I spent yesterday afternoon polishing the draft of the first chapter of my new novel, Asphalt and Blood. To do so, I had to shift the focus of my mind forward a good twenty years. My first two novels, Fall EagleOne and Hold Back the Sun, take place during the Second World War. Asphalt and Blood tells the story of how the U.S. Navy’s Seabees helped the Marines retake Hue City during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
As I worked through my manuscript, I was mentally transported back to Vietnam during the war there. I spent seventeen months “in country” during two tours as the Operations Officer of a Seabee battalion. My second deployment was to Hue/Phu Bai to the north of Danang. We first arrived there less than six months after the Tet battle, and I became very familiar with the area over the next nine months. Talking with people who were there, I learned that Seabees had a significant presence during the fighting. Thus was born the spark that led to my present project.
After over forty years, my memories of Vietnam are still vivid. Most Americans think of that country as one big rain forest. This may be true of the far south, but the areas in which the Seabees mostly worked were quite different. The northern part of the former Republic of Vietnam is more like parts of Southern California, with rolling hills covered with scrub growth. The beaches along the South China Sea are wide bands of fine white sand—a beautiful tourist area waiting to be developed. The coastal plains around Hue are a sea of iridescent green rice fields stretching from the blue mountains inland to the sea. Given the climate and peace, the farmers there can grow three rice crops per year. These wiry people are some of the hardest working in the world. Our problem was that some were carrying AK-47s after dark.
Another reason I wanted to write Asphalt and Blood is to tell the story of the Seabees in popular fiction. Many of us who served there found our experiences far different from what most Americans envision. Reading press reports during the Tet Offensive, we began to wonder what war the reporters were viewing. What those of us there witnessed was akin to the Battle of the Bulge in 1944. The VC that came out to fight in big unit battles had some initial successes but were then savaged by American forces. From that point forward, the principal enemy was the North Vietnamese Army. Tactically, the Tet Offensive, launched over the objections of Field Marshall Giap, was a disaster. The media turned it into a political victory for the enemy.
I still hesitate to believe everything I see in press reports. Thirty years later, when members of my family were serving in Iraq, I asked them about their take on reports on that war. Their answers were that media reports bore small resemblance to what was actually happening. Don’t get me wrong. I am a staunch defender of press freedom. I just believe that reporters have a responsibility to “tell it like it is.”
Asphalt and Blood is scheduled for release next Labor Day. As far as exhaustive research will allow, readers should expect an accurate description of the Battle of Hue City.