Mike Guardia, the author of Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn—Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero (Casemate, 240 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), is a military historian who served in the U. S. Army as an armor officer. His previous books include Hal Moore: A Soldier Once… and Always.
When Donald Blackburn was a young Army officer in World War II in the Philippines he escaped taking part in the infamous Bataan Death March, and organized Filipinos to fight the Japanese. Later Blackburn helped set up U.S. Special Forces operations in Vietnam.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought that the first part of the book would be a lot like the tales my grandfather, Homer Willson, regaled me with as a boy. Grandpa pursued Moros in the jungle of Mindanao in 1910 when he was an Army private in the aftermath of the Philippine War. There is little of that immediacy and danger communicated, however, in this book’s Philippine section.
“It was an excruciatingly slow process fraught with betrayals, intrigue, manhunts and the inevitable close calls with the Japanese,” Guardia says, describing Blackburn’s work organizing guerrillas scattered about Northern Luzon. Much of the time Blackburn was seriously ill with malaria.
The weapons his men had were not always the best. Many of his soldiers preferred to fight with Bolo knives rather than use the unreliable Enfield rifles. Plus, he was outgunned by the Japanese. Provisions were delivered by submarine. That included dynamite, Thompson submachine guns, rifles, bazookas, grenades, and grenade launchers.
Blackburn fought in more than fifty battles, large and small, throughout Northern Luzon. His war in the Philippines ended on August 14, 1945, after four years of fighting. He had started as a lieutenant and came home a colonel. Col. Blackburn went home and received no ticker tape parade, but he did not want or expect one.
Blackburn began his involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1957 at the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group headquarters in Saigon. The author tells us that “Blackburn’s first tour (1957-58) was not a very gratifying year.”
Later, in 1964, Blackburn was part of Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a secret, deceptively named group that had (among other missions) the disruption of the Ho Minh Trail. Guardia tells us that the war in Vietnam was hamstrung by political mismanagement from the beginning, over-cautious rules of engagement, and the dubious strategy of “hearts and minds,” as well as too much emphasis on high-tech gizmos and not enough thought about boots on the ground.
Blackburn was part of the raid on Son Tay Prison, during which no American POWs were rescued. The military considered it a tactical success, but an intelligence failure. After that, Blackburn returned to Sarasota, Florida, and retired. He died on May 24, 2008, “A true hero of the Army Special Forces,” Guardia writes.
I’m sure that Donald Blackburn had exciting tales to tell of his time in the Philippines and in South Vietnam. I also believe he was highly trained to be modest and also circumspect, so those tales never got told. I wish I could have heard him tell them.