Blood on the Risers by Michael O’Shea

Michael O’Shea, the author of Blood on the Risers: A Novel of Conflict and Survival in Special Forces During the Vietnam War, (AuthorHouse, 500 pp., $35.99, hardcover; $26.95, paper), left college and enlisted in the Army in 1966. He volunteered for  Vietnam in 1969 and went on to serve as the commanding officer of a Special Forces A Team on the Cambodian border. At twenty-one, O’Shea was the youngest captain to command a Special Forces A-Team in Vietnam.

This long novel is more than half over before the main character, Michael Shanahan, reaches Vietnam. The first half of the book is an engrossing, dynamite story about a way of life as alien to me as life on Mars. It starts in Texas on the edge of the King Ranch with a couple of teenage boys, high school jocks, on private property poaching deer and driving souped-up cars to elude the game warden. This part of the book seems right out of Robert Mitchum’s Thunder Road.

I figured the two boys, of whom Mike is one, would grow up to be career criminals. I was wrong. They become heroes in Vietnam. The boys I knew in Yakima, Washington, in the 1950s who led this sort of life did end up in prison, or they died young in car accidents.

The author is not kidding when he tells us that the book is based on a true story. Mike Shananhan’s story closely follows the early boyhood and war exploits of Michael O’Shea.

There is a lot to like about this book, and also a lot to loathe. The punctuation is a major stumbling block. O’Shea, for one thing, uses the ellipsis instead of comas, semi-colons or dashes, all honorable methods of punctuating a sentence. He doesn’t seem to know that the ellipsis is used to indicate that something has been left out.

O’Shea (above) uses as many as ten sets of ellipsis in a single sentence and as many as fifty on one page. There are thousands of them in the book, and every time I encountered one, it made me pause.

What had the author left out?  Nothing—he just doesn’t know the fundamentals of writing. And he didn’t hire an editor who could help with that and with the many, many word-usage errors in the book.

The author finds room to mention Bob Hope, draft card burnings, baby killing, and John Wayne so many times I lost track, but General Westmoreland didn’t make an appearance. If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Bob Hope and John Wayne played an important part in the Vietnam War.

And then there’s Jane Fonda. It seems that Vietnam veterans who have the time, money, and motivation to write and self-publish books about their time in the military—O’Shea included—have forgotten that Jane Fonda was a popular pin-up in Vietnam for American soldiers in Vietnam.

Near the very end of the book, when Mike Shanahan is returning home from his tour, he indulges in a rant about “Hanoi Jane Fonda.”  Jane Fonda’s ill-advised trip to Hanoi, for which she has apologized endlessly, was in the future, 1972. I believe that Mike Shanahan was home well before that date. This error illustrates the lack of fact checking that mars this book.

The end of the book is dominated by such false memories.  At this time, Jane Fonda did not hold “the admiration and support of the sheep back home.” Far from it. Fonda got little attention for her supposedly being a traitor by going to Hanoi before the war was over—something a good number of other Americans did as well—until several years after the war. Nobody thought of Jane Fonda as “Hanoi Jane” in 1970 or 1971.

If you want to read a Vietnam Special Forces book, please consult my earlier reviews of such books—books that are well punctuated and not marred by false memories.

—David Willson

The Lucky Few by Jan K. Herman

Jan K. Herman’s The Lucky Few: The Fall of Saigon and the Rescue Mission of the USS Kirk (Naval Institute Press, 192 pp., $39.95) is a unique story of the final days of the Vietnam War. The remarkable thing about this book is why the story Herman tells has been overlooked for so many years. 

Perhaps our collective national denial kept this event hidden for so long, shrouded by the nation’s sole military loss. As Herman puts it: It “most likely had to do with America’s mood in 1975. The national nightmare of Vietnam was over and it was time to move on.”

This neglected story has finally surfaced in this comprehensive yet brief book. Perhaps with the passage of nearly forty years are we now able to look more objectively at this earth-shattering event that took place during one of the nation’s most troubled periods. Though it’s doubtful all of us will ever be able to come to terms with what occurred in Vietnam in 1975, this book provides an opportunity for readers to see things from a different perspective.

The difficulty with The Lucky Few—aside from the connection with defeat and tragedy—concerns the manner in which the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam occurred and its extensive media coverage. The lucky few were those fortunate enough to board U.S.-supplied helicopters, the ones that were nearly all scuttled once their overcrowded passengers were offloaded. Said passengers were mainly South Vietnamese top military and political leaders and their families.

With the description of the loss of each million-dollar aircraft, it became  increasingly more difficult for this reader to make sense of the war’s final chapter. That may be the point, however, that was lost in the chaotic ending. That is, war is always senseless, a complete breakdown of the greatest of all human abilities, an unwillingness to compromise.

The USS Kirk was a 400-foot escort destroyer commissioned in the early 1970s and deployed to the Western Pacific with the Seventh Fleet to operate in the Tonkin Gulf. With a crew of more than two hundred, this Knox Class warship performed normal naval support duties under the command of a remarkable leader, Commander Paul Jacobs. In this final episode of the war his effective leadership would result in a successful evacuation mission. Familiar with all aspects of naval command, Jacobs was a leader who led by example, developing a trust with his crew through rigorous training.

Jan Herman

“The gift of leadership, it seemed, was in Paul Jacobs’ genes,” Herman writes. Jacobs “worked very hard to keep the crew as a team and the crew responded very well to him.’”

Moreover, this destroyer (aka “tin can”) was an agile man-of-war, versatile and quick, but built with a single shaft and screw. More common twin-screw ships were easier to maneuver and more forgiving, especially during rescue work. Jacobs therefore trained his crew relentlessly. It made a difference when the need arose.

With exacting detail, the author tells the story of the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975, disclosing the valiant efforts of U.S. naval forces to evacuate both military and civilian personnel. As communist forces moved south, an escape plan was devised that included removing as much military equipment as possible to offshore Navy vessels.

Under the direction of former Navy man Richard Armitage, then a civilian operating with the Department of Defense, the plan was devised quickly, designed to use any available naval vessels—carriers, escorts, support ships. Though Armitage is described much like the unhinged Captain Kurtz in the film Apocalypse Now, he devised the plan to land Huey and Cobra helicopters on nearby ships, unloading personnel, and preventing the North Vietnamese from seizing aircraft and equipment.

Helicopters landed, unloaded, and then jettisoned. In addition to airborne evacuees, the Vietnamese Navy with its former U.S. warships pitched in to help. In all, more than 30,000 refugees eventually arrived in the Philippines through the efforts of the Navy and ships including the Kirk.

To this destroyer veteran, The Lucky Few is fascinating, though it was difficult to revisit that time of sadness and misfortune. The author has done an outstanding job researching details of day-to-day shipboard life, recalling things that I have not given a thought to in many years.

Lastly, he neatly connects surviving refugees and rescuers, revealing many happy endings. I highly recommend this book, believing that enough time has finally passed to allow us to see another amazing triumph of the human spirit.

—Peter Steinmetz