Trickery initiated a little-known battle at Soui Long Creek 75 miles northeast of Saigon during the Vietnam War in 1967. A highly trained Viet Cong pretending he was a Chieu Hoi defector led a battalion of ARVN Rangers into a fight with a VC division. In what he calls “my initial introduction into combat in Vietnam,” retired Army Col. Keith M. Nightingale describes the action that ensued in Just Another Day in Vietnam (Casemate, 264 pp.; $34.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle) in an unusual manner.
As he puts it, the book “is 95 percent fact and 5 percent speculation.” Relying exclusively on his narrative and a dozen photographs to recreate the event, Nightingale provides no notes or bibliography.
The book is not a memoir, though, but rather the “combined stories of all who served that day” on both sides of the battlefield, he says. An adviser with the ARVN Rangers, Nightingale refers to himself as “the lieutenant.”
He tells a fascinating tale. In begins in 1965, when the general who commanded North Vietnamese military forces in South Vietnam decided to accelerate actions against South Vietnamese and American troops to try to convince the American public that they could not win the war. He clandestinely moved and advantageously arrayed 2,000 men of the 5th Viet Cong Division to a site on Soui Long Creek.
South of there, a VC laborer defected to the Americans supposedly in hope of returning home. Under interrogation, he haltingly revealed information on building a nearby VC camp, which was new intelligence to Americans. He fearfully agreed to lead forces to the location. With approval from an ARVN general, Americans sent the a Ranger battalion to destroy the camp and its forces.
Nightingale’s account of the give and take of the ensuing battle provides minute details of uncanny certainty that override his warning about speculation. His recollections of fighting during an afternoon, night, and the following day revolve around heavily attrited and surrounded Rangers; ambushed, as well as battered and stalled U.S. 11th Armored Cavalry troops en route to rescuing the Rangers; and disciplined masses of Viet Cong infantrymen. He summarizes one attack on the 11th as a “short sudden cacophony of death.”
The descriptions of behavior among men of both sides provide captivating reading, particularly concerning a sense of responsibility among leaders. Suffice it to say that the trickery backfired.
Nightingale’s writing style differs significantly from most I have read about the Vietnam War. It often contains touches of poetic writing and passion. For example, he addresses death and destruction in a voice bordering on poetics, yet infused with scientific nomenclature. In viewing a corpse, he writes:
“The eyes, no longer in existence, become tunnels into the tributaries of the cranium” and “The cambium layer lay exposed with a dark blotchy stain around its circumference composed of bone matter and blood.” One of his descriptions of the Vietnamese landscape resembles a view of a beautiful woman’s body.
In many respects, the book provides an education in infantry tactics. Along with the action, Nightingale explains how weapon systems operate and the coordination of manpower necessary to attain maximum results from them. Nightingale served two tours in the Vietnam War. The first with the 82nd Airborne Division working with the 52nd Vietnamese Ranger Battalion and the second with the 101st Airborne Division. He retired as a colonel in 1993.