40 years on—Vietnam and my enemy encounter

Return to Vietnam – Part III

The chair lift up the once VC dominated Black Virgin Mountain outside Tay Ninh City.

The chair lift up the once VC-dominated Black Virgin Mountain outside Tay Ninh City.

My wife and I had just visited Tay Ninh City, where we separated from the tour group at the Cao Dai Temple and took a taxi to what we American troops knew as the Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen). This 3000-foot extinct volcanic peak dominates the flat Mekong Delta plain around it. During the war I’d often gazed up at the mountain and yearned to visit the peak. The mountain was a VC (Viet Cong) stronghold at the time but US forces held onto a small outpost at the tip—one only accessible by helicopter. On my recent visit I was disappointed that a time constraint kept us from hiking one of the trails to the top. We had barely enough time to take the cable car (constructed sometime after the war) to a gaudy Buddhist temple two thirds of the way up the mountain. Nevertheless, the ride offered a spectacular view. Continue reading

Return to Vietnam—what I found

Return to Vietnam – Part II

Me at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I'm standing in front of an armored personnel carrier in a courtyard crammed with American equipment.

Me at the War Remnants Museum in Saigon. I’m standing in front of an armored personnel carrier in a courtyard crammed with American equipment.

Although Vietnam is still a relatively poor country, Southern Vietnam has clearly prospered since the war when the only real economic engine was Uncle Sam’s aid and GI payday. Ho Chi Minh City, which nearly everyone still calls Saigon, is today busting at the seams with people, shops, restaurants, taxis, buses, and particularly motorbikes. Capitalism, in other words. I was surely not the only visitor to whom it seemed that nearly all of the city’s 11 million inhabitants were out competing for space with taxis and buses on their 7 million motorbikes at all hours of the day and night. Their presence made street crossings daunting. The motorbikes also made it necessary to walk in the street much of the time because the sidewalk space not claimed by outdoor shops and vendors was packed with parked motorbikes. Anyway, I digress.

…military aid and assistance has again begun flowing into Vietnam from the U.S. government. Who’d have thought!”

Vietnam hasn’t forgotten the war, but its youngish population today has other national concerns. Big ones like its northern neighbor. Continue reading

Vietnam 40 years on—my return

Return to Vietnam – Part I

In 1971 I couldn't have imagined that someday I'd be welcome in the presidential palace in Saigon--a place constantly in the nightly news during the war.

In 1971 I couldn’t have imagined that someday I’d be welcome in the presidential palace in Saigon–a place constantly in the nightly news during the war.

World War II is still very much alive in our media and our consciousness, as I’ve noted in recent blog posts. But one of that war’s offspring, the Vietnam War, hasn’t gone away either. Six decades after it began for Americans, that war too lives on in much the same way. This past April 30 marked an important date in both wars. On that day seventy years ago, in 1945, Hitler killed himself and effectively ended the Second World War. And on that day 40 years ago, in 1975, the North Vietnamese Army took Saigon and ended the divisive Vietnam War. A flurry of news reports and documentaries commemorated the latter anniversary date, but I had time to watch only one. That was because I was about to commemorate the war’s end in a more vivid and personal way. By coincidence, my first return to Vietnam since serving there both in a base camp and as an infantryman occurred just days after this significant date.

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The fall and rise of Vietnam vets

Vietnam revisited

Me and buddies, Christmas 1970, somewhere near Cu Chi, Vietnam

Me and buddies, Christmas 1970, somewhere near Cu Chi, Vietnam

Who alive in America today hasn’t heard of the Vietnam War or doesn’t know a family it has touched? This conflict dragged on for years and ultimately became very unpopular. Late in the war, returning soldiers like myself were despised by many.When I came back to America in 1971, we soldiers were warned not to wear our uniforms when traveling.

Well, how times have changed! Now veterans are popular once again and are often even thanked for their service. Even Vietnam veterans are now held in high esteem. Continue reading

Refugee Crisis—The Worst Ever?

?? refugees going onto a boat in ???

German refugees fleeing Russian onslaught in Kurland, October 1944. Photo from Bundesarchiv.

The tragic refugee problem makes headlines every day. Dramatic photo and video scenes repeatedly show us a mass of impoverished humanity on the move. In many of us fortunate enough to have a permanent home in which we’re viewing or reading these stories, the reports evoke empathy. But in some they also produce indifference, or even outrage. Such people are angered that their country is overwhelmed with migrants. Supporting refugees is never cheap and there can be major social consequences from an influx of people of a different culture and religion.

Modern refugees loading a boat....

Refugees transferred to a Maltese patrol boat. US Navy public domain photo

So what is the world to do with the millions of people who have lost their country? As massive and unprecedented as today’s problem sounds, the world faced an even more desperate crisis after World War II—one I described in The Secret She Carried. At that time millions of people were forced to flee the fighting as the Eastern Front fighting pushed into the Soviet Union, then reversed course and ran westward back to Germany. In today’s crisis, the dead number in the thousands. But in the earlier crisis over two million of the 15 million ethnic Germans who were forced out of their homes in Eastern Europe died. Continue reading

Oswald and Oskar—they survived where many didn’t

Oskar and Erich at Tomaselli Cafe in Salzburg, June 2015

Oskar and Erich at Tomaselli Cafe in Salzburg, June 2015.

In The Secret She Carried, an account of two German soldiers meshes with my mother’s story. Oswald Lustig and Oskar Halusa were my Uncle Eduard Hajek’s closest school friends and still teens when they first saw combat. Somehow, both came through the hellish fighting despite multiple life-threatening wounds. Sadly, Eduard didn’t.

I’d been communicating with both men for some time before our first face-to-face meeting in 2010. Fortunately for me, each had put considerable time and effort into preserving memories of their southern Moravian Sudeten homeland over the years. In Germany, Oswald had assembled several books about his part of Moravia and was still an indefatigable information gatherer at age 86 when I spent a couple of days in his home. He was a gracious host and I left loaded with new information. Continue reading

World War II ended in 1945, or did it?

The end of World War II

Photo showing relative size of British bombs of the Second World War. They ranging from 500 lb to 12,000 lb. As the main recipient of such bombs from Britain and America, Germany remains a graveyard for unexploded bombs. Some 2,000 tons of them are discovered annually. [Photo created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain; Wikimedia Commons, Raf ww2 bombs.jpg] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/34/Raf_ww2_bombs.jpg

Photo showing relative size of British bombs of the Second World War. They ranged from 500 lb to 12,000 lb. As the main recipient of such bombs from Britain and America, Germany remains a graveyard for unexploded bombs. Some 2,000 tons of them are discovered annually. [Photo created by the United Kingdom Government is in the public domain; Wikimedia Commons, Raf ww2 bombs.jpg]

Did World War II in Europe end 70 years ago in May 1945? If you read my earlier two part post on the subject (Those Pesky World Wars–they just won’t go away), you’d know that on a true/false history exam or quiz show, true would be the correct answer. But outside of that context, false would also be correct. Technically, the fighting in the European Theater ended with the surrender of Germany, and then in the Pacific Theater a few months later. However, in a way, the war lived on because it left many problems unresolved and created new tensions and turmoil when the victors took or redistributed territory and drew illogical borders through former colonial possessions. The resulting troubles and unresolved issues brought about struggles that to this day show no signs of disappearing. Examples abound in the Middle East, Southern Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe. Continue reading

The Death Valley Chuckwalla: They don’t write ‘em like this anymore! Or do they?

Recently, during my annual camping trip to Death Valley National Park, I found the following description hanging amidst the clutter of photos and other historical items on the wall of the Borax Museum at the Furnace Creek Ranch Resort.

The front cover of the Chuckwalla. The newspaper was printed on butcher paper, so the archive copy did not reproduce well.

Front cover of the Chuckwalla. The newspaper was printed on butcher paper, so the archive copy did not reproduce well.

“The Death Valley Chuckwalla was published at Greenwater during the copper boom days of 1906 -07. The editor and publisher was C.B. Glasscock, later to become a well-known Western writer. Nothing remains of Greenwater today; but one of the Chuckwalla printing presses stands in the museum courtyard.” Continue reading

Those pesky World Wars—they just won’t go away: continued

U-576 and its crew

One of several recently released NOAA wartime photographs of U-576 and its crew that had been gathered by U-boat historian, Ed Caram, who died last year. Courtesy of NOAA.

The World War I veterans are gone now, but the lingering effects and presence of that war are still remembered and felt today. The observance of the hundredth anniversary of the event that sparked the war—the assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, on June 28th—took place this summer. As much as that older war is imbued in our history and culture, World War II looms larger not just because it was larger, but because it is still recent enough to be felt by the families of men who fought in it. As enormous as the monetary cost of both wars was, the cost in lives—up to 16 million for WW I, and up to 80 million for WW II—was even more staggering.

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Those pesky World Wars—they just won’t go away

Minutes before the attack in Sarajevo that initiated WWI.

Minutes before the attack in Sarajevo that initiated WWI.

In one sense we want to forget the world wars, and in another, we want to remember. Whether it’s books, TV, radio, movies, politics, museums, games, school, road signs, national holidays, or the news, the reminders are everywhere and unending. They are on my mind for two reasons. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. Also, I am close to completing a biographical narrative and anecdotal history of the period. Continue reading

Heroes Shooting Blanks Pt. 2: Is there any location Hollywood hasn’t discovered?

I’m beginning to think the answer to the question posed in my title is “no.” At least in the West within a thousand miles of LA. After leaving Movie Flats in the Alabama Hills, the lovely but surreal setting of the Trona Pinnacles became my next camping destination. The pinnacles are located on the playa of Searles Dry Lake in the Searles Valley, just one valley west of Death Valley National Park in this harsh basin and range country. If you read my earlier post on the Bennett-Arcan wagon train party’s 1849 escape from Death Valley, it might interest you to know that another party became trapped in Death Valley about the same time. The Jayhawkers abandoned their wagons as well and walked out by way of Searles Valley. They acted to save themselves from a situation of their own making, so they were only heroes in a limited way. Yet even this marginal heroism beat what followed after this place too became a popular filming location, like Movie Flats. The cameras here weren’t shooting good guys shooting outlaws and Indians. The cinematography was of a different type.
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Heroes Shooting Blanks

Movie Flats

Riding off into the sunrise at Movie Flats

I just spent a couple of days camping in and hiking through hero country. No, it wasn’t a battlefield. And yet it was. If that sounds contradictory, it should become clear shortly. It is a princely place if you’re drawn to southwest high desert country like I am. This tract of land is situated near Lone Pine, California and is in the Alabama Hills, a name which has nothing at all to do with Alabama. The area has it all: sun, sagebrush, cactus, canyons, and jumbles of huge golden boulders. If that isn’t enough, topping it off is the grand mountain vista backdrop of Mt. Whitney and its surrounding high Sierra peaks. I’d better confess right here that I’m not the first to notice the ultra-western-ness of these features. The Hollywood movie industry noticed it 90 years ago. Continue reading

Cherries—a Vietnam experience and a half

Helicopter drops grunts in landing zone. U.S. Army photograph. Public domain.

Authors writing from personal experience about combat know that conveying their experience is ultimately an impossible task. The chasm between those who lived the trauma in a place like Vietnam, or some other version of Vietnam in another war, and those merely reading about it is nearly unbridgeable with mere words or images. But like many other veterans before him, John Podlaski tries to do just that in his book, Cherries: A Vietnam War Novel. And in this basic mission he successfully describes what Vietnam was like for some. I have to say some because in a war where the vast majority of those in uniform served as support personnel, most of the hardship fell on those few actually in the field. But more about that later. Continue reading

Wall Drug Heroes: Historical Western Photos

Wall Drug

Western history photos in Wall Drug Backyard

Western history photos in Wall Drug Backyard

I’m on a vacation driving trip so I’ll keep this short. As I write, the driving happens to be across South Dakota, a state that is a mecca for highway billboards. You know—the tourist-trap type informing you of the mystery spot or the fun cave. Drive the state east to west on I-90 and it won’t take you 300 miles to become aware Wall Drug has 5 cent coffee, free ice water, and homemade pies and breakfast rolls. Wall Drug has been in business so long that its signs have become icons and there are many, many competing signs along the route. But I digress. If you’re like me, by the time you finally reach exit 109 and the town of Wall, you’ll be torn. Should I get sucked in by the advertising or do I drive on? Continue reading

Hero today, gone tomorrow? Richard Rowland Kirkland, Angel of Marye’s Heights

Fredericksburg, Virginia

Richard Rowland Kirkland memorial at the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. Photo by Eipert.

I have some ready excuses for not posting in weeks. One is that I’ve been busy trying to finish “Guy Going Under,” my cave adventure/mystery novel. I have to say heroic effort was required at times for me to sit behind the keyboard when spring and summer weather was waiting right outside the door. A second excuse is that I’ve been traveling. One of the places I recently visited was Fredericksburg, Virginia, the site of a Civil War Battle fought in and around the city on December 11–15, 1862. The battle there is noted for being one of the most one sided of the war. Continue reading

Breaking Stalin’s Nose: a novel of a young boy and the lies of Stalin-era Communism

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin: Moscow Metro mosaic (beggs-Flickr)

Sasha Zaichik is the protagonist in this short novel, Breaking Stalin’s Nose, by Eugene Yelchin. Sasha is less a hero than an innocent victim, for what else can you call a ten-year old who’s been brought up with nothing but lies in a cynical, totalitarian state that maintains itself through fear and terror.

At first glance Yelchin’s novel looks like a book for children, but don’t be fooled—it carries a message that resonates with readers of all ages. I’m talking about the human toll of Stalin-era Communism in the Soviet Union, but it could apply to any dictatorial government or ideology, past or present. Think Nazi Germany, Maoist China, North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, the Taliban, etc. Continue reading

A little context: historic bridges of Iowa and some Iowana photos too

Stone railroad bridge in NE Iowa – StockXchng/Kinsey

Sorry. No heroes in this post, just a little more historical context to round out the Kate Shelley story. And I found some of it right in my own hometown.

Historic Iowa bridges are a side interest related to my childhood memories of an old trestle and its use in my novel about an inventive teen battling an enemy and confronting a land conspiracy in a farm community much like my home town of West Point, Iowa. A photo of the trestle bridge of my childhood (the model for the one in my novel), and a number of other mid to late 19th century historic West Point structures can be found by visiting my Iowana page or directly through this link to Historic photos of West Point, Iowa.  The railroad depot, the trestle, and the train itself are from the era in which my last hero, Kate Shelley, lived. Continue reading

Kate Shelley: train rescuer Part II—and a railroad trestle in my past

Kate Shelley: train rescuer Part II

An Iowa trestle from the author's childhood: bridge across Pittman Creek near West Point, Iowa - photo taken by Mary Eipert shortly before demolition of bridge

For those who took an interest in the story of Kate Shelley, I’d like to share a few more interesting tidbits. According to the accounts I’ve read, after the death of her husband and son Kate’s mother not only lapsed into poor physical health, she also lost her spirit. I suppose that means she broke mentally and could no longer adequately care for and raise her children. This placed a terrible burden of responsibility on Kate, her oldest child, and Kate sacrificed her own childhood and later independence in order to fill this void and take care of her family. She was not recognized for this heroic act. Continue reading

Kate Shelley: train rescuer

Kate Shelley Bridge - 1900 replacement of original trestle. Flickr/David Wilson.

You won’t find a better example of real-life heroism than the story of a brave fifteen-year-old Iowa girl named Kate Shelley. I can picture what this girl went through because I grew up not so far from the Des Moines River, and near a railway with a high, scary trestle that I crossed a few times.

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Maria Guadalupe DeLarios, a young woman who followed her dreams

Adventure and bravery come in many shapes and forms. The following real-life account of a girl following her dreams is a contribution passed on to me by Marie Murphy of Running Springs, California at the recently concluded ‘49ers Encampment in Death Valley National Park. The young adventurer Marie describes is her grandmother.

Maria Guadalupe DeLarios was born in the beautiful exotic fishing village of Veracruz, Mexico in 1898. She was orphaned as a child but was blessed to be adopted by a wealthy family with whom she lived until she reached the age of sixteen. Guadalupe always loved to dance and sing and expressed her desire to become an entertainer and work on stage. However, the theatrical profession was not considered a proper one for women. So, at the age of sixteen, amidst threats of losing her inheritance, she followed her dream and boarded a stagecoach for her long trip alone to the United States. Continue reading

Two Death Valley heroes

Death Valley is nothing if not a historical and geological theme park. Because of its many short-lived mining booms, it has left behind an abundance of interesting and compelling characters. The recorded history began with the first sizeable group of wagons that traversed the valley, and it is from this party that a couple of young heroes emerged. Continue reading