Improvising a War by Benjamin L. Landis

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If you want an accurate picture of how the United States Army General Staff functioned during the early years of the Vietnam War, you should read Benjamin L. Landis’ Improvising a War: The Pentagon Years, 1965-1967: Reminiscences of an Untried Warrior  (Merriam Press, 186 pp. $11.95, paper).

Landis, who graduated from West Point in 1946, wrote the book based on his staff work as a lieutenant colonel at the place and time of the title. The representative of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel, his job was to see that requested and approved units went to Vietnam on their scheduled dates, he says.

That sounds easy: Cut the orders and ship the troops. But it didn’t work that way because President Lyndon Johnson would not let the Army use National Guard and Reserve troops. That left an undermanned and under-equipped Army to fend for itself.

From among a crowd of lieutenant colonels who filled junior positions in their section of the Pentagon, Landis ended up in a job for which he had no background or training. As the newest guy, he had led an ad hoc inter-staff committee designed to find, equip, and train enough men for deployment to Vietnam, a duty that no other LTC wanted.

By that time, four big combat units had been sent to Vietnam. But they were not in good-enough shape to perform their missions, as Landis saw it. The need to improve the system was exemplified by Landis’ “disillusioned and frustrated” boss, a senior colonel who told him, “If I’m going to go down because of this, I’m not going alone.”

With tacit approval from his superiors, Landis enlisted Maj. William Duba and together they “skirted [and] circumvented, rules, regulations, policies, chain of command. I exceeded my authority regularly,” he says. “We did whatever we had to do to get the required people into the units deploying to Vietnam. We were not always 100% successful. We were in a bureaucratic morass that at times engulfed us.”

During his first year at the Pentagon, Landis worked without a computer despite needing to search Army records worldwide to fill assignments. Guidance came from Army Regulation 220-1 Field Organizations Unit Readiness. Landis attaches a copy of that reg at the end of his book. He also includes photographs of the most important players involved in the deployment program.

Improvising a War is a good read because Benjamin Landis wrote it fifteen years after leaving the Pentagon when his on-the-job notes and vivid memories were fresh. In 2012, he pulled the draft from his files, edited it, and added anecdotes from his long military career, then published it this year.

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His writing style delighted me. He uses real names, and the guilty are not forgotten. Landis describes a fellow officer as “undoubtedly the worst lieutenant colonel I ever encountered” who “could very well have been the worst lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army at that time.” He says an orientation talk about his new job from his new boss was “cordial, concise, and imprecise.” He tells a story about a major general who carried “tradition to the outer limits of absurdity.”

Landis, by the way, also lauds his heroes.

His insight into the dreams, schemes, and machinations of full and light colonels in quest of their next promotions validates the suspicions often held by lower-ranking personnel. The book also provides an eye-opening lecture on Army readiness in the mid-sixties.

Shuffling paperwork can be a lackluster pursuit, but Landis has turned his deployment task into a management adventure as entertaining as any I have read.

Vietnam veterans who served in the 9th or 25th Infantry Divisions or the 196th Infantry Brigade should find interest in Landis’  inside stories of the war-time deployment of their units.

—Henry Zeybel

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MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Brutal Battles of Vietnam edited by Richard K. Kolb

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Richard K. Kolb, the recently retired long-time publisher and editor-in-chief of VFW magazine, has spent more than a decade preparing the newly published Brutal Battles of Vietnam: America’s Deadliest Days, 1965-1972 (VWF, 480 pp., $29.95). This worthy book is the fruit of Kolb’s research, writing, and editing of a long-running series in his magazine called “Vietnam’s Deadliest Battles.”

Brutal Battles is a reader-friendly, heavily illustrated coffee-table-sized tome that, as Kolb puts it, stands as “the first and only” book that presents “a comprehensive U.S. battle history of Vietnam in a single volume.” Kolb and his team of writers (including the noted Vietnam War specialists Al Hemingway and Keith Nolan) do not deal with politics at home, geopolitics, the antiwar movement, life in the rear, diplomacy, strategy, accounts of the ARVN (or NVA or VC)—or any kind of in-depth analysis of tactics. In other words, as Kolb puts it, the book “is not Vietnam 101.”

Instead, Brutal Battles is a compelling, well-written compilation of on-the-mark reports on dozens of Vietnam War engagements that ended in significant casualties. In other words, that is, the deadliest, most brutal, of the war’s all-out battles and other engagements.

Each one gets a relatively short but meaty chapter told from the point of view of the Americans who did the fighting. We get the voices of everyday troops who fought in the battles, along with cogent descriptions of what took place, as well as tributes to those who perished and those who performed courageously under fire.

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Rich Kolb, who served in Vietnam with the Army’s 4th Infantry and 101st Airborne Divisions in 1970-71, shaped the magazine series and the book to include actions involving every American infantry division, independent infantry brigade, and separate regiment that took part in the war. They are presented chronologically through 1972.

What follows is a section on Navy and Air Force engagements. Then comes a tribute to the war’s most highly decorated troops and statistical info, including a 1959-72 combat chronology.

For purchasing info, go to the VFW store.

—Marc Leepson

Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Michael A. Eggleston

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After a thirty-year career in the U.S. Army, Michael A. Eggleston became a historian. His first five books focused on the American Civil War, U.S. Marines in World War I, and Vietnamization. He addresses a different aspect of the Vietnam War in Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 (McFarland, 224 pp. $35, paper;  $9.99, Kindle).

The North Vietnamese designed an offensive in and around Dak To, Eggleston writes, to try to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese forces away from the large cities, thereby setting the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. What’s called “Hanoi’s Plan” changed the enemy’s strategy from replying primarily on Viet Cong guerrilla warfare to a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive designed to “cause a spontaneous uprising [among South Vietnamese] in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest possible time.”

Con Thien, Dak To, and Khe Sanh were the primary NVA targets. In other words, the North expected to “win in a single stroke,” Eggleston says.

The plan appeared unrealistic and did not work, as Eggleston notes. At the same time, he explains a disparity in American strategic thinking regarding a choice between pacification and attrition programs. In the end, Gen. William Westmoreland’s costly body-counting war of attrition strategy prevailed.

The core of the book is a long chapter about the many battles fought along the Cambodian and Laotian borders near Dak To. This chapter alone—in which Eggleston recreates a series of hill battles—is worth the price of the book.

“Vietnam’s bloodiest campaign started on 15 June [1967], when the 24th NVA Regiment annihilated a CDIG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] patrol led by two U.S. Special Forces advisors near Dak To,” he writes. After that, the men of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade did the brunt of the fighting. The combat lasted until Thanksgiving.

The recounting of five days of fighting for Hill 875 tells as much about the horror of war as anything I have read. Eggleston calls this engagement “the costliest fight of the Vietnam War.”

Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles. Their actions and observations fascinated me; among them the fact that the extraordinary became routine. Additionally, Eggleston uses published memoirs by infantrymen, Combat Operations After Action Reports, secondary sources, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletter excerpts, TV reports, and other video sources. He also relies on personal knowledge gained during his two tours at Pleiku.

He concludes with a chapter, “Aftermath,” that summarizes what happened during the 1968 Tet Offensive and follow-on action across South Vietnam. And he takes the narrative up to 1975 when the North finally prevailed.

Eggleston is opinionated and readily points fingers at those he believes were responsible for America’s failure to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands. “If any single person can be blamed for precipitating our full involvement in the war in Vietnam,” he writes, for example, “it was [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” Eggleston also faults Gen. Westmoreland failing to see the war’s big picture. Additionally, he names and blames lower-level commanders who put their careers ahead of the lives of the men they led.

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Michael Eggleston

Along with a list of definitions for acronyms, he includes biographical sketches of key participants in the book, a chronology of Vietnamese history from 1930-77, unit organizations, and a list covering nineteen pages of the names of U.S. personnel killed in the Dak To fight.

Eggleston labels the organizational style of his writing a hybrid because it “merges the official history of the war with the oral history of people who were there.”

The depth of his research provides personalities for each of his accounts of battle. He delivers an extremely interesting approach to history.

—Henry Zeybel

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam edited by Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway

Vietnam War Swift Boats exemplified a one-of-a-kind weapons system from 1965-70. They were designed and built for intercepting North Vietnamese trawlers that supplied NVA and VC troops in South Vietnam. In late 1968, their mission expanded to patrolling rivers, streams, and canals, which greatly increased their contact with the enemy.

The fifty-foot-long Swift Boats’ main strength was an ability to “outrun anything they couldn’t outfight,” the crewmen said.

On Swift Boats, an Officer in Charge commanded five crewmen and enjoyed virtually total independence of operation. Only 116 Swift Boats took part in the Vietnam War, manned by about 600 officers and some 3,000 enlisted men. Nearly all the men were in their early to mid-twenties. Fifty Swift Boat sailors were killed in Vietnam, and 400 wounded.

Guy Gugliotta, John Yeoman, and Neva Sullaway have combined their experience and knowledge to put together Swift Boats at War in Vietnam (Stackpole, 328 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $15.65, Kindle), an oral history. Gugliotta, a former journalist, and Yeoman earned three Bronze Stars each while commanding Swift Boats. Sullaway’s expertise centered on peaceful maritime activities.

Their book’s chapters tell the Swift Boat story chronologically from 1965-70—the life of the American operation. Thereafter, the boats were turned over to the South Vietnamese. Each chapter begins with a review of official monthly Operations Summaries for a given year. Then comes a series of oral histories from crewmen who served on Swift Boats during that year.

A large number of Swift Boat veterans responded to the editors’ requests for stories about their war experiences. Those selected for the book strike many emotional notes: humorous, sad, bitter, sardonic, enlightened. Their testimony reflects the pride of the crews and provides a vivid view of Swift Boats and their crews at war and at rest in Vietnam.

The book’s photographs are significantly enhanced by captions that explain the pictures, such as one showing a boat’s 81-mm mortar, aimed like a cannon, which “could accurately hit targets 4,000 meters away. In the horizontal mode, accuracy was good to about 1,000 yards.”

Swift Boats at War in Vietnam is an ideal place to begin reading for anyone unfamiliar with the subject. Those who know about the boats should be entertained by the range of feelings displayed in the short war-time stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments by Gordon L. Rottman

The latest book in Osprey Publishing’s long-running “Elite” series of richly illustrated, concise compendiums of military forces, artifacts, people, and warfare techniques is Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments (65 pp. $19, paper), written by the much-published Gordon L. Rottman, who served with Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, and illustrated by the veteran artist, Adam Hook.

This volume does a fine job focusing on showing and telling the things we American soldiers and Marines carried in Vietnam, along with sections on the combat equipment used by the ARVN, and the Australians. We’re talking about equipment here, not weapons so much—so, we get detailed explanations (and photos and sketches) of all manner of things such as weapon accessory cases, rucksacks, canteens, entrenching tools, machetes, bayonets, flashlights, gas masks, and much, much more.

—Marc Leepson

 

Combat Talons in Vietnam by John Gargus

The C-130 Combat Talon program was classified Top Secret during the Vietnam War. It operated out of Nha Trang Air Base. From there, six crews with four airplanes flew deep into North Vietnam to drop men, equipment, and leaflets intended to disrupt the enemy’s hierarchy. Navigator John Gargus, a retired USAF colonel, recounts his involvement in the program in 1967-68 in Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew (Texas A&M University Press, 272 pp.; $35, hardcover; $19.25, Kindle).

The Top Secret classification extended to every aspect of Combat Talon ops. For example, a section of the aircraft was partitioned by “heavy duty curtains” to prevent viewing of “sensitive Top Secret” electronic countermeasures equipment by “those who had no need to know,” as Gargus puts it. Conversation and planning for operations were limited to one secure room. Furthermore, crews “never knew the exact content” of bundles they delivered, Gargus says.  Basically, Combat Talon was an instrument of MACVSOG (the covert MACV Studies and Observations Group).

Gargus spent twenty-seven years in the Air Force. He served as the lead navigator for the November 1970 Son Tay Prison raid (for which he was awarded the Silver Star), and later wrote a book about the mission. In 2003, he was inducted into the Air Commando Hall of Fame.

Gargus tells his story from a “personal perspective enhanced by numerous accounts of [his] colleagues who assisted [him] with their documented inputs.” In his history of the development of Combat Talon equipment, he points out that the air frame has also been called “Stray Goose” and “Blackbird.” He describes the airplane’s specialized performance capabilities—such as the Fulton Recovery System. But more so, he focuses on the disappearance of Crew S-01 in 1967 and the decades-long effort to find the men’s remains and return them to the United States.

He twice tells the story of the loss of Crew S-01. First, as part of his memoir, Gargus gives his eyewitness account of events as they happened, along with his post-war activities to expedite the return and burial of the crew. Second, in an appendix, “The Last Mission of Combat Talon’s S-01 Crew,” he offers a detailed account of the flight originally published as a booklet for the lost crew’s families.

His analysis of procedures for finding MIAs is an education in itself. He explains the intricacies of practices related to communications with next of kin, crash site recovery procedures, identification of remains, and burial and memorial services.

“All Americans should be proud of the way the U.S. government persists in identifying and returning the remains of fallen soldiers,” he writes.

The identified human remains of Crew S-01 reside in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

In an epilogue, Gargus pays tribute to Special Operations. He also provides a remembrance of the seven Combat Talon aircrews lost between 1967 and 2005. Fifty-six illustrations enhance the text.

—Henry Zeybel