Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman

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To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—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

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 by Peter E. Davies

Fans of military aircraft cannot ask for more than what Osprey Publishing provides with its Combat Aircraft Series. The series authors and illustrators are historians who focus on specific models of aircraft and their crews during a narrow period of warfare.

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 (Osprey, 96 pp.; $23, paper; $18.40, Kindle) is author Peter E. Davies’ twenty-third book in the series. For it, he interviewed Navy and Marine Corps fliers who operated from aircraft carriers.

Illustrator Jim Laurier, who has worked with Osprey since 2000, contributes thirty color profile paintings of F-4 Phantom IIs with distinct markings of their aircraft carriers. A history of each plane complements his artwork.

Nearly every page of the book contains a photograph of crewmen or an airplane. Captions provide related facts to enhance readers’ knowledge of Navy operations.

Davies first explains the fighter aircraft environment before the 1969-73 period that he concentrates on. He examines changes in the F-4 II airframe, its missiles and tactics, as well as the political climate—for good and for bad. Comments by pilots provide an insider’s view. For example, when discussing a Phantom-MIG Fresco duel, he quotes Lt. Cdr. Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, who says, “It’s like a knife fight in a phone booth.”

This format continues through the book. Vivid accounts by fliers who fought the war support theories and practices of the time—again, for both good and ill.

Davies presents a clear picture of what it was like for F-4 II crewmen when they hit problems in air-to-air, interdiction, and close support sorties. Along with striking targets in South Vietnam, carrier-based planes bombed North Vietnam and Laos. In addition to normal survival concerns, crewmen coped with problems ranging from frustration due to complex rules of engagement to the dealing with the rationale behind awarding medals. Davies emphasizes stories involving hunting and killing MIGs, the premier accomplishment of fighter jocks.

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To keep the ledger honest, Davies includes successes and failures of MIG pilots who challenged U.S. aircraft and ships.

Insights from the Navy fliers brought back many memories. Anyone with even a minimal interest in military tactics or warfare should find satisfaction with this book.

Davies has a talent for finding and reporting what is important. I especially enjoyed reading about idiosyncrasies of aircraft carrier operations. They reconfirmed my appreciation for my flying career with the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel

The Gunpowder Prince by Michael Archer

My USAF C-130 crew flew LAPES and CDS supply drops over besieged Khe Sanh in 1968. Our best flight there, however, took place on the day the siege ended. We landed and on-loaded a hundred Marines led by a captain whose humongous grin is still imprinted in my brain.

“I’ve never been this happy to leave anyplace,” he said, and thanked us at least a dozen times.

Khe Sanh is legendary in military history as both a high and low point for Americans and North Vietnamese. Thirty thousand NVA soldiers surrounded 6,000 United States Marines for ten weeks at that remote combat base in Quang Tri Province. The NVA failed to capture the base. After the siege lifted, however, the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed it.

Michael Archer, a nineteen-year-old Marine PFC at the time, served as a radio operator in the Khe Sanh Fire Support Coordination Center. He helped keep aircraft free from the line of fire of outgoing artillery, working alongside Capt. Mirza Munir Baig, a man with “a head like a computer,” who programmed the artillery.

Archer pays tribute to Baig in The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh (Amazon Digital Services, 145 pp. $14.95, paperback; .99, Kindle). Born to a royal family of India, Baig became an American citizen and chose a warrior’s life. He arrived in Vietnam in 1963, two years ahead of Marine combat units, and roamed the countryside developing a spy network and interrogating prisoners. In 1966 he saw action as an artillery officer in Operation Hastings before returning to in-country counterintelligence the following year.

Baig’s leadership skill rested on three factors: knowledge of past tactics followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, which allowed him to anticipate enemy maneuvers; an ability to predict enemy troop deployments based on listening to audio pickups from a top-secret sensor system; and an art for segmenting terrain into target areas, which expedited delivering firepower ranging from artillery shells to B-52 bombs.

Additionally, when targeting, Baig took advantage of the NVA’s lack of radio discipline: They often led him to themselves. Archer shows how these talents stifled buildups of NVA men and equipment necessary to overrun Khe Sanh, thereby forcing the enemy to switch from assault to encirclement tactics.

Baig’s biggest problem was poor intelligence. He felt “uninformed and in constant peril” while awaiting information that sped up the chain of command but trickled down slowly, Archer writes. That information was “old, incomplete, and almost always useless” to him. My own Vietnam War experience also included intelligence briefings that lacked timely data.

While lauding Baig, Archer analyzes the siege from both sides. He discusses the decisions of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland, which are familiar to many Americans. Of greater interest, he presents the thinking of the North Vietnamese. They recognized, Archer writes, that “an absurd series of mishaps, flukes of incredible bad luck, and appalling security blunders” kept the NVA from repeating a Dien Bien Phu-type victory.

Recent English translations of Vietnamese books and articles are providing insights that confirm or deny ideas that, for half a century, have been speculation among western thinkers. Archer refers to such sources throughout his book.

Similarly, by researching NVA archives, Istvan Toperczer of the Hungarian Air Force revealed the enemy’s side of the war in his books, MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War and MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, information is now available regarding inadequate NVA defensive actions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly efforts to reduce large-scale transportation losses to American AC-130 Spectre gunships.

The Gunpowder Prince is Archer’s third book about Khe Sanh. It contains a great deal of new material. Archer has done his homework and presents scholarly arguments. At the same time, he finds interest in everyday events.

He provides an array of photographs to enhance the text. Both of his previous books have won awards.

The author’s website is www.michaelarcher.net

—Henry Zeybel

The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 by Mervyn Roberts III

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The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.

There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.

By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.

There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.

Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.

The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.

There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.

There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.170px-vietnampropaganda

Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.

On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.

Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.

The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and an upcoming collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

M113 APC 1960-75 by Jamie Prenatt

During the Vietnam War the military called them M113 Armored Personnel Carriers.The troops called them APCs or “tracks.” According to the DoD analyst Jamie Prenatt in M113 APC 1960-75: U.S., ARVN, and Australian Variants in Vietnam (Osprey, 48 pp., $18, paper), the “battlefield taxi” has become the most widely used armored military vehicle in the world since it was developed in 1960.

Prenatt’s book, profusely and well illustrated with color photos and art by illustrators Henry Morshead and Johnny Shumate, offers a concise, fact-filled, comprehensive look at his subject. The book concentrates on M113’s use in the Vietnam War by the Americans, South Vietnamese, and Australians. The first M113s–thirty-two of them—arrived in Vietnam in April 1962, were organized into two mechanized companies, the 7th and 21st, and deployed in IV Corps in southern South Vietnam. This marked the first time APCs were put to use in combat  situations.

The book goes on to explain the dozen M113 variants, including a Fire Support Vehicle. It then offers descriptions of the APCs’ role in ten Vietnam War battles, including the pivotal January 2, 1963, Battle of Ap Bac.

This is an excellent edition to Osprey’s extensive series of books on military hardware and materiel.

—Marc Leepson