Kontum by Thomas P. McKenna

Retired Army Lt. Col. Thomas P. McKenna’s Kontum: The Battle to Save South Vietnam, which was published in 2011, is now out in paperback (University of Kentucky, 378 pp., $28). As we noted in our review four years ago, the book is a heavily researched, very detailed look at the 1972 North Vietnamese Army invasion of South Vietnam, better known as the Easter Offensive, which was designed to topple the South Vietnamese government and end the war.

The massive, three-pronged attack, aided by Soviet and Chinese weaponry, including tanks, came as the United States was rapidly withdrawing its combat troops under President Nixon’s Vietnamization plan. But tens of thousands of American troops, including South Vietnamese Army advisers such as McKenna, remained in Vietnam, and Nixon unhesitatingly unleashed American air power, including sustained B-52 bombing operations.

That onslaught overcame a less-than-stellar performance by many ARVN units, although the 23rd ARVN Infantry Division stood up well under 15-division NVA invasion. The ultimately successful defense of Kontum (and South Vietnam) was led by the legendary John Paul Vann, serving in a civilian capacity for the U.S. Foreign Service.

McKenna in Vietnam in 1971 with an enemy RPG warhead

McKenna, who was severely wounded near the end of the offensive, served under Vann (the subject of Neil Sheehan’s classic A Bright, Shining Lie), and offers an insightful picture of the colorful, contradictory ex-military man in action. McKenna also adds his own story into the mix, doing an effective job melding it into the bigger picture.

The book received the William E. Colby Award in 2013.

—Marc Leepson

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