As controversy surrounds former senator Bob Kerrey over acts he admits to committing while serving in Vietnam, two new books will provide another opportunity to look back on the Vietnam conflict, how the war was conducted and how it affected both the people who served there and those who remained at home.
In June, Carroll & Graf is publishing The Last Battle: The Mayaguez Incident and the End of the Vietnam War by Ralph Wetterhahn, a former Vietnam combat pilot turned journalist. The Last Battle examines the 1975 Khmer Rouge seizure of an America merchant ship and the raid to rescue it; a tragic, bungled military mission that left more than 41 marines dead—and three surviving men abandoned in the chaos, information suppressed by the Pentagon for more than 20 years. This month W.W. Norton is releasing Glory Denied: The Saga of Jim Thompson, America's Longest-Held Prisoner of War by Tom Philpott, an oral history of Thompson's nine- year ordeal, the suffering of his family and the transformation of American society while he was held captive.
Philip Turner, executive editor at Carroll & Graf, acquired The Last Battle from agent Nancy Ellis after an informal meeting with Wetterhahn at last year's BEA. "It's literally the last battle of the war," said Turner. "It's a template for the whole conflict: blunders, poor communication and good intentions gone awry." Visiting Vietnam in 1995 to inspect the progress of the effort to find the remains of American servicemen, Wetterhahn discovered that a marine machine gun crew was mistakenly left behind during the battle and ultimately captured by the Khmer Rouge, tortured and executed. Wetterhahn even managed to locate and interview their Khmer Rouge captors.
The book retells the story of the unnecessary sea and air combat mission—the Mayaguez's 40 man crew of merchant seamen was being peacefully released elsewhere as the raid commenced—with the narrative drive of a novel, according to Turner, who added that the book has another distinguishing feature: "It's a military man critiquing the military." The book sports two forewords: one penned by veteran Vietnam correspondent Sidney Schanberg and a very different one by the country's most prominent former POW, Sen. John McCain. The book has a 35,000-copy first printing, with paperback rights already sold to Plume for six figures. C-Span plans to do a piece on the book and C&G is sending Wetterhahn on a tour of veterans events and military groups, starting off on June 7 with an appearance at the . Barnes & Noble in Long Beach, Ca., Wetterhahn's hometown.
Norton's Glory Denied tells the story of Jim Thompson, captured by the Viet Cong in 1963, and his extraordinary courage and endurance. Thompson may not be the most well-known American prisoner of war, but he was there the longest, surviving nine horrific years in captivity in the Vietnam jungle. Severely beaten, held in cages and nearly starved to death, he attempted to escape at least five times before he was finally returned to the U.S. with other POW's in 1973. But America had gone through enormous changes during the years of his captivity, with a consensus forming against the U.S. involvement in the war and a general liberalization in the society, particularly regarding women's rights. Thompson returned to an America different from the one to which he had given nine years..
Thompson also returned to a different personal situation. Listed as missing and presumed dead, he arrived back home only to find that his wife and four children were living with another man. Indeed, his wife emerges as a powerful and tragic figure in the story. "The book shows the corrosive effects of the Vietnam War on the American family," said Bob Weil, senior editor at Norton, who acquired the book from agent Ethan Ellenberg. "Its like a story by Dreiser or Arthur Miller, ordinary people who ended up in a grand tragedy." Philpott, a military journalist, began researching Thompson's story in the mid-1980s and chronicles Thompson life through the words of family, friends and fellow POWs.
The book has already been excerpted in the New Yorker and has gone back for second printing before pub date. Plume has also acquired paperback rights. Sen. McCain contributes a foreword to this book as well.