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

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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

The Gunpowder Prince by Michael Archer

My USAF C-130 crew flew LAPES and CDS supply drops over besieged Khe Sanh in 1968. Our best flight there, however, took place on the day the siege ended. We landed and on-loaded a hundred Marines led by a captain whose humongous grin is still imprinted in my brain.

“I’ve never been this happy to leave anyplace,” he said, and thanked us at least a dozen times.

Khe Sanh is legendary in military history as both a high and low point for Americans and North Vietnamese. Thirty thousand NVA soldiers surrounded 6,000 United States Marines for ten weeks at that remote combat base in Quang Tri Province. The NVA failed to capture the base. After the siege lifted, however, the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed it.

Michael Archer, a nineteen-year-old Marine PFC at the time, served as a radio operator in the Khe Sanh Fire Support Coordination Center. He helped keep aircraft free from the line of fire of outgoing artillery, working alongside Capt. Mirza Munir Baig, a man with “a head like a computer,” who programmed the artillery.

Archer pays tribute to Baig in The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh (Amazon Digital Services, 145 pp. $14.95, paperback; .99, Kindle). Born to a royal family of India, Baig became an American citizen and chose a warrior’s life. He arrived in Vietnam in 1963, two years ahead of Marine combat units, and roamed the countryside developing a spy network and interrogating prisoners. In 1966 he saw action as an artillery officer in Operation Hastings before returning to in-country counterintelligence the following year.

Baig’s leadership skill rested on three factors: knowledge of past tactics followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, which allowed him to anticipate enemy maneuvers; an ability to predict enemy troop deployments based on listening to audio pickups from a top-secret sensor system; and an art for segmenting terrain into target areas, which expedited delivering firepower ranging from artillery shells to B-52 bombs.

Additionally, when targeting, Baig took advantage of the NVA’s lack of radio discipline: They often led him to themselves. Archer shows how these talents stifled buildups of NVA men and equipment necessary to overrun Khe Sanh, thereby forcing the enemy to switch from assault to encirclement tactics.

Baig’s biggest problem was poor intelligence. He felt “uninformed and in constant peril” while awaiting information that sped up the chain of command but trickled down slowly, Archer writes. That information was “old, incomplete, and almost always useless” to him. My own Vietnam War experience also included intelligence briefings that lacked timely data.

While lauding Baig, Archer analyzes the siege from both sides. He discusses the decisions of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland, which are familiar to many Americans. Of greater interest, he presents the thinking of the North Vietnamese. They recognized, Archer writes, that “an absurd series of mishaps, flukes of incredible bad luck, and appalling security blunders” kept the NVA from repeating a Dien Bien Phu-type victory.

Recent English translations of Vietnamese books and articles are providing insights that confirm or deny ideas that, for half a century, have been speculation among western thinkers. Archer refers to such sources throughout his book.

Similarly, by researching NVA archives, Istvan Toperczer of the Hungarian Air Force revealed the enemy’s side of the war in his books, MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War and MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, information is now available regarding inadequate NVA defensive actions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly efforts to reduce large-scale transportation losses to American AC-130 Spectre gunships.

The Gunpowder Prince is Archer’s third book about Khe Sanh. It contains a great deal of new material. Archer has done his homework and presents scholarly arguments. At the same time, he finds interest in everyday events.

He provides an array of photographs to enhance the text. Both of his previous books have won awards.

The author’s website is www.michaelarcher.net

—Henry Zeybel

The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 by Mervyn Roberts III

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The extent to which psychological warfare was used by all sides in the Vietnam War is staggering and so multi-faceted it almost seems like a barometer of the chaos and shifting strategies that occurred throughout the war.

There were leaflets—smuggled over borders, dropped from airplanes and fired from howitzers; radio and television campaigns; messages broadcast from helicopters and C-47s; newspaper accounts; disinformation and behavioral modification efforts by medical aid teams and brutal assault squads; blocks of ice dropped by parachute to persuade the enemy that troops had swept in overnight.

By the end of the war, psyops teams were employing thousands. Leaflets were distributed by the millions. And the goals were as varied as the methods.

There were efforts to boost defections; to destroy morale; to build support; to alter perceptions of success or failure; to taint image and credibility; to foment dissent or encourage resistance; to persuade opponents their war was being lost, and supporters that theirs was being won.

Mervyn Roberts III wrote The Psychological War for Vietnam, 1960-1968 (University Press of Kansas, 432 pp., $39.95) originally as a doctoral dissertation after a career in the Army. He served two tours in the war in Afghanistan and was a psyops specialist. He’s a professor of history at Central Texas College and a reserve instructor at the Joint Special Operations University at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

In his book, Roberts quickly traces the evolution of psychological warfare from its early use in the Revolutionary War through World Wars I and II and the Korean War. He shows that in the Vietnam War, psyops grew in fits and starts and that its uses shifted like the wind in a confusing cacophony. Why? Mainly because of inconsistent U.S. policies, bureaucratic chaos, and political instability on both sides of the border.

The American effort focused on selling the idea that U.S. troops were there to protect the country from communism and to bring peace and prosperity. From the North came the message that U.S. medicines were laced with fishhooks and that villagers could avoid being drafted into the South Vietnamese Army if they amputated their trigger fingers.

There were battles over messaging and debates over psyops’ effectiveness. Roberts traces that evolution in enormous detail. He looks at campaigns that started and stopped and others that shifted emphasis and grew to unprecedented proportions. In the spring of 1965, for instance, U.S. teams were distributing 500 million leaflets per month to support a war Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of.

There were successes, such as the U.S. Chieu Hoi campaign to encourage Viet Cong defections, and the North’s assault on the Americans’ use of defoliants, calling it a toxic campaign designed to kill livestock and crops and force the population into concentration camps.170px-vietnampropaganda

Roberts details the shortcomings. In addition to the constantly shifting priorities, there was inadequate training, a lack of cultural understanding, and a lack of language skills and inadequate measurements to assess what worked.

On both sides troops who behaved badly fed new material to the other side’s propagandists. Plus, in Vietnam and in the U.S., support for the war shifted constantly.

Roberts’ grasp of the historical context is impressive, although some readers may find the treatment somewhat academic. But, as he points out, there has been no truly comprehensive look at psyops tactics and their role in the Vietnam War until this book.

The author’s website is https://mervynroberts.com/about-the-author/

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

From Enemies to Partners by Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey

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A look back at the chemical abuse that the United States perpetrated against the population and topography of Vietnam during the American war dictates a look forward about the enduring effects of that action. Defoliation of the countryside by the use of Agent Orange/dioxin and other toxins took place between 1961 and 1970; its effects are still apparent fifty years and several generations later.

Making amends for the use of Agent Orange has been difficult. Le Ke Son and Charles R. Bailey promote this effort in From Enemies to Partners: Vietnam, the U.S. and Agent Orange (G. Anton, 242 pp. $29.99, hardcover; $19.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Son and Bailey have collaborated on this problem since 2006. Son holds a PhD in toxicology; Bailey has a PhD in agricultural economics. Both men have worked with agencies such as the Red Cross and Ford Foundation on correcting the damages inflicted by Agent Orange.

From 1975-2006, Agent Orange was “an extremely sensitive and controversial subject,” the authors write. “Official views were polarized, information was scant, disagreement was rife and suspicions on both sides ran high.” They counter this situation by assembling enough data to make Agent Orange a discuss-able topic. The book highlights the contributions of people and organizations that have helped to compensate for Agent Orange’s misuse.

The thoroughness with which Son and Bailey examine the Agent Orange/dioxin situation  is spellbinding. They have assembled a wealth of data that arguably amounts to more information on the topic than may be found in any other single publication.

They open their argument with a province-by-province review, complete with charts and studies, that shows—among other things—that dioxin still exists in Vietnam. They then examine dioxin’s impact on people and the ecology. There also are charts, tables, and studies to promote awareness among Americans and Vietnamese about the problem and the needs of victims. The book ends with a summation of bilateral efforts to date and proposals for the future.

The magnitude of future problems relates to locales, expenses, and people. American bases at Da Nang, Bien Hoa, and Phu Cat were Agent Orange’s most toxic areas. Da Nang has been cleansed of poison. The cost of remediating Bien Hoa is estimated at $375-$500 million and will take a decade, the authors say. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand young Vietnamese with birth defects linked to AO exposure passed on through their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents await help, according to the authors.

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Son and Bailey argue for continued collaboration between the United States and Vietnam and urge greater funding by Americans to finish tasks such as sanitizing the Bien Hoa Air Base.

A raft of color photographs pays tribute to people who have supported the cause. An appendix cites the Ford Foundation and seventy-eight of its grant recipients. Another appendix—”Fifty-Five Years of Agent Orange: Timeline of Key Statements, Decisions and Events 1961-2016″—provides an excellent twenty-four-page summation of the book’s theme.

—Henry Zeybel

The Ghosts of Langley by John Prados

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Historian John Prados has written a greater number of books than most people read in a lifetime. Starting with World War II, his writing focuses on United States international relations and his history lessons are formidable. A senior fellow at the National Security Archive, Prados directs its CIA Documentation Project and Vietnam Documentation Project. He also is a long-time contributor to the print edition of The VVA Veteran.

For the sixth time, he examines the CIA in The Ghosts of Langley: Into the CIA’s Heart of Darkness (New Press, 446 pp.; $28.95, hardcover; $18.99, Kindle). In it, the twenty-nine-page prologue alone delivers enough information to fill an average book.

Citing newly declassified documents, Prados argues that CIA leaders have drifted beyond their original espionage and intelligence analysis mission, and have created more problems than they have solved. Today the agency works amid aftereffects of covert operations that closely resembled military actions, Prados says.

The CIA “ghosts” Prados refers to are spymasters and their henchmen and women who caused the agency to alter its classic role. Its current methods of operation include torture, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, evasion of legal oversight, and more, according to Prados, who speaks with authority.

He eschews chronology and sets out the agency’s evolution by grouping spies according to character types. This produces chapters with titles such as “Zealots and Schemers,” “The Headless Horseman,” “A Failed Exorcist,” and “The Flying Dutchman.”

Prados’ declarative sentences can be attention grabbers. For example, in introducing “The Sheriffs,” he says, “The CIA had long had a problem with women. From the beginning, agency folk considered spying man’s work. Women were not viewed quite the same as homosexuals, but they needed to fight for acceptance.”

Throughout the book, Prados touches on CIA activities during the Vietnam War. Several times, he raises the issue of CIA countermeasures against antiwar demonstrators. He writes about topics such as the Phoenix Program and the November 1963 coup against South Vietnamese Premier Ngo Dinh Diem. In these cases, Prados examines the actions of people who controlled events more than the events themselves.

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Notes, a bibliography, and an exceptionally detailed index support the text.

Almost as a footnote to The Ghosts of Langley, on the afternoon I finished reading the book, Iran accused the CIA of fomenting protests calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic.

The CIA declined to comment.

The author’s website is http://johnprados.com/

—Henry Zeybel

The Good Governor by Mathew Walsh

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Among the tens of thousands of refugees who needed resettling after the fall of the Saigon government on April 30, 1975, were the members of the Tai Dam people, also known as “Black Tai” because of the color of their clothing. Originally from northwestern (North) Vietnam and Laos, the Black Tai had their own language and system of writing.

During the French War the majority of Tai Dam sided with the Viet Minh, though some fought with the French against the insurgents. When the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu the Tai Dam who fought with the French fled to Laos. By the mid-1950s most had secured work as domestics, bureaucrats, and soldiers. In April 1975, Tai Dam and other ethnic groups who had worked with the French or Americans feared for their safety and streamed into Thailand looking for sanctuary.

A campaign to bring them to this country began in the summer of 1975; letters were written to thirty U.S. governors seeking help. Only Iowa’s Republican Gov. Robert D. Ray agreed to resettle the Tai Dam in his state. Today more Tai Dam live in Iowa than anywhere outside of Asia. AThere have been expected (and unexpected) adjustment problems on all sides.

Matthew R. Walsh’s The Good Governor: Robert Ray and the Indochinese Refugees of Iowa (McFarland, 244 pp., $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle) includes interviews with dozens of refugees and resettlement officials who paint a picture of struggle and resistance, but also of hope and promise.

Ray was alone in his compassion among sitting governors in his efforts to welcome a group whose 12th century lifestyle was bound to conflict with 20th century America. He was determined to build a workable program that would integrate the two cultures in a way that preserved both without diminishing either.

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Tai Dam women

Ray also was involved with Cambodian refugees after he and a delegation of governors visited Tai Dam and Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand in 1979.  While there he watched as men, women, and children died for lack of food and medicine.

Working with Iowa SHARES—a program that brings people together in response to humanitarian needs without respect to ideology, ethnicity, faith traditions, or other ism’s and ology’s—the needs of Cambodian refugees were also met.

As we have witnessed over the generations, our rich national fabric is strengthened and enriched by the frequent incorporation of those fleeing oppression and hate and those looking for better opportunities for their families. Now, nearly 50 years later, the Tai Dam of Iowa are no different thanks to a caring army of volunteers aided by government and non-governmental agencies moved to action by Robert D. Ray, a United States Army veteran who served as Iowa’s Governor from 1969-83.

That is the uplifting story told in his worthy book.

—Jim Doyle