The Freedom Shield by John D. Falcon

Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.

Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.

Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.   

That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.  

Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.

He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.  

With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalry was continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone. 

In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”

This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.

— John Cirafici

The Golden Brigade by Robert J. Dvorchak

In World Wars I and II and in the Vietnam War the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division earned the nickname “All American Division” and its 3rd Brigade became known as the “Golden Brigade” based on their combat performances. In the First Gulf War, Journalist Robert J. Dvorchak accompanied the 82nd in Kuwait and Iraq and wrote an Ernie Pyle-style book about it.

Thereafter, mutual admiration between Dvorchak and men of the 82nd’s Third Brigade led him to write The Golden Brigade: The Untold Story of the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam and Beyond (IBJ Book Publishing, 528 pp. $35.00).

With fifty years of experience as a journalist, author, and historian Robert Dvorchak is nearly as famous in military circles as the 82nd Division. He has won many awards for covering high-profile events during the past half century. He wrote The Golden Brigade after interviewing veterans from the 82nd who had fought in the Vietnam War, many of whom had not previously spoken about their war-time experiences. Based on the breadth and depth of its combat reporting, I rank the book a must-read. Containing more 500 pages, The Golden Brigade is a solid chunk of history.

Within days after the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong started their 1968 Tet Offensive, the 82nd deployed from Fort Bragg to the fighting in Hue. An estimated 80 percent of the 82nd personnel already had served a year in Vietnam. Undermanned, the division deployed as a single brigade under command of a colonel. For eight months the 82nd fought to control the countryside around Hue and then moved south for more than a year to protect Saigon against NVA infiltration from Cambodia.

The book contains 62 pages of excellent photographs and maps. Most of the photographs are in color and show troops in the field, which adds a you-are-there feeling to the text.

Dvorchak builds word pictures based on the memories of men of all ranks and backgrounds. He names plenty of names. When introducing veterans, he offers a clever bit of writing by paralleling the men’s activities with the war’s history. Readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War will find such passages valuable. The technique reveals the pronounced differences of operational thinking at different command levels.        

The stories of these men are captivating. They run the gamut of emotions under stress. While relating them, Dvorchak rounds out the men’s personalities by frequently flashing backward and forward to families left behind and other life experiences.

The stories also touch on controversial aspects of the Vietnam War, such as using drugs and reporting body counts.

As an honorary member of the 82nd, Robert Dvorchak tell us that some 200 veterans of the Golden Brigade attend the unit’s annual reunions. Above all else, he portrays the 82nd as an extraordinary brotherhood of warriors.

For more info on the book, go to the publisher’s website.

—Henry Zeybel

North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive by Stephen Emerson

Stephen Emerson’s message in North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive : Hanoi’s Gamble (Pen & Sword, 126 pp. $22.95, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam could not have defeated North Vietnamese Army invaders without airpower provided by the United States. He repeatedly cites B-52s—which averaged 76 sorties a day during June, July, and August 1972 and carpet-bombed within 600 yards of friendly forces—and Spectre AC-130 gunships as the deciding factors.

Emerson, a Ph.D. in International Relations/Comparative Politics, has written three other books about conflicts in Southeast Asia. He also has authored more than 100 classified and unclassified publications on topics ranging from American national security affairs and political instability to terrorism, African conflicts, and counter-insurgency.

He describes the Vietnam War in 1972 as a now-or-never situation. Four years of talks between American and North Vietnamese diplomats had produced little progress, Emerson says. Both sides felt a proclivity for a military solution to the war. Vietnamization had put the onus on the ARVN to defend its nation with help from a comparatively few American advisers.

Massing its largest concentration of troops, tanks, and artillery of the war, the NVA invaded, and drove the wavering ARVN to the brink of defeat in Military Regions 1, 2, and 3. Until American air power intervened.

An angry President Richard Nixon initiated Operation Linebacker to step up bombing inside North Vietnam. Air Force and Navy fighter-bombers crippled transportation and supply systems by collapsing bridges, cutting rail lines, and destroying stockpiles of war goods. However, the more immediate airpower need required killing enemy invaders on the ground in South Vietnam, which the B-52s and AC-130s did most effectively.

With support from maps, Emerson explains the ebb and flow of fighting during the middle six months of 1972. He presents detailed accounts of the fall of Quang Tri and the defense of Hue, the battle for Kontum, and the siege of An Loc.

To me, the most interesting part of the book he titles “Saigon Counterattacks.” in which the ARVN broke free from the Hue pocket, outlasted the NVA attackers at An Loc, and recaptured Quang Tri to end the Easter Offensive.

Emerson’s research principally relies on American sources. I would have appreciated more input about the thinking of North Vietnamese military and political leaders. Otherwise, North Vietnam’s 1972 Easter Offensive is an excellent summation of an averted disaster.

Practically every page of the book contains a black-and-white photograph, and an eight-page gallery in the middle of the book offers color photos. That collection of images ranks among the best I have seen in a Vietnam War book.

For several weeks during the Easter Offensive, I was part of a three-man team on special assignment from Hurlburt Field in Florida to locate NVA 130-mm artillery in a Spectre gunship. I went on two missions to An Loc and found the fighting more frantic than anything I had experienced during my previous year’s tour with Spectre, which included the Lam Son 719 debacle.

A B-52 unloading during Operation Linebacker

At the same time, in-country operations exuded a grim determination. Emerson’s extensive history helped me to realize why our mission failed: We had not seen the big picture all those years ago.

Emerson closes the book with discussions about diplomatic stalemates, Linebacker II, and a post-mortem. He did not need to do so. The ARVN’s poor performance during Lam Son 719 in 1971 and its inability to act independently against the 1972 Easter Offensive foreshadowed exactly what was to come after the NVA rebuilt its forces.

—Henry Zeybel

The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

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Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

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 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud

Gators Offshore and Upriver by David D. Bruhn

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Gators Offshore and Upriver: The U.S. Navy’s Amphibious Ships and Underwater Demolition Teams, and Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers in Vietnam (Heritage Books, 418 pp., $40) is the latest book by David Bruhn, a retired U.S. Navy commander who served on active duty from 1977-2001 and has written more than a dozen books on U.S. Navy military history. Like On the Gunline, Bruhn’s previous book, Gators Offshore and Upriver contains an excellent historical account of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

Gators Offshore and Upriver focuses on the 142 amphibious ships known as Gators that took part in many engagements and operations during the war. That includes the long-running (1965-73) Operation Game Warden, the 1968 Tet Offensive, Operation Sealords (1968-71), and the 1970 Cambodian Incursion.

The Gators are World War II-era landing ships that were returned from mothballs to serve in the war in Vietnam. They performed many roles in-county, including as mobile support bases. They also delivered vital cargo to troops and, later in the war, placed mines to protect ports as part of the blockade of 1972.

The men on these ships faced many dangers, including ambushes and sneak attacks by swimmer-sappers. These enemy soldiers swam through the Brown Water rivers, and placed explosive charges on the hulls of the Gators. One such attack occurred on the USS Westchester County on November 1, 1968, near My Tho, when Viet Cong divers managed to attach two huge mines to the hull. Twenty-five sailors were killed and twenty three wounded in the resulting explosion.

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The USS Westchester County (LST 1167)

In the book Bruhn also documents the role of the Royal Australian Navy Clearance Divers, showing how they helped diffuse the damage of the swimmer-sappers. In the Postscript he goes into detail documenting the important role of that unit.

This book is meticulously researched and includes 190 photographs, maps, and diagrams. I recommend it, as well as On the Gunline, to anyone serving in the Navy during this period as well as those interested in Vietnam War and U.S. Naval history.

The author’s website is http://www.davidbruhn.com/

Mark S. Miller

Killer High by Peter Andreas

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The six drugs referred to in the subtitle of Peter Andreas’ Killer High: A History of War in Six Drugs (Oxford University Press, $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) are alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, opium, amphetamines, and cocaine. Andreas, the John Hay Professor of International Studies at Brown University, begins by stating that he chose to study those substances because they have had the most intricate connections to warfare.

Andreas delivers a deeply researched, elaborately detailed, and carefully nuanced analysis of the relationships of war to drugs and drugs to war. Plus, Killer High is richly illustrated and moves the reader along with great energy from one surprising insight to the next.

For the reader who enjoys discovery, Killer High offers something on nearly every page. We learn, for example, that:

  • The Code of Hammurabi refers to twenty different kinds of beer.
  • Per capita alcohol consumption in Colonial America was twice what it is today.
  • At the height of the tsarist empire, alcohol taxes funded one-third of the Russian state budget.
  • The German advance in World War I was halted by French and African troops determined to defend vast caches of champagne, with which they were paid.
  • In 1917 alone, the French army consumed 1,200 million liters of wine.
  • Young William McKinley braved enemy fire to haul vats of hot coffee to exhausted Union troops at the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the beginning of his rise in politics.
  • U.S. troops consumed 75 million pounds of coffee during World War I.
  • The Blitzkrieg assault that collapsed the French Army so rapidly in May 1940 owed its success in large part to troops who were popping amphetamines, giving them the wherewithal to fight for four days straight with no fatigue.

The greatest gift of Killer High is not thousands of interesting facts, however, but the overriding themes that they support. One is that prohibition nearly always fails. Tsar Nicholas II’s efforts to stop vodka production after his drunken army’s defeat by Japan in 1905, for example, led to his bankruptcy. American Prohibition gave organized crime a boost. Mao Zedong closing down opium production in China chased the trade to the Golden Triangle before war caused production to shift to a Muslim country where it was little-known. That would be Afghanistan, which now produces 93 percent of the world’s supply of heroin. Making drugs illegal, Andreas shows, leads to a frustrating game of global whack-a-mole.

Another theme is that political ideology distorts our understanding of the economic forces behind the drug trade, especially when patterns of drug use go back centuries. When the collapse of the USSR in 1989 “deprived us of an enemy,” Andreas writes, political leaders of both parties turned the world’s best-equipped and trained military to chasing drug cartels and drug kingpins with little understanding of the intricacies of the problem.

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The pause that refreshes: U.S. troops in Italy in 1944 chugging Coca Cola

Controlling the drug trade “from the source” often ends up with supporting political elites that profit from the trade, as well as training and arming military and police who become traffickers. Along with hunting down peasant militias who may be inspired by communist or terrorist ideologies, but have little connection to illegal international commerce. The line between good guys and bad guys, which is necessary for effective military action, disappears when great wealth is generated through drug-dealing.

As long as the farmers in Afghanistan depend on growing poppies and those in Latin America rely on growing coca leaves, drugs and war, Andreas note, will continue to be codependent and addictive.

Andreas addresses the Vietnam War only sporadically, but does point out the role drugs played in that conflict. He notes that our war was the last during which the U.S. Army supplied free cigarettes in C-Ration packs and almost-free ones at PXs–at the came time that cigarette packs came with labels warning that smoking caused cancer.

Amphetamines, he notes, were “passed out like candy,” mostly in the form of more than two million Dexedrine pills, as well as what was readily available on the black market.  The Army alone ingested more amphetamines in Vietnam than all Allied forces combined did during World War II.

Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese military commanders made a very high-grade heroin from the nearby Golden Triangle available to American troops. In 1973, the Pentagon estimated that about a third of the troops in coutnry were using it. President Nixon began the nation’s first “war” on drugs, in part, to keep what he called our “crippled generation” from bringing their drug habits home and destroying the nation. He blamed the communists for the epidemic of addiction and blamed drug-addled Americans for not “winning” the war.

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Vietnam War smoke break

Alcohol, a legal drug, took a much greater toll on Vietnam War veterans after the war—mainly, according to Andreas, because only expensive, low-grade heroin was available in the States, while alcohol was legal and comparatively cheap.

Killer High opens the door to understanding how we got where we are in a most convincing and entertaining book.

–Jack Nolan

The reviewer, with served with the 525th MI Co (JTAD) in the Vietnam War, is the author of novels Vietnam Remix and There Comes A Time.

 

The Blackhorse in Vietnam by Donald Snedeker

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Donald Snedeker’s The Blackhorse in Vietnam: The 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment in Vietnam and Cambodia, 1966-1972 (Casemate, 336 pp., $34.95), as its title indicates, is a history of that unique fighting unit in the Vietnam War. The author, Don Snedeker, served as an officer in the Blackhorse Regiment in Vietnam after arriving in country in December 1969. Later, in 1974, he was the unit’s regimental training officer, an intelligence officer, and commander of Bravo Troop. Today he serves as the historian for the 11th Armored Cavalry Veterans of Vietnam and Cambodia.

This book contains a very detailed record of the Blackhorse’s experiences in the war. It includes many diagrams, three appendices (“History of the Unit,” “Firepower Comparison,” and “Blackhorse Medal of Honor Recipients”), along with a list of sources, end notes, and an index.

The 11th Armored Cavalry’s Blackhorse regiment arrived in Vietnam in September, 1966 and soon faced many challenges, mainly how to fight a jungle war with armored forces. The enemy was the biggest challenge, but so was the terrain, monsoonal rains, and an institutional bias in the Army that the fighting in Vietnam should be an infantryman’s war. “Hunting Viet Cong with tanks is like chasing a fox with a tractor,” said an unidentified “high-ranking” officer that Snedeker quotes.

After undertaking many successful missions, however, the troops of the 11th Cavalry Regiment showed they could operate effectively on and off roads, in the thick jungles, and during the monsoon seasons.  By the spring of 1967, Blackhorse armor was considered an essential part of the Army’s Vietnam War combat effort.

Former Blackhorse troops at Veterans Day 2013 wreath-laying at The Wall 

The Blackhorse in Vietnam details many of the battles that the 11th was involved in. That includes Attleboro, Cedar Falls, Junction City, Tet, Mini-Tet and Operation Montana Raider. Snedeker includes many interviews with former Blackhorse troops that augment his battle descriptions.

Donald Snedeker wrote the book to preserve for history the actions of the 20,000 members of the Blackhorse Regiment in the Vietnam War. The subject is meticulously researched and will be of interest to historians and to anyone who served with the Blackhorse.

–Mark S. Miller

Unbreakable Hearts! by Earl “Dusty” Trimmer

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Earl “Dusty” Trimmer’s Unbreakable Hearts! A True, Heart-Wrenching Story about Victory… Forfeited! (Dog Ear Publishing, 556 pp., $39.95, hardcover; $29.99, paper: $9.99, Kindle) is like no other Vietnam War book I’ve come across. In Trimmer’s third book, he remains almost spectral; very little is said regarding his background and history beyond the fact that he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam in 1968-69 and that he has had his run-ins with the VA.

The book consists of eleven pages of a glossary and sources, 116 pages of photos, and 450 pages of text. Trimmer covers lots of topics, but most curve back to the original premise of the book: the oppression of the Vietnamese people. He delves deeply into the history of Vietnam and Southeast Asia and the people who have lived there.

The country we know today as Vietnam was not always so. Trimmer includes information on the earliest invasions by the Chinese, starting around 200 BC. Vietnam’s “simple farmers, with pitchforks and knives,” he writes, have repulsed the Mongol hordes three times, the Chinese perhaps a half dozen times, the Japanese during World War II, the French before and after the war, and finally the Americans, who were trying to save everyone from communism.

Trimmer portrays the Vietnamese throughout these invasions and conflicts as fighting to preserve and protect a homeland—not to attack or to take and hold additional real estate.  He waxes eloquently in defense of these efforts as he recounts, often in great detail, the nation’s long history of repelling invaders. He shows that the Vietnamese were just trying, over all these years, to live in peace, in one country.

Trimmer also goes over the politics and people involved in what the Vietnamese call the American War. He then reaches into the current U.S. administration for instances of both validation and recrimination. At times, the book’s path isn’t clear; at other times, it’s confusing. This book, though, is full of interesting historical facts, well laced with a recounting of Dusty Trimmer’s experiences as an infantryman.

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Trimmer in country

The book’s website is unbreakableheartsbook.com

–Tom Werzyn

Ambush Valley by Eric Hammel

The prolific author and journalist Eric Hammel has written fifty books and nearly seventy magazine articles on military history. He specializes Marine Corps activities. The republication of his Ambush Valley: I Corps, Vietnam, 1967—The Story of a Marine Infantry Battalion’s Battle for Survival (Casemate, 310 pp. $22.95, paper) demonstrates the high value of his research and expertise. Originally published in 1990, the book tells the story of four companies of the 3rd Battalion 26th Marines matched against a North Vietnamese Army regiment near Con Thien.

Hammel’s account of the fighting is a work of art because he weaves together exhaustive interviews with nearly two dozen men who were there. He began the interviews in 1983 and the final round took place in 1989. As for official documents, Hammel found merely three pertaining to the battle. One was inaccurate; the others were illegible and incomplete.

He gives space in the book to men of all ranks who speak repeatedly and at length describing those memorable six days in September 1967. Hammel puts the reader into the middle of the battlefield and shows multiple perspectives and differing mentalities of men under fire. An aura of disaster permeates much of the interviewees’ reflections.

Readers are expected to understand everyday details of field operations. Hammel, for example, offers no explanation about how a Claymore mine works.

The book’s story line is simple: NVA soldiers that had operated south of the DMZ for more than a year repeatedly outmaneuver U.S. Marines. The fighting at Ambush Valley was bloody. Both sides suffered enormously. Desperation dictated many decisions for the men of 3/26.

Along with being nightmarishly outnumbered by waves of NVA forces, 3/26 also confronted a full array of other problems: indecisive higher-level planning that bred fatigue and a “hurry up and wait” lethargy among the troops; poor ammunition resupply; limited artillery and air support; loss of its tanks; and NVA troops disguised as U.S. Marines.

Military historians believe that the Americans prevailed by the narrowest of margins. In the early morning hours of September 11, the NVA disengaged and disappeared. During the final day of battle, American artillery and air power had finally coordinated and left “hundreds of North Vietnamese bodies scattered around American positions,” Hammel says. Mixed among them were many dead Marines.

Hammel’s research for Ambush Valley completes the story of a battle otherwise reduced to merely a body count.

—Henry Zeybel

The Hump by Al Conetto            

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Vietnam War historians consider the fighting that took place the Ia Drang Valley on November 14-17, 1965, as the first major engagement between U.S. Army forces and the North Vietnamese Army, aka the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The battle became immortalized in the book, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore and Joe Galloway. The movie based on Gen. Moore and Galloway’s book further glorified the event.

Showing full respect toward the 1st Cavalry Division that fought in the Ia Drang, Al Conetto questions that battle’s precedence by citing Operation HUMP in which U.S. Army and PAVN/Viet Cong contingents clashed in War Zone D on Hill 65 nine days earlier—from November 5-9, 1965. Conetto describes the earlier encounter in The HUMP: The 1st Battalion, 503rd Airborne Infantry, in the First Major Battle of the Vietnam War (McFarland, 216 pp. $19.99, paper; $8.99, Kindle). Conetto contends that that engagement changed the nature of the Vietnam War from a hit-and-run guerrilla action to a contest between large-scale American and enemy main force units.

During Operation HUMP, Lt. Conetto led a rifle platoon. “This is my story,” he writes. “This is what I saw. This is what I heard. This is what I experienced, what I read and what I believe. This is my truth, but it is also” the men of his battalion’s “story.”

Conetto builds his case with many interviews from former comrades, grim photographs, the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) Staff Journal and the After-Action Report, a citation for Medic Lawrence Joel’s Medal of Honor, a Presidential Unit Citation, chapter notes, an extensive bibliography, and his own service record.

HUMP began with an air assault by U.S. and Australian troops on November 5. The first two days “passed with no contest other than minor brushes with enemy forces of no significance,” Conetto says. Intense fighting began on the morning of November 8 when a U.S. platoon met a much larger enemy force and suffered almost 100 percent casualties with “nerve shattering speed.”

He describes the fighting from the viewpoints of individual soldiers and shows that Hill 65 was a bloodbath on both sides. Those killed in action numbered 49 Americans, one Australian, and 403 PAVN. Five days later,fighting on a larger scale began in the Ia Drang Valley and, Conetto says, “America quickly forgot the HUMP.”

On a second tour in Vietnam, Conetto commanded a company before transferring to G2 as the briefing officer for a commanding general.

In The HUMP, Conetto sandwiches the story of Hill 65 between a history lesson he calls “The Road to War,” which also includes glimpses of his childhood and his post-war life. The latter section is arguably the book’s highlight because it details the destructiveness of Conetto’s PTSD and his slow and painful progress in learning to regulate—but never conquer—it. His recollections and conclusions about post-combat feelings and behavior revived several attitude issues of my own that I had thought were long gone.

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In the broadest terms, Conetto gives readers their money’s worth by providing two short books in one.

An excellent companion piece to The HUMP is retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale’s Just Another Day in Vietnam, which takes place in 1967. Comparing the two books’ episodes of combat shows how platoon-level tactics barely changed during the two years after Operation HUMP and the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley fighting supposedly altered the nature of the war.

—Henry Zeybel