A Day in Hell on the DMZ by Lou Pepi

Lou Pepi served in the Vietnam War in 1969 with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 61st Infantry Regiment in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division. He displays life-long allegiance to that group with A Day in Hell on the DMZ: The Rocket Attack on Firebase Charlie 2 in Vietnam, May 21, 1971 (McFarland, 213 pp. $33.94, paper; $13.49, Kindle).

The book is based Pepi’s interviews with 20 men from Alpha Company. He recreates their actions prior to and following the May 21, 1971, event that killed 30 and wounded 33 when a 122-mm rocket caved in the roof of a recreational bunker. Eighteen of the dead came from Alpha Company. Firebase Charlie 2 was in Northern I Corps close to the Demilitarized Zone and easily within range of North Vietnamese Army artillery.

As a reporter, Pepi flawlessly did his homework. He follows the overall course of Alpha’s actions and includes interviewees’ comments at appropriate moments for each event, rather than record their recollections separately. Pepi shows the men in combat and the ways they developed as warriors. His account of an Alpha patrol trapped in an unmapped Con Thien minefield illuminates a nightmare of misguided intentions and disastrous results.       

Even though it was late in the war, Alpha and the 5th Infantry Division endured height-of-the-war demands. Alpha spent 70 consecutive days in the field shortly before the events at Firebase Charlie 2. The Company played a major role in Operation Dewey Canyon II that literally paved the way (constructing 80 kilometers of new roads) for Operation Lam Son 719, the move into Laos that began in February 1971. Alpha’s job was to keep the road open throughout both operations.

Pepi does an excellent job incorporating expert opinions about the planning mistakes of Lam Son that doomed the South Vietnamese Army mission practically before it began.

A Day in Hell on the DMZ pays tribute to all of the men in Alpha Company, with special recognition for those killed in the rocket strike. As Pepi shows, their courage and dedication went above and beyond.

Company Commander Capt. Robert Dean was the driving force in Alpha until he suffered a horrendous injury and was shipped stateside for eight months of hospital care. Unhappily, multiple wounds shortened his first Vietnam War tour as well. His combat career totaled 20 months that resulted in 22 months in hospitals.

5th Infantry soldier on patrol with an M60 machine gun

Dean’s feats in battle, as reported by Pepi, set a standard that his men admired: He asked nothing of them beyond doing what he would do himself. Dean’s pragmatic approach and success in desperate situations overwhelmed me. Pepi gives him the final word in nearly every situation, which he earned and deserves. Robert Dean died in 2018. He deserved to live to 100. I came to idolize the guy.

The book contains many pages of communication logs, plus 14 pages of after action reports dealing with the events of May 21, 1971. Their hour-by-hour accounts provide material for hard-core history buffs.

This book is Pepi’s second about the Vietnam War. He previously wrote My Brothers Have My Back, which centers on a three-day engagement known as the “November Battle,” in which he participated in 1969. During his time with Alpha Company Pepi served as a machine gunner, APC driver, and squad leader.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/my-brothers-have-my-back-by-lou-pepi/

Episodes of counterinsurgency warfare fill A Day in Hell on the DMZ and give readers a treasure trove of facts over which to speculate what might have been, if only….

—Henry Zeybel

Fly By Knights Edited By Roger D. Graham

In Fly By Knights: Air Force A/B/RB-26 Air Commando Missions in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 290 pp. $39.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) retired USAF Col. Roger Graham, with help from fellow Air Force flyers, has constructed a roller-coaster ride of stories about daring feats, successes and screw-ups, unimaginable events, close calls, and losses.

The book’s stories come from 35 Air Commandos (and three family members) in parallel with Graham’s account of the aircraft’s evolution from B-26B to A-26A. He interviewed pilots, navigator/copilots, maintenance and armament personnel, and civilian contractors. The men all expressed positive attitudes about the war and their role in it.

The Air Commandos took part in three Vietnam War operations: Farm Gate at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam from 1961-64, and Big Eagle and Nimrod (Hunter) at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, 1966-1969. From 1964-66 Operation Farm Gate’s B-26s proved to be too old for their task.

The B-26 had excelled in World War II and Korea, and its availability led planners to use those light bombers for close air support and interdiction missions for the “Secret War” in Laos. After 1963-64 incidents in which three B-26Bs lost a wing during low-level pull-ups, headquarters grounded the plane.

Long before that happened, the aircraft had problems. It lacked up-to-date instrumentation. Systems frequently failed. Repairs depended on cannibalization because spare parts seldom were available.

The ancient war plane’s unpredictability grew almost humorous. As an old armorer put it: “The B Model was a maintenance nightmare. It would be just sitting on the ramp with no one around and suddenly decide to start dropping bombs on the ramp.”

Many Air Force units had flown the planes in many different roles and no two planes were alike. Some, for example, had been flown in support of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Despite those handicaps, B-26 crewmen rightfully exuded pride in flying them.

Convinced it was still the best machine for the task, the Air Force corrected the aircraft’s wing spar failures by having On Mark Engineering Company convert 40 B-26s to B-26Ks. Innovative technical and aerodynamic designs brought the airplane up to modern standards. 

With the new B-26Ks, the Commandos eagerly deployed to Nakhon Phanom in 1966. Focused on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they destroyed or damaged more trucks than anyone else. They operated under the Nimrod call sign, but the plane’s designation was changed to A-26 for political purposes. Those flyers, too, found exceptional satisfaction in their mission and unit camaraderie. Increasingly intense and accurate North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft artillery eventually drove the A-26s from Laos.

Fly By Knights contains unit rosters, squadron history documents, and heart-touching reflections on war by members of flyers’ families. The well-written history documents provide insights on truck interdiction tactics.

Roger D. Graham is a 1963 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, and served on active duty as a navigator-bombardier and a judge advocate. As an editor, he definitely gets the most from other people’s stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Against All Tides by Marv Truhe

A riot broke out in the early-morning hours of October 13, 1972, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier on combat patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. Fighting fomented by racial tensions between white and Black sailors turned a section of the vessel into a battleground. Dozens of men were injured; three men had to be medevaced to on-shore medical facilities. The confrontations did not affect combat operations.

Capt. Marland Townsend had set the stage for the conflict that he classified as a “riot.” During his first five months as the ship’s new captain, Townsend had harshly punished Black sailors for behavior that he tolerated from whites.

Townsend’s zeal punishing Black sailors eventually infected multiple levels of command as the opinions of those who sided with Blacks were superseded or ignored. The Navy’s goal soon evolved into ending the entire matter hastily without further publicity. Navy leaders and government decision makers seemed to forget the tenet that everyone merits equal and fair treatment.    

Following the riot, Townsend attempted to try 24 Black sailors by captain’s mast, the Navy equivalent of an Article 15 in which he alone would determine their guilt and punishment. Only three men opted for a mast; two ended up in the ship’s brig for two months. The rest, who chose to be judged by court-martial, were forced to await their judgment in the Subic Bay Naval Base brig, occasionally in solitary confinement. No whites faced charges.

Lt. Marv Truhe, a former Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps lawyer at the time, has come up with a thorough account of the riot in Against All Tides: The Untold Story of the USS Kitty Hawk Race Riot  (Lawrence Hill, 320 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $11.49, Kindle). Truhe helped defend six Black Kitty Hawk sailors charged with rioting and assaulting white sailors.

Truhe analyzes Townsend’s actions, as well as the entire Navy command structure’s, at great length. He sets out each Black sailors’ situation in the riot, a factor disregarded by Townsend and others who treated them as a tightly unified group with no individual identity. If I listed all of the unfair procedures against the Blacks and their lawyers from start to finish of the case, this review would be ten-pages long.  

Working alongside other military, civilian, and NAACP defense lawyers, Truhe helped challenge the Navy for its one-sided investigation that charged only Black sailors and for the pretrial confinement of the accused in prison cells for months, an unprecedented action in the history of the modern Navy. He also writes about his own removal and possible court- martial as a defense counsel; the improper withholding of evidence by the government; and the dishonorable discharge of a Black sailor based on perjured testimony.

The book’s abundance of facts speaks for itself. Truhe fortifies his account by referencing his original case file, which includes interview notes with clients, witnesses, defendants, and fellow lawyers; dozens of tape recordings; official Kitty Hawk documents; and trial and hearing transcripts. “No publications or other accounts have captured the complete story,” he writes, “and too many have gotten it completely wrong.”

Lt. Truhe in 1972

After showing how government-supported racism grew, Truhe concedes that the outcome of the trials ultimately proved a vindication of sorts considering there were acquittals, dropped charges, and relatively lenient sentences. Plus, all of the defendants left the Navy with honorable discharges.

The most enlightening parts of Against All Tides are outtakes from legal arguments and courtroom cross examinations. They provide a touch of David versus Goliath, with low-ranking defense lawyers challenging high-ranking judges and admirals. The young lieutenants built great cases, but the big men often had the final word.

The Kitty Hawk conflict balanced out when, following the trials, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt invited Navy officers “who do not view improved race relations as their critical duty right now to retire from the service.”

The book’s best message: “Those who are oblivious to their own prejudices are guilty of one of the more insidious forms of racism.”

Anyone interested in further pursuing this topic should look into, Gregory A. Freeman’s Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk (2010), a full-length book, and Laurel Habrock’s a 98-page paperback, Troubled Water: Race, Munity, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk, published in 2021.

The author’s website is marvtruhe.com

—Henry Zeybel

Going Downtown by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an author and screenwriter. He also is a U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran and a licensed pilot with a lifelong interest in all things aeronautic. All of the above give him a unique insight into the American air war in Vietnam.

Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The U.S. Air Force over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1967-1975 (Osprey, 352 pp. $30, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) is a compilation of pilot biographies and memoirs interspersed with analyses of political and military decisions about how the USAF and the North Vietnamese ran air operations during the war.

Using extensive research and interviews, Cleaver has combined seemingly mundane, behind-the-scenes events with bone-chilling battle scenes. For me, Going Downtown was one of those “can’t put it down” reads, although I did put it down periodically just to digest the mountains of information I was learning.

Many aircraft and pilots are showcased throughout Going Downtown. It was an unexpected delight to read many accounts of our former enemy pilots as well.

The American pilots faced several deadly factors: North Vietnamese air defenses, including MIGs, SAMs, and antiaircraft buns of all types; Rules of Engagement devised by men in the White House and Defense Department, many of whom had little or no military backgrounds; faulty aircraft armament which led to many air-to-air missiles malfunctioning or being too cumbersome to use in combat; and poor tactics, one of which forced all aircraft in a flight to jettison their bombs, abort an attack, and head for home as soon as an approaching MIG was sighted.

Cleaver says some strategists felt that the outcome of the USAF air campaign in Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power, while many who actually fought felt that what happened demonstrated the results of imposing limitations on air power. Cleaver shows that at times the NVA maintained unquestionable air superiority, but when the Rules of Engagement were relaxed, the U.S. immediately took over the skies of North Vietnam.

I highly recommend Going Downtown to historians, action readers, and aviation buffs. It is a good companion to Cleaver’s The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in Vietnam, which was published in 2021.

–Bob Wartman

LZ Sitting Duck by John Arsenault

Many Vietnam War veterans well remember what it was like to be thrown into battle in a remote corner of South Vietnam, fighting for their lives in combat that ultimately would made absolutely no sense. Fire Support Base Argonne on the Laotian border just below the DMZ in Quang Tri Province was one of those places.    

In defiance of common sense, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division were compelled to attack Argonne, a former U.S. fire support base. The North Vietnamese Army always prepared defenses on abandoned bases, including booby traps, in anticipation of returning American troops. What happened at FSB Argonne was no different.  

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Arsenault’s LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne (Liberty Hill Press, 272 pp. ($32.49, hardcover; $17.40, paper; $8.99; Kindle) is a collection of vignettes taken from nearly two dozen Marines who went through hell just trying to survive as they fought tenaciously against a determined foe.    

From the moment the Marines assaulted the LZ they named Sitting Duck, they came under intense fire and began taking heavy casualties. That situation would not change much for the entire time they conducted operations. Snipers picked them off, mortar rounds rained down on them, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, an artillery round intended for the North Vietnamese fell short, leaving no one unscathed.     

The highly regarded battalion CO, seemly invincible as he stood up to lead his men, became just one more KIA. That was one of many scary moments for a lieutenant who describes watching his CO take a direct hit to the head.

The Marines performed feats of pure heroism. Again and again, as one reads their accounts at Argonne there is a real feeling of being there amid the incoming fire, the chaos, and the confusion. The Marines fought in rugged terrain with little water to combat their dehydration from the overwhelming heat, all while attacking the enemy troops ensconced in well-prepared fighting positions.

Many of the book’s twenty-four vignettes describe the same battle scenes; but each one offers something new from a different Marine’s perspective. Their individual accounts are almost like reading a murder mystery in which different witnesses describe a crime scene with each one seeing things differently.

Collectively, this book adds up to an astounding account of perseverance, hardship, heroism, and endurance. One can’t help but coming away from reading these battle stories with admiration for the Marines who fought at Argonne.   

This is a sobering account of combat that should be read.

–John Cirafici

Ghostriders 1976-1995 by William Walter

Retired USAF Chief Master Sgt. William Walter’s second book on the 16th Special Operations Squadron’s AC-130 Spectre gunship operations describes a masterpiece on American military intervention—for good and bad. Ghostriders 1976-1995: “Invictus” Combat History of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship: Iran, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia (Knox Press, 491 pp. $36.62, hardcover; $14.99 Kindle) covers two decades of the squadron’s involvement in worldwide military operations in the post-Vietnam War years. It picks up where Walter’s previous volume, Ghostriders 1968-1975, left off.

Walter served for 30 years in the U.S. Air Force—28 of them as an aerial gunner with Spectre. He deployed on every operation in the nations listed in the title.

The accounts in Ghostriders 1976-1995 refreshed a wealth of memories for me and filled gaps in my knowledge of foreign affairs. The book is thought provoking. It awed and angered me as I read about the use and misuse of gunships, as well as other special operation forces. Readers will find material here that can help them learn more about U.S. interventions in other nations during the closing years of the twentieth century. My pulse vacillated between, “Thank God for that,” and “What an enlightening nightmare!”

His book goes beyond the front-line actions of the men of Spectre. Through the eyes of AC-130 crewmembers and their commanders, Walker provides insights into secret political and military maneuverings that led to these post-Vietnam-War foreign involvements. Spectre filled a Big Brother role in most of the operations. The planes primarily operated under the principle of restrained aggression.

The normal pattern of gunship operations involved secrecy. Planners worked in isolation. Crewmen learned nothing about their tasks until arriving near the site of an operation. They worked under rules far beyond the norm: For the 1980 rescue of 53 hostages held in Iran, for example, a gunship crew was designated to stay on site until reaching fuel minimums; it then landed, destroyed the aircraft, and exited the area on another aircraft. After the rescue in Iran failed, commanders ordered those involved to sign nondisclosure agreements.

Likewise, America’s 1983 response to fears of a Fidel Castro-inspired communist takeover of El Salvador prompted gunship surveillance of the rebels—an operation that our government denied existed. The survey missions lasted for nearly seven years without firing a shot, Walter says.

During the first Persian Gulf War Spectre crews had to rely on “nothing but their wits, training, and luck to prevent them from being blown out of the sky.”

Political compromises turned Spectre into a police vehicle mostly for show in Somalia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following its initial intervention in a trouble spot, Spectre’s duty devolved into surveillance that tracked the bad guys without the authority to confront them. This exclusion from combat resulted in otherwise avoidable losses due to lack of firepower support.

Walter has his stuff together. I hope he would write a third volume about AC-130s. The A-models that flew in Vietnam have evolved into H, U, W, and J-models. Each improvement increased firepower and broadened search ability—and perhaps other secret changes—to make the plane a perfect close support aircraft.

Walter ends the book with this line: “The story of Spectre continues to build under a cloak of darkness, even today.”

—Henry Zeybel

Ghostriders 1968-1975 by William Walter

Retired Chief Master Sgt. William Walter has written the book that many of us have been waiting for since the last century: Ghostriders 1968-1975: “Mors de Caelis” Combat History of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (Knox Press, 352 pp. $35, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In it, Walter describes a six-year battle matching the U.S. Air Force’s 16th Special Operations Squadron against the North Vietnamese Army’s 591st Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The two units clashed in Laos above the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Comprised of AC-130 Spectre gunships, the 16th SOS destroyed trucks and other vehicles along the Trail, while the 591st tried to shoot down the gunships. The 16th dominated the arena, but in the end, the 591st deployed a sufficient array of weapons to drive the gunships from the theater.

After crewing as a Spectre gunner from 1978-2005, Walter spent more than a decade researching this book. He recreates the multi-year battle based on information from USAF records, archives, and 16th post-strike combat reports; as well as interviews with former 16th crewmembers; and NVA commanders’ writings and other publications. In portraying turning points of combat, Walter provides nearly night-by-night accounts of the ploys and counter ploys employed by the gunships and by the NVA defenses. Anti-aircraft fire intensified in proportion to the number of trucks destroyed or damaged.

Walter tells his stories from crewmen’s viewpoints, and they overflow with authenticity. His narrative grows more off-beat and captivating as firepower and accuracy balanced out between the two sides. He shows us why and how Spectre crews performed over the Trail and shows how the enemy truck drivers reacted on the ground. He compares the responses of American and North Vietnamese combatants to the thinking of their higher-level decision makers.

Encounters over the Trail often became a take-your-best-shot situation. For the first five years of the battle, gunships took frequent survivable hits, but trucks suffered large numbers of fatalities. Drivers became demoralized and frightened by the gunships’ ability to locate them, a mentality that enemy leaders found difficult to deal with. Often, the mere presence of a gunship overhead caused drivers to stop, shut down their engines, abandon their vehicles, or do whatever else might save them from discovery.  Consequently, transportation of men and materiel ceased for the duration of a gunship’s overfly.

During the final year of battle, Trail defenses grew more prolific and powerful with the introduction of  85- and 100-mm guns, along with SA-2 and SA-7 missiles. The improved defensive structure forced gunships to fly higher and higher, thereby reducing the effectiveness and accuracy of their weapons. The NVA shot down four gunships, causing tactical changes that curtailed truck hunting. Spectre’s main task then became night protection of Saigon and, after the war ended in 1973, close air support for Cambodians fighting the Khmer Rouge.  

At length, Walter sorts out a controversy regarding the lethality of a gunship’s weapons. Studies showed that AC-130 practices for close air support, interdiction, command and control, and search and rescue developed through on-the-job training—meaning in combat.

Ghostriders‘ short final chapter records the 16th SOS’s role in the recovery of the U.S.S. Mayaguez in 1975. On that mission, Spectre flew 15 support missions during three days of utter confusion, its final combat role in Southeast Asia.

An AC-130 Spectre Gunship in action in Vietnam

The book is user friendly. In a brief Forward, Walter clearly explains the birth and evolution of the AC-130 structure, manning, and basic maneuvers. He tailored the book to ensure that a reader understands exactly what is taking place at all times by adding an event chronology, glossary, references, and index.

“Either by design or by chance,” Walter says, “the AC-130 earned a unique position in military history.” 

I operated sensors for Spectre during 1970-71 and found Walter’s accounts to be complete in every way. I believe a person unfamiliar with the aircraft will be spellbound by the facts Walter has accumulated. The book took me back to familiar places and taught me things I had not known.

Knox Press recently published Ghostriders 1976-1995: “Invictus” Combat History of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship, Iran, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia,”  Walter’s sequel to Ghostriders 1968-1975. The second book covers U.S. actions in areas less familiar to the public than those in the highly reported war in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars by Joe Copalman

Joe Copalman is an expert on aviation history. F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle), his first work for Osprey, is a thorough rundown of an aircraft that was hitherto unfamiliar to me. Along with accounts of its role in two wars, Copalman includes views of the Skynight’s activities throughout the Cold War. Jim Laurier provides the book’s artwork, the usual first-class Osprey combination of drawings and photographs.

The Douglas F3D Skyknight was in action with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as a night fighter jet from 1950-70. A pilot and radar operator manned the plane. Copalman calls the aircraft “the most unsung hero of its two major wars.”

In Korea, twelve F3Ds Skyknights (nicknamed “Nightmares”) replaced the F4U-5N Corsair and F7F Tigercat in August 1952. Copalman describes missions of crews inexperienced in combat against both Korean and Chinese aircraft and high caliber antiaircraft fire. The pilots developed complicated maneuvers and struck ground targets of opportunity. Lacking formal training in tactics, they learned by doing.

With detailed accounts of air warfare, Copalman explains Nightmares’ difficulties tryin to avoid becoming bait for MiGs and searchlight traps, as well as the rigors of escorting outdated B-29s. The Nightmare pilots were pragmatic and understood that their jamming was effective when tracking AAA began firing erratically as their aircraft broke enemy radar locks. The Nightmares’ confrontations with slow-moving North Korean “Bedcheck Charlie” biplanes steal the Korean War show.

Two years after the Korean War, the F3D upgraded to the F3D-2Q, re-labeled the EF-10B in 1962. In the Cold War the plane performed photographic and electronic surveillance against Soviet-designed radar in North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Far East. The EF-10Bs and MiGs looked each other over, but never fought.

The Vietnam War required a full-scale array of new tactics by EF-10B crews. They deployed as squadron VMCJ-1 to Da Nang in April 1965 and operated over South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Copalman offers a full picture of the squadron’s actions during five years in-country. Renaming the aircraft “Whale” and “Super Whale,” crewmen again basically learned the best tactics for themselves through on-the-job training.

The men’s primary task was hunting and jamming North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception sites electronically or with chaff to outwit surface-to-air missile launch teams. In support of fighter-bombers, EF-10B crews were the first on target and last to leave. Overloaded with jammers and carrying maximum fuel, Whale pilots could barely get airborne and often shut down an engine to save fuel and lengthen their time over targets.

Whale and enemy SAM crews both developed new tactics. SAM crews tended to improve slightly faster because Soviet technical advisers helped them; at the same time, Pentagon rules restricted EF-10B attacks on SAM sites for fear of killing Russian advisers and escalating the war.

EF-10Bs escorted Navy A3Ds on straight-and-level, slow-speed bombing missions that one Skyknight pilot likened to World War B-17 raids on Germany. Every day offered a new experience.  

Copalman describes almost unimaginable highlights of the EF-10B’s flying from aircraft carriers. More than likely, he could write an entire book about the uniqueness of that potentially self-destructive practice.

I enjoyed F3D/EF-10. Like every Osprey book, its research uncovered new facts about warfare—in this case, the work of an aircraft unfamiliar to me. Heroics also are part of the drama.

Copalman portrays the resilience of American flyers by showing how they had to learn for themselves the best ways to execute their mission.

They relearned old lessons that hadn’t been passed down by people in similar dilemmas. Copalman clearly shows that the pilots came up with tactics that helped others more than themselves.

–Henry Zeybel

SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars by John L. Plaster

What could be more blandly benign than an organization called the Studies and Observation Group? As anyone familiar with the history of the American war in Vietnam knows, though, SOG, which came into being in January 1964, did much, much more than just study and observe. SOG was a top-secret, multi-unit, special warfare MACV operation that mounted countless undercover missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

That included disrupting enemy activities primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; undertaking prisoner snatches and other types of rescue operations; and mounting psychological ops. SOG teams were made up of U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Warfare Units, South Vietnamese Special Forces, and Montagnard volunteers.

SOG was “the only U.S. military organization [in the Vietnam War] operating throughout Southeast Asia with its own aircraft, raiding forces, recon units and naval arm,” retired Army Maj. John Plaster writes in SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars (Casemate, 456 pp., $49.95), a revised and updated examination of SOG with more than 700 photos, maps, charts, and sidebars.

First published in 2000, the book is a companion photo history to Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, but could very well stand on its own as a history of SOG. Plaster—who served three years with SOG, leading intelligence-gathering recon teams behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia—writes about many operations and the men who took part in them, a group that includes eight Medal of Honor recipients.

Although Plaster doesn’t include footnotes or a bibliography, he has his facts straight throughout the book, including in his accounts of operations such as the Son Tay prison raid and Bright Light rescue missions of downed American flyers in enemy territory in North and South Vietnam. 

–Marc Leepson