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Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles.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

Route 9 Problem by Dave Stockwell

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During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army needed Route 9 to move men and supplies from Laos into I Corps to besiege Khe Sanh in 1968. The main obstacle was Lang Vei, a camp manned by U.S. Army Green Berets and Montagnards fighters. To clear its Route 9 path, the NVA launched an overwhelmingly large force against the camp.

In Route 9 Problem: The Battle for Lang Vei by the Warriors Who Fought It (Book Publishers Network, 361 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dave Stockwell recreates the fighting in which the NVA employed tanks in South Vietnam for the first time in the war.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Stockwell did not serve in Vietnam. But his father did, which motivated him to write the book. Over several years he interviewed Army, Marine, Air Force, and Navy personnel who took part in the battle for Lang Vei. He also communicated with their next of kin.

Stockwell possesses a deep interest and appreciation for people. His book pays tribute to the many fighting men he interviewed. He incorporates their life stories with their actions in the battle. He also provides a general history of events leading to that point in the Vietnam War. The book’s focus, Stockwell says, is “not a battle analysis or after-action report,” but rather “a story written plainly for today’s young adults with no military experience to understand the war their fathers and grandfathers won’t discuss.” At the same time, he says, it is “a story to which veterans will relate.”

He fulfills both claims.

Stockwell writes about combat in a crisp and clear style that should appeal to a broad audience. He generally avoids military jargon, but unobtrusively defines military terms when needed. The many interviews allowed Stockwell to trace virtually every step of the Americans on the ground and every action of those in the air.

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In the aftermath of the fighting at Long Vei

The book is a trove of information, complete with photographs and maps. Sections are arranged in a user-friendly format. Stockwell starts with “The Men Who Fought the Battle,” in which he lists the U.S. personnel in the book, along with NVA units and key individuals. In the “Roll Call” Epilogue, he summarizes the post-battle histories of the same men.

I enjoyed the book, which recently was named a finalist in the military category of the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  Stockwell taught me new things about activities in that region, even though I had dropped CDS and LAPES supplies into Khe Sanh from C-130s and landed there to bring out Marines. He pointed out tactical errors such as a horrific bombing of a friendly village. Furthermore, without editorializing, he described inter-service rivalries that created questionable decision-making.

Stockwell’s descriptions of the dedication and valor of American soldiers in extreme situations made me feel humble. Yet his effort is not unique. I have read other books that describe otherwise forgotten men and battles. Dave Stockwell and his brother historians merit commendation for recording memories on the verge of being lost.

—Henry Zeybel

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

Losing Binh Dinh by Kevin M. Boylan

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Reading and reviewing books about the Vietnam War in recent years has taken me down an intellectual path that grows ever more difficult. In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, Viet Thanh Nguyen says that wars “are fought twice, first on the battlefield and second in memory.” His words constitute an absolute truth when applied to the Vietnam War. Which leads to the vital question: Did America win or lose that war?

In Aid Under Fire: Nation Building and the Vietnam War, Jessica Elkind looks at the war in 1965 and concludes that the American effort was doomed from the start. Fundamentally, nation-building failed to make South Vietnam independent, she says, because the Vietnamese did not support American geopolitical goals set by applying western practices that overlooked the reluctance of recently decolonized Asians to accept them. Consequently, the South Vietnamese rural population did not devote its collective hearts and minds to supporting the anti-communist cause.

Opinions similar to Elkind’s had not precluded President Richard Nixon—and his National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—from employing an endgame strategy that “stressed the idea that the war in Vietnam had actually successfully ended.”

On the other hand, in The War after the War: The Struggle for Credibility during America’s Exit from Vietnam Johannes Kadura argues that Nixon and Kissinger foisted the blame for the loss of South Vietnam to the communists on Congress due to the nation’s lack of post-1973 support when Congress reduced military and economic aid.

Meticulously researched, these heavily foot-noted books are masterpieces of scholarship.

Kevin M. Boylan further pursues the question in Losing Binh Dinh: The Failure of Pacification and Vietnamization, 1969-1971 (University Press of Kansas, 376 pp., $34.95, hardcover: $19.99, Kindle). In this book Boylan seeks to come to a determination about whether the war ended in victory or defeat.

Boylan is a history professor at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. From 1995-2005, he worked in the Pentagon as DoD analyst for the U.S. Army staff. His book contains forty-three pages of notes, mainly from archives and interviews.

Pitting the orthodox (people who claim the war was unnecessary, unjust, and unwinnable) against the revisionist, Boylan questions whether “a victory to be lost” existed prior to America’s 1973 exit from Vietnam. In other words, did pacification and Vietnamization work? Following in the footsteps of the Vietnam Special Studies Group, Boylan focuses his study on heavily populated and strategically located Binh Dinh province.

He examines the province’s military, political, economic, and psychosocial aspects by comparing achievements with expectations in Operation Washington Green, a 1969 American pacification plan for the hamlets of Binh Dinh’s four districts. He gives equal attention to North and South Vietnamese and American perspectives.

Using MACV Advisory Team Activity Reports, Boylan shows how South Vietnamese dependency on American leadership continually increased throughout Operation Washington Green and how consequently the Vietnamese failed to attain self-sufficiency. His detailed accounts describe the inherent turmoil that exists when foreign troops babysit a distinctly different society, especially one threatened by insurgents.

Boylan notes that in the Vietnam War there “was, in fact, no such thing as a truly representative province,” but the problems that affected Binh Dinh occurred “throughout a dozen provinces embracing nearly half of South Vietnam’s territory.” When “studied from the bottom up,” it’s plain to see that after the Americans withdrew from the region in  1972, “‘fence sitting’ villagers threw in with the seemingly triumphant Communists,” he says.

If one accepts the failure of Operation Washington Green as a fact, Boylan’s “Conclusion: Triumph Mistaken” stands as a final verdict about the war’s outcome. The “lost victory” hypothesis (that the war was won by 1972 and that Congress “lost” the victory by cutting funds to South Vietnam) is wrong, he says. His conclusion is worth the price of the book.

Boylan points out that the current situations in Iraq and Afghanistan bear disturbing similarities to the Vietnam War. Again, the United States is propping up regimes with disputed legitimacy and military forces with questionable combat motivation.

Our extensive training, material, and logistical assistance in Iraq duplicates our commitment to Operation Washington Green in the Vietnam War, he says.

Gen. David Petraeus’s resurrection of “population-centric COIN” theory allowed Americans to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, but in 2014 Islamic invaders from Syria overran one-third of the country because Iraqi security forces “displayed a shocking lack of will to fight,” Boylan says.

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Troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which took part in Operation Washington Green in northern Binh Dinh in 1969

I must add my experience of teaching COIN theory at Air University in the 1960s. We low-ranking instructors laughed inwardly at the naivete of a military plan that called for winning hearts and minds with love. We preferred more direct action, as in: “Grab them by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow.”

Infantrymen who served in Vietnam have told me that, for them, the war ended when pacification and Vietnamization began. They recognized the futility of the task as Boylan describes it: “The government of South Vietnam could spend years—even decades, if necessary—carrying out the nation-building programs required to resolve the underlying grievances that had fueled the insurgency in the first place.”

Furthermore, troops assigned to the task had no training to accomplish it, Boylan says.

I long for the simplicity of the Cold War.

—Henry Zeybel