Working under the belief that the outcome of the Vietnam War was visible from the start, I first read the last two chapters—“End Game, April 1975” and “Southeast Asian Finale”—of The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War (Osprey, 400 pp. $28.80, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver.
Cleaver is one helluva historian. He nails down facts by using a combination of first-hand accounts of Navy aviators and former North Vietnamese Air Force pilots, including from interviews he conducted, as well as historical research. In analyzing the 1975 end of the Vietnam War, he presents a picture that reveals touches of logic to the confusion that we have learned to accept as characterizing the chaotic ending of the war. His account of the capture of the USS Mayaguez in Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge masterfully conveys the counter productivity and death involved in that regrettable episode.
Tom Cleaver’s credentials are flawless. He is a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War. For 40 years he has published best-sellers with Osprey, the noted U.K. military history book publisher. Simultaneously, he has had a 30-year career writing and producing stories for movies and television.
The heart of The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is a dramatic recreation of the activities, triumphs, and failures of Naval aviators starting at the beginning of the air war, in August 1964. Without gloating, Cleaver shows how and why Navy tactics proved superior to those of the U.S. Air Force. Sad to say, in many ways the war was an educational process for both groups.
Navy aviators flew from U.S. Seventh Fleet Task Force 77 aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. Normally six carriers, each with 70 to 100 airplanes, provided strike forces that dueled with MiGs and SAMs over North Vietnam and supported ground troops in the South. A reader can open the book to just about any page and find accounts of exciting aerial feats or challenging problems related to strategy and tactics.
Cleaver’s book is a welcome addition to the world of Navy aviation and combat flying in general. It complements and updates Rene J. Francillon’s Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975, originally written in 1988 and expanded in 2018. Francillon highlighted the story of the USS Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any Vietnam War aircraft carrier. Cleaver presents a broader and deeper approach to Navy air operations. He clearly validates the idea that war is a bitch even for the side that has the best equipment in the world.
Because of its breadth and depth of information about specialized combat operations, I rank The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club as my favorite book of 2021.