The Gunpowder Prince by Michael Archer

My USAF C-130 crew flew LAPES and CDS supply drops over besieged Khe Sanh in 1968. Our best flight there, however, took place on the day the siege ended. We landed and on-loaded a hundred Marines led by a captain whose humongous grin is still imprinted in my brain.

“I’ve never been this happy to leave anyplace,” he said, and thanked us at least a dozen times.

Khe Sanh is legendary in military history as both a high and low point for Americans and North Vietnamese. Thirty thousand NVA soldiers surrounded 6,000 United States Marines for ten weeks at that remote combat base in Quang Tri Province. The NVA failed to capture the base. After the siege lifted, however, the Americans abandoned the base and destroyed it.

Michael Archer, a nineteen-year-old Marine PFC at the time, served as a radio operator in the Khe Sanh Fire Support Coordination Center. He helped keep aircraft free from the line of fire of outgoing artillery, working alongside Capt. Mirza Munir Baig, a man with “a head like a computer,” who programmed the artillery.

Archer pays tribute to Baig in The Gunpowder Prince: How Marine Corps Captain Mirza Munir Baig Saved Khe Sanh (Amazon Digital Services, 145 pp. $14.95, paperback; .99, Kindle). Born to a royal family of India, Baig became an American citizen and chose a warrior’s life. He arrived in Vietnam in 1963, two years ahead of Marine combat units, and roamed the countryside developing a spy network and interrogating prisoners. In 1966 he saw action as an artillery officer in Operation Hastings before returning to in-country counterintelligence the following year.

Baig’s leadership skill rested on three factors: knowledge of past tactics followed by Vo Nguyen Giap, which allowed him to anticipate enemy maneuvers; an ability to predict enemy troop deployments based on listening to audio pickups from a top-secret sensor system; and an art for segmenting terrain into target areas, which expedited delivering firepower ranging from artillery shells to B-52 bombs.

Additionally, when targeting, Baig took advantage of the NVA’s lack of radio discipline: They often led him to themselves. Archer shows how these talents stifled buildups of NVA men and equipment necessary to overrun Khe Sanh, thereby forcing the enemy to switch from assault to encirclement tactics.

Baig’s biggest problem was poor intelligence. He felt “uninformed and in constant peril” while awaiting information that sped up the chain of command but trickled down slowly, Archer writes. That information was “old, incomplete, and almost always useless” to him. My own Vietnam War experience also included intelligence briefings that lacked timely data.

While lauding Baig, Archer analyzes the siege from both sides. He discusses the decisions of President Johnson and Gen. Westmoreland, which are familiar to many Americans. Of greater interest, he presents the thinking of the North Vietnamese. They recognized, Archer writes, that “an absurd series of mishaps, flukes of incredible bad luck, and appalling security blunders” kept the NVA from repeating a Dien Bien Phu-type victory.

Recent English translations of Vietnamese books and articles are providing insights that confirm or deny ideas that, for half a century, have been speculation among western thinkers. Archer refers to such sources throughout his book.

Similarly, by researching NVA archives, Istvan Toperczer of the Hungarian Air Force revealed the enemy’s side of the war in his books, MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War and MiG-21 Aces of the Vietnam War. Furthermore, information is now available regarding inadequate NVA defensive actions along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, particularly efforts to reduce large-scale transportation losses to American AC-130 Spectre gunships.

The Gunpowder Prince is Archer’s third book about Khe Sanh. It contains a great deal of new material. Archer has done his homework and presents scholarly arguments. At the same time, he finds interest in everyday events.

He provides an array of photographs to enhance the text. Both of his previous books have won awards.

The author’s website is www.michaelarcher.net

—Henry Zeybel

Last Stand at Khe Sanh by Gregg Jones

Gregg Jones’s 2014 book, Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam, is now available in paperback (Da Capo, 358 pp., $16.99). Veteran journalist and author Jones, best known for his book on the Philippine War, Honor in the Dust, concentrates here on telling the personal stories of the American Marines in the trenches in the pivotal Vietnam War battle at Khe Sanh in 1968.

As we noted in our review in Books in Review column in the July/August print issue, “this informing book serves as a testament to the Khe Sanh Marines who, as Jones puts it, ‘heeded the call of their duly constituted leaders’ and ‘went to Vietnam with the best of intentions,’ earning ‘a place of honor in American history.’”

—Marc Leepson

No Place for a Lady by Thea Rosenbaum

As Thea Rosenbaum stepped from a still-moving C-130 onto the Khe Sanh runway on January 29, 1968, she was greeted with the click -click of incoming rounds. Throwing herself behind some oil drums, the young war correspondent noticed cows crossing the runway. It reminded her of the terror she had experienced as a child during World War II.

He memoir, No Place for a Lady (AuthorHouse, 194 pp., $16.95, paper), written with Chris Moore, has greater depth than many war stories. Thanks to Rosenbaum’s well-crafted writing the reader can see through her eyes as she relates her wartime experiences in Berlin and Vietnam.

After describing landing at Khe Sanh, Rosenbaum spends several chapters explaining how war was not new to her and how she and her family survived World War II in Germany.

Just as this narrative is not an ordinary book, Thea Rosenbaum was no ordinary child. At the age of five she traveled ten miles by train to enroll in school. During the final weeks of the war, she saved her mother from being raped by Russian soldiers.

Rosenbaum admits to serious feelings of inferiority. But by the age of twenty-one, she had become Germany’s only female stockbroker at Oppenheimer & Company. Later, she would become the only German female journalist covering the war in Vietnam. Her desire to produce top journalism led Rosenbaum into potentially dangerous situations, including going through Vietnamese airborne troop training.

As the reader is drawn into the Rosenbaum’s life, you can appreciate why she spends so many pages describing her youth. It becomes quite clear that her growing-up experiences brought a new kind of self-confidence. Dealing with a child-molesting grandfather, being an au pair for a family with no children, and falling madly in love with a violin player built a foundation for dealing with all kinds of people.

Thea Rosenbaum

Arriving in Khe Sanh was as fortuitous for a journalist as it was dangerous. There was no lack of action to report. It was the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Moving into Saigon later during Tet, the author writes:

“There is no battle line. Now this is true generally of the fighting in Vietnam, but during Tet, and in Saigon, if you went to an area where fighting was under way, you would have great difficulty in pointing to one side of the street or the other and say with any certainty that is where the Vietcong are and that is with the South Vietnamese are. You just couldn’t do it with any consistency.”    

Being a German citizen and a noncombatant was no guarantee of safety. While Rosenbaum was in Vietnam, a group of German doctors was taken out to a field and shot by the Viet Cong. The author writes that Americans were also guilty of atrocities, but says we were not nearly as cruel as the Viet Cong were.  

After she left Vietnam, Rosenbaum worked in the White House as a German correspondent for ARD television. She became well acquainted with Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, and interviewed people such as David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan, Jesse Jackson, and Hugh Hefner. One of the greatest experiences of her life, she writes, was seeing the Berlin Wall fallThea Rosenbaum became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

She ends her narrative with these words. “Yet sometimes I ask myself, was it more important to meet every president since Nixon or to spend time with my family? It can be difficult to choose between historically important people and taking care of your children. But would I do it again? You bet I would.”

Would this reviewer recommend this book and read it again? You bet I would.

The author’s website is www.noplaceforalday.com

—Joseph Reitz

Stained With the Mud of Khe Sanh by Rodger Jacobs

Rodger Jacobs’s memoir, Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh: A Marine’s Letters from Vietnam, 1966-1967 (McFarland, 260 pp., $29.95), is presented in the form of letters and interspersed comments written recently. It is a high-class, high-quality book, with photographs taken by Jacobs during his tour of duty. The book even has a useful index, something rare in a memoir. Warning, though: the index is not completely accurate.

I immediately checked the index for the usual things I look for in Vietnam War memoirs: Bob Hope, John Wayne, antiwar demonstrators, Joan Baez, Iwo Jima,. baby killers. None of them were in the index, but I found all of them in the book.

So the book is full of surprises. That is not a bad thing, but it does make the book more difficult to use as reference material. I did find body bags, body count, booby traps, Donut Dolly, and Bernard Fall, as well as just about every other thing a reader would want in a Marine Corps memoir.

Jacobs served in the Marines in Vietnam almost exactly the same time I served there in the U. S. Army. I therefore read his book with special interest and attention, finding some of his experiences similar to those I wrote about in REMF Diary.

But Jacobs’s entries are much better than mine. He was ninety yards away from Bernard Fall when the famed correspondent and historian was killed by a Bouncing Betty mine. When I heard the news on AFRTS that day, I was horror struck.  But imagine how Fall’s death struck Jacobs, who was right there. That is only one of hundreds of powerful and immediate sections in this fine book.

Jacobs gives us edited versions of his letters home, and he omits some entirely. He always tells the reader when he is doing this, but he does not tell us why.

Jacobs’s parents must be praised for keeping the letters and photos that his son sent home and for presenting them to him when he was past the most difficult times after coming home from the war.

Rodger Jacobs served with the First Battalion, Ninth Marines, “The Walking Dead,” during the last part of his tour in Vietnam. He was stationed first with A Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Division in Da Nang.

Jacobs is a guy who avoided formal education, but he comes from a middle-class family and his father was a World War II veteran and a veterinary doctor. His book is more evidence to disprove the notion that those of us who served in Vietnam, especially in the Marines, were dead-end kids who lacked smarts.

These letters are well-written and always of interest. Jacobs minces no words about sensitive issues, such as bad commanders and their bad decisions, and the tragic decision to take away M-14s and replace them with M-16s that often jammed.

The Inspector General, for whom I worked, was involved in an investigation about how the M-16 let down the Marines. So when I read how the Marines begged for their M-14s back and were denied them, I got teary about the deaths this casued. Sad stuff, powerfully presented by Jacobs and by his commander who has a letter in the book.

It took Rodger Jacobs many years to find himself after that war. He did it through the intervention of a father who loved him, the love of a good woman, and by finding a craft, wood-turning, through which he has created many fine works of art.

Jacobs can be proud of this work of art, too, one of the finest enlisted Marine Corps memoirs I have read. It stands tall, right next that great Marine Corps officer memoir, Welcome to Vietnam, Macho, Man by Ernest Spencer. I highly recommend Stained with the Mud of Khe Sanh.

—David Willson