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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Tom Werzyn

SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars by John L. Plaster

What could be more blandly benign than an organization called the Studies and Observation Group? As anyone familiar with the history of the American war in Vietnam knows, though, SOG, which came into being in January 1964, did much, much more than just study and observe. SOG was a top-secret, multi-unit, special warfare MACV operation that mounted countless undercover missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.

That included disrupting enemy activities primarily along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; undertaking prisoner snatches and other types of rescue operations; and mounting psychological ops. SOG teams were made up of U.S. Army Special Forces, Navy SEALs, Air Force Special Warfare Units, South Vietnamese Special Forces, and Montagnard volunteers.

SOG was “the only U.S. military organization [in the Vietnam War] operating throughout Southeast Asia with its own aircraft, raiding forces, recon units and naval arm,” retired Army Maj. John Plaster writes in SOG: A Photo History of the Secret Wars (Casemate, 456 pp., $49.95), a revised and updated examination of SOG with more than 700 photos, maps, charts, and sidebars.

First published in 2000, the book is a companion photo history to Plaster’s SOG: The Secret Wars of America’s Commandos in Vietnam, but could very well stand on its own as a history of SOG. Plaster—who served three years with SOG, leading intelligence-gathering recon teams behind enemy lines in Laos and Cambodia—writes about many operations and the men who took part in them, a group that includes eight Medal of Honor recipients.

Although Plaster doesn’t include footnotes or a bibliography, he has his facts straight throughout the book, including in his accounts of operations such as the Son Tay prison raid and Bright Light rescue missions of downed American flyers in enemy territory in North and South Vietnam. 

–Marc Leepson

U.S. Vehicles & Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War by David Doyle

Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.    

For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.

Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.

Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.

–John Cirafici

Tanks in the Easter Offensive, 1972 by William E. Hiestand

Osprey Publishing always produces quality books. True to form, William E. Hiestand’s Tanks in the Easter Offensive, 1972: The Vietnam War’s Great Conventional Clash (Osprey, 48 pp. $19, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a very nicely illustrated concise history of the use of armor by both during the North Vietnamese Army’s 1972 Easter Offensive. The book includes details on every type of tank and armored fighting vehicle used by both sides the during five-month offensive, including their characteristics and limitations.  

The role of armor is viewed from tactical and strategic perspectives, as Hiestand, a Pentagon military analyst, analyses successes and failures on the battlefield. When properly employed by competent officers, the South Vietnamese armored forces were effective, as they were during the 1970 incursion into Cambodia. On the other hand, when poorly led by incompetent commanders, the South Vietnamese armored vehicles were of little of no value on the battlefield.   

As for the North Vietnamese Army, its armor acquitted itself well, but the tactical successes often did not lead to operational success because the NVA leadership was often slow to react to changing situations on the ground.   

What makes the use of armor by the NVA especially interesting is that during the American War they rarely employed armor in South Vietnam, and then only the PT-76s—thinly armored amphibious tanks—that attacked lightly defended sites such as Special Forces camps in the Central Highlands.    

By the time of the North Vietnamese 1972 offensive its military had become much better armed and was learning how to use combined armed forces using Soviet military tactics. The North suffered horrendous losses during the offensive due in large measure to effective U.S. airstrikes which destroyed some 250 tanks and AFVs. 

One important lesson from the battle was the very successful use by both sides of anti-tank weapons. The North employed a new type —the Russian AT-3 Sagger.  he ARVN at Kontum used an experimental TOW ATGM (anti-tank wire guided missile), and destroyed 24 enemy tanks.  

South Vietnamese troops near Dong Ha, April 11, 1972. AP Photo/Nick Ut

At An Loc ARVN tank killer teams armed with M-72 LAWs (light anti-tank weapons) also took a toll on NVA armor. When ARVN leaders misused their armor in static defense postures, they became easy targets for Saggers and other anti-tank weapons. Today anti-tank missiles are playing a major role on the battlefield in Ukraine, with the destruction of Russian armor by Ukrainian fighters armed with American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles.

Tanks in the Eastern Offensive closes with an analysis of the long-term impact of anti-tank weapons, including the successful use of Saggers during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.    

This book is informative and timely in explaining the use of armor during the Easter Offensive, and in illuminating lessons that are applicable on the current battlefield—plus, it’s a handy reference book on the subject.

–John Cirafici

The Erawan War, Vol. 2 by Ken Conboy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hmong fighters in Laos with an American military adviser

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

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

–John Cirafici

U.S. Navy Special Warfare Units in Korea and Vietnam by Eugene Liptak

Eugene Liptak’s U.S. Navy Special Warfare Units in Korea and Vietnam: UDTs and SEALS, 1950-1973 (Osprey, 64 pp. $20, paper; $9.99, Kindle) is a well-illustrated, concise look at Navy Special Ops in the two wars fought by the U.S. following World War II.  

The first two chapters focus on UDT (Underwater Demolitions Team) operations during the Korean War. Those small units conducted missions that had been refined during the Second World War: beach reconnaissance and demolition of obstructions and marking underwater mines and other potential landing craft obstacles. 

The UDT frogmen also found themselves undergoing highly dangerous Korean War missions inserting agents and guerillas behind enemy lines. Adding to the risks of landing on enemy beaches, the lightly armed teams were minimally able to defend themselves. There also were unusual missions that included destroying fishing nets.

Why were we destroying and capturing Korean fishing nets and sampans? Simply put, the nets were destroyed to curtail fish as a source of food for the North Koreans.

In the Vietnam War UDT units supported U.S. Marine amphibious assaults on Vietnamese beaches that attacked Viet Cong enclaves. As always, frogmen were the first to hit the beaches to evaluate approaches and mark safe channels. They also fought VC in the vicinity.

UDTs in the Vietnam War operated independently and in support of a new concept in U.S. Navy Special Warfare ops: SEAL (SEa, Air and Land) teams. Military historian Liptak discusses the primary UDT and SEAL missions in Vietnam, including intelligence gathering, senior enemy official abductions, and night ambushes.The primary areas of responsibility were the Mekong Delta and the Rung Sat Special Zone, a difficult region of thick mangrove thick swamps east of Saigon. 

Other SEALs led paramilitary forces of indigenous anti-communists organized into Provincial Reconnaissance Units.They conducted missions similar to those of Operation Phoenix that targeted Viet Cong troops and sympathizers throughout South Vietnam. Another task was rescuing prisoners of war and downed airmen.

A SEAL Team in country ready to move out on an operation

This book discusses the SEAL teams’ weapons, such as the Stoner 63A1 squad automatic rifle and the Swedish K submachine gun, as well as the vessels used for water transport, and SEAL platoon and squad organization.

This abbreviated overview of UDT and SEAL operations provides an informed, interesting, and fact-filled account of their work in two wars. It should be read.

–John Cirafici

The Battle of Hue 1968 by James H. Willbanks

The 1968 Tet Offensive was the Vietnam War’s watershed moment. Only months before MACV Commanding Gen. William Westmoreland had told Congress that victory could be just two years ahead. In the aftermath of Tet, President Johnson announced he would not run for re-election and sought the means to extricate America from an unwinnable war.     

North Vietnam was equally frustrated on the eve of Tet 1968 by the direction its struggle had taken following the big American troop building began in 1965. The longer the war continued on American terms the less likely victory could be achieved. Hence, the North was willing to take a huge gamble by fully committing to a general offensive.

With initial success, so the plan went, a general uprising would be sparked against the Saigon government. A key part of the plan was to seize the city of Hue and then, while firmly in control there, proclaim a revolutionary government in the South. That’s how the stage was set for one of the most important battles of the war.

In the summer of 1967 the North Vietnamese Politburo planned a major offensive that would attack provincial capitals and Saigon during the 1968 Tet truce when many South Vietnamese troops would be on leave. A series of attacks would be launched in the fall in remote regions to draw U.S.and ARVN forces away from the population centers. On the eve of Tet the largest feint was a sustained attack on the Marine outpost of Khe Sanh that drew away sizeable U.S. and ARVN forces. The General Offensive began on January 30 with the ancient imperial capital city of Hue seized the following day by a large North Vietnamese force.

In The Battle of Hue 1968: Fight for the Imperial City (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $19.20, Kindle) by the veteran military historian James H. Willbank gives the backgrounds of all the key players on both sides of the fighting. We learn that the NVA established a command structure (The Hue City Front) dedicated solely to taking and holding Hue and the surrounding area, as well as the avenues of approach. Initially the Front including 10,000 troops; it grew to some 20,000. They faced a large force of U.S .Marine and Army units and ARVN troops, including elite airborne and Marine units.  

U.S. Marines outside the Citadel in Hue, February 13, 1968

This concise, very well written and informative account carefully walks the reader through the battle from the moment that NVA soldiers, dressed in ARVN uniforms, took control of one of the city gates and opened it to advancing troops. Once inside, the North Vietnamese tenaciously held onto Hue for 25 days, the longest sustained fighting of the war.

Willbanks goes on to describe in detail the difficulties involved in urban street warfare and house-to-house fighting and the costly engagements that finally forced the NVA out of the city. During the occupation, the NVA and Viet Cong rounded up thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and executed them.     

This book is an outstanding account of one of the Vietnam War’s major battles. It is supported by detailed maps and by many excellent photographs. It is well worth reading.

–John Cirafici

Blackhorse Tales by Donald C. Snedeker

Donald C. Snedeker’s Blackhorse Tales: Stories of 11th Armored Cavalry Troopers at War (Casemate, 304 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $15.99 Kindle), is one of the best books I have read about U.S. combat forces in the Vietnam War.

Snedeker served in 1969-70 as a platoon leader with the 2nd Squadron of the 11th Armored Cavalry (Blackhorse) Regiment. The unit operated in the hotly contested War Zones C & D north of Saigon in places such as An Loc, Zuan Loc, Di An, Gia Ray, Bien Hoa, the Michelin Rubber Plantation, Nui Ba Den, Tay Ninh, and the Ho Bo Woods, and farther west into Cambodia.

Although he awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart, Snedeker writes very little about himself in this, his second book about the regiment. The first was The Blackhorse in Vietnam, which came out in 2020. His new book is almost entirely about other Blackhorse troopers and a few attached units. Through scores of interviews, they share their experiences, perspectives, and evaluations.

While writing about one combat engagement after another, Snedeker, who is the unit’s long-time historian, includes many photos, maps, and drawings. Blackhorse Tales is well designed with seven chapters interspersed with “Combat Vignettes.” The chapters include many details about Vietnamese civilians and allies, animals, terrain and weather, and how all of that affected every aspect of the lives of the troops.

These men literally lived in their APCs and tanks. Some spent months in the bush before returning to base camp. They set up fire support bases that were more like night defensive positions, and frequently were on the move. One trooper said he felt like a gypsy living in his track and constantly moving to other positions. 

Reading Blackhorse Tales, I was even more impressed with the mobility and effectiveness of armored troops in the jungles and through the rice paddies of South Vietnam. It is estimated that in its 67 months in country, the 11th Cav drove their tracked and wheeled vehicles over some 23-million miles of terrain and that the unit’s air group had flown some 250,000 sorties.

I truly enjoyed and appreciated Don Snedeker’s work in Blackhorse Tales. I highly recommend it.

–Bob Wartman

Break in the Chain by W.R. Baker

The basic premise of W.R. Baker’s Break in the Chain: Military Intelligence in Vietnam and Why the Easter Offensive Should Have Turned Out Differently (Casemate, 264 pp. $34.95, hardcover; $20.95, paper) is that the United States should not have been caught totally off-guard by the bold North Vietnamese 1972 Easter Offensive because U.S. intelligence operatives had provided warning indicators.   

The book reads like a retrospective investigation into what transpired in the days leading up to the invasion and what continued to happen in the confusion that followed. What especially gives Bob Baker credibility is that he was an Army intelligence specialist in northern South Vietnam when the NVA’s major thrust came south across the DMZ.  

This account is a strong indictment of incompetent senior South Vietnamese generals in key positions whose strong suit was political connections—not military skill. The book also calls into question the poor use of available intelligence by senior American leaders—both military and political—all the way up to the Nixon White House. What the generals reported as the offensive unfolded had little connection to the reality on the battlefield.

Baker points out that the intelligence community—especially it’s HUMINT (human intelligence) reporting—as often discounted by senior leaders, most of whom were in the combat arms arena. This reviewer, having served in both intelligence and combat, understands completely the points Baker repeatedly emphasizes—including that no military or political leader can afford to marginalize intelligence.

Conventional military wisdom dominated the thinking of the U.S. generals in Saigon, leading them to believe erroneously that an attack, if any, would come late in January during the Tet holiday, and that it would be made up of regiment-sized infantry units—and it would target the Central Highlands. Instead, the offensive came at the very end of March. And it was fought with infantry divisions (not regiments) accompanied by armor and artillery regiments and protected by anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missiles. And it came south across the DMZ as well as from Laos and into the Central Highlands. The North Vietnamese, hoping to end the war on their terms, threw some 130,000 troops into the fight.

Bob Baker In Country

This book in particular illustrates that the history of battles gone wrong have repeatedly shared a common feature: discounted or ignored intelligence. Baker points out that intelligence had been disregarded prior to the Second World War’s Battle of the Bulge and the subsequent Operation Market Garden, nearly leading to disastrous consequences. And that the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 was undermined by ignored intelligence. Much more recently, a heavy price was paid for selectively discounting intelligence prior to the U.S. going to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. One hopes that the lessons in this book will help military and government leaders pay closer attention to intelligence and make the correct decisions in the future.   

Break In the Chain is the book to read for an accurate picture of what really took place during the pivotal 1972 North Vietnamese Easter Offensive.

The book’s website is breakinthechain.com

–John Cirafici

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Working under the belief that the outcome of the Vietnam War was visible from the start, I first read the last two chapters—“End Game, April 1975” and “Southeast Asian Finale”—of The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War (Osprey, 400 pp. $28.80, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver.

Cleaver is one helluva historian. He nails down facts by using a combination of first-hand accounts of Navy aviators and former North Vietnamese Air Force pilots, including from interviews he conducted, as well as historical research. In analyzing the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, he presents a picture that reveals touches of logic to the confusion that we have learned to accept as characterizing the chaotic ending of the war. His account of the capture of the USS Mayaguez in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge masterfully conveys the counter productivity and death involved in that regrettable episode.

Tom Cleaver’s credentials are flawless. He is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. For 40 years he has published best-sellers with Osprey, the noted U.K. military history book publisher. Simultaneously, he has had a 30-year career writing and producing stories for movies and television.       

The heart of The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is a dramatic recreation of the activities, triumphs, and failures of Naval aviators starting at the beginning of the air war, in August 1964. Without gloating, Cleaver shows how and why Navy tactics proved superior to those of the U.S. Air Force. Sad to say, in many ways the war was an educational process for both groups.

Navy aviators flew from U.S. Seventh Fleet Task Force 77 aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Normally six carriers, each with 70 to 100 airplanes, provided strike forces that dueled with MiGs and SAMs over North Vietnam and supported ground troops in the South. A reader can open the book to just about any page and find accounts of exciting aerial feats or challenging problems related to strategy and tactics.  

Cleaver’s book is a welcome addition to the world of Navy aviation and combat flying in general. It complements and updates Rene J. Francillon’s Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975, originally written in 1988 and expanded in 2018. Francillon highlighted the story of the USS Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any Vietnam War aircraft carrier. Cleaver presents a broader and deeper approach to Navy air operations. He clearly validates the idea that war is a bitch even for the side that has the best equipment in the world.

Because of its breadth and depth of information about specialized combat operations, I rank The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club as my favorite book of 2021.

—Henry Zeybel