Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Rene J. Francillon

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In 1988, Rene J. Francillon’s fascination with Navy aviation led him to publish a comprehensive account of U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the Vietnam War. Now a 30th anniversary edition of that book—Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975 (Eirl Aerosphere Research, 256 pp. $69.99: $5.99, e book)—presents an expanded version of his original work.

Francillon began writing about air power in 1958. His experience in the aerospace industry served him well in the fifty-eight books he wrote, the twenty he edited, and more than four hundred-plus articles he penned about current and historical military and civilian aircraft. His writing won awards worldwide.

The new version of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is fifty pages thicker with scores of photographs of aircraft and their carriers. The original book contained merely black-and-white photographs, all of which are included in the new edition. Every image has a caption that complements information in the text.

Best of all, Francillon includes data about virtually every aspect of aircraft carrier combat operations. For example, he lists every war cruise for each of seventeen attack carries, including squadrons and aircraft involved, victories and losses by names of fliers, and periods on line. He does the same for four antisubmarine carriers. Suffice it to say that the information that Francillion consolidated from a wealth of Navy sources comprises a statistician’s dream.

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Rene Francillon

Naturally, Francillon provides a history of American strategy and tactics employed during the years under discussion. Furthermore, he highlights the life story of the U.S.S. Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any aircraft carrier deployed in the Vietnam War.

Rene Francillon—who was born in Italy in 1937, raised in France, educated in Switzerland, and lived most of his life in the United States—died shortly before publication of this anniversary edition of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.

His wife Carol completed the project. For e-book ordering info, go to bookshout.com/publishers/eirl-aerosphere-research

—Henry Zeybel

On the Gunline by David D. Bruhn and Richard S. Mathews

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On the Gunline: U.S. Navy and Royal Australian Navy Warships off Vietnam, 1965-1973 (Heritage Books, 374 pp., $37.50, paper) is a history of the 270 American and Aussie blue water navy ships that took part in the Vietnam War by retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. David D. Bruhn and retired Senior Chief Petty Officer Richard S. Mathews

This book is a very complete and detailed history of the contribution the Navy surface warship played in the war. The Gunline was parallel to the South and North Vietnamese coastline, about 4,000 yards offshore. Ships on the Gunline were assigned circular stations about 2,000 yards apart and designated by color code. This armada of warships provided naval gunfire support, anti-infiltration cover, and coastal surveillance operations in support of the troops on the ground in Vietnam.

Bruhn—the author of a 2012 book on Vietnam War Navy minesweepers—addresses several controversial events that occurred during the war, including the captain of the USS Vance, Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter, being relieved of his command in 1966,and the 1969 collision of the Australian aircraft carrier the HMAS Melbourne and the American destroyer the U.S.S. Frank E. Evans, in which seventy-four Evans crew members lost their lives.

He also details how the Navy placed 8,000 mines as part of a blockade in 1972, and the resulting destruction of the U.S .destroyer Warrington when it accidentally ran into the mines. In addition, he addresses Operation Frequent Wind in 1975 in which “a massive assembly of aircraft and ships” helped evacuate 7,800 South Vietnamese as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese took over the country.

This is a very well-researched book. I recommend it for anyone who served in the Navy during this period and those interested in Vietnam War history general.

The author’s website is davidbruhn.com

–Mark S. Miller

 

Triumphant Warrior by Peter D. Shay

In 1966, the United States Navy begged eight battle-weary UH-1B gunship helicopters from the U.S. Army. They re-named them Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three Seawolves; shipped them to Vinh Long in Vietnam; and thereby established air support for inland riverine operations of the Navy’s fiberglass-hulled Patrol Boat River fleet. When CDR Robert W. Spencer arrived at his headquarters in Vung Tau to lead the Seawolves, no other Navy officer was assigned there, so he essentially reported to himself.

Peter D. Shay tells that story as a departure point in Triumphant Warrior: The Legend of the Navy’s Most Daring Helicopter Pilot (Casemate, 240 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.99, Kindle). In it, he provides the history of HA(L)3 and glorifies the exploits of LCDR Allen E. “Wes” Weseleskey.

Back then, Shay flew with the Seawolves. Today, he specializes in putting together Vietnam War-era oral histories for the Naval Historical Center. An avid researcher, he conducted nearly fifty interviews with former squadron mates for Triumphant Warrior.

Shay’s narrative jumps from person to person but still develops personalities. Every man is vitally alive on these pages, often with death nearby. Similarly, he jumps from event to event without missing a beat. He grabs your attention and does not let go.

Shay describes the difficulties inherent in organizing a new squadron to perform a specialized task. He provides lessons in how to—or perhaps how not to—organize and run a war. The unit suffered growing pains from too much enthusiasm with too little experience, which caused avoidable crashes, accidents, and fires. Along with detailing the demands of the unit’s task, Shay tells the story of Weseleskey.

Practically upon arrival in HA(L)3, Weseleskey was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses for a couple of gutsy close support missions. Then he pre-empted his commander’s authority, lost his slot, and was exiled to a desk, even though his misstep improved the squadron’s combat capability.

After two months of processing paperwork, Weseleskey returned to the cockpit as an assistant OIC. He focused on improving the combat skills of the unit’s least-experienced pilots until the Viet Cong attacked Vinh Long at the start of the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Shay recalls long-ago events as if they happened yesterday, which adds a sense of urgency to his writing. He recreates the 1968 Tet Offensive as if he is still surprised by it. Most revealingly, he provides a list of high-ranking leaders who daydreamed or actually slept through the January 31 Tet kickoff.

Both Navy and Army helicopters operated from Vinh Long, so pilots and crewmen turned into infantrymen when the Viet Cong overran the airfield. Shay describes the attack using the recollections of dozens of people, including the NVA general who led the Viet Cong. His cross-section of memories produces a lucid picture of the frantic pace of the fighting.

Weseleskey led the action on the ground and also flew forty-six missions during the next two weeks. His ultimate heroics, though, came a month later while flying support for surrounded ARVN troops and rescuing two wounded Army Ranger advisers and a wounded ARVN soldier.

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Weseleskey and Shay

To pick up the three men, Weseleskey performed flying feats that violated most of his squadron commander’s restrictions. Subsequently, the commander placed Weseleskey under arrest and threatened him with a court martial. Shay’s description of the action and its aftermath provides a wealth of information for arguments about judgment, leadership, and awards.

Eventually, Weseleskey received the Navy Cross. He retired as a captain after thirty years of service. In the book, Shay keeps the discussion alive—forever, if he has his way—making a case that Weseleskey deserves the Medal of Honor.

HA(L)3 was decommissioned on March 16, 1972. The Navy Reserve, however, commissioned two new helicopter attack squadrons in 1976 and 1977. Modified versions of those units have flown special warfare and search-and-rescue missions in Middle East operations.

—Henry Zeybel

Broken Arrow by Jim Winchester

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Explaining the loss of a nuclear bomb is only a small part of the wealth of historical information Jim Winchester provides in Broken Arrow: How the U.S. Navy Lost a Nuclear Bomb (Casemate, 272 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $19.99, Kindle).

The Navy lost a one-megaton weapon during a 1965 loading drill. Deck crewmen of the U.S.S. Ticonderoga (“Tico” in Navy slang) accidentally pushed an A-4 Skyhawk, which carried the bomb, into the South China Sea. Trapped in the cockpit, the pilot, twenty-four-year-old Lt JG Douglas Morey Webster, sank with the plane and the weapon. The Navy covered up the accident for nearly a quarter of a century.

Jim Winchester presents step-by-step accounts of the incident, its aftermath, and related events. An authority on Navy operations, Winchester has written or edited more than twenty books on military topics. His best-know work is a history of the A-4 Skyhawk. He also has gone to sea with ships from several of the world’s navies.

As background for understanding the significance of the lost bomb, Winchester provides the following:

  • A history of the Tico
  • The short life of Douglas Morey Webster
  • Difficulties inherent in aircraft carrier operations
  • The Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—a targeting matrix for nuclear weapons
  • The investigation and cover-up of the loss of the bomb
  • Tico fighter-bomber action over North Vietnam

Each category contains eye-opening information. For example, the Tico, commissioned in May 1944, barely survived hits by Japanese kamikaze fighters in World War II. Thereafter, the rebuilt ship seemed accident-prone with problems such as a “stopcock incident” that caused the ship to start sinking as far as the hanger deck. Winchester vividly shows that working and living aboard a carrier exposes crew members and fliers to a continuous stream of accidents and death during both war and peace.

11111111111111111111111111A redacted accident report written in 1965 did not mention a nuclear weapon involved, but it did place the greatest blame for the accident on Webster, primarily citing him for inattention.

Winchester’s discussion of the SIOP serves as an extended footnote to explain why an aircraft carrier supporting the Vietnam War needed nuclear weapons. I worked under the Strategic Air Command Emergency War Order and the SIOP from 1957-63 as a B-47 and B-52 radar-navigator and I can vouch for Winchester’s insight into a virtually forgotten strategy. At that time, the Air Force controlled 92 percent of the Free World’s striking power; inter-service rivalries and jealousy overwhelmed the have-nots.

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DoD  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving U.S. Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980”

A cover-up ensued because the United States—or perhaps the Navy—acted in its own interest and violated a nuclear-free-area treaty with Japan. In 1989, two American researchers uncovered everything about the Tico incident. There were protests in Japan for several weeks, but they came far too late.

“In December 1989, Japan closed the book on the submerged bomb,” Winchester says.

Jim Winchester summarizes the dilemma of nuclear weapon disasters across the years—at least to the degree that the services have made them public. Overall, he illuminates virtually every lesson available about the incident.

—Henry Zeybel

Combat at Close Quarters edited by Edward J. Marolda

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Combat at Close Quarters: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Navy in the Vietnam War (Naval Institute Press, 2018, 360 pp. $39.95) is a compilation of essays on the topic edited by Edward J. Marolda. The five are all military historians who have written about the various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War: Norman Polmar, R. Blake Dunnavent, John Darrell Sherwood, and Richard A. Mobley. The book also includes more than two hundred photos and maps.

Dunnavent is a Louisiana State University history professor who has done a lot of work on the brown water Navy in Vietnam. He and Marolda in 2015, for example, co-wrote the 82-page book, Combat at Close Quarters Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam as part of the official “U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War” series, which Marolda co-edited.

Marolda served as an officer in the US Army’s 4th Transportation Command in Vietnam in 1969-70. A former Acting Director of Naval History and Senior Historian of the Navy, he is the leading historian of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Vietnam War.

The four chapters in this book chronicle:

  • The Air War: close-air support, bombing the Ho Chi Minh Trail and North Vietnam
  • Riverines: fighting throughout the Mekong Delta and north to the DMZ
  • Blue Water War: gun fire, interdicting trawlers, mining Haiphong Harbor
  • Intelligence Gathering: recon photo flights, radio and radar sweeps, SEALs

One aspect of the war that these historians note is the stark difference between the strict Rules of Engagement promulgated by the Johnson administration in Vietnam and the more flexible ones that the Nixon administration used.

The book as excellent accounts of the heat and terror of battle. There are descriptions of aerial dog fights, rescues of downed aviators, and fighting along the rivers and marshes of the Mekong Delta. The book also explains how the war was orchestrated by its supporting players. There’s information on monitoring and interdicting movement along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; joining Intel efforts of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps into a single, cohesive stream of information; and behind-the-scenes communications, politics, and negotiation strategies.

111111111111111111111The authors argue that U.S. lost the Vietnam War because its citizens and politicians lost the will to fight it while the military forces consistently won virtually every battle.

Most Vietnam veterans know about actions in which they had participated. They witnessed and appreciated the close air support and the artillery and Naval gun fire, yet many are unaware of all the behind-the-scenes activities needed to make those long-range bombs so timely and so accurate.

To help learn how it all came together, Combat at Close Quarters is a must-read.

— Bob Wartman