Saving Bravo by Stephan Talty

By now, the story is well-known. Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton, a 52-year-old USAF navigator, assigns himself at the last minute to fly on a bombing run below the DMZ in April 1972.

He’s shot down behind enemy lines. And Gene Hambleton might just be an intelligence gold mine for the NVA—and for the Russians and Chinese.

A former missile squadron commander for the Strategic Air Command, Hambleton knows stuff, lots of it. And so, a rescue operation begins. And not just any rescue op. It will become what author Stephan Talty calls the greatest SEAL rescue in history—and one of the deadliest.

This mission was the subject of the book Bat-21 and the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. That fictionalized drama captured some of the essential information.

But now we get the full story. In Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp, $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), Talty has interviewed fliers, survivors, families, friends, and reviewed previously unpublished documents, as well as published secondary sources. And he’s pulled together a thrill ride.

Hambleton is sitting behind and just to the right of the pilot of an EB-66 electronic countermeasures aircraft on what’s expected to be a fairly routine mission. His flight suddenly finds itself under a staggering artillery and missile attack.

There’s a protocol for evading SAMs, risky but useful. But the missile that takes down Hambleton’s plane is sent up under optical control, without radar guidance until the last moment, so it’s nearly impossible to detect.

Iceal “Gene” Hambleton

A huge explosion. Hambleton bails out into a dense, life-saving fog, hides in the underbrush and then is stunned by the rumble of mechanized vehicles, infantry, and the clash of mortars. The only survivor, he has landed in the midst of an enormous ground invasion force.

The NVA called it “red fiery summer,” but it soon would earn another name, the 1972 Easter Offensive, an invasion of South Vietnam. Hundreds of Soviet tanks, 30,000 NVA troops, artillery, and missile batteries. To Hambleton, it looks like Stalingrad.

One of the first rescue aircraft on the scene, a Cobra, immediately encounters a thundering barrage, thousands of tracers stretching upward. In seconds, the chopper pitches nose-up and plummets to the ground.

Hambleton calls in airstrikes on the invasion force that surrounds him, believing rescue is no longer an option. The sky above him is a curtain of shrapnel. It will be eleven days before he escapes. During that time, in a single day, the NVA will launch 83 missiles at American pilots.

Ultimately, five branches of the service will be involved in the rescue effort. Hundreds of officers and airmen—and millions of dollars. All for one guy. Hambleton thinks they don’t have a chance.

Talty does a masterful job of building tension throughout this suspenseful tale. Yet he takes time to paint subtle images.

“Flying above Vietnam at night was magical: the wandering sliver glint of the rivers, the black foothills folded back on one another in serried, ghostly rows gripped by thin fingers of mist. The country was lush even in darkness. The only signs of war from this distance were the innumerable bomb craters, now filled up with rainwater. The pilots looking down would see them flash with moonlight as they flew over.”

And Talty offers savvy acknowledgement of the conflicting emotions of Americans who weren’t sure what they were fighting for, whether they had support back home, which way their leaders were leaning, or whether they were even talking to each other.

To protect Hambleton, a huge swath of the invasion area was marked off-limits for U.S. counterattacks. As the NVA assault pushed on, there was ignorance–and denial–that resources that might have been used in battle were committed to the desperate rescue of one man. For some troops, it seemed their leaders had gone completely crazy.

Eleven men and five aircraft would die trying to reach the navigator.

After days of failure, the Air Force finally realized an air rescue was out of the question. At this point, no one south of the DMZ knew that two downed fliers also had been taken prisoner.

Enter the guys who slip behind the lines to bring someone back. Navy Lt. Tommy Norris, a SEAL who looks “like a mongoose that had just spotted a brown water snake,” volunteers.

Lt. Tommy Norris, in the background at center, as just-rescued Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton (on stretcher) is evacuated. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The NVA may not know precisely where Hambleton is hiding, but they are listening to his radio communications. To connect him with his rescuers, the Division team develops an incredible code that must be read to be believed.

Norris, along with a Vietnamese commando, will make a daring trip into the bush, repeatedly evading enemy patrols, to bring out another flier. Remarkably, they will go back once again, to bring out Hambleton, sick and delirious after his ordeal.

Hambleton will win a bucket of medals and live until 85. Norris will be awarded the Medal of Honor. Talty has put together a great read on a remarkable moment in history.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

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Charlie Company’s Journey Home by Andrew Wiest

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A first produces a milestone for life: A first kiss. A first job. A first child.

Arguably, the dynamics of these experiences pale in insignificance compared to events related to war. Andrew Wiest examines this relationship in Charlie Company’s Journey Home: The Boys of ’67 and the War They Left Behind (Osprey, 400 pp. $28).

Wiest teaches history at the University of Southern Mississippi and is the founding director of the Center for the Study of War and Society. Two of his previous four books about the Vietnam War have won awards. His new book is a follow-up to The Boys of ’67: Charlie Company’s War in Vietnam, which was the basis for a National Geographic documentary.

Charlie Company fought in the Vietnam War, but the effects of battle also had a strong impact on their wives and girlfriends back home. “War [became] a part of their lives, and that of their families, forever,” Wiest writes. The women’s reactions to war are the focus of the book.

Wiest bases the book on nearly one hundred original interviews; corresponding documents from personal collections and national archives; and large letter collections. He identifies twenty-four Charlie Company wives and forty-six men of Charlie Company as his “cast of characters.”

The clarity and certainty of Wiest’s writing produces a highly personalized look into the long-distance interactions between overseas troops and their families back home. At its core, the book is a love story—as well as a war story.

We see the women go through various stages of maturity. Initially, they are young, vulnerable, and in love with men destined to go off to war in Southeast Asia. When that happens, without the benefit of electronic communications, they become dependent on letters and an unpredictable mail service as a lifeline. Uncertainty rules their worlds and Wiest explains how they contended with trying situations far beyond what they expected.

Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest

Within the framework of the women’s lives Wiest also describes bloody search-and-destroy missions in which Charlie Company battled the Viet Cong. Sharing “firsts” engendered by these encounters produced life-changing psychological upheaval, Wiest says.

Reading Charlie Company’s Journey Home might provide an eye-opening lesson for the average American. Today’s society often overlooks or takes its all-volunteer armed forces for granted.

In comparison, the men of Charlie Company were almost entirely made up of draftees whose lives were involuntarily disrupted by military service. The difference in self-sacrifice is incalculable and Wiest shows it.

—Henry Zeybel

Fighting the Cold War by John R. Galvin

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Gen. John R. Galvin subtitled his 2015 book, Fighting the Cold War, with A Soldier’s Memoir. The title tells only half of the book’s story. Along with recalling his life, Galvin offers a world history lesson that spans his eighty-six years on earth from 1929-2015. He also provided hard-earned practical knowledge about leadership by citing good and bad events and decisions related to his forty-four year military career.

Originally published in 2015 and reviewed here, the memoir now is available in paperback (University Press of Kentucky, 517 pp. $29.95).

Galvin’s accounts of his two tours in the Vietnam War offer grim lessons in leadership. During his initial tour as a brigade operations officer with the First Infantry Division, Galvin was relieved of duty and sent to a staff job in Saigon. He served his second tour with the First Cavalry Division mainly as an infantry battalion commander. He flew low in helicopters and frequently landed in the field alongside his men in combat.

Comparing Galvin’s two tours gives the reader a short but concise study of the subtle variations that constitute acceptable combat leadership. Putting his men’s welfare first brought Galvin both failure and success.

The book’s thirty-two page collection of photographs that span Galvin’s lifetime could almost serve as a memoir by themselves.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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Gen. Galvin in Vietnam in 1970 during his second tour of duty, with the First Cavalry Division

1968 by Richard Vinen

“The single most important cause of change in the tone of politics in the 1960s was the Vietnam War,” Richard Vinen writes in 1968: Radical Protest and Its Enemies (HarperCollins, 464 pp., $29.95). The war, he writes, “seemed to focus and incarnate all the other conflicts—about race, imperialism, militarism and capitalism.”

The book came out in July, a half-century after the cataclysmic year that saw the Tet Offensive, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the election of Richard Nixon.

Vinen examines the twelve months of 1968 primarily in the context of the years just before and after, what he calls “the long ’68,” and he focuses on the West. “My version of ’68,” he writes, “involves affluent countries in which radical protest came up against elected governments.”

A professor at King’s College London and a recipient of Britain’s Wolfson History Prize, the author distills an extraordinary amount of information into about 340 pages of jargon-free text. He takes a thematic, rather than a linear, approach. So while the book can profitably be read straight through, it may be more valuable as a reference work.

Beyond the United States, Vinen concentrates on three countries: France, West German, and Britain. France experienced  intense activity—worker strikes and student demonstrations—in May 1968 in Paris. In West Germany, the “number of the most committed radicals was relatively small,” he writes, and “terrorism took its most extreme form.” In Britain, 1970s radicalization “extended beyond the campus [to] political violence in Northern Ireland.”

Richard Vinen

Vinen examines phenomena that, in addition to the Vietnam War, influenced “the long ’68,” such as economic growth, the increase in the number of college and university students, and the Civil Rights movement. Throughout, he substitutes complexities for clichéd dichotomies—young/old, new/traditional, outsiders/authority—and shares many intriguing details, among them:

  • “The largest live audience that John F. Kennedy ever addressed was not in Washington or Berlin but in Berkeley, California, and Berkeley illustrated the hopes that many placed in America during the early 1960s.”
  • “Many who had been radicalized in the late 1960s or ’70s turned to writing works that were inspired by American crime fiction. Most famously, Stieg Larsson, the Swedish creator of the Millennium series, had been a very young ’68er, campaigning against the Vietnam War when he was 14 and joining a Trotskyist movement six years later.”
  • “Some American women who opposed the war made much of their status as mothers. Not all feminists felt comfortable with this. Betty Friedan said: ‘I don’t think the fact that milk once flowed in my breasts is the reason I am against the war.’ A group of anti-war feminists staged a ceremony to bury ‘traditional motherhood’ at Arlington National Cemetery.”

–Angus Paul

The 31st Infantry Regiment by The Members of the 31st Infantry Regiment Association

Stories are the way people pass knowledge from one generation to another.

The late Karl H. Lowe, with help from James B. Simms and Grady A. Smith, has passed down a century of military stories in The 31st Infantry Regiment: A History of “America’s Foreign Legion” in Peace and War (McFarland, 519 pp. $45, paper). The three men were career soldiers who served in the 31st Infantry Regiment. They know combat.

As the unit’s Regimental Historian for twenty years, Karl Lowe recorded the 31st from its activation in the Philippines in 1916 through the Vietnam War. In this book James Simms expands on the unit’s action in Vietnam, and Grady Smith reports on activities in Iraq and Afghanistan. An excellent selection of photographs from archives and personal sources supplements their writing.

The Regiment’s first battle took place during a deployment to Siberia in 1919 after Bolsheviks captured five American enlisted men following the Russian Revolution. That far north adventure earned the unit the nickname “The Polar Bear Regiment.” World War I had ended in Europe in 1918, but skirmishes between Russian, European, Asian, and American military forces continued in Siberia until 1920. Lowe’s account of the scale of interaction north of Vladivostok provided a new history lesson for me.

The same holds true for the Regiment’s deployment to Shanghai when that city became an International Settlement in 1932. This time the Americans stood aside with the British while Chinese and Japanese troops battled on the city’s fringes.

The entire book is a history lesson. Lowe writes about old encounters as if they had happened yesterday. Simms and Smith have a similar talent. Their stories tie troops, regardless of rank, to situations so that a reader fully understands what occurred and why. Best of all, the authors provide a feel for the moods of the troops and organizations.

Stationed in Manila from 1932-41, the undermanned and poorly equipped 31st Regiment followed a slow motion pace of activity, culminating in a series of ignored war alerts in November of 1941.

A few weeks later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

The remainder of the book focuses on the 31st Regiment in combat: in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iraq. The authors recreate battle scenes with great authenticity. Extensive chapter notes support their work. Many of the Regiment’s war stories have become high points in U.S. military history and the authors do justice to them.

31st Infantry Regiment troops in Vietnam in 1970

The Vietnam War is reported in two sections: 4th Battalion (1967-71) and 6th Battalion (1967-70). The latter includes operations in Cambodia. Again the reporting is personalized and describes actions and attitudes of individual infantrymen.

The book’s closing pages pay tribute to 31st Infantry Regiment troops killed in action in all wars.

The authors’ combat expertise, their fluid writing style, and the depth of their reporting make The 31st Infantry Regiment a worthwhile reading experience.

The book tells it like it was.

—Henry Zeybel

The Headless Snake by Harry Wagner

While browsing Harry Wagner’s The Headless Snake: Peace Team Forward: A Methodology of Peace, Not War: A View of the Past and a Plan for the Future (CreateSpace, 262 pp. $16.50, paper), I flipped to the epilogue and read: “Following my refusal to assassinate a Vietnamese family for the Phoenix Program, I was unceremoniously asked to leave Vietnam.”

Wow, I thought, this guy has a message.

During 1966-68, Harry Wagner served in Vietnam after USAID recruited him away from his job as mayor of Friendswood, Texas, and gave him a civilian slot with the rank of major general. He worked with the U.S. Embassy, the First Field Force, and Psy Ops before ending up with the Phoenix Program. He pretty much had carte blanche to do anything he wanted to do for twenty-two months.

Accepted by Congress as a military tactic and controlled by the CIA under William Colby, Phoenix, Wagner writes, murdered “68,000 or more Vietnamese [civilian] suspects,” and made the American government “the world’s predominant terrorist.” This action coincided with (and complemented) the counterinsurgency program, which Wagner rates as a failure—then and now.

Phoenix operated under a concept called The Headless Snake. That is, if you cut the head off a snake, it dies. Killing suspected Viet Cong leaders in South Vietnam would take away the enemy’s head and theoretically destroy the body of enemy forces.

Based on his experiences in Vietnam and subsequent research of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Wagner concludes that the Pentagon, Congress, and White House “have greatly abused the use of our military power, for whatever objective they had in mind.”

He holds “our Generals” guilty of complying with a New World Order that makes the military’s primary function that of “war in foreign lands and not defense of our Constitution.” There “is no justification,” he writes, “for the current deployment of our military being used as strike forces in countries that are no threat to our security,.”

Wagner’s solution is “the proven strategy” of Persuasion with Relevance, which constitutes the essence of his book. He calls the effort “Peace Team Forward,” and says he employed and refined it in Vietnam.

The strategy is a sophisticated form of self-help that requires specialized planning and personnel deployed in a timely manner, most advantageously before general hostilities develop. Wagner labels the enemy as the Sheath (insurgents) and calls friendly forces the Spear (specialists highly trained in subtle motivation techniques) and the Shield (warriors to protect Spear personnel). In other words, the strategy deploys a Peace Team that ideally builds nations without first tearing them apart.

Wagner supports his theory by citing events from thirty operations he conducted during seventeen months in the field, the largest with a “population of 650” being the most successful. His evidence includes copies of reports and photographs. His success in organizing the Chieu Hoi defection program shows the effectiveness of persuasion with relevance.

Instead of winning hearts and minds of the indigenous people, his plan earns their trust and avoids the expense of lives and property destroyed by combat. His operation has a distinct non-military, Peace Corps appearance.

Basically, Wagner believes that helping other nations is a psychological problem, not a psychiatric endeavor. We cannot change national personalities, he says.

His accounts from the Vietnam War reveal one important fact: Officers were poorly trained and hampered by tradition, especially West Point graduates. Wagner believes the condition still exists and that the military needs a total re-education program of leaders at all levels of command.

William Colby, who directed the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, later became CIA Director

Although Wagner presents detailed and reasonable arguments for his theory, what he seeks appears unobtainable because I doubt that, in today’s America, he could find an adequate number of competent and unselfish people willing to make the long-term commitment required to fulfill his mission.

Wagner’s plan, that is, is too demanding for Americans today. As I see it, making Team Forward successful would require the re-education of our entire military structure and also the re-education of our entire nation.

On the day I began reading The Headless Snake, the White House suggested that U.S.-backed Afghan troops retreat from sparsely populated areas of their nation and allow the Taliban to control vast stretches of their country. Simultaneously, U.S. and Taliban representatives met face-to-face without the presence of Afghan officials, a stipulation of the Taliban. Concessions such as these confirm the weakness of America’s master plan for dealing with insurgents.

Wagner’s strategy might be questionable. His idealism contains hints of isolationism. By advocating the rejection of policies and practices dating back to World War II, he asks us to re-evaluate our entire lives.

How many people are willing to attempt that?

—Henry Zeybel

Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman