The Black Butterfly Woman reviewed by Arvind Mahadevan: a war book that is not really about war

Just finished reading The Black Butterfly Woman by Philip Atlas Clausen. It is my first novel by the author and a very enthralling story. This is an interesting story that, based on the first two chapters, seems to be about the Vietnam War. However, as the book and story progresses, it becomes clear that the book is not really about the Vietnam War or even the war itself. Rather, it is about the struggle that one man (and a young boy in flashbacks) has to find himself in an uncertain world. The first two chapters are a little unfocused but starting with the third chapter, the novel picks up speed and its story becomes more compelling. Recommend this book!

THE BLACK BUTTERFLY WOMAN Suha Vinjay’s Review: a good one to spend time with during the lockdown period

The book started as a tough read initially for the first two chapters. The second chapter started slowly interesting, but the later chapters got us into the Tunnels, in which the hero of the book (Billy) crawls through.

A thoroughly enjoyable book though traumatic at times, this psychological novel gives new insights into the struggles of a soldier who fought in the Vietnam War. It’s an excellent attempt…to try out such a complex tale with multiple shades.

I felt happy after reading this book during the lockdown period, as it is a good one to spend time with.

What Rog Told Me About Viet Nam

Roger full photo of military patches ribbons pinsNow I’ve given you all the Letters from Viet Nam from Rog, and I believe he wrote in a humorous style to hide the horror and terror of what he was doing. But there are other things I remember, things he told me. And right now it feels like two of the letters are missing (right before and after he got wounded) because I can remember things he wrote that I can no longer find on paper.

He wrote: Don’t believe what you read in the papers. We don’t fight for patriotism or democracy. We fight to keep alive, to protect our buddies–and we fight to get payback on our buddies who were killed. That’s why we fight.

He wrote: The wounded guys all look like zombies. Don’t come here, Phil. There is Clausen blood in this ground and one Clausen is enough for this war. Don’t come here.

I can’t remember if he said his machinegun was 50 or 60 caliber. He wrote: The door-gunner machine gun is so powerful I can chop down a tree with it. You can’t imagine what it does to a body.

After Rog died, his stepson Dave told me Rog used to scream in his sleep at night at home. Rog didn’t want to talk about it. But finally he told Dave, “I’m here at the shit plant (the water treatment plant in Palo Alto, CA). and the gooks are coming over wire, over the fence. The gooks are overrunning the plant and I can’t stop them. They’re coming….”

Philip Atlas Clausen is author of The Black Butterfly Woman, a Vietnam era novel about the war. Purchase now at Available as softbound or e-book.

Letters from Viet Nam, 4

PersonalRog base training photo

24 June 70

Dear Married Kid Brudder,

Thanks for the happy birthday letter & tell the folks thanks for the package. Everything arrived in great shape. Naturally the boys threw a wild part for me, & I got drunk as a skunk.

Ya know, at times I’m so dumb. Over a week ago, I wrote to you but forgot to send it. Duh. So you’ll get it after this one. You can’t miss it, ‘cos it’s got one of my “true adventure” stories in it. But for that matter, so does this one.

Today, me & a good buddy of mine, Gale Hanten, were supposed to sky up for a 7 day leave together. We were going to Bangkok, Thailand for a wondrous wenching & wine drinking bout. Never happen, G.I. Mainly ‘cos we’ve both been in the Hospital since yesterday.

He caught a chunk of grenade with his head. But it was small, it only took three stitches to patch him up. He’s alright though. I got hit in the right leg. I’ve also got 47 stitches in that thar leg. We were sittin’ on an L.Z. (landing zone) at the time in our ship. There was tall grass all around. All of a sudden this one lone gook jumps up about five feet in front of me & stabs me with his bayonet. Fortunately, he tripped over the landing skid, or he probably would have got my head! Boy, was I surprised when he stabbed me! I didn’t know what to think. But when he pulled it out for another try, well, I just knew the folks didn’t need my insurance money that bad! So I shot him in the god-damn head with my M-16. Twenty rounds right through the mother-fuckin’ skull at a range of three feet! Figured I owed it to myself. His friggin’ head fell apart like a watermelon.

So here I am with two weeks to do layin’ on my hairy ass. They won’t even let me get up. They’ve  got me so doped up with pain-killers, I doubt if I could get up!

Last night a few of the boys dropped in & gave me some smokes and a few beers. It’s nice to know ya got real friends.

So how’s married life treatin’ ya? Is it as good as you thought? If you have any problems, just ask the old Professor, here. Fix ya right up. Well, I gotta crash for now. More next time. Your brudder, Rog

Rog said later that most of his helicopter missions flew to support Marines who were fighting very close to the border between North and South Vietnam, just north of Quang Tri Province. They used a lot of Agent Orange defoliant there. That was the last letter I got from Rog from Vietnam. After he got home, after he mustered out, the Army gave Rog a choice of vocational schools so he could return to normal life. He received training in “waste water management” at a Florida school, met and married Maureen, and spent the next 30 years as a water treatment operator working in Palo Alto, California with his beloved “Mo”. Rog died suddenly in 2000 at the age of 52. Mo died shortly thereafter.

Letters from Viet Nam, 3

I actually got Rog’s final letter from Nam first, and then this one, because he misplaced this letter for a while.

June 11 1970 “North of Everywhere”

Dear Newlywed, Kowabunga, kid! How’s it going? Bet yer spendin’ a lot time in the saddle. Heh, heh. So much for my dirty mind. On to other things. Hope you’re both happy, & don’t have to struggle too damn hard. I’m glad you’re coming back to good ol’ San Whozits. (San Jose). I’ve got 227 (censored) days left over here. In  other words, I’ll see you in January. If I luck out and get a drop, I might make Xmas or New Year’s. The way things are goin’ over here I doubt if I’ll extend. I told Mom & Dad I quit flying as a gunner because they worry so much. So don’t blow my cover!

Okay, if you can’t find Quang Tri on the map forget it because everything else is way south. Look at the D.M.Z. & estimate 5 miles south of that & 3 miles west of Laos. That’s us. Dig it? We’ve flown into Laos twice on Visual Recons. But I’ll tell ya, each time I almost shit my pants! We even low-leveled into the D.M.Z. once. We also got the piss shot out of our ship! Man, they threw everything but the toilet bowl at us. Check this out. We received fire from R.P.G’s (rocket propelled grenades), mortars, AK-47 rifles, .51 cal machine gun, & even a friggin’ 37 mm radar controlled cannon! Christ on a cupcake, Quang Triwhat a rouse scene. Listen to this. I fired every fucking round of ammo I had. 1000 rounds of machine gun, 200 rounds of M-16 rifle & 50 of .45 cal pistol. Then I told the pilot, “You better retran for home in this damn crate, because I just ran out of bananas to throw.” So we did. But we had to crash at Firebase Rakkasan, just a mile from home. No sweat, we were only 20 feet off the ground. That ship had so many damn holes in it it looked like a swiss cheese. Guess that was a lick on our ass, eh? But them gooks paid for a lot of those holes. We were droppin’ ’em like flies! You don’t think I wasted all them bullets on tine cans do ya? But that was last week Wonder what they wanna do for an encore this week. Who knows? Wait, I’ve got it! “Today the D.MZ., tomorrow…Red China!!!” Wouldn’t surprise me a bit. These dumb lifers will send us anywhere they feel like, while they sit back here on their fat asses.

This week one of our Huey’s got shot down by an R.P.G. (a gook rocket.) Everyone was wounded. The rocket hit through the roof right behind the right side door gunner, Leo Moore. He got a lot of shrapnel in the back, but he’ll be alright. But he won’t be back here. They sent him back to the world. Lucky him. The other gunner, John Parcher got shot in the leg. He’s going back to the world, too! Lucky dudes. (2 July 70) Well, I finally found this letter. It was in my flak jacket. (Who’d of ever thunk it?” A minor correction to page four: Leo Moore came back & even had the distinguished pleasure to be with me the same day I got it! So he’s in the same place as me. I’ll bet this is gettin’ to be old hat to him. Well, I think I’ll launch this into the mailbox. Ta. The One & Only, Rog

P.S. Joining a reserve unit sounds like a smart move for a married dude. Which one? Keep punchin’. Rog

(next: letter four, War wound)

Quang Tri map, retrieved 9.22.2017

Letters from Viet Nam, 2

Der Phil, Greeting from sunny South Viet Nam (20 Feb 70). I know, I know. I’m a finky creep for not writing sooner, but I had such a riot on leave I didn’t write anybody! Up until now I’ve been too busy, but here it is. Arrived in-country the 28th of January. Took Jungle training until the 12 of February. Already I’ve got a war story fer ya. But that can wait for a minute. I arrived in Bien Hoa on the 28th & moved to Long Binh the same day. They’re both replacement depots. Three days later we flew north to Eagle at Phu Bai. The next day we went north to Camp Evans for Jungle Training which was the un-godliest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life. Since the 13th I’ve been up here at Thunder. Just take a wild guess at what is due north of usletter 2by five miles. Yer right! The D.M.Z. (demilitarized zone: the border between North and South Vietnam). Anyway back to my spine-chilling war story. I’d been on bunker guard three nights straight when it happened. Here’s the layout: The main bunker has the machine gun & grenade launcher in it. My buddy Haydon was in there. There’s a smaller backup bunker on each side of the big one. My other buddy Kehoe (both guys I knew from A.I.T. advanced infantry training) & myself were in these. I was on the right, him on the left. We were each armed with our M-16’s, 21 clips of ammo apiece, and six fragmentation grenades each. Dig it? I think it was about 2 A.M. when we heard the first noise. Haydon called in for illumination & very shortly we had it. They use parachute flares, which made it as bright as day. Sure as hell, I knew the game was fixed. Twenty-seven gooks came chargin’ out of the rice paddies at us. I mean, that ain’t even fair odds. They were only about a hundred feet away, and that’s not much when they’re spittin’ AK-47 rounds at you. So Haydon opened up with the machine gun. He got about half of ’em in about five seconds. Me & Kehoe started workin’ out with the hand frags & blasted a mess of ’em all over the field. I polished off the last three with my M-16 & a little fancy footwork. Ta da! The whole show only lasted about a minute. If it’d taken any longer I wouldn’t be here rappin’ about it, cause those last three gooks were gettin’ ready to crawl into my bunker & cuddle up real close when I zapped ’em. When it was over, we were scared, but happy that we’d pulled it off. Believe me Phil, it ain’t like on T.V. Nobody stuck their head out any further than necessary, and nobody pulled a John Wayne. To hell with him, it’s a lot safer my way.

So the next day when we got off guard they held a big ceremony and gave each of us a medal. Not quite. You’re still thinking of the T.V. version. That morning we were all called into the C.O.’s (commanding officer) office and busted from Spec 4 to P.F.C. Guess why. Give up? Because we neglected to call in and obtain permission to fire on those gooks. That’s fine with me. They can bust me every day if they want. But I’ll be damned if I’ll spend 5 minutes trying to phone T.O.C. (tactical operations center). Talk when Charlie’s on my doorstep. They can hang it up. I’ll save the formalities for later. So much for that.

You’re probably wondering just where I’m at. So am I! Here ’tis. I’m at Headquarters Company of the 3rd Brigade Aviation Section at Thunder. 101st Airborne Division. Dig it! “Screaming Eagles” is our name. Don’t worry. You don’t have to write all that on the envelope. Ya know, I always used to kid around about that Airborne Ranger stuff, but I never thought I’d be one. Shows you what kind of tricks life will play on you. Oh well. One consolation is that they have a neato keeno unit patch to wear. So now you can tell all yer friends & neighbors that yer brother is a Pukin’ Buzzard. (Rhymes with “Screaming Eagles”). Isn’t that grand. The next time you see me in my monkey suit with all the airborne goodies on it, everyone will look with awe & wonder in their hearts, and say, “Who was that masked man?” … Or you could introduce me as the world’s only living 185 lb. Coors beer bottle. They might believe that.

So anyway I’m finally on the job. Putting to use what it took them six months to teach me. And it goes like this; I’m in charge of the care & feeding of three 7.62mm mini-guns. Five 7.62mm M-60D machine guns. Three M-5 grenade launchers. I load, repair & install these little darlings twice a day. Plus two hours paper work thrown in for laughs. Here’s the story. I work 18 hours one day. The next day I sleep ’til noon & have the night off. So it’s 6AM ’til midnight one day & 1P.M. ’til 5P.M. the next. That means I have every other night off, unless I have guard duty, like tonight. So I guess I’ll live through it.

Well, so much for me, how ya doin’ kid? Did ya ever move into that chicken coop? (note: I was pondering inexpensive housing during college). It’s probably better than the hole in the ground I live in. Do you think you could dig on a pad with wall to wall sandbags & armor plate insulation? Wooden floors, too. The inside looks like an old whaling boat. I’ll send you some pictures when I get another camera. Someone stole mine. Would you send some pics of you & yer bride to be? I think yer a fink fer gettin’ hitched while I’m gone. But that’s life.

Let me know what’s happening back there. Let me know for sure when the wedding is & you better send me a bunch of pictures. If you don’t, you better sell the shithouse, ’cause yer ass is mine when I get back. Dig? Well, gotta play with my guns for a while. More later. Your Hero & Mine, Rog

(next: Helicopter door-gunner)









Letters from Viet Nam, 1969-1970

Rog base training photoMy brother Roger Clausen was an Army 101st Airborne door-gunner on a Huey helicopter stationed at Quang Tri near the border between North and South Vietnam, the so-called “demilitarized zone”. His helicopter was named “Death on Call” and they were called a lot. Rog sent me, his kid brother, these letters trying to school me on what the Army was really like and then, in the later letters, urging me not to come to Vietnam. Our father, Charles Clausen, was a B-17 Bomber co-pilot in WWII, so I suppose we both felt a responsibility to serve our country and do our part. These five letters begin with Army Basic Training at Ft. Lewis, Washington. I have never shared them with anyone and even as I begin I am debating whether to sensor certain parts. They were private and never meant to be politically correct. Rog got drafted (a two-year hitch) early in 1969, was given the opportunity to enlist (a three-year hitch) with the inducement of being able to choose the best Army specialty he was qualified for. He chose the longest school: Aircraft Armament Repair, 26 weeks. After completion he was immediately sent to Vietnam.

Der Phil (civilian!) Time goes by so damn fast it’s almost meaningless. It seems hard to believe that it’s been a year since we saw each other, but I guess it’s true. Now as for your questions Rog letters 1about the army: We consider civilians some sort of mythical god, because nobody remembers what one looks like. Everybody here runs around baldheaded in look-alike green fatigues. We get haircuts once a week. A very short butch. You’re right about Army women being a sore sight.  Same goes for lifers, (that is, people who reenlist) they just couldn’t make it back on the block. “The Block” is Army slang for civilization. Anyhow, that’s the only way I can account for so many of them being pricks!

This letter may be a little dull, but I’m gonna tell you just exactly what the army is all about. To begin with, don’t believe anything bad you’ve been told about the Army. It’s not bad at all. It’s four times worse! The Army sucks! It reeks. Get the picture? There, now I feel much better. You probably think I started Basic (training) a day or two after I was sworn in. Not so. I was sworn in April 9 (a day of infamy) Basic didn’t start until 2 weeks ago yesterday. In other words, tomorrow is the beginning of my 4th week, even though I’ve been here over a month. Each day drags so much it feels like two. Anyway, the rest of the time was spent processing in. The first 3 weeks of Basic have been hell. The hardest part to bear is the constant harassment. I’ll have to see you personally before I can describe how bad it is. I don’t think I can write anything foul enough to describe it. I’m a very patient person with a very low burning point compared to many here, but I’ve come so close to busting this one officer & NCO (non-commissioned officer) that it was almost beyond my willpower to control myself. I know you don’t like being pushed around, ’cause I’ve seen how pissed off you get sometimes. Before you join or get drafted you’d better develop the control of a regular martyr. No joke. Before I explain any farther about this farce, I must clarify some points. Since I came here, Fort Lewis has been on a strict meningitis program. That’s why we didn’t get sent to Ord (Ft. Ord, California). It’s almost an epidemic down there. But it’s bad enough up here. This takes further explanation, so attend closely. There are 55 men in a platoon. There are 4 platoons in a company (220 men). Three companies in a battalion (660 men) and 4 battalions in a brigade (2640 men). Now I can continue. When we arrived here we had 4 platoons. Now there are three. The survivors were dispersed to be re-cycled. In other words, over 30 men died from meningitis. Some of them lived next door. One lived in my barracks. Guess I was lucky. So anyway, because of this they can’t make us run in the company area, or for punishment, or give us unscheduled Phys. Ed. So we don’t have to run to the mess hall or latrine, but they make up for it in other ways. For instance, if one man does something wrong the whole platoon is punished. Like this one dude who was late for company formation. The whole bleeding company had to do pushups until they dropped. But they can’t do this is the company area or they’d get in trouble. They wait until we’re out in the field on a training exercise when the Captain ain’t around. This happens about four times a week. Ask Dad how many pushups he could do with full field gear on. One time, after bayonet practice, they gave us two hours of P.T. and a five mile forced march. Why? Because we weren’t yelling “Kill” loud enough to satisfy them. Chickenshit stuff like that can damn near kill you off. Or make you go A.W.O.L. (absence without leave). Then if you look tired they say, “What’s wrong with you pussies? You outta shape? Maybe you need some more!” And sometimes they give it to us. But enough of that. Just remember you have to put up with that sort of shit about 16 hours a day. Might as well tell you the whole schedule while I’m at it. You don’t have to get up ’til 5:00 A.M. But that only leaves you 20 minutes ’til formation. So we get up at four so we can shave, shit, shine boots & make our beds.

Well, it’s Monday night now. Man, have we been through hell today. We had the privilege to go through the Gas Chamber. You get to walk in wearing your gas mask, just to make sure it doesn’t leak. Then you have to take it off. This is tear gas (C.N.) I’m referring to. The tears flow down your face like a river, & they sting so bad you can hardly see. Your throat is so irritated you don’t know what to do. Then you have to walk around singing “Jingle Bells” until they think you’ve had enough. I’m not lying to ya brother. But the best was yet to come. Ten minutes later we were crawling through a cloud of smoke on our stomachs & minus masks. Then they added Tear gas II (C.S.) Before I continue, let me explain. After this was over, I hated their guts. But it was good necessary practice. We had two hours of class before “testing” & if you did what they told you, you didn’t get hurt. But it was still a bitch. Okay, to continue. We were crawling on the sand with rifles, helmets & full field gear under & past barbed wire. Then they throw the C.S. grenades at us. No warning. The only way you know it’s in the air is when it hits you. But you’ll know it. It’s sharp & acrid. It’s three times as powerful as C.N. & induces vomiting. Takes effect in 9 seconds. After you smell it, you have 9 seconds to roll over on your back, unfasten & remove your helmet, lay it & your rifle on top of you (to prevent contamination), open mask carrier, pull it out, put it on, clear it & check it. By the time you open your mask carrier you’re crying, coughing, choking, gagging & the snot begins to run down your face. That’s clearing out your sinuses the hard way, right? It may sound impossible, but you can do it because I did. You know what was sickening? Watching the guys who didn’t make it in time. First their masks filled up with snot & puke, then they ripped them off & puked all over themselves & everything. Some of ’em were covered with snot & vomit from head to foot. Why? Because they panicked. You do not breathe after you smell the gas. Some guys panicked and tried to run from it, but were thrown back in bodily. Sickening. But they were the minority. About 95% kept their cool & made it. I know you could do it. Another affect is irritated skin & eyes. It goes away in 10-15 minutes if you don’t rub them. If you do you could cause serious damage to your eyes. After that we had to go on a 10 mile forced march in the mountains. That was rough. Seemed to be straight up & down. Got my first view of Puget Sound. Beautiful!! Hadn’t seen anything that pretty in a long time. Made it all worthwhile, in a way. Very refreshing. We also have a good view of Mt. Rainier from here.

If this hasn’t destroyed any of your illusions about the army, I don’t know what will. Any time you want, I can get you 50 signed affidavits supporting my claims. That’s just from my barracks. Now, as to the reason I signed up for another year (three years instead of two). The school, of course. Why do I want 26 weeks of brain cramming? It will keep me from getting my ass shot off in Viet Nam. In other words, there is no way in hell I’ll have to go Infantry (I hope). I’ve probably missed half the questions you asked, but this is the general idea. If you think of any other questions, fire away. But right now I gotta sign off, or I’ll never get this sent. Gotta shake it for now, Bro. Appreciate your writing, send more soon. Yours Muddily, Rog. What, Me Worry? Hooze Yer Hootie?

(I will try to enter Letter Two from Nam, tomorrow)