On the Gunline by David D. Bruhn and Richard S. Mathews

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On the Gunline: U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy Warships off Vietnam, 1965-1973 (Heritage Books, 374 pp., $37.50, paper) is a history of the 270 American and Aussie blue water navy ships that took part in the Vietnam War by retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. David D. Bruhn and retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard S. Mathews

This book is a very complete and detailed history of the contribution the Navy surface warship played in the war. The Gunline was parallel to the South and North Vietnamese coastline, about 4,000 yards offshore. Ships on the Gunline were assigned circular stations about 2,000 yards apart and designated by color code. This armada of warships provided naval gunfire support, anti-infiltration cover, and coastal surveillance operations in support of the troops on the ground in Vietnam.

Bruhn—the author of a 2012 book on Vietnam War Navy minesweepers—addresses several controversial events that occurred during the war, including the captain of the USS Vance, Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, being relieved of his command in 1966,and the 1969 collision of the Australian aircraft carrier the HMAS Melbourne and the American destroyer the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans, in which seventy-four Evans crew members lost their lives.

He also details how the Navy placed 8,000 mines as part of a blockade in 1972, and the resulting destruction of the U.S .destroyer Warrington when it accidentally ran into the mines. In addition, he addresses Operation Frequent Wind in 1975 in which “a massive assembly of aircraft and ships” helped evacuate 7,800 South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese took over the country.

This is a very well-researched book. I recommend it for anyone who served in the Navy during this period and those interested in Vietnam War history general.

The author’s website is davidbruhn.com

–Mark S. Miller

 

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Letters to Pat by Bill Eshelman

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Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Bill Eshelman dedicates his book, Letters to Pat: A Year in the Life of a Vietnam Marine (Koehler Books, 182 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle), to his wife who “lived through the war” by reading the letters he wrote home.

Eshelman graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1959, then went into the Marines, becoming an instructor at The Basic School at Quantico. He enjoyed training young Marines to lead other young Marines, but once the men were sent to Vietnam, he decided to serve there as well. Eshelman hoped he could become an infantry company commander to be tested in combat.

Since he already was a captain, Eshelman feared he would be promoted too quickly to get much time in as a CO, so before being sent to Vietnam he requested training at Ft. Bragg’s school for advisers. He believed if he could be an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit it would ensure that he got more of a “first-hand look at the war.”

Arriving outside Da Nang in October of 1967 Eshelman was determined to relay his day-to-day thoughts on the war as he was living it by penning regular letters to his wife. In his book he adds notes from his combat journal to the two hundred or so letters.

His first job was as a battalion logistics officer, resupplying all battalion units with ammo, explosives, and other materiel. The battalion’s main mission seemed to be keeping the Da Nang airfield from being rocketed and keeping Highway 1 open to the north.

Being promoted to major, Eshelman became especially upset over all the paperwork his job entailed “to appease higher HQ.” Much of it involved incidents between Marines and Vietnamese citizens. Eshelman thought the cases were often unfair because the Marines were always required to prove their innocence.

Before long, he was sent south to III Corps to be a senior adviser with the 4th Battalion Vietnamese Marine Corps (VNMC). He was happy serving with Vietnamese troops because he knew that if “the war if it is to be won,” the South Vietnamese would have to do it, “not the U.S. Marine Corps.” During his time in Vietnam Eshelman saw combat action in all four Corp areas and was constantly running into men he knew back in the States.

During the major 1968 Tet Offensive Eshelman saw a great deal action in both Saigon and Hue. He used these letters home as a “way of letting off steam.” There were times when he and his men took part in operations in which they “swam more than we walked,” he writes, and times they had the simple pleasure of eating a fresh pineapple.

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Capt. Eshelman in Vietnam

He left South Vietnam in October 1968 for Thailand and carried one big takeaway from the war. Eshelman believed that the American advisory effort probably prolonged the war, maybe making it unwinnable, because it failed to give the South Vietnamese military a big enough role in over-all decision making.

This is an important addition to books covering what happened in the Vietnam War in 1967-68 and to those dealing with the relationship between the U.S. and South Vietnamese military.

The book’s website is letterstopat.com

–Bill McCloud

Survival Uncertain By Lee Cargill

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In writing about the Vietnam War experiences of eight 1963 U.S. Naval Academy graduates in Survival Uncertain (253 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $15.95, paper), Lee Cargill focuses on Lt. Jim Kelly Patterson, the only one that did not return home.

Cargill thoroughly describes the sustained but unsuccessful effort to rescue Patterson, the navigator and bombardier of an A-6A Intruder that was shot down by a Soviet SA-2 SAM missile on May 19, 1967. The plane’s pilot became a prisoner of war for six years, but Patterson simply disappeared.

Cargill broadly speculates about Patterson’s destiny, including the idea that he became “Moscow Bound”—traded to the Soviet Union by heavily indebted North Vietnam. Extensive post-war searches in Vietnam have failed to resolve Patterson’s fate, and he has attained legendary stature, although officially listed as KIA.

Among the seven other men (including himself) Cargill writes about, four were pilots, two served aboard ships, and one was a road construction engineer. Aside from being in the USNA Class of ’63, all of the men took part in Cargill’s wedding party at Annapolis on graduation day.

The men speak for themselves with Cargill providing continuity. Their stories are exciting, particularly those dealing with search-and rescue-missions. A few of them were troubling, however, such as a helicopter pilot reporting: “[We] knew the location of the downed pilot but were not allowed to enter the airspace over North Vietnam until clearance was received from Washington, DC, which took over an hour.”

The participants do not make a big issue about the voids in leadership and unproductive tactics because such stories often have been told before. Nevertheless, the rancor felt for higher headquarters mismanagement persists.

Cargill completes the book’s combat action with an appendix that provides details about the combat deaths of members of the USNA Class of 1963.

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Capt. Cargill

As a postscript, Cargill discusses court martial charges that he and five others faced based on a sailor’s death aboard the USS Ranger aircraft carrier in 1981. His study of the case provides a detailed look into the military justice system.

As the ship’s XO, Cargill was found not guilty of all charges. The administrative aftermath of the case, however, effectively ended Capt. Cargill’s career progression, and he chose an early retirement from the Navy.

Survival Uncertain confirms the camaraderie and mutual esteem that Annapolis graduates have for each other. Their unified spirit forms a foundation for Navy operations, most effectively during desperate times.

Profits from sale of the book will be donated to non-profit organizations that benefit young people, Cargill says.

The book’s website is https://survival-uncertain.com/

—Henry Zeybel

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the West Side to the Wardroom by Matthew J. Coffey

With the days dwindling down to a precious few for many Vietnam War veterans, the urge to tell all grows more compelling. A third generation sailor, Mathew J. Coffey, fulfills a need to recognize his family’s military achievements in his new memoir, From the West Side to the Wardroom: An Irish-American Journey (Xlibris, 142 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $3.99 Kindle).

Coffey, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, spent his one-year, 1968-69 tour of duty as a lieutenant aboard the USS Caddo Parish (LST-515), a World War II Class 491 LST that arrived in Vietnam in December 1965. Coffey recounts his wartime experiences in the middle part of the book. After four years of active duty, Coffey spent twenty years in the Navy Reserves and retired as a Captain.

With three-to-four page vignettes, Coffey sandwiches descriptions of his Navy hitch between slices of stories about his pre-war and post-war lives. He also includes details of the war-time achievements of his grandfather and father, veterans of the two World Wars.

To me, the book’s greatest value lies in Coffey’s reflections about people, events, and places from the past. For example, he vividly and evocatively describes a tough Italian Catholic chaplain, a bizarre funeral, and, of course, his ship’s wardroom. His short stories provide an education in themselves.

The Caddo Parrish in Vung Tau, South Vietnam, 1969

The book concludes with “The Pass Down Log”—a stage play with a cast of Matthew, his wife, father, and grandfather—which zeroes in on dynamic times in the family’s  history.

All proceeds from sale of the book go to an eighty-two-year-old priest—one of Coffey’s former high school teachers in Mineola, New York—who today works with poor people in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

Military Medals of America by Frank Foster

 

Frank Foster’s Military Medals of America (Medals of America Press, 232 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $29.95, paper) is a reference book jam packed with information on all U.S. (and some foreign) military medals, decorations, and awards. The book is beautifully printed and bound, and worthy of a coffee-table location—both as a conversation starter and the final word on military medals and awards.

The book takes the reader through a well-researched and richly illustrated history and explanation of military awards. Author Frank Foster—a retired Army colonel who served in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and with the USARV General Staff—begins his history with pre-Roman references, but primarily focuses on the period from World War II to the present.

The book as well includes a series of steps about how to obtain missing medals, how to display medals, and how to correctly wear medals, decorations, and awards for both veterans and active-duty personnel.

Foster, the editor of Military Medals of America Press, explains the differences between decorations, service medals, ribbon-only awards, unit citations, and attachments. He also presents us with The Pyramid of Honor—an illustration of the range of medals and awards from the least to most important, along with a bit of commentary for each one. He also looks deeply into the history and awarding process for the Medal of Honor.

Of particular interest to most of us is the section devoted to the Vietnam War, which for medal purposes spans the years 1961-73. Foster has sections on the U.S. Vietnam Service Medal, the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal (for early involvement), and the three South Vietnamese medals awarded to U.S. service personnel: the Armed Forces Honor Medal, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, and the Civic Actions Medal.

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The author has developed, and presented, a wonderful reference piece for anyone with an interest in the awards created for, and presented to, U.S. armed forces as an acknowledgment for their service. This reviewer rarely recommends a purchase; but, in this case, you will not at all be disappointed.

–Tom Werzyn

 

A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom by Tham Huy Vu            

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The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 marked the beginning of the worst years of the life of Tham Huy Vu, who served as a captain in the South Vietnamese Army. Within nine days, the victorious communists marched him into the first of six re-education camps where he would spend five years. Seven years later—on his sixth try—he escaped and found freedom for his family in the United States. Those trials highlight A Dangerous Journey from Vietnam to America for Freedom, 1935-1987 (Xay Dung, 270 pp.; $20, paper).

Born in northern Vietnam in 1935, Vu also provides a history of his country because political  changes strongly affected his family. In his childhood, although his family was “one of the most prosperous in the village,” he says, they suffered under “the harsh rule of the French colonialists.” During World War II, Japanese soldiers destroyed his family’s crops after defeating the French. After the war, France regained control of the nation until the Vietminh of Ho Chi Minh’s communist party prevailed in the French Indochina War in 1954.

Vu’s childhood experiences foreshadowed events for the remainder of his life in Vietnam: He labored in rice fields, was exposed to gunfire when the French made his Vietminh-controlled home area a free-fire zone, witnessed the execution of a landowner by the Vietminh, and attended communist education classes. Facing the threat of the father’s death because he was a landowner, Vu’s family left everything behind in 1955 and fled to Saigon.

Drafted into the ARVN, Vu worked on rural pacification and development. He admits to being “an ordinary military officer” who was “unable to do much to improve things.” He also married and had three children.

As a prisoner of war, he defines “re-education” as revenge for having opposed communism. He shows that the re-education camps consisted of slave labor; starvation; living amid filth; inadequate medical treatment; and repetitive brainwashing classes, essay-writing, and group discussions.

Released from the camps and treated as an outcast, he determined that escape from Vietnam was his only course for a viable life. This led to intrigue and drama that Vu shared with many others desperate to escape from communism.

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Tây Ninh re-education camp, 1976 – Photo by Marc Riboud

Vu expresses eternal love for America for providing a refuge for his family. He wraps up his memoir with a cogent explanation of why the South Vietnamese people lost their freedom. His strongest argument is that American leaders “knew themselves, but knew not enough about their enemies,” combined with his belief that “most South Vietnamese did not know the truth about Ho Chi Minh and his communist comrades.”

He also points out that America “did not have an appropriate strategy”; acted in its own interests; and experienced “a spasm of congressional irresponsibility” following President Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

Vu’s “I-was-there” background and rational approach to an age-old problem refreshed my interest in the unsolvable.

—Henry Zeybel

Triumphant Warrior by Peter D. Shay

In 1966, the United States Navy begged eight battle-weary UH-1B gunship helicopters from the U.S. Army. They re-named them Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three Seawolves; shipped them to Vinh Long in Vietnam; and thereby established air support for inland riverine operations of the Navy’s fiberglass-hulled Patrol Boat River fleet. When CDR Robert W. Spencer arrived at his headquarters in Vung Tau to lead the Seawolves, no other Navy officer was assigned there, so he essentially reported to himself.

Peter D. Shay tells that story as a departure point in Triumphant Warrior: The Legend of the Navy’s Most Daring Helicopter Pilot (Casemate, 240 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle). In it, he provides the history of HA(L)3 and glorifies the exploits of LCDR Allen E. “Wes” Weseleskey.

Back then, Shay flew with the Seawolves. Today, he specializes in putting together Vietnam War-era oral histories for the Naval Historical Center. An avid researcher, he conducted nearly fifty interviews with former squadron mates for Triumphant Warrior.

Shay’s narrative jumps from person to person but still develops personalities. Every man is vitally alive on these pages, often with death nearby. Similarly, he jumps from event to event without missing a beat. He grabs your attention and does not let go.

Shay describes the difficulties inherent in organizing a new squadron to perform a specialized task. He provides lessons in how to—or perhaps how not to—organize and run a war. The unit suffered growing pains from too much enthusiasm with too little experience, which caused avoidable crashes, accidents, and fires. Along with detailing the demands of the unit’s task, Shay tells the story of Weseleskey.

Practically upon arrival in HA(L)3, Weseleskey was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for a couple of gutsy close support missions. Then he pre-empted his commander’s authority, lost his slot, and was exiled to a desk, even though his misstep improved the squadron’s combat capability.

After two months of processing paperwork, Weseleskey returned to the cockpit as an assistant OIC. He focused on improving the combat skills of the unit’s least-experienced pilots until the Viet Cong attacked Vinh Long at the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Shay recalls long-ago events as if they happened yesterday, which adds a sense of urgency to his writing. He recreates the 1968 Tet Offensive as if he is still surprised by it. Most revealingly, he provides a list of high-ranking leaders who daydreamed or actually slept through the January 31 Tet kickoff.

Both Navy and Army helicopters operated from Vinh Long, so pilots and crewmen turned into infantrymen when the Viet Cong overran the airfield. Shay describes the attack using the recollections of dozens of people, including the NVA general who led the Viet Cong. His cross-section of memories produces a lucid picture of the frantic pace of the fighting.

Weseleskey led the action on the ground and also flew forty-six missions during the next two weeks. His ultimate heroics, though, came a month later while flying support for surrounded ARVN troops and rescuing two wounded Army Ranger advisers and a wounded ARVN soldier.

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Weseleskey and Shay

To pick up the three men, Weseleskey performed flying feats that violated most of his squadron commander’s restrictions. Subsequently, the commander placed Weseleskey under arrest and threatened him with a court martial. Shay’s description of the action and its aftermath provides a wealth of information for arguments about judgment, leadership, and awards.

Eventually, Weseleskey received the Navy Cross. He retired as a captain after thirty years of service. In the book, Shay keeps the discussion alive—forever, if he has his way—making a case that Weseleskey deserves the Medal of Honor.

HA(L)3 was decommissioned on March 16, 1972. The Navy Reserve, however, commissioned two new helicopter attack squadrons in 1976 and 1977. Modified versions of those units have flown special warfare and search-and-rescue missions in Middle East operations.

—Henry Zeybel