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Fmr.Sgt. Christopher Gaynor: Review of Cherries, A Vietnam War Novel by John Podlaski

By Remy Benoit

Cherries. A Vietnam War Novel by John Podlaski

Sitting on my bookshelf, along with numerous reference books, memoirs and other assorted writing on The American War in Viet Nam, are several Viet Nam war ‘novels’. Amongst them, Frenchy’s Whore by Vernon E. Brewer II, The Wall of Broken Dreams by Duke Barrett and Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Each of these books can be described as a ‘novelized’ memoir and John Podlaski’s Cherries easily falls into this category. Why didn’t these authors just write autobiographies covering their Viet Nam tours; plenty of other Viet Nam vets have done just that? For the author of Cherries and the other books mentioned here, the novel form allows them to use 3rd person point of view, providing a shifting perspective and putting meat on the bare bones of the story. Authors can also move events around along a timeline, combine them or create them in order to make their stories more compelling and in some cases ‘truer’. These books share another important feature, their authors lived these stories, giving them authenticity. Cherries has the solid ring of truth.
I have a couple of things in common with author Podlaski. I served in the 25th Infantry Division in III Corps (although 3 years earlier), and I was promoted to Sergeant E-5 toward the end of my Viet Nam tour and found myself pushed into a leadership role. Otherwise, our ‘in country’ experience was very different. The author was involved in killing the ‘enemy’ at a ‘retail’ level, knocking off one to several at a time. I delivered death at the ‘wholesale’ level; entire hamlets blown into postage stamp size bits. But, killing was our business and what experts we were! We were young ‘pretty’ boys and one journalist went so far as to describe us as ‘beautiful killers’.
Among Viet Nam war books Cherries is extraordinary in the meticulous detail of its narrative. Every action is described step by step and draws the reader in tight and close. I am not familiar with another book in the genre that is as thorough. How is our author able to remember all the minutia of day to day combat operations after so many decades (in fairness, the original version of Cherries, under a different name, dates from 1979). I suspect the author did a lot of painstaking research and spent a great deal of time reading After Action Reports, Orders of Battle, digging through his surviving letters and talking to a lot of his fellow vets. With this solid foundation, Mr. Podlaski had a framework on which to drape the fine cloth of his memories and personal feelings. And he achieves this melding of the technical and the emotional effortlessly.
So, what kind of story is this? Honestly, it’s a down-in-the-mud, nasty critters, blood and body parts splattered fucking horror show kind of story. Don’t think Xbox video games kids! People get hurt and die often slowly screaming primally, ending with the final horrific gurgling after body parts and shredded intestines have been splattered in all directions. Rarely is there a peaceful quiet death. Battle glory is mythical bullshit, but the combined stench of great amounts of blood and rotting vegetation, decaying bodies and stifling heat lasts a lifetime in our nightmares.
During one particularly brutal encounter, Pollack’s squad comes upon half a dozen NVA troops who are laughing and bathing under a beautiful waterfall while being guarded by two of their comrades who aren’t paying much attention to possible threats. Each of the US troops quietly positions himself for maximum field of fire and then they opens up with M-16’s and an M-60 on full automatic. The result is unspeakable carnage. Necessary? Should they have been more interested in capturing them and letting Battalion interrogate them? War is ugly business.
Now, you have been warned. When I opened Cherries and began to read I thought, ‘I can’t do this. Too close to home and I am beat up enough emotionally already. But, damn! I couldn’t put it down. I was with these guys every painful step of the way and I cared about them and was eager to find out what was going to happen to them. Plenty as it turns out. We travel from the Michelin Rubber plantations of III Corps in the South where our protagonist, ‘John Kowalski’ (Pollack), is dumped into the war as a Cherry (Fucking New Guy) without a clue, moving through the woods on Search and Destroy missions with small unit patrols. Here he learns about ‘mechanicals’, the placing of Claymore mines set to detonate with deadly effect in a carefully orchestrated sequence when enemy soldiers snag trip wires, while John’s unit is long gone from the scene, a process described in such minute and fascinating detail that the reader feels part of the team. John experiences being ambushed and setting ambushes, with deadly results for both GI’s and Viet Cong/NVA troops. He encounters the other ‘enemy’, the many critters of the jungle: giant rats; venomous snakes; spiders the size of a dinner plate; disease spreading mosquitoes and a frightening number of leeches.
When he thinks he may be leaving the war to go with his unit as it returns to Hawaii, he is pulled out of War Zone C up to a FSB near the DMZ in the North. If he had fantasized about an uneventful final month in country, this is definitely not it.
‘Pollack’ is no longer a ‘Cherry’; he is a seasoned and skilled infantryman, a highly effective killing machine and poised to assume a leadership role in his new unit. He is promoted to Sgt. E-5 and as a new NCO finds himself given more responsibility than he ever thought he could handle. In one of the most frightening actions of his tour he proves himself more than ready for this new challenge.
Don’t look for artful or clever writing in Cherries, just solid no nonsense storytelling. Cherries is not for everyone, especially children or vets experiencing PTSD symptoms. But if you have the stomach you will find, like me, that once you start reading you won’t be able to put it down.

Fmr Sgt. Christopher Gaynor
Republic of Viet Nam 1967-1968

P.S. For many of us who fought in the Viet Nam war, we dread the often asked question, ‘Did you ever kill anyone?’ How in the hell are you supposed to answer such a personal challenge? However, over the years I have settled on something that usually goes like this: ‘Well young man (lady), think about it. I was a soldier in a hot war for 13 months, armed to the teeth and surrounded by a population ferociously dedicated to killing me. What do you think?’ Of course I killed. How many? I will never know, but I share a portion of responsibility for every Vietnamese who died from American action. Kill or be killed? Sure. Ask any soldier and they will tell you that they really had no choice. But, at many points along the treacherous road to ultimate failure of our adventure in the Republic of Viet Nam, there were clear opportunities for resolution of the conflict and the preserving of tens of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives. Our ill-advised and ill-fated entanglement in SE Asia was a tragedy for a whole generation of young Americans and Vietnamese. We gave our all out of a misguided sense of duty and responsibility. It is my belief that our ‘leaders’ criminally failed us and the Vietnamese people. C. G.


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This item is part of historian, author, editor, and educator Remy Benoit's ongoing weblog for Veterans, writers, students, and others who believe in learning from and making history; including thousands of articles and posts and the free writing seminar, Using History for Healing and Writing.

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