John McCain: American Maverick by Elaine S. Povich

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Elaine S. Povich’s John McCain: American Maverick (Sterling, 208 pp, $24.95) is a coffee-table-like tome featuring large, glossy (and evocative) photographs on nearly every page. The photos are used to good effect to cover the many highlights of McCain’s notable life, including the five-and-a-half years he was held as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.

Povich, a Washington, D.C. journalist who has covered the nation’s capital for UPI, the Chicago Tribune, and Newsday, wrote a conventional bio of McCain—John McCain: A Biography—in 2009. This go-round she mainly uses McCain’s own words, including more than a few pithy pull quotes, to accompany the bare-bones text and the great many photographs from throughout McCain’s eventful personal and political lives.

Ken Burns, Mr. Documentary, provides a Foreword that—like the book itself—is a paean to McCain’s heroism and service.

McCain is, “without doubt,” Burns writes, “a genuine American hero—complicated, brave, flawed, sacrificing, confounding, inspiring—and above all human. I have had the great privilege of spending time with him on many occasions over the last two-plus decades and each meeting has only reinforced my conviction about his unique and inspirational greatness.”

Povich agrees.

“Above it all,” in McCain’s life, she writes, there is “honor—the code by which he has always lived. The worst times of his life were when he felt that honor tarnished, yet they were rare. McCain tries to do what he feels is right. He doesn’t always succeed. But he surely has a hell of a time trying.

“If he is remembered for anything, McCain has said, he would like it to be that he ‘served his country. And I hope, we could add, honorably.’

“He has done so. And honorably.”

—Marc Leepson

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Danger 79er by James H. Willbanks

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James F. Hollingsworth began his military career in 1940 as a United States Army lieutenant. He retired thirty-six years later as a lieutenant general. The long list of his awards and decorations staggered my imagination.

James H. Willbanks has recreated Hollingsworth’s life in Danger 79er: The Life and Times of Lieutenant General James F. Hollingsworth (Texas A&M University Press, 256 pp. $32). “Danger 79er” was Hollingsworth’s call sign in the Vietnam War. The book is an exciting and informative read because it examines the leadership qualities of a man who advocated destroying enemies without compromise despite being accused of overzealousness in delivering death and destruction on the battlefield where his actions matched his theories.

Willbanks is a retired Army infantry officer who was an adviser to the ARVN at An Loc during the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive. Since 1992, he has directed and taught at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A tireless researcher, he has written fifteen military history books, specializing in the Vietnam War.

Hollingsworth, who died in 2010 at the age of ninety-one, earned his commission through the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets (as did Willbanks). He commanded 2nd Armored Division tanks from platoon to battalion level in World War II under Gen. George S. Patton. At the war’s end, Hollingsworth was a twenty-seven-year-old lieutenant colonel with a Distinguished Service Cross, four Silver Stars, four Bronze Stars, and five Purple Hearts.

In World War II, his bravery in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe had no bounds, according to people Willbanks interviewed. Writing about Hollingsworth leading his troops in the field, Willbanks says, “Holly was a soldier’s general,” and (to me) that says it all.

Time after time, Hollingsworth’s performance set standards for combat that few men are brave enough or competent enough to follow. Willbanks provides many stirring examples of Hollingsworth’s affinity with grunts in both wars. All amount to lessons in leadership.

Critics challenged Hollingsworth’s approach to combat when he became assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1965 under Maj. Gen. William DePuy. The two thought and acted alike and were labeled “unguided missiles” and “hip shooters.” Bending to public sentiment against the war, some fellow officers—up to and including the Army Chief of Staff—believed that Hollingsworth and DePuy projected an unacceptable eagerness to kill opponents. Nevertheless, neither man backed down. They lived on the battlefield.

For his second tour in Vietnam in 1971-72, Hollingsworth was assigned by Gen. Creighton Abrams to revitalize the troops in I Corps whose morale plummeted during Vietnamization. Before Hollingsworth completed the task, Abrams moved him to help the ARVN commander at the battle for Loc Ninh and An Loc. Shortly thereafter, Hollingsworth assumed command of the area. His use of air power showed a talent for targeting as if foreseeing enemy movements. Relentless B-52 strikes decided the outcome by stymieing NVA ground attacks, according to Willbanks, who was at the scene. The NVA lost nearly three infantry divisions.

Criticism of Hollingsworth intensified when he received command of combined forces in South Korea in 1973 and turned a defensive master battle plan into a hyper-aggressive offensive strategy. That prevented his earning a fourth star and led to his retirement. As a civilian he continued to speak out on behalf of national defense.

Willbanks presents insightful looks into relationships between general officers. He also shows that, between wars, Hollingsworth served tours at the Pentagon in positions where he met, befriended, and exchanged philosophies with members of Congress and cabinet heads. His devotion to duty and outspoken manner pleased many people while irritating others. With this information, Willbanks provides excellent lessons in management.

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The “Danger 79” statue on the Texas A&M campus

The book’s World War II maps of North Africa and Europe are annotated so that they practically tell the story of the fighting there by themselves. Photographs also enhance the text.

Although Danger 79er primarily tells the story of Hollingsworth, Willbanks expands its scale to history book proportion. He talks about the design and execution of World War II strategy. He also includes inside views about two vital issues of the Vietnam War: the importance of leadership in executing search-and-destroy tactics, and the effects of Vietnamization and what they portended after the Americans departed.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that the writing was on the wall; too few people bothered to read it.

I enjoyed all aspects of the book.

—Henry Zeybel

To the Sound of the Guns by Grady T. Birdsong

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Concentrated reading about the United States Marine Corps has led me to one conclusion: The Marines make you the man they want you to be when they need you to be that man. Grady Birdsong personifies that conclusion.

In 2010 as a veterans advocate, Birdsong championed hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) as a new method for dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He helped establish a non-profit HBOT clinic in Boulder, Colorado, that treats veterans from across the nation. In 2016, with Bob Fischer, he wrote the definitive book about HBOT: The Miracle Workers of South Boulder Road: Healing the Signature Wounds of War. Last November, the VA approved HBOT treatment for PTSD.

Now Birdsong has written To the Sound of the Guns: 1st Battalion, 27th Marines from Hawaii to Vietnam 1966-1968 (BirdQuill, 434 pp. $44.99, hardcover; $36.99, paper), a tribute to the unit he served with in the Vietnam War.

Grady Birdsong enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1966 and served two combat-heavy tours in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. His accounts of his unit focus on securing the Hue City canal area out to the coast and deploying south of Da Nang to secure the Go Noi Island area in support of Operation Allen Brook.

His tome-like book is crammed with personalities and actions of all ranks. Birdsong provides a long list of interviewees he calls “contributors.” The length of the list made me think that he must have collected stories and photographs for years. He also discusses war and related world politics. Many photographs and maps support the text.

The desire of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland to increase American forces to more than a half million men in Vietnam rushed Bridsong’s undermanned battalion out of Hawaii and into battle at the end of February in 1968. In a thankfully short chapter, Birdsong’s account of the unit’s home at Duong Son, ten kilometers south of Da Nang, rehashes well-known topics such as rain, morale, food, shit burning, and other daily routines.

In a huge chapter titled “Tools of the Trade,” Birdsong inventories and explains the functions of equipment used by Marines in Vietnam, including C-130 transports and F-4 fighters, M50A1 Ontos anti-tank vehicles, tactical ground radar, and flamethrowers—even the P-38 can opener. He buttresses these descriptions with testimony from men who operated the equipment.

The book’s core chapters—“Deployed to Task Force X-Ray, Phu Vang District,” “Operation Allen Brook,”and “A Third Offensive”—describe the combat action of 1/27. By combining multiple points of view from participants, Birdsong creates a clearly defined picture of the role of the unit for its seven months in the war. Chapters such as “Victory Isn’t Always Glorious” provide insight that merits a second reading.

At the end of August 1968, short timers in 1/27 returned to Hawaii or Camp Pendleton. New guys, incluiding Birdsong, transferred to other units in-country.

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Grady Birdsong

The book’s final in-depth examines the grief felt by seven families who lost a 1st of the 27th Marine. Birdsong includes an Honor Roll of the battalion’s one hundred twelve men who were killed in action as compiled by Gary E. Jarvis.

With his writing of To the Sound of The Guns, Birdsong’s Marine training persists and he continues to fulfill needs of the Corps fifty years after the fact.

I admire him—and his books.

Birdsong’s website is gradytbirdsong.com

—Henry Zeybel

Dear Folks by Steve Horner

Steve Horner’s memoir, Dear Folks: Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of an Infantryman’s Personal Unedited Letters Sent Home from Vietnam (284 pp., $5.95, e book), has an immediacy and verisimilitude lacking in other memoirs by other infantrymen.

When I asked myself why this was so, the only thing I could come with was that Horner chose to publish his actual letters as written originally in ballpoint pen. If a letter was written on a flap torn from a C-Rat box, that is what the reader gets. Mostly, though, the letters were written on National Red Cross stationary.

Each letter starts “Dear Folks…” and goes on from there. Horner shared with the folks at home whatever was on his mind. If he was brooding about the quality of his M-16 he’d say so. “The infamous M-16 [is] a piece of shit rifle that most of us had to cope with,” for instance. There must be other memoirs of handwritten letters that consist of photocopies, but I’ve not stumbled across them.

Steve Horner’s letters cover a year starting from November 1967, with some typed commentary and lots of photos, through February 1968, providing good coverage of the Tet Offensive.

The language is the usual found in an infantryman’s book, with “Saddle Up!” leading the way.  Also commonly expressed political rants appear, such as one that claims that “Bill Clinton and his ilk kept America from extinguishing communism in SE Asia.”

But, “Getting short, only 13 days left,” is the more frequent piece of information that Horner chose to immortalize. He is outraged that “the media indoctrinated the public like sheep into hating the war so they took to hating us soldiers as well.”

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If you are looking for a very different Vietnam War infantry memoir, especially in format and honesty, Horner’s 4th Infantry book should fill the bill.

I found it rough going at first until I got used to reading his handwriting. Once I got past that, the experience was totally pleasurable, and I felt that I really got to know Steve Horner and his unique point of view on American warfare.

Read this book in one sitting if you can spare the time.

Horner’s website is http://stevehornerbooks.com

—David Willson

War Stories by Conrad M Leighton

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Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971 (MacFarland, 340 pp., $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a jounal of Leighton’s year in Vietnam where his main assignment was with the 1st Cavalry Division as a Public Information Office reporter. Leighton bases the book on the many detailed letters he sent home from the war. The result is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.

Leighton did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, and he describes the entire spectrum of his in-country experiences. The reader can see the the changes in U.S. forces and tactics from the beginnings of the war until nearing the end of direct combat involvement.

Leighton worked as an embedded reporter with different 1st Cav brigades and his orders were to report back what he saw from the Army’s point of view. He details the struggles of conscience he had with superiors who wanted particular slants on his articles. Leighton spent time in the field and with every aspect of military life during that year, from the humdrum to the profane—from hunkering down under incoming enemy fire to the travails of traveling dentists who visited fire bases, to the problems with waste disposal.

He is honest in his reporting and does not pull punches as he writes about drug use—in particular, marijuana—among the troops. He is frank in his dislike of new officers with stateside ideas and discipline. His main joys were to be published in either the division or brigade newspapers, and occasionally having a story picked up by Stars and Stripes.

Leighton paints the GI’s lives in detail, including the humor and grit and grime that goes with an unpopular war in a foreign country fought primarily by draftees. A constant theme running through the book is how tiring it all was.

For anyone interested in details about the later aspects of the war in Vietnam, this is a good book. It captures the frustrations of the soldiers and the spotty leadership at the troop level.

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The book also will be helpful to historians as it provides another look at the units that fought in different places in earlier times in the war. The generational changes in attitudes and tactics will enlighten readers and help understand why so many veterans had widely varying experiences during the long Vietnam War.

For the acute observer, it is possible to extrapolate this story and interpret it to reveal the result of poor management from top U.S. political and military leaders. Reading between the lines, you can sense a lack of purpose, and a lack of clear direction from the top.

No wonder so many men on the ground kept asking:  Why take risks? Why am I here? What good am I doing?

–J.L. Bud Alley

Crusader by Mike Guardia

Two events dominated the thirty-five-year career of Gen. Donn Starry. The first took place during the Vietnam War in May of 1970 when he led the 11th Armored Cavalry’s Blackhorse Regiment into Cambodia. The second occurred when the Army adopted Starry’s AirLand Battle strategy in 1982, a year before he retired.

Historian Mike Guardia highlights these events in Crusader: General Don Starry and the Army of His Time (Casemate, 193 pp.; $32.95). The book builds a framework for Starry’s success. Its interest lies in how he applied his leadership theories to real-world problems and thereby improved armored units’ operational readiness worldwide. Starry believed that armored cavalry troops were better soldiers than infantrymen—including airborne infantrymen.

Starry’s voice dominates the book. Guardia quotes him extensively, including many half-page passages from the general’s personal papers. Starry was a talented writer on his own. Guardia also interviewed members of Starry’s family and people who knew and worked with him. Starry died in 2011.

A formula for success was forced onto Starry during his initial active-duty assignment as a second lieutenant under LTC Creighton Abrams in 1949. Abrams commanded a tank battalion in Germany and demanded perfection. Most of all, Abrams did not tolerate a complaint unless it included a solution to the problem in question. Starry followed that directive throughout his career. He went on to work for Abrams several times before he died in 1974 while serving as Army Chief of Staff.

Because the Army prioritized Cold War needs ahead of those in the Korean War—particularly those related to armor—Starry remained in Germany during that conflict. He did, however, serve twice in the Vietnam War. During his first tour, he was disappointed with the employment of mechanized forces after he saw tanks used as little more than “battlefield taxis” delivering infantrymen to the front. Mythology dictated that the terrain and climate were unsuitable for “anything except dismounted infantry and the animals that lived in the jungle,” Starry once said.

On his second tour as a colonel with Blackhorse, Starry assembled his own armor and helicopters for the five-month incursion into Cambodia. “A cavalry regiment, even in a jungle environment, could cover as much ground and deliver more firepower than two airmobile divisions,” he said.

The kind of leader who placed himself on the ground at the front of his forces, Starry led his men into Cambodia, overran Snuol, and captured one of the war’s larges caches of North Vietnamese arms and supplies. Wounded multiple times by shrapnel at Snuol, Starry refused evacuation to Japan, designed his own in-hospital rehabilitation program, and returned to Blackhorse within twelve days.

After the war Starry mainly worked on creating the AirLand Battle strategy. Guardia includes pages of Starry’s writings to justify the strategy. Basically, it was designed to destroy follow-on echelons of overwhelming forces, which comprised the greatest Soviet Union threat at the time. Published in FM 100-5 Operations, the strategy did not receive universal acceptance.

Unfamiliar with the AirLand Battle concept before reading Crusader, I interpreted the strategy as a wishful dream for success in war rather than concrete guidelines on how to defeat an enemy. Because its logic revolved around defending Europe from superior Soviet forces, it lacked worldwide application. Furthermore, its reliance on synchronization of operations with the Air Force made me question its effectiveness.

I felt that 1980 armor leaders used the AirLand Battle to take Cold War control of the Army exactly as tactical air leaders had grabbed control of the Air Force following the Vietnam War. Armor thinkers used the Air Force in a way similar to how tactical air leaders had agreed on thirty-one initiatives with the Army to help wrest control from strategic air theorists, as explained in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam by Brian D. Laslie.

Guardia credits the 1990 Desert Storm victory to AirLand Battle strategy, but that seemed wrong to me.  In my opinion, the size of Iraqi forces fell far short of enemy expectations in the AirLand Battle scenario. Nevertheless, the claim parallels my earlier argument: Fighter pilots also took credit for winning Desert Storm, which validated their control of the USAF.

Crusader closes with the transcripts of four of Starry’s speeches. “Fifty Years at the Business End of the Bomb” was my favorite.

Mike Guardia has written four other biographies of Army leaders, five books about weapon systems, and a children’s book. He spent six years as an armor officer and holds a master’s degree in American history.

Reading his new book brought me to the conclusion that Americans are highly unlikely to participate in a war of the magnitude and design envisioned in the AirLand Battle. Instead, we appear doomed to fight at the lowest level of combat according to whims of weaker opponents and follow rules that favor them.

The author’s website is mikeguardia.com

—Henry Zeybel

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 by Peter E. Davies

Fans of military aircraft cannot ask for more than what Osprey Publishing provides with its Combat Aircraft Series. The series authors and illustrators are historians who focus on specific models of aircraft and their crews during a narrow period of warfare.

US Navy F-4 Phantom II Units of the Vietnam War 1969-73 (Osprey, 96 pp.; $23, paper; $18.40, Kindle) is author Peter E. Davies’ twenty-third book in the series. For it, he interviewed Navy and Marine Corps fliers who operated from aircraft carriers.

Illustrator Jim Laurier, who has worked with Osprey since 2000, contributes thirty color profile paintings of F-4 Phantom IIs with distinct markings of their aircraft carriers. A history of each plane complements his artwork.

Nearly every page of the book contains a photograph of crewmen or an airplane. Captions provide related facts to enhance readers’ knowledge of Navy operations.

Davies first explains the fighter aircraft environment before the 1969-73 period that he concentrates on. He examines changes in the F-4 II airframe, its missiles and tactics, as well as the political climate—for good and for bad. Comments by pilots provide an insider’s view. For example, when discussing a Phantom-MIG Fresco duel, he quotes Lt. Cdr. Ronald “Mugs” McKeown, who says, “It’s like a knife fight in a phone booth.”

This format continues through the book. Vivid accounts by fliers who fought the war support theories and practices of the time—again, for both good and ill.

Davies presents a clear picture of what it was like for F-4 II crewmen when they hit problems in air-to-air, interdiction, and close support sorties. Along with striking targets in South Vietnam, carrier-based planes bombed North Vietnam and Laos. In addition to normal survival concerns, crewmen coped with problems ranging from frustration due to complex rules of engagement to the dealing with the rationale behind awarding medals. Davies emphasizes stories involving hunting and killing MIGs, the premier accomplishment of fighter jocks.

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To keep the ledger honest, Davies includes successes and failures of MIG pilots who challenged U.S. aircraft and ships.

Insights from the Navy fliers brought back many memories. Anyone with even a minimal interest in military tactics or warfare should find satisfaction with this book.

Davies has a talent for finding and reporting what is important. I especially enjoyed reading about idiosyncrasies of aircraft carrier operations. They reconfirmed my appreciation for my flying career with the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel