Book Review: Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds

Fire Base Illingworth by Philip Keith

Fire Base Illingworth: An Epic True Story of Remarkable Courage Against Staggering Odds by Philip Keith is the story of the men who defended Fire Base Illington on April 1, 1970. Keith earned a degree in history from Harvard and worked on a master’s at the Naval War College. He joined the navy and became an aviator serving three tours in Vietnam. Keith remained in the navy reserves and attained the rank of captain. He has written eight other books including Blackhorse Riders, his first Vietnam book.

Vietnam was a war where nothing seemed to work for America. A superpower picking up where France had failed waged a new war against communism. What America did not understand, Vietnam really didn’t care about waging a philosophical war. It wanted its independence and that provided a strong will to fight. Western nations had a difficult time giving up the idea of empire, and communist nations saw a place to expand their influence. Vietnam was caught between these forces.

The strategy of fire bases was to bring the war to the North Vietnamese. They were meant to disrupt supply lines and engage the the enemy on America’s terms. Fire bases were set up to attract the enemy attention and bring force to force confrontation. From my time as a Marine, I understood fire bases to be well fortified bases on easy to defend terrain such as hilltops. The army’s 1st Cav Division decided to modify this plan. They planned to make fire bases very temporary bases and to keep moving them in effort to frustrate the Vietnamese. Fast moving fire bases where not nearly as fortified as their predecessors which presented a definite security challenge.

Fire Base Illingworth experienced these security concerns as well as a self inflicted security concern in the form of forty tons of 8” artillery shells. Although the fire base had 8” artillery, forty tons was more than a bit excessive and made an attractive target for the North Vietnamese. The fire base succeeded in its mission to attract the Vietnamese and bring head to head confrontation. The confrontation happened just hours past midnight on April 1, 1970. The soldiers of a lightly fortified Fire Base Illingworth met a well armed and experienced North Vietnamese force.

Keith gives nearly a minute by minute account of the battle. He uses the experiences of the soldiers who fought the battle to tell the story of how fighting and some luck, both good and bad, played a role in the outcome of the battle. Artillery, infantry and cavalry soldiers tell their story and Keith uses the accounts of the North Vietnamese Colonel Lai to help explain what both sides experienced. The battle account moves quickly and highlights the heroism of the American defenders.

There is an introduction to the battle that includes a biography of Illgworth and strategy and equipment being used in the war. The epilogue gives a biography of individual soldiers involved in the battle and the fire base including Colonel Lai. Biographies are also given for those who did not live through the morning. Keith writes and outstanding history that brings to the reader the heroism, frustration, futility, and perhaps even the madness of the entire war. An excellent read.

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