Tag Archives: Vietnam

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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Book Review: Assault From the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam

Assault from the Sky by Dick Camp

Assault From the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam by Dick Camp is a comprehensive history of Marine Corps’ helicopter operations in Vietnam from 1962 through 1975. Camp, Colonel Camp USMC retired, is the author of several books on the combat history of the US Marines. His books cover World War I to Fallujah. Camp served as a company commander at Khe Sanh and retired in 1988. He is currently the Vice President for Museum Operations at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

During the thirteen years of the Marine Corps’ involvement in Vietnam, over four hundred helicopters were lost along with eight hundred Marines either as crew or passengers. Each chapter of the book contains the citations of medals earned by Marines in helicopter missions. Descriptions of heroism fill the book. Numerous Silver Stars, Bronze Stars, Naval Commendation Medals, and even a few Medals of Honor.

In the first section of the book, Buildup 1962-1966, Marines begin their involvement in Vietnam. Marines started transporting South Vietnamese troops in 1962 in UH-34 helicopters. Helicopters that the army considered out of date and no longer used. The Marines used these helicopters with distinction. Marines, although not in direct combat, still needed to defend their air bases from Vietnamese sappers — Company sized units armed with explosives and grenades lead organized attacks against the bases and helicopters.

In the second section, Heavy Combat 1967-1969, Marines are involved in combat, transporting troops, and picking up wounded. Marines again demonstrate the highest traditions of the Corps. Flying into danger to rescue wounded and trapped Marines became common practice for the Marine helicopter crews. Actions at Khe Sanh are covered in detail.

In the final section of the book, The Bitter End 1975, Marines are involved in the evacuation of Americans from Vietnam. In the previous section I ran across the name Lt. Colonel Richard E. Carey as he described the Super Gaggle and what made it a success. In this section Colonel Carey is referred to as Brigadier General Carey and plays an important role in the evacuation of Vietnam.

I met General Carey a year ago. He happened to stop at the bicycle shop where I work. Carey was my commanding general when I was at Quantico. We talked for a bit about Quantico and the Marine Corps Marathon and it was quite a bit different talking to the general now then it was 30 years ago when I had been a private fresh out of Parris Island standing in a CG inspection. He had an outstanding career and it is even more remarkable the role he played in the evacuation of Vietnam.

Assault From the Sky is an excellent history of the Marine Corps’ helicopter missions in Vietnam. The book is very well cited in the text and in the bibliography. Information comes from published sources, units records, and personal interviews. Camp does an excellent job of presenting the strategic history as well as the views of the Marines who were actually there. This is an outstanding book for readers interested in Vietnam, military aviation, or the Marine Corps.

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Book Review: The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam

Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam

Fredrik Logevall’s The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam takes Vietnam’s struggle for independence to its very beginning and carries it through the beginning of America’s “real” involvement in the war. It is clearly written and written in great detail. Logevall backs up his book with eighty-three pages of bibliography, roughly one page for every ten written.

At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, a young Vietnamese man in a rented morning coat comes to meet Woodrow Wilson and give him a letter. The letter is due almost entirely with Wilson, his Fourteen Points and his criticism of colonial empires. Ho Chi Minh was that man and hoped Wilson would help his country gain independence. Ho Chi Minh would leave disappointed never meeting Wilson or receiving a reply to his letter.

Jump to the end of World War II, China is the occupying country supervising the removal of the Japanese and keeping the peace. With the Japanese gone, Ho Chi Minh believes Vietnam is liberated and works to form a government. He gives speeches and quotes the Declaration of Independence. FDR as president did not support empires. He remained quiet about it to Churchill, but openly voiced how France could not support an empire. In other words France as a power was finished. However, it was Truman who was president after the war and Ho Chi Minh’s independent Vietnam was ignored by France and England. Marshall Plan dollars allowed France to start sending troops back to Vietnam. Truman even allowed French troops to be transferred on American ships.

Ho Chi Minh called for free elections and land reform; he won the elections, but it matters little. The Chinese broker a peace that requires France to recognize the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnam to allow 25,000 French troops for a five year period. The French troops were replacing the Chinese troops. Ho Chi Minh travels to France looking for support. He is seen as a simple and genuine man although he admits to being a communist he says Vietnam is not ready for communism, just independence. He gains little support in France even from the socialists.

America is not too concerned about Vietnam. It is still seen as a defeated France trying to desperately to cling to its past. Truman is more concerned with Korea and the political fallout from the war. When Eisenhower is elected France asks for support and Eisenhower demands that there be a plan before any aid is given. This is also where things begin to change. Vietnam is not about France wanting to keep its empire, its about communism. The early development of the Domino Theory begins. If Vietnam falls, Thailand then India falls to communism. Suddenly America’s opinion change. Communism changes the entire viewpoint.

Although the book primarily is about France’s handling of Vietnam, it does show the very gradual but growing U.S. involvement in the war. From denying France its empire, to aid, to Americans directly assisting the French, to support for Diem, to fighting the war. The book also shows the frustration of Ho Chi Minh. For fifty-five years from believing in Wilson, to the Declaration of Independence speeches, to having independence taken away, to wanting fair and free elections, to having his communism doubted by the USSR and China (but not the US), Ho Chi Minh never lived to see his county free. France left defeated in Vietnam only to fight another war with its colonial holding Algeria.

Embers of War is an excellent history of the Vietnam conflict before the American commitment. It is a conflict that never should have happened and had so many opportunities to be resolved without violence. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in foreign affairs or history.

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Book Review: Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam

I never thought I would be a little embarrassed to have been a Marine. Kill Anything That Moves, by Nick Turse is a very disturbing account of American actions in Vietnam.

Mai Lai Massacre is just the tip of the iceberg of American atrocities in Vietnam. This book goes beyond the most famous massacre and beyond napalm and beyond Agent Orange. Day to day murders of civilians for the “body count”, killing everyone in the village including women and children along with all the animals, were not just isolated incidents. It happened too many times to be isolated incidents of a few bad leaders. Misinterpretation of the rules went deep. Search and Destroy was not meant to be destroy everything yo find. Free Fire Zones were not meant to be shoot anything that moves, yet many in leadership roles believed this to be true. If your body count is low…shoot some prisoners to bring it up. Murder and rape were dismissed under the unofficial “Merely Gook Rule”

It is sad that people look back to World War II and ask how backward was man’s thinking then to let those atrocities happen back then. United States being a liberator and “the good guy” fighting evil, only twenty years later to turn it around and become the “bad guy.” It wasn’t just the soldiers and Marines in the field committing massive war crimes. It was American leadership doing it too. America came to war with weapons that were primarily intended to severely would the enemy; cluster bombs, flechettes, napalm. The idea was it was more demoralizing to the enemy to see it’s soldiers painfully wounded, burned, disfigured, or crippled than simply just dead.

My first thoughts, being a Marine and of course learning the long and proud tradition of the marine Corps was to consider Turse’s book hyperbole or plain sensationalism. I imagine this would be close to how the Soviets would have written about America’s imperialistic war in Vietnam. Of course, there were a few mistakes most of us have heard of from Born on the Fourth of July to any number of “based on a true story” Vietnam movies. A few not hundreds of “mistakes.” Turse backs up his writing with almost one hundred pages of documentation. Almost a third of his book (not counting index) is documentation. He makes a compelling and well documented case. A very worthwhile, but disturbing read.

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