The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

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.

—Henry Zeybel

Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club by Rene J. Francillon

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In 1988, Rene J. Francillon’s fascination with Navy aviation led him to publish a comprehensive account of U.S. aircraft carrier operations in the Vietnam War. Now a 30th anniversary edition of that book—Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations Off Vietnam 1964-1975 (Eirl Aerosphere Research, 256 pp. $69.99: $5.99, e book)—presents an expanded version of his original work.

Francillon began writing about air power in 1958. His experience in the aerospace industry served him well in the fifty-eight books he wrote, the twenty he edited, and more than four hundred-plus articles he penned about current and historical military and civilian aircraft. His writing won awards worldwide.

The new version of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club is fifty pages thicker with scores of photographs of aircraft and their carriers. The original book contained merely black-and-white photographs, all of which are included in the new edition. Every image has a caption that complements information in the text.

Best of all, Francillon includes data about virtually every aspect of aircraft carrier combat operations. For example, he lists every war cruise for each of seventeen attack carries, including squadrons and aircraft involved, victories and losses by names of fliers, and periods on line. He does the same for four antisubmarine carriers. Suffice it to say that the information that Francillion consolidated from a wealth of Navy sources comprises a statistician’s dream.

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Rene Francillon

Naturally, Francillon provides a history of American strategy and tactics employed during the years under discussion. Furthermore, he highlights the life story of the U.S.S. Coral Sea because of its 875 days on line, the most of any aircraft carrier deployed in the Vietnam War.

Rene Francillon—who was born in Italy in 1937, raised in France, educated in Switzerland, and lived most of his life in the United States—died shortly before publication of this anniversary edition of Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club.

His wife Carol completed the project. For e-book ordering info, go to bookshout.com/publishers/eirl-aerosphere-research

—Henry Zeybel