The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

 

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Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.

With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.

The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.

The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.

For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.

Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.

On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.

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Dr. Estvan Toperczer

Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.

Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.

Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

Midair by Craig K. Collins

Midair: An Epic Tale of Survival and a Mission That Might Have Ended the Vietnam War (Lyons Press, 246 pp., $26.95) is a book that contains two quite different elements. The first is an amazing true-life war story that author Craig K. Collins, a former journalist, relates quite well. The second is the espousal of the controversial theory that the Vietnam War could have been won if only the Air Force had been given permission—as the noted Vietnam War hawk Gen. Curtis Lemay once said—to bomb North Vietnam “back to the Stone Age.”

The heart of the book is the story that Collins—the author of Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture—relates about the military adventures of his uncle Don Harten, an Air Force jet pilot who flew more than 300 combat missions in three different aircraft (B-52, F-105, and F-111) over North and South Vietnam from 1965-72.

The part of Harten’s story that provides the book’s title is an almost unbelievable tale of survival. It took place in June 1965 over the South China Sea. During an intense typhoon Harten’s B-52 bomber collided head on with another B-52 at 30,000 feet. Harten ejected and narrowly avoided death a dozen times before he was rescued.

Interspersed with this almost unbelievable tale of survival is a theory posited by Harten and other pilots that fighter jet bombing operations over North Vietnam, such as Operation Rolling Thunder, were “effed up beyond all recognition,” as Collins puts it.

There was no way, the pilots believed, that “fighter jets could bring even a small country like North Vietnam to its knees by punching at its jungle midsection,” Collins writes. “The consensus was that the jet jockeys needed to let the big boys take out Hanoi in one or two missions.”

The Vietnam War, Collins contends, wasn’t lost “in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. It wasn’t lost in the skies over Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam. And it wasn’t lost in 1975 when the last marine helicopter lifted from the rooftop of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Rather it was lost in the White House, the halls of Congress and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.”

This is a book for you if you enjoy reading a harrowing story of war-time survival—and if you’re convinced that politicians and generals’ perfidy was the reason the U.S. did not prevail in the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

A Year in Hell by Ray Pezzoli, Jr.

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Ray Pezzoli, Jr., the author of A Year in Hell: A Memoir of an Army Foot Soldier Turned Reporter in Vietnam:  1965-1966 (McFarland, 263 pp., $19.99, paper), spent his time as a reporter trying, he tells us, to take “the Great Vietnamese War Photo” with the wrong camera and the wrong film—and with no training as a photographer. He also spent that time participating in as many 1st Infantry Division combat activities as he could.

The title tells us how Pezzoli–who died in 2014—served in Vietnam and when. In his Preface he defends President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, and when Pezzoli uses the word “liberal,” he uses it with disdain.

“Contrary to popular thought, America won,” he writes in his memoir, which was published originally in 2006, “losing only one half of one percent of their soldiers, stimulating the demise of communism throughout the world and devising the best Army in the world through its expertise there.” He refers to Vietnamese prostitutes as “strumpets” and labels the way he held his cigarettes in photos from that time as “fruity.” He was smoking up to four packs a day.

Aside from “strumpets” and “fruity,” Pezzoli uses plenty of references found in most American Vietnam War memoirs: John Wayne, body counts, “Oriental” rather than “Asian,” Good Morning, Vietnam, Jane Fonda,  Bob Hope, cowboys and Indians, friendly fire, antiwar protesters, being short, C-rats. And how the media never showed Americans all the good things the infantry did in Vietnam such as feeding orphans.

Pezzoli blames Oliver Stone and his films for giving the general public the notion that the troops in Vietnam talked dirty. He says that he only heard “foul language” in Vietnam once.

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The author

He offers old rants about Jane Fonda, but his are even more anachronistic than most. Her antiwar activism, including the visit to Hanoi, took place in the early seventies. But somehow Pezzoli channels her into his mid-sixties tour of duty when she was a sexpot alien in the movie Barbarella and a popular pin-up in Vietnam.

Pezzoli calls into question his invented quotations and conversations with his characters when he quotes a Maj. Weeks as saying in 1966: “Brigade was afraid Jane Fonda would complain if we don’t warn the enemy that we’re going to pay him a visit.” At no time was Jane Fonda running the Vietnam War, especially not then.

So what is Pezzoli’s intent? Is his book factual? Or is it a fantasy narrative of his faulty memories of the war? My conclusion is that his narrative is not to be trusted.

When he has a beautifully described incident of friendly fire, can I trust that?  And his countless visits to whorehouses, and all his scenes of religious worship?  And his story of his buddy dying in his poncho and bleeding out in it so that Pezzoli becomes soaked in the blood and suffers from hypothermia? What is truth? What is fiction?

I could go on, but I’ve given the prospective reader plenty to allow an intelligent decision about this detailed but sketchy book.

—David Willson

Storming the City by Alec Wahlman

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For readers interested in Vietnam War strategy, the battle for Hue should be the highlight of Storming the City: U.S. Military Performance in Urban Warfare from World War II to Vietnam (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp., $29.95, hardcover; $13.99, Kindle) by Alec Wahlman.

The book answers a three-part question: “When the need arose to fight in urban terrain in the mid-twentieth century, how effective were U.S. forces, why, and how did that performance change from World War II to Vietnam?” Wahlman bases his findings on four battles: Aachen and Manila in World War II, Seoul in the Korean War, and Hue in the Vietnam War.

He makes it easy to compare the battles by describing each with the same format: Operational Context; The Foe; The Assault; Command, Control, and Communication; Intelligence and Reconnaissance; Firepower and Survivability; Mobility and Counter-Mobility; Logistics; and Dealing with the Population.

In these victorious engagements that were fought in three wars over three decades, the Army and Marines were ill prepared for urban warfare, Wahlman says. Aachen and Manila were primarily Army operations. Winning at Seoul and Hue depended mostly on the Marines. Throughout the entire time, field manuals for both services presented little information on how to capture a city, and training for fighting house-to-house was minimal.

Despite winning, American tactical performance gradually grew less effective, according to Wahlman. At Hue, Americans failed to isolate the city. Therefore, throughout three weeks of fighting, North Vietnamese Army forces continued to receive reinforcements of men and supplies by night. American intelligence also failed to recognize the size of the NVA force and the complexity of the Hue Citadel.

“The precise location of enemy positions inside Hue was largely discovered through contact,” Wahlman notes. Prolonged fighting permitted the enemy to establish its own government within the city and to execute many South Vietnamese administrative personnel.

These victories resulted from outstanding leadership, mainly at regiment level. The leaders adapted tactics learned in the field to an urban setting. Commanders such as Lt. Col. Derrill Daniel and Lt. Col. John Corley at Aachen and Col. Lew “Chesty” Puller at Seoul had extensive combat experience. They knew how to fight side by side or drive right through the middle of an enemy.

Similarly, Wahlman concludes that America’s successes resulted from “transferable competence” and “battlefield adaptation.” Transferable competence included quality leadership in small units; heavy firepower with adequate logistical support; coordinated efforts between infantry, armor, artillery, engineers, and air support; previous combat experience; and the design of American armored vehicles. Except for the last point, the other conclusions seem to be self-evident traits required for any successful military operation.

Battlefield adaptation is the ability of leaders to alter tactics based on a particular environments. Each battle area offers different problems. The greatest difference between urban and field combat is the shortening of lines of sight in the former. The resultant confined battle space often affects factors such as rules of engagement and population control. This necessity for adaptation is not unique to urban warfare; it was needed in earlier engagements such as fighting in hedgerows and forests.

Wahlman’s research claims to undermine two myths about urban warfare. First, the attacking force’s “traditional” three-to-one manpower advantage was proved unnecessary. Americans had only a three-to-two advantage in Manila, and at Aachen the Germans actually outnumbered Americans by three-to-one.

The second myth is that urban fighting is an infantry job. Wahlman challenges that by saying that infantry “is most effective when part of a combined arms team,” which relates to his transferable competence argument. Basically, he’s saying that a combined force is more likely to maintain an effective methodical advance with fewer losses.

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U.S. Marines at the Battle of Hue

In closing, Wahlman looks at urban warfare since Hue and into the future. Population migration into urban areas favors opponents of the United States, he says, and emphasizes the vulnerability of unsecured supply lines for forces attacking a city. Situations such as those encountered at Fallujah might easily bog down an attacker and slow the tempo of combat. Furthermore, as shown at Mogadishu, urban confrontations could reduce the effectiveness of superior technology. In such cases, the price tags increase steeply.

In preparation for possible future needs, the Army has built urban warfare training complexes and published a field manual. Adaptation is still considered crucial to success in this area. Technologies offer new avenues for tactics, but in many cases the enemy has access to the same or counter equipment, Wahlman says.

“Advances in sensors, protective equipment, and offensive capabilities notwithstanding, urban warfare is and will continue to be a nasty, difficult business,” he says.

Poor maps are the book’s major flaw. The maps are too small and lack contrast, which make them nearly impossible to read. Better maps might enhance the reader’s understanding of maneuvers at the battle sites.

Wahlman is highly qualified to write this book. For fourteen years, he worked as an analyst at the Institute for Defense Analysis, primarily for the Department of Defense, focusing on irregular and urban warfare. He holds a PhD. in military history from the University of Leeds. The book contains sixty-three pages of notes and thirty-five pages of bibliography.

—Henry Zeybel