Moral Imperative by Darrel D. Whitcomb

Darrel Whitcomb’s Moral Imperative: 1972, Combat Rescue, and the End of America’s War in Vietnam (University Press of Kansas, 368 pp. $27.95, paper; $20.49, Kindle) 2021 is a well-written, researched, detailed, and informed book filled with accounts of incredible search and rescue missions. Whitcomb, a USAFA graduate who served three Vietnam War tours as a cargo pilot and forward air controller, begins with the earliest phase of American involvement in Southeast Asia as a backdrop to the evolving SAR mission. That quickly leads to the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive and Operations Linebacker I and II, the centerpieces of the book. 

Reading the details of these rescue missions I was repeatedly awestruck by the courage and perseverance of the rescue crews—especially when so many were shot down, riddled with fire, killed, or captured. 

On the eve of the 1972 Easter Offensive North Vietnamese antiaircraft units were heavily equipped with the latest Soviet technology and concentrated around sites targeted by U.S. forces. Facing an array of weaponry that could defend at all altitudes and weather, attacking aircraft were always in danger of being brought down.

The Russians had supplied the North Vietnamese with an abundance of artillery and SA-2 surface-to-air missiles with supporting radar, as well as fighter aircraft. Most telling was the large-scale introduction of portable, heat-seeking, shoulder-fired SA-7’s. Those weapons brought about U.S. losses practically every time they engaged attacking American aircraft. And nearly every attempted rescue mission took place in a high-risk environment.

The North Vietnamese monitored the American radio net, and set traps for inbound rescuers using downed flier as bait. Many rescuers and pilots consequently were hit by intense fire.   

The questions then arose: When is this tradeoff too costly to continue a rescue effort? Is it ethical not to try to rescue a downed crew?  If so, what was the morale impact on others who continued to fly high-risk missions? 

Perhaps the BAT-21 episode, which is described in this book, has been written about extensively, and was the subject of a Hollywood movie, best illustrates cost-versus-gain. BAT-21 was an EB-66 electronic warfare aircraft that was shot down. Only one crewmember, the navigator, survived, and he wound up in a highly dangerous sector saturated with ground-to-air missile sites, SA-7s, and antiaircraft artillery.  

An HH-43F hoists a downed airman in Southeast Asia. U.S. Air Force Photo

The effort to save him resulted in the loss of five additional aircraft and the deaths of eleven airmen. What’s more, U.S. planes scheduled to help embattled South Vietnamese troops in desperate need of airstrikes were diverted to the rescue effort. After an extensive effort the navigator was rescued by a determined and courageous two-man SEAL team backed up by South Vietnamese Navy commandos.

Was saving the navigator worth the losses? As Air Force Gen. John Vogt said about ordering highly risky SAR missions: “The one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. If that was ever in doubt, morale would tumble.” Hence, the “moral imperative” of the book’s title.

One comes away from this book with a deep-felt admiration for the crews who willingly put everything on the line to rescue others in the Vietnam War.

— John Cirafici

Walker Bulldog vs T-54 by Chris McNab

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Once again, the author and editor Chris McNab and Osprey Publishing have pitted tanks against each other—this time in McNab’s latest Osprey Duel Series book, Walker Bulldog vs T-54: Laos and Vietnam 1971-75 (Osprey, 80 pp. $22.00, paper; $9.99, Kindle). The tanks’ real-life confrontations occurred late in the American war in Vietnam during the 1971 Operation Lam Son 719 and the 1972 NVA Easter Offensive.

The United States provided the light Bulldog T41 for the South Vietnamese Army; the Soviet Union supplied the T-54 main battle tank to the North Vietnamese Army.

McNab presents a complete picture of each machine. An expert in military technology, he has written more than a hundred titles in his twenty-year career.

Johnny Schumate’s paintings of battle scenes and Alan Gilliland’s illustrations of the tanks’ interiors are complemented by many photographs. In particular, gun sight target views for each tank add authenticity to the narrative.

In essence, Bulldog vs T-54 is two books in one, with the first resembling a tech order. It reviews the tanks’ design and development and goes over performance specifications such as fuel consumption and armor reliability. An excellent visual layout with explanations of warhead killing power provides a thought-provoking comparison between the M41’s 76mm and the T-54’s 100mm guns.

A different comparison of the tanks and their crews fills the second half of the book. McNab briefly describes the strategic background leading to the ARVN move into Laos for Lam Son 719 and the NVA (aka, the PAVN)’s nationwide Easter Offensive. He then delves into manpower numbers, morale, and United States-versus-Soviet-and-Chinese methods of training tank crews.

Tank warfare during Lam Son 719 differed significantly from what happened during the Easter Offensive the following year. McNab’s coverage of combat is supported by statistics and analysis. His discussion of battlefield tactics finds weaknesses among both South and North Vietnamese leaders.

His first-hand accounts of battles were not as complete as I wanted, but they still revealed outcomes that surprised me. He indicates that much of the information I was looking for has not been made public by the PAVN. McNab’s final conclusions are evenhanded and somewhat predictable from the start, although both sides experienced extremely unpredictable short-time results along the way.

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I have not included the finer points of McNab’s observations and conclusions to avoid spoiling surprises for readers. I had never considered tanks as a significant part of the Vietnam War. McNab, however, woke me up to their role and taught me lessons about their use in different types of terrains.

On the other hand, I took part in Lam Son 791, and according to my flight log, our AC-130 Spectre gunship crew flew 27 interdiction and three TIC missions into Laos during the operation. The ARVN incursion backed up PAVN traffic to around Tchepone, and we shot 477 cargo and fuel trucks during the operation without finding one tank.

—Henry Zeybel