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

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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