Fly Until You Die by Chia Youyee Vang

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History professor and author Chia Youyee Vang has written another chapter about the United States Secret War in Laos with Fly Until You Die: An Oral History of Hmong Pilots in the Vietnam War (Oxford University Press, 218 pp. $74, hardcover; $74, Kindle).

Professor Vang, who teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, takes a highly emotional look at why and how the United States trained Hmong soldiers to fly close air support in reconfigured T-28s commanded by Gen. Vang Pao in Military Region 2 of Laos. Code-named “Water Pump,” the program lasted from 1964-75 and trained thirty-eight men, some of whom flew thousands of combat missions. Eighteen were killed in action. The book accounts for all of them.

Born in Laos, Vang left the country at the age of eight in 1979. Her family eventually settled in the Minnesota as political refugees. In 2013-14, she conducted face-to-face interviews with former Hmong pilots, relatives of those killed in action or deceased, and a few American military personnel who worked with the Hmong during the Vietnam War. Forty-three people contributed reminiscences to her book.

Professor Vang excels at story telling by incorporating interviews verbatim into her narrative of the time. Her technique amplifies the emotional impact of the speakers. She recognizes failures as well as successes of the Hmong pilots.

She explains how Gen. Vang Pao and American instructors selected and qualified Hmong as pilots from a group of people who lacked formal education and had no tech skills. A few of the men had never driven an automobile, Vang says. Worst of all, their T-28s had been rejected by the Vietnamese and, due to modifications, no two airplanes were alike. Sometimes bombs failed to release and rockets did not fire.

What’s more, the primary runway at Long Tieng (Long Chieng) was too short and one end was blocked by towers, which eliminated any margin for flying errors. Accidents happened frequently. Nevertheless, the performance of the Hmong in combat was selfless. No limit existed for how many missions they flew or the number of risks they took. An American interviewee claimed that one pilot flew more than 4,000 missions.

Vang Pao paid Hmong pilots salaries (plus frequent bonuses) far higher than those that went to his regular soldiers. When a pilot was killed, however, the General usually ignored the needs of the man’s families, causing them extreme economic hardships. Similarly, at the end of the war, Vang Pao provided little, if any, assistance to the Hmong. As a result, Professor Vang writes that Hmong who once flew for and admired the General lost all respect for him.

The book follows the Hmong who left Laos after the United States departed Vietnam in 1975 and the subsequent communist takeover of both nations. Most fled to Thailand and enjoyed “a brief moment of relief” as people transitioning from fear for their lives to “the harshness of displacement,” she says. She portrays Thai refugee camps as worlds of utter abandonment; for the Hmong, life as they knew it appeared lost forever.

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Chia Youyee Vang

Eventually, the United States government gave 140,000 Hmong a second life by bringing them here. Based on their own testimony, those who moved to the U.S. have found happiness.

Professor Vang closes Fly Until You Die by reassessing the war and its legacy. She has previously examined the Hmong diaspora in Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (2010); Hmong in Minnesota (2008); and Claiming Place: On the Agency of Hmong Women (2016).

Her excellent appendices, notes, and bibliography, as well as ten pages of photographs, significantly strengthen the research. Above all, the revelations of the people she interviewed make this book a valuable history lesson about the intricacies of the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

Walker Bulldog vs T-54 by Chris McNab

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Once again, the author and editor Chris McNab and Osprey Publishing have pitted tanks against each other—this time in McNab’s latest Osprey Duel Series book, Walker Bulldog vs T-54: Laos and Vietnam 1971-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The tanks’ real-life confrontations occurred late in the American war in Vietnam during the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

The United States provided the light Bulldog T41 for the South Vietnamese Army; the Soviet Union supplied the T-54 main battle tank to the North Vietnamese Army.

McNab presents a complete picture of each machine. An expert in military technology, he has written more than a hundred titles in his twenty-year career.

Johnny Schumate’s paintings of battle scenes and Alan Gilliland’s illustrations of the tanks’ interiors are complemented by many photographs. In particular, gun sight target views for each tank add authenticity to the narrative.

In essence, Bulldog vs T-54 is two books in one, with the first resembling a tech order. It reviews the tanks’ design and development and goes over performance specifications such as fuel consumption and armor reliability. An excellent visual layout with explanations of warhead killing power provides a thought-provoking comparison between the M41’s 76mm and the T-54’s 100mm guns.

A different comparison of the tanks and their crews fills the second half of the book. McNab briefly describes the strategic background leading to the ARVN move into Laos for Lam Son 719 and the NVA (aka, the PAVN)’s nationwide Easter Offensive. He then delves into manpower numbers, morale, and United States-versus-Soviet-and-Chinese methods of training tank crews.

Tank warfare during Lam Son 719 differed significantly from what happened during the Easter Offensive the following year. McNab’s coverage of combat is supported by statistics and analysis. His discussion of battlefield tactics finds weaknesses among both South and North Vietnamese leaders.

His first-hand accounts of battles were not as complete as I wanted, but they still revealed outcomes that surprised me. He indicates that much of the information I was looking for has not been made public by the PAVN. McNab’s final conclusions are evenhanded and somewhat predictable from the start, although both sides experienced extremely unpredictable short-time results along the way.

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I have not included the finer points of McNab’s observations and conclusions to avoid spoiling surprises for readers. I had never considered tanks as a significant part of the Vietnam War. McNab, however, woke me up to their role and taught me lessons about their use in different types of terrains.

On the other hand, I took part in Lam Son 791, and according to my flight log, our AC-130 Spectre gunship crew flew 27 interdiction and three TIC missions into Laos during the operation. The ARVN incursion backed up PAVN traffic to around Tchepone, and we shot 477 cargo and fuel trucks during the operation without finding one tank.

—Henry Zeybel

 

In the Black by Joe Lerner

Joe Lerner’s Novel, In the Black (iUniverse, 256 pp., $16.95, paper), was inspired by the clandestine Raven Forward Air Controllers who served in Laos during the Vietnam War. Lerner’s book is entirely fictional. The Ravens, in reality, were braver than fiction could ever portray. As Lerner puts it: “The real Ravens were far grander men than any characters I could ever limn.”

Much space in the book is given to explain what the title means. As an espionage term, “in the black” denotes covert operations and actions, usually by military or paramilitary means. Lerner goes on to say that the term also can denote a state of confusion or to be excluded from knowledge.

The book’s short glossary is useful. It, for example, explains that Indochina is that part of Southeast Asia subject to the cultural influences of both India and China. Makes perfect sense if you think about it.

The fifty-seven short chapters are readable and interesting. If you have read Christopher Robbins’ book. The Ravens: The True Story of a Secret War in Laos, In the Black is not really necessary for your library. The Ravens were American FACs who directed strikes from vulnerable, low-flying spotter planes, mainly in support of a Meo general named Vang Pao. This fierce warlord fought to keep the North Vietnamese out of the Plain of Jars in Laos.

The cast of characters is a swaggering, rowdy bunch of maverick American Air Force pilots.  I’ve actually met and spent time with one of these men, and the word “hard drinking” describes him accurately. He wrote one of the best of the books about the Ravens. Late in life he became a much-respected university professor.

I spent an afternoon with him, and don’t think he would have minded me mentioning that he is John Clark Pratt, the author of  1985 novel The Laotian Fragments who died two years ago at age 84.

One of the sentences that sums up much of the flavor of this book begins, “The major forsook his usual stirrup cup of Jack Daniels. Instead, he trudged over to Doc’s clinic and sobered up by sucking pure oxygen for a full minute. When he climbed back into his black jeep, he looked as healthy as Joe had ever seen him.”

I noticed that the jeep is black—not o.d. green, orange, or red.

There is no book that presents language more salty than In the Black does—at least noone I have ever seen or read. If you are interested in reading about the Ravens, I highly recommend In the Black, as well as the Robbin’s book and John Clark Pratt’s.

I have yet to read a bad book on the Ravens.

—David Willson

The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Hotel Constellation by David L. Haase

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David L. Haase is a former journalist who got his start in the business in Vietnam covering the war. After getting tossed out of Vietnam, he went to Laos and spent many months there struggling to learn how to write about war and how to deal with the often extreme discomfort that westerners encounter in hot, humid Southeast Asia.

Much space is devoted in his memoir, Hotel Constellation: Notes from America’s Secret War in Laos (C. Lawrence, 280 pp. $16.99, paper; Kindle, $6.99), exploring the serious problems h encountered in Laos. That includes crotch rot, hemorrhoids, and other afflictions brought on by bad water and bad food.

Haase was very young when he arrived in Southeast Asia, twenty. His 4-F draft status prevented him from having the opportunity that about 2.8 million other young Americans had serving in South Vietnam in an American military uniform.

This memoir is engaging and well-written and more honest than Haase had to be about how callow and inexperienced he was with just about everything. He uses a journal he kept at the time and the long letters home he wrote to loved ones to summon up the small details of his life in Laos that inform his memoir and make it accessible and intimate.

I found it fascinating to be with him through his diary entries as he witnessed the destruction of the small, landlocked country of Laos as the CIA used it as the place to stage its so-called “secret” war.

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As the book’s blurb says, we watch a “young innocent abroad growing older and cynical.”

Haase evokes the special atmosphere of the Hotel Constellation, the place everyone in Laos eventually stumbled through looking for whatever it was that brought them far away from home to this tiny country that was at the center of the biggest war going.

The author’s website davidlhaase.com

—David Willson

Racing Back to Vietnam by John Pendergrass

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If you want to know about flying in F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and competing in triathlons years later, you must read John Pendergrass’s Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace (Hatherleigh, 256 pp. $22, hardcover; $7.99, Kindle).

In the book, former U.S.A.F. flight surgeon John Pendergrass writes about his Vietnam War tour of duty with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in 1971-72. Much of what he relates has been well reported. However, when a writer presents the drama of war from a highly individualized perspective as Pendergrass does, that type of storytelling does not grow old.

Pendergrass’s prose is easy to read. He nicely turns many a phrase, including “checking out a slow learner in a fast mover.” Honesty is his forte. When he does something beyond the ordinary, Pendergrass explains why he did it, especially if it benefits him. He is free of pretense and rich in enthusiasm.

Like most doctors with whom he served, John Pendergrass did not want to go to Vietnam, but after he got there, he voluntarily flew fifty-four missions over Laos, Cambodia, and both South and North Vietnam in the back seat of the F-4 Phantom. He recalls the post-mission feeling of being “more alive than when I took off, anxious to go again.” At the same time, the fear he experienced is palpable.

His squadron’s basic assignment was to interdict trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He describes virtually every step of preparing for and executing flights that dropped lots of bombs.

He also devotes chapters to life as a prisoner of war and to complications involved with being shot down and rescued, situations that he luckily avoided. On his final mission at the battle for An Loc, Pendergrass  witnessed events that altered his perspective of the war.

He includes observations about air power that I had not read before, but with which I concur. His conclusions ended his combat life on a down note.

Pendergrass’s account of his war makes up only half of this memoir. In 2016 he returned to Da Nang at the age of seventy and participated in an Ironman Triathlon. He did it partially to satisfy “a mixture of nostalgia and reflection,” Pendergrass, an eye surgeon in Mississippi, says.

The triathlon took only one morning. He then drove to Laos with a guide to exolore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He worked his way to Hanoi and shuffled through Uncle Ho’s tomb. Next, he visited battlefields in the South and ended up in Saigon.

Having experienced my share of flying in the Vietnam War, I found Pendergrass’ peacetime travel to be the most enlightening part of the book. I learned a lot I would not have on my own. Pendergrass talked to everyone who gave him time. As a result, he offers insights about today’s Vietnamese and their lifestyles. Farmers work unobstructed, except for uncovering unexploded ordnance. The tourist trade flourishes and most people have forgotten the American War.

Pendergrass speaks of the “absurdity of war,” and in the same breath he recalls combat as “the great adventure of [his] life.” This paradox reminds me of returning to the scene of an old crime, intrigued by questions that should have been resolved half a lifetime earlier. Seeking justification for what one did in war is unnecessary. No guilt should be associated with adrenaline rushes related to acts a person performed practically in childhood.

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Recently I reviewed  another flight surgeon’s account of the war, Sharkbait by Guy Clark. He flew eighty-six combat strike missions in back seats of Phantoms.

His six-hundred-plus-page memoir offers readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about Vietnam War Phantom and Air Force operations.

Both Clark and Pendergrass extol the skill and courage of pilots with whom they faced death.

—Henry Zeybel