Operation Starlite by Otto Lehrack

In Operation Starlite: The Beginnings of the Blood Debt in Vietnam, August 1965 (Casemate, 233 pp. $19.95, paper), first published in hardcover in 2004, former Marine Otto Lehrack offers a tightly developed and very well researched and engaging telling of the story of the first major combat action of the Vietnam War.

In late August 1965, three battalions of U.S. Marines engaged with the 1st Viet Cong Regiment outside the newly created Marine base camp of Chu Lai in I Corps. This action included the first amphibious Marine landing since 1950 during the Korea War, and began the heavy use of helicopters, both offensive and defensive, in the coming escalation of the Vietnam War.

While this was the first important and successful battle of the war, it is often overlooked. About three months later the First Cav moved into the Ia Drang Valley and ran into a massive North Vietnamese Army force. The ensuing battle has been immortalized in Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s We Were Soldiers Once and Young, and the movie based on it, as well as other books and magazine articles.

Lehrack’s extensive interviews with survivors from both sides of the battle provide him the context to fully flesh out the timeline and background of the engagement. His visits to the battlefields and camps after the war further expanded his ability to describe what took place. As he tells the story of the battle, Lehrack—who served two Vietnam War tours of duty—successfully integrates information about units, locations, battlefield developments, and the personal stories of the Marines involved, as well as the experiences of former Viet Cong .

During his conversations with the one-time VC fighters Lehrack learned about the lessons they learned from facing the American Marines’ method of engaging, attacking, fighting, and retrieving the wounded and fallen—as well as the employment of supporting arms and force multiplier weapons and tactics.

Otto Lehrack

In the introduction and epilogue, Lehrack speaks of the long history of aggression against the Vietnamese people. He notes the oft-disregarded idea that the Vietnamese simply sought their own sovereignty and relief from outside oppressors, including by the Americans

“It is one of the great tragedies of America, and of Vietnam War, that American policymakers were not more familiar with Vietnam’s history of dealing with foreign invaders,” Lehrack writes.

“America’s enemy, at least after 1965, consistently and successfully portrayed the war as the result of American Colonialism, and painted the South Vietnamese as American puppets.”

This is a good book, with a good battle history. Highly recommended.

–Tom Werzyn

Editor’s note: We briefly reviewed the book after it come out in hardcover in the March/April 2005 print edition of The VVA Veteran.

No Place to Hide by Bill Sly

On July 19, 1969, the North Vietnamese Army nearly destroyed Alpha 2/2 (Mech) of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division at Nui Ba Den mountain near Tay Ninh. American generals made bad decisions based on false assumptions resulting from faulty intelligence that led to the disaster.

Bill Sly discusses these events in great detail in No Place to Hide: A Company at Nui Ba Den (iUniverse, 182 pp. $13.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle). Sly served as the 2/2 historian after time in the field as an infantryman. He bases most of his reporting on interviews with survivors of the attack on the mountain.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rose to nearly a thousand meters and spanned a mile in width. The United States Army controlled the top and the perimeter around the mountain’s base, but the Eighty-Eighth NVA Regiment controlled everything in between. Plans called for 2/2 to scale the mountain, much in the manner of the taking of Hamburger Hill, while another American unit attacked from the top.

From there, planning disintegrated. Under temporary command of the 25th Infantry Division, the men of Alpha 2/2 were ordered to dismount from their vehicles and advance on foot, a decision that violated unit-level training. Furthermore, dismounting contradicted Vietnam War armored warfare tactics, which Sly explains. According to survivors, a 25th general said, “I want a body count,” and sent 2/2 up the mountain—without support from the unit on top.

The men walked into a trap. Finding themselves in open terrain and under highly concentrated fire from an enemy that held the high ground, the men of 2/2 made great sacrifices for each other as they split into smaller and smaller groups. They fought all day to extricate themselves from the area. The following day survivors with help from Charlie Company again went forward to recover bodies.

In the two-day encounter, Alpha had nine men killed in action and forty-four wounded. Charlie had two KIA and four WIA.

The Stars and Stripes portrayed the battle as a great American victory, which upset the participants. And then, Sly says, the battle appears to have been forgotten. (I searched internet but found no reference to it.) No Place to Hide is Sly’s contribution to setting the record straight.

The book also provides one more reminder of American Vietnam War folly for taking or securing terrain, regardless of the cost, only to eventually abandon it.

Sly writes from the heart. With a calm certitude, he validates the valor and fellowship of the men of Alpha 2/2. He neither editorializes nor pontificates in recreating two days of drama. Although he was on the scene in 1969, many of his endnotes refer to telephone conversations and letters dating from 1995. His research and the conclusions that he offers present valuable combat lessons.

—Henry Zeybel

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War by Istvan Toperczer

 

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Long ago, I picked the minds of a few USAF fighter jocks and used their expertise to write The First Ace, a novel about a man who sought that title in the Vietnam War. In the book—spoiler alert!—he didn’t succeed. But in real life, five American flyers did attain ace status. My biggest failure in writing the novel was overlooking pilots who flew for the North Vietnamese People’s Air Force who also had the goal of ace status in mind.

With MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War (Osprey, 96 pp; $23, paper; $9.99, Kindle), Dr. István Toperczer, a Hungarian Air Force flight surgeon in the Hungarian Air Force, describes part of the air war over North Vietnam that I never imagined. Toperczer has written four other books about VPAF operations, including Air War Over North Viet Nam: The Vietnamese People’s Air Force 1949-1977. During the past twenty years, he has traveled to Vietnam to research files and interview VPAF pilots. Relationships that began when Hungarian and VPAF pilots trained together in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s helped Toperczer to gain access to newly released North Vietnamese archive files.

The air war over the North took place from April 1965 to November 1968 when America ended Operation Rolling Thunder. It resumed in 1972-73 with Operation Linebacker. During the lull, MiG-17s flew intercept missions against American AQM-34 Firebee reconnaissance drones.

MiG-17/19 Aces of the Vietnam War highlights seven men who achieved ace status as MiG-17 pilots, one of whom also flew the MiG-21. The book devotes a lone chapter to the pilots of the supersonic, but short-lived, MiG-19 Farmer.

The story line follows air battles—often on a day-to-day basis—across North Vietnam as reported by VPAF pilots. Toperczer presents the high and low points of the air war without taking sides and provides interesting explanations of the MiGs’ ever-evolving tactics to outwit USAF and USN attackers.

For example, MiG pilots initially had to be taught that it was more important to hit bombers, rather than take part in dogfights with escort aircraft. Self-survival instinct taught MiG pilots to develop and refine maneuvers to dodge air-to-air missiles. Toperczer recreates the spring of 1967 when the Vietnamese lost ten of their best pilots in seven aerial battles and had few aircraft to fly during the summer after many had been damaged on the ground.

Toperczer cites additional disadvantages under which the enemy operated. To begin, North Vietnam started from scratch in 1956 when the first pilot candidates entered training in China and the Soviet Union. Candidates were small in stature with limited technical knowledge and skills. To finally take shape in 1959, VPAF principally relied on a Soviet gift of MiG-17s. During the war, American aircraft far outnumbered the enemy’s fleet.

On the ground, VPAF aircraft found their safest sanctuaries in mountain caves distant from airfields, to where Mi-6 “Hook” helicopters airlifted them. In battle, MiG pilots had limited autonomy and often broke off attacks at the command of ground controllers. The MiG-17 lacked air-to-air missiles, and its pilots depended entirely on cannon fire, preferring to dogfight at low altitudes in the horizontal plane because the aircraft’s major advantage was unequaled low-speed maneuverability.

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Dr. Estvan Toperczer

Aerial victories discussed by Toperczer are debatable. His summary of accomplishments of MiG-17 aces shows that many kills listed in VPAF records are contradicted by United States records that call them “loss attributed to anti-aircraft artillery.” Similarly, a high percentage of MiG-17 kill claims are “not confirmed by U.S. records.” Statements such as “U.S. records show no loss as a result of aerial combat on that day” conclude several accounts. In a reversal of misfortune, Toperczer points out that some USAF and USN kill claims are not substantiated by North Vietnamese records.

Along with ten pages of color plates of MiG-17/19 aircraft and several color maps, black and white photographs of crewmen and aircraft appear on almost every page. I would have appreciated, however, a page of data that summarized MiG-17 /19 specifications and performance.

Otherwise, Toperczer taught me that my novel lacked dimension by failing to spell out that North Vietnam’s pilots fought with the same degree of intensity and bravery as American Air Force and Navy jocks did.

—Henry Zeybel

Vietnam’s High Ground by J.P. Harris

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Clarifying the fine points of exactly how the United States became involved in the Vietnam War might keep historians busy forever. Of course, the Domino Theory offers an obvious answer—one nation falls to communism and that pushes over others. But that choice resembles a conclusion such as “Joe committed suicide after growing tired of living” without examining Joe’s broken marriages, job losses, PTSD, and Agent Orange symptoms.

In other words, examining underlying details reveals reasons for the war that are far more interesting.

In 2015, Charles R. Shrader published A War of Logistics: Parachutes and Porters in Indochina, 1945-1954 in which he described the First Indochina War—fought by the French in the Red River area of North Vietnam, then called Tonkin—as a “war in which logistics decided the outcome.” Research proved his conclusion in the sense that poor logistical support can (and, in this case, did) defeat an army. Schrader based his argument on what he found in declassified contemporary French official documents and U.S. intelligence material, as well as “reports and memoirs of French participants and Western observers,” plus a wide range of secondary studies.

In Vietnam’s High Ground: Armed Struggle for the Central Highlands, 1954-1965 (University Press of Kansas, 552 pp. $45, hardcover; $27.99, Kindle), J.P. Harris provides a fitting continuation to Shrader’s history. Harris—a senior lecturer in war studies at the Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in England—moves the action southward and makes large-scale use of Vietnamese communist sources and American archives. His research examines the evolution of military action in Vietnam’s Central Highlands from subversion, insurgency, and counterinsurgency through the major battles of 1965.

Despite the dates in its subtitle, Vietnam’s High Ground focuses on military action in the 1960s with the last half of the book devoted to 1965. Concluding his accounts of fighting that was costly to both sides in the Ia Drang Valley, Harris says, “It would have taken a reckless pundit to pick a winner at this stage.”

Harris’ book is formidable. Opening it to any page provides a wealth of facts and explanations on major and minor events of the time and area. All of it offers perspectives of actions from all participants. Excellent maps, photographs, and forty-five pages of notes perfectly complement the text.
Reading the book made me feel humble. Harris covers all that I was familiar with about the early fighting in the Highlands. Well beyond that, though, he delves into actions that were unknown to me. His depth of investigation presents a stand-alone education about that phase of warfare in Vietnam.

Vietnam’s High Ground adds valuable insight to The University Press of Kansas’s Modern War Studies Series.

—Henry Zeybel

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

Last Stand at Khe Sanh by Gregg Jones

Gregg Jones’s 2014 book, Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines’ Finest Hour in Vietnam, is now available in paperback (Da Capo, 358 pp., $16.99). Veteran journalist and author Jones, best known for his book on the Philippine War, Honor in the Dust, concentrates here on telling the personal stories of the American Marines in the trenches in the pivotal Vietnam War battle at Khe Sanh in 1968.

As we noted in our review in Books in Review column in the July/August print issue, “this informing book serves as a testament to the Khe Sanh Marines who, as Jones puts it, ‘heeded the call of their duly constituted leaders’ and ‘went to Vietnam with the best of intentions,’ earning ‘a place of honor in American history.’”

—Marc Leepson

Gray Horse Troop by Charles Baker

Gray Horse Troop: Forever Soldiers (Powder River Publications, 360 pp., $15.59, paper) pays tribute to the 5th Battalion, 7th Cavalry’s actions in the Vietnam War during the first six months of 1968. At that time, the book’s author, Charles Baker, served as the 5/7 Operations Officer. Before telling what took place during that time, Baker briefly backfills the 5/7’s history, including its Indian-fighting days.

Baker, a West Point graduate, transferred to the 5/7 as a new Major. However, having just served six months with 3/1 while a Captain, Baker had combat experience. A few days after he arrived, the 5/7 moved to Quang Tri in time for the start of the Tet Offensive.

In great detail, Baker chronicles the fighting of 5/7 north of Hue during Tet ’68. His day-by-day accounts spell out the wins and losses of his unit’s effort to regain control of villages captured by the North Vietnamese Army. Following that task, the 5/7 helped defeat the North Vietnamese controlling Hue.

Baker then employs the same meticulous approach in reporting his unit’s involvement in Operation Pegasus—the massive heliborne assault in support of Khe Sanh—and a far-more-costly assault into the A Shau Valley. Many maps, along with a few photographs, support his well-written and straight-to-the-point narrative.

Charles Baker – photo by Will Dickey, The Times–Union

Charlie Baker’s unfiltered command insight might open the eyes of former enlisted men who still wonder how decisions that affected them were made. Baker is a dedicated soldier’s soldier who constantly considered his men’s welfare. Occasionally, he leaps from past to present, and between Vietnam and Iraq, a trait that should present no problem for anyone who understood Inception or The Matrix.

Best of all, Baker logically finds fault where fault is due. And he generously praises those who did the right thing.

About halfway through the book, retired Col. Baker takes an eight-chapter detour to describe his 2005 trip to Iraq as a reporter/columnist embedded with the 5/7. At this point, his tone changes: He sounds like a crusty old man in search of answers that nobody can provide.

Of course, much of what he sees is discouraging enough to unhinge a saint. In the midst of it, he writes: “It was not easy finding similarities between Iraq and Vietnam.” The way I read it, one might argue that the similarities are there, but they are too depressing to confront. Baker’s frustration sometimes lapses into humor, intentional or not.

At the end of the book, Baker solidifies 5/7’s place in history by including citations for three Medals of Honor and five Distinguished Services Crosses awarded to its members during the first half of 1968. He also lists 325 names of the unit’s Purple Heart recipients for that period.

Most significantly, ahead of all others, he honors the 5/7 soldiers killed in action: 101 from October 1967 to June 1968, and 17 from 2005 to 2013.

—Henry Zeybel