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Books in Review, January/February 2022 -   -  

A Former Rocket Boy’s Topsy-Turvy War Story

Homer Hickam, known to friends and family as “Sonny,” is a terrific storyteller. The world found out just how terrific in 1998 with the publication of his best-selling memoir, Rocket Boys, in which he told an uplifting coming-of-age story of growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia, in the 1950s. That evocative tale begat a big Hollywood movie, October Sky, which came out to rave reviews in 1999.

Hickam—who received the VVA Excellence in the Arts Award at the 2011 National Convention—has written more than a dozen books, both fiction and non. His latest, Don’t Blow Yourself Up: The Further True Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of October Sky (Post Hill Press, 416 pp., $27, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a sprightly told memoir that begins after Rocket Boys ends, and includes an anecdote-laden account of Hickam’s topsy-turvy 1967-68 Vietnam War tour of duty. It’s a war story laden with bureaucratic screw-ups, an almost-court-martial, pet cats, and more than a little combat activity.

Sonny Hickam had taken Air Force ROTC at Virginia Tech (then known as VPI), but was cut from the program for poor eyesight. So after graduating from Tech he joined the Army, went to engineering school, then OCS, and was commissioned in October 1966. During a stateside assignment, he volunteered to go to Vietnam and served for a year with the 704th Maintenance Battalion in the 4th Infantry Division.

During that tour Hickam moved around South Vietnam, starting with a stint at Camp Enari near Pleiku—“just about the most depressing place I’d ever been”—with stops at Dak To, a firebase called Oasis near the Cambodian border, Kontum, and elsewhere. Sometimes he had orders to do so; sometimes he didn’t. His official jobs included supply officer and mechanical maintenance officer. Just about everywhere the young LT went, “death and destruction” followed, primarily at the remote Oasis firebase which came under a sustained attack for three days during Tet ’68.

There’s much more in this readable book about Sonny Hickam’s postwar life, including becoming a world class scuba diver; working for NASA; and evolving into a critically and popularly successful author. And there’s great inside-baseball stuff about how Rocket Boys and October Sky came to be. Hickam tells it all with a fair amount of reconstructed dialogue, nearly all of which rings true, and with generous dollops of wit and humor, nearly all of which hit the funny bone.


Serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, including 13 months in the Vietnam War, had “a dramatic impact on my personality, my career, and my life.” Those are the words of former Virginia governor and two-term U.S. Sen. Chuck Robb in his revealing new book, In the Arena: A Memoir of Love, War, and Politics (University of Virginia Press, 392 pp., $34.95, hardcover and e-book). After coming home from Vietnam, Robb says, “I would bring the Marine Corps with me to law school, and in every role I would play for the rest of my life. No matter what job or title I held, I would always consider myself a Marine first.”

In In the Arena, which is more of an autobiography than a memoir, Robb writes in detail about growing up, going to college, his political career, his marriage and children, and his post-political life, along with his nine years (1961-70) in the Marines.

After opening the book recounting an emotional speech he gave at the Veterans Day 1985 ceremonies at The Wall in Washington, Robb includes four meaty chapters on his tour of duty in Vietnam after he—the son-in-law of President Lyndon B. Johnson—volunteered to serve in the conflict. Robb took over as the CO of India Company in the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines in April 1968, and spent months enmeshed in the post-Tet fighting. Robb tells his war story effectively, painting an evocative picture of what his life was like in and out of combat.

Everyone’s Vietnam War story is unique, but Chuck Robb’s is uncommonly so. For one thing, his wife’s father was his commander-in-chief. With White House connections he easily could have avoided serving in the war or arranged to serve in a non-combat position. To his everlasting credit, Chuck Robb pushed to serve in the thick of things.

“My service,” Robb says in his typically selfless way, “was simply that: service, which I, and every soldier, airman, and Marine with me had rendered to our country. The mundane truth is that my service in Vietnam was no more or less remarkable than that of the other Marines with whom I served.”

With all due respect, sir: Your war service was truly remarkable.


It’s no secret that tens of thousands of Canadian citizens joined the U.S. military and served in the Vietnam War. What’s not so widely known, though, is Canada’s broader participation in the American war in the Vietnam. Despite the fact that Canada did not send military forces to Vietnam, that neutral nation, a close U.S. ally, played a multifaceted role in the war.

Canadian diplomats served on the International Commission for Supervision and Control (ICSC) from the time it formed in 1954; Canadian civilians volunteered to work in Canadian-run in-country hospitals; Canadian antiwar activists vociferously protested the war; thousands of American draft evaders went into exile in Canada during the war; and tens of thousands of Vietnamese emigrated to Canada in the mid- and late-seventies.

The latest reminder of Canada’s long and varied involvement in the war comes in John Boyko’s illuminating The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War (Knopf Canada, 256 pp., $24, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle). Boyko effectively and efficiently tells that story by focusing on six individuals’ Vietnam War involvement and by mixing in a concise history of the war and his country’s involvement in it.

The chapter on Canadians who served in the military, for example, starts with the story of two-tour U.S. Marine Corps veteran Doug Carey and broadens out into descriptions of the varied reasons why Canadians volunteered. Likewise, Boyko expands the chapter on the first Canadian head of its ICSC mission, two-war veteran Sherwood Lett, to tell the tale of the commission’s infighting and ineffectiveness from 1954-75.

The cryptic title comes from the book’s first two sentences, in which Boyko posits why parents send their children to war. His response: “The devil’s trick is convincing leaders that war is desirable, the rest of us that it’s acceptable, and combatants that everything they are doing and seeing is normal or, at least, necessary.”


In the Year of the Rabbit
by Terrance A. Harkin

Terrance A. Harkin’s latest novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens in 1972 with Brendan Leary, a USAF cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following a terrorist attack on the bicycle race he organized. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a VVA member who served in an Air Force photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the Vietnam War. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is “a gunner and a bomb loader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared war experiences.

At times both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side: the book has many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. Harkin’s thoughtfulness and careful prose make his second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.


Legacy of Evil
by Ed Marohn


With Ed Marohn’s Legacy of Evil (BookBaby, 340 pp. $16.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle) you can pretty well cash in your expectations of a thriller. Like true thrillers, this one covers a great deal of ground in a compressed period of time. In just one month the story moves from the U.S. to the Netherlands, Germany, Finland, and the Arctic, then back to the U.S. That quality leads to a tense feeling of claustrophobia even though the action takes place almost entirely outdoors.  

VVA’s Ed Marohn served in the Vietnam War with the 25th Infantry Division and the 101st Airborne Division. He has taught military history at the University of Nevada. His main character, John Moore, is a psychologist who enjoys reading action-adventure novels and works as a civilian contractor for the CIA evaluating its personnel, mainly looking for evidence of PTSD. Moore commanded an infantry company during the war in Vietnam and still has pains from a gunshot wound in his shoulder. He also has nightmares with battlefield flashbacks.

Legacy of Evil, the sequel to Marohn’s Legacy of a War, takes place well after the Vietnam War when Moore is caught between two men fighting over a leadership position in the CIA and wonders, “Are we in a spy novel?” He’s occasionally pressured to go into the field and has just returned from a trip to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. He has now been asked to deliver a personal letter from his boss to a notorious woman in Europe. He has a “combat instinct honed by Nam,” and carries a Sig Sauer P229 DAK.

Before long, there are neo-Nazis with big plans, a kidnapping, and a lost atomic bomb. Then the chase is on. This involves following a map that has Moore dogsledding into the Arctic where he relies on a U.S. Army Model 27 compass. “The compass was an old friend,” Marohn writes, “cherished in those dark and dank Vietnamese jungles of the war. In the days of killing and dying, it grounded me to the earth, giving me sanity in an otherwise crazy world of destruction. Its math and magnetic science provided rationality in a living nightmare.”

The chapters that involve a harrowing chase in the 24-hour light north of the Arctic Circle together would make a great short story.

At the beginning I found the writing to be somewhat stilted, more like Marohn was providing information rather than spinning a story. But once the plot started moving, the writing moved this reader along at an electrifying pace. This is a taut thriller with an especially satisfying ending.

The author’s website is www.writingsfromed.com





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