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Cherries - A Vietnam War Novel

Book review By: pdogg
Historical fiction



Book Review of Cherries by Bernie Weisz


Submitted:Aug 19, 2010    Reads: 914    Comments: 0    Likes: 1   


About the Book

Written by Bernie Weisz/Historian-Vietnam War Pembroke Pines, Florida U.S.A. contact e mail: BernWei1@aol.com Title of Review: The Price of War: Wondering One Time Or Another If You Would Ever Make It Home Alive And In One Piece!
I am not quite sure where to start with John Podlaski's blockbuster book "Cherries", a fictionalized account of his 1970 to 1971 tour as a foot soldier in South Vietnam. As an avid reader of many historical memoirs, both fiction and autobiographical, rarely have I found one as in depth and revealing as Mr. Podlaski's work. Thirty years in the making, it was originally written in a first person format. "Cherries" was started in 1979 and ground to a frustrating halt ten years later. It sat dormant until 2009, where Mr. Podlaski, with renewed verve, finally took it to task to complete it. At the advice of his publisher to change the story to a third person fictional approach, and the technical computer dexterity of his daughter, Nicole, the writing was first converted from carbon paper to Atari floppy disks and finally to Microsoft Word. "Cherries" is now available to the public. Regardless of the format, Mr. Podlaski takes the reader, through the protagonist of John Podlaski, of his personal tour conveying his impressions of a war America currently prefers to forget.

This historical gem will not let this happen. Through an incredible, larger than life manuscript, Mr. Podlaski reminds us that the jungle warfare against huge communist forces in Vietnam was a deadly and unique challenge to our U.S. forces. It is made clear in "Cherries" that the limited American forces faced an unlimited number of Communist troops who had the incomparable advantage of a sanctuary for their replacements beyond the 18th parallel. With the memory of the 1950-1953 Korean War debacle, the U.S. government granted this sanctuary fearing that any military action beyond it would cause reprisals by Communist China. In South Vietnam, our troops could not distinguish enemy from friendly Vietnamese. Within the storyline, the reader finds that a village could be friendly by day, and enemy by night. It was a battlefield without boundaries. A secret supply route in Laos, known as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail," funneled a constant arms supply to the enemy. The jungle provided the perfect cover for the Communists, constantly posing ambushes from the rear and flanks of our troops. Bayonet and gun butt, hand to hand fighting was frequent. Capture by the enemy could mean torture and a communist prison camp. The constant unbearable heat, with high humidity, enervated our troops.

Prior to John Podlaski's arrival in South Vietnam, the U.S. had become involved in the S.E. Asian conflict under dubious circumstances. The alleged August, 1964 attack of two U.S. destroyers by North Vietnamese patrol boats in the South China Sea brought on the "Gulf of Tonkin Resolution" giving then President Lyndon B. Johnson a free hand to commit American troops to defend South Vietnam's fledgling democracy. However, the South Vietnamese political situation crippled their war efforts. Bitterly opposed political factions of Buddhists verses Catholics caused the assassination of President Ngo Dinh Diem by a military coup, whose leaders then could not unify the country. Meanwhile, in the U.S., the drumbeat of communist propaganda split the citizens of this country, especially our youth. Mr. Podlaski brings this point to light at the beginning of his story. He describes that when a soldier would begin his trek to South Vietnam from the Overseas Processing Terminal in Oakland, California. There, masses of hippies and former soldiers picketed against the war. They would plead with Vietnam bound soldiers to quit the military and refuse to fight this war. Despite all these odds, U.S. forces had practically knocked out the North Vietnamese in South Vietnam by mid 1966 when new and highly trained North Vietnamese Communist forces poured into South Vietnam.

Such was the situation when the January, 1968 Tet Offensive occurred. A cease-fire began on January 30, 1968 for the Vietnamese new year of Tet, which falls on the first new moon of January. On January 31, 1968 the Viet Cong broke their cease-fire and attacked many cities and provinces throughout South Vietnam. In Saigon, a small number of Viet Cong troops were able to reach the American Embassy grounds, but did not gain entry into the embassy itself. In the Northern part of South Vietnam, the city of Hue was taken over by the V. C. and executions of city officials and their families took place. The initial reporting indicated the number of people executed was in the thousands (2,300 persons executed in and around Hue during the Tet Offensive). Saigon was the center for most if not all of the news agencies that were covering the war in South Vietnam. The Tet Offensive of 1968 was the first time, during the war, that actual street fighting took place in the major cities. Rear support personnel and MP's did the initial fighting by American troops until support from infantry and armor could arrive. These men did an outstanding job in defending the cities, airfields and bases along with the embassy. This is incredible considering the fact that over 2.5 million U.S. men and women served in Vietnam during the entire war (1959 to 1975) but only 10% of that were in the infantry and actually, as Podlaski put's it "humped the boonies." The American news media captured this street fighting on tape in addition to the attack on the American Embassy. This new offensive was immediately brought into the homes of American families through reporting by television and the press. The sensationalism of this reporting brought forth a misrepresentation of the actual facts that took place during the Tet Offensive of 1968. The reports led the American people to the false perception that we were losing the war in Vietnam and that the Tet Offensive was a major victory for North Vietnam. This was not the case. The reality was that the VC suffered high casualties and were no longer considered a fighting force. Their ranks had to be replaced by North Vietnamese regulars. The civilian population of South Vietnam was indifferent to both the current regime of president Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam and the Viet Cong. The civilian population, for the most part, did not join with the VC during the Tet Offensive.

Bui Tin, who served on the General Staff of the North Vietnamese Army and received the unconditional surrender of South Vietnam on April 30, 1975, gave the Wall Street Journal an interview following the Tet Offensive. During this interview Mr. Tin was asked if the American antiwar movement was important to Hanoi's victory. Mr. Tin responded "It was essential to our strategy", referring to the war being fought on two fronts, the Vietnam battlefield and back home in America through the antiwar movement on college campuses and in the city streets. Furthermore, he stated the North Vietnamese leadership listened to the American evening news broadcasts "to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement." Visits to Hanoi made by persons such as Jane Fonda, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and various church ministers "gave us confidence that we should hold on in the face of battlefield reverses." Mr. Tin asserted that: "America lost because of its democracy; through dissent and protest it lost the ability to mobilize a will to win." Mr. Tin further declared that General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commanding general of the North Vietnamese Army, had advised him the 1968 Tet Offensive had been a tremendous defeat.

After the 1968 Tet offensive, the military defeat of North Vietnam ironically became a political victory for North Vietnam because of U.S. anti-war demonstrations and the sensationalism of the news media. The North Vietnamese interpreted the U.S. reaction to these events as the weakening of America's resolve to win the war. The North Vietnamese believed that victory could be theirs, if they stayed their course. From 1969 until the end of the war, over 20,000 American soldiers lost their lives in a war that the U.S. no longer had the resolve to win. The sensationalism by the American news media and the anti-war protests following the 1968 Tet Offensive gave hope to Communist North Vietnamese, strengthening their belief that their will to succeed was greater than ours. Surreptitiously avoiding a successful resolution at the January, 1972 Paris Peace Conference following the disastrous defeat of the 1968 Tet Offensive, they used stalling tactics as another tool to inflame U.S. politics. This delaying tactic once again ignited further anti-war demonstrations. Militarily, America won the war on the battlefield but lost it back home on the college campuses and in the city streets.

John Podlaski's story started in 1970, where America was in the process of what President Nixon called "Vietnamization." This was the President's policy of gradually returning the primary responsibility for conducting the war to the South Vietnamese. As US troops withdrew, South Vietnamese forces were increased in size and received additional training and equipment, with the ultimate goal being complete U.S. departure of the war. The South Vietnamese would be left to stand alone in their civil war with the Communists. John Podlaski's emphasis was on the soldiers who recently arrived in South Vietnam, that fought in triple canopy jungles of Vietnam. They were naive young recruits, just graduating from high school within the past year. Dubbed "F.N.G's or "Cherries" by the veterans, these men found themselves in the middle of a situation never imagined in their wildest dreams. As Podlaski emphatically stated in the book: "I guess you really had to be there to understand." As opposed to the ticker tape parades that U.S. servicemen were given upon their return from the W.W. II battlefields of the Far East and Europe, his terse remark in his epilogue spoke volumes upon his protagonist's return from the war: "There were no speeches or parades. One night you're getting shot at and looking at the bodies of your dead friends, and then two days later, you're sitting on your front porch, watching the kids play in the street and the cars drive by. There was no transition period."

Throughout Podlaski's book, the general theme is for no U.S. grunt to be the last American to die in a war not sought for a victorious conclusion. The facts of American conduct of the war in 1970 to 1971 are interesting. As stated earlier, severe communist losses during the Tet Offensive allowed President Nixon to begin troop withdrawals. His Vietnamization plan, also known as the "Nixon Doctrine," was to build up the South Vietnamese Army (known as " ARVN") so that they could take over the defense of South Vietnam on their own. At the end of 1969, Nixon went on national TV and announced the following: "I am tonight announcing plans for the withdrawal of an additional 150,000 American troops to be completed during the spring of next year. This will bring a total reduction of 265,500 men in our armed forces in Vietnam below the level that existed when we took office 15 months ago." On October 10, 1969, Nixon ordered a squadron of 18 B-52's armed with nuclear bombs to fly to the border of Soviet airspace in an attempt to convince the Soviet Union, North Vietnam's main supporter along with Communist China, that he was capable of anything to end the Vietnam War. Nixon also pursued negotiations and ordered General Creighton Abrams, who replaced William Westmoreland, to shift to smaller operations, aimed at communist logistics, with better use of firepower and more cooperation with the ARVN. The former tactic of "Search and Destroy" was abandoned. Détente with the Soviet Union the Republic of China was also pursued. Easing global tensions, détente resulted in nuclear arms reduction on the part of both superpowers. Regardless, Nixon was snubbed as the Soviet Union and Red China continued to covertly supply the North Vietnamese with aid. In September 1969, Ho Chi Minh died at age seventy-nine.

Nixon appealed to the "silent majority" of Americans to support the war. With revelations in the media of the "My Lai Massacre," where a U.S. Army platoon commanded by Lt. William Calley raped and killed civilians, and the 1969 "Green Beret Affair" where eight Special Forces soldiers, including the 5th Special Forces Group Commander were arrested for the murder of a suspected double agent, national and international outrage was provoked and the American anti war movement gained strength. Starting in 1970, American troops were being taken away from South Vietnamese border areas where much more killing took place, and instead positioned along the coast and interior, which is one reason why casualties in 1970 were less than half of 1969's total casualties. In Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, this nation's leader, had proclaimed Cambodian neutral since 1955. This was a lie, as the Communists used Cambodian soil as a base and Sihanouk tolerated their presence to avoid being drawn into a wider regional conflict. Under pressure from Washington, however, he changed this policy in 1969. The Vietnamese communists were no longer welcome. President Nixon took the opportunity to launch a massive secret bombing campaign, called Operation Menu, against their sanctuaries along the Cambodia/Vietnam border. This violated a long succession of pronouncements from Washington supporting Cambodian neutrality. In 1970, Podlaski first set foot in South Vietnam., and in Cambodia Prince Sihanouk was deposed by his pro-American prime minister Lon Nol. Cambodia's borders were closed, and both U.S. and ARVN forces launched joint incursions into Cambodia to attack North Vietnamese/Viet Cong bases and buy time for South Vietnam.

The invasion of Cambodia sparked massive nationwide U.S. outcry and protests. Public outrage peaked in the U.S. when 4 students were killed by National Guardsmen at Kent State University during an anti war rally in Ohio. The Nixon administration reacted indifferently to this, and was publicly viewed as callous and uncaring, providing additional impetus for the anti-war movement. In 1971 the "Pentagon Papers" were leaked to The New York Times. The top-secret history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, commissioned by the Department of Defense, detailed a long series of public deceptions. The Supreme Court ruled that its publication was legal. Although not mentioned in "Cherries", with U.S. support, The ARVN launched "Operation Lam Son 719" in February 1971, designed to cut the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. Similar to the sham of Cambodian neutrality, ""supposedly" neutral Laos had long been the scene of a secret war. After meeting resistance, ARVN forces retreated in a headlong, confused rout. Shamefully, they fled along roads littered with their own dead. When they ran out of fuel, South Vietnamese soldiers abandoned their vehicles and attempted to barge their way on to American helicopters sent to evacuate their wounded. Many ARVN soldiers clung to helicopter skids in a desperate attempt to save themselves. U.S. aircraft had to destroy abandoned equipment, including tanks, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands. Half of the invading ARVN troops were either captured or killed. The operation was a fiasco and represented a clear failure of Vietnamization. In 1971 Australia and New Zealand withdrew their soldiers. The U.S. troop count was further reduced to 196,700, with a deadline to remove another 45,000 troops by February 1972. As peace protests spread across the United States, disillusionment grew in the ranks. Drug use increased, race relations grew tense and the number of soldiers disobeying officers rose. Fragging, or the murder of unpopular officers with fragmentation grenades, increased. The phenomenon of "fragging" is mentioned in "Cherries" in a rather interesting scenario.

"Cherries" is a "catch all" for all of the subtle nuances and innuendo a grunt in the jungles of Vietnam circa 1970 to 1971 would experience. Mr. Jack Stoddard wrote a book about a very common cliche Mr. Podlaski included in the nomenclature that was to arise out of this war. Aside from exposing racial conflict between blacks and whites in the beginning of the book, there is a small anecdote whereupon there is almost a fight between blacks and whites in a pool room in the States just prior to deployment to S.E. Asia. A sergeant tells the combatants the following: "I'd be willing to forget this incident if everybody just walks away and returns to what they were doing earlier. What are you going to do if we don't? Send us to Vietnam?, someone called out from the crowd". No history book will ever contain this, but there were reasons that many returning veterans went back to Vietnam despite the anti war movement and the lack of resolve for America to win. To quote Podlaski, he uses an example of Sgt. Larry Holmes, nicknamed "Sixpack" who returns to Vietnam rather than finish his military obligation stateside as a drill instructor training new recruits. Here is a poignant and true example of "the times": "He had his orders changed during leave and volunteered for a second tour. Why would he do a thing like that? He told me he was fed up with the civilians and all the hippies. He said that while on leave, he was spit on and people were getting on his case because he was training soldiers to be baby killers and then sending them off to Vietnam. He said there wasn't a day that went by without someone picking a fight with him. After the cops had jailed him for a second time for disorderly conduct, he went and signed the papers. The world is filled with jerks. Too bad he had to volunteer for Nam to get away from it all."
Unfortunately, the reality is that this happened in the late 1960's and early 1970's more than one would suspect!

Regardless of the aspect of fiction being the backdrop, this story is so real, with nothing missed. Podlaski describes his protagonist's reactions to Vietnam more accurately than over 100 memoirs combined. The red dust of Vietnam, the insects, leeches, the heat, rats, humidity and monsoons are all covered. Podlaski's description of observing betel nut by the indigenous Vietnamese is a classic: "Everyone wore straw conical hats that helped to shield their faces from the strong rays of the sun and they were all smiling happily. All looked as if they had mouths filled with black licorice. Their lips, teeth and insides of their mouths looked like a poster advertisement from the Cancer Foundation, warning of the dangers of smoking". Podlaski's description of a Vietnamese village is incredibly authentic, only to be told by a participant: "The entire time they were there, the soldiers were surrounded by at least 30 kids at any given time. Most of them were hustlers who tried to sell them anything from pop to whiskey, to women, chickens and dope. It was like a flea market making a sales pitch." Another truism is Podlaski explaining to the reader why soldiers were glad when children came to greet them: "The villagers know when Charlie is around and are smart enough to not let their kids be in the middle of a firefight." The paradigm of a new soldier, i.e. "Cherry" is instructive: "Just don't go out there thinking you're John Wayne, because it'll get you killed." Equally telling is Podlaski's "grunt rule" of Vietnam when objecting to training the military gave that turned out to be "useless" in the bush: "What more do we have to learn? There's a little guy with a gun that's trying to shoot me and I shoot him first. It's as simple as that." Another classic quote in "Cherries" is Podlaski's lament of his 365 day "prison term of Vietnam: "We're all locked up in this country for the next year and all we can do about that is serve our time."

As I mentioned at the start of this book review, this book has everything. Firefights, medical evacuations, booby traps, punji pits, mechanical ambushes, Cobra attack helicopters, medical evacuations and very graphic, violent depictions of death in the sweaty jungles of Vietnam are mentioned. Some of Podlaski's comments within this book can be found in countless memoirs that I have read. They are all "on the money"! Other classic quotes are of the soldier with only a few days left of his tour (usually 365 days), about to DEROS (return to the states-date of return from overseas service) on the "freedom bird" (an expression for a commercial airplane that would fly a soldier from Vietnam back to the U.S. Here is a classic quote of Podlaski's found universally in every memoir I have encountered: "They say that you can be fearless as a lion after your first month in country, but feel like a Cherry again after that last month." Fear of death runs rampant throughout the book. Unlike any World War II book where the only goal was annihilation of the enemy and victory, the only goal in "Cherries" is for the characters of this story to survive their tour and come home in one piece. "Fragging" is discussed. This expression refers to the act of attacking a superior officer in one's chain of command with the intent to kill him. It boils down to the assassination of an unpopular officer of one's own fighting unit. Killing was done by a fragmentation grenade, thus the term. This was used to avoid identification and apprehension. If a grenade was used, a soldier could claim in the heat of a battle that the grenade landed too close to the target and was accidentally killed, that another member of the unit threw the grenade, or even that a member of the other side threw it. Unlike a gun, a grenade cannot be readily traced to anyone, whether by using ballistics forensics or by any other means. The grenade itself is destroyed in the explosion, and the characteristics of the remaining shrapnel are not distinctive enough to permit tracing to a specific grenade or soldier.

"Fragging" usually involved the murder of a commanding officer perceived as unpopular, harsh, inept or overzealous. As "Cherries" unfolds, the war became more unpopular. Soldiers became less eager to aggressively engage and seek out the enemy. The G.I.'s in the boonies preferred leaders with a similar sense of self-preservation. If a C. O. was incompetent, fragging the officer was considered a means to the end of self-preservation for the men serving under him. It would also occur if a commander took on dangerous or suicidal missions, especially if he was seeking self glorification. Individual commanders would be "fragged" when demonstrating incompetency or wasting their men's lives unnecessarily. The facts are that during the war, at least 230 American officers were killed by their own troops, and as many as 1,400 other officers' deaths were inexplicable. Between Podlaski's tour of 1970 and 1971 alone, there were 363 cases of "assault with explosive devices" against officers in Vietnam. Finally, there are explanations about the war rarely to be told in high school nor college curriculum. John Podlaski explains that in the ranks of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, many women served as soldiers. Caves and spider holes were rampant, and this elusive enemy rarely left their wounded and dead on the battlefield. With the exception of the "Ia Drang" 1965 battle, the Communists rarely engaged in a "set piece", toe to toe battle. The NVA and Viet Cong fought mostly at night, when they had an advantage, and were an extremely cunning, formidable foe. In regard to the enemy, Podlaski quotes: "If you don't respect them and continue to underestimate them, you'll never make it home alive." In terms of surviving one's tour, Podlaski pointed to luck as the decisive factor. One of his characters was named Zeke, a grunt who was "short" (less than a month left on his tour of Vietnam) and forced to go out on one final mission before going back home, as ominously asserting the following:" Training and experience don't mean nothing in the Nam. It's all luck . And I don't feel like I have any left." Nothing is missed in "Cherries". Agent Orange is vividly brought up. Involvement of the Koreans, Thai's and Australians, a fact underplayed and rarely discussed, is also mentioned. Podlaski interestingly mentions about the 1 year tour the following quip: "You learn more about this place every day. Yeah, and just when you think you know it all, it's time to go home".

There are other prophetic comments and anecdotes. In discussing a soldier's difficulty in determining whether or not a villager is a Viet Cong or an innocent civilian, he wrote: "If we had that answer, the war would have been over a long time ago." Podlaski compared humping the bush with a Halloween haunted house: "In both cases, you felt your way along, waiting for something to jump out at you. In the bush, to get surprised could very likely result in death." His comment about humping around the 100 degree, insect, snake, rat and leech infested jungle with 60 lbs on one's back was as follows: "The grunts no longer thought of the never-ending jungle as Vietnam. Instead, they imagined themselves in a large box, constantly walking, but never able to reach the other side." In regards to dealing with the death of a friend in combat, Podlaski expressed the following: "There will be others so you have to learn how to block out the emotions and live with the hurt, otherwise you'll drive yourself crazy." Unlike the camaraderie of W. W. II Vets with their V.FW's and perpetual fellowship, Podlaski exposed this missing element of Vietnam Veterans. As one grunt went home for the last time and said goodbye to his fellow G.I's, Podlaski wrote the following: "In the morning, as the 3 of them readied themselves for their final chopper ride out of the jungle, the men hugged and shed some tears. Promises were made to be broken, and it was unfortunate, but this would be the last time any of them heard or saw one other again."

This book, like Podlaski's tour, is broken up in 2 parts. Podlaski served as an infantryman in both the southern part of Vietnam as a member of the Wolfhounds, 25th Division and in the northern part of South Vietnam at the end of his tour. There he was attached to the 501st infantry Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division. It was like 2 different wars entirely, with different uniforms and tactics used in the different tactical zones. This reality is translated into the story line. Podlaski summed up his frustration of the war with he following comment, as he thought his tour was over: "No more humping, ambushes, eating C-rations, and having to carry the weight of another person on your back. Goodbye Vietnam! Good Riddance! And good luck!" This comment he made when he incorrectly thought his tour with the Wolfhounds was over. Podlaski erroneously "thought" he would go with them in their redeployment to Hawaii. Instead, he was sent to the 101st Airborne Division in the northern part of south Vietnam to finish his tour. However, when he finally did arrive back home, and deplaned from the "freedom bird" (airplane) that finally brought him home, Podlaski, mimicking countless other accounts and memoirs, had the following classic commentary about his protagonist, John Kowalski. "Pollack (Kowalski's nickname) had changed physically, rarely paying any attention to it in Vietnam. He remembered that upon leaving for war, he weighed 196 lbs. and had a 36" waist. That day, he weighed 155 lbs. and had a 29" waist. Pollock did not regret anything he did during his time in Vietnam. He was the only person from his graduating class and group of friends that went to Vietnam, so nobody could share his experiences or even have the faintest idea of what he'd gone through. Friends and family tried to understand but they weren't quite able to comprehend what he told them. He was only able to get so far before they lost interest or rolled their eyes. In their minds it was just a bunch of war stories that he was blowing out of proportion. After all, it was impossible for somebody to go through that." How sad! This is a case of P.T.S.D. waiting to happen, and undoubtedly this scene is occurring today with veterans returning form the Middle East. There are way to many more stories, examples and iota to mention, but you are just going to have to read "Cherries" for yourself. I read it twice, something I rarely do! By reading "Cherries" you will get the knowledge and feel of what it was like in Vietnam, stories that many memoirs of this war collectively failed to mention! Highly recommended!!!!

The Physical Object

Format
Paperback-historical fiction
Number of pages
409
Dimensions
9" x 6" x 1 1/3" inches
Weight
8 ounces

Contributors

  • Author
    John podlaski

ID Numbers

Open Library
OL24334202M
ISBN 13
13-978-1-4528-7981-9




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