The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
January/February 2006
BOOKS IN REVIEW
 
 

A Twenty-First Century Rarity:
A First-Rate Vietnam War Novel
 

REVIEWS BY MARC LEEPSON

It is rare to discover a new in-country Vietnam War novel appearing in print today, in the first years of the 21st century. It’s even rarer when the work is a high-quality literary endeavor. Such is the case with Richard Galli’s sardonic Of Rice and Men (Presidio, 355 pp., $26.95). Galli, a Rhode Island lawyer who served with an Army civil affairs unit in Vietnam, tells us he started this book in 1971. But Galli soon put the book aside and only recently returned to it. The result is an engaging tale told primarily through the eyes of a well-educated REMF draftee serving in a civil affairs unit in Hue.

Our hero, Guy Lopaca, trains as a Vietnamese linguist but never picks up the language—which is not as much a detriment as you might think, given that he’s assigned as his unit’s translator. Galli offers an almost plotless narrative presented in short, pithy chapters, many of which could stand alone as more-than-decent short stories. The style works.

Galli has created an off-the-wall but believable world in which Americans—try as they might—continue to do the wrong things in virtually every facet of the (non-combat) war effort. Of Rice is an engaging read, and one with a few laughs sprinkled in, along with more than a few insights into the strange way we Americans fought for the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War.

FICTION IN BRIEF

Here’s the plot of Michael Kronenwetter’s taut detective/thriller, First Kill (Thomas Dunne, 308 pp., $24.95): Hank and Jack are best buddies from a small Wisconsin town. The Vietnam War intrudes on their friendship as dovish Hank flees to Canada and gung-ho Jack enlists in the Army. Thirty years later, Jack, a newspaper reporter, is murdered. Hank, a private eye, is hired by Jack’s wife, Liz, whom he once fancied, to investigate. Hank discovers that Jack was working on an article about a My Lai-type massacre, in which Jack took part. Is this why he was shot? Kronenwetter keeps you guessing about that till the very end in this smoothly written noirish P.I. procedural.

SMALL WAR PHOTOS

An-My Le was born in Vietnam in 1960 and escaped to the United States with her family in 1975. “For better or worse,” she says in an interview included in Small Wars (Aperture, 128 pp., $40), her new book of documentary and landscape photography, “my life and those of the last three generations of my family have been underscored by the complicated political history of Vietnam.” Her mother’s family lived near Hanoi during the Japanese occupation and escaped communist-ruled North Vietnam in 1950s. An-My Le’s family fled to Paris during the height of the American war but returned to Saigon in 1973, only to leave again when the war ended two years later.

An assistant professor of photography at Bard College, An-My Le’s work is influenced by Vietnam’s recent history. In Small Wars, she offers 75 revealing black-and-white photographs divided into three series: photographs she took on visits to Vietnam from 1994-97; photographs of a group of American Vietnam War re-enactors in Virginia in 1999-02; and photographs of training exercises at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center training at Twentynine Palms, Calif., in 2003-04.

THE UNWILLING SNIPER

Gary D. Mitchell’s A Sniper’s Journey: The Truth About the Man Behind the Rifle (Berkley Caliber, 272 pp., $24.95) is a compelling yet troubling story of a naive young man from a small Texas town who goes off to fight in the Vietnam War only to be involuntarily assigned as a part-time sniper. Mitchell, who tells his story with the help of journalist Michael Hirsh (also a Vietnam veteran), served as a First Cav infantryman and as the commander of an armored recovery vehicle for most of his 1969-70 tour, spending much of his time in the thick of the war.

Periodically, he would be plucked from his unit, handed a special sharpshooter’s rifle, put on a helicopter, and given a mission by a team of anonymous civilian intelligence operatives to stalk and kill someone. For respite, he was given three weeks of temporary duty working at the Danang morgue. Mitchell survived the war, but soon after coming home suffered from severe emotional problems that plagued him for three decades.

MEMOIRS, ETC., IN BRIEF

James P. Coan was a tank platoon leader in the 3rd Marine Division’s A Company, 3rd Tank Battalion, from September 1967 through July 1968. For most of that time Coan’s tank company operated just below the DMZ at Con Thien, a firebase that was the focus of a sustained, often intense, NVA bombardment. Coan does an excellent job detailing the story of his war in Con Thien: The Hill of Angels (University of Alabama, 360 pp., $29.95), in which the author uses an effective mixture of his and his fellow Marines’ memories and thorough research of official records and other primary sources.


J.D. James’s Unfortunate Sons: A True Story of Young Men and War (Cambridge Dent, 288 pp., $24.95) is a well-crafted account that zeroes in on what happened to the Manchus, the 25th Infantry Division’s Fourth Battalion, Ninth Infantry Regiment, on March 2, 1968, two months after James reported to duty as a platoon leader. On that day in a village just north of Saigon called Hoc Man, the 92 Manchus ran into a vicious VC ambush; 49 Americans were killed and 29 were wounded. James, who later became a news editor and reporter, interviewed the survivors of the ambush and went to Vietnam to track down and talk to former VC commanders for this moving tribute to his fellow Manchus.


VVA member Tyrone Dancy was drafted into the Army in January 1969 and had basic training at Ft. Bragg and Infantry AIT at Ft. McClellan. By the end of June, Dancy was carrying a rifle in Long Binh with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade’s Co. D, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry. Dancy was severely wounded not long after he reported to his unit. He relates the details of his military service and his turbulent homecoming in his well-written, concise Serving Under Adverse Conditions: Wars and the Aftermath (AuthorHouse, 84 pp., $15.75, paper).


James S. Brown joined the Marine Corps OCS in February 1966, shortly after graduating from the University of the South at Sewanee, Tennessee. He served for 13 combat-filled months in Dong Ha, Khe Sanh, Con Thien, and other areas of the DMZ, beginning in June 1967 as an FO with C Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marines. Brown relates his Vietnam War cogently and creditably in Impact Zone: The Battle of the DMZ in Vietnam, 1967-1968 (University of Alabama Press, 277 pp., $29.95).



Kerri Fivecoat-Cambell’s No Immediate Threat: The Story of an American Veteran (ASJA Press, 120 pp., $12.95) is a tribute to her brother, Steve Fivecoat, who joined the Army in 1969 and served a 1970-71 Vietnam tour with A Battery of the 1st/82nd Field Artillery Battalion in the Americal Division. Steve Firecoat never re-adjusted to life back home and was found dead in an alley in Fargo, North Dakota, in 1999. His sister, an accomplished freelance writer, offers a unique perspective on one veteran’s post-traumatic stress, as well as the overall PTSD picture among Vietnam veterans. For more info, go to www.writeforyou.biz


Mary S. King’s Facing the Wall: A Mission (Xlibris, 159 pp., $30.99, hardcover; $20.99, paper) is an introspective examination of her husband’s (VVA member Jim King) battle with severe PTSD after serving as a Marine in Vietnam and how it has affected their family. “This is a story,” she notes, “about the aftereffects of wars as seen through my eyes.”


Greg McPartlin wanted to join the Marines in 1966, but a recruiter talked him into joining the Navy to be a corpsman. After training, he was assigned to the Third Marine Force Reconnaissance Battalion, which deployed to Vietnam just before the Tet Offensive in January 1968. Three months later, his unit was called back to the States; by the end of the 1969 he was back in Vietnam with SEAL Team 1 in the Ca Mau area. McPartlin does a good job of relating his unique Vietnam War tours in Combat Corpsman: The Vietnam Memoir of a Navy SEAL Medic (Berkley Caliber, 319 pp., $15, paper).


Carey J. Spearman served a 1967-68 Vietnam tour as a medic with the First Cav in An Khe and at the 91st Evac in Tuy Hoa. In his second book, 26 Years and a Wake-Up: An American Returns to Vietnam (Truman Publishing, 230 pp., $19.95, paper), he offers his thoughts and reflections in rapid-fire staccato passages on the war and on his readjustment difficulties, framed around his reflections on his eight trips back to Vietnam.


Douglas R. Bergman joined the Army in 1968 to get out of a life of misery on the streets near Chicago. After training as a clerk, he decided to go Airborne and served a 1969-70 tour in Vietnam as platoon leader in the 101st Airborne. Bergman offers up his life story in Names I Can’t Remember: An ‘Assassin’ Confesses (Warrior Books, 291 pp., $24.95), a blunt memoir that also includes his poetry. For more info, email warriorbooks@aol.com


Den Slattery served with the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, in Vietnam in 1969-70 and soon after getting out of the Marine Corps, joined the Army, returning to Vietnam for a second tour in 1972-73 with the 8th Air Cavalry. He relates the details of his tours in From the Point to the Cross: One Vietnam Vet’s Journey Toward Faith (1st Books, 204 pp., $14.95, paper).


Robert A. Simonsen, who served as a sergeant with Co. I, 3rd Battalion, 27th Marines in Vietnam, offers a comprehensive oral history that covers the formation of the 3/27 at Camp Pendleton through the unit’s arrival in southern I Corps in February 1968 and its baptism under intense fire in the war in the well-crafted Every Marine: 1968 Vietnam: A Battle for Go Noi Island (Heritage Books, 476 pp., $40, paper).
In just two weeks in May, the unit received two Meritorious Unit Citations, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Medal of Honor, and two Navy Crosses.


George Ragsdale’s Ben Hai: 211 Alpha (Unknowntruths.com, 400 pp., $19.95, paper) is a detailed recreation of his military career, concentrating on his 1969-70 tour as an Army warrant officer working as a radar repairman at most of the fire support bases along the DMZ.


M.B. Peters’ The American Doctor of Mocay: Letters from a Vietnam Medic (109 pp., $12.95, paper) is a stirring tribute mainly in the form of letters home to her husband, Army SSG Laurence V. Peters, who served as a volunteer medic at an orphanage near Saigon and who was killed in an ambush in April 1966. For more info, go to www.doctorofmocay.com

MISTY MEN

In 1967, reacting to the fact that far too many slow-flying propeller-driven FAC aircraft were being shot down over the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the U.S. Air Force put together a new secret unit called Commando Sabre, named after the F-100 Super Sabre fighter jet. The unit, which was in existence until 1970, was manned by USAF pilots who flew “fast FAC” missions over the Trail to scout for bombing targets. All told, 157 pilots served in the unit nicknamed “Misty” after the call sign of one of the first pilots. They flew extended, dangerous missions. Thirty-four pilots were shot down; three were held prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton, seven were killed in action.

Onetime Misty Pilot Don Shepperd, who retired as a two-star USAF general, and military journalist Rick Newman tell the hitherto barely known story of Commando Sabre very well in Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail (Presidio, 512 pp., $29.95). The authors focus on the personal stories of pilots such as Jim Fiorelli, Dick Rutan, and Howard K. Williams, but also include analyses of bigger picture political and strategic issues.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
At least the actor Matthew Modine didn’t call his book “Let’s Talk About Me.” Instead, he chose Full Metal Jacket Diary (Rugged Land, 304 pp., $29.95), an acceptable description of this memoir, presented in the form of a diary with photos, of Modine’s experiences in 1985 and 1986 filming the great Stanley Kubrick Vietnam War film in England. Most of the book is about Modine. But the actor also offers new insights into the famed American director at work on his Nam War epic.

That includes inside-baseball stories about how Lee Ermey morphed from the film’s technical adviser into the role of the D.I. from hell. We also learn that Kubrick filmed the second half of the film (the in-country part) first and then did the Parris Island half. One other item of note: This book has a stainless steel cover.


Richard Knott’s Fire From the Sky: Seawolf Gunships in the Mekong Delta (Naval Institute, 288 pp., $29.95) is a fact-filled, well-written recounting of the most decorated U.S. Navy squadron in the Vietnam War—the helicopter gunships that flew in support of Navy ops in and around the Delta. Knott, a retired Navy captain and author, interviewed more than sixty former Seawolf veterans and dug deeply into official documents to produce this excellent volume.


James A. Warren includes two chapters on the Vietnam War in American Spartans: The U.S. Marines: A Combat History from Iwo Jima to Iraq (Free Press, 375 pp., $26). Michael E. Haskew, the editor of WWII History Magazine, includes one chapter about the Vietnam War in his illustrated The Sniper at War: From the American Revolutionary War to the Present Day (Thomas Dunne, 192 pp., $24.95). Said chapter deals with Vietnamese and American snipers, including the legendary Marine Carlos Hathcock, who had 93 confirmed kills during two tours and set a record for long-range sniping when he shot a VC at 2,500 yards.


Soldier Talk: The Vietnam War in Oral Narrative (University of Indiana Press, 240 pp., $49.95, hardcover; $21.95, paper) is a compilation of essays by university professors, including editors Paul Budra (Simon Fraser U.) and Michael Zeitlin (U. of British Columbia) that deal with Vietnam War oral histories, memoirs, and other first-person written material about the war and its aftermath. The essays, all academic in tone, include U. of Colorado Professor of Afroamerican Studies William M. King’s deconstruction of Wally Terry’s pioneering oral history Bloods, which is based on “Black America and the War in Vietnam,” a course King teaches at Colorado.

   

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