Michael Trainor’s Operation Embankment: The Story of America’s First Casualty in Vietnam – 1945 (Alta Vista Group, 556 pp. $18, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is an first-rate work of historical fiction. Trainor is a teacher who has traveled extensively throughout Europe and Asia. This is his first book, the result of ten years of research and five years of writing. He has created a detailed, fly-on-the wall look at just one month, September 1945, when the United States, along with much of Europe and Asia, stood at an important crossroads.
Maj. Peter Dewey is considered to be the first American service members killed during war in Vietnam. His murder, more likely an assassination, occurred on September 26, 1945, and his name is not on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. His body has never been recovered and the identity of his killer has never been conclusively established.
Peter Dewey entered military service in August 1942 and worked as an intelligence officer in French and British colonies in Africa. The next year he was transferred to the OSS, where his short stature and glasses set him apart. Assigned to OSS headquarters in Algiers, he won his parachute wings and led his first team into combat. He later commanded a team of about fifty OSS men.
On September 4, 1945, Dewey’s OSS team arrived in Saigon, where they were given the task of gathering intelligence for the State Department on the three main players in the post-World-War-II power struggle for Indochina: the French, the British, and the Vietnamese. This assignment became known as Operation Embankment. The OSS team was also was given the task of finding American POWS and arranging for their release; checking on the condition of American property and installations; and investigating war crimes.
The Japanese had recently surrendered in Indochina, and France was planning to regain its former colonies. Meanwhile, an organized Vietnamese force was dead set on winning independence. The British also expected to have a say in the future of the former French colonies of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Dewey began collecting what information he could from many sources. Other topics of concern were the Chinese government and the opium trade.
Peter Dewey quickly came to realize that no European nation would ever be able maintain control over Indochina and he clashed with the British commander who wanted to crush the Vietnamese independence movement.
Following complaints from the British, Dewey was relieved of duty and ordered to leave Vietnam. On the day he was getting ready to depart, September 26, 1945, he was killed in an ambush, most likely by Viet Minh troops.
The novel tells Dewey’s Vietnam War story, as well as the investigation into his death and the shockwaves it sent around the world.
Unresolved questions include the matter of whether Dewey was the intended victim or a random one; who was behind it the killing and why; and his body’s ultimate resting place.
Trainor’s Operation Embankment is the story of one man during one month, but it’s a story that resonates in international and political circles to this day. The effort Trainor put into this massive novel should be celebrated.