Title: Thunder in the Night
Author: Raymond Kopp
Publisher: Brundage Publishing
Reviewer: Robert Farley Ė AAA Guest Reviewer
Raymond Koppís service in the Vietnam War began in spring 1972 on the heavy cruiser Newport News. The Newport News was one of the last of the big gun cruisers, commissioned in 1949 and carrying 9 8-inch guns with an automatic reload system that allowed the cruiser to fire ninety shells per minute. The cruiser was playing a role similar to that played by the battleship New Jersey in 1968, but the amount of ordnance delivered by Newport News (nicknamed ďThunderĒ) compared favorably with that of the battleship. Newport News was dispatched to Vietnam to assist in Linebacker I, an operation designed to stop a North Vietnamese conventional invasion of the South. Often at night but sometimes during the day, Newport News would close with the shoreline and either give fire support to South Vietnamese forces or attack targets within North Vietnam. The cruiser was never seriously threatened by North Vietnamese attack, but would regularly take fire from shore artillery batteries, along with the occasional encounter with a torpedo boat. Unfortunately, the North Vietnamese werenít the only problem. Towards the end of its tour, the B-turret on Newport News exploded, killing about twenty sailors.
We have a lot of narratives of maritime life, but most are focused on the experience of officers. Kopp gives us a story from the point of view of a sailor. Most intriguing is his description of how information moved around the ship. A ship at sea is unlike an infantry company or army brigade; especially in 1972, there werenít a lot of ways for the individual sailor to communicate outside of the ship. Consequently, the treatment of information that would otherwise be sensitive or confidential seemed to be much more lax than would be expected on land. Kopp describes the rumor mill that engulfed shipboard life, with different information coming in from different sources and being put together in what amounted to a giant game of telephone. On a couple of occasions the Newport News put into Subic Bay for replenishment, repair, and rest. Kopp goes into quite a bit of detail about the things that he did while in Subic Bay, which are pretty much the things you would imagine any twenty year old in danger and far from home doing. Kopp does a good job of capturing the culture of Subic Bay, particularly of how its economy became oriented around the US presence. Kopp isnít a social scientist, but he does paint a nice picture of the impact of the base on Philippine life. I think that Koppís openness about his experiences at Subic Bay is both admirable and instructive; to the extent that fewer Americans experience military life, we run the risk of losing experience like his.
The weakest part of Koppís story comes with the interjection of the political. Kopp takes some defensible liberties in terms of reconstructing conversations that happened thirty-five years ago; no one expects that he would remember specifically what was said at a particular time, and itís reasonable in this context to try to recapture the gist, rather than the specifics, or a given conversation. Nevertheless, many of his dialogues have a pat quality that leaves them nearly unreadable. Kopp also has a strangely dissonant treatment the reaction of the country to the war; at one point he insists that patriotic young men joined the military at a rate unseen since World War II, while at other times he recognizes the very serious tensions that the war evoked in the United States. Kopp concludes with a fairly long and reasonably interesting discussion of his life after Vietnam. His unfortunate coda relates his Vietnam and post-Vietnam experience to the Iraq War. Itís fair enough to argue that national unity is a good thing to have during a war, but itís not so fair to suggest the essential suspension of politics. Kopp asserts that the only time for the American populace to make its preferences known is during an election, yet the long history of American democracy is replete with examples of political action that have nothing to do with elections. Electoral politics is one way to change a policy, but it is not now and has never been the only way. While I appreciate the difficulties that Kopp and other Vietnam veterans have faced, nothing that they have experienced is worth sacrificing any part of Americaís rich democratic tradition. In any case, the coda is unfortunate but brief, and didnít substantially detract from what I took away from the book.
As I mentioned, Koppís account is explicit, both in language and content. This lends a certain authenticity to his story. However, some readers may be troubled both by the explicit language and the explicit descriptions of sex. As a whole, the book is going to be of primary value to those interested in veteran experience of the Vietnam War, those interested in the last year of the war, and to cruiser enthusiasts. Those with a more general interest in the Vietnam War or in maritime warfare in the twentieth century may also find that the book has some value.
Reviewer: W. H. McDonald, Jr. Ė AAA Founder
A Sailor's experiences in the Vietnam War on a heavy Cruiser
Author Raymond Kopp shares the story of his combat experiences as a crew member of the USS Newport News during the Vietnam War. In his wonderfully written and sensitive book "Thunder in the Night - A Sailor's Perspective on Vietnam" he tells us about the little known Naval operations in 1972 when the over-all war was supposed to be winding down.
I had to laugh at the truth of what Kopp points out in the Preface of the book about how most veterans and the public seem to discount the combat experiences of those who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Most non-Naval Vietnam veterans have assumed that sitting off the coast with clean sheets, hot showers and no VC sneaking up on you, meant that the duty was carefree and safe. It was never really thought of as being "combat duty"; how wrong most of us were about that. Reading his story about his ship's war operations off the coast of North Vietnam, it also becomes evident that these battles took a toll on sailors both emotionally and physically as well.
Raymond writes in the third person and tells his story as if it were a novel. It makes for very entertaining reading as the author uses a full pallet of colorful expressions and wording to paint his story. His emotions are not hidden nor are his many flaws and fears; he gives the reader a full uncensored vision of what is going on within him.
This book is a very honest attempt by the author to examine his life at time of the war and why he is who he is today. Although he does not expound away at it, this story is also about redemption and reflection as a way to find self-healing within. Although Raymond was not physically injured that night when an explosion killed a couple of dozen of his shipmates and wounded many more--that night still haunts the soul of this man! He survived physically but he is still dealing with the emotional and spiritual wounds of the experience.
I have read many books from Navy veterans but most have been about SEALS and the "Brown Water Navy" operations or about fighter pilots--this is the first book out there that gives an insider view on what life was like for the sailors who were on heavy cruisers. It is an eye-opener and a real education for veterans like me. This book is about history and people and about dying for your country but it is also about fear and courage and guilt and friendship. Years from now people will realize that this book is an important link to a piece of our history.
2005 Distinguished Honor Award!
Visit the author's website: www.zeewebnet.com/Ray_Kopp