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september/october 2007

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Books In review

Reviews By Marc Leepson
Many Vietnam War POW/MIA activists are convinced that the Vietnamese held back live POWs in 1973. Some believe that hundreds of those men are alive and being held against their will today in Vietnam and Laos. And some believe that Nixon administration higher-ups knew that the Vietnamese kept American prisoners in 1973 and that every presidential administration since then has known this and has engaged in a cover-up of that knowledge.

At the top of this list of true believers in all of the above is former North Carolina Republican Congressman Bill Hendon, who served in the House for two terms during the Reagan administration. Hendon became intensely interested in the live-prisoner issue in 1981. His interest has only increased in the last 26 years.

That fact is made abundantly clear in Hendon’s decades-in-the-making book, An Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia (Thomas Dunne Books, 640 pp., $29.95), which he wrote with Elizabeth Stewart, a lawyer whose brother is listed as missing in action in Vietnam.

The book gained a good deal of attention when it was published in June. It is a massively detailed account of the post-1973 Vietnam War POW saga, replete with oceans of excerpts from intelligence data of live-sighting reports in Vietnam and Laos. It also contains Hendon’s account of his own role in the story.

Hendon offers evidence that officials in the Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II administrations have worked systematically to cast doubt on virtually every live-sighting POW report that came their way. The conspiracy, Hendon claims, reaches into the CIA, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Affairs Office, the DIA, Congress, and the White House.

Hendon is not shy about naming names of those he holds responsible for what he believes is a thirty-year cover-up. Among those high on his list: Henry Kissinger, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry, Paul Wolfowitz (when he was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Reagan years), Anne Mills Griffith (after she went to work for the Pentagon), George H.W. Bush (particularly when he was Vice President under Reagan), Reagan’s National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Richard Childress (when he was in charge of POW/MIA affairs on the National Security Council), Reagan Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, Colin Powell (when he was Weinberger’s senior military assistant), and Dick Cheney (when he was George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense).

Does Hendon prove his main points? It’s difficult to say. What can be said with certainty is that his book has proven to be red meat for the true believers in the live-POW conspiracy theory. And it has given Hendon’s detractors—and there are many of them—more ammunition buttressing their contention that his main point is, at best, far-fetched.

Hendon himself lists four crucial points that cast doubts on his arguments. To wit: “Not one of these POWs has ever (author’s italics) been released.” And “not one has ever been rescued.” And even though “perhaps a dozen or so are reported to have escaped” from POW camps after the war, “not one has ever made it to freedom.” And the “absurd charge” that “a thirty-year bipartisan cover-up spanning seven presidential administrations has kept the truth about these prisoners secret.”

Does anyone, Hendon asks, “really believe that such a cover-up could succeed in Washington, D.C., where it is well known that one cannot keep something secret for thirty minutes, much less thirty years?” The book never definitively answers any of these pivotal questions.

LONG LOST DIARIES
The publishing history of Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram (Harmony Books, 225 pp., $25) falls into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. It involves Vietnam veteran Fred Whitehurst, who saved the diaries and smuggled them out of Vietnam just before he was going to burn them in 1970 in Duc Tho where he was serving as an Army MI lawyer. It involves his brother, Rob Whitehurst, also a Vietnam veteran, whose Vietnamese wife translated the diary three decades later. And it involves the return of the diary two years ago by the Whitehursts to the family of Dang Thuy Tram, a doctor who served with the Viet Cong and who perished in the war.

The diary was published in Vietnam in 2005 and became an immediate popular success, selling 430,000 copies and creating a minor sensation. People began flocking to the diarist’s grave near Hanoi; ground was broken for a new hospital in Duc Pho bearing her name; and a memorial erected on the spot where she died. “She had become a folk hero,” author Frances (Fire in the Lake) FitzGerald notes in her illuminating introduction to the new book in English, which has been translated by Andrew X. Pham.

That’s the good news about this heartfelt diary that exposes a young woman doctor’s deepest emotions from April of 1968 when she was the 25-year-old chief physician at a VC field hospital in the Central Highlands, until her death by a bullet wound in June of 1970 at a clinic in the Nai Sang Mountains. The diaries give an illuminating picture of what life was like among the enemy guerrillas, especially in the medical community. That said, the diaries make for less-than-gripping reading. The entries veer from one topic to another, dwelling too much on Thuy’s thoughts about her significant other.

ROBICHEAUX XVI
James Lee Burke’s latest Dave Robicheaux detective, The Tin Roof Blowdown (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $26), is another masterpiece of the genre. In this, the 16th Robicheaux, Burke again concocts a riveting tale centering on his flawed but quietly heroic Cajun sheriff’s deputy and Dave’s runaway-truck buddy, disgraced ex-New Orleans cop Clete Boyer, whom Dave describes as “a beer-soaked, blue-collar knight errant.” Burke spins out a page-turner filled with memorable characters (many of them super sleazes) as Dave and Clete risk life and limb (and their sanity) to solve a nasty series of crimes in and around the Big Easy and New Iberia Parish where Dave lives and works. This one’s set just before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina.

As usual, Dave and Clete’s service in the Vietnam War is a constant theme. As he navigates his way through the murky waters of Katrina’s aftermath, Dave constantly is reminded of his dangerous tour of duty as an infantry LT in the worst of the Vietnam War. The book, in fact, opens with two pages of Dave talking about his dreams that “always contained images of brown water and fields of elephant grass and the downdraft of helicopter blades.”

Burke’s best work has been called Faulknerian. This tale, redolent with the cries and whispers of the southern Louisiana landscape in extremis and the deeds of a series of good and bad characters, fits that bill. It’s a great read and a great piece of fiction.

FICTION IN BRIEF
The much-praised literary novelist Jane Smiley, who won the Pulitzer for A Thousand Acres, sets her newest book, Ten Days in the Hills (Knopf, 449 pp., $26), among the Hills of Beverly in 2003. The book, which the critics loved, centers on a 58-year-old Hollywood director named Max and nine other characters, including his new wife, ex-wife, daughter, stepson, and agent. They spend ten days together endlessly talking politics, movies, books, health regimens, and relationships. They also engage in lots of sexual activity.

What’s the point? The critics said it was satire and a send-up of Hollywood fatuousness, self-indulgence, and just plain idiocy. This critic found it difficult to stay focused on these mostly unlikable characters as the novel goes on and on and on and on. Oh, Max is a Vietnam veteran, having served as a company clerk in a rear area. The war, though, hardly comes up.

NONFICTION IN BRIEF
Prolific aviation historian Walter J. Boyne, who commanded a USAF Squadron
in Thailand during the Vietnam War, has updated his 1997 book, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the United States Air Force (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s 544 pp., $35), with a second edition that includes three new chapters on post-1997 matters. Boyne’s 40th book includes his particularly harsh assessment of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s strategy of not unleashing the “total application of air power in North Vietnam.” Had that been applied from the beginning, Boyne says, it would have led to “quick military victory” and “the lives of millions of people would have been spared, hundreds of billions of dollars would have been saved, South Vietnam would not have been ravaged, Cambodia would not have had to endure the Khmer Rouge, and the United States would not have had the ugly experience of the disaffected 1960s and 1970s.”

MEMOIRS & BIOS IN BRIEF
Whenever someone stereotypes those of us who served in Vietnam as a bunch of undereducated societal bottom feeders, I think of people like VVA member Thomas F. Bayard. Tim Bayard, as his friends call him, joined the Army as the draft was breathing down his neck in 1966 after he’d graduated from Stanford, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and was about to begin a career as an architect. Instead, he served his country for three years, including a not-uneventful tour in Vietnam with the 66th Engineer Company. Bayard tells his life story very well in No Cats in Vietnam: The Memoir of a Straightleg Engineer (Xlibris, 265 pp., $28.79, hardcover; $18.69, paper), a thoughtful book that is a fine addition to the Vietnam War memoir canon. For more info, go to www.nocatsinvietnam.com

Kenny Wayne Fields’ memoir, The Rescue of Streetcar 304: A Navy Pilot’s Forty Hours on the Run in Laos (Naval Institute, 352 pp., $29.95) focuses on the author’s singular experience after he was shot down on his first mission on May 31, 1968, flying a Navy A-7 Cosair 2 jet in central Laos off the aircraft carrier USS America.

Fields uses many reconstructed quotes to replay his harrowing time on the ground, during which he was wounded by friendly aerial ordinance. He survived and went back to flying combat missions four months later and during a second tour.

Retired Marine Col. Donald L. Price’s The First Marine Captured in Vietnam: A Biography of Donald G. Cook (McFarland, 334 pp., $35, paper) tells the story of Cook, a Marine Corps Colonel who was captured on December 31, 1964, while serving as an ARVN adviser and who died in captivity three years later, having endured abysmal conditions in a series of tortuous POW camps. For his courageous leadership in the camps he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Price is donating all royalties from the book’s sales to Cook’s grandchildren. For more info, go to www.mcfarlandpub.com or call 800-253-2187.

Kenneth Michael Kays was a young 101st Airborne Division PFC medic who received the Medal of Honor for his actions on May 7, 1970. Kays, a conscientious objector who allowed himself to be drafted but carried no weapons, braved intense enemy fire to help his fallen comrades, losing the lower portion of his leg in the process. As Randy K. Mills shows in Troubled Hero: A Medal of Honor, Vietnam, and the War at Home (Indiana University, 192 pp., $24.95), Kay’s life after the war was a downward spiral that included mental illness and drug abuse and ended in 1991 when he took his own life.

Melissa B. Robinson and Maureen Dunn’s The Search for Canasta 404: Love, Loss, and the POW/MIA Movement (Northeastern University, 233 pp., $24.95) is the story of Navy Lt. Joe Dunn and what happened when his A-1H Skyraider was shot down after he strayed over Chinese air space on February 14, 1968.

Robinson, an Associated Press reporter, and Maureen Dunn, Joe Dunn’s wife, focus on the aftermath of that day, mainly Maureen Dunn’s quest to find out what happened to her husband, a quest that involved her being one of the founders of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.

New in paper: Reprints of 2005’s Tempered Steel: The Three Wars of Triple Air Force Cross Winner Jim Kasler (Potomac Books, 271 pp., $18.95), in which authors (and USAF Vietnam veterans) Perry D. Luckett and Charles L. Byler tell Kasler’s story, including his six long, brutal years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton; and last year’s Spymaster: My Life in the CIA (Potomac Books, 309 pp., $19.95) by legendary CIA spy Theodore “Ted” (aka “The Blond Ghost”) Shackley and Richard A. Finney. The late Shackley ran the so-called secret war in Laos from 1966-68 and then in 1968-72 served as The Company’s Saigon station chief.

Robert C. Ankony relies heavily on reconstructed quotes in his memoir, LURPS: A Ranger’s Diary of Tet, Khe Sanh, A Shau, and Quang Tri (University Press of America, 306 pp., $37). The author served as a LRRP with Company E, 52nd Infantry, 75th Ranger Detachment, during his 1967-68 Vietnam War tour, and he took part in 22 long-range recon patrols.

August Jean’s Combat to Compensation: A Vietnam Veteran’s Battle for Compensation (AuthorHouse, 181 pp., $21.99, paper) is an account of the author’s late husband Marshall Mason’s battles with the VA and his severe mental problems after his return from the Vietnam War, where he served a 1969-70 tour with the 5th Special Forces. For more info, go to www.combattocompensation.com
Richard Chamberlin joined the Navy in 1966 after his draft board gave him the choice of joining the military or being conscripted. He served in a rear-echelon job in Vietnam in 1967-68 at the Mobile Construction Battalion 58 near Danang. His memoir, Hitchhiking from Vietnam: Seeking the Ox (Spinoza, 235 pp., $14.95, paper), concentrates on his travels and adventures after he came home from the war.

 

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