James F. Hollingsworth began his military career in 1940 as a United States Army lieutenant. He retired thirty-six years later as a lieutenant general. The long list of his awards and decorations staggered my imagination.
James H. Willbanks has recreated Hollingsworth’s life in Danger 79er: The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp. $32). “Danger 79er” was Hollingsworth’s call sign in the Vietnam War. The book is an exciting and informative read because it examines the leadership qualities of a man who advocated destroying enemies without compromise despite being accused of overzealousness in delivering death and destruction on the battlefield where his actions matched his theories.
Willbanks is a retired Army infantry officer who was an adviser to the ARVN at An Loc during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Since 1992, he has directed and taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A tireless researcher, he has written fifteen military history books, specializing in the Vietnam War.
Hollingsworth, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one, earned his commission through the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets (as did Willbanks). He commanded 2nd Armored Division tanks from platoon to battalion level in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton. At the war’s end, Hollingsworth was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel with a Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts.
In World War II, his bravery in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe had no bounds, according to people Willbanks interviewed. Writing about Hollingsworth leading his troops in the field, Willbanks says, “Holly was a soldier’s general,” and (to me) that says it all.
Time after time, Hollingsworth’s performance set standards for combat that few men are brave enough or competent enough to follow. Willbanks provides many stirring examples of Hollingsworth’s affinity with grunts in both wars. All amount to lessons in leadership.
Critics challenged Hollingsworth’s approach to combat when he became assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 under Maj. Gen. William DePuy. The two thought and acted alike and were labeled “unguided missiles” and “hip shooters.” Bending to public sentiment against the war, some fellow officers—up to and including the Army Chief of Staff—believed that Hollingsworth and DePuy projected an unacceptable eagerness to kill opponents. Nevertheless, neither man backed down. They lived on the battlefield.
For his second tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, Hollingsworth was assigned by Gen. Creighton Abrams to revitalize the troops in I Corps whose morale plummeted during Vietnamization. Before Hollingsworth completed the task, Abrams moved him to help the ARVN commander at the battle for Loc Ninh and An Loc. Shortly thereafter, Hollingsworth assumed command of the area. His use of air power showed a talent for targeting as if foreseeing enemy movements. Relentless B-52 strikes decided the outcome by stymieing NVA ground attacks, according to Willbanks, who was at the scene. The NVA lost nearly three infantry divisions.
Criticism of Hollingsworth intensified when he received command of combined forces in South Korea in 1973 and turned a defensive master battle plan into a hyper-aggressive offensive strategy. That prevented his earning a fourth star and led to his retirement. As a civilian he continued to speak out on behalf of national defense.
Willbanks presents insightful looks into relationships between general officers. He also shows that, between wars, Hollingsworth served tours at the Pentagon in positions where he met, befriended, and exchanged philosophies with members of Congress and cabinet heads. His devotion to duty and outspoken manner pleased many people while irritating others. With this information, Willbanks provides excellent lessons in management.
The “Danger 79” statue on the Texas A&M campus
The book’s World War II maps of North Africa and Europe are annotated so that they practically tell the story of the fighting there by themselves. Photographs also enhance the text.
Although Danger 79er primarily tells the story of Hollingsworth, Willbanks expands its scale to history book proportion. He talks about the design and execution of World War II strategy. He also includes inside views about two vital issues of the Vietnam War: the importance of leadership in executing search-and-destroy tactics, and the effects of Vietnamization and what they portended after the Americans departed.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that the writing was on the wall; too few people bothered to read it.
I enjoyed all aspects of the book.