John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

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Danger 79er by James H. Willbanks

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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.

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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.

—Henry Zeybel

Crusader by Mike Guardia

Two events dominated the thirty-five-year career of Gen. Donn Starry. The first took place during the Vietnam War in May of 1970 when he led the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Blackhorse Regiment into Cambodia. The second occurred when the Army adopted Starry’s AirLand Battle strategy in 1982, a year before he retired.

Historian Mike Guardia highlights these events in Crusader: General Don Starry and the Army of His Time (Casemate, 193 pp.; $32.95). The book builds a framework for Starry’s success. Its interest lies in how he applied his leadership theories to real-world problems and thereby improved armored units’ operational readiness worldwide. Starry believed that armored cavalry troops were better soldiers than infantrymen—including airborne infantrymen.

Starry’s voice dominates the book. Guardia quotes him extensively, including many half-page passages from the general’s personal papers. Starry was a talented writer on his own. Guardia also interviewed members of Starry’s family and people who knew and worked with him. Starry died in 2011.

A formula for success was forced onto Starry during his initial active-duty assignment as a second lieutenant under LTC Creighton Abrams in 1949. Abrams commanded a tank battalion in Germany and demanded perfection. Most of all, Abrams did not tolerate a complaint unless it included a solution to the problem in question. Starry followed that directive throughout his career. He went on to work for Abrams several times before he died in 1974 while serving as Army Chief of Staff.

Because the Army prioritized Cold War needs ahead of those in the Korean War—particularly those related to armor—Starry remained in Germany during that conflict. He did, however, serve twice in the Vietnam War. During his first tour, he was disappointed with the employment of mechanized forces after he saw tanks used as little more than “battlefield taxis” delivering infantrymen to the front. Mythology dictated that the terrain and climate were unsuitable for “anything except dismounted infantry and the animals that lived in the jungle,” Starry once said.

On his second tour as a colonel with Blackhorse, Starry assembled his own armor and helicopters for the five-month incursion into Cambodia. “A cavalry regiment, even in a jungle environment, could cover as much ground and deliver more firepower than two airmobile divisions,” he said.

The kind of leader who placed himself on the ground at the front of his forces, Starry led his men into Cambodia, overran Snuol, and captured one of the war’s larges caches of North Vietnamese arms and supplies. Wounded multiple times by shrapnel at Snuol, Starry refused evacuation to Japan, designed his own in-hospital rehabilitation program, and returned to Blackhorse within twelve days.

After the war Starry mainly worked on creating the AirLand Battle strategy. Guardia includes pages of Starry’s writings to justify the strategy. Basically, it was designed to destroy follow-on echelons of overwhelming forces, which comprised the greatest Soviet Union threat at the time. Published in FM 100-5 Operations, the strategy did not receive universal acceptance.

Unfamiliar with the AirLand Battle concept before reading Crusader, I interpreted the strategy as a wishful dream for success in war rather than concrete guidelines on how to defeat an enemy. Because its logic revolved around defending Europe from superior Soviet forces, it lacked worldwide application. Furthermore, its reliance on synchronization of operations with the Air Force made me question its effectiveness.

I felt that 1980 armor leaders used the AirLand Battle to take Cold War control of the Army exactly as tactical air leaders had grabbed control of the Air Force following the Vietnam War. Armor thinkers used the Air Force in a way similar to how tactical air leaders had agreed on thirty-one initiatives with the Army to help wrest control from strategic air theorists, as explained in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam by Brian D. Laslie.

Guardia credits the 1990 Desert Storm victory to AirLand Battle strategy, but that seemed wrong to me.  In my opinion, the size of Iraqi forces fell far short of enemy expectations in the AirLand Battle scenario. Nevertheless, the claim parallels my earlier argument: Fighter pilots also took credit for winning Desert Storm, which validated their control of the USAF.

Crusader closes with the transcripts of four of Starry’s speeches. “Fifty Years at the Business End of the Bomb” was my favorite.

Mike Guardia has written four other biographies of Army leaders, five books about weapon systems, and a children’s book. He spent six years as an armor officer and holds a master’s degree in American history.

Reading his new book brought me to the conclusion that Americans are highly unlikely to participate in a war of the magnitude and design envisioned in the AirLand Battle. Instead, we appear doomed to fight at the lowest level of combat according to whims of weaker opponents and follow rules that favor them.

The author’s website is mikeguardia.com

—Henry Zeybel

Some Gave It All by Danny Lane and Mark Bowser

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Danny Lane is a Vietnam War Marine veteran whose decorations include two Purple Hearts. In his biography, Some Gave It All: Through the Fire of the Vietnam War (Made for Success, 230 pp., $16.75, paper; $8.99, Kindle; $24.95, recorded), Lane and co-author Mark Bowser write: “It was November 20, 1968, and Danny and his fellow Marines sat on the cold, wet tarmac in full combat gear awaiting liftoff.”

That’s a sentence filled with mystery and malice—foreboding, too.

Lane writes that he found himself wondering what he had got himself into. He was nineteen years old. Two days earlier he had been home, in total security. Now he and his fire team were about to enter the dense jungle of Southeast Asia where the Viet Cong would pursue them relentlessly.

It took Danny Lane forty-five years to decide to tell his story. Now here it is for all of us to appreciate and dwell upon, including those of us who served in the Vietnam War but never got near the jungle. Having your helicopter shot down is a decisive way to come into contact with the jungle and with the NVA.

This book reads like the draft for a blockbuster Hollywood movie, packed with action and adventure. The reader has a front-row seat to follow Lane and his comrades into the intense life of all-but endless combat that these young men endured.

The men were participating in Operation Meade River. It was late 1968, and Danny Lane was a grunt with the 3rd Battalion/5th Marines in the 1st Marine Division. His book ricochets back and forth between modern day and the war, and Lane tosses some curves that we could not begin to predict.

The book is smoothly written, and free from most of the usual Vietnam War memoir clichés. And it’s a spellbinder with a roller-coaster action plot.

Those of us who enjoy and seek out infantry stories filled with action have nothing to complain about with this fine book. Danny Lane has done himself proud. He and his co-author, Mark Bowser, have concocted a winner. I recommend you get a copy of this fine book.

There are some things in this book, though, that I’d never encountered before in any Vietnam War infantry memoir. Things that the authors ask us to believe on faith that sometimes are hard to swallow.

I had no trouble believing the book’s accounts of fragging, the showing of movie “The Green Beret” on the trip home, the singing of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” the accusations of murdering little kids, the comparisons of the enemy to animals—especially rats—or the constant presence of mosquitoes, leeches, and jungle rot. But I believe the authors went too far in asking me to believe that the VC trained what they call rock apes in combat, specifically throwing hand grenades.

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Danny Lane & fellow Marine Sotere Karas at Fire Base Tomahawk, March 1969

“The Marines hated these crazy, grenade throwing monsters of terror,” Lane and Bowser write. They go on to attest that the rock apes “are descendants of the mythological Big Foot.” The capper is this conclusion: “That was the kind of war that was being waged against us in Vietnam.”

Now I’ve heard everything. I’d love to see the movie, though. Sort of a “Planet of the Apes” meets “Full Metal Jacket.”  I’d buy a ticket. Plenty of others would, too. Americans love a show, especially if it features apes.

The author’s website is dannylane.com

—David Willson

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN by Ric Murphy

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Ric Murphy’s Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN: First African American to Command an Aircraft Carrier  (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017, 220 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) tells the story of a poor African American boy who grew up in segregated America and through education, determination, and incisive decision-making advanced to the highest ranks of the United States Navy.

Murphy is an award-winning author and an avid genealogist and historian who specializes in African American history. Born in Boston into a family with lineage dating to the earliest colonial period in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Jamestown, Virginia, he lives and works in Washington, D.C.

Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN presents the powerful story of Larry Chambers’s climb to the top, as well as the sociopolitical and global and military history surrounding his life. Reading this book raised my level of admiration, respect, and gratitude for Adm. Chambers, his family, his mentors, and for the author for his impeccable book.

Thanks to Adm. Chambers’s widowed mother and his grandparents, his school administrators, teachers and his other role models, he received a solid and formidable foundation and went on to live his life and make decisions supported entirely by that foundation.

More than once during his military career, Adm. Chambers realized that a decision—while being the correct one—might result in his court-martial. But these instances resulted instead in commendations and promotions.  Adm. Chambers’s dedication to his core beliefs and his devotion to protecting his men and assets far outweighed his desires to succeed.

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Ric Murphy

The results of these decisive actions are legendary and a part of U.S. Navy history. His crowning achievement after being the first African American to captain a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Midway, was his stellar, heroic participation in the 1975 evacuation of Saigon during the final hours of the Vietnam War.

Whether you’re into military, global, or social history—or you just enjoy a very good read—I highly recommend Rear Admiral Larry Chambers, USN be placed high on your reading bucket list.

The author’s website is ricmurphy.com/

— Bob Wartman

Hal Moore on Leadership by Mike Guardia

Mike Guardia’s Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning when Outgunned and Outmanned (CreateSpace/Magnum Books, 168 pp., $14.95, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is part biography and part a recounting of leadership lessons developed over a lifetime by Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. The late Gen. Moore is best known for his stellar leadership at the pivotal Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in 1965, and for the epic book he and Galloway wrote about it, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. In that widely praised book—and in Moore and Galloway’s We Are Soldiers Still—many of the Moore’s leadership points are explored.

Guardia begins with a narrative of the fight at Landing Zone X-ray at the Ia Drang. He then introduces the reader to Hal Moore, concentrating on the principles of the man and the leadership traits he developed during more than thirty years as a military leader.

Over time, Moore crystalized his philosophy of leadership into four main principles.

First: Three strikes and you are not out.

Second: There is always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor, and after that there is one more thing.

Third: When nothing is wrong, there is nothing wrong—except there is nothing wrong. That is when a leader has to be the most alert

Last: Trust your instincts.

Guardia illustrates each of the principles with real-life examples. Perhaps none of them is more touching than the story of Rick Rescorla, one of Moore’s platoon leaders in Vietnam, and one of the heroes of the September 11 attacks in New York City.

Throughout the biographical narrative, Guardia intersperses the leadership points and attributes Moore developed over a lifetime of service and later in his work in the business world. In addition to a generous collection of photographs, Guardia includes several of Moore’s speeches to the business and professional sports communities he often advised.

The book reveals the man and the circumstances that helped him develop his principles. It also  touches on the role Moore’s faith played in developing his character. One of the more revealing stories Guardia tells is that of Hal Moore’s courtship and subsequent marriage to Julia Compton, the daughter of a professional artilleryman.

 

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Then Lt. Col. Hal Moore at LZ X-Ray in the Ia Drang Valley.  

The book is a profile of the man and his development into the dynamic leader he was. Moore’s leadership points are well placed amid the biographical details.

This is a good book, a blueprint for leaders of all sorts, military as well as business.

The author’s website is mikeguardia.com

—Bud Alley

Editor’s note: VVA member Bud Alley served under Hal Moore in HHC of the 2/7 in the 1st First Cavalry Division in Vietnam in 1965-66. He was a close friend of Rick Rescorla. Both men, he says, “were dynamic leaders of the highest magnitude.”

A Double Dose of Hard Luck by Leo Aime LaBrie

Leo Aime LaBrie, with help from Theresa McLaughlin, has assembled an extremely interesting history of prisoner of war life in A Double Dose of Hard Luck: The Extraordinary Story of a Two-time Prisoner of War, Lt. Col. Charles Lee Harrison (Page Publishing, 134 pp. $12.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

The title speaks for the book’s contents: Charles Lee Harrison “had the unfortunate distinction of being only one of two Marines to have ever suffered captivity as a prisoner of war twice in two separate conflicts,” retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Orlo K. Steele writes in the book’s Foreword.

During World War II, Harrison spent nearly four years (December 1941-September 1945) as a prisoner of the Japanese. During the Korean War, Chinese communist forces held him for six months in 1950. In 1965-66, Harrison served in Vietnam—where he was not captured.

Harrison saw action in all three wars. In World War II and Korea, he and fellow Marines fought for their lives against enemy forces that greatly outnumbered them. His first capture followed the siege and invasion of Wake Island by the Japanese. The second came when Chinese soldiers swarmed a truck convoy during the Chosin Reservoir campaign.

An enlistee at age eighteen in 1939, Harrison’s career lasted until 1969 when he retired as a lieutenant colonel. Along the way, he received a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant.

La Brie’s pre-World War II picture of military life—when a private’s pay rate was $20.80 a month, plus clothing allowance—provides a departure point for recognizing how much changed and yet remained the same after three quarters of a century.

His main sources are a transcript of Harrison’s ten-hour oral history from 2002; history books; magazine and newspaper articles; and a 2015 interview with Jane Harrison Williams, a daughter. Gen. Steele personally recorded Harrison’s oral history.

LaBrie, a U.S. Air Force veteran, recreates POW life by showing the extremes of stress and pain that men are capable of enduring, especially under the cruelty of the Japanese. He masterfully weaves Harrison’s reactions and observations into the history presented by other sources to give his stories an authenticity that drove me to read the book in one evening and the following morning.

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He depicts the communist approach to brainwashing without actually using the word. Instead, he refers to it as “interrogation,” “propaganda,” “lectures,” or “indoctrination.”

Harrison and fellow prisoners saw through the ploys and used them to their own advantage.

An array of photographs shows Harrison at different stages of his career.

—Henry Zeybel