In early 1965 while at stationed at Fort Benning, I witnessed an incredible sight. Actually, I heard it first, and it sounded as if I were inside a beehive. Then an armada of helicopters emerged low over the trees with Mohawk reconnaissance aircraft leading the way and Caribou transports alongside. I had no idea that what I was seeing was the future of combat operations: employing airmobile forces on the battlefield.
What I saw was the 11th Air Assault Division completing its final test phase. Within months the unit was re-designated the 1st Cavalry Division and sent to Vietnam. Airmobile warfare, tested and refined at Fort Benning and then put in place in Vietnam, is the subject of Chris McNab’s U.S. Air Cavalry Trooper Versus North Vietnamese Soldier, Vietnam 1965-68 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22, paper; $9.99, Kindle),
McNab, who specializes in writing about wilderness and urban survival techniques, focuses on the key components of success in war. He writes that the Air Cavalry is a true product of combined-arms warfare, employing vertical envelopment on the battlefield supported by massive firepower. McNab analyses how that concept worked in the Vietnam War against the North Vietnamese Army’s impressive ability to quickly adapt tactics to diminish the air cavalry’s advantages and inflict maximum casualties by assaulting air cav troopers before withdrawing.
McNab points out how the cavalry employed technology to enhance success on the battlefield. New advances in radio communications, for example, permitted rapid responses to fluid situations on the ground, and scout helicopters brought eyes-on-the-battlefield to the command and control system. This was in addition to the use of helicopters to rapidly insert forces and shift them as battlefield conditions evolved.
Although the 1st Cavalry led the way with new tactics, mobility, and technology, it still had to fight conventionally on the ground. While the men of the 1st Cav inflicted significant casualties on the enemy—primarily due to the firepower at its command—they also suffered large losses. Two prime example, the November 1965 Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, and the October 1965 Siege of Plei Me.
By the time the 1st Cavalry Division withdrew from the Vietnam War it had suffered more casualties than any other U.S. unit
To illustrate the tactics of the 1st Cav and the NVA, McNab draws on the engagements fought in 1966-1967, particularly Operations Crazy Horse and Masher and the battles of Tam Quan and the Vinh Thanh Valley. He explains the NVA’s uncomplicated method of neutralizing airpower and artillery: quickly closing with U.S. troops, something they termed “holding the enemy’s belt.” In doing so, they got inside the safe zone for American forces where artillery and airstrikes were equally dangerous for both sides.
This is a first-rate short book, but there is a significant omission. Reading the description of the 1st Cavalry’s organizational structure I was surprised that McNab did not mention Air Force units that worked with the Cav and with other Army combat divisions and independently operating battalions: Forward Air Controllers (FACs) and the Special Forces Tactical Air Control Party (TACP).
Other than that misstep, this book brings much to the table: It is filled with excellent illustrations and photographs that greatly enhance the narrative, along with highly usable maps with descriptive keys.
This is a valuable reference tool.