Admirals Under Fire: The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War
Edward J. Marolda. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2021. 496 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $49.95.
Reviewed by David F. Winkler
My former boss, Naval Historical Foundation chairman Admiral James L. Holloway III, once sent me to the U.S. Naval Institute to survey the Oral History Collection on him and his predecessor as the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO). The survey affirmed that Holloway’s legacy had become inextricably tied to how one viewed Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr. Zumwalt was regarded as either the tonic the Navy needed, with Holloway being somewhat reactionary, or as someone who turned the helm too hard to port with Holloway evening the keel. Using many of these oral histories as source material, ex-Navy Senior Historian Edward J. Marolda clearly supports the latter contention in Admirals Under Fire: The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War.
In his introduction, Marolda cites H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, the seminal study that identified Pentagon leaders as accomplices in the mishandled conduct of the Vietnam War by failing to give civilian leaders sound and balanced advice. Marolda’s objective is to test these assertions, focusing on the performance of five of the Navy’s top officers during this era.
Besides Zumwalt and Holloway, the other three senior flag officers evaluated in a treatise that starts with the U.S. response to the Laotian crisis and ends after the fall of Saigon are Admirals Harry D. Felt, U. S. G. “Oley” Sharp, and Thomas H. Moorer. Felt and Sharp served as Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, during the early U.S. involvement in the war and initial escalation. Moorer was Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, during the Tonkin Gulf crisis and fleeted up to CNO in 1967 as the ongoing Rolling Thunder air campaign managed from Washington was not producing the desired results. Moorer’s significance grew with his selection by President Richard Nixon as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Marolda’s treatments of Holloway and Zumwalt begin earlier on, starting with Holloway’s command of the USS Enterprise (CVN-65) at Yankee Station, followed by his time as Commander, Seventh Fleet, in 1972, and Zumwalt’s role as Commander, Naval Forces Vietnam, prior to his controversial deep selection to become CNO.
The narratives on Felt and Sharp, drawn from primary source documents, are fresh and worthy of incorporation into current Naval War College curriculum. In contrast, latter chapters covering Moorer, Zumwalt, and Holloway synthesize oral histories, memoirs, and secondary sources that shape the analyses. (No surprise—two of the Secretaries of Defense during this era, Robert McNamara and Melvin Laird, are not portrayed in favorable terms.)
Of the five, Zumwalt gets the harshest critique, not so much for his command of naval forces in Vietnam, but for his tenure as the youngest man to hold the CNO job. (For another perspective on Zumwalt see, “Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr.” by Dr. Thomas Hone in the December 2021 The International Journal of Naval History, www.ijnhonline.org.) Ironically, of the five, it is Zumwalt who has a ship named for him. Given Marolda’s praise for Holloway, it would seem that former CNO is most deserving of that honor. Marolda, who wrote admiringly of the influence Admiral Moorer had with President Nixon, likely doomed any USS Moorer commissioning by sharing the Alabama-bred officer’s views on minorities.
A desire to incorporate other aspects of the naval history of the era shifted focus away from applying the McMaster test to five flag officers in question. While it is true that Vietnam affected the Navy as an institution across the board, Marolda’s delving into tangential issues such as ship procurement, race and gender relations, nuclear propulsion, uniforms, and grooming standards was informative; however, better accounts can be found in many of the secondary sources he from which he drew, such as John Sherwood’s Black Sailors, White Navy: Racial Unrest in the Fleet during the Vietnam War and Admiral Holloway’s Aircraft Carriers at War.
That critique aside, a real value of this book, as pointed out by former Navy Secretary John Lehman in the introduction, is that the author explains who was who and who did what throughout the course of the war. By fleshing out the command structures, turf battles, and inevitable frictions that come with civilian-military relations, Ed Marolda has performed a herculean task that broadens the understanding of the Navy’s involvement in the Vietnam War and provides context to present leaders should the United States face future situations as it did in Afghanistan.
Dr. Winkler serves as the staff historian for the Naval Historical Foundation.
Eyes of the Fleet Over Vietnam: RF-8 Crusader Combat Photo Reconnaissance Missions
Kenneth V. Jack. Havertown, PA: Casemate Publishers, 2021. 230 pp. Photos. Appxs. Notes. $39.95.
Reviewed by Master Chief David A. Mattingly, U.S. Navy (Retired)
The use of aerial photography can be traced to the days before the Civil War, when observers took cumbersome plate cameras aloft in hot air balloons. As the Navy introduced the airplane to the fleet, Navy pilots began carrying simple cameras while flying. Both the equipment and the ability to use photographic intelligence would mature during World War II. The war ended with the Navy having a small number of skilled photo pilots, photographer mates, and photographic interpreters.
Kenneth V. Jack served as a photographer mate assigned to Navy Light Photographic Squadron 62 (VFP-62) and coauthored Blue Moon over Cuba, the story of VFP-62 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He has done extensive research to tell the story of the Navy and Marine Corps RF-8 Crusaders during the Vietnam War. He includes archived photography and firsthand accounts that bring to life the story of those who flew unarmed into harm’s way.
The book opens with the author’s explanation of the evolution of Navy photographic squadrons and their aircraft as they moved from propeller to jet aircraft and found themselves not only in a Cold War, but also in a new area of operation—Southeast Asia. One important aspect of the RF-8 squadrons was that instead of deploying as a full squadron, they usually would deploy with three RF-8s and four pilots along with 25–30 support personnel, including the photographic interpreters and photographer mates. To keep aircraft operational in the Southeast Asia area of operations, planes and pilots often were cross-decked to other aircraft carriers during deployment. The RF-8 was flown not only by the Navy, but also by the Marine Corps. Navy squadrons were known as Light Photographic Squadrons (VFPs) and the Marine Corps squadrons as Marine Composite Squadrons (VMCJs).
Before air operations began over North Vietnam, VFP-63 and VMCJ-1 began flying reconnaissance missions over Laos. The pilots had the opportunity to refine their flying skills gained during the Cuban Missile Crisis against a new enemy. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered the initiation of major aerial bombing of select targets in North Vietnam, known as Operation Rolling Thunder. Most of the missions flown by VFP-62 during Rolling Thunder were bomb-damage assessment (BDA), a two-plane formation flown after the bombing mission, which allowed the target planners to evaluate the effectiveness of the mission. Different from other missions in which pilots would dogfight over enemy territory, BDA reconnaissance missions required the pilot to maintain a constant altitude and flat flight path to ensure the photos would be usable by the photo interpreters. During one of these missions, VFP-63 would discover the first surface-to-air missile (SAM) site near Hanoi.
As both Navy and Marine Corps RF-8s were lost to combat operations, and the F-4 Phantom II was being introduced to the fleet, the Navy began converting F-8s from fighter aircraft by replacing their guns and missile rails with cameras and electronic-warfare equipment. One of the most notable aircraft to be converted was F8U-1P (Bu. No. 144608). On 16 July 1957, in Operation Project Bullet, the Marine Corps Major John Glenn set the cross-country speed record previously held by a U.S. Air Force plane. The plane also had flown as part of Operation Blue Moon during the missile crisis and eventually was transferred to VFP-63. On 13 December 1972, the plane was involved in a “recovery accident” while landing aboard the USS Oriskany (CV-34) in the South China Sea. The damaged plane went into the sea while Lieutenant Thomas B. Scott was recovered.
Jack devotes a chapter to the other reconnaissance aircraft that supported Navy and Marine Corps operations in Vietnam—the RA-3B Skywarrior, RF-4B Phantom II flown by VMCJ-1, and the RA-5C Vigilante. He compares the aircraft flight capabilities and explains why they were all important in providing the commanders and target planners with the best intelligence available.
Early in the book, Jack writes about an early RF-8 pilot, Captain Jerry Coffee, who flew some of the most important missions over Cuba but had transitioned to the RA-5C Vigilante. While flying off the USS Kitty Hawk (CVA-63) with Reconnaissance Attack (Heavy) Squadron 13 (RVAH-13), he was shot down and became a prisoner of war until he was released in 1973. During the Christmas bombing of 1972 while watching the U.S. Air Force bomb Hanoi, he composed the poem “One More Roll,” which ends, “take care, my friend, watch your six, and do just one more roll . . . just for me.” Captain Coffee retired and went on to a career in public speaking. He passed away on 13 November 2021.
As Jack explains, VFP-63 combat operations in Vietnam were vital to the success of the U.S. mission. While flying combat missions, the detachments lost 31 RF-8s, which accounted for 25 percent of all Crusaders lost. The squadron also lost eight pilots to combat and two to noncombat accidents. In addition, 21 nonfatal ejections resulted in 15 rescues and six prisoners of war. It is the only Navy or Marine Corps unit to be deployed in Vietnam from 1964 until the end of hostilities. The last RF-8 went to the boneyard in 1982, ending the Navy’s dedicated aerial reconnaissance squadrons.
Jack not only discusses RF-8 operations in Vietnam but also presents firsthand accounts of some of the most dangerous events of the Navy’s aircraft carriers operating in the Tonkin Gulf and the waters of Southeast Asia. He recounts the story of sailors who were on board the Oriskany and USS Forrestal (CV-59) when flight deck fires caused millions of dollars in damage and killed hundreds of sailors. Operations on board aircraft carriers often are considered among the most dangerous of jobs. Jack brings back the smell of jet exhaust and anticipation when the air boss orders the barricade to be rigged to “catch” a plane in trouble.
The book is well written and indexed. Jack uses photographs from Navy archives and those from squadron personnel to create the history of the aircraft and the men who flew and maintained them. I highly recommend Eyes of the Fleet to those whose interests lie in Navy operations during the Vietnam War, aerial reconnaissance, and photo intelligence.
ISCM Mattingly was trained as a Navy photographic intelligenceman before transitioning in 1975 to the new intelligence specialist rating. He is now retired after serving as a civilian senior intelligence officer and senior research analyst.