The Aviators by Rex Gooch

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Rex Gooch writes about what young men do when they are carefree and voluntarily go to war. In their world, life becomes simply us-against-them and survival equates with victory.

Gooch, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, tells all about that in The Aviators: Stories of U.S. Army Helicopter Combat in the Vietnam War, 1971-72 (Lighthorse Publishing, 316 pp. $15.95, paper; $8.99, Kindle). The book consists of stories Gooch has collected from fellow helicopter crewmen in the Lighthorse Air Cavalry, the 17th Aviation Group, 18th Aviation Company who served during the Vietnam War in IV Corps at Vinh Long and Can Tho.

Kevin Kelly, “the best Cobra pilot in the troop,” as Gooch puts it, perfectly summed up their attitude. In control of a weapons system with overwhelming firepower, Kelly said, “I felt invincible.” But after being shot down twice, a shaken Kelly felt his “invincibility had been replaced by a more experienced outlook.”

These young men—mostly in their late teens and early twenties—endured a baptism of fire that revealed their mortality, Gooch says. Simultaneously, it bonded them for life.

The Aviators has two themes. First, the book records a short period of combat by an organization with a long history. Second, it describes Gooch’s progression from new copilot to aircraft commander. After a year of flight training, ROTC-graduate Gooch—nearly fearless and eager to fly in combat—went directly to the war zone.

Gooch tells stories with a style that puts the reader in the boots of pilots, crew chiefs, and gunners. Detail is his forte, but it can grow tiresome when Gooch repeatedly walks men through mundane activities such as getting out of bed, eating breakfast, and performing pre-flight chores.

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Rex Gooch

In describing the flight phase of missions, however, Gooch provides details that turn war stories into vivid teaching lessons. He slows the chaos of combat to an understandable speed and examines events from multiple angles. His account of the shoot-down of Chris Rash exemplifies how Gooch weaves interviews with fellow flyers into in-depth analyses. His stories about coordination within crews and between aircraft provide classic examples of teamwork.

Gooch explains topics such as Vietnamization, the Easter Offensive, and Nixon’s incursion into Cambodia with indented paragraphs jammed into the middle of the text. Old timers might see this as distracting because it slows the flow of a story, but young readers should appreciate the information and will learn from views into the past.

Chapters conclude with short biographies of men cited in the stories. Many pilots pursued post-war flying careers in and out of military service. As for Rex Gooch, he left the Army in 1974 and attained executive rank in Industrial Engineering and Human Resources corporations until retiring in 2001.

The Aviators is Gooch’s second contribution to Army helicopter history. His first book—Ace: The Story of Lt. Col. Ace Cozzalio—was a 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards Bronze Medal recipient.

Rex Gooch’s website is www.fifthcavalry.com

—Henry Zeybel

Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

Battle for Skyline Ridge by James E. Parker, Jr.

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James Parker was a participant, from the Central Intelligence Agency side, in the so-called “secret war” in Laos. In Battle for Skyline Ridge: The CIA Secret War in Laos (Casemate, 288 pp., $32.95) he tells a very well-researched and annotated story of the history and development of the American attempt to fight the communist Pathet Lao during the Vietnam War—an attempt that failed as Laos (along with Cambodia) became one of the dominoes that fell following the end of the American war in Vietnam.

Parker served a 1965-66 tour of duty as an Army infantry platoon leader in the Vietnam War. He later joined the CIA in 1970 and served in Laos and Vietnam, helping evacuate Vietnamese CIA agents from Saigon in the chaotic last days of the war in April 1975. He has written a Vietnam War memoir—Last Man Out: A Personal Account of the Vietnam War (1996)—as well as two previous books on the same subject as his new one: Codename Mule: Fighting the Secret War in Laos for the CIA (1995), and Covert Ops: The CIA’s Secret War in Laos (1997).

In his new  book, Parker includes conversations and operational decisions made by the CIA about the Vietnam War. Being on the ground, and in the thick of it, he offers a unique—and a few times, overly detailed—view of the whole battlefield. He also tells lots of small stories that humanize the narrative and the participants without becoming unnecessarily chatty. His wide use of acronyms at times sent this reader scurrying back a few pages to identify things.

After telling us of a defeat of Lao forces by North Vietnamese troops on the Plain of Jars, his main story is the tale of a hundred-day battle (the longest in the Vietnam War) between North Vietnamese troops and a combined force of regular Lao troops, Thai mercenaries, indigenous Laotian Hmong, and Mountanard tribes, U.S. airp power, Air America aerial operations, and CIA case officers, operatives, and advisers—what became known as the Battle for Skyline Ridge.

This force of fewer than 6,000 fighters, led by the famed Hmong war lord, Vang Pao (right), was ultimately successful in repulsing and defeating an NVA force of more than 27,000 troops. Remarkably, anecdotes about bravery, cunning, co-operation, and support abound throughout the book. The colorfully famous CIA, and the Air America, “can do” attitude, seemed to have permeated into the assembled forces, resulting in the NVA abandoning its battle plan in what could have been a version of Dien Bien Phu.

This is a very readable account, although a lot of what Parker covers has been written about in other books about the secret war in Laos.

–Tom Werzyn

Walker Bulldog vs T-54 by Chris McNab

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Once again, the author and editor Chris McNab and Osprey Publishing have pitted tanks against each other—this time in McNab’s latest Osprey Duel Series book, Walker Bulldog vs T-54: Laos and Vietnam 1971-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The tanks’ real-life confrontations occurred late in the American war in Vietnam during the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

The United States provided the light Bulldog T41 for the South Vietnamese Army; the Soviet Union supplied the T-54 main battle tank to the North Vietnamese Army.

McNab presents a complete picture of each machine. An expert in military technology, he has written more than a hundred titles in his twenty-year career.

Johnny Schumate’s paintings of battle scenes and Alan Gilliland’s illustrations of the tanks’ interiors are complemented by many photographs. In particular, gun sight target views for each tank add authenticity to the narrative.

In essence, Bulldog vs T-54 is two books in one, with the first resembling a tech order. It reviews the tanks’ design and development and goes over performance specifications such as fuel consumption and armor reliability. An excellent visual layout with explanations of warhead killing power provides a thought-provoking comparison between the M41’s 76mm and the T-54’s 100mm guns.

A different comparison of the tanks and their crews fills the second half of the book. McNab briefly describes the strategic background leading to the ARVN move into Laos for Lam Son 719 and the NVA (aka, the PAVN)’s nationwide Easter Offensive. He then delves into manpower numbers, morale, and United States-versus-Soviet-and-Chinese methods of training tank crews.

Tank warfare during Lam Son 719 differed significantly from what happened during the Easter Offensive the following year. McNab’s coverage of combat is supported by statistics and analysis. His discussion of battlefield tactics finds weaknesses among both South and North Vietnamese leaders.

His first-hand accounts of battles were not as complete as I wanted, but they still revealed outcomes that surprised me. He indicates that much of the information I was looking for has not been made public by the PAVN. McNab’s final conclusions are evenhanded and somewhat predictable from the start, although both sides experienced extremely unpredictable short-time results along the way.

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I have not included the finer points of McNab’s observations and conclusions to avoid spoiling surprises for readers. I had never considered tanks as a significant part of the Vietnam War. McNab, however, woke me up to their role and taught me lessons about their use in different types of terrains.

On the other hand, I took part in Lam Son 791, and according to my flight log, our AC-130 Spectre gunship crew flew 27 interdiction and three TIC missions into Laos during the operation. The ARVN incursion backed up PAVN traffic to around Tchepone, and we shot 477 cargo and fuel trucks during the operation without finding one tank.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Dragon’s Jaw by Stephen Coonts & Barrett Tillman

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Stephen Coonts flew A-6 Intruders for the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War. Since then, he has written sixteen bestselling aviation techno-thrilling novels, the first of which was the  Flight of the Intruder. Barrett Tillman, an authority on air warfare, has written more than forty books, including Clash of the Carriers and Whirlwind.

Coonts and Tillman’s Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam (Da Capo Press, 304 pp. $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), is a book that editorializes about flying and Vietnam War diplomacy as much as it tells a war story.

The war story is the targeting of the strategically vital Thanh Hoa Bridge in North Vietnam by U.S. Navy and Air Force fliers. From March 1965 to the November 1968 bombing halt, the unproductive sacrifices made by these airmen—killed and missing in action, wounded, or captured as prisoners—were stunning.

The book’s title covers the flying action. In that regard, if you can imagine Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill in a five-gravity landscape while strangers fling sharp-edged rocks at him, you have a hint about the story’s drama. Note: A few philosophers argue that such a task made Sisyphus happy.

To complete that imagery, here’s what Coonts and Tillman’s have to say about Rolling Thunder, the bombing program to interdict supplies from North to South Vietnam: It was “fatally flawed from the start. There were a great many fool’s errands in Vietnam—arguably the entire war was one—and the pressure from the top was excruciating.”

They address that pressure by classifying the diplomacy of Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara as misdirected, self-serving, and ineffective. They also shred John Kennedy’s decisions about South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended in the portentous November 1963 assassinations of Diem and his brother Nhu. Many of their arguments reference previously published sources.

Coonts and Tillman dissect Johnson’s diplomacy by comparing it to Machiavelli, Thucydides, and contemporary thinkers—a no-contest encounter.  The authors fault senior military officers who “realized that the fuel and ordnance expended on Thanh Hoa missions and the losses incurred were wasted effort” against “the most heavily defended area in the world.”

Navy and Air Force fliers faced constantly improving North Vietnamese antiaircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG interceptor defenses. Their improvisation in maneuvering aircraft through dangerous situations was unimaginable—until it happened. Their inability to destroy the bridge symbolized North Vietnamese resistance and American impotence, the authors say.

A major argument against the war was the fact that, afterward, it was evident that all of the reasons not to pursue it were obvious before the war began, according to Coonts and Tillman.

The authors identify both American attackers and North Vietnamese defenders and quote their oral and written testimony about battle. Dragon’s Jaw honors the lives of brave men who otherwise might be forgotten. The war can be judged as ineffective in solving an international dilemma, but the depth of dedication by participants on both sides is unquestionable, as this book plainly shows.

Along with recreating bombing and dog-fighting missions, the authors describe operations and life aboard aircraft carriers; fliers’ constant quest for better tactics, equipment, and weapons; and the ordeal of American POWs. Given their antipathy to the antiwar movement, it’s not surprising that the authors disparage Jane Fonda for her wartime visit to Hanoi. They also devote a chapter to the evolution of aircraft carrier design as planes grew larger and heavier.

The authors depict Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as diplomatic wizards for befriending—or perhaps economically bribing—China while undermining South Vietnam in 1972. The bargaining received a boost from the development of laser-guided, three-thousand-pound bombs that finally collapsed the Thanh Hoa Bridge into the Song Ma River.

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 Tanh Hoa Bridge after American F-4 Phantom fighter bombers knocked its western end into the Song Ma River in April 1972.

The book broadened my knowledge of Navy air operations. But its arguments frequently are vitriolic, rehashing reasoning that is at least fifty years old. Old conclusions are still largely ignored, however, and I would have preferred to see the authors apply them to today’s military commitments.

In their final pages, the authors do mention the advantages of today’s guided munitions designed for the Vietnam War, and they tie an unsatisfactory Vietnam War targeting episode to Desert Storm as part of a Note.

Navy and Air Force leaders fought a “sortie war” to impress McNamara and gain personal recognition, according to the authors. The resultant lack of inter-service effort leads Coonts and Tillman to call the fighting in Vietnam a “shitty little war.”

They conclude with an idea from Henry Kissinger that they judge to be “perhaps the ultimate lesson” of the war: Victory in war is essentially meaningless unless it leads to a political settlement that will endure.

Think about it.

—Henry Zeybel

Operation Linebacker I – 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

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In the spring of 1972, the North Vietnamese launched a three-pronged attack against South Vietnam: from the Demilitarized Zone, the Central Highlands, and Cambodia. With few Americans remaining in country working primarily as advisers while Nixon’s Vietnamization was in full swing, the South Vietnamese were expected to protect themselves. That appeared impossible in face of the North’s disproportionate number of personnel, tanks, and artillery.

President Nixon responded by deploying massive American air power in “an almost unrestrained way” against the North, according to Marshall L. Michel III in Operation Linebacker I 1972: The First High-Tech Air War (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper: $9.99, Kindle). Using new technology in Linebacker I, Michel says, the United States “brought to bear the start of an air power revolution.”

Linebacker I and II coincided with Michel’s Air Force career. From 1970-73, he flew 321 combat missions as part of both campaigns. Last year he wrote Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s Are Sent to Hanoi, which is an excellent companion to this book.  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2018/10/04/operation-linebacker-ii-1972-by-marshall-l-michel-iii/

In this look at Linebacker I Michel provides a detailed account of political and military actions prior to and during the bombing operation, including explaining Nixon’s changing diplomacy. Linebacker I concentrated on interdicting North Vietnamese supply lines, much like Rolling Thunder had done from 1965-68. Linebacker I had broader approval to target airfields, SAM sites, and GCI radars than Rolling Thunder did.

To buttress his claim that this was the start of “an air power revolution,” Michel describes the use of new equipment on Linebacker I missions from April through October 1972.

He calls precision guided munitions (PGM) “the most important Air Force weapon in the campaign.” These 2,000-pound smart bombs either were laser guided (LGB) by a designator in the back seat of an F-4 or they were electro-optically guided (EOGB) by a Pave Knife external pod.

Delivering LGBs required two aircraft: one to lase and one to bomb. Pave Knife allowed an aircraft to deliver and track its own EOGBs, as well as those dropped by the rest of an attacking flight. Full-page illustrations in the book help explain this maneuver and others tactics, such as the mining of Haiphong Harbor.

Smart bombs were not new in 1972. When I flew with Spectre in 1970, our F-4 escorts occasionally carried LGBs, which our slowly orbiting gunship targeted with lasers against antiaircraft sites or road intersections in the relative safety of Laos. The advantage enjoyed with smart bombs during Linebacker I occurred from marrying them to sophisticated electronic gear that permitted aircrews to guide their munitions while flying at high speeds in extremely hostile environments.

The new technology’s many successes included new accuracy that destroyed the Paul Doumer and Thanh Hoa (Dragon’s Jaw) bridges, vital transportation links that had survived years of attacks.

During Linebacker I, chaff received fresh life. Chaff bombs established corridors one hundred miles long, allowing aircraft in these paths to become invisible to equipment on the ground.

Improved technology did not solve every problem, though, according to Michel. The USAF and Navy used different air-to-air tactics, which created dissent, he says. Navy pilots who had trained under the Topgun program scored a high victory ratio over MiGs, while USAF crews suffered losses as a result of poor tactical maneuvers. Michel show how MiG domination against the Air Force pilots brought about the creation of the Red Flag training program and modernized tactics.        

Along with technological gains, command-and-control changes further increased air power effectiveness. B-52s delivered their “incredible number of bombs day or night in any weather conditions,” as Michel puts it, and “changed targets quickly to meet the ground tactical situation very close to allied troops.” As a result of these capabilities, the 200 B-52s from Guam and Thailand concentrated their strikes on close air support in South Vietnam during Linebacker I.

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Bombing a bridge in North Vietnam, May 1972

What’s more, the Navy’s Red Crown GCI system provided instant information to attacking aircraft. On the other hand, Teaball—a new USAF GCI system—proved of “limited usefulness” because communications broke down and caused “high value losses,” Michel says.

On the ground, the North Vietnamese improved defenses by moving SA-2 launch sites closer to the DMZ and employing shoulder-launched SA-7s on the battlefields.

From start to finish, Michel repeatedly lauds the less glamorous C-130 combat support sorties that kept South Vietnamese forces supplied at An Loc and Kontum. In conclusion, he cites an over dependency by the ARVN on American air power, a point proved when North Vietnam again invaded the South in 1975. The ARVN “collapsed,” he says, “ending the conflict once and for all.”

Michel excels as a military historian because he impartially presents well-researched views of observers and participants from both sides of the war.

As usual, this Osprey Publishing book includes outstanding images. Artist Adam Tooby provides three dazzling double-page pictures of aircraft. Additionally, virtually every page has one or more evocative photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Topgun by Dan Pedersen 

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Selected to create an advanced training program for U.S. Navy fighter pilots, Dan Pedersen operated in accordance with an afterthought from his commander: “Don’t kill anybody, and don’t lose an airplane.” Otherwise, Pedersen was on his own.

In his memoir, Topgun: An American Story (Hachette, 320 pp. $28, hardcover and Kindle; $35, audiobook), Pederson tells how as a lieutenant commander in 1969 he handpicked eight highly experienced F-4 Phantom crewmen—four pilots and four backseaters—to develop the program.

First, they named it “Topgun.” Then, after analyzing the combat capability of the F-4 Phantom “well beyond the parameters set by McDonnell Douglas,” they designed a curriculum that taught crew members how to use the airplane and its armament to become “the best sticks in the sky,” as Pedersen puts it. They also taught their students “how to teach other pilots” the same skills.

In measuring their success, the facts speak for themselves. From the beginning of Topgun to the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy kill ratio against MiGs was 24:1. Its ratio for the entire war was 12:1, but that was still far better than USAF’s overall ratio, Pedersen says.

The intensity of Pedersen’s commitment to perfecting aerial combat skills makes this book exceptionally interesting. He shares his learning experience. Living to dogfight, he flew any plane available at every opportunity. Part of Topgun’s success was due to his access to Area 51 (the highly classified section of Edwards AFB in Nevada) to fly MiGs that the U.S. government had acquired clandestinely.

Although flying took precedence over everything else in his life, that characteristic did not diminish Pedersen’s worth as a compassionate leader. In the book he frequently memorializes friends killed in combat or accidents. He also hero-worships flyers from World War II and the Korean War.

He concedes that death waits only one mistake away and says, “When you’re a fighter pilot, alone in that cockpit, your fate is in your hands.”

Prior to his Topgun assignment, Pedersen flew F-4s from the U.S.S. Enterprise on Yankee Station off the coast of Vietnam in 1968. He describes sorties that provided close air support in South Vietnam, day and night interdiction of traffic in Laos, and strategic bombing of targets in North Vietnam. Repetitive and unproductive targeting dictated by Washington created discontent among Navy flyers, particularly when losses multiplied, he says.

In 1973, Pedersen flew a shorter second tour from the Enterprise, bombing trucks in Laos after the Paris Agreement halted U.S. combat action in South Vietnam.

Along with him telling of the creation of Topgun, Pedersen also recalls historic world events and personal trials and tribulations as they relate to flying:

  • Dogfights over North Vietnam in 1972.
  • Israel’s desperate battle for survival in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
  • The costly maneuvers to rescue the U.S.S. Mayaguez crew that same year.
  • A sorrowful depiction of people fleeing Vietnam in 1975.
  • Development of the F-14 Tomcat.
  • Technology that gave Topgun even greater superiority over USAF training.
  • Duty as “Skipper” of the U.S.S. Ranger.
  • A near-demise of the Topgun school.
  • Politics leading to his retirement as a captain in 1983 after twenty-nine years of service.
  • Making the movie,”Top Gun.”

Plus, buried among these spellbinding recollections, there’s a love story with a happy ending.

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Capt. Pedersen

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Pedersen’s Navy views with those of USAF pilot Gaillard R. Peck, Jr. in his new book, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Both books cover the same times and events.

Pedersen’s memoir left me disappointed (not quite to his depth, of course) that he never shot down a MiG. At the same time, I envied his powerful influence on improving the combat skills of so many flyers.

In my eyes, a great teacher is a great man.

—Henry Zeybel