Juan David Coronado. "I'm Not Gonna Die in This Damn Place": Manliness, Identity, and Survival of the Mexican American Vietnam Prisoners of War. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2018. xxxv + 180 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61186-272-0.
Reviewed by Harry Franqui-Rivera (Bloomfield College)
Published on H-War (May, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
It is not customary to start a book review by quoting an incumbent president. However, Juan David Coronado’s subject of study, Mexican American prisoners of war (POW) during the Vietnam War, makes citing the forty-fifth president of the United States almost inevitable. Announcing his bid for the presidency on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump stated that when Mexico sends its people to the United States, it does not send its best. Instead, he argued, “They're sending people that have lots of problems…. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Understanding the history, struggles, and sacrifices of the Mexican American community is in itself a valuable exercise that tells us much about this country. The current president’s comments and his attitude toward Mexicans and Latinos make understanding these communities’ place within the history of the United States and the American experience a pressing matter. In this regard, Coronado’s piece could not be more timely.
The book opens with a foreword from Rubén Martínez, a Chicano professor of sociology and director of the Julian Samora Research Institute at Michigan State University, and a veteran himself. Martínez contextualizes the experience of Mexican Americans and Chicanos in the post-World War II era. He visits the history of Chicano veterans in demanding rights and equality, which extended to and was part of the civil rights movement. Martínez closes with a brave assertion, calling the current period one of “neoliberal nationalism in which the democratic principles many Chicanos believed they were fighting for in Vietnam are being threatened in an open and direct way by an American plutocracy” (p. x).
Coronado takes up where Martínez left off. In his closing arguments he reminds us that Chicanos and Latinos continue to serve in the US military in ever-growing numbers and percentages (16.9 percent of all new recruits in 2014, p. xxxv) and that their histories should not be omitted from the American military experience. He also alludes to Trump’s diatribe against Mexicans and asserts that the behavior on the battlefield and in captivity shown by the “American heroes” in this study, by several standards qualifies them as “bad hombres” (p. xxxv).
His study closely follows the upbringing of ten Mexican Americans who were among the 629 confirmed American POWs in Vietnam and their experiences as captives, dealing with repatriation, and transitioning into civilian life. Besides consulting the obligatory academic literature and cultural production on this topic, Coronado conducted oral histories with the former POWs or their surviving relatives, which he contrasts with their files from the Department of Defense and other government documents.
Coronado offers the reader a glimpse at the exceptional experiences of some of the Mexican American POWs. For example, on August 5, 1964, Commander (Ret.) Everett Alvarez Jr. became the first American aviator shot down in Vietnam and the first prisoner of war in the infamous Hoa Lo, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. He was also the second-longest held American POW in the Vietnam War. On November 24, 1963, Captain Isaac “Ike” Camacho, a Green Beret from El Paso, Texas, was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong and became the first American prisoner in South Vietnam to escape captivity. In June 1954, Airman Ciro Salas Jr. of Los Angeles, California, was taken captive by the Viet Minh near Da Nang along with another four American service members but released later that summer).
All but three of the Mexican American POWS were captured in South Vietnam and fell in the category of “jungle prisoners.” Coronado uses this fact to establish a division that followed American society’s class and racial inequality all the way to the jungles and skies of Vietnam. The “jungle prisoners” (a mere 57 of the total 629 American POWs) were usually infantry grunts captured in South Vietnam. They faced harsher conditions and abysmal death rates (50 percent) compared to their fellow Americans shot down over North Vietnam and placed in the Hanoi Hilton. The aviators taken prisoner were mostly white officers (79 percent) with college education. Half of them were in the Air Force. Coronado explains: “As minorities did not contribute significantly to the prisoners-of-war population, it became clear that they were not transcending social and racial barriers that continued to plague the military and their respective communities” (p. xxvi). This is an important issue. Adequate access to education, itself the product of ethno-racial and class division at home, translated into fewer opportunities for Mexican Americans (and African American and Puerto Ricans) in the military. Thus, their numbers were greater in Army and Marines rifle companies that sustained a proportionally higher number of casualties among them and a lower number of POWs.
The number of Mexican American POWs was low indeed (even lower than the sixteen African American POWS), but that did not translate in homogeneity. As Coronado explains, they went from airmen to infantrymen. There were “three from the Air Force, Marines and the Army and one from the Navy” (p. xxvi). All were from the Southwest. Three of them joined seeking adventure and aspiring to fly, the rest joined to improve their socioeconomic condition, and several attested to a family tradition of service. Obtaining first-class citizenship by gaining the acceptance and admiration of mainstream America was also present in their minds. This, however, was neither new to the Vietnam War nor exclusive to the Mexican America community. In To the Line of Fire: Mexican Texans and World War I (2009), José A. Ramírez, argues that gaining acceptance and respectability and improving their communities’ standing motivated tejanos and californios to join the US military during WWI. The African American community and Puerto Ricans (the only Latino group overrepresented in the US military) have followed a similar approach for well over a century.
Though not exclusive to Chicanos, Coronado is right on point when he argues that “that in spite of the complex ideologies that influenced Mexican American Vietnam prisoners of war, issues of class, masculinity, and ethnic identity compelled Mexican Americans to serve in Southeast Asia, and these same factors also helped them survive the brutal Vietnamese prison camps” (p. xxxi). Chicano POWS came from similar “working-class backgrounds ... rooted in farmworking communities” (p. xxix). Coronado explains that these men were used to working outside the home from an early age to help to provide for their families and that extreme poverty had made them resilient. However, they had their own versions of masculinity and what it meant to serve; thus “their experiences were not universal, but particularistic” (p. xxxviii).
Just like other POWS, the Mexican Americans prisoners ranged from the “superpatriot” early prisoners (Everett Alvarez Jr.) and those in the middle who often deferred to the early POWS’ version to the late prisoners, who included some who even denounced American intervention in Vietnam. Departing from the most well-known POWS and official narratives, Coronado explores in much detail the experience of Marines Abel Larry Kavanaugh and Alfonso Riate. Riate was brutally treated in various prison camps and was deemed a collaborator. Coronado argues that the ill-treatment wore Riate down “physically, mentally and morally” and that he became a new man, even adopting the name Tran Van Te and composing an antiwar song in captivity (“Play Your Guitars American Friends!”), which he later recorded after repatriation (p. 89). It is unclear what Coronado means by “morally.” Does he believe that Riate committed immoral acts against his own persona, his fellow prisoners, or the United States?
Both Riate and Kavanaugh were among the founding members of a prisoner of war association known as the Peace Committee of South East Asia and “were accused of collaborating with the enemy, disobeying senior command, and making antiwar statements” (p. 91). Most others, including former POW José Anzaldúa, rejected such acts (p. 92). The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, just as the Chinese and the North Koreans tried to do in the Korean War, attempted to exploit the obvious racial and class divisions in the United States to break their prisoners (p. 95).
Reintegration into civilian society proved a challenged for most former POWs. Some resorted to abusing alcohol while others took extreme measures. Larry Kavanaugh committed suicide shortly after repatriation. Coronado argues that having his manliness and integrity challenged combined with the trauma of captivity to send him over the edge. Former POWs also faced the countercultures of the Chicano and peace movements. The America they returned to appeared to be a different world from the one they knew before Vietnam. This is a common issue raised by Vietnam War veterans. In the case of Chicanos and Latinos, the matter is further complicated by the question of belonging. Not only did these men return to a different country, but they also had to deal with having their Americaness doubted even as they tried to reintegrate, fit in, and even assimilate. Coronado gives the example of one of these POWs, one that it is too common among Latino veterans and servicemembers who often hear the question, “What are you Joe (Anzaldúa)? ‘I’m an American!’ No seriously, what are you?” (p. 140).
Coronado remains hopeful that understanding the lives of these men will close a gap between the Mexican American generation (“politically inclined Mexican Americans in post-World War II and the civil rights movement,” p. 141) and the younger Chicanos who came of age during the war and joined the antiwar movement. He is also hopeful that their histories will serve to counter stereotypes of Mexican American and the current public scapegoating of the Mexican American community. Moreover, he hopes that understanding their stories as part of the American experience will bridge the gap separating them from the American community.
One can only hope Coronado’s hopes are not in vain. For if on the battlefield and in captivity all American soldiers were siblings, their experiences and realities in civilian life have proved otherwise. “I’m Not Going to Die in This Damn Place” rightfully joins a growing body of literature seeking to understand what “other” Americans have contributed to the nation's defense despite not always being welcome in their own casa.
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Harry Franqui-Rivera. Review of Coronado, Juan David, "I'm Not Gonna Die in This Damn Place": Manliness, Identity, and Survival of the Mexican American Vietnam Prisoners of War.
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