How Did You Get This Job?  by Terry A. Moon

Terry A. Moon’s How Did You Get This Job?: The Daily Journal of a 1st Air Cavalry Combat Photographer in Vietnam  (CreateSpace, 250 pp., $12.95, paper) tries to correct a common complaint about military books: that they have too few pictures. Well, this book contains more than four hundred photos.

While I was very pleased and entertained with the photos in the book, I was disappointed to find that this year-long journal of a 1st Air Cav combat photographer had very few pictures of grunts in action.

Moon enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1968 with a guaranteed MOS as a photographer. In April, he went to Fort Ord for basic training then on to photo school. On November 13, 1968, he stepped off a 707 at the Bien Hoa AFB and his Vietnam tour began. As that 707 was landing, Moon’s photo journal also was taking off. During his tour, Moon received a Bronze Star for meritorious service and the Air Medal for all the flying he did to get to his photo assignments.

He had graduated number one in his photo class, so the 1st Cavalry Division snatched him up and stationed him at Phuoc Vinh, 50 kilometers north of Saigon. He had a unique way of getting around to different Fire Support Bases, LZs, and other locations. Moon’s press pass gave him the ability to take any open seat on virtually any airplane or helicopter going wherever he needed to go. Periodically, there were no available seats maybe thirty minutes away, so he had to cobble together multiple hops that sometimes ended up taking several hours to get to that same place.

There is a journal entry for nearly every day of Terry Moon’s tour. Much like a Command Chronology, some days are loaded with interesting entries and some are not. Virtually every photo is captioned and many are accompanied by very descriptive and educational narratives.

I found this book to be relatively interesting and learned a lot about behind-the-scenes activities required to make the seemingly apparent happen.

While How Did You Get This Job? never really grew on me, I found it to be an interesting and educational book. I read the entire book, including the photo captions, and feel it was time well spent. I believe others will agree.

The author’s website is http://1stcavphotog.tripod.com/

— Bob Wartman

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The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot by Bill Collier

In trying to nail down former USMC Capt. Bill Collier’s intention behind writing The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps (Keokee/Wandering Star Press, 234 pp, $19.00 paper), I decided his goals were to explain why he suffered from PTSD, what it felt like to fear for one’s life constantly for a year, how flying H-34 helicopters provided an adrenaline rush, and the way helicopters worked. He succeeded in every category

In 1966, as a “nugget, a brand new gold-bar second lieutenant” flying copilot on his first night Medevac mission, Collier was so traumatized that he psychologically suppressed the event until 1994. As if that experience weren’t enough, four weeks later his wing man got hit by a friendly artillery shell.

“What I saw was burned into my memory forever, and will never leave me,” he writes. “YR-3 had exploded and was burning up in an intense sun-bright fireball right there off my wing, not 200 feet away.” These incidents triggered the onset of his PTSD, which doctors finally diagnosed in 1993.

Fear was Collier’s constant sidekick. His imagination compounded what he saw during his tour in I Corps: For example, watching a SAM zoom across the DMZ and destroy a low-flying, fast-moving A-4 in “maybe 15 seconds.” Premonitions of doom led him to volunteer for a two-week stint as a forward air controller rather than fly support missions for a sea assault.

On the ground, he encountered more danger than he anticipated. That included shrapnel dropping from the sky and a “short round” mortar dud (again, friendly fire) that nearly landed in his lap. By then he was a captain and ended up in command of a patrol, a duty he was unprepared for.

Collier had gone directly to flight school as a MARCAD and now thought, “I had never been to boot camp. I never attended officer training school at Quantico.” He had “minimal knowledge about grunt things.” Near panic, he instantly learned the value of an XO’s advice.

Collier’s stories exemplify the adrenalin rush inherent in combat flying. In eight months as a copilot, he watched aircraft commanders take risks and perform aerial feats that filled him with excitement, fear, and admiration.

After checking out as an AC, he thought: “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.” He knew he was hooked. “To do one of those hairy, high-speed, high danger approaches, and then come out of a hot LZ with bullets flying and both machine guns blazing was an extreme adrenaline rush,” he writes.

Fear sharpened Collier’s awareness, thinking, and feelings throughout his entire body. As he puts it: “I became addicted to this adrenaline rush, craving it, seeking it out time after time.” Collier calculated that he “personally carried approximately 375 Medevacs aboard [his] machine while in Vietnam.”

Bill Collier

Collier devotes several pages to explaining “How a Helicopter Flies,” “Autorotations,” “The Collective Control and Throttle,” and a “General Description of the H-34D Helicopter.” The science in these sections seems contradicted by what occurred in reality.

Overall, his book convinced me that helicopters are unforgiving of even the slightest mistake. All you have to do is consider the large number of Marine deaths by aircraft accidents—during and following the war—that Collier recounts. Additionally, if the H-34 caught fire, its magnesium-aluminum-alloy air frame consumed itself and its crew in fifteen seconds, as Collier repeatedly reminds the reader.

Regarding his personal behavior, Collier pulls no punches. He confesses to “falling asleep on final approach.” He admits that “our main form of recreation was drinking alcohol. We simply got drunk almost every night. We were a bunch of drunken hellions.”

Of course, the drinking didn’t begin until the night missions ended. And Collier graciously remembers to thank “an attractive, charming lady a bit older than I” for a “great send-off to the war” by seducing him the night before he departed for Vietnam.

Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.

The book’s one hundred-plus photographs—most from Collier’s files—add to the narrative. Collier says this book set the stage for at least two more. Following thirteen months in Vietnam, he flew combat missions for thirty months in Laos with Air America, a tour more exciting than Vietnam. He then flew helicopters commercially for twenty-seven years all around the world.

The author’s blog is http://dawgdriverforever.blogspot.com/2014/09/my-book-adventures-of-helicopter-pilot.html

—Henry Zeybel

 

Love Poured Out for Viet Nam by Trena Chellino

Chester and Mary Travis were Christian missionaries to French Indochina and Vietnam from 1925-75, where, according to Trena Chellino, they “experienced an abundant measure of Christ’s indwelling and overflowing life.”

The Travis family, with their five children, were taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II, but that part of their time in French Indochina is not explored much in Chellino’s Love Poured Out of Viet Nam: First-Hand Account of Chester & Mary Travis and Their 50 Years of Ministry in a Country at War (Living Stones, 251 pp., $5.99, Kindle).  I would have liked to read a lot more about those years.

I enjoyed this book as it is one of the few I have read in which people are actually happy to be in Southeast Asia. Keep in mind that Chester and Mary Travis were there for most of fifty years with their children. I have countless books by young Americans who spent a year or so in South Vietnam, and do nothing but complain about the people, the heat, the smell, and the food. The Travis family does none of that.

When they left Vietnam in February 1975, they cried. They did not go on about the glories of getting on a Freedom Bird. They were 82 and 77 by then, and it had been a dozen years since they had had a furlough. Long past retirement age, the couple admits, though, that they “were getting really tired.”

Their point of view about the war and about life in Southeast Asia was fascinating to me. President Nixon, they say, “resigned after a political blunder.”  Really? They also say that Americans were weary of the war so the United States refused to defend South Vietnam.

The couple continued to minister to the South Vietnamese during the entire war.The book contains chapters about hair-raising escapes over bad roads and driving cars that barely run. Chester Travis is a genius auto mechanic, so he kept old vehicles running long after they should have given up.

Trena Chellino

The journey via ship to the U. S. is described as “six weeks of tears” as they couple contemplated “the dark cloud of communism” that now “spread all over Vietnam.” What kept the Travis family strong throughout their time in Vietnam was the goal of providing “deliverance from Satan’s power and to be out in the sunshine of God’s infinite love.The hope was to reach “the hearts of hopeless, helpless, miserable human beings who were trapped far from God in a web of darkness.”

The Viet Cong murdered Christian missionaries in 1962 and the family was at serious risk when they took to the roads to visit remote villages where Chester Travis worked as an outdoor evangelist. They would sit with the Vietnamese in their huts and eat steaming hot rice with Nuoc Mam sauce.They learned to enjoy the taste and the odor. They endured malaria and dysentery while ministering to their assigned district of four provinces. This area contained a million people.

Lessons can be learned from this book. Chester and Mary Travis learned the language fluently and the customs, and they truly loved the Vietnamese people.

Qui Nhon, their home base, was at times a target for communist attacks, and it is a miracle they did not die. The chapter on Tet ’68 is one of the most interesting of the war-related chapters. The family was asked or told to evacuate to Bangkok, but refused to go. Five missionaries died during Tet—or as the Travises put it, they were “at home now with the Lord.”

I enjoyed reading this fine book and highly recommend it to readers who are hungry to read about brave Americans who went to the war zone to bring a better life to millions of South Vietnamese. They did not expect, or wish for, a parade when they returned home to America.

—David Willson

 

Last Plane Out of Saigon by Richard Pena and John Hagan

Regardless of a reader’s attitude about the Vietnam War, Richard Pena’s Last Plane Out of Saigon (Story Merchant Books, 136 pp., $12.95, paper), written with John Hagan, offers insights worth reflecting upon four decades after the fact.

Drafted into the Army out of law school, Pena served as an operating room specialist in Vietnam. He ended up among the last American troops to evacuate South Vietnam in 1973. Discharged upon his return to the States, Pena finished college and became a lawyer. During his Vietnam War tour of duty, Pena kept a journal that he stashed away for thirty years. That journal serves as the core of this concise flashback to the life of a wartime draftee.

Pena arrived in Vietnam amid the chaos of the 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive. Upon deplaning at Tan Son Nhut, he wondered why he had been “sentenced to exile in this forsaken land.” He questioned whether America could win the war and worried about people “dying for a policy dictated out of ignorance and falsehood.”

Pena worked as a technician in the operating room of the 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. Most of the patients came there straight from the battlefield, having received no treatment elsewhere. Pena therefore saw the results of war in human terms every day.

Throughout his tour, one question haunted him: “What does it mean?”

Richard Pena

He tried to answer that question in several ways, and suffered emotionally along with the bloodied, shattered, men he treated. In his journal Pena analyzed his relationships with fellow American soldiers and Vietnamese civilians, the latter of whom he strongly distrusted.

Pena put his thoughts and theories in his journal because “to speak out about the tragedy is said to be anti-American.” To him, Vietnam became a land of lies, betrayals, and corruption that left soldiers and civilians “angry and bitter all the time.”

Despite his emotional turmoil, Pena persevered in his duties. Near the end of his journal, he wrote: “In these last days before departing, I realize that the weight I have carried for the past eleven months will never be lifted from my shoulders.” In other words, his journal tells a story that must never be forgotten.

Having read this short book three times, I believe it has its greatest impact when read uninterrupted. The journal is divided into four parts that are interwoven with chapters by John Hagan that provide background information about the war. I therefore suggest that those familiar with the Vietnam War read Pena’s chapters first. Those unfamiliar with the war should start with Hagan’s chapters.

The collaborators reach two conclusions: First, they agree that wars such as Vietnam are destructive to America’s society and economy. Second, they emphasize the need to learn from foreign policy failures and mistakes.

Neither idea is new, but the thought processes the authors follow to reach them clearly exhume the intellectual conflict of the Vietnam War era.

The author’s website is www.lastplaneoutofsaigon.com

—Henry Zeybel

Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang

Nothing in the title of Once Upon A Mulberry Field by C.L. Hoang (Willow Stream, 392 pp., $15.95, paper) signals that this is a book dealing with the Vietnam War. Scrutiny of the cover reveals a tiny helicopter silhouetted against a setting sun. In the lower left hand corner, a woman with long black hair clad in a white dress faces away from us. She probably represents the heroine of the novel, the beautiful Vietnamese widow, Lien.

The back cover  tells us: “From the jungles of Vietnam, through the minefields of the heart, Once Upon a Mulberry Field, follows one man’s journey to self-discovery.” This man is Roger Connors, an American.  C.L. Hoang, the author, was born and raised in South Vietnam during the war, and came to the United States in the 1970s. He is an electronics engineer. This is his first novel, and it is a project from his heart.

Roger Connors, “fresh out of medical school,” gets his Air Force commission, and arrives at the 3rd Tac Dispensary at Bien Hoa Air Base as a general medical officer during “the sweltering summer of 1967.” I was at Bien Hoa that summer and it was no more or less sweltering than usual. Connors goes on to tell us that this “unexpected” event “had conspired to drop me here at the heart of a brutal conflict I wanted no part of.”  Few of us did.

This book was a frustrating read for me, but not because it was badly written or that Hoang got the details wrong. In fact, he fully inhabits the American doctor he created as his main character. He also is pitch perfect with details, both about military life and about life in America.

Hoang’s’description of street traffic in 1967 Saigon, for example, is spot on, and his comment that “the uneasy feeling of death is on the lurk” captured the tone of that time and place.

Hoang includes references to Gen. William Westmoreland, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, and John Wayne. Bob Hope’s Christmas Show and a visit by LBJ are alluded to, and the short timer calendar is explained. There also is this about American military superiority: “With such superior technology at the disposition of our well-trained and disciplined troops, does anyone doubt we can wrap up this nasty business in a timely fashion?”

C.L. Hoang

 

Antiwar protestors are castigated—something of a trend in the current crop of Vietnam War memoirs and novels. The protestors are said to harass returning troops because the have gone crazy with anger and frustration at the war. The protestors boo and hiss the troops and call them Baby Killers. They hurl rocks, spit on them, and even throw red paint on the hapless returnees.

Which leads to the question: Was our military not able to protect Vietnam veterans from antiwar protestors acting with impunity at our nation’s airports and other public places? I doubt that anything like this happened, but according to this book, all of these things did happen to returning soldiers after they spent a year in Vietnam working toward supporting a “fledgling democracy.”  Is that what we were doing? You could have fooled me.

What also bothered me was that the characters never tell each other what’s on their minds or what’s really going on with them. Assumptions are made, usually the wrong ones given the cultural gap between Roger Connors and the young Vietnamese woman he has fallen in love with.

She is pregnant by him, never tells him, disappears, and leaves him to a life without her—the love of his life—and without their child, too. Does it all work out in the end? Not in my opinion.

If you want to read a tormented love story of star-crossed lovers set in the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive and after, this novel is for you.

The book’s website is http://mulberryfieldsforever.com

—David Willson

Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren

The back cover of Once Upon A Time in Vietnam by Jerry Neren, (Pearl Editions, 104 pp., $14.95, paper), a fine book of poetry, informs us that the author “served in the United States armed forces.” No details are given about his service.

This small book, the winner of the 2010 Pearl Poetry Prize., features a beautiful and tragic cover by Marilyn Johnson that shows a stag in the forest with an arrow through his neck. This prefigures the tragic event that is at the center of the one long poem that makes up the book.

Neren’s Preface tell us that “the story tracks a young man from the time he is drafted into the Army right out of college; suffers a complete mental breakdown during his tour of combat duty; continues to struggle with his mental wound up to his return home; and finally finds a way to reconstruct his demolished life.”

The reader encounters “soldiers poisoned by Agent Orange” in the first section of the book, set in Basic Training, which gave me a jolt. That seems soon to me, both historically and in the hero’s time in the Army.  The phrase used to describe the victims of Agent Orange hit me hard: “their insides devoured like plankton by a whale.” I know firsthand how that feels.

Jerry Neren

The poet creates two characters: Eugene and Dominick, classical music-loving friends who graduate from college, are drafted, and are sent together to Vietnam. Dominick is killed. Eugene goes crazy. He then languishes in VA care from age 24 to age 41, that chunk of his life lost forever.

The story of Eugene and Dominick is told in four sections: The Prologue covers boot camp. Part One, “The Battle Front,” deals with how the killing is done in Vietnam. Part Two takes us to the “Home Front,” and deals with war wounds. Part Three briefly shows us the “New World.”

This beautiful, lyrical narrative poem touches many of the same bases that many memoirs and novels and short stories do, including Agent Orange and the taking of human ears. But in this poem we get “oceans of Agent Orange” and “necklaces made of human ears.”  We learn the story of Eugene, who, like a chameleon, “took on the color of Vietnam: the color of insanity.”

If I were still teaching college course on the Vietnam War, I would make Once Upon a Time in Vietnam a required text. It is both accessible and relentless in communicating the insanity of war as only a fine lyrical poet can.

Neren out-Whitmans Walt Whitman with his lists of the bad things that happen in war. Neren ranks right up there with Whitman as a poet of war. There is no higher recommendation than that.

—David Willson

An American Soldier in Vietnam By Steven Alexander

I had to really dig to figure out if An American Soldier in Vietnam (Page Publishing, 202 pp., $14.95, paper) was a memoir or a novel. In the Afterward, author Steven Alexander tells us that the book is a “fictionalized story based on my life experience.”

Alexander goes on to say didn’t keep a “dairy” in Vietnam, so he couldn’t write a memoir. I think he means a “diary.” He further confesses that he “embellished some of the battle scenes.” His afterward goes on to rant about the “hatred and disgust” Vietnam veterans received when they returned from the war. I have read this in many books by Vietnam veterans, which makes me feel special as I never encountered any hatred or disgust.

After his Afterward, Alexander presents a section called “Four Interesting Myths vs. the Facts About the Vietnam War.”  He tells us that “America did not lose the war. South Vietnam lost the war.”  That seems like a quibble to me, but I know it does not to Alexander. He also states that America has only gone to war to fight evil, and that America has never gone to war for territory or earthly goods.

The main character in this short novel is Ray Anderson. We meet him on the first page on the day after Thanksgiving 1968 in Chu Lai at the headquarters of the Americal Division. Our hero gets on a C-130 to fly to Duc Pho, headquarters of the 11th Light Infantry.

The first dramatic incident involves Anderson being treated “with disgust and rudeness” by an overweight, sloppy, rear echelon soldier, a supply sergeant who had “been with local prostitutes” and carried venereal diseases that couldn’t be cured. This scared Anderson “half to death” even though his morals prevented him from consorting with prostitutes. He seems to think this REMF might somehow transmit a disease to him through osmosis. I served in the rear in Vietnam, and even though I was very thin and not sloppy, I am thin-skinned about this portrayal of a REMF. 

The cover blurb tells us that “Anderson embarked upon a new life, one in which he must fight to preserve the freedom of world, by attempting to stop the tyrannical aggression the North Vietnamese inflict upon its Southern brothers and sisters.”  That is one explanation of what we were doing in Vietnam.

Anderson is a member of a 105 mm howitzer crew in Vietnam. Alexander does a fine job describing what that consisted of. Anderson spends a lot of time giving soldiers haircuts due to his barbering skills. He is rewarded by having electricity installed in his living quarters. He almost gets a job at China Beach as a lifeguard, but his captain refuses to sign the order.This results in much bitterness. Due to a ruptured ear drum, he gets a better deal than many draftees. He could have been a rifleman in the infantry. Light artillery is a big step up from that.

Anderson gets through his tour of duty by keeping a Bible close and by not using foul language. The only bad word I remember encountering in this book is his reference to “shit burning.”  Many of the usual things and people are name checked: Bob Hope, John Wayne, Donut Dollies, Jane Fonda, fragging, Agent Orange, rats, C-4 for cooking, baby killer, being spat upon, marijuana (smoked only by REMF’s).

Anderson and the author, Alexander, came home from the war very angry, and the author seems angry still. One of his favorite interests, he tell us, is “intense patriotism.” The author states that he thinks that all peace demonstrators were “cowards and communist sympathizers and are traitors to our country.”

Strong words. If you agree with these sentiments, this book might be the one for you.

—David Willson