Storms Over the Mekong by William P. Head

William P. Head’s fascination with the Vietnam War stemmed from the number 176 he drew in the 1969 Selective Service lottery, which put him on the verge of being drafted into the U.S. Army. Many of his friends did serve, and some never came home, he says. Head had entered college in 1967, eventually earned a doctorate degree, and became a United States Air Force historian—as a civilian—and Chief of the Office of History at Robins AFB, Georgia. Over the past thirty-plus years, concentrating mainly on the Vietnam War, he has written and edited many books and articles about warfare.

Head’s latest book, Storms Over the Mekong: Major Battles of the Vietnam War (Texas A&M University, 480 pp. $40.00, hardcover; $24.99, Kindle), approaches the war by presenting and analyzing “the most significant and game-changing combat events” as he sees them. Head chose the events he says, based on the consensus of “the opinions of reputable participants, scholars, and analysts.”

The book begins in 1963 with the Viet Cong defeating the South Vietnamese Army at Ap Bac. It ends with the North Vietnamese Army capturing Saigon in 1975. The battles fit into two categories: “War on the Ground” and “War in the Air.” Head presents them chronologically, thereby pretty much telling the story of the entire war. He looks at ground encounters at Ia Drang Valley, Khe Sanh, Saigon and Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive, Hamburger Hill, the 1972 Easter Offensive, and Xuan Loc. Interspersed air battles describe Rolling Thunder, Arc Light, Commando Hunt, and Linebackers I and II.

Some of the accounts previously appeared in other places, Head says, but he has revised them with “current data and historical information.” His studies of Rolling Thunder and the Easter Offensive are new work.

The book repeatedly claims that, despite America’s extravagant investment of manpower and money at the start of its military commitment, national unwillingness to fight a protracted war against a determined enemy was the fundamental reason for the conflict’s outcome.

Head recreates the self-defeating hesitancy of President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to apply air power over North Vietnam during Rolling Thunder in 1965-68. Head describes the operation as “Too Much Rolling and Not Enough Thunder.”

Johnson’s fear of greater Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war dictated his reticence throughout this time, Head says. Paralleling that feeling was Johnson’s contemptuous disregard for his generals’ opinions, which contradicted the respect shown to them in past wars. At the same time, Head faults the generals’ acceptance of unimaginative and ineffective strategies.      

The voices of political and military leaders from the U.S., South Vietnam, and North Vietnam are heard throughout the book. Background on North Vietnam’s planning and execution of Tet are particularly enlightening.

Head typically analyzes battles from high levels of command. Even the 1969 Battle of Hamburger Hill, in which American infantrymen paid an enormous toll, is overwhelmingly viewed from the battalion commanders’ level. In recalling the “senseless nature” of eleven attacks in ten days, Head quotes just two sentences from grunts.   

When editorializing, Head stays within reason, and his conclusions are to the point. For example, in the chapter about Hamburger Hill, he calmly names and indicts certain commanders for starting—but mostly for continuing—a battle in which significant casualties resulted and nothing was gained. He concludes that the defeat at Ap Bac was “a wake up call that the United States would have to take over the fight, the path American leaders chose twenty months later.” He summarizes the frustration bred by presidentially decreed air strategy as “what you get when airmen do not fully control air assets and run an air war.” 

His assessment of the battle of Ia Drang Valley concisely consolidates the opinions of American and North Vietnamese thinkers. McNamara’s perceptive interpretation of the battle’s outcome is a high point of the book.

Bill Head’s overall conclusion about the war chastises America for not learning the primary lesson from its involvement and thereby committing itself to duplicating similar protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He judges this as a betrayal of all those killed in the Vietnam War.

Storms Over the Mekong provides a package of facts supported by voluminous footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Well-placed maps and photographs enhance the discussions. The book should serve as a handy reference for old timers, as well as a textbook for students and others newly interested in the Vietnam War.

—Henry Zeybel

Night Hunters by William P. Head

William P. Head’s Night Hunters: The AC-130s and Their Role in U.S. Air Power (Texas A&M University Press, 440 pp., $60, hardcover; $23, paper)  is an excellent read for those unfamiliar with the history of Air Force gunships.

The book explains the evolutions of the AC-47 and AC-119, along with the history of the AC-130. Head, who runs the 78th Air Base Wing Office of History at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, emphasizes the efforts of ASD, WRAMA, and contractors to make the AC-130 a long-lived rather than stopgap weapon system. Consequently, AC-130 aficionados and war lovers might view Night Hunters as half of a book because of its long sections devoted to politics and economics rather than concentrating on AC-130 combat operations.

The chapters titled “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and “Recent Events, Modifications, and Policy Decisions” are the heart of the story because they examine the complicated pros and cons about the AC-130’s roles. Head’s account of the battle for Fallujah contains a depth of detail that forces the reader to reconsider the validity of the AC-130 as a close-air-support weapon.

His storytelling brings to life AC-130 crewmen and troops on the ground and dramatically emphasizes their interdependence. These two chapters make the reader question the AC-130’s future and its effectiveness in the past.

The book’s first half presents a fixed-wing gunship history through the Vietnam War; its second half deals with AC-130 history from the 1975 Mayaguez incident to the present. Rather than using background information from his own voluminous gunship writing, Head  frequently cites Jack S. Ballard’s Development and Employment of Fixed-Wing Gunships, 1962-1972. Along with Ballard’s work, Head relies heavily on the 78th Air Base Wing History Archives, as well as records from the base’s Air Logistics Center and the Air Material Area.

By telling the stories of the 1972 Battle of An Loc and post-Vietnam War operations such as Urgent Fury in Granada, Just Cause in Panama, Desert Storm, and Provide Relief in Somalia, Head shows how the AC-130 went from from truck-busting to primarily close-air-support missions. His description of the Granada invasion provides enough U.S. misadventures to qualify as a scenario for a Gilbert and Sullivan opera—and he delivers it straight faced.

William P. Head

To better fulfill the promise of the book’s subtitle, greater elaboration of aircrew experiences might have provided a clearer understanding of AC-130 combat strengths and weaknesses. Other than speaking with two generals who had once piloted gunships, Head did not interview any other AC-130 crewmen. I view this omission as the book’s biggest weakness.

Interviews of crewmen might have helped to calculate more accurately the AC-130’s role in U.S. air power. I also find it disconcerting that when discussing minor combat operations, Head simply says the AC-130 performed its usual roles without adding details.

For example, he mentions AC-130 deployment to South America to fight drug dealers but gives no factual support. Similarly, he lists sophisticated equipment such as the AN/AAQ-17 IDS/FLIR—which he describes as “one of the most accurate high-tech devices ever conceived”—but fails to explain the operational advantage it provides.

As a former Spectre fire control officer and sensor operator, I believe crewmen deserve more credit than Head gives them for their influence on the development of AC-130 systems and tactics, particularly during the Vietnam War.

In more ways than one, the AC-130 mission was a fly-by-night endeavor from 1966-71. Combat missions doubled as training missions. New equipment that even tech reps did not know how to operate was tested and perfected under fire. Crewmen originated tactics through trial and error and passed them on by word of mouth.

It wasn’t until 1971 that a self-appointed, ad hoc trio of navigators at Ubon Air Base in Thailand wrote the first AC-130 tactics manual. The haphazard approach worked because during those early years mainly lieutenant colonels and majors who had spent most of their careers in C-130s piloted Spectre gunships. Their skillful flying accounted for the high—yet often questioned—truck count.

They deserve interviews because they set the standard.

—Henry Zeybel