Insights of Charles W. Henderson

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Personal Reflections
Life, Authorship and Inspiration

by Charles Henderson
April 28, 2005

On Writing

No writer can explain his or her style. Not like a recipe. Otherwise every cab driver in New York would adopt the recipe and write great American novels that would overflow every library and rob New York’s streets of taxis.

Good writing comes from within. Something difficult to explain, but much like any other art form. Yes, I do regard creative writers as artists. Their work, literature, is art. I define literature as any writing, either fiction or nonfiction, that stirs the emotions of its readers. It shows and does not merely tell a story. The words have vision, and allow the reader to see, hear, smell and taste them. Literature is what good writing ought to be, and I strive to write literature.

There are many word butchers, hacks and scribblers, but few good writers. Beyond just putting words on paper, good writers excite their readers, enabling them to join the story in mind and spirit. Our task is communicating vividly our ideas to our readers, and not impressing them with creative and often meaningless prose and other fancy words. Ernest Hemingway was such an artist, a great writer. So were F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner. They do much more than simply tell us a story, they show us a vision and take us on a journey with them filled with tastes, smells, sounds, sights and feelings.

Just as Picasso and Monet inspired viewers of their painted art, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald inspired readers of their written art.

Putting words on paper properly, within the context of accepted standards of grammar and spelling is craftsmanship. I know great craftsmen of putting words on paper, but poor writers just the same. Great writing is fire within our spirits that joins with the craftsmanship of words to create the art that is what we call literature.

In my opinion, the finest example of this kind of vivid writing is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. While the story and the plot may be very simple, the writing is brilliant. It is perhaps the ideal of vividness. My favorite parts of the book are the beginning of chapter two, and all of chapter three. I strongly recommend its reading and diligent study to anyone serious about writing well.

My Beginning

Where did I begin to mold myself as a writer? Like age, it crept upon me slowly, and overtook me before I had ever realized it was even there.

In high school, I spent more time trying to avoid the work in English class than anything else. I was more interested in football, baseball, fast cars and girls. I even made my junior English teacher, Mrs. Kuetner, cry one day in class. I look back at that sadly, because the woman was really trying. I wasn’t, and that is the rub. Furthermore, she was an awfully kind hearted, and good woman. She certainly deserved better from me.

In those same times, even as a teenaged boy, I began discovering that expressive writing gave release to something that dwelled within me, and stirred so uncomfortably in my spirit that I had to find a way to let it out. I found that writing gave release to my demons, and cleansed my soul. Expressing my visions in story form not only served to entertain a very shy lad, but fostered a feeling of self worth within me.

I have written stories now for nearly fifty years. For more than thirty years of that time, I have earned a living with my words. However, my fulfillment does not come from the financial wealth that my writing has earned, but from the uplift I feel within my spirit when I write a thing well. When I enjoy reading my own words, it gives me a euphoria that remains unique in my world.

My favorite short story that I have written thus far was inspired by my perspective of the character of Ernest Hemingway, and not necessarily the actual man. My story offers a glimpse at one man’s courage, and probably says a thing or two about myself, as well as my impression of Papa Hemingway. While I see the message of my story as a dying man’s final act of courage, others might see it as something bad or tragic. I call short story, Cape Buffalo. To get greater insight into the thinking behind the short story, you should read Hemingway’s, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. In it Hemingway writes about a man running from his fear, but then in the bush, faced with death, finally finding his courage, even though it lasted for only a brief instant. In his courage he found his happiness.

Although I had written stories my entire life, mostly for entertainment, shortly after high school I discovered that I could earn money for writing when I applied for a job as a reporter at a small daily newspaper in New Mexico, the Artesia Daily Press, and to my surprise and delight was hired by the publisher, James K. Green, despite my lack of advanced education and experience. For me, writing was not work, but something fun to do. Getting paid to have fun was almost unbelievable. I actually felt guilty, because I had such fun working.

Prior to this new career, I had labored at such extreme jobs as an oilfield hand and cowboy, among other things. Until now my jobs had a tough life in often rough conditions tied to them, and posted little pay.

Many of the skills and craftsmanship I developed as a writer came from my first editor, Lois Purvis. She had held the job of editor of the Odessa American, a large newspaper serving the Midland-Odessa area of Texas. She taught me to write with rigor and clarity. At the same time, she encouraged my creative side. She gave me a daily sports column in which I could write expressively. Even as a youngster I out-shown many other writers with far greater training and education than me. I received several press awards as testament.

My writing, even then, captured readers and stirred them. While some praised me for my work, others made threatening telephone calls to me in the middle of the night. My first publisher, Jim Green, a great newspaper man, told me that the death threats at midnight just showed that people were reading what I wrote. It pleased him to no end, while for me it was a mixed bag. It was great having an avid following of readers, but disturbing that I had stirred people to the point of wanting to see me dead.

One should understand that in the 1960's, eastern New Mexico and west Texas people lived for high school football. These people, mostly oilfield workers and ranchers, had strong feelings about their home teams, and strong loyalties. Criticism always struck nerves, and I never held back or sugar coated anything. Like fire and gasoline, when something got my attention I would not hesitate to strike a match.

I reflect on those times today, and have to smile at my hard-headed ways. I wrote with conviction and a strong sense of right, just daring anyone to paw a line in the dirt.

The Vietnam war was going strong back then too, and despite the draft board classifying me 1-A, they never drew my name. Then came the draft lottery. I drew a number that as much as guaranteed I would never be called. So, true to my nature, I think somehow in an act of defiance to that lottery, I joined the Marine Corps.

It was a good decision, because my career as a Marine gave me experience in life and death. I saw humanity, at its best and at its worst. I witnessed the unimaginable, endured the unthinkable, but at the same time saw the inspirational. I cried for my brothers whose lives passed at my finger tips. And I cheered my brothers who survived and were called heroes.

Experiences That Inspired Me

One of my favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway, said that a person cannot write about a thing unless he knows it well, and he cannot know a thing well unless he experienced it. I also subscribe to that philosophy. Therefore, everything I write, I have somehow experienced in one fashion or another. I draw inspiration for the feelings in my stories from my own variety of experiences and the emotions that many of my life’s memories evoke.

I will share with you a few that come to mind:

One of my best friends in high school, a kid named Anthony Mack Cass, died in 1968 when he tripped a booby trap on patrol on the beaches south of Da Nang. We called that place the Riviera. It was a nasty spot with lots of Viet Cong and mines and booby traps everywhere. To this day, I will weep at Tony's loss. He was also my brother Marine, a lance corporal when he died, and got blown away just a week before he was due to come home from the war. Just a week. He didn't even have to go on the patrol, either.

Tony spent most of his tour in Da Nang, as a Military Policeman, and personal driver for the 1st Marine Division Provost Marshal. Another high school cohort of mine who also joined the Marines, Phillip Mark Pounds, saw Tony the night before he died, and tried to talk him out of going on patrol. Mark was a grunt with 7th Marine Regiment on Hill 55, and had seen a better perspective of what a guy in-country ought to want and ought not want. However, Tony said that all he had done was drive the colonel around Da Nang, and he felt like he had not done his part since he had never gone on patrol and actually faced enemy fire.

Tony never knew what hit him.

I lost another Marine Corps buddy. Only this guy had survived Vietnam, but could not survive life itself.

He was Lewis B. Puller, Jr., son of the famous Marine Corps combat leader, General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller.

Lew was on patrol on that infamous beach near Da Nang, The Riviera, and like Tony Cass, tripped a booby trap. The explosion blew off both his legs and most of his fingers. A friend of mine, Colonel Dave Willis, was at Charlie Med, out at China Beach, when they brought in Lew. Dave said he had never seen a living human so badly mangled. Yet they kept Lew alive. He wound up at the Veterans Hospital in Philadelphia in the bed next to an Army veteran, Robert Kerry, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroism in Vietnam and later became a United States Senator from Nebraska, and ran for President. He and Lew became close friends.

After I had written Marine Sniper, and it was well on its way to becoming one of the most read and best selling books about the Vietnam War, Lew contacted me and said he too had written a book. It was about himself, his life as a boy growing up in the shadow of one of the Marine Corps' greatest heroes, his father. Lew wanted me to read his manuscript and tell him if it was any good.

Frankly, the manuscript sucked, big time. He had written it mostly in passive voice, no action, no description, just words. Dry as a pop corn fart.

I told Lew the obvious things to do first to fix it. Rewrite the whole thing in active voice. Avoid any state-of-being verb, at all costs. Then write with vision. Close his eyes and see what is taking place, like a movie, and then describe what he sees. Don't be afraid of dialogue. People do talk. But also, describe the people doing the talking. What are they doing as they talk. Show their feelings. "Show," I said, "don't tell."

Then I told Lew he had to pull the scabs off his wounds. I knew of many things in his life he had avoided in his book. His secret tears, hiding emotion because it was not manly to cry, especially for the son of Chesty Puller. Open his heart and let the world share his feelings, even the tender ones. Lew had become an alcoholic after the war, and had turned his back on his wife, Toddy. She had, none-the-less, stuck by him, and not only helped him overcome alcoholism, but to achieve a new career as an attorney.

Lew listened to my criticism, and took my advice and rewrote the whole book. It took him more than a year. Then he presented me with a new and much thicker manuscript. Tears came to my eyes when I read how his father, the great Marine general, the hero of the Chosen Reservoir in Korea, this monument of Marine-ness, had stood at the foot of Lew's bed, and seeing his son, so hurt and so mangled, cried.

Lew had told me that he had watched his father receive his fifth Navy Cross, and saw the glory of it. Lew said, "I wanted that glory too, so I joined the Marines."

He found out, as most people who survive combat do, that glory does not exist. For a warrior there is devotion, honor, sacrifice and tribute. Glory is but a cruel and false ideal born in the minds of poets and politicians.

I arranged for my agent, Bob Markel, in New York, to take a look at Lew's manuscript. Of course, Bob loved it. So did I, now. In just a few days the book went on auction to publishers and Grove Press paid a six figure advance for the right to publish it.

Not long after Lew’s book, Fortunate Son, came out, Lew called me and thanked me for my help. He told me how he had even bought a Mercedes Benz for his wife with some of the money. But Lew was most proud of his book winning both The National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. I was proud too.

The book changed Lew's life. He quit his job at the Pentagon as a Defense Department lawyer, and took the position as Author in Residence at James Madison University. Toddy found a career in politics, and ran for the Virginia legislature.

Toddy's political life, and now Lew's new career became a dark passage for their marriage. Lew would call me on the telephone in the middle of the day from his office, and tell me he needed help finding what to do with his time now. He had nothing more to write. At the same time, Toddy filed for divorce.

In the turmoil of his failing marriage and his lack of direction as a writer, Lew returned to drinking. I think his alcoholism is what finally closed the door on his marriage, and drove Toddy away.

He called me after she had left him. "What can I do?" he asked me. I said, "Write, Lew. That is what you do now."

However, he could not find anything about which to write. His life story was it. Now he had nothing but a growing depression. Its dark melancholy consumed him.

A day or two later, a mutual friend, James H. Webb, who wrote the great Vietnam novel, Fields of Fire, called me and said Lew Puller had killed himself.

I often wonder if I could have done anything more for him. Could I have saved Lew’s life, had I known this cloud that surrounded him at the end? How could I have not recognized the life-threatening danger that had wrapped itself around my friend? What a terrible loss. Lew had so much goodness in him. He was a tender, sensitive man who tried to live his life cloaked with this rock-hard facade, representing the legend of his father (also as it turns out a sweet, sensitive man too). Perhaps, that more than anything killed Lew Puller. He was not who he thought he should have been, and because he was really quite a normal human being, he killed himself. He was so disappointed at his perceived weakness. He saw himself as a failure, yet he was really a great and wonderfully successful man.

Real men, I believe, are sensitive, feeling people who can freely express what they feel without fear of anyone regarding them as a pussy. It is the weak man who is always the one showing hardness, and no feeling. The weak man must prove himself strong. A real man has nothing to prove, and does not care what anyone thinks of his demeanor.

My friend, Marine Captain “Iron Mike” Haskell was a real man. He kissed his kids. He hugged his fellow Marines. He wept, sitting on an ammunition box one evening in Beirut, because he missed his wife, back home in Virginia.

I wept the day he died in Beirut. A day when Islamic terrorists drove the truck bomb into the building where our Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, slept, early that Sunday morning, October 23, 1983. I lost 284 brothers that day. Many of them my friends.

Mike was the battalion S-3 Alpha, the assistant operations officer. He left behind a son and a daughter, beautiful blond-haired children, and a tender, loving wife.

I will never forget when Mike came ashore in Beirut. I had been there several weeks before he had arrived, and he met me in front of my tent. I was grouchy because a few days earlier, I had run out of Red Man chewing tobacco. He laughed at my discontent. We had a few beers outside my tent that evening, and then he returned to the ship where the battalion was making final preparations for its amphibious landing the next morning.

About noon, when the landing operations had slowed, and Mike had a chance to get away from the beach, he showed up at my tent flap with a case of Red Man chewing tobacco under his arm, and handed it to me.

He said, “Here’s a little gift. I sure don’t want some grouchy gunner chewing my heels because he has no Red Man.”

I never forgot his thoughtfulness that day. Nor how I felt when I opened that case, took a few pouches for myself and then gave the rest to a bunch of other Marines who had also ran out of Red Man and needed a good chew.

I also never forgot how I felt that day on the quarterdeck at Lejeune Hall, the headquarters building at the Quantico Marine Corps base, when the commanding general, Lieutenant General David Twomey, presented Mike’s widow, for their children’s education, two $10,000 zero-coupon bond treasury bills. The gift for the children came from a group of men with whom I remain involved today and continue giving such gifts to the children of Marines and law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation. Although not a foundation then, these men, among whom the late New York industrialist and real estate magnate, Zachary Fisher, was the principal contributor, gave the families of every Marine and other serviceman killed in Beirut the same kind of gift.

I had the terrible task of acting as a liaison officer at Dover Air Force Base just after the bombing tragedy, one of the officers in charge of bringing home our dead. I had to talk with the families of my fallen brothers, before each morning’s memorial service in that big hangar full of caskets. I fought back tears when I met the family of one lad who had been my driver over there. Cadillac, I had called him. A good kid. So many good kids like him died.

Each night at Dover we unloaded C-141 cargo planes stacked with caskets filled with my brothers, and laid them on the cold concrete inside that hangar. No one except we Marines were allowed inside during that time when we unloaded the caskets, and set them on bricks, all lined under this great American flag suspended from the hangar’s ceiling. Those Marines who did the unloading, could have just carried the coffins like any other big box, or used a fork lift to do it. No one watched them except other Marines. No one would have said anything either. But these Marines, despite all this, took each casket by hand, one-by-one, and carried it slowly, several men together, in step. They carried it showing their respect, honoring their brother inside, just as if they were carrying it before a world-wide audience in a final memorial parade. That stuck with me, and said something about what is a Marine.

I remember walking that long line of silver boxes, once they had set them on the bricks. I had a list of names, and checked to be sure they matched the names written with marker pen on strips of 2-inch wide masking tape, spread across the foot of each casket. Roll call of the dead. Then one by one, I stepped to the next casket, and the Marines behind me, ceremoniously spread open an American flag and draped it over each coffin.

Mike Haskell lay two caskets down from Sergeant Major Douglass. I looked at both names on the masking tape and thought of the men. My friend, Iron Mike, and the good old sergeant major. He did not have to go to Beirut. He was about to retire. In fact, his wife and children had already moved to their new home that they had bought in Massachusetts.

Sergeant Major Douglass, a Marine of African heritage, light brown skin, seemed to me like the Incredible Hulk. His helmet always appeared so small on him because of his great stature and thick neck. He was a real man too. Very proud of his family, easy to express love, and gentle. Some men never have to raise their voices. He never did.

I have inspiration from shit-birds too. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not all pluses. Marines do have their ten-percent. I have known my share of them. Real kindling for a trash fire. Lots of selfish, careerist officers and a few enlisted ones too. Butt kissers. Guys who step back from a fight, let the other guy get the flack, and meanwhile they climb the political ladder.

However, most Marines I have known fit in the good-guy category. Some better than others. Like Gunny Carlos Hathcock of Marine Sniper.

About My Books

I was competing with rifle and pistol out at the great shooting ranges at Quantico, and learning sniper skills too there, when I first learned of Carlos. He had already retired and lived at Virginia Beach, a couple of hours south on I-95 from the Marine Base at Quantico, home of the Marksmanship Training Unit, the Marine Corps Shooting Team, and the Marine Corps Scout Sniper Instructor School, which Carlos help found. Despite his being gone from there for several years, I kept hearing stories about this guy who wore a white feather in his bush hat. Now, take it from a sniper: Wearing a white feather in your hat is like painting a target on your back.

People told how he was the greatest sniper who ever lived, so I wanted to meet him. At the time I had been writing a few articles for magazines, and I believed that I might get published in a really good one with this story. So, I went to Colonel Dave Willis, who commanded Weapons Training Battalion, and all its subsidiary units like the shooting team and the sniper school, and I asked if he could introduce me to Carlos.

Until now, many writers, both in the service and outside it, had wanted to write about Carlos and his exploits in Vietnam, but Carlos had always refused. He would hardly talk about what he did with anyone. However, Colonel Willis got Carlos on the telephone and told him a little about me. I was a trigger puller too. I walked in his shoes. I understood the truth. His truth, that is.

Carlos immediately invited me to his home, and I spent the weekend there. I began interviewing him and quickly realized there was much more to this story than an article. Over the next several months I spent weekend after weekend, a guest in Carlos’ home and he told me about his life and about his adventures. He would break down and cry, telling some of the stories. I understood the emotions he felt for his brothers. He was a real man too.

I also visited many of Carlos’ friends, and they too took me in their homes and treated me like family. I guess I was. Marine Corps, you know.

They told me their stories too. How they and Carlos did what they did. They had never told anyone else before me. Had I been anyone other than a Marine, and a fellow trigger puller, they would never have allowed me to hear their tales. I am sure of it. Closed-door and cliquish. Marines and their inside combat tales.

I had a friend who had a book published, and I approached him with my proposal to write Marine Sniper. He told his publisher about it. I called it Shades of Green, but the publisher did not like the title so it became Marine Sniper. His publisher snapped up the book, and gave me a contract. The rest is history, although I did end up suing the publisher because he did not pay any royalties to me. Stiffed me, if you will. But that is another story, and has little to do with writing or inspiration behind the writing.

I was able to write Marine Sniper because I could draw insight from my own experience and apply it to what Carlos Hathcock did. I had humped and grunted plenty myself. I knew what it felt like to go without sleep, to fear for my life, to shoot at an enemy and be shot at by him. I had cried at my losses and celebrated my victories. I knew how to be hard, but I also knew how to care. My brotherhood in the Corps taught me that. We were all green, and of one blood. We forgot about ourselves and focused on taking care of the guy at each side of us.

While working in my world of snoopers and poopers, I had made friends with another great Marine, Colonel Patrick G. Collins. Paddy we called him. His troops and cohorts called him “Mad Man” Collins. He invented what Marine Corps special operations and terrorism tactics are today. Literally wrote the book on it. Everything he addressed, he had done himself.

Paddy Collins was so scary in Vietnam, that one day a lieutenant fell to the ground and started hugging the then captain around his ankles begging him to not take him on another patrol. It sounds so cowardly of the guy, but you have to know how wild it was to patrol with Paddy Collins to understand and appreciate what drove the poor lieutenant to such an extreme end for his career.

However, I loved Paddy Collins. The kind of love men have for their brethren. I would follow him anytime, anyplace. I knew that if I did as he said, followed his orders, I might be scared as hell, but I would make it. He always made sure. He epitomizes what Marine Corps leadership is all about. He cared for his men and focused on the mission. He never failed.

I wrote Marshalling the Faithful as a testament to Colonel Collins, as well as a documentary of the Marine Corps’ first year on the ground, in combat, in Vietnam. Paddy was there, and he led the way. General Lew Walt, who commanded the III Marine Amphibious Force in Vietnam, turned to Paddy and his men to answer all those questions of where was the enemy and what was he doing. Of how to engage and fight this new kind of enemy. A lot of credit goes to Pat Collins.

Again, I drew from my own experience and feelings to open to readers the reality of fighting in Vietnam. With it I painted the pictures around what Pat Collins and his Marines of Company D, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion did.

I guess I did it well, because the greatest complements I ever received for the work came from Pat Collins and Carlos Hathcock. They both told me that not only had I told their stories well, but when they read the books it was like I was with them. No matter what anyone else may say about the books, their comments mean little next to the words of praise I received from my two friends.

Paddy died in 1998. He had retired from the Corps and was working as a consultant for people like the Irish government in finding a peace accord with the Irish Republican Army, and dealing with terrorism and their politics. He was in Washington, DC, taking care of that kind of business, and staying with his daughter instead of at a hotel. She came home from work one afternoon and found Paddy still in bed, dead.

They buried him at Arlington National Cemetery. I visited his grave there, and found that despite the fact that the cemetery was nearly full, and very limited to who they would bury there, Paddy’s grave was prominently set by the roadside under a great ash tree. It must have taken the Commandant of the Marine Corps, himself, a host of other generals and several cabinet officers and senators to pull that off. Getting Paddy buried in such a prominent place at Arlington. But then, in his frumpy, chunky self, Paddy was awfully great and deserved no less.

Carlos Hathcock died in 1999. It seems like only yesterday when I got the call. He had more brass than in a junk yard at his funeral. My good friend and brother Marine Dick Torykian, affectionately known as “The Field Marshal” picked up the tab for the massive event. Generals were a dime a dozen. Not a dry eye among the more than 600 Marines who crowded around his grave site. Carlos was awfully great too, and deserved no less.

The following year, I wrote Silent Warrior, which is a continuation of Carlos Hathcock’s exploits in Vietnam, and briefly tells about the rest of his life. When I wrote Marine Sniper the publisher cut more than 300 pages from the original manuscript. There were also probably another 200 pages worth of stories I did not bother to even try to write in Marine Sniper, simply because one cannot tell all tales in one book. So with that mass of information not published in Marine Sniper and my own personal observations, as well as a bit more research into what happened with the rest of Carlos Hathcock’s life, I wrote Silent Warrior. It came out in October of 2000, and like Marine Sniper, it has done quite well.

I hope that the fans of Marine Sniper like it as well and appreciate having the rest of the Carlos Hathcock stories to read.

In 2004 I finished writing my book, Goodnight Saigon. Penguin Group (USA) published it on January 4, 2005, and it has sold remarkably well. Goodnight Saigon is based on much of the research and interviews I conducted during my visit to Vietnam in 1994. It is a different sort of book because it is much bigger than Marine Sniper, Marshalling the Faithful, or Silent Warrior. It has a host of characters. One of them is a Marine staff sergeant named Walter Sparks. I served in Beirut with him when he was a Gunny, and I know him well. He retired from the Corps and went home to Jackson, Mississippi, and now drives a truck.

Sparks is just a regular guy who happened into Vietnam just as the chaotic end to that war was taking form.

He served as a security Marine at the U. S. Consulate in Da Nang under Consul General Al Francis, heading a platoon of Marine infantrymen brought to the consulate as an added force in addition to the typical Marine Security Guards normally posted at embassies and consulates. So, Sparks was a grunt with the mission to defend the consulate.

In Goodnight Saigon, through Sparks’ and others’ eyes, we see the world of South Vietnam begin to crumble. We see the panic of the people spread, the fall of Hue and Da Nang, the crush of humanity fleeing. With him we see the end of the war and how it all happened.

Through the experiences of Sparks and others, woven within the greater fabric of these final days of the war, I established a time line from which I tell the broader stories that were taking place, many at the same time. I go inside the planning sessions of the Vietnamese Communist leaders, into the trenches with the North Vietnamese Army soldiers and the Viet Cong. I interviewed many of them, and they had great tales from their side to tell. In this book, I take readers to the South Vietnamese Army’s planning sessions, into their trenches and on the road with them as well. I also take readers with civilians fleeing their country, and others trying to escape but who fail.

In this book I show how simply the panic of President Nguyen Van Thieu lost the war for South Vietnam.

President Thieu lost hope when the United States Congress dramatically cut Vietnam’s support, and refused to intercede when the Communists attacked on their final offensive of 1975. He always had little faith in the fighting abilities of his own army. He greatly feared the north. Rather than listening to his generals, and to what they could realistically do to stop the invasion by the whole North Vietnamese Army, he allowed his panic to dictate his decisions. He believed that if he could consolidate his army south of Na Trang and cordon off South Vietnam from that point on the coast westward to the Cambodian border. He believed that he could at least save Saigon.

His generals explained that their forces had good positions around the key cities of Hue, Da Nang and Pleiku, and could hold with what they had in stores of ammunition, weapons and supplies. If he ordered these forces to abandon these positions, they could not take the bulk of their equipment, ammunition and other stores with them, and they would surely fall in the hands of the enemy. Furthermore, a force in movement is very easily defeated while a force in fortified defensive positions is very difficult to defeat. Also, the South Vietnamese Army had proven itself more capable of defensive combat than anything else. Clearly, the odds were in their favor if they chose to hold their defenses.

Thieu, none-the-less, ignored the generals, men of experience, training and expertise, and chose to listen to his fear and panic. He had no courage nor faith.

Of course, the South Vietnamese forces fell badly, because they had abandoned all but what they could carry, and fell prey to the Communist forces, who were well equipped with mobile stores and pre-positioned supplies. Those forces left to stand the badly diminished defenses at Hue and Da Nang, had no reserves to maneuver and reinforce positions when the enemy did strike. The only choice that they had was to stand their ground and be overrun or to flee the battle front.

When the South Vietnamese Army moved from Pleiku they met the NVA at a place called Cheo Reo. Of the 100,000 South Vietnamese on that roadway at that small village in a wide valley, fewer than 700 made it through to Na Trang.

News of Cheo Reo panicked the whole country, and with the retreating South Vietnamese forces, abandoning all they had, the end came in a matter of a few weeks. The entire country of South Vietnam fell in just 55 days.

I interviewed the Communist leaders who planned and executed this final offensive, and they consistently said that their victory came as a surprise to them. They saw it as a blessing from on high. They explained that North Vietnam had mobilized everything it had left in stores, equipment and ammunition. Russia had long ago stopped supplying them. They were quite literally down to their last bullets. Nothing left in reserve when they commenced this final campaign. For them, it was all or nothing.

General Tran Van Tra, Commander-in-Chief of the Viet Cong and a primary field commander of the final campaign, told me that had the South Vietnamese stopped his army at any one place for any prolonged period of time, 30 days or more, North Vietnam would surely have lost the war. His greatest fear then was that the South Vietnamese Army would hold their defensive positions and supplies, and fight to the man. He said it was a great fear because of the desperation. When soldiers are faced with desperation they will either retreat or fight to the death. With loss of their country looming over their heads, he feared the South Vietnamese soldiers would be motivated to stand and fight.

However, Nguyen Van Thieu’s panic took even Tran Van Tra and his North Vietnamese counterpart and co-commander of forces, General Van Tien Dung, off guard. He said he expected that if the South Vietnamese Army retreated in force, the campaign would take a year or more, at best, if his Communist forces were successful. He had never anticipated nor even imagined the possibility of such a collapse with his forces literally having to run to keep up with the falling tide.

Had the South Vietnamese Army been allowed to stand and fight, South Vietnam would have very likely won the war. Tran Van Tra and other Vietnamese Communist leaders agreed of this strong possibility, but credited the fierceness of their invasion to the panic that drove Nguyen Van Thieu’s debacle rather than the American Congress turning its back on him.

I interviewed President Gerald R. Ford, among many other American leaders at the time, and he expressed his distress at how Congress acted in betrayal of America’s commitment to the people of South Vietnam.

I am sure that when American veterans read Goodnight Saigon they too will feel the frustration of what could have happened had America’s leaders kept their word. Nguyen Cao Ky, former South Vietnamese premier told me that had Congress simply sent supplies as a gesture of support it would have made the difference.

The war would have been over perhaps a year later, sometime in 1976, but with a far different outcome.

I have lived an adventurous and fun-filled life. I have drank beer in the Hog’s Breath Saloon in Nana Plaza in Bangkok with gun-runners and mercenaries. I have seen things about which others can only dream. I have experienced the exotic and the horrid. I can imagine no better nor exciting life than that of being a writer.

I am no hero. However, I have stood in combat, and felt exhilaration at just still being alive. I cannot think of anything that would set me apart from any other average man, except that I was there to see things, and I saw them. I stood among heroes, and I get to write about them.

I want to be very clear on one important matter, I am not just a writer of war books.

I have several other writing projects that I hope to complete in the near future. Among them are a western epic, a mystery series and a fantasy series.

In 1993, when I got out of the Marine Corps and had a lot of time on my hands, while looking for work as a free-lance journalist, I began working on my western epic, In Days of Horses. While being a novel, because its central characters are fictional and its ending is very fictional–almost surreal, the events that surround these main characters are real. I take readers from north Texas in the 1870's, along the cattle drives of the Old Western Trail, through the development of the Texas Panhandle and the wars with the Comanches and Kiowas and Comancheros, into the turn of the century and the development of a ranch in southeastern New Mexico, where I grew up.

The book is filled with outlaws, adventures, gun-slinging and other wild west action, but the substance of every event is based on history.

I spent several years researching not only the history, but the people and their customs. Even the words that they used and their manners. I researched archives and museums, such as the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, in Oklahoma City, and the Panhandle Plains Museum in Canyon, Texas, however, I found and gathered a great deal from within my own family.

My family is of this same pioneer stock about which I write in this western epic. My great-great grandmother was born in Texas in 1832 on a ranch near San Antonio (before the battle at the Alamo). My great grandmother was Mary Burnett, sister to famed Texas cattleman, Burk Burnett. He had the 6666 Ranch, one of the largest ever. He established it on the original Burnett family ranch, homesteaded by my great-great grandfather, Jeremiah Burnett. They tell tales of Burk Burnett winning the ranch in a card game with four sixes, but the truth is he simply added to the land that was already the Burnett family ranch founded by my great-great grandfather, and his brother Samuel H. Burnett.

Sam Burnett was a colorful character in his own right, serving as a secret agent for the Confederacy in the Civil War. He and Jeremiah Burnett had moved the family from Missouri to Texas in 1859 after Jayhawks had burned them out. When war erupted between the states, like all good Texans, Sam Burnett volunteered with the Confederacy. Because he had come from Missouri, the South sent him back to St. Louis where he then joined the Union Army as a Rebel spy and secretly reported what he saw to the Confederacy. He was a captain in the Confederate Army but a private in the Union Army. He spent the war wearing a blue coat, but reporting to the gray. When the end came, like a smart Texan, he kept his mouth shut about his Confederate connection. Rather than facing a noose with the truth, he took his Yankee discharge and went home to Texas. I have a copy of his actual discharge certificate.

His niece, my great grandmother, married James Francis Henderson, who ran a freight service between Texas and Missouri, and drove his wagons on the Seminole Trail that crossed the Oklahoma Indian territories and ended at St. Louis. He was just a kid when he was driving the wagons and first met my great grandmother when she was just nine years old, when he helped move their family from Missouri to Texas in1859. Ten years later, he married her and started his own little ranch outside Grandbury, Texas. With the growth of Texas, and being a strong man who was more a leader than follower, he found himself as Sheriff of Grandbury and Hood County, Texas. He held that job from 1872 until 1901, when everyone connected to the Burnett family went to southwest Oklahoma to stake claims to land (in the land rush), that the Four Sixes was using for grazing pastures. They did not want to let go of the excellent grassland there. Burk Burnett had prior to that arranged with Comanche Chief Quanah Parker to use that grazing land, and built Parker a grand house at Eagle Park, Oklahoma in exchange for the rights. The Henderson home in Grandbury is a museum today and on the National Register of Historic Sites.

My grandmother, and her mother and father lived in Jacksboro, Texas during those same years. In fact, she was born in a dugout on the Pitchfork Ranch southwest of there in 1883. My great-great grandfather, William B. Hensley was the captain of the Texas Rangers for that region of Texas, and his son, my great grandfather, Luke Ingraham Hensley also served as a Texas Ranger there, and later became a United States Marshal.

Needless to say, I have a wealth of family letters and stories from those times, and they all serve as foundation to In Days of Horses. In the book I even have a tale of my great grandfather, as a Texas Ranger, chasing the Robbers Roost Gang along the western trail. A buffalo bull hooked his horse from under him, but before he hit the ground, my great grandfather managed to pull his old .44-40 Winchester rifle from his saddle and shot the mad buffalo just as he charged him again. Luke Hensley then had to walk 40 miles to the army post at Mobete, Texas (now a panhandle ghost town along with Tascosa–a place once thick with Comancheros).

This western has a lot of who I am in it. I hope to finish it sometime soon.

My mystery series has a central character named Milo Fisher. He is not a private investigator but a kind of handy man who solves problems. He lives in Manhattan on East 4th Street in a warehouse, on a floor or “loft” converted into an apartment and office. A half a block east of him is the Bowery, and across the street is Tower Records. This is a real place, by the way, and my friend, Bill Pierce, a respected photojournalist, lived there.

Milo Fisher is a frumpy, middle-aged guy with shaggy gray hair and a broken nose. He barely gets by on his little enterprises, but once in awhile an exciting deal comes along. They always include a friend in need, a murder or two, and this friend or person in need finding satisfaction and justice.

Milo’s best friend is Thurman Lee, who he met in Vietnam while serving in the Marine Corps. Thurman is a former New York Jets middle linebacker, built like a tank but with a heart of gold, and a lot of money since he invested his NFL earnings well. While Milo drives an old Chevrolet Caviler, Thurman drives a Jaguar XJS, and lives on a 640-acre estate near South Hampton, Long Island, where he raises quarter horses. Thurman played high school football in Duncan, Oklahoma and managed to get a scholarship to the Naval Academy where he played football and was drafted in the NFL. However, he had to do his payback tour in the Marine Corps, and wound up in Vietnam where he met Milo Fisher.

Milo, on the other hand grew up in Staten Island with an Irish mother and Jewish father. He learned how to stand and fight as a kid, and joined the Marines when he graduated from New York University. He was a captain and Thurman a lieutenant when their friendship began.

Thurman is often the unwitting accomplice with Milo, and provides some strong arm assistance at times, but mostly serves as a refuge for Milo who on occasion must fall back and regroup.

I have all but completed the first novel, A Dark Ruby Calm, in which the tall, lovely red-head, Arlene Fox, winds up dead. She was supposed to meet Milo to explain the importance of a computer disk that Milo had found in her brief case when she had forgotten it (purposefully) in Milo’s office a few days earlier. He had snooped and discovered the disk, and had it in his computer when thugs broke into his office, beat him to a pulp and took the brief case. Now the bad guys want the disk back, Milo has it but does not realize that the disk is what they want, nor does he have a clue why. When he goes to meet Arlene, he finds her dead, on a concrete floor, blood spreading from beneath her in a dark ruby calm.

Each of the books incorporates the title within a phrase in the book, a nice trick to give the reader understanding in the title’s meaning.

I have outlines on nine other Milo Fisher action/mystery books. All ten titles are as follows:

Book 1 A Dark Ruby Calm
Book 2 The Cold Amber Tide
Book 3 Empty Emerald Eyes
Book 4 Trendy Turquoise Charm
Book 5 Cool Jade Dreams
Book 6 A Soulful Sapphire Silence
Book 7 The Warm Amethyst Night
Book 8 Hot Diamond Blues
Book 9 The Quiet Opal Rain
Book 10 A Satin and Pearl Innocence

Lastly, I have created a four book fantasy series for my granddaughters, Janice and Jaci, who live in Atlanta. Currently, I have developed four book ideas, and have begun work on the opening volume in the series.

The first novel series is entitled, Freya, Princess of the Wapiti. It introduces the reader to Freya as an orphaned child in the Rocky Mountain wilderness a thousand years before Columbus, and 500 years before Lief Erickson. In this opening volume, Freya comes to know her life-long best friend, Ulf, a yearling bull elk at the time of their meeting, who grows into a massive 8 point by 8 point King of the Wapiti. She also meets Lum, a cub Grizzly bear, who also becomes her life-long friend.

Other titles in this series include Freya, Empress of the Great White Mountain, which is about Freya as a grown woman, and Freya, Beyond the Northern Peaks, which takes Freya on a quest to find her people. The fourth book in the series, Freya, Savage Journey from the Ice, tells of Freya’s origin, and how her family came to North America, and fled from the savage land of ice and white bears to the Rocky Mountains.

Freya is named after Freya, or Freyja in Dansk, the Viking goddess of love, fertility, and war. She has a robe made of feathers, with which she can fly, and drives a golden chariot pulled by giant cats.

My character, Freya, Princess of the Wapiti, lives in the high slopes and mountain tops that surround Pikes Peak, with the Wapiti, or Elk as they are commonly known. She came to live with the Wapiti when she was left orphaned at six years of age. Ulf, a yearling bull Wapiti, discovered Freya, by a stream, after Ute Indians had killed all the people in the hamlet built by her father, mother, two brothers, and two other Norse families. Ulf, who only had spike antlers at the time, brought Freya home to his mother, who was nursing his young sister, Ling. Ulf’s mother, Nanna, tries to feed the human child, but recognizes that it is a futile endeavor because there are so few similarities between Wapiti and human beings. However, Ceelequa Scumkeese, King of the Grizzlies, whose bear clan lived in harmony with Wapiti, since Grizzly bears eat mainly fish, berries and wild honey, agrees to feed and help raise the human girl. Nanna convinces the Grizzly because she points that the human child’s people had held both Wapiti and Grizzly in high respect, placing them high on their totems, at the gates of their hamlet. So, the elk and the grizzly bears raise Freya.

Grown, Freya defends the Wapiti and Grizzly bears that live on the great white mountain. She recovers her family sword, armor and helmet from the site of her burned home. She also picked up a long bow and quiver of arrows, left by the dark men who killed her family. Growing up at the side of Ulf, the young Wapiti bull who discovered her, she adopts him as her closest companion. Ulf grows into a magnificent alpha-bull of more than 1,000 pounds, with 8 antler points on each side of his great set of horns. Freya patrols the mountain slopes, riding on the back of Ulf.

Freya’s mother is named Frigga, and her father is Vidar. She has two brothers, teen aged twins, Frey and Balder.

Viking mythology said that Frigga was the wife of Odin. Vidar is the son of Odin who avenged his father’s death. Frey was the beautiful son of Frigga and Odin, known as the elf king, and possessed a giant penis. Balder was the brother of Frey, also son of Odin, and was invincible because his mother, Frigga, had gone to all creatures that could threaten her son and convinced them to leave him alone. All except for the innocent mistletoe. The evil Loki, a minion from the underworld, made a dart of the mistletoe and shot Balder, killing him.

Freya is with her family who came to the new land on ships. Storms during their crossing had pushed them far north, and they sailed into a great ice bay. There, winter closed around them and crushed their ships, leaving them on land, stalked by hundreds of great white bears. The harsh winter storms and great bears pushed their small group westward and southward, seeking a place to settle. Many died along the way, crossing the great flat lands. Now only ten people in their group, the party finally reached a range of high mountains that seemed to extend forever. In the center of the range stood a great white mountain that climbed into the sky more than 14,000 feet. They found ample fish, vegetation, fertile ground, fresh water and trees, so they settled on the slopes of the great white mountain.

Freya is only six years old when Ute warriors attack the hamlet established by the three families who had managed to survive the long trek from the Hudson Bay. The warriors kill all the people except for Freya, and set the hamlet ablaze. Frigga had taken Freya to a fox den, and had pushed the little girl inside, ordering her to remain there. However, when Freya smells smoke, she crawls out of the hole, fearing what is happening to her mother, father and brothers. She sees the world ablaze, and the Ute warriors dancing in celebration of their victory, after killing everyone except Freya. The fire quickly spreads into the dense pine and fir forest, and there seems to be no hope. Freya, runs back to the fox den, and being so small is able to crawl into a tunnel at the back of the den that takes her into a cavern that leads deep into the mountain. She finally emerges, following her nose and a breeze of fresh air, into another small tunnel that opens onto the river bank far below her burning home.

Now, a six year old girl, alone in a wild land would have no chance. However, several of the Wapiti and the Grizzly had watched her family parish, and felt badly for the child. Vidar, the girl’s father, had killed the great cave tiger that had long ruled over the Wapiti, killing them at his pleasure, and eating them, and even killing some of the Grizzly too. The Viking families had regarded the Wapiti, along with the great Grizzly bears, as holy animals and declared them sacred. They had made wooden statues of the Wapiti and the great bears at the gates of their hamlet, and had carved them on the doorways of their homes. So the Wapiti decided to rear the girl as their own out of respect for the Viking family.

Because the human child could not eat as the Wapiti, and must have nourishment, Nanna, the mother Wapiti sought out Ceelequa Scumkeese, king of the clan of great Grizzly bears. She implores the great bear to take the girl and to feed her and care for her. Because her family had regarded the Grizzly, like the Wapiti, with reverence and kinship, he agreed.

Freya grew into a beautiful tall woman with long, fiery hair that she braided down her back. She went back to the site of her hamlet, and despite the homes all being burned to the ground, her father’s broadsword escaped the blaze intact. So did her mother’s dirk dagger and copper armor breastplate, and her brother’s gold helmet and shin guards. Freya also found the long bow and a quiver filled with arrows, belonging to one of the Ute warriors who had died in the attack. Freya learns to shoot the arrows from the long bow with masterful skill while riding on the back of her best friend, Ulf, the Wapiti who had found her, and who had grown into a magnificent alpha bull.

No other human ever saw Freya until she was grown, and dressed in her family armor, with her father’s sword across her back, long bow in hand, riding on the back of Ulf.

The humans who saw her, the Zu’Oi people (today known as Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo and Zuni), regarded her as a goddess, and she became their mystic protector. Because the Ute and their descendants, the Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa represented the warriors who massacred her people, she made war on them. Most of all, she made war on anyone who threatened her own clans of Grizzly and Wapiti.

Because she protected the Wapiti, they made her their princess, and guided her in the mystic knowledge of long life and youth, which the Wapiti elders and the Grizzly elders had mastered, after it was taught to them by ancient elves who were the first creatures to inhabit this place on earth. With this knowledge, Freya became immortal with youth and health, but she still could be killed by sword, ax, knife or arrow.

The fantasy, Freya, Princess of the Wapiti, is about the life of this Viking girl orphaned on the slopes of Pikes Peak, living with the elk and grizzly bears. It is about her being discovered by the Wapiti, raised by them and the Grizzly king, Ceelequa Scumkeese, and about her ordeals and adventures protecting her peaceful world from evil.


© 2005 Charles W. Henderson charleshenderson.net