America’s National Treasures by Rodney L. Kelley

In America’s National Treasure: Biographical Sketches of the United States Military Personnel Killed in Action on the Deadliest Day of the Vietnam War—January 31, 1968 (262 pp. $15, hardcover; $10, paper, $7, Kindle) retired U.S. Army Col. Rodney Kelly has produced a tribute to the 247 American servicemen who died in Vietnam on that bloody day—the first day of the 1968 Tet Offensive. American losses that day were the highest in any twenty-four hour period during the Vietnam War.

Kelley served in 1970 in Cambodia and later as MACV senior advisor for a Mobile Advisory Team in Phu Yen Province in South Vietnam. His military career stretched from 1969-99.

America’s National Treasure honors 12 airmen, 164 soldiers, 59 Marines, and 12 sailors. Each man’s life story is set down on a single page and each story captures something important and interesting about the man’s life. There also is a photograph and comments from family and friends for each entry. I applaud the effort that Kelley put into gathering the men’s biographies. Each one tells a story of innocence and dedication; altogether, they America’s citizens at their very best.

Five Security Policemen at Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa were among the twelve Air Force personnel who died that day. They were the first line of defense confronting a surprise attack by overwhelming numbers of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Their actions delayed the enemy until additional units responded to defend the airfields they defended. I was in-country during Tet, and turning the pages of Kelley’s book brought back memories of how much Air Force members at all levels admired the valiant response of the Security Police. One of those men, Reginald Victor Maisey, Jr., received the Air Force Cross for his courage under fire that day.

Seven corpsmen stood out from among the twelve Navy casualties. They selflessly gave their lives caring for Marines locked in battle at Hue. The reflexive spontaneity of their responses also became a topic of great admiration among my peers. Navy Cross recipient Daniel Benedict Henry was one a corpsmen casualties. Only one of the men was older than twenty-three.

The youngest Army and Marine men bore the brunt of casualties suffered on that day in battles throughout South Vietnam. Forty of the fifty-nine marines were killed in action, generally by small arms fire, lost their lives in Hue. The majority were nineteen years old.

Turning the pages of the book and reading the biographies turned into a distinct lesson in humility. The section devoted to the 164 Army casualties seemed endless. Most were nineteen- or twenty-years-old and many had been in the service less than a year, rushed through training and sent to battle.

Most died while fighting in small groups overrun by enemy forces of superior size. They experienced everything (arguably more) that happened to men from other services, including ambushes, helicopter shoot downs, and death by friendly fire. The vast majority were shot by small arms or shattered by mortar shells or rockets.

Half a century after the event, reading about so many deaths in such a short time offers a lesson in self-sacrifice. Even opponents of the Vietnam War should be impressed by the devotion of so many young men to their nation, right or wrong. With America’s National Treasure, Rodney Kelley has produced a guide for future employment of forces if the right people read it.  

A story of boyhood friends—Owen Garnet, 20, and William Goldberg, 21—typifies the core of the book. One enlisted in the Army while the other was drafted. Their Army service numbers were sequential. Owen Garnet died at Long Binh on the first day of Tet; nine days later, Billy Goldberg was killed in action in the Mekong Delta.

They were buried in Miami on the same day.

—Henry Zeybel

Palace Gate by Richard L. Brown

Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.

The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.

Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.

We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.

Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.

This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.                                                   

–Tom Werzyn

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

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 http://dontknowmuch.com/books/the-hidden-history-of-america-at-war

—Marc Leepson

Wilderness of Tigers by W. Bruce Arnold and Robert Bruce Arnold

U.S. Air Force Col. W. Bruce Arnold created Wilderness of Tigers:A Novel of Saigon (Chandelle of Sonoma, 524 pp., $17.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) after serving in Vietnam in 1967-68 as the Chief of DARPA’s Research and Development Field Unit based in Saigon. Col. Arnold—the son of the famed U.S. Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold—was a 1943 West Point graduate who served in World War II, Korea, and in the Vietnam War. He died in 1992. His son, Robert Bruce Arnold, took on the project of publishing this novel after his father’s death.

“Warning: This book is not for sensitive readers,” the authors note. “It contains rough language, explicit sex, strong violence, and the attitudes of a time, before political correctness.” The novel’s title comes from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, said by some to be The Bard’s most violent play.

The warning is not a false one. One of the most politically incorrect things about the book is the way ARVN troops are portrayed. They are referred to as “well-disciplined” and “hard-fighting.”  Most Vietnam War books I have read cannot say enough bad things about the ARVN troops. But not this one—a refreshing difference.

As for the sex and violence, there is plenty. I was stationed near Saigon for most of my time in-country and witnessed little violence and less sex, but I didn’t get around much.  Also, I went home before the Tet Offensive. This novel expends the first two thirds of its considerable bulk leading up to Tet 1968; the rest of the book is up its gunnels in it.

Author W. Bruce Arnold (left) and his father, Gen. Hap Arnold, in 1945

There is a huge cast of characters, and by the end I could keep most of them straight. There is a welcome table in the front of the book that helped identify the characters in my mind. The primary ones in this book do not fare well.  Most die.

The women die in especially horrible ways, particularly those who have been shown in exacting detail during their sexual prolificacy. One dies in a manner that is similar to a Jack the Ripper treatment; another is napalmed.

There is a lot of lying and spying and skulduggery in this book. Most of it is believable. There is talk of winning the hearts and minds of the populace, lots of smoking of Salems, a mention of Andre Maurois’ The Silence of Colonel Bramble (a first for me as a reader), talk of the privilege of being there for “the birth of a democracy,” and a mention of Terry and the Pirates. One smart guy observes that Vietnam is “nothing but one big goddamn whorehouse.”

There also is some silly stuff, such as the assertion that it is the nature of Oriental women to eavesdrop and that golden breasts can quiver with fear. Mostly, though, the book is well-written, well-plotted, and moves right along.

We known that the Tet Offensive is coming, but when it arrives we are not disappointed. Not for the first time I mentally patted myself on the back for leaving Vietnam just ahead of the Tet Offensive. I am content to read about it, and this book is one of the best in showing how Tet tore Saigon apart.

For more info, go to the book’s website.

—David Willson

Going to See the Elephant by H.R. McCoy

H.R. McCoy served in Vietnam with the 3rd of the 39th Infantry in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. “I needed to tell our story, the story of the combat soldier in Viet Nam, the man that did his best in a war not of his making, nor of his liking,”  McCoy writes in Going to See the Elephant (CreateSpace, 388 pp., $16, paper).

In the novel’s “forward” we are told that “the veterans of the Viet Nam War have not forgotten that they were forced to fight a war that could not be won the way it was fought.” McCoy goes on to describe American soldiers in Vietnam as “a stalwart band of young men, determined to do our best to root out Communism.”

The story in this adventure novel begins in Key West, Florida, in May 2015, so the entire novel is futuristic. There are sizable and frequent scenes in which Bill, the main character, drifts off and gives the reader a couple of pages of recon war experiences. Those are well-written, believable, and engrossing.

McCoy rants about the poor leadership during the war—rants I tend to sympathize with. Such as the fact that the war was “run by a bunch of old men using outdated tactics and no understanding of the enemy.”

He also complains that the news media told lies to the American people about the Tet Offensive, making the public believe that Tet was a defeat for Americans, when it was an overwhelming victory. The comments about how the U. S. government sprayed us with defoliants and then denied any connection between the spraying and the cancers Vietnam veterans developed later hit home with me.

U.S. troops during the 1968 Tet Offensive

“Repeat after me, young man,” McCoy writes, “‘The Army does not give a flying shit about you.’  You represent mere cannon fodder to them.” Hard to argue with that.

Bill becomes involved in a plan to go back to Vietnam and win the war, using what he learned forty years ago to do things right this time. He says American troops were forced to fight a worthless war, but they will form a group of old infantrymen who “shared the dream of making Viet Nam free.”

They put together a fighting force of 9,600 men in thirty-two camps in Vietnam. The way it is done causes me to label this book the most preposterous of all the Vietnam War-related novels I’ve ever read. The war veterans drift into Vietnam as members of tour groups, or as individual tourists. They arm themselves by buying weapons on the economy to start, and later by taking them from the Vietnamese military.

Today’s Vietnamese communist army is no match for these men in their sixties. This small army captures five choppers, fourteen deuce-and-a-half trucks loaded with weapons, and six jeeps with machine guns. They begin to wreak havoc on the Vietnamese army, aided by some of the local population who are sick of communism.

At one point, Bill asks the reader, “Would we be judged misfits, crackpots, and just another group of crazy Viet Nam vets?”  I won’t give away the answer to that question.

If you’ve hungered to go back to Vietnam to fight again, unencumbered by the leadership of William Westmoreland, perhaps this wish-fulfillment book is for you.

—David Willson

 

A Monument to Deceit by C. Michael Hiam

C. Michael Hiam’s A Monument to Deceit: Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars, first published in 2006 under the title Who the Hell Are We Fighting? The Story of Sam Adams and the Vietnam Intelligence Wars, has been recently republished in paperback (ForeEdge, 352 pp., $24.95).

Hiam’s subject is what happened after Vietnam War CIA analyst Sam Adams discovered in 1968 that the U.S. was facing a Viet Cong army that was significantly larger than what other intelligence analysts believed—mainly because, Adams contended, Commanding General William Westmoreland pressured the top U.S. military leaders to overstate enemy casualty figures to make it appear that progress was being made in the war.

Kept quiet at the time, the issue burst into the national consciousness in 1982 when CBS TV aired the documentary “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” in which Adams told his story. Adams and CBS accused Westmoreland of leading a conspiracy to misrepresent enemy troop strength. In 1984 Westmoreland filed a $120-million libel lawsuit against CBS. At the very last moment, just as the trial was about to go to jury, Westmoreland dropped the suit, and CBS issued a statement standing by its claims, but saying it never meant to say that the general was unpatriotic.

In his book, Hiam tells Adams’ compelling life story, complete with blow-by-blow accounts of his muckraking at the CIA, and fascinating details of the CBS-Westmoreland trial, which some people called “the libel trial of the century.” Adams died in 1988.

Sam Adams in 1984

Hiam makes a case Adams was correct—and General Westmoreland was guilty as charged. The death and destruction that resulted from the 1968 Tet Offensive (including the deaths of 3,895 American military personnel), as well as the American public’s turn against the war after it was over, Hiam says, became “the legacy of Westmoreland’s intelligence operation at MACV.”

Hiam characterizes that as “a legacy of providing estimates that were born of political expediency, and a legacy that, as Sam Adams would try to tell his fellow Americans over the next two decades, fatally undercut all of the sacrifices that they had made in Vietnam.”

—Marc Leepson