E. Michael Helms

Have you ever had one of those bad days that everything seems to be going wrong? Maybe your car broke down, or the restaurant messed up your order, or your internet is running slow (oh the horror!). We’ve all been there. But I would take any of these problems over the type of hell soldiers go through in war.

Recently I read the Vietnam War memoir The Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam written by E. Michael Helms. In this account, Helms takes the reader through his time in the Marine Corp, starting with his very first days as a Marine at Parris Island to his subsequent deployment to Vietnam in 1967. Helms gives a vivid account of what Marine recruits experience during boot camp with a sense of humor that keeps the reader engaged and entertained, especially with his humorous tales of overly strict Marine boot camp officers. An example of Helms colorful portrayal of Marine boot camp life include this gem: “This evening at chow I got caught talking in the chow line with Dan Coker, a buddy of mine from South Carolina, and now we are going to pay for it but good. It was just a quick whispered exchange about how hungry we both always are, but ol’ Eagle-ears Burns heard us. I swear, that bastard could hear a gnat fart during a tornado.” (Helms, 24) Normally I don’t find myself laughing when reading a war memoir, but in this case, Helms hit my funny bone!

After his experience at Parris Island, Helm was sent to Dong Ha and assigned to the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines – an outfit that had seen substantial combat action by the time Helms arrived. Helms, like every FNG (fucking new guy) in Vietnam, experienced a time of uncertainty upon arrival. After training with the same group of men at Parris island, he found himself knowing only one other soldier from training. As Helm’s tour continued, he became an “old salt” after several combat experiences. Helm’s does a masterful job writing about his combat experiences and making the reader feel a bit of the anxiety a soldier feels during a combat excursion. In Chapter 10, Helms writes about his experience laying an ambush: “Picked out one of the figures and waited for the gun team to blow the ambush. And waited…..and waited…..Jesus H. Christ, guys, they’re getting awfully close….shit, they’re almost on top of us now. What the hell’s the matter with you assholes? God, they must have been sleeping. Should I shoot? Better wait….better blow it now or it may be too late. God, somebody fucking do something!” (Helms, 77)

Helm’s had similar experiences as other young American Vietnam vets – especially the horror of watching friends die violent combat deaths and the incompetency of the military leadership. In Chapter 20, Helm’s writes about going out on an LP (Listening Post – each night a group of soldiers leaves the perimeter and listens for any enemy activity), which needless to say, is not a desired activity by most soldiers. In this particular incident, Helms’ LP group almost mistakenly fired on another group of Marines, as the communication from leadership did not alert them to the other Marine’s presence and Helms’ group assumed they were the enemy. His anger shows through in this passage: “Somebody back at the CP is fixing to catch hell from one lowly PFC. I came that-fucking-close to blowing those bastards away, and if I had they would’ve died and maybe we all would’ve died and who the hell put two LPs in the same area? Worthless sons-of-bitching brass-fucking office pogue rear-echelon bastards can’t even get their shit together enough to keep LPs away from each other so we don’t blow our own shit away! Goddam ‘em, and their fucked up war!” (Helms 183-184)

Perhaps the most troubling part of the book is when Helm’s describes the murder of an American soldier at the hands of another American soldier. When men were sent to Vietnam, they all understood that they risked dying in Vietnam in combat. What most of them probably didn’t anticipate was death by another American. This is a testament to what can happen to men in extended combat situations and how PTSD is a condition that negatively affects our soldiers.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a grunts view of the Vietnam War. It is a straightforward account of one man’s experience in Vietnam in 1967. The reader does not need to be well versed in military jargon in order to enjoy this memoir. While every soldier had their own unique experiences during this war, The Proud Bastards highlights a common thread from most combat memoirs: survival, the brotherhood of soldiers, the crippling fear of combat, and the intense relief to have survived the tour.

{ 0 comments }

Korean War ex-POW Reunion – Louisville, KY

by Abigail Pfeiffer on August 5, 2014

Former POW Elliott Sortillo

Last week I was in Louisville, Kentucky at the historic Brown Hotel, at the reunion for the ex-POWs of the Korean War. In 1976, the Korean War ex-POW Association was created by Bill Norwood, a former POW from 1951-1953. The Association was formed to provide a means of support for the ex-POWs, as well as to provide friendship, assist with veteran issues, and to honor the Korean War POWs. Each year, the association holds the reunion in a different city at the end of July and early August. This time of year coincides with the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War, as well as the time when the majority of the ex-POWs were repatriated. Sadly, this year is the association’s last reunion as the former POWs are in advanced age and many are dealing with health issues.

I became involved with the subject of the Korean War POWs when I was a graduate student at Norwich University. In 2012 I was working on my master’s thesis about the stunningly high death rate of the Korean War POWs and several of the men graciously granted me interviews. After I graduated I was invited to their reunion in Omaha, Nebraska in the summer of 2012. There I met many more of the men and their families and several more of the men granted me interviews. Last year I was unable to attend, however, I did not want to miss this year’s reunion since it is their final organized reunion.

I did my best to soak in this experience and I am so grateful to the all ex-POWs and their spouses who allowed me to ask questions (sometimes personal and difficult questions) and inquire about their experience as POWs. These men are living history and as time passes we are losing more and more of them.

Time for a short history lesson about the Korean War. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 when communist North Korea invaded capitalist South Korea (Korea was split into north and south with the end of WWII). The North Korean army pushed the

Former POW Sal Conte.

South Korean army south and took the capital of Seoul. The United Nations authorized the defense of South Korea and the United States, under General Douglas MacArthur, led the military action into Korea. In September, 1950 the UN forces landed at Inchon and pushed the North Korean forces back north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, also known as the 38th Parallel). The war may have ended at this time if it had not been for Chinese involvement on the side of North Korea. China had recently become a communist country after a revolution in 1949 and they were happy to assist their communist neighbor. The Chinese entered the war in the fall of 1950 and overwhelmed many of the UN defenses. Many Americans were taken prisoner during the fighting in the fall of 1950. Officially, 7,190 Americans were taken prisoner during the Korean War, with 93% of the POWs coming from Army units. Of this 7,190, only 4,428 returned home at the end of hostilities, which figures out to an official death rate of 38%. Note that I indicated this is an “official” death rate, since there are thousands of men unaccounted for from Korea, and certainly some of the MIA (missing in action) from Korea had died as POWs and their deaths were not recorded. Many ex-POWs and historians believe the death rate of the POWs could have been as high as 50%.

What makes the Korean War POWs unique is that they were the first set of American POWs who were used as bargaining chips and propaganda purposes. Cease fire negotiations stalled over the issue of voluntary repatriation. Remember that when the POWs returned home in 1953, they returned to an America rife with anti-Communist sentiment. Unfortunately many of the repatriated POWs were accused of collaboration with the Chinese Communists and rumors persisted regarding the conduct of the POWs while they were interred. The U.S. military debriefed all the returning POWs and investigated charges of collaboration. Wild speculation and outrageous claims that were not based on fact stated that approximately thirty percent of POWs collaborated with the enemy. However, after the military concluded their own investigations, they reported that only 4.3 percent of POWs were found to be guilty of any wrongdoing. Quite a difference between 4.3 percent and thirty percent!

ex-POW Cecil Phipps, post interview photograph

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities. The veterans of the Korean War are in their early eighties and every year we lose more and more of them. It is crucial that historians strive to get their stories recorded before this entire generation is lost, and give future generations the opportunity to learn about the Korean War and not just as a side note in a high school textbook.

My interviews from the Korean War ex-POW reunion will be used for a book I am writing about the Korean War POWs. Throughout this post you will see pictures of me with the men I interviewed. The book will be finished this fall and I hope younger generations of Americans find their experiences as fascinating as I do.

Former POW Bill Borer

Former POW John Toth

Helen Hewitt, widow of a former POW Roy Hewitt.

Former POW Robert Batdorff

{ 13 comments }

Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

By Jack Cheevers – Published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Act of War by Jack Cheevers

I just finished reading an excellent Cold War era naval history: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers. Cheevers has produced a riveting account of the USS Pueblo that was captured by North Korea in January 1968 off the shores of Wonson. 1968 proved to be a tumultuous year – in America and for the crew of the USS Pueblo.

The Cold War dominated United States foreign policy during the 1960s. It was not uncommon for both sides to seek intelligence about military operations. This was precisely the Pueblo’s mission – to collect intelligence on North Korea but remain in international waters. The Pueblo was led by a boisterous and outgoing leader – Commander Lloyd Bucher. The Pueblo was Bucher’s first command and he was eager to take the reins of his first command. Little did he know that he would become one of the most controversial figures in United States military history.

Cheevers described the physical characteristics of the Pueblo and the nature of its spy operations. He detailed the Pueblo’s imperfections and the attempts of Bucher to fix the Pueblo’s issues prior to the beginning of its mission. Commander Bucher is a central character in the book and Cheevers did a wonderful job describing the dynamics between Bucher and his officers and enlisted men.

Cheevers followed the progress of the Pueblo and its preparations while still stateside, to Hawaii, to Japan, and then finally to North Korea. There were parts of the Pueblo’s preparations that left Bucher ill at ease. There was a substantial amount of classified documents loaded onto the Pueblo, yet not enough destruction equipment to destroy the material in the case of communist attack. There was also a distinct lack of munitions on the Pueblo, and the two machine guns on board took significant time for the crew to enable. This became a problem when the Pueblo was surrounded by North Korean boats and MiG fighters, as the Pueblo did not have the firepower to defend itself. Another issue was naval support in the event of aggression – which obviously never came to the rescue of the Pueblo and its crew.

Cheevers, a former political reporter, spent a significant amount of the book detailing the political and diplomatic side of the Pueblo ordeal. Obviously the seizure of the Pueblo was an embarrassment to the United States, especially considering it was at the hands of North Korea and not a larger communist state like Russia or China. North Korea was adamant that in order for the release of the Puelbo’s crew, the United States needed to offer a full apology. Naturally North Korea wanted to use an apology for propaganda purposes. Almost the entire year of 1968 – from the capture of the Pueblo and its crew in January to their release in December – was spent in diplomatic lingo. Countless meetings between the United States and North Korea led to nothing but a diplomatic stalemate. Finally, after an agreement between the US and North Korea, the crew of the Pueblo was released on December 23, 1968.

When the crew arrived in San Diego, they were met by exuberant family members and live television cameras. They received a hero’s

Lloyd Bucher

welcome and reunited with family after an extremely difficult year. One sailor met his infant son for the first time. After arrival, the crew went to their next destination – the United States Naval Hospital at Balboa Park in San Diego. Most of the sailors needed medical attention for physical injuries sustained in North Korea. In addition to physical issues, the emotional and psychological health of the men needed attention.

However, their ordeal, especially for Bucher, was far from over. Bucher’s actions, specifically how he surrendered the Pueblo without firing a shot, were scrutinized by the Navy. Bucher’s actions were investigated by a Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by five Navy admirals. Their recommendation after the inquiry included a court martial for Bucher for five particular offenses. Nevertheless, with public opinion squarely on the side of Bucher and his crew, the top naval leaders realized that putting Bucher on trial was not a possibility. Bucher escaped a court martial and spent a few more years in the Navy before his retirement. Despite the criticism he received from the Navy, his crew stood behind him and credited his bravery as a key factor for survival despite brutal beatings and torture endured in a North Korean prison camp.

The Cold War era was an important part of American history, indeed, it spanned almost half of the twentieth century. As tensions increase yet again between the West and Russia, it is crucial to have an understanding of Cold War politics and key events. Act of War does just this and gives the reader an in depth glimpse into one important Cold War event and the effect it had on the people involved and United States foreign policy.  Act of War can be enjoyed by anyone interested in history – not just professional historians or Cold War enthusiasts. However, historians will find this book valuable as the book is rich with primary sources. The reader does not need an in depth knowledge of naval operations, nor do they need to be politically astute in order to enjoy this story of survival and perseverance.

{ 1 comment }

Book Review: Mayday Over Wichita

by Abigail Pfeiffer on October 30, 2013

DW Carter - Mayday Over Wichita

Recently I had the pleasure of reviewing a book for a classmate of mine from Norwich University. One year out of graduate school, and David Carter has published his first book….and the Norwich Family is very proud! It is so great to see former classmates from Norwich making a name for themselves in the history field.

Carter’s book, “Mayday Over Wichita: The Worst Military Aviation Disaster in Kansas History” is currently available on Amazon in print or kindle version.

I wrote my review of Carter’s book and posted it to Amazon. Since Google does not appreciate duplicate content, I decided not to post my review here. Please click here to read my review of “Mayday Over Wichita” on Amazon.

Carter has been busy since the book release with book signings and other promotional events. Click here to watch an interview of Carter by a local Kansas TV station. If you want to learn more about the book, you can watch the book trailer on Youtube.

To keep up with Carter and news about the book, you can visit his Facebook page.

{ 0 comments }

Disappointed by the History Channel….yet again

by Abigail Pfeiffer on June 6, 2013

History Channel meme

Well, it appears that the History Channel has learned nothing from my scathing post about them a few years ago and the many comments backing up my position. Clearly they are not listening to their plethora of viewers (I would say fans, but at this point I would not claim to be a fan) who are BEGGING for them to quit with the shitty reality TV. At the very least, all we want is for them to honor important dates in history. Is that too much to ask? That does not include a Pawn Stars marathon on D-Day and Memorial Day.

Please join me in being majorly pissed off at the History Channel.  Yeah History Channel, we are looking at you and not liking what we are seeing.

{ 5 comments }