Six years before he went to Vietnam and became an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1967, Jay Phillips began studying the war. Wounded three times, he spent 21 months in-country. In 1976, he received a BA in history from the University of Denver. Fascinated by the war and its outcome, he accumulated a library of some 1,300 books on the topic and did a large amount of research in the files of the Vietnam Center and Archive at Texas Tech University to write A Shau: Crucible of the Vietnam War (Izzard Ink, 542 pp. $39.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle).
Phillips characterizes the A Shau Valley as “one of the most consequential pieces of real estate in all of South Vietnam.” In the book he analyzes how the United States never controlled the Valley after the North Vietnamese overran a U.S. Special Forces camp at A Luoi in March 1966, and how that influenced the war’s outcome.
The book focuses exclusively on what happened in I Corps from 1961-72 in the area between A Shau and the nearby Laotian border to the west. The North Vietnamese Army used the 28-mile long valley as a supply route into South Vietnam. This greatly benefitted NVA activity, particularly the extended fighting in Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive—a turning point in the war.
Although he never set foot in the A Shau—which Phillips states for the record in the book—his familiarity of time and place is admirable. U.S. Air Force CHECO Reports primarily provide his source material, but he also cites other official reports, award citations, secondary sources, memoirs, and interviews. I applaud the scope and intensity of his research.
Phillips offers up his interpretations of successful and unsuccessful actions in the field and at leadership at all levels of command. He speculates. He contradicts. He finds fallacies and corrects errors. To put it simply and bluntly: He calls bullshit when necessary.
Despite not maintaining a permanent force in the A Shau Valley, American forces conducted large- and small-scale, short-term incursions there. Phillips brings to life epic operations: Delaware, Somerset Plain, Dewey Canyon, and others. He takes the reader to the infamous Hamburger Hill.
Phillips recreates operations with details that should more than satisfy military history lovers. He describes the glory—and the suffering—of American combatants in the A Shau: primarily the 1st Cavalry, 101st Airborne, and the 9th Marines. Those units used reconnaissance and search-and-destroy tactics in forested mountains, much like Americans in the rest of South Vietnam did. At the same time, he weaves in the actions of smaller groups such as Rangers and LRPPs to complete a picture of the complex and fluctuating U.S. tactics.
A Shau has no photographs beyond the dust jacket, but includes maps that clarify each operation.
Jay Phillips now works with support groups for victims of Parkinson’s disease, which he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange. The Parkinson’s Foundation named him 2020 Volunteer of the Year.