Uncommon Valor by Stephen L. Moore

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Uncommon Valor: The Recon Company That Earned Five Medals of Honor and Included America’s Most Decorated Green Beret (Naval Institute Press, 422 pp.; $23.14 Hard, $21.96 Kindle) is a Vietnam War history book for the ages.

More bluntly put: The book is a helluva good war story. In this recon world things went right about half the time. Sometimes a well-conceived plan would fail and people died. Sometimes an audacious plan would work like a charm. That world was no reasonable place to go, but it was exactly where young, fit, tough guys wanted to be.

Stephen L. Moore, the book’s author, really has his stuff together. Readers will find interesting stories of combat or intrigue on page after page. He assembled this history based on interviews with men who were on the scene, along with citations for awards, official reports, archival material, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs, secondary sources, and personal records. Moore has written seventeen other history books about World War II and Texas.

Uncommon Valor portrays the exploits of a small collection of American men from Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force personnel, and CIA field agents in the Vietnam War supplemented by indigenous people. They all secretly operated behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia.

Code-named the Studies and Observations Group (SOG) and stationed at Forward Operating Base No. 2 (FOB-2) near Kontum in the Central Highlands, SOG reported directly to the Joint Chiefs and the White House. The main mission was to disrupt North Vietnamese operations along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They also took part in downed pilot and POW rescue missions.

The book recreates the history of FOB-2 beginning with its original thirty-three Green Berets. Because a significant amount of paperwork was destroyed to maintain secrecy, Moore centers his account on the activities of five Medal of Honor and eight Distinguished Service Cross recipients whose actions were thoroughly documented.

Moore bestows the greatest recognition on SFC Robert L. Howard, one of America’s most decorated warriors. Howard served in the Army for thirty-six years and retired as a colonel. His exploits, along with similar actions performed by other men from FOB-2, defy logic and the odds. As Moore tells the story, every man from FOB-2 was a hero.

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Stephen Moore

The SOG program demanded the most competent warriors available, and fortunately those who were best qualified volunteered for the task. Photographs, a glossary of terms, notes, bibliography, a roster of SOG troops at FOB-2, and an index round out the book’s structure.

I was only vaguely aware of SOG before reading Uncommon Valor and found it highly informative. I believe even those familiar with SOG might be enlightened by the insights provided by Moore’s nearly one hundred interviewees.

The author’s website is stephenlmoore.com

—Henry Zeybel

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Saving Bravo by Stephan Talty

By now, the story is well-known. Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton, a 52-year-old USAF navigator, assigns himself at the last minute to fly on a bombing run below the DMZ in April 1972.

He’s shot down behind enemy lines. And Gene Hambleton might just be an intelligence gold mine for the NVA—and for the Russians and Chinese.

A former missile squadron commander for the Strategic Air Command, Hambleton knows stuff, lots of it. And so, a rescue operation begins. And not just any rescue op. It will become what author Stephan Talty calls the greatest SEAL rescue in history—and one of the deadliest.

This mission was the subject of the book Bat-21 and the Hollywood movie of the same name starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover. That fictionalized drama captured some of the essential information.

But now we get the full story. In Saving Bravo: The Greatest Rescue Mission in Navy SEAL History (Houghton Mifflin, 320 pp, $28, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle), Talty has interviewed fliers, survivors, families, friends, and reviewed previously unpublished documents, as well as published secondary sources. And he’s pulled together a thrill ride.

Hambleton is sitting behind and just to the right of the pilot of an EB-66 electronic countermeasures aircraft on what’s expected to be a fairly routine mission. His flight suddenly finds itself under a staggering artillery and missile attack.

There’s a protocol for evading SAMs, risky but useful. But the missile that takes down Hambleton’s plane is sent up under optical control, without radar guidance until the last moment, so it’s nearly impossible to detect.

Iceal “Gene” Hambleton

A huge explosion. Hambleton bails out into a dense, life-saving fog, hides in the underbrush and then is stunned by the rumble of mechanized vehicles, infantry, and the clash of mortars. The only survivor, he has landed in the midst of an enormous ground invasion force.

The NVA called it “red fiery summer,” but it soon would earn another name, the 1972 Easter Offensive, an invasion of South Vietnam. Hundreds of Soviet tanks, 30,000 NVA troops, artillery, and missile batteries. To Hambleton, it looks like Stalingrad.

One of the first rescue aircraft on the scene, a Cobra, immediately encounters a thundering barrage, thousands of tracers stretching upward. In seconds, the chopper pitches nose-up and plummets to the ground.

Hambleton calls in airstrikes on the invasion force that surrounds him, believing rescue is no longer an option. The sky above him is a curtain of shrapnel. It will be eleven days before he escapes. During that time, in a single day, the NVA will launch 83 missiles at American pilots.

Ultimately, five branches of the service will be involved in the rescue effort. Hundreds of officers and airmen—and millions of dollars. All for one guy. Hambleton thinks they don’t have a chance.

Talty does a masterful job of building tension throughout this suspenseful tale. Yet he takes time to paint subtle images.

“Flying above Vietnam at night was magical: the wandering sliver glint of the rivers, the black foothills folded back on one another in serried, ghostly rows gripped by thin fingers of mist. The country was lush even in darkness. The only signs of war from this distance were the innumerable bomb craters, now filled up with rainwater. The pilots looking down would see them flash with moonlight as they flew over.”

And Talty offers savvy acknowledgement of the conflicting emotions of Americans who weren’t sure what they were fighting for, whether they had support back home, which way their leaders were leaning, or whether they were even talking to each other.

To protect Hambleton, a huge swath of the invasion area was marked off-limits for U.S. counterattacks. As the NVA assault pushed on, there was ignorance–and denial–that resources that might have been used in battle were committed to the desperate rescue of one man. For some troops, it seemed their leaders had gone completely crazy.

Eleven men and five aircraft would die trying to reach the navigator.

After days of failure, the Air Force finally realized an air rescue was out of the question. At this point, no one south of the DMZ knew that two downed fliers also had been taken prisoner.

Enter the guys who slip behind the lines to bring someone back. Navy Lt. Tommy Norris, a SEAL who looks “like a mongoose that had just spotted a brown water snake,” volunteers.

Lt. Tommy Norris, in the background at center, as just-rescued Lt. Col. Gene Hambleton (on stretcher) is evacuated. U.S. Department of Defense photo

The NVA may not know precisely where Hambleton is hiding, but they are listening to his radio communications. To connect him with his rescuers, the Division team develops an incredible code that must be read to be believed.

Norris, along with a Vietnamese commando, will make a daring trip into the bush, repeatedly evading enemy patrols, to bring out another flier. Remarkably, they will go back once again, to bring out Hambleton, sick and delirious after his ordeal.

Hambleton will win a bucket of medals and live until 85. Norris will be awarded the Medal of Honor. Talty has put together a great read on a remarkable moment in history.

—Mike Ludden

Michael Ludden is the author of the detective novels, Tate Drawdy and Alfredo’s Luck, and a newly released collection of newspaper remembrances, Tales From The Morgue

Operation Linebacker II 1972 by Marshall L. Michel III

The best military historians present the thoughts and actions of troops from both sides in a battle. Marshall L. Michel III aspires to fulfill that high bar as he writes about the massive bombing of North Vietnam in 1972 in Operation Linebacker II 1972: The B-52s are Sent to Hanoi (Osprey, 96 pp. $20, paper; $16, e book).

Michel flew F-4 escorts for the bombers, a small slice of his 321 combat missions. In 2001, following a fact-finding trip to Vietnam, he wrote The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle, although he was not happy having to rely on translations from government sources for the North Vietnamese view of the action. After contacting men who had battled the B-52s, he returned to Vietnam and met with North Vietnamese Air Defense surface-to-air missile (SA-2) crewmen and fighter pilots. He also read The Red Book, a manual filled with years of observations about bomber tactics that taught the enemy how to shoot down a B-52.

Based on this insider information, Michel wrote his new book, which might be the final word on the eleven-day air-to-ground Linebacker II campaign.

During Linebacker II, flexibility in tactics determined success and failure for both sides. When the bombing began, Americans were unaware of how much information the North Vietnamese had about B-52 tactics. That’s why in the first four days of battle the B-52s used compromised maneuvers and SA-2s destroyed twelve of them.

Leadership conflicts also hampered American decision making. Planners at Strategic Air Command headquarters in Omaha—who owned the bombers—were out of touch with crewmen half a world away and miscalculated the B-52s’ electronic jammers’ efficiency, which gave a tactical advantage to SA-2 missile teams.

Michel clearly explains the ploys and counter ploys used by both sides. By night eight when the need for SA-2s far exceeded their rate of production—and the B-52s bombed at will—the North Vietnamese sought to resume the Paris peace talks.

Prior to walking the reader through each night of Linebacker II, Michel describes the available weapons and their associated systems on both sides; and offers analyses of the strengths and weaknesses of leaders and plans; the political climate; and the campaign’s objective.

Thanks to the talent of illustrator Jim Laurier, Operation Linebacker II 1972 has the outstanding graphics we expect of Osprey publications. His double-page paintings of night operations made me long for flying dangerous missions. Well-chosen photographs, many from Michel’s collection, further enhance the text.

In 1972 I spent half of Linebacker II as a Special Operations liaison at U-Tapao Air Base in Thailand and the other half monitoring daily briefings in Saigon. I believed that experience had given me a solid understanding of the campaign, but Michel’s account significantly broadened my knowledge, particularly about the North Vietnamese mentality and initiative.

Books such as Operation Linebacker II 1972 renew my admiration for historians’ ability to recreate events from long ago. In the summer issue of Air Power History, Darrel Whitcomb wrote an article called “Rescue Operations During Linebacker II.” His account of helicopter search and rescue missions that recovered thirty bomber and fighter crewmen perfectly closes the circle for Michel’s work.

You can read the article on line. Read it. You won’t regret it.

—Henry Zeybel

 

War Stories by Conrad M Leighton

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Conrad M. Leighton’s War Stories: A GI Reporter in Vietnam, 1970-1971 (MacFarland, 340 pp., $25, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a jounal of Leighton’s year in Vietnam where his main assignment was with the 1st Cavalry Division as a Public Information Office reporter. Leighton bases the book on the many detailed letters he sent home from the war. The result is more a series of vignettes than a narrative.

Leighton did a 1970-71 tour in Vietnam, and he describes the entire spectrum of his in-country experiences. The reader can see the the changes in U.S. forces and tactics from the beginnings of the war until nearing the end of direct combat involvement.

Leighton worked as an embedded reporter with different 1st Cav brigades and his orders were to report back what he saw from the Army’s point of view. He details the struggles of conscience he had with superiors who wanted particular slants on his articles. Leighton spent time in the field and with every aspect of military life during that year, from the humdrum to the profane—from hunkering down under incoming enemy fire to the travails of traveling dentists who visited fire bases, to the problems with waste disposal.

He is honest in his reporting and does not pull punches as he writes about drug use—in particular, marijuana—among the troops. He is frank in his dislike of new officers with stateside ideas and discipline. His main joys were to be published in either the division or brigade newspapers, and occasionally having a story picked up by Stars and Stripes.

Leighton paints the GI’s lives in detail, including the humor and grit and grime that goes with an unpopular war in a foreign country fought primarily by draftees. A constant theme running through the book is how tiring it all was.

For anyone interested in details about the later aspects of the war in Vietnam, this is a good book. It captures the frustrations of the soldiers and the spotty leadership at the troop level.

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The book also will be helpful to historians as it provides another look at the units that fought in different places in earlier times in the war. The generational changes in attitudes and tactics will enlighten readers and help understand why so many veterans had widely varying experiences during the long Vietnam War.

For the acute observer, it is possible to extrapolate this story and interpret it to reveal the result of poor management from top U.S. political and military leaders. Reading between the lines, you can sense a lack of purpose, and a lack of clear direction from the top.

No wonder so many men on the ground kept asking:  Why take risks? Why am I here? What good am I doing?

–J.L. Bud Alley

M113 APC 1960-75 by Jamie Prenatt

During the Vietnam War the military called them M113 Armored Personnel Carriers.The troops called them APCs or “tracks.” According to the DoD analyst Jamie Prenatt in M113 APC 1960-75: U.S., ARVN, and Australian Variants in Vietnam (Osprey, 48 pp., $18, paper), the “battlefield taxi” has become the most widely used armored military vehicle in the world since it was developed in 1960.

Prenatt’s book, profusely and well illustrated with color photos and art by illustrators Henry Morshead and Johnny Shumate, offers a concise, fact-filled, comprehensive look at his subject. The book concentrates on M113’s use in the Vietnam War by the Americans, South Vietnamese, and Australians. The first M113s–thirty-two of them—arrived in Vietnam in April 1962, were organized into two mechanized companies, the 7th and 21st, and deployed in IV Corps in southern South Vietnam. This marked the first time APCs were put to use in combat  situations.

The book goes on to explain the dozen M113 variants, including a Fire Support Vehicle. It then offers descriptions of the APCs’ role in ten Vietnam War battles, including the pivotal January 2, 1963, Battle of Ap Bac.

This is an excellent edition to Osprey’s extensive series of books on military hardware and materiel.

—Marc Leepson

MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

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Dr. Istvan Toperczer’s writing focuses on fighter pilots and their aircraft, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. In his latest book, MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 135 pp.; $23, paper), he writes that thirteen MiG-21 Fishbed pilots from the Vietnam People’s Air Force became aces during that war, with a combined total of eighty-six kills.

The Appendix lists Fishbed pilots with four or more victories as verified by VPAF official records. United States records, however, label many of these claims as “not confirmed” or “loss attributed to antiaircraft artillery or SAM.” The downing of AQM-34 Firebee drones also accounts for part of the VPAF total.

My brother-in-law calls Toperczer a “communist propagandist,” and refuses to read his work. Regardless of discrepancies in the numbers—and my brother-in-law’s opinion—in his new book Toperczer provides insightful and interesting stories about VPAF training, tactics, and encounters with American Air Force and Navy aircraft.

Toperczer is a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon. For the past twenty years, he has interviewed VPAF pilots and researched VPAF archives. According to his publisher, Toperczer is “one of the few individuals from outside Vietnam to be given open access to the files of the Vietnamese People’s Air Force.”

His chapter on training somewhat duplicates information he presented in his MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War. The Soviet Union provided the most useful support in this area.

The interwoven tactics and combat story lines in the book describe and analyze air battles, frequently on a day-to-day basis. They explain the evolution of Fishbed interception practices against American fighter-bombers, which were sometimes based on recommendations from Soviet advisors. The stories explain both successes and failures of VPAF planners in 1966-67. The second half of the book covers VPAF operations from 1968 to Linebacker II.

Toperczer pays homage to USAF Operation Bolo led by Col. Robin Olds and the results that grounded the MiG-21 921st Fighter Regiment for several months “in an attempt to make good its losses.” According to Toperczer, for the remainder of 1967, the VPAF and Americans fought on even terms with both sides altering tactics but failing to gain a decisive advantage.

The best parts of the book occur when Toperczer explains the VPAF pilots’ actions and reactions to unusual situations. For example, the account of the encounters with the U.S. Navy’s RIM-8 Talos ship-to-air missiles was eye-opening. I had been completely unaware of the long-range capability and success of the Talos against MiG-21s.

Likewise, I had not realized how, as early as 1969, VPAF designed and practiced tactics to use against B-52s if they overflew the North. The VPAF also attempted but failed to attack B-52s over Laos.

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As far as I am concerned, Toperczer provides a great deal of information not found elsewhere.

Regardless of what my brother-in-law believes, overall MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War pays justifiable tribute to the Vietnamese pilots who flew against the United States.

—Henry Zeybel

Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 by Michael A. Eggleston

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After a thirty-year career in the U.S. Army, Michael A. Eggleston became a historian. His first five books focused on the American Civil War, U.S. Marines in World War I, and Vietnamization. He addresses a different aspect of the Vietnam War in Dak To and the Border Battles of Vietnam, 1967-1968 (McFarland, 224 pp. $35, paper;  $9.99, Kindle).

The North Vietnamese designed an offensive in and around Dak To, Eggleston writes, to try to draw U.S. and South Vietnamese forces away from the large cities, thereby setting the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. What’s called “Hanoi’s Plan” changed the enemy’s strategy from replying primarily on Viet Cong guerrilla warfare to a conventional North Vietnamese Army offensive designed to “cause a spontaneous uprising [among South Vietnamese] in order to win a decisive victory in the shortest possible time.”

Con Thien, Dak To, and Khe Sanh were the primary NVA targets. In other words, the North expected to “win in a single stroke,” Eggleston says.

The plan appeared unrealistic and did not work, as Eggleston notes. At the same time, he explains a disparity in American strategic thinking regarding a choice between pacification and attrition programs. In the end, Gen. William Westmoreland’s costly body-counting war of attrition strategy prevailed.

The core of the book is a long chapter about the many battles fought along the Cambodian and Laotian borders near Dak To. This chapter alone—in which Eggleston recreates a series of hill battles—is worth the price of the book.

“Vietnam’s bloodiest campaign started on 15 June [1967], when the 24th NVA Regiment annihilated a CDIG [Civilian Irregular Defense Group] patrol led by two U.S. Special Forces advisors near Dak To,” he writes. After that, the men of the 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade did the brunt of the fighting. The combat lasted until Thanksgiving.

The recounting of five days of fighting for Hill 875 tells as much about the horror of war as anything I have read. Eggleston calls this engagement “the costliest fight of the Vietnam War.”

Eggleston’s most informative research comes from unpublished memoirs written by infantrymen who fought in the battles. Their actions and observations fascinated me; among them the fact that the extraordinary became routine. Additionally, Eggleston uses published memoirs by infantrymen, Combat Operations After Action Reports, secondary sources, magazine and newspaper articles, newsletter excerpts, TV reports, and other video sources. He also relies on personal knowledge gained during his two tours at Pleiku.

He concludes with a chapter, “Aftermath,” that summarizes what happened during the 1968 Tet Offensive and follow-on action across South Vietnam. And he takes the narrative up to 1975 when the North finally prevailed.

Eggleston is opinionated and readily points fingers at those he believes were responsible for America’s failure to keep South Vietnam out of communist hands. “If any single person can be blamed for precipitating our full involvement in the war in Vietnam,” he writes, for example, “it was [Secretary of Defense] Robert McNamara.” Eggleston also faults Gen. Westmoreland failing to see the war’s big picture. Additionally, he names and blames lower-level commanders who put their careers ahead of the lives of the men they led.

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Michael Eggleston

Along with a list of definitions for acronyms, he includes biographical sketches of key participants in the book, a chronology of Vietnamese history from 1930-77, unit organizations, and a list covering nineteen pages of the names of U.S. personnel killed in the Dak To fight.

Eggleston labels the organizational style of his writing a hybrid because it “merges the official history of the war with the oral history of people who were there.”

The depth of his research provides personalities for each of his accounts of battle. He delivers an extremely interesting approach to history.

—Henry Zeybel