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

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