Vietnam 1967-68 by David R. Higgins

Vietnam 1967-68: U.S. Marine Versus NVA Soldier (Osprey, 80 pp., $18.95, paper; $15,.95 e book) is an excellent book for readers unfamiliar with the Vietnam War. In it, author David R. Higgins, a veteran military historian, compares U.S. Marines and the NVA soldiers by dissecting three of their encounters in I Corps: the Hill Fights in April 1967, Operation Kingfisher in July 1967, and the Battle for Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.

The book provides background on the political origins of the war and on soldier-level topics such as training, logistics, leadership, morale, weapons, and tactics. Countless books have covered the latter material, particularly from the American viewpoint. Higgins stands out by discussing the Marines and the NVA separately and objectively emphasizing dissimilarities.

Fighting in the three engagements was ferocious and produced large numbers of casualties on both sides. Higgins’ accounts include information from both sides. Months prior to Tet, the NVA initiated a master plan that gave them superior positioning at the start of the offensive; American leaders failed to recognized the plan.

Higgins concludes that poor intelligence gathering also hindered the Marines in the Hill Fights and Kingfisher. At Hue, the confinement of city streets caused the Marines to operate independent of air and artillery support and reduced the effectiveness of armor. At the same time, he says, the ability to operate with less material and support than other U.S. forces gave the Marines greater flexibility to adapt to changing battle conditions.

              U.S. Marines during the fighting in Hue city, Tet 1968

Higgins identifies the use of irregular tactics, avoiding confrontation until establishing a superior position, and functioning with minimal supplies as factors that increased NVA combat success. Generally superior in numbers, NVA forces frequently ambushed the Marines. Furthermore, Higgins says, NVA soldiers had high levels of morale and motivation, which maximized their ability to learn and apply combat lessons.

This magazine-sized book contains excellent photographs and maps. Illustrator Johnny Shumate’s drawings of soldiers and combat scenes are extremely lifelike.

—Henry Zeybel

Gray Horse Troop by Charles Baker

Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers (Powder River Publications, 360 pp., $15.59, paper) pays tribute to the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry’s actions in the Vietnam War during the first six months of 1968. At that time, the book’s author, Charles Baker, served as the 5/7 Operations Officer. Before telling what took place during that time, Baker briefly backfills the 5/7’s history, including its Indian-fighting days.

Baker, a West Point graduate, transferred to the 5/7 as a new Major. However, having just served six months with 3/1 while a Captain, Baker had combat experience. A few days after he arrived, the 5/7 moved to Quang Tri in time for the start of the Tet Offensive.

In great detail, Baker chronicles the fighting of 5/7 north of Hue during Tet ’68. His day-by-day accounts spell out the wins and losses of his unit’s effort to regain control of villages captured by the North Vietnamese Army. Following that task, the 5/7 helped defeat the North Vietnamese controlling Hue.

Baker then employs the same meticulous approach in reporting his unit’s involvement in Operation Pegasus—the massive heliborne assault in support of Khe Sanh—and a far-more-costly assault into the A Shau Valley. Many maps, along with a few photographs, support his well-written and straight-to-the-point narrative.

Charles Baker – photo by Will Dickey, The Times–Union

Charlie Baker’s unfiltered command insight might open the eyes of former enlisted men who still wonder how decisions that affected them were made. Baker is a dedicated soldier’s soldier who constantly considered his men’s welfare. Occasionally, he leaps from past to present, and between Vietnam and Iraq, a trait that should present no problem for anyone who understood Inception or The Matrix.

Best of all, Baker logically finds fault where fault is due. And he generously praises those who did the right thing.

About halfway through the book, retired Col. Baker takes an eight-chapter detour to describe his 2005 trip to Iraq as a reporter/columnist embedded with the 5/7. At this point, his tone changes: He sounds like a crusty old man in search of answers that nobody can provide.

Of course, much of what he sees is discouraging enough to unhinge a saint. In the midst of it, he writes: “It was not easy finding similarities between Iraq and Vietnam.” The way I read it, one might argue that the similarities are there, but they are too depressing to confront. Baker’s frustration sometimes lapses into humor, intentional or not.

At the end of the book, Baker solidifies 5/7’s place in history by including citations for three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Services Crosses awarded to its members during the first half of 1968. He also lists 325 names of the unit’s Purple Heart recipients for that period.

Most significantly, ahead of all others, he honors the 5/7 soldiers killed in action: 101 from October 1967 to June 1968, and 17 from 2005 to 2013.

—Henry Zeybel