SOG Kontum by Joe Parnar and Robert Dumont

Joe Parnar and Robert Dumont’s SOG Kontum: Top Secret Missions in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1968–1969  (Casemate, 304 pp. $37.95, hardcover; $15.99, Kindle), as its subtitle indicates, tells the story of MACV Studies and Observation Group covert missions operating out of a Special Forces Forward Operating Fire Support Base near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. 

Those SOG teams made their way into Laos and Cambodia to conduct reconnaissance, rescue downed pilots, carry out psychological operations, and reduce the flow of arms and personnel down the winding trail. 

The MACV/SOG program was the largest covert operation undertaken by the American military since World War II. It was disbanded in 1972 and most of its records destroyed. 

One of the first books about the program was John Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of American Commandos in Vietnam, which came out in 1997. Parner and Dumont’s book is something of a sequel to Plaster’s book. The two books do a good job of replacing the lost records and serving as tributes to the SOG operatives, their allies, and their helicopter crews.

SOG units usually consisted of three grunts and a group of indigenous warriors, mostly Montagnards. The authors interviewed many veterans and the book is filled with their eyewitness accounts.

The book concentrates on missions launched from FOB Kontum, which was near the tri-border area. Former Vietnam War Green Beret Parnar and researcher/writer Dumont cover weapons, uniforms (with no insignia), and gear in the irintroduction.

Then they go on to describe the missions. A typical one started with insertion by helicopter. Most of the missions involved scouting the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many resulted in problems that required emergency evacuations. These problems often were unplanned encounters with larger enemy units.

The format of the book works well. The move from one eyewitness account to the next is seamless. There are many pictures of the SOG members and maps. What stands out is that many of the missions went wrong and triggered enormous efforts to rescue the Americans and their Montagnards.

Joe Parnar in-country

The book is a tribute to the SOG personnel and to the helicopter crews who risked their lives picking up endangered units. Medics also come off as heroes. The indigenous soldiers are given their due. The enemy is depicted as a worthy adversary.

My main takeaway is how U.S. military leaders were willing to lose more lives to rescue small numbers of Americans or even a dead American.

Also, I could not help but wonder whether the missions were worth the deaths. I cannot believe they had much of an impact on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Twelve SOG teams disappeared when radio contact ceased; 407 team members were killed in action and 49 are missing in action. Eight SOG men received Medals of Honor and, in 2001, SOG received a Presidential Unit Citation.    

–Kevin Hardy

The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam War Era by Mark Atwood Lawrence

For most readers of this review, the Vietnam War was an intensely personal experience. The incidence of war altered a life’s projection, reshaping its path and having a rippling effect on relationships with family, friends, and colleagues — many far removed in time and space from the war itself.

This analogy is helpful in understanding Mark Atwood Lawrence’s brilliant new book, The End of Ambition: The United States and the Third World in the Vietnam War Era (Princeton University Press, 408 pp. $35). Lawrence makes a compelling argument that the Vietnam War, along with the social and cultural domestic changes of the 1960s, led to the downfall of liberal ambitions in the Third World so eloquently espoused by President John F. Kennedy, and were replaced with a foreign policy that favored stability—usually in the form of a dictatorship—over democracy.

Lawrence, a University of Texas history professor and one of the leading authorities of American Cold War foreign policy, is the author of Assuming the Burden: Europe and the American Commitment to War in Vietnam and Vietnam: A Concise International History. Though The End of Ambition is about American foreign policy and decision-making, Lawrence has undertaken extensive archival research about five countries.

The book’s first three chapters detail the liberal promise of President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, the transition and inheritance of Lyndon Johnson of this potential after Kennedy’s assassination, and how LBJ, who was focused on domestic policy, dealt with the world as the war in Vietnam escalated.

The next chapters are case studies of Brazil, India, Iran, Indonesia, and southern Africa, focusing on how the war effected America’s policies and relationships with them. The conclusion explores Richard Nixon and his role in shaping U.S. foreign policy.

After eight years of Dwight Eisenhower and a foreign policy built on nuclear deterrence, the transition from the then oldest president to the youngest could not have been starker. Kennedy’s New Frontiersmen expressed optimism about the United States’ ability to promote democracy and development in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. They argued that the U.S. had the resources and the power to implement plans that would give these former colonies the opportunity to flourish in a democratic, free market system.

Though this impulse to promote and spread democracy is part of America’s heritage, its need was amplified by the realities of the Cold War, in which competition with the Soviet Union for the world’s unaligned nations would determine the outcome of the struggle.

When he assumed the presidency in November 1963, Johnson was determined to show constancy to the American people and the international community. He retained Kennedy’s personnel and policies, but he was no acolyte of modernization and nation-building, and his instinctive reticence in foreign affairs was amplified with ongoing crises in Vietnam.

Lawrence uses a case-study approach through the five developing nations to convincingly show the transformation of American policy from promise to practicality. This is accomplished in such a concise and profound manner that each could stand alone as a brief book.

LBJ in Cam Ranh Bay, October 1966

In his conclusion, Lawrence makes the provocative argument that President Nixon should not be given credit for the innovative policies that ended the war in Vietnam, opened China, and thawed relations with the Soviet Union.

These policies, Lawrence argues, started under Johnson. In response to the turbulence of the Vietnam War, LBJ adopted a policy of cautious realpolitik to ensure stability and reliability.

But, as Lawrence so thoroughly demonstrates, Johnson was out of his element in foreign affairs, and his foreign policy was reactive. Nixon did benefit from Johnson’s policy turn, and articulated, planned, and implemented policies that had a coherent vision and measurable goals.

Lawrence laments that the U.S. did not cope constructively with the developing world in the 1960s to balance a national instinct to promote change with an understanding on the limits of its power. Though he does not explain how this could be achieved, Lawrence should not be criticized as that is a conundrum that perplexes American foreign policy to this day.

Daniel R. Hart

Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia by Arnold R. Isaacs

Because January 27, 2023, marks the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords, it is appropriate that an updated version of Arnold Isaacs’ groundbreaking 1983 book, Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia: (McFarland, 446 pp. $49.95, paperback), has just been published in an updated edition.

This well-written and exhaustively researched book chronicles in great detail the last three years of the Vietnam War, particularly the political machinations leading to the 1975 collapse of South Vietnam. It was lived and written by Isaacs, an American journalist who was there almost the entire three years. The book, therefore, has the feel of being written by someone who experienced it, as opposed to someone who just merely read about it. There are lengthy chapters on the wars in Laos and Cambodia that provide comprehensive information on those events that few remember.

Isaacs severely criticizes a great number of the political decisions leading to the end of the war, calling them “callous, cynical and wrong,” but admits that by 1972 there were no good choices for the United States to make—only a choice of evils. He is particularly scornful of Graham Martin, the last U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam. 

Martin, who didn’t speak Vietnamese or venture out of Saigon, was indecisive and unrealistic, and made decisions that may have cost lives. However, Isaacs, who covered the war for the Baltimore Sun, praises the final evacuation as well-executed despite the Ambassador’s delays and lack of preparation.

Isaacs notes that America’s allies, including the South Vietnamese, were cut out of the negotiations of the Paris Peace Accords. This is also what the United States later did to its Afghanistan allies and is one reason he decided to republish the book. 

The haunting echoes of end of the Vietnam War were heard and repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. At least, Isaacs writes, the evacuation in Vietnam was successful, compared to the evacuation of American personnel from Afghanistan.

The book’s title, Without Honor, may stick in the craw of those who served in the Vietnam War, their friends, families, and survivors, but Isaacs is referring here only to America’s promise to millions of Vietnamese who depended on U.S. protection against a ruthless and determined enemy.  Abandoning our Vietnam War effort was an act of betrayal for which the overwhelming majority of Americans who did not serve—including our leaders and their critics—share the responsibility.

Arnold Isaacs

Isaacs has little criticism of individual American troops, virtually all of whom did serve with honor. The American military did not lose the war. He writes about an encounter just before Saigon surrendered to the Communists in 1975 to illustrate that point.

U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who was serving on the American negoiating team as the war drew to an end, said to a North Vietnamese liaison officer, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” 

The Communist officer considered for a moment.  “That may be so,” he replied, “but it is also irrelevant.”

Without Honor should be required reading for any American politician contemplating the issues of war, particularly American involvement in a war in Asia.

Isaacs’ website is

–Harvey Weiner

A Tour of Chuong Thien Province by John Raschke

John Raschke’s A Tour of Chuong Thien Province: A U.S. Army Lieutenant with MACV Advisory Team 73 in the Mekong Delta,1969-1970 (McFarland, 238 pp. $29.95, paperback) tells the remarkable story of a young second lieutenant’s 10-and-half month tour as part of a MACV advisory team in one of the most dangerous—if not the most dangerous–provinces of the 44 in South Vietnam. Raschke, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, grew up on an Illinois farm, was one of ten children in a house with no indoor plumbing, and educated in a one-room schoolhouse. 

His book is well written and is as much a history as a war memoir. Considering that Rascke kept a diary only of his combat operations and that he waited almost fifty years to begin the book, the level of detail and recall in it is extraordinary. It is supported by substantial research, endnotes, a glossary, a “what happened to them” section, and an index. 

The contribution of this book to Vietnam War military history is Raschke’s documentation of the role of U.S. military advisers to the South Vietnamese. Each adviser had a separate role from other members of his 50-person advisory team and each role required training, initiative, and judgment. John Raschke had all of these qualities, well beyond his years. I know—I was his hooch mate. 

Raschke was the engineer adviser, but when he realized his more experienced Vietnamese engineer counterpart didn’t often need his advice, he made himself useful to the Team and the war effort by volunteering to take part in many combat operations. He was so effective in the latter role that the Province Senior Advisor officially switched Raschke’s duty position for a month so that he could qualify for the Combat Infantryman Badge, his proudest decoration and one he richly deserved.

Among Raschke’s many combat operations was his heroic rescue under intense enemy fire of a fellow Team member who had been shot six times, including a bullet in his heart and one in his head. He miraculously survived and Rascke (and I) visited him a few days later in the Can Tho hospital. A mason jar with six bullets inside sat at his bedside.

The book emphasizes the warm relationship between the American Team members and the South Vietnamese. To the Team, they were not “gooks” or “slopes” or “the other,” but rather close friends and equals. They were combat buddies.

John Raschke spent decades trying to locate members of the Team, including those who were members when he was not there. The Team existed for nine years. The book discusses the seven reunions Raschke has organized since 2009, their cathartic and healing aspects, and the new and renewed friendships that have resulted. 

The first reunion in 2009 included the first meeting between Raschke and the soldier he rescued from the rice paddy since we saw him in the Can Tho hospital 40 years earlier.

In Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the fictional narrator recreates his youth as filtered through his subsequent life experiences and accumulated wisdom. In a sense, John Raschke does the same in this book, but with a humility and a modesty that Proust’s narrator lacked.

Looking back, Raschke understates what he did, and that makes the book even more compelling.

–Harvey Weiner

The Air War in Vietnam Michael E. Weaver

Many people have written about their combat flying experiences in the Vietnam War. Some have also have gone as far as evaluating the successes and failures of the overall activities of American air power in that war.

One of the most recent analysts is Michael E. Weaver, an Associate Professor of History in the Department of Airpower at the United States Air Force Command and Staff College. In his new book The Air War in Vietnam (Texas Tech University Press, 612 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $22.49, Kindle), Weaver reaches conclusions similar to those of other historians, and solidly supports his arguments with new evidence from little-known archival sources—primarily documentation from the Air Force with support from Navy and Marine Corps records.

In my estimation, Weaver’s book is nothing less than the final word in regard to the application of air power in the Vietnam War.

In 411 pages of tightly-packed text (some 265,000 words) and 158 pages of notes (3,000 citations), Weaver dissects the efficacy of American airpower in the war by weaving history and theory to the application of that power. He concentrates on air superiority, national policy, air support, coercion, and interdiction. The depth of his research makes his arguments, old and new, irrefutable.

Weaver blames Vietnam War air campaign problems on poor strategic choices made by American presidents and their generals. As he puts it in his concluding chapter:

“American air power was about as successful as it could have been given the character of the war. The main deficiency was the absence of a single manager for air operations. Most aircrews discovered from the start that their training had not prepared them for combat [of the type demanded].

“The North Vietnamese considered the war their highest national priority. The Americans did not really want to fight the war in the first place. The nature of the United States’ purpose for involvement placed a cap on American commitment and endurance that was below that of their enemy. The most fundamental failure of the war was not the misuse of air power but the lack of a competent understanding of statecraft on the part of the American executive branch.”       

Weaver emphasizes that military and political actions should complement each other by having a common purpose, which was not a policy adopted by self-serving presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, as well as Nixon’s National Security Adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Conversely, American generals too often unilaterally fought their own wars. For example, unrestrained bombing of an enemy’s homeland gains no meaningful outcome unless the destruction creates political repercussions favorable to the side doing the bombing.

In essence, Weaver says, the highest-level American decisionmakers relied on the myth of limited war that holds that a great power can easily defeat a small, backward country with a minimum of commitment, material, violence, and time.

My Vietnam War experience stretched from 1967-73, navigating 772 support sorties in C-130s during Tet ‘68 and 158 interdiction missions in AC-130s (including Lam Son 719), and undergoing two months-long assignments as a Special Operations adviser throughout the Easter Offensive and Operation Linebacker II in 1972.

On the flight line and in staff meetings I kept my eyes and ears open. Everything Weaver says about operations in which I participated parallels what I saw. That includes the repercussions of tactics based on erroneous planning. Additionally, I have read and reviewed more than 340 books about the war, many written by airmen; their opinions invariably coincide with Weaver’s. With that understanding in mind, I cede to his conclusions about operations less familiar to me.

America’s final major operation of the war—Linebacker II—perfectly exemplified the disassociation between high-level thinking and on-scene performance. On the first two nights of the bombing of North Vietnam, I saw how betrayed the B-52 crewmen felt after being ordered to perform questionable tactics dictated from SAC headquarters half a world away.

The B-52 flyers felt as dispossessed as American fighter pilots who, for years under similar misdirected guidance, had met the challenge of on-again, off-again missions as strategic bombers against North Vietnam. In both cases among the crews, dedication to duty too often became a fatal flaw.                       

The thirty photographs of airplanes and six maps in The Air War in Vietnam provide excellent memory jogs to those of us who were part of that aspect of the conflict more than a half century ago.

—Henry Zeybel

Hunting the Viet Cong: The Counterinsurgency in South Vietnam 1961- 1963 by Darren Poole

As we have come to expect of the British military history publisher Halion, Darren Poole’s Hunting the Viet Cong: The Counterinsurgency in South Vietnam 1961- 1963. Vol. I: The Strategic Hamlet Programme (Halion/Casemate, 96 pp., $29.95, paper) is a quality product rich in photographs, illustrations, maps, and a concise narrative supported by extensive research.   

This book, however, differs from most military history books about the Vietnam War in that it is not about the battles nor the units that fought them. Instead, it tackles a difficult and complicated question: Were counterinsurgency efforts in South Vietnam successful?  

That subject has been fraught with controversy since the early 1960s, starting with the January 1963 Battle of Ap Bac, which shaped President Kennedy’s perception that the war was not going well.  

According to the famed John Paul Vann, who was then a U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel advising the ARVN at Ap Bac, the South Vietnamese Army lacked the initiative to defeat the Viet Cong, lost the battle, and thereby demonstrated that in the greater context the American/South Vietnamese counterinsurgency program was not working.   

That battle, however, plays no role in this book. Instead, Poole, a British military historian who specializes in insurgency, makes the argument that the Viet Cong had to adapt to overcome significant reversals suffered in the face of a U.S.-South Vietnamese counterinsurgency strategy that was actually working.   

The most important component of both insurgency and counterinsurgency in the Vietnam War were the people who lived in villages who were loyal to whoever was dominant and protected them. The American Strategic Hamlet Program, which placed villagers in heavily guarded, centralized hamlets, put the Viet Cong on the defensive.   

Poole says the increasing isolation of Viet Cong units from their lifeblood in the villages and their source of manpower, the peasants, proved the efficacy of the Strategic Hamlet Program. He nots the increasing casualties suffered by the Viet Cong as ARVN units aggressively pursued them. Where the Viet Cong could get to villages, they recognized that fear was a powerful tool and used violence to convince villagers into supporting them.

Although Darren Poole does not mention it in this volume, it was during this period that the North Vietnamese Politburo recognized it had to respond to the South’s counterinsurgency program by significantly increasing its involvement in South Vietnam with conventional manpower and weapons.  

Volume I makes it clear that at this point in the war counterinsurgency was the key to victory for the South Vietnamese.

–John Cirafici

Target Saigon 1973-75: Volume 4: The Final Collapse, April-May 1975 by Albert Grandolini

Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon 1973-75, Volume 4: The Final Collapse, April May 1975 (Helion/Casemate, 80 pp. $29.95, paperback), the fourth and final volume of the Target Saigon series, covers the final days of the Vietnam War as the South Vietnamese Army tried to fight off the North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) on its march to Saigon.

This volume opens with preliminary operations led by PAVN Gen. Tran Van Tra to surround and cut off Saigon. The main fighting up to that point had been in the Central Highlands and the northern portion of South Vietnam. By the beginning of April, that entire area had been taken over by the North Vietnamese military and the main offensive moved on to areas to the north and west (Tay Ninh) and east (Xuan Loc) of Saigon and in the Mekong Delta. The ARVN forces were led by the highly competent Gen. Nguyen Van Toan.  

The opposing generals’ forces engaged in intense fighting. The North Vietnamese paid heavily for each of its successes as the ARVN made strategic withdrawals closer and closer to Saigon. In the Delta, attacking PAVN units were exposed to withering fire by entrenched troops, airstrikes, and naval gunboats.

The battle for Xuan Loc was the fiercest of the 1975 campaign and stopped the North Vietnamese advance in its tracks. Another highly competent ARVN general, Le Minh Dao, who commanded the defense of Xuan Loc, inflicted heavy losses on the enemy before yielding the city.

For eleven days the ARVN, reinforced by Airborne and Ranger units and supported by airstrikes, threw back attacking troops and T-54 tanks from six PAVN divisions augmented with armor brigades. The South Vietnamese Air Force flying from Bien Hoa Air Base dropped 15,000-pound Daisy Cutter bombs on North Vietnamese troops. A-37 and F-5 attack aircraft, flying sortie after sortie, inflicted large losses on advancing armor units.      

Only when the PAVN corps commander shifted artillery within range of the air base was he able to bring munitions and aircraft on the ground under fire. The day Xuan Loc fell it became evident that the end of South Vietnam was in sight. That evening South Vietnamese President Thieu resigned and fled to Taiwan. Within days, a new government formed under former Gen. Duong Van Minh, the leader of the neutralist Third Force.  

Minh imagined that he could form a coalition government with the Viet Cong, but was mistaken as the VC was focused on total victory and not on negotiating. For the final assault on Saigon the PAVN used more than 250,000 troops, 320 tanks, 500 artillery pieces, and 180,000 support troops. In its final effort to stop the advance on Saigon the ARVN, with support of its Air Force, fought tenaciously.  

But it all for nothing. On April 30 the North Vietnamese took Saigon and, despite continued fighting in the Delta, the war was over.

The tragedy is that many of the South Vietnamese troops who fought the hardest to defend their country spent years in reeducation camps where some of the most dedicated officers were executed.  

Reading this book, I could not help but reflect on the 18th ARVN Division. I was briefly sent to Xuan Loc in October 1967 where I heard Americans make disparaging comments about the 18th ARVN. Yet, it was the 18th that put up heroic resistance eight years later, right up to the end. Gen. Le Minh Dao, its commander, enduring eighteen years of imprisonment after the war ended.

Halion, the British military history publisher of the Target Saigon series, always produces a quality product. Besides being very informative, this volume is well supported by many maps, illustrations, and photographs.

–John Cirafici

Target Saigon 1973-75: Disaster at Da Nang 1975 by Albert Grandolini

Military historian Albert Grandolini’s Target Saigon 1973-75: Disaster at Da Nang (Helion/Casemate, 80 pp., $29.95, paper), the third in a four-volume series, captures the final days of the Vietnam War in the northern provinces.

In March 1975 North Vietnamese forces began a major offensive to take the two biggest cities in northern South Vietnam. Within weeks they overran their objectives and began the final thrust to Saigon. The disaster at Da Nang was tragic for the South Vietnamese and, coming so soon after a rout in the Central Highlands, presaged the end of South Vietnam.  

The tragedy is that the finest generals of South Vietnam’s army, fighting in the northernmost provinces with forces stretched thin and with limited munitions, put up a stout defense as they went up against the equally skilled North Vietnamese generals.  

The Politburo, led by Communist Party General Secretary Le Duan, had devised a cautious plan for the final phases of the war that would not be completed until 1976. Instead, their rapid successes would end the war in April 1975. This short, heavily illustrated book captures what went wrong for the South Vietnamese in the northern provinces.   

With hindsight, the major events leading to the final defeat would start with the decision by South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to abruptly order the evacuation of ARVN forces from the Central Highlands—a nearly impossible task conducted on poor roads. Remembering the North Vietnamese massacre of thousands in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, countless thousands of South Vietnamese civilians flooded those same roads.  

The book describes the same chaos that followed in the northern provinces as ARVN Gen. Ngo Quang Truong—a highly competent leader—tried to consolidate his forces into defendable enclaves, first at Hue and then Da Nang. Confusing orders from Thieu insisting on the defense of too much territory exasperated Truong and undermined his efforts. Belatedly authorizing the repositioning of forces resulted in a hastily ordered withdrawal compounded by countless thousands of fleeing civilians.  

The upshot: 120,000 ARVN troops were captured or killed while only 16,000 made it out to go south and defend Saigon. What’s more, the South Vietnamese Air Force lost 268 aircraft, which were either captured or destroyed as their air bases in the North were overrun. Within days, Cam Ranh Bay would fall.    

For those of us who had seen combat in the northern provinces of South Vietnam, it is tough to read about the rapid fall of Quang Tri, Dong Ha, Hue, Da Nang, and other places where American forces had fought and died years earlier. You get the feeling that it was all for naught.   

That said, we should respect the South Vietnamese troops who put up a good fight until everything collapsed around them. This book tells their story.

–John Cirafici

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963 by Michael M. Walker

America and Vietnam, 1954-1963: The Road to War (McFarland, 391 pp. $49.95, paper; $22.49, Kindle) is an exceptionally well-researched and written history. It is an outstanding single-volume look at the Vietnam War’s origins, examining how and why America’s fate became entwined with the internal struggle between Vietnamese factions.    

The goals of this book are to identify the origins of the war, the nature of the adversaries, their capabilities, and the evolving commitment of the United States. In other words, what happened that led to America’s direct and overwhelming involvement in a war the country chose to fight, not one we fought out of necessity.  

In answering that question, Michael Walker explains the very complicated power struggle following the end of the First Indochinese War in 1954 in the South, after which Ngo Dinh Diem created a functional state (the Republic of South Vietnam) in an otherwise dysfunctional mess.   

Walker, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, provides a complete picture of President Diem, who was a very complicated man, showing how he consolidated power. Walker claims that it was the one-sided and damaging treatment of Diem in the American press that contributed to the 1963 coup that resulted in his death.

Walker then explains how the North’s highly experienced and disciplined Worker’s Party quickly consolidated power after the French defeat in anticipation of future unification and the impact of the war in Laos on the conflict in Vietnam. The chaotic events of 1963–including a series a Buddhist-led protests against Diem, the U.S.-supported coup and Diem’s assasination, as well as Hanoi’s decision to exploit the post-coup instability in the South—changed the face of the war.    

To explain how a civil war between the northern and southern Vietnamese became a major part of American history Walker examines the decade immediately preceding the American war in Vietnam. He focuses on Resolution 15 issued by Hanoi in 1959, which formally began a second phase of the war, the first being the struggle for independence from the French.  

Walker addresses the creation of armies in both the North and South and provides insights into the professional and highly effective use of intelligence collection and signals intelligence by the North. Perhaps the most impressive success of the North was the placement of agents into the highest reaches of the South’s military and government.  One undercover agent who revealed his role after the war actually worked for American news correspondents and influenced their opinions about the war.  

This is an informative book that answers many questions about how the United States wound up fighting in Vietnam in a much-expanded conflict. It is well worth the time to read. 

–John Cirafici

A Day in Hell on the DMZ by Lou Pepi

Lou Pepi served in the Vietnam War in 1969 with Alpha Company of the 1st Battalion of the 61st Infantry Regiment in the Army’s 5th Infantry Division. He displays life-long allegiance to that group with A Day in Hell on the DMZ: The Rocket Attack on Firebase Charlie 2 in Vietnam, May 21, 1971 (McFarland, 213 pp. $33.94, paper; $13.49, Kindle).

The book is based Pepi’s interviews with 20 men from Alpha Company. He recreates their actions prior to and following the May 21, 1971, event that killed 30 and wounded 33 when a 122-mm rocket caved in the roof of a recreational bunker. Eighteen of the dead came from Alpha Company. Firebase Charlie 2 was in Northern I Corps close to the Demilitarized Zone and easily within range of North Vietnamese Army artillery.

As a reporter, Pepi flawlessly did his homework. He follows the overall course of Alpha’s actions and includes interviewees’ comments at appropriate moments for each event, rather than record their recollections separately. Pepi shows the men in combat and the ways they developed as warriors. His account of an Alpha patrol trapped in an unmapped Con Thien minefield illuminates a nightmare of misguided intentions and disastrous results.       

Even though it was late in the war, Alpha and the 5th Infantry Division endured height-of-the-war demands. Alpha spent 70 consecutive days in the field shortly before the events at Firebase Charlie 2. The Company played a major role in Operation Dewey Canyon II that literally paved the way (constructing 80 kilometers of new roads) for Operation Lam Son 719, the move into Laos that began in February 1971. Alpha’s job was to keep the road open throughout both operations.

Pepi does an excellent job incorporating expert opinions about the planning mistakes of Lam Son that doomed the South Vietnamese Army mission practically before it began.

A Day in Hell on the DMZ pays tribute to all of the men in Alpha Company, with special recognition for those killed in the rocket strike. As Pepi shows, their courage and dedication went above and beyond.

Company Commander Capt. Robert Dean was the driving force in Alpha until he suffered a horrendous injury and was shipped stateside for eight months of hospital care. Unhappily, multiple wounds shortened his first Vietnam War tour as well. His combat career totaled 20 months that resulted in 22 months in hospitals.

5th Infantry soldier on patrol with an M60 machine gun

Dean’s feats in battle, as reported by Pepi, set a standard that his men admired: He asked nothing of them beyond doing what he would do himself. Dean’s pragmatic approach and success in desperate situations overwhelmed me. Pepi gives him the final word in nearly every situation, which he earned and deserves. Robert Dean died in 2018. He deserved to live to 100. I came to idolize the guy.

The book contains many pages of communication logs, plus 14 pages of after action reports dealing with the events of May 21, 1971. Their hour-by-hour accounts provide material for hard-core history buffs.

This book is Pepi’s second about the Vietnam War. He previously wrote My Brothers Have My Back, which centers on a three-day engagement known as the “November Battle,” in which he participated in 1969. During his time with Alpha Company Pepi served as a machine gunner, APC driver, and squad leader.

Episodes of counterinsurgency warfare fill A Day in Hell on the DMZ and give readers a treasure trove of facts over which to speculate what might have been, if only….

—Henry Zeybel