Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants by Joseph D. Celeski

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Joseph D. Celeski’s The Green Berets in the Land of a Million Elephants: U.S. Army Special Warfare and the Secret War in Laos, 1959-74 (Casemate, 400 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $19.95, Kindle) deals with a subject that the average reader will find to be an interesting, albeit potentially plodding, read. Many of us who served in country during the Vietnam War heard about  the “secret war” in Laos, but didn’t know much about it.

Celeski’s deeply, meticulously researched book shows how the U.S. tried to prop up a continuously faltering Lao central government in a desperate—and ultimately unsuccessful—fourteen-year effort to prevent this Southeast Asian “domino” from falling to communism.

The U.S. Army Special Forces, the Green Berets, was an offshoot of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) under Maj. Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan. In the early 1950s President Eisenhower envisioned a force that could be used for limited deployments as a politically savvy and civic-action-capable unit able to spread the U.S “word.” It also would contain a training component for local combatants and guerrilla-type fighters. It would be called upon for missions in which a conventional military force would be neither appropriate nor operationally prudent.

The CIA also played a major role in the Laotian theater, providing technical, continuous, and tactical air operations through its Air America arm, as well as operational support through a few of its other proprietary operations.

Special Forces personnel participating in these operations were well segregated and hidden from visible Army operations and units. Many of the men served multiple deployments in Laos, as well as assignments in Vietnam.

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Col. Celeski—who had a thirty-year Army career, including twenty three in Special Forces—includes short, multi-paragraph bios of a good number of the recurring players in Laos. The reader is sometimes chronologically see-sawed as these men are introduced, along with lots of acronyms. This is not necessarily a negative, especially if you’ve been exposed to the military penchant for these things. But this reader found himself often paging back and forth between the narrative, the glossary, the index, and the endnotes.

Ultimately, this is a good read about a little-told part of a story that paralleled other American military actions in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. It sheds light on the operations of the Army Special Forces in that piece of geography, and on their continued world mission.

—Tom Werzyn

Brotherhood in Combat by Jeremy P. Maxwell

 

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The presence of death on a constant basis reduces other parts of life to insignificance. That truism is at the heart of Jeremy P. Maxwell’s Brotherhood in Combat: How African Americans Found Equality in Korea and Vietnam (University of Oklahoma Press, 224 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $24.95, Kindle). Historians have previously studied the book’s topic; Maxwell reconfirms that front-line soldiers who shared war-zone dangers transcended racial biases and successfully integrated.

“This project started out,” Maxwell—the first Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Dale Center for the Study of War and Society—says, “as a dissertation for my PhD at Queen’s University Belfast.” The final product reflects extensive research in many archives across America. Maxwell often proves a point by citing twentieth century historians; his judicious choice of their material livens old text.

Brotherhood in Combat limits its focus to an evaluation of African American experiences in the Army and Marine Corps beginning with Executive Order 9981 in July 1948 through the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. It centers on Maxwell’s premise that racial tensions in combat units did not mirror those in rear units—and throughout America.

In a long Introduction, Maxwell puts segregation in United States military history into perspective from its beginnings, and sets the stage for the entire study. From there, his research details the nation’s political and social climates prior to the Korean War to show why and how President Harry Truman’s Executive Order 9981 integrated the military. Maxwell then cites Korean War battlefield behavior that finalized the bonding between races.

That was during the war. Afterward, in peacetime, African Americans still faced direct and institutional discrimination in the military.

Concentrating on the actions of President Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War era, Maxwell finds similarities in Truman’s actions before and during the Korean War. Sharing dangers of combat did the most to break down racial barriers in Vietnam, he says, even while such tensions persisted in America.

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As part of showing that the constant presence of death changes attitudes, Maxwell describes the environments of the Korea and Vietnam wars as background for clarifying the teamwork and heroics performed by front-line African American fighting men.

By the time “U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam,” Maxwell concludes, “the military was a completely integrated force.”

—Henry Zeybel

Operation Linebacker I – 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

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In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a three-pronged attack against South Vietnam: from the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and Cambodia. With few Americans remaining in country working primarily as advisers while Nixon’s Vietnamization was in full swing, the South Vietnamese were expected to protect themselves. That appeared impossible in face of the North’s disproportionate number of personnel, tanks, and artillery.

President Nixon responded by deploying massive American air power in “an almost unrestrained way” against the North, according to Marshall L. Michel III in Operation Linebacker I 1972: The First High-Tech Air War (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper: $9.99, Kindle). Using new technology in Linebacker I, Michel says, the United States “brought to bear the start of an air power revolution.”

Linebacker I and II coincided with Michel’s Air Force career. From 1970-73, he flew 321 combat missions as part of both campaigns. Last year he wrote Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s Are Sent to Hanoi, which is an excellent companion to this book.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/operation-linebacker-ii-1972-by-marshall-l-michel-iii/

In this look at Linebacker I Michel provides a detailed account of political and military actions prior to and during the bombing operation, including explaining Nixon’s changing diplomacy. Linebacker I concentrated on interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines, much like Rolling Thunder had done from 1965-68. Linebacker I had broader approval to target airfields, SAM sites, and GCI radars than Rolling Thunder did.

To buttress his claim that this was the start of “an air power revolution,” Michel describes the use of new equipment on Linebacker I missions from April through October 1972.

He calls precision guided munitions (PGM) “the most important Air Force weapon in the campaign.” These 2,000-pound smart bombs either were laser guided (LGB) by a designator in the back seat of an F-4 or they were electro-optically guided (EOGB) by a Pave Knife external pod.

Delivering LGBs required two aircraft: one to lase and one to bomb. Pave Knife allowed an aircraft to deliver and track its own EOGBs, as well as those dropped by the rest of an attacking flight. Full-page illustrations in the book help explain this maneuver and others tactics, such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Smart bombs were not new in 1972. When I flew with Spectre in 1970, our F-4 escorts occasionally carried LGBs, which our slowly orbiting gunship targeted with lasers against antiaircraft sites or road intersections in the relative safety of Laos. The advantage enjoyed with smart bombs during Linebacker I occurred from marrying them to sophisticated electronic gear that permitted aircrews to guide their munitions while flying at high speeds in extremely hostile environments.

The new technology’s many successes included new accuracy that destroyed the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa (Dragon’s Jaw) bridges, vital transportation links that had survived years of attacks.

During Linebacker I, chaff received fresh life. Chaff bombs established corridors one hundred miles long, allowing aircraft in these paths to become invisible to equipment on the ground.

Improved technology did not solve every problem, though, according to Michel. The USAF and Navy used different air-to-air tactics, which created dissent, he says. Navy pilots who had trained under the Topgun program scored a high victory ratio over MiGs, while USAF crews suffered losses as a result of poor tactical maneuvers. Michel show how MiG domination against the Air Force pilots brought about the creation of the Red Flag training program and modernized tactics.        

Along with technological gains, command-and-control changes further increased air power effectiveness. B-52s delivered their “incredible number of bombs day or night in any weather conditions,” as Michel puts it, and “changed targets quickly to meet the ground tactical situation very close to allied troops.” As a result of these capabilities, the 200 B-52s from Guam and Thailand concentrated their strikes on close air support in South Vietnam during Linebacker I.

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Bombing a bridge in North Vietnam, May 1972

What’s more, the Navy’s Red Crown GCI system provided instant information to attacking aircraft. On the other hand, Teaball—a new USAF GCI system—proved of “limited usefulness” because communications broke down and caused “high value losses,” Michel says.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese improved defenses by moving SA-2 launch sites closer to the DMZ and employing shoulder-launched SA-7s on the battlefields.

From start to finish, Michel repeatedly lauds the less glamorous C-130 combat support sorties that kept South Vietnamese forces supplied at An Loc and Kontum. In conclusion, he cites an over dependency by the ARVN on American air power, a point proved when North Vietnam again invaded the South in 1975. The ARVN “collapsed,” he says, “ending the conflict once and for all.”

Michel excels as a military historian because he impartially presents well-researched views of observers and participants from both sides of the war.

As usual, this Osprey Publishing book includes outstanding images. Artist Adam Tooby provides three dazzling double-page pictures of aircraft. Additionally, virtually every page has one or more evocative photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Bait by James D. McLeroy & Gregory W. Sanders

baitThe title of James D. McLeroy and Gregory W. Sanders’ Bait: The Battle of Kham Duc Special Camp (Hellgate, 318 pp., $26.95) refers to Gen. William Westmoreland’s use of a “lure and destroy” defensive attrition strategy, which he believed complimented his search and destroy offensive attrition strategy. Both were later called into question.

McLeroy was on the ground, participating in the May 1968 battle at Kham Duc. Sanders came arrived in-country a bit later. Their ten-plus years of research and collaboration has resulted in this excellent book. It’s been a good while since this reviewer has read such a superbly researched and well-written Vietnam War military history book.

A prologue and a fact-filled preface detail the people, places, and things—from both sides of the battlefield–covered in the book. Visits, interviews, searches of archival records, and many personal conversations are woven into the book. The authors provide more than twenty tightly spaced pages of sources. The end notes following each chapter are as interesting as the narratives they support.

The story takes us into meeting rooms in the White House, the Pentagon, MACV, and on down through levels of field command, right to the battlefield. McLeroy and Sander, without rancor, correct errors that have been allowed to stand as fact and provide insights into operational decisions and their results.

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A CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down while attempting to land during the fighting at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak Special Forces Camp airfield.

They begin with a modern-day visit to the battle site, then flesh in the back-story leading up to the May 10-12, 1968, engagement at the Kham Duc-Ngok Tavak U.S. Army Special Forces Camp in western I Corps up against the Laotian border and the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also touch briefly on the SOG operations that operated out of this camp.

In a telling worthy of the best Tom Clancy and Brad Thor thrillers, the authors recount earlier skirmishes and the subsequent Mother’s Day battle with a tightly packed and crisply flowing time line, toggling among at least a half dozen locations. We follow decision trees and commo exchanges that had an impact on all the players on the ground and in the air.

The story of the encounter in which at least two NVA regiments tried to overwhelm the heavily outnumbered defenders kept this reader turning the pages.

Bait is a great read—a fact-filled telling of a largely unremembered battle.

–Tom Werzyn

Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel

French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent by Martin Windrow

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In 1954, Penn State ROTC instructors taught me that France had been wrong to attempt to maintain its colonies in Indochina following World War II.  Thereafter, the writings of Bernard Fall and Jean Larteguy influenced my thinking about the warfare between the French Army and the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Their books made me sympathetic toward the French, while at the same time I admired the determination of the Vietnamese.

Then I took part in the American war in Vietnam and stopped caring about what had happened to the French because we had our own problems in Southeast Asia.

Now, Martin Windrow has revitalized my thinking on the topic with French Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent: North Vietnam, 1948-52 (Osprey, 80 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book). Windrow is an authority on the French Foreign Legion and has written other books on Indochina. This slim volume is packed with facts. Oddly, though, the bibliography does not include any books by Fall or Lartéguy.

In France, Windrow says, a legal bar prevented most conscripts from being deployed to the colonies. Therefore, volunteers from “some 40 nationalities bore the main burden of the war.” In Indochina, the Legion was “about 50 percent German—men with no skills to sell except military experience from World War II.”

He characterizes the Viet Minh as “a general revolutionary organization of the civilian population.” Motivated toward patriotism by communist indoctrination, “mostly illiterate 18-20-year-olds” who lived “among the rice paddies” served with the Viet Minh, as Windrow puts it.

In other words, a Legionnaire felt allegiance toward his fellow soldiers, and a Viet Minh fought for his nation’s independence.

Windrow also compares French and Viet Minh leadership, communications, training and morale, logistics, armament, and tactics. The two armies slogged through jungles and rice paddies trying to outwit each other, much like the U.S. Army’s search-and-destroy strategy against the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, but without helicopter support and significant airborne firepower.

The French were “hamstrung from the outset by a failure either to recognize the type of enemy they faced or to formulate a coherent plan for defeating them,” Windrow says. With most fighting occurring in remote areas, expediency prevailed. Legionnaires with serious head or gut wounds routinely received a “merciful overdose of morphine.” The Viet Minh leaders ruthlessly “regarded the individual as cannon fodder.” The French aimed to win with firepower while the Viet Minh relied on manpower.

In the book Windrow highlights three battles fought in Tonkin, the far northeast region of Vietnam: Phu Tong Hoa (July 25, 1948), Dong Khe (September 16-18, 1950), and Na San (November 23-December 2, 1952).

Although the Viet Minh breached the Legion defenses at Phu Tong Hoa, the French retained control of their base. The following month they abandoned the site, which ceded almost the entire northeastern part of Vietnam to the Viet Minh.

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French survivors of the 1948 Battle of Phu Tong Hog  (photo: Musée de la Légion)

At Dong Khe, the Viet Minh fielded 10,000 men against 267 Legionnaires and captured the Citadel. Viet Minh casualties numbered perhaps 2,000 with 500 killed, Windrow says. Twenty Legionnaires escaped, but all the others were killed or taken prisoner. After the French tried but failed to recapture Dong Khe, they suffered repeated defeats and retreated from the area. Of 7,409 Legionnaires, 5,987 were killed or went missing, Windrow says.

The Viet Minh attack on Na San resulted from a haphazard decision by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and failed because of logistical mistakes. The well-fortified French positions and the length of the encounter demanded more supplies than Giap had anticipated. The loss taught him lessons that paid dividends at the pivotal May 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

It appears that Windrow selected these battles to illustrate how Giap learned strategy on the job. Giap’s basic maneuver of employing massive numbers of men required greater logistical support—particularly with artillery and ammunition—than he had anticipated before Na San.

Based on this book, one might wonder how much Giap’s realization about logistics affected the decision to build the Ho Chi Minh Trail to supply North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam.

Following Osprey’s classic design, Foreign Legionnaire Versus Viet Minh Insurgent contains excellent artwork, photographs, and maps. Illustrator John Shumate rendered his vivid work in Adobe Photoshop using a Cintiq monitor.

—Henry Zeybel