At the heart of Oscar Gilbert’s compelling Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam (Casemate, 304 pp. $32.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) are interviews with two dozen Marine tankers who served in the Vietnam War. Reinforced with a careful study of official (albeit limited) archives, Gilbert draws a clear line from the arrival of the Marines at Danang in 1965 to their departure from the country six years later. Through it all, he conveys the role of Marine armor in the war.
From the start, Gilbert illustrates the differing strategies the Marines and the Army brought to the war. MACV’s approach was to draw the NVA and VC out into the open to defeat in decisive battles.The Marines sought to take ground and keep it, primarily in I Corps, where they worked with regional forces and ARVN units. It was only after prolonged pressure from above that the Marines went along with MACV’s strategy.
Gilbert, a former Marine who has written books about Marine tank battles in the Pacific in World War II and in the Korean War, describes the enormous problems tankers faced from the moment they arrived in Vietnam. Terrain ranging from coastal flats to mountains hampered freedom to maneuver and fight, especially in narrow streets during the 1968 Battle of Hue. Monsoon rains reduced fields to swamps, further restricting tank movements. Above all, U.S. military tactics for defeating enemies with tanks would prove ineffective against those without them.
The book’s most sobering lesson illustrates how easily a tank can be disabled. Armor units were repeatedly ambushed by enemy units armed with RPG’s, satchel charges, and mines. Not once does Gilbert recount an action from which Marine tankers emerged unscathed.
Using tactics that came to define the war, North Vietnamese units traveling by foot would attack the Americans, damaging and crippling tanks. Whether the units chose to stay and fight or withdraw, the results were often the same. Compelled to drive with hatches open for better visibility, countless tankers were killed and wounded. Tracks broke. Wheels were blown off. Machine guns jammed. And in an environment alive with fragments, tanks also were forced into duty as ambulances.
What’s more, tank maintenance problems were endless. Fine sand and dust wore down wheels, tracks, and suspensions. Air filters clogged quickly and required daily cleaning. Humidity clouded optics and caused water to accumulate in fuel tanks. Unless drained away, the water gave rise to algae that could kill engines.
Despite those negatives, the North Vietnamese paid every time they engaged the Marine tankers, often suffering far more losses than the Americans. While the growing body count of enemy dead was ballyhooed by MACV, the declarations of victory rang hollow for the men who had earned them.
Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is a compelling piece of work. That said, Gilbert presents two challenges to less-informed readers.
First, to fully appreciate the book it would help to have a grasp of the Marines Corps’ chain of command at all levels. This knowledge is vital, given the frequency with which tank units were detached from parent companies or platoons to help Marines elsewhere.
Second, the book has many photos, but only a handful of small-scale maps. Readers would need to look at a large-scale map of I Corps to fully comprehend the veterans’ accounts of the tank actions in the book.
To his credit, Gilbert readily acknowledges this. Actions fought by squads or even individual tanks are not easily documented. To that end, the book’s references include a link to the USMC Vietnam Tankers Association’s website and growing archive of maps.
Marine Corps Tank Battles in Vietnam is an often gut-wrenching account of brave, highly trained men doing their best under circumstances that defied them at virtually every turn. The book is a worthy addition to the library of any student of tank warfare and the United States Marines in the Vietnam War.