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

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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

A Soldier’s Story by Richard F. Hogue

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Just the other day, I was thinking about something that happened twenty years ago. No big deal, right, in a life that spans eight-plus decades?

That evening I picked up A Soldier’s Story: Forever Changed: An Infantryman’s Saga of Life and Death in Vietnam by Richard F. Hogue (Richlyn Publishing, 418 pp. $17.93, paper; $5.49. Kindle).  In it, Hogue talks about a lot of men who got killed—eight from his platoon in one morning. Seven from his NCO class. Only one was older than twenty-one.

Hogue went on and on until I felt a distinct rush of guilt for the many years I have enjoyed while other equally deserving soldiers didn’t.

As well as anyone who tackled the topic, he makes the point that in his unit “we were expected to perform like men, while most of us were still boys.”

“Hound Dog” Hogue served as a squad leader—and occasionally platoon leader—for the Third Herd of the 25th Infantry Division, which operated out of Cu Chi. For six months in 1969-70, he led Reconnaissance in Force missions that included the usual medley of helicopter assaults, setting up night ambushes, and being ambushed. Then he stepped on a mine and lost his left leg below the knee. He was twenty-three years old.

“I had taken only a few steps when I heard a seemingly muffled explosion different from any other explosion I had heard in Vietnam,” he writes. “I immediately felt a terrific force and a blast of heat from the explosion, and in what seemed like slow motion, I fell backward onto the ground.

“I slowly raised my head to see what had happened to me. What I saw scared the hell out of me. Blood was squirting out of my lower left leg with every beat of my pounding heart. I thought, ‘I’m going to bleed to death. Lord, don’t let me die this way.’”

Hogue’s account of his medical treatment and recovery pays tribute to the many people who saved him. Much later, he says, “After seeing my friends killed in action, I knew I was fortunate.”

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Hogue provides an interesting perspective on serving in Vietnam in a chapter titled “My War, Was It Worth It?” He had volunteered for the draft. After looking back on his wounds and post -war life, he concludes: “So my personal answer to the question…is ‘Yes.’”

A Soldier’s Story follows a path similar to We Were the Third Herd: An Infantryman’s Story of Survival in America’s Most Controversial War, Vietnam, which Hogue published in 2003. The latest book includes a detailed account of Hogue’s 2013 visit to Vietnam with fellow Third Herd veterans.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments by Gordon L. Rottman

The latest book in Osprey Publishing’s long-running “Elite” series of richly illustrated, concise compendiums of military forces, artifacts, people, and warfare techniques is Vietnam War U.S. & Allied Combat Equipments (65 pp. $19, paper), written by the much-published Gordon L. Rottman, who served with Army Special Forces in the Vietnam War, and illustrated by the veteran artist, Adam Hook.

This volume does a fine job focusing on showing and telling the things we American soldiers and Marines carried in Vietnam, along with sections on the combat equipment used by the ARVN, and the Australians. We’re talking about equipment here, not weapons so much—so, we get detailed explanations (and photos and sketches) of all manner of things such as weapon accessory cases, rucksacks, canteens, entrenching tools, machetes, bayonets, flashlights, gas masks, and much, much more.

—Marc Leepson

 

Route 9 Problem by Dave Stockwell

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During the Vietnam War the North Vietnamese Army needed Route 9 to move men and supplies from Laos into I Corps to besiege Khe Sanh in 1968. The main obstacle was Lang Vei, a camp manned by U.S. Army Green Berets and Montagnards fighters. To clear its Route 9 path, the NVA launched an overwhelmingly large force against the camp.

In Route 9 Problem: The Battle for Lang Vei by the Warriors Who Fought It (Book Publishers Network, 361 pp., $21.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dave Stockwell recreates the fighting in which the NVA employed tanks in South Vietnam for the first time in the war.

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Stockwell did not serve in Vietnam. But his father did, which motivated him to write the book. Over several years he interviewed Army, Marine, Air Force, and Navy personnel who took part in the battle for Lang Vei. He also communicated with their next of kin.

Stockwell possesses a deep interest and appreciation for people. His book pays tribute to the many fighting men he interviewed. He incorporates their life stories with their actions in the battle. He also provides a general history of events leading to that point in the Vietnam War. The book’s focus, Stockwell says, is “not a battle analysis or after-action report,” but rather “a story written plainly for today’s young adults with no military experience to understand the war their fathers and grandfathers won’t discuss.” At the same time, he says, it is “a story to which veterans will relate.”

He fulfills both claims.

Stockwell writes about combat in a crisp and clear style that should appeal to a broad audience. He generally avoids military jargon, but unobtrusively defines military terms when needed. The many interviews allowed Stockwell to trace virtually every step of the Americans on the ground and every action of those in the air.

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In the aftermath of the fighting at Long Vei

The book is a trove of information, complete with photographs and maps. Sections are arranged in a user-friendly format. Stockwell starts with “The Men Who Fought the Battle,” in which he lists the U.S. personnel in the book, along with NVA units and key individuals. In the “Roll Call” Epilogue, he summarizes the post-battle histories of the same men.

I enjoyed the book, which recently was named a finalist in the military category of the 2017 Next Generation Indie Book Awards.  Stockwell taught me new things about activities in that region, even though I had dropped CDS and LAPES supplies into Khe Sanh from C-130s and landed there to bring out Marines. He pointed out tactical errors such as a horrific bombing of a friendly village. Furthermore, without editorializing, he described inter-service rivalries that created questionable decision-making.

Stockwell’s descriptions of the dedication and valor of American soldiers in extreme situations made me feel humble. Yet his effort is not unique. I have read other books that describe otherwise forgotten men and battles. Dave Stockwell and his brother historians merit commendation for recording memories on the verge of being lost.

—Henry Zeybel

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