Henry F. Dagenais’s The Sea Swallows: Campaigning in the South Vietnam Delta with Chinese Catholic Exiles (Henry F. Dagenais, 448 pp., $13.99, paper) is a memoir of the author’s first Vietnam War tour, from September 1967-68. During that eventful tour of duty Dagenais served as a MACV advisor leading a small team of American troops working with a group of exiled Nationalist Chinese Catholics (the Sea Swallows) in An Xuyen Province in southernmost South Vietnam in IV Corps.
Dagenais begins at the beginning with his flight to Vietnam and ends a year later with getting on a plane “to the United States, the land of the big PX and home.” In between, he provides details of his memorable year in the war zone.
“The sequence of events,” he writes, “is as accurate as memory and some old notes serve me.” Dagenais says he consulted no government documents and “made no attempt to ensure my account coincides with what anyone else has written. It is as I remember the events, from my position on the ground at the time.”
Using much reconstructed dialogue, Dagenais details his work on hearts and minds and military missions against the Viet Cong in the Delta. “Daily operations,” he writes, “consisted of patrolling outlying hamlets and known areas of VC activities such as tax collecting and recruiting. Patrols were usually platoon size, 15 to 25 men, and had the mission of gathering intelligence and providing assistance and protection for the local population.”
In his area of operations—about 500 square kilometers—American and South Vietnamese forces controlled less than twenty percent of the territory. The Viet Cong, Dagenais writes, “could move rather freely throughout large portions of the area with little interference from government forces.”