Harry Simpson served in the military form 1964-1966, and “experienced the constant fear of becoming part of the Vietnam Conflict and having to choose between killing and being killed.” Did Simpson serve in Vietnam, and if so, in what branch? He also tells us that his novel, I Must Survive (Tate Publishing, 248 pp., $18.99, paper), “is a work of fiction.”
The novel is told in chapters that go back and forth in time between the boyhood of main character Brad Howard and his time in Vietnam, briefly aboard a PBR (Patrol Boat, River) and then evading capture by the enemy. Most of the boyhood chapters take place in small-town Colorado in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and deal with boyhood stuff: school and bullies, baseball games, rodeos, playing in the snow, and Boy Scout camp.
Brad’s boyhood is lived on the economic margins as his World War II veteran father loses job after job. There is hardship, including contracting polio, and his father having a heart attack. These chapters are well-remembered and well-voiced from the point of view of the child Brad.
It is easy for the reader to believe the life lived in barely heated, shabby rental houses and wearing worn-out, patched clothes. This is different from my boyhood during the same period, but similar enough to recognize the author’s honesty and familiarity with this experience.
The other chapters deal initially with the brown water navy, which for Brad was a “four-man unit who crewed a thirty-one foot Mk 1 fiberglass PBR with two 220 horsepower Detroit Diesel 6V53N engines that drive a Jacuzzi Brothers water jet.”
The PBR adventure is soon over. A new lieutenant takes over and insists on changing things that have worked for eight months. He wants to take it to the enemy by going far, far up the river. The men get there and are shot to pieces by a VC patrol. Only Brad survives.
Brad Howard’s attempt to get back to safe territory from “Indian Country” is the preoccupation of the rest of the Vietnam War chapters. He has little in the way of training or equipment, but often compares this experience with his fight to survive his boyhood. He believes that being a Howard and not a quitter will get him through the ordeal. He eats bugs, snakes, stolen rice, and whatever else he can. He loses a lot of weight, and stumbles lost in the jungle, hoping that he’ll be delivered.
His boat was destroyed in mid-September 1966 and he’s still alive, barely, in the jungle four months later. I was beginning to think he’d still be there for the 1968 Tet Offensive.
I won’t give away the ending of the book, but I will say that it held my attention—both the Vietnam War chapters and the Colorado boyhood chapters.
I have no idea if the author had any Vietnam War jungle experience, but those chapters are as convincing as the Colorado chapters are. Maybe he did his research well for both.
Perhaps all that matters is that Harry Simpson has written an excellent, spell-binding adventure story. I highly recommend it.