Assault from the Sky: U.S. Marine Corps Helicopter Operations in Vietnam
Dick Camp. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2013. 264 pp. Illus. $32.95.
Reviewed by Colonel Glen Butler
As the name suggests, Assault from the Sky details Marine Corps helicopter operations in the Vietnam War; however, it is not a comprehensive summary of all such activities. The book is divided into three main parts: “The Buildup (1962–1966),” “Heavy Combat (1967–1969),” and “The Bitter End (1975).” The narrative nicely mixes detailed historical accounts with personal perspectives, stemming from Camp’s multiyear research efforts that blended other works of nonfiction, unpublished resources, government publications, and personal interviews. More important, it is told by someone who was there and knows military history—Camp is a Vietnam veteran and former company commander, retired Marine colonel, Purple Heart recipient, and former deputy director of the U.S. Marine Corps History Division. Early in the book he even confesses that “the memory of holding a critically wounded Marine’s head in my hands, and praying for the life flight, is still an open wound.”
During Vietnam, as Camp reminds us in the book’s prologue, more than 400 Marine Corps helicopters were lost in combat, with some 800 passengers’ and aircrewmen’s lives lost. This book does not pretend to cover every detail or summarize Marine rotary-wing operations during the war, but, in Camp’s own words, provides some examples of the bravery, dedication, and sacrifices of Marine Corps aircrews in support of their infantry brethren.
“The Buildup” begins with a discussion of the Marines’ initial involvement in Vietnam, including “Archie’s Angels” of HMH-362 in Operation Shufly in April 1962. As the narrative progresses, the reader is presented with a variety of descriptive operational summaries that colorfully illustrate the intensity of the battles in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. Some of the details are superb. Highlights include the rescue of Army Special Forces troops from the Ashau Valley in March 1966; Khe San; the Lang Vei rescue attempt in 1968; helicopter development and the evolution of tactics (including the creation of the “Super Gaggle,” with close to 30 aircraft of various models closely coordinated together); battle perspectives from the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army; and details of the August 1967 rescue for which Stephen Pless of VMO-6 was awarded the Medal of Honor (and his fellow UH-1 aircrewmen the Navy Cross). Additionally, there are more than 120 photos, maps, schematics, and overlays, some of which were previously classified.
Camp’s work also includes interesting descriptions of enemy “sapper” attacks, which remain relevant to present day Marines who are familiar with similar enemy actions in recent conflicts, including an insurgent attack on Camp Gannon near the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2005, and the Taliban’s September 2012 raid of Camp Bastion in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
Assault concludes with a gripping telling of the evacuation efforts of 1975 in Operation Frequent Wind, the largest helicopter evacuation in history (50 Marine Corps and Air Force helicopters evacuated 1,373 Americans and 5,595 Vietnamese and third-country nationals). Camp also rightfully recognizes the valor of Air America aircrew, who—along with Vietnam Air Forces servicemen—rescued more than 1,000 additional refugees. The operation was punctuated by much confusion, controversy, danger, and heroism, all of which Camp relays well. He also includes some facts to dispel popular misconceptions, including the widely held but incorrect belief that the famous photo of a Huey rescuing people from a rooftop is a military aircraft on top of the U.S. Embassy. In fact, it is of an Air America chopper at the residence of the CIA’s assistant chief of station.
One thing some people might not appreciate as much as others was Camp’s frequent inclusion of the actual award citations earned by pilots and aircrew for their heroic efforts; more than 35 of these are included in the book. Some might tire of the repetitive and sometimes superfluous tone of such citations, but this reviewer likes the fact that Camp strives to draw attention and give credit to the Marines who earned those accolades by risking, and often giving, their lives.
Overall, Camp’s book is a fitting tribute to our Marines of the Vietnam generation. He does a superb job of highlighting some specific accounts of heroism, along with the day-in/day-out uncommon valor that was a common virtue, as in wars past and since. What helps make the book stand out from the scores of other Vietnam helicopter tomes is that most of those works are either “I was there” personal memoirs written by the pilots/aircrewmen themselves or academic works by civilian military historians. The fact that this was written by an infantryman is testament to the impenetrable bond shared between Marine aviators and those on the ground they support; it also highlights the utmost respect Marine aircrews have earned, and continue to earn, in combat.
The minor flaws (such as the repeated misspelling of hangar) are perhaps more a slight indictment of some editing errors and oversight on the publisher’s part than they are of Camp’s literary talents. I do wish he had incorporated material from the 1970–74 time frame, but, again, this is not meant to be an exhaustive helicopter war summary.
The inspirational and, at times, tragic events vividly described by Camp make this work an easy yet important read. Every Marine is indeed a rifleman first and foremost. Assault from the Sky is a timely and valuable reminder of this ethos.
British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1817–1863: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates
Rif Winfield. Yorkshire, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2104. 414 pp. Illus. Appendix. Biblio. $100.
Reviewed by Andrew Lambert
This is the fourth and final installment of a unique reference work, covering the design, construction, career, and fate of every warship that served in the English, later British, Royal Navy between 1603, with the coronation of James I, and 1863, when the British ceased building wooden warships. This volume stretches into the first generation of ironclads, including several converted from incomplete wooden battleships. Winfield begins with a brief chronology of the period to emphasize the sheer variety of actions in which the Royal Navy was involved and the ships that took part in key campaigns and battles.
The main text proceeds through each sailing warship type, from first-rate battleships to miscellaneous sailing types, including those converted to steam, before moving on to paddle warships, steam sloops, screw gunvessels and gunboats, miscellaneous screw vessels, and the early ironclads. The vessels are broken down by rates and described in sequence, starting with older ships still in service in 1817; as new ships are completed they are described class by class. A useful index makes it easy to find specific ships.
Although a long sequence of detailed entries might appear to be a rather unrewarding read, nothing could be further from the truth. The strategy and policy of any navy can be read from ship design and procurement. After the end of the Napoleonic conflict and the War of 1812, the British rebuilt their battle fleet with larger and more powerful units and their frigate force with a mix of large and medium types to engage hostile super frigates and provide enough hulls for commerce protection. This process was largely complete by 1830, by which time early steam warships were in service.
The 1830s witnessed the triumph of a new design philosophy, which emphasized high speed under sail in anticipation of pursuit battle against a flying enemy. The ultimate example of this design philosophy, the 90-gun two-decker HMS Albion, astonished foreign visitors, due to both her extraordinary size and her immense spread of canvas. However, these ships were controversial, and something of a reaction had set in by the mid-1840s. At the same time the large paddle-wheel warship had reached a deadend, and both types, often used in tactical combination, were replaced by a new wooden-hulled screw steam-propelled fleet of capital ships and cruisers, built in haste in an arms race with imperial France.
The Crimean War of 1854–56 saw Britain and France attack Russia in the Black Sea, the Baltic, the White Sea, and the Pacific. As Russia made no attempt to contest command of the sea, wartime developments focused on littoral combat missions, led by new screw steam gunboats—which were mass produced—numerous mortar vessels, and the first ironclad warships, armored assault batteries. This enhanced naval power-projection capability, aimed at St. Petersburg, helped persuade the Russians to accept defeat and was paraded on St. George’s Day 1856 to mark the British victory. It formed the basis of British deterrence for many decades. The first use of an armored warship in October 1855 prompted the development of ironclad battleships in France and Britain and sparked another arms race, resulting in another British victory.
Closer reading of the text offers an endless supply of insights; for example, many ships from the 1820s were never outfitted for sea. HMS Unicorn survives, as completed, housed over to wait in reserve! The complex design histories of some transitional ships is exemplified by the battleship Royal Sovereign, ordered to one design, reordered to another, then modified while under construction, lengthened and fitted with a steam engine, and finally cut down into a pioneer armored-turret warship. At the other end of the scale the lists of minor craft exemplify Winfield’s attention to detail, making a major addition to our knowledge of mortar floats, gunboats, and service vessels. Once a ship is completed Winfield provides a running record of active and reserve carers, commanding officers, actions, and ultimate fate.
The book is based on the official records of the British Admiralty, located at the National Archives and the National Maritime Museum, the latter holding the astonishing collection of ship plans and drawings. Winfield pays tribute to the pioneering work of the late David Lyon, whose original publication and extensive records laid the foundations for the project. Published on a suitable scale, in a superb edition, backed up by many examples from the National Maritime Museum’s rich collection of contemporary images, this is a treasure for anyone with an interest in the subject. Taken as a whole, the four volumes constitute a landmark publication, one that will be consulted for decades to come.
Operation Storm: Japan’s Top Secret Submarines and Its Plan to Change the Course of World War II
John J. Geoghegan. New York: Crown, 2013. 493 pages. Illus. Index. $28.
Reviewed by Norman Polmar
John Geoghegan has provided a comprehensive and detailed description of the largest and, in many respects, the most unusual submarines of Word War II: the Japanese I-400 class. The massive undersea craft were designed and constructed specifically to attack West Coast cities. Each of the giants—3,530 tons surface displacement and 400 feet, 3 inches long—could carry three attack floatplanes.
The author tells their story from conception through construction, the periodic changes in their mission as the tide of war changed in the Pacific, the preparations for their first attack mission (against a U.S. base in the Pacific), and their final disposition. Admiral Isoroku Yamato, the commander-in-chief of the Combined Fleet at the start of World War II, was personally involved in the key decisions for the I-400 program until his death in April 1943. He envisioned a force of 18 submarines of this design, each with three attack floatplanes.
The story is well told, with significant background on Japanese and several other nations’ efforts to operate aircraft from submarines, including the brief U.S. Navy program in the 1920s to hangar an aircraft on an S-class submarine. Beginning with the submarine I-5 in 1932, the Japanese navy began fitting some submarines with hangars to accommodate aircraft. They were found to be effective in the fleet-reconnaissance role. In time though, the concept of employing those submarine-carried aircraft was shifted to the attack role as well as reconnaissance. The I-400 design was the ultimate development of the aircraft-carrying submarine concept, although in the post–World War II era there were several far more ambitious proposals.
The discussions of the men who designed and built the I-400s, as well as their crews, are particularly interesting. Perhaps the most notable is Captain Tatsunosuke Ariizuni—nicknamed “the butcher” for his murder of merchant- ship survivors—who had a role in the development of the I-400 program and later was the submarine division commander. (He committed suicide on board the I-401 as the submarine was about to surrender at the end of the war.)
While the I-400 submarines never launched an aerial attack, it is interesting to note, which the author does, that the only bombs to fall on the continental United States during World War II were dropped by a floatplane from the Japanese submarine I-25, operating off the coast of Oregon in September 1942. (Those incendiary bombs caused no damage or casualties.)
Ironically, Geoghegan’s book appears only seven years after I-400: Japan’s Secret Aircraft-Carrying Strike Submarine (Hikoki Publications, 2006) by Henry Sakaida, Gary Nila, and Koji Takaki. In the first six decades after World War II there had been extremely little written about the I-400s, an exception being Submarines of the Imperial Japanese Navy 1904–1945 (Naval Institute Press, 1986) by the author of this review and Dorr Carpenter. The Sakaida book was primarily a biography of the I-400, but, of course, had some discussion of the program, aircraft, and, especially the people—Japanese and the American sailors who brought her to Pearl Harbor. Although containing valuable material, it was in large part 144-page picture book.
Geoghegan’s Operation Storm makes a major contribution to submarine history. Some critics may cite the heavy reliance on published sources (as well as official documents). But the author has carefully and skillfully woven that material together, reflecting his long experience in writing about unusual technologies and inventions. This reviewer’s only significant criticisms are over some incorrect data for American submarines, a few landlubbers’ terms (submarines don’t “weigh”), and the (very frustrating) index that lists all U.S. naval ships under “USS” and all merchant ships under “SS.” That not withstanding, Operation Storm is a well-written and significant book that can be highly recommended.
Home Squadron: The U.S. Navy on the North Atlantic Station
James C. Rentfrow. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2014. 218 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $54.95.
Reviewed by John B. Hattendorf
Commander James Rentfrow’s study of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Squadron between 1874 and 1897 is a long-overdue treatment of U.S. Navy operations in home waters during a period that saw its transformation from a collection of independently operating warships into the tentative basis for a unified battle fleet. Much more attention has been paid to the construction, design, political, and industrial sides of the issues without a detailed examination of operational practice. Historians have looked at the general idea of overseas station deployments and specific overseas stations in terms of American foreign policy, but little has been done on this squadron. Written originally as a doctoral thesis at the University of Maryland, College Park, under the tutelage of Jon T. Sumida, Rentfrow’s study is an important contribution to American naval history of the late 19th century.
Focusing on the period between the Civil War and the Spanish-American War, Rentfrow appropriately begins his study with the North Atlantic Squadron’s ineffective attempt to mobilize at Key West for fleet and amphibious action against Spain at the time of the Virginius affair of 1872–73 during the Cuban revolution, a failure that was the subject of much professional discussion in the following years.
Along with this, Rentfrow discusses the significance of the oft-forgotten work of Commodore Foxhall Parker, the leading American tactical thinker of the 1870s. As an instructive example, Rentfrow examines the frustration of the renowned Commander William B. Cushing—who had earned fame for his daring individual exploit during the Civil War in which he sank the CSS Albemarle with a spar torpedo—trying to keep station in a tactical line with a steam sloop-of-war.
Moving to the middle years of the 1880s, Rentfrow discusses the successive commands of the squadron by Rear Admirals James Jouett, Stephen B. Luce, and George Cooper. Emphasising Luce’s vision to tie the thinking and tactical discussions at the Naval War College to fleet exercises, Rentfrow underscores the frustrations that Luce faced in doing this, as well as his success in the 1887 joint Army-Navy exercise in Narragansett Bay.
Rentfrow then turns to the entrance of the new steel Navy’s ABCD ships into the Fleet in 1889–91 and their development into a squadron of evolution for experimenting with new tactics. Contrasting the leadership of Rear Admirals Bancroft Gherardi and John G. Walker, the author demonstrates how the requirement to disperse individual ships for immediate presence and traditional diplomatic roles regularly frustrated the long-term need for exercises to develop the squadron into a tactical fighting unit. Most interestingly, he points out the unforeseen difficulties in compiling maneuvering data for each ship, as well as creating procedures for steaming at precise and steady speeds without a satisfactory method for effective tactical signalling.
Finally in 1895, under Rear Admiral Richard W. Meade, the North Atlantic Squadron was able to realize Luce’s vision of deploying a peacetime squadron operating as a tactical unit. Meade’s success was short-lived as his confrontational personality drew him away from successful tactical practice into ill-placed criticism of both Secretary of the Navy Hilary Herbert and President Grover Cleveland as Confederate sympathizers. Tactical progress was lost for poor judgement.
In an epilogue, Rentfrow outlines briefly the North Atlantic Squadron’s subsequent operations in the Battle of Santiago in 1898. That battle, he points out, was not the final outcome of the previous quarter-century, but rather an indicative waypoint in the long-term development of the U.S. battle fleet. In a final coda with implications for the future, Rentfrow points out that the experience of the Atlantic squadron between 1874 and 1897 “shows that the process of organizational change can be well underway in advance of new matériel and cautions against the resulting conflict between actual and desired missions and functions.”
The author has made a very valuable contribution in providing this broad summary, but the subject also deserves more detailed examination on a number of points. Among others, we need a deeper understanding of the development of signaling and on the organizational and tactical ideas that were being proposed or rejected. On reflection, it seems odd that the ideas of the Jeune École found in the wider professional literature of the day had such little impact. Further, the author’s desire to connect the activities of this squadron as a precursor to 20th-century battle-fleet tactics oddly led him to denigrate its contemporary assignments on presence and diplomatic missions. Immediate needs must, by necessity, take precedence over whatever professionals might predict will be different future needs. The squadron’s real achievement was to carry out its immediate missions, while beginning to prepare for the very different missions that the future would bring.