven’t read any Vietnam War memoirs, you might want to try this novel centered on a soldier counting down the days to the Freedom Bird. The First Door is the Final Exit is a realistic tale of a typical grunt and his comrades. Although the combat scenes are visceral, O’Neil avoids the temptation to give his readers combat porn. Winston is no Rambo. He is just trying to survive, a theme of the book.

Another theme is that squad members are pawns at the mercy of higher ups whose goals are the almighty body count and the “glory count” of dead GIs. Overall, the novel rings true as far as putting the reader in the boots of an American soldier in South Vietnam in 1969.   

O’Neil’s website is tkomynovels.com

–Kevin Hardy

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