Against All Tides by Marv Truhe

A riot broke out in the early-morning hours of October 13, 1972, aboard the USS Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier on combat patrol in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War. Fighting fomented by racial tensions between white and Black sailors turned a section of the vessel into a battleground. Dozens of men were injured; three men had to be medevaced to on-shore medical facilities. The confrontations did not affect combat operations.

Capt. Marland Townsend had set the stage for the conflict that he classified as a “riot.” During his first five months as the ship’s new captain, Townsend had harshly punished Black sailors for behavior that he tolerated from whites.

Townsend’s zeal punishing Black sailors eventually infected multiple levels of command as the opinions of those who sided with Blacks were superseded or ignored. The Navy’s goal soon evolved into ending the entire matter hastily without further publicity. Navy leaders and government decision makers seemed to forget the tenet that everyone merits equal and fair treatment.    

Following the riot, Townsend attempted to try 24 Black sailors by captain’s mast, the Navy equivalent of an Article 15 in which he alone would determine their guilt and punishment. Only three men opted for a mast; two ended up in the ship’s brig for two months. The rest, who chose to be judged by court-martial, were forced to await their judgment in the Subic Bay Naval Base brig, occasionally in solitary confinement. No whites faced charges.

Lt. Marv Truhe, a former Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps lawyer at the time, has come up with a thorough account of the riot in Against All Tides: The Untold Story of the USS Kitty Hawk Race Riot  (Lawrence Hill, 320 pp. $28.99, hardcover; $11.49, Kindle). Truhe helped defend six Black Kitty Hawk sailors charged with rioting and assaulting white sailors.

Truhe analyzes Townsend’s actions, as well as the entire Navy command structure’s, at great length. He sets out each Black sailors’ situation in the riot, a factor disregarded by Townsend and others who treated them as a tightly unified group with no individual identity. If I listed all of the unfair procedures against the Blacks and their lawyers from start to finish of the case, this review would be ten-pages long.  

Working alongside other military, civilian, and NAACP defense lawyers, Truhe helped challenge the Navy for its one-sided investigation that charged only Black sailors and for the pretrial confinement of the accused in prison cells for months, an unprecedented action in the history of the modern Navy. He also writes about his own removal and possible court- martial as a defense counsel; the improper withholding of evidence by the government; and the dishonorable discharge of a Black sailor based on perjured testimony.

The book’s abundance of facts speaks for itself. Truhe fortifies his account by referencing his original case file, which includes interview notes with clients, witnesses, defendants, and fellow lawyers; dozens of tape recordings; official Kitty Hawk documents; and trial and hearing transcripts. “No publications or other accounts have captured the complete story,” he writes, “and too many have gotten it completely wrong.”

Lt. Truhe in 1972

After showing how government-supported racism grew, Truhe concedes that the outcome of the trials ultimately proved a vindication of sorts considering there were acquittals, dropped charges, and relatively lenient sentences. Plus, all of the defendants left the Navy with honorable discharges.

The most enlightening parts of Against All Tides are outtakes from legal arguments and courtroom cross examinations. They provide a touch of David versus Goliath, with low-ranking defense lawyers challenging high-ranking judges and admirals. The young lieutenants built great cases, but the big men often had the final word.

The Kitty Hawk conflict balanced out when, following the trials, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Elmo Zumwalt invited Navy officers “who do not view improved race relations as their critical duty right now to retire from the service.”

The book’s best message: “Those who are oblivious to their own prejudices are guilty of one of the more insidious forms of racism.”

Anyone interested in further pursuing this topic should look into, Gregory A. Freeman’s Troubled Water: Race, Mutiny, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk (2010), a full-length book, and Laurel Habrock’s a 98-page paperback, Troubled Water: Race, Munity, and Bravery on the USS Kitty Hawk, published in 2021.

The author’s website is marvtruhe.com

—Henry Zeybel

Going Downtown by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an author and screenwriter. He also is a U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran and a licensed pilot with a lifelong interest in all things aeronautic. All of the above give him a unique insight into the American air war in Vietnam.

Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The U.S. Air Force over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1967-1975 (Osprey, 352 pp. $30, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) is a compilation of pilot biographies and memoirs interspersed with analyses of political and military decisions about how the USAF and the North Vietnamese ran air operations during the war.

Using extensive research and interviews, Cleaver has combined seemingly mundane, behind-the-scenes events with bone-chilling battle scenes. For me, Going Downtown was one of those “can’t put it down” reads, although I did put it down periodically just to digest the mountains of information I was learning.

Many aircraft and pilots are showcased throughout Going Downtown. It was an unexpected delight to read many accounts of our former enemy pilots as well.

The American pilots faced several deadly factors: North Vietnamese air defenses, including MIGs, SAMs, and antiaircraft buns of all types; Rules of Engagement devised by men in the White House and Defense Department, many of whom had little or no military backgrounds; faulty aircraft armament which led to many air-to-air missiles malfunctioning or being too cumbersome to use in combat; and poor tactics, one of which forced all aircraft in a flight to jettison their bombs, abort an attack, and head for home as soon as an approaching MIG was sighted.

Cleaver says some strategists felt that the outcome of the USAF air campaign in Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power, while many who actually fought felt that what happened demonstrated the results of imposing limitations on air power. Cleaver shows that at times the NVA maintained unquestionable air superiority, but when the Rules of Engagement were relaxed, the U.S. immediately took over the skies of North Vietnam.

I highly recommend Going Downtown to historians, action readers, and aviation buffs. It is a good companion to Cleaver’s The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in Vietnam, which was published in 2021.

–Bob Wartman

The Price of Loyalty by Andrew Johns

John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933-41, famously described his office as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.” To the engaging, optimistic, and dedicated Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, a beguiling and tragic figure of the Cold War, being Lyndon Johnson’s vice president from 1965-69 proved to be worth even less than that.

For if that warm bucket is worthless, at least it does not cost anything. For Humphrey, being Johnson’s vice president cost him just about everything.

That is the argument set forth by the historian Andrew Johns in The Price of Loyalty: Humbert Humphrey’s Vietnam Conflict (Rowman and Littlefield, 186 pp., $48, hardcover; $45.50, Kindle). Johns, a professor of history at Brigham Young University, is one of the leading practitioners of the study of American Cold War foreign policy and the author or editor of six books, including Vietnam’s Second Front: Domestic Politics, the Republican Party, and the War. The Price of Loyalty is a meticulously researched, concise book.

In February 1965, just one month into the Johnson-Humphrey administration, Vice President Humphrey wrote LBJ a memorandum that set out his thoughts on why the new government should extricate itself from the burgeoning conflict in Vietnam. Though the topic was foreign policy, the memorandum was rooted in domestic politics, as Humphrey argued that 1965—following the ticket’s landslide triumph at the polls the previous November—would be the year in which there would be minimal political risk in withdrawing U.S. forces from Vietnam. 

Though the memo would prove to be sagacious and prescient, there were two big problems: Humphrey had been told not to write such policy memoranda and the policy Humphrey espoused was in conflict with Johnson and his chief advisers. After he read the memo Johnson exiled Humphrey from all the big debates on the Vietnam War. Considerably chastened, and in an effort to gain favor with the President, Humphrey became one of the leading spokesmen for LBJ’s Vietnam War policies.

Johns sketches Humphrey’s metamorphosis from “apostate to apostle” on the Vietnam War, from a skeptic in 1964, that is, to a hawk in 1966. This transformation is the central thesis of the book, as Johns attempts to understand why Humphrey, after having his advice rejected and suffering personal humiliation at the hands of Johnson, would attach himself so closely to the President and his war policies. Johns contends that Humphrey ignored his own principles out of a combination of political expediency, ambition, and allegiance.

When Lyndon Johnson decided not to run for re-election in 1968, Hubert Humphrey became the Democratic Party frontrunner for the nomination, but during the campaign he struggled to convey a coherent political strategy on Vietnam. Johnson was of no help to his beleaguered Vice President, believing Richard Nixon would be a better successor.

Johns describes Johnson’s behavior toward Humphrey as part of the “Johnson treatment,” LBJ’s proclivity to humiliate his subordinates. But Johnson did not treat his inherited staff that way, underscoring that the “treatment” may have had more to do with Humphrey’s willingness to take the abuse.

Johns also posits that it is a “great irony” that Humphrey struggled so mightily with the war, when two other liberal anticommunist Democrats, Kennedy and Johnson, escalated the war and sent in the first U.S. combat troops. Earlier in the book, Johns astutely notes that these two impulses, liberalism and anticommunism, created a disconnect when the they conflicted. It was not ironic, but endemic.

President Johnson and Vice President Humphrey in 1968

In his conclusion, Johns, in an effort to provide a foil to Humphrey, makes a case for Pete McCloskey, a liberal Republican first elected to Congress in 1967, being an exemplar of placing principle over politics. But that is an iffy comparison. Though an admirable politician, McCloskey never wavered about his position on the war after being elected as an antiwar candidate. McCloskey was also one of 435 Representatives, so–unlike Humphrey–he had little risk of overexpressing his views and no practical responsibility in shaping foreign policy.

Johns’ work is an overdue, a significant addition to the historiography of the Vietnam War, and one that elucidates a relevant lesson for contemporary politics on the struggle over virtue and loyalty. Only someone as skilled as Andrew Johns could have written such an accessible and compelling book in such a succinct manner.

“Dump the Hump?” Perhaps, but first read the book.

–Daniel R. Hart

LZ Sitting Duck by John Arsenault

Many Vietnam War veterans well remember what it was like to be thrown into battle in a remote corner of South Vietnam, fighting for their lives in combat that ultimately would made absolutely no sense. Fire Support Base Argonne on the Laotian border just below the DMZ in Quang Tri Province was one of those places.    

In defiance of common sense, the men of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marines in the 3rd Marine Division were compelled to attack Argonne, a former U.S. fire support base. The North Vietnamese Army always prepared defenses on abandoned bases, including booby traps, in anticipation of returning American troops. What happened at FSB Argonne was no different.  

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. John Arsenault’s LZ Sitting Duck: The Fight for FSB Argonne (Liberty Hill Press, 272 pp. ($32.49, hardcover; $17.40, paper; $8.99; Kindle) is a collection of vignettes taken from nearly two dozen Marines who went through hell just trying to survive as they fought tenaciously against a determined foe.    

From the moment the Marines assaulted the LZ they named Sitting Duck, they came under intense fire and began taking heavy casualties. That situation would not change much for the entire time they conducted operations. Snipers picked them off, mortar rounds rained down on them, and just when it seemed things couldn’t get worse, an artillery round intended for the North Vietnamese fell short, leaving no one unscathed.     

The highly regarded battalion CO, seemly invincible as he stood up to lead his men, became just one more KIA. That was one of many scary moments for a lieutenant who describes watching his CO take a direct hit to the head.

The Marines performed feats of pure heroism. Again and again, as one reads their accounts at Argonne there is a real feeling of being there amid the incoming fire, the chaos, and the confusion. The Marines fought in rugged terrain with little water to combat their dehydration from the overwhelming heat, all while attacking the enemy troops ensconced in well-prepared fighting positions.

Many of the book’s twenty-four vignettes describe the same battle scenes; but each one offers something new from a different Marine’s perspective. Their individual accounts are almost like reading a murder mystery in which different witnesses describe a crime scene with each one seeing things differently.

Collectively, this book adds up to an astounding account of perseverance, hardship, heroism, and endurance. One can’t help but coming away from reading these battle stories with admiration for the Marines who fought at Argonne.   

This is a sobering account of combat that should be read.

–John Cirafici

Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients & Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients by Michael Lee Lanning

Lee Lanning is a prolific author and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel who served in Vietnam as a platoon leader and rifle company commander with the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. His latest books—Hispanic Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M University Press, 304 pp., $29.95) and Jewish Medal of Honor Recipients: American Heroes (Texas A&M, 247 pp., $29.95)—are companion pieces in every sense of the term. In them, Lanning writes about a select group of American servicemen, members of one of the country’s most exclusive and honored organizations.

Of the more than 40 million men and women who have served in the military since the formation of the Continental Army in 1775, the Medal of Honor—which was first awarded during the Civil War—has been bestowed on only 3,525. “It is the highest award for bravery given by the U.S .Armed Forces for combat against enemy forces,” Lanning writes. “It is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by gallantry and intrepidity beyond the call of duty at the risk of their own lives.”

All too often the award is bestowed posthumously. Of the MOH awardees, at least 17 were Jewish; 60 were Hispanic.

These books follow a similar pattern and complement each other. Lanning begins both with a brief description of the MOH—its history, significance, and exclusivity.

What follows is a rendition of the MOH citation for each recipient and a brief synopsis of the valorous actions the recipients performed in battle. Lanning also provides the background story for each individual; and for the living recipients, a description of their lives today.

Twenty-two Hispanic Vietnam War troops—including Army Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez and Army Spec. 4 Alfred Rascon—and two Jewish men–Army Col. Jack Jacobs and USAF Sgt. John Levitow—received the MOH. Lanning notes that newly presented information and records could mean that those numbers will increase.

These are good books filled with well-presented and informative stories.

–Tom Werzyn

Vietnam War Refugees in Guam by Nghia M. Vo

When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.

Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.

Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.

For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.

Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.

Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.

I highly recommend Vietnam War Refugees in Guam.

–Bob Wartman

Wesley Fishel and Vietnam by Joseph Morgan

“The world is our campus,” proclaimed John Hannah, the president of Michigan State University from 1941-69. During that time, Hannah transformed a sleepy, agricultural college into a world-class research university. The charismatic Hannah also was at the forefront of an important mid-20th century trend in American higher education: fusing academic research with public affairs through organized research units. A young Far East scholar, Wesley Fishel, was one of his stars.

A significant part of Joseph Morgan’s biography, Wesley Fishel and Vietnam: A Great and Tragic American Experiment (Lexington Books/Rowman and Littlefield, 252 pp., $100, hardcover; $45, Kindle), is an examination of America’s descent into the war in Vietnam. The book is well researched and accessible. An assistant professor of history at Iona College, Morgan’s previous book, The Vietnam Lobby: The American Friends of Vietnam, 1955-1975, examined that advocacy group—of which Fishel was an integral member—set up just after the end of the French Indochina War to help the newly formed government of South Vietnam become free and democratic.

If there was a casting call for the role of an academic who would play a prominent role in that endeavor as a close adviser to South Vietnam’s first president Ngo Dinh Diem, it likely would not have been Wesley Fishel. After graduating from Northwestern, the Cleveland native served as a Japanese-speaking Army intelligence officer during World War II. Following the war, Fishel earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Chicago, studying under the famed Hans Morgenthau. A chance 1950 meeting with Diem changed Fishel’s life.

While ostensibly an unlikely pairing, the two shared much in common—each lost a brother to war; were diminutive in size but large in brainpower; believed in using intellectual ideas to transform society; and were virulently anti-communist. In 1954 Fishel decided he would not merely be a pundit on foreign affairs, but would shape them. The next year, the U.S. government awarded MSU a $2-million contract to advise the nascent South Vietnamese government. Morgan posits that Fishel’s relationship with Diem was the deciding factor in Michigan State winning the contract.

Fishel relished his access to power and his role as a maker of public policy, to the extent that some were put off by his egotism. His closeness to Diem led to charges that the relationship clouded his judgment. Fishel also proved to be a poor administrator, leading to conflicts in the MSU advisory group, as well as with the U.S. government agencies. But Diem’s obstinacy worked in Fishel’s favor, as he remained one of the few Americans with whom the autocratic head of state would confide.

Despite their relationship, most of Fishel’s advice to Diem was ignored, and, as Diem concentrated power, he became even less willing to listen. When Fishel’s colleagues published a series of articles in 1961 denouncing Diem’s rule, the MSU contract was terminated. A disillusioned Fishel broke with Diem in 1962, and the next year was working with the State Department on possible Diem replacements.

Fishel and family in Saigon, 1956

After Diem was assassinated in 1963, Fishel continued to vigorously defend American intervention in Vietnam, becoming a lightning rod for protestors. In the late 1960s, Fishel went to Southern Illinois University to help create the Center for Vietnamese Studies, a project that ultimately failed for several reasons, one of which was that the controversial Fishel headed it. He died suddenly in 1977.

Morgan astutely observes that Wesley Fishel’s career mirrored America’s war in Vietnam: Both were filled at first with hopeful optimism, only to be waylaid by frustration and ultimately disaster.

Morgan’s assessment of Fishel in his conclusion—that he was largely inconsequential in forming policy, contributed little to scholarship, and abetted Diem in creating a dictatorship—is both harsh and not borne out by his own impressive research.

Nonetheless, this book is a thoughtful reflection on the role the U.S. academy played in the Cold War and of one’s man role at the outset of what would become a “tragic American experiment.”

–Daniel R. Hart

A War Tour of Vietnam by Erin R. McCoy

Erin McCoy’s A War Tour of Vietnam: Cultural History (McFarland, 206 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle) covers the years 1940-75 in a mere 190 pages of text. McCoy’s ambitious goal of exploring the “culture, history and popular music in the countries most affected by the Vietnam War, i.e. North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and of course, the United States,” though, falls a bit short.

McCoy devotes a chapter to each of these years, but the popular music she writes about in all the chapters is all American. Plus, her music reviews and references are sometimes somewhat oblique.

While McCoy touches on many cultural topics, she occasionally goes off on tangents. Nearly half of the chapter about the year 1969, for example, deals with the music of that year, and, for some reason, we also get details about a trip she took to Puerto Rico. That and other recitations of day-to-day, personal activities subtracted from the book.

That said, McCoy does bring interesting facts and observations to the page. And the book reads well, and would be valuable to casual readers who are not part of the Vietnam War generation.

–Tom Werzyn

The Erawan War, Vol. 2 by Ken Conboy

Ken Conboy’s The Erawan War, Vol. 2: A Paramilitary Campaign in Laos 1969-1974.  (Helion 78 pp., $29.95, paper) is an account of the largest CIA operation of the Cold War, in which the agency fielded an army numbering perhaps eight indigenous divisions. This second volume of a two-volume history, seamlessly follows the first one in describing the evolving nature of operations during the last five years of American involvement in Laos during the Vietnam War.   

Although Volume 2 can stand alone, it is immensely helpful to have read Vol. 1’s 1961-69 history. Like the first, Vol. 2 captures much of the secret war in Laos, including its complexity. It focuses on CIA-trained guerilla units recruited from the hill tribes of Vietnam and Thailand. In operations against North Vietnam’s heavily guarded and vital Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos teams penetrated defenses, destroyed supply-laden trucks, and gathered intelligence. Equally impressive, they conducted attacks inside North Vietnam itself.

Although in the greater scheme of things these missions were pinpricks, President Nixon pushed for them as a means of applying pressure on Hanoi. The real test, however, came when guerilla regiments found themselves pitted against regular North Vietnamese Army (PAVN) divisions. Many PAVN units, known for their aggressiveness in South Vietnam, were also fighting in Laos.

The CIA out of necessity recruited increasing numbers of Lao tribesmen and Thai volunteers, and formed new battalions to fight in the rapidly expanding war. President Nixon was so pleased by their successes that he conveyed his admiration directly to the Thai prime minister. But the CIA-led paramilitary campaign could not stop the PAVNs steady advance.

Thai battalions became essential to operations in the Plaine des Jarres region, trying to stall advances made by the PAVN. It is evident that the large-scale war in Laos was in many ways as important as the war in Vietnam.  

The book details the significant amount of combat airlift flown by USAF helicopters in Laos. USAF Combat Controllers and Forward Air Controllers also played an important role supporting operations there. U.S. military assets based in Thailand and South Vietnam were crucial to successes on the battlefield, in particular when U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft conducted airstrikes.

Hmong fighters in Laos with an American military adviser

Conboy’s Erawan War books reveal the tragedy of this story: that men and boys recruited from the hill tribes by the CIA struggled against an enemy with seemingly unlimited manpower and weaponry. It’s to their credit that these irregular forces frequently working with Thai special forces, infantry, and artillery were able to resist for so long against the advancing PAVN and its Pathet Lao allies. The tragedy was that with the end of all American involvement in the conflict the hill tribes were left to fend for themselves and suffer the consequences at the hands of vindictive Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.

This concise, heavily illustrated book contains much information about a part of the Vietnam War that little known to the American public. The two volumes are a necessary read in order to truly understand the immensity of America’s involvement in the Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

–John Cirafici

The Vietnam War 1956-75 by Andrew Wiest

Andrew Wiest’s The Vietnam War, 1956-1975 (Osprey, 144 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a great book. I recommend it to anyone seeking an overview of the Vietnam War and the era during which it took place. This concise very readable book was first published in 2002 and has been updated by the author. Reading it reminds the reader that the era was a trying time domestically in the United States as the struggle for social change reached a critical moment.  

Vietnam War veterans will be pleased to find that this book is an honest and accurate account of their war. However, we Vietnam veterans are a clear minority in today’s America, and the war is half a century behind us. Consequently, the desired readership should be the generations who have come after us and have no memories of the war.  

For them in particular I believe that Andrew Wiest—a history professor and the founding director of the Dale Center for the Study of War & Society at the University of Southern Mississippi—captures all the important factors of a complicated conflict and its impact throughout the world. Beyond the often brutal battles and the high number of casualties, the reader learns how costly, in the long term, the war was for Vietnam’s environment, its economy, and its people. The same factors also have had a crippling impact on Cambodia and Laos.   

Wiest is the author of two Vietnam War books, Vietnam’s Forgotten Army and The Boys of ’67. The Vietnam War includes a section on how returning American veterans suffered in many ways in a society indifferent—if not hostile—to their service, which further exacerbated problems once known as the Vietnam Syndrome. Interestingly, as the book mentions, this was also true for Australian Vietnam War veterans when they returned to their country where the war was very unpopular. 

Wiest explains why many Americans came to distrust their government as a consequence of the war when it became clear that from the beginning the American public had been misled and lied to. Additionally, Wiest shows how the conflict had a deeply negative impact on the U.S. military in the years after the war, particularly the U.S. Army. As many of us serving in the aftermath of the war experienced, the Army in the mid 1970s was broken and in need of significant repair.  

All of this and more is covered in this outstanding book; it is well worth reading and sharing with younger generations.

–John Cirafici