Shadow Commander by Mike Guardia



Mike Guardia, the author of  Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn—Guerrilla Leader and Special Forces Hero (Casemate, 240 pp., $32.95, hardcover; $11.99, Kindle), is a military historian who served in the U. S. Army as an armor officer.  His previous books include Hal Moore:  A Soldier Once… and Always.

When Donald Blackburn was a young Army officer in World War II in the Philippines he escaped taking part in the infamous Bataan Death March, and organized Filipinos to fight the Japanese. Later Blackburn helped set up U.S. Special Forces operations in Vietnam.

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but I thought that the first part of the book would be a lot like the tales my grandfather, Homer Willson, regaled me with as a boy.  Grandpa pursued Moros in the jungle of Mindanao in 1910 when he was an Army private in the aftermath of the Philippine War. There is little of that immediacy and danger communicated, however, in this book’s Philippine section.

“It was an excruciatingly slow process fraught with betrayals, intrigue, manhunts and the inevitable close calls with the Japanese,” Guardia says, describing  Blackburn’s work organizing guerrillas scattered about Northern Luzon. Much of the time Blackburn was seriously ill with malaria.

The weapons his men had were not always the best. Many of his soldiers preferred to fight with Bolo knives rather than use the unreliable Enfield rifles. Plus, he was outgunned by the Japanese. Provisions were delivered by submarine. That included dynamite, Thompson submachine guns, rifles, bazookas, grenades, and grenade launchers.

Blackburn fought in more than fifty battles, large and small, throughout Northern Luzon. His war in the Philippines ended on August 14, 1945, after four years of fighting. He had started as a lieutenant and came home a colonel. Col. Blackburn went home and received no ticker tape parade, but he did not want or expect one.

Blackburn began his involvement in Vietnam in the summer of 1957 at the U.S. Military Advisory Assistance Group headquarters in Saigon. The author tells us that “Blackburn’s first tour (1957-58) was not a very gratifying year.”


Mike Guardia

Later, in 1964, Blackburn was part of Studies and Observation Group (SOG), a secret, deceptively named group that had (among other missions) the disruption of the Ho Minh Trail. Guardia tells us that the war in Vietnam was hamstrung by political mismanagement from the beginning, over-cautious rules of engagement, and the dubious strategy of “hearts and minds,” as well as too much emphasis on high-tech gizmos and not enough thought about boots on the ground.

Blackburn was part of the raid on Son Tay Prison, during which no American POWs were rescued. The military considered it a tactical success, but an intelligence failure.  After that, Blackburn returned to Sarasota, Florida, and retired.  He died on May 24, 2008, “A true hero of the Army Special Forces,” Guardia writes.

I’m sure that Donald Blackburn had exciting tales to tell of his time in the Philippines and in South Vietnam. I also believe he was highly trained to be modest and also circumspect, so those tales never got told. I wish I could have heard him tell them.

—David Willson

The Hidden History of America at War by Kenneth C. Davis

Maybe I take things too literally, but I expected to find both hidden and untold information in Kenneth C. Davis’s The Hidden History of America at War: Untold Tales from Yorktown to Fallujah (Hachette, 416 pp., $30). Davis, the author of the best-selling “America’s Hidden History” book series, in this book offers up his interpretations of six pivotal battles in U.S. history. In addition to Yorktown and Fallujah, he discourses on the Battle of Petersburg in the Civil War; the Balangiga Massacre in the Philippine War; Berlin in World War II; and Hue in the Vietnam War. Each entry is well written, decently researched, and cogently analyzed.

In the Vietnam War chapter, however—and this is a big “however”—there wasn’t anything “hidden” or “untold” in Davis’s dissection of the 1968 Battle of Hue and its impact on the course of the Vietnam War. During the last four decades there have been many examinations of that pivotal battle. Davis, in fact, leans heavily on two of them: Don Oberdorfer’s Tet!: The Turning Point of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1971, and Stanley Karnow’s classic one-volume history of the war, Vietnam, A History, which was published in 1983. He also makes use of Neil Sheehan’s brilliant A Bright, Shining Lie, a biography of John Paul Vann and a history of the Vietnam War, which came out in 1988.

These and other secondary sources are the only works that Davis cites as sources in this chapter, another strong indication that nothing new, hidden, or untold appears on these pages.

Even the title of this Vietnam War chapter—“The ‘Living-Room War’”—is not new. “Living-Room War” was the title of an article by Michael J. Arlen that appeared in the October 15, 1966, New Yorker magazine and the 1969 book of the same name. In the article and book Arlen examined the impact of the barrage of nightly TV coverage of the Vietnam War on American TV.

In his introduction, Davis infers that the 1901 Massacre at Balangiga took place during the Spanish-American War, which began and ended in 1898. Ironically, a lot about the 1899-1902 Philippine War—which Davis never mentions by name—can be considered hidden, if not untold.

Few Americans today can remember the barest details of that conflict, in which some 4,200 U.S. military personnel perished fighting a guerrilla-type insurrection in the Philippines after we handily defeated the Spanish there.

Around 126,000 Americans fought in that controversial guerrilla war, which history books today treat as little more than a footnote to the short, bombastic Spanish-American War that preceded it.

The author’s website is

—Marc Leepson

Thirteen Soldiers by John McCain and Mark Salter

War is its own reward for people who kill the enemy (the more, the better) and survive whole. At the same time, war is horrid, but can bring out the best qualities in people, according to former Navy aviator, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, and Mark Salter, who served on McCain’s staff for many years and has co-written several other books with him.

In their new book, Thirteen Soldiers: A Personal History of Americans at War (Simon & Schuster, 384 pp., $28.00), the authors identify a single soldier, sailor, airman, or Marine from each of America’s thirteen major wars to eulogize for courage under fire. The eleven men and two women, they write, sacrificed for “something greater than self.” In essence, the book offers short biographies told with admiration, but without embellishment.

I first turned to the chapter on Vietnam—my war. It relates the exploits of  F-105 Wild Weasel pilot, prisoner of war, and Medal of Honor recipient Leo Thorsness. His exploits offer classic examples of courage, disregard for personal safety, and suffering.

The chapter follows the book’s basic format: setting the world stage, recalling the principal person’s pre-war life, and then describing that person’s performance of duty.

Overall, the book briefly reviews American military history from the Revolution of 1776 to today’s conflict in Afghanistan. It describes often-ignored engagements, such as the Spanish-American and Philippine Wars.

John McCain during the Vietnam War

The tale of the latter is highly enlightening: intended to depict the actions of Marine officer Littleton Waller “Tony” Tazewell Waller as one of the few compassionate leaders in the war, it portrays other American leaders and soldiers as racist murderers of Filipinos. The chapter offers a strong lesson in the misapplication of power.

In contrast, the World War II chapter focuses on Guy Louis Gabaldon, who wanted to save, rather than kill, his Japanese enemies. A Hispanic youth from East L.A., Gabaldon grew up around Nisei, first generation Japanese Americans, who taught him their language.

During the battle for Saipan, Gabaldon captured more than fifteen hundred Japanese, but also was forced to kill thirty-three who refused to surrender. While the fighting raged at night, he ventured behind enemy lines and talked Japanese soldiers into surrendering. After the island was secure, he convinced Japanese soldiers hidden in caves to become his prisoners rather than commit suicide. He was eighteen years old at the time. A Navy Cross recipient, Gabaldon forever blamed his failure to receive a Medal of Honor on racism.

The book’s other subjects comprise a diverse group. Two women are the most contemporary: Mary Rhoads from the Persian Gulf War, and medic Monica Lin Brown from Afghanistan. Two are black: Charles Black, a seaman and gunner in the War of 1812, and Edward Baker, a Buffalo Soldier cavalryman who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the 1898 Spanish-American War.

The others range from familiar Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the Civil War to little-known Elton “Lucky” Mackin, who fought in every Marine Corps battle in World War I.

—Henry Zeybel