August 2021 Book Reviews

August 2021 Book Reviews

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Soldiers Journey to Rescue American POWs

book cover

Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp. Terry Buckler With Cliff Westbrook. Palmetto Publishing. 360 pages. $29.99

By Master Sgt. Charles Sasser, U.S. Army retired

Terry Buckler was a 20-year-old Missouri farm boy when he enlisted in the Army. He had just completed Special Forces training when, in August 1970, notices appeared at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, home of Special Forces, stating that Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons required volunteers for a top-secret, “moderately hazardous” mission.

Buckler was the youngest of 56 Green Beret soldiers ultimately selected to participate in one of the most daring missions in military history—the Son Tay raid into North Vietnam to rescue American prisoners of war. An SR-71 Blackbird reconnaissance aircraft had revealed a hidden POW camp near the town of Son Tay, located 23 miles west of Hanoi. As many as 70 American prisoners were believed held there, while some 22,000 North Vietnamese troops were within a few miles of the camp.

Who Will Go: Into the Son Tay POW Camp, authored by Buckler with Cliff Westbrook, is an earthy account of that raid, beginning with training and rehearsals through the mission itself. For security reasons, not one raider other than the top leadership knew the destination or purpose of the mission during training.

On Nov. 17, 1970, after extensive training at a remote airstrip on the sands of western Florida, the Son Tay volunteers were flown to Thailand where mission commander Simons disclosed the nature of the mission.

“We are going to rescue 70 American prisoners of war, maybe more, from a camp called Son Tay. … We want these men to know that they are not abandoned by their military family,” Simons said. “No man should feel that way.”

Simons concluded his briefing by stressing that each raider had a 50-50 chance of returning alive. Anyone who wished still had the opportunity to back out. None accepted the offer.

After a successful landing inside the POW camp and only 28 minutes on the ground, word came through radio handsets: “Negative items. … Begin extraction to choppers.”

The raid had both succeeded and failed. Prisoners had been transferred only days before to another camp near Hanoi while Son Tay was being cleaned up for peace talks. In all the chaos, only one Army raider was wounded and one chopper lost.

While the first half of the book details the rescue from Buckler’s point of view, the second half provides firsthand accounts of the entire operation from the viewpoints of other soldiers, airmen and sailors who participated. They provide a clear, thorough account of the raid from conception and training through the raid and its aftermath.

“I knew—as these men did,” Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird explained, “that there was a chance of disappointment—and even of failure. But the reasonable chance to return to freedom Americans held captive made this mission well worth the risk.”

Three years later, in 1973, all U.S. POWs in North Vietnam were to be returned as part of the truce that ended the Vietnam War.

In his foreword to the book, retired Special Forces Col. Roger Donlon poses a question for future generations of American warriors to ponder: Buckler’s story “leaves this reader with the question for future generations: when your time comes … who will go?”

Master Sgt. Charles Sasser, U.S. Army retired, served for 29 years in the military, including 13 years as an active-duty and U.S. Army Reserve member of Army Special Forces and four years as an active-duty Navy journalist. He deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm.

* * *

Culture Clash Defines History’s Battles

 book cover

The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat. Wayne Lee, Anthony Carlson, David Preston and David Silbey. Oxford University Press. 272 pages. $29.95

By Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, U.S. Army retired

The authors of The Other Face of Battle: America’s Forgotten Wars and the Experience of Combat state their purpose in the first paragraph: “The Other Face of Battle seeks to capture the personal experience of combat across a wide spectrum of American history, and particularly to highlight how that experience was (and is) affected by combat across cultural boundaries.”

Do not be put off by that bugaboo term “cultural.” It is a legitimate way to examine how different groups of humans organize and act, and in this context goes a long way toward exploring basic elements of comparative styles of war. As authors Wayne Lee, Anthony Carlson, David Preston and David Silbey explain, “Over its history, the country has fought enemies from many different cultures. …

[T]his not only made the wars different but also changed the experience of battle.”

To examine these experiences, they dig into three battles in particular, one from the French and Indian War, one from the Philippine-American War and one from modern Afghanistan.

The book follows from John Keegan’s 1976 seminal work, The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme, in which the British historian examined three battles across the centuries. But this similarity is also extended, deliberately, to the methodology these authors apply. Just as Keegan did, in each chapter they provide a history of the battle, then break down the combat into different aspects of the fight. For example, where Keegan wrote about “Infantry versus Infantry,” they update Keegan’s categories for the modern day: “ MICLICs Versus IEDs” and the like. (MICLICs are mine-clearing line charges.)

Each chapter concludes with an analysis, trying to draw out how it was that the respective cultures of the combatants led to how they fought and how those differences also had an effect on the outcome.

The Other Face of Battle is not trying to break new ground in a historiographic sense. This is not the product of years of digging in obscure archives though the authors, obvious experts, could have done so. But that would be beside their point. So, while most of their well-documented sources are secondary, it is in the authors’ thesis and analysis that this work earns its pay.

Lee, it seems, was the originator of the idea for this book and the one who brought it together. He teaches history at the University of North Carolina and has another recent book along a similar line. Indeed, all four authors bring an impressive set of academic and military credentials to the table, but what is more interesting is that they wrote this collaboratively, instead of presenting it as an anthology.

The problem is that The Other Face of Battle is too short. Yes, Keegan only wrote about three battles, but he was breaking completely new ground, alone. Yet with the text of this book ending at just 205 pages, I found myself wanting more. A lot more. Which can be a good thing or a bad thing. The book is short enough to be easily digestible, but there remains so much more to be explored now that the authors have broken trail on these issues.

The scholarship is solid. The conclusions and observations are well founded and considered, as one would expect from authors such as these. The book is professionally laid out with sufficient maps (not always a given) to give the reader an orientation, but not so many that one fails to see the forest for the trees.

Overall, this is an appropriate book for military or academic professionals. The authors stay out of the weeds enough to give the reader a good basis for evaluation of their own conclusions/observations, but it is not so light that an academic would find the specific accounts of the battles wanting. One should get this book, then hope there are more volumes to come.

Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, U.S. Army retired, served 25 years as an Army officer. He taught military history at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York; George Mason University, Virginia; and Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books and is writing one about the interwar period.

* * *

World War II Warriors Share Their Experiences

book cover

The Rifle: Combat Stories from America’s Last WWII Veterans, Told Through an M1 Garand. Andrew Biggio. Regnery History. 278 pages. $29.99

By Mike Guardia

It’s no secret that the members of “the greatest generation” were leaving us at a rate of nearly 1,000 deaths per day as of 2018. Indeed, the youngest members of the World War II generation are now in their 90s. Authors and military historians consider it a duty to preserve their legacy so their stories do not perish with them.

From the shores of Pearl Harbor to the decks of the USS Missouri, World War II drew 16 million Americans into service. They came from every walk of life: farmers from the Midwest, factory workers from the Rust Belt, cab drivers from Brooklyn and shopkeepers from Miami. Whatever their background, they put their lives on hold (and their lives on the line) to defeat the enemies of democracy. When they returned from war, many said nary a word of their heroic deeds.

Throughout their life-and-death struggles, one thing that connected servicemen was their standard-issue rifle: the ubiquitous M1 Garand.

It is against the backdrop of this iconic firearm that author and Marine Corps veteran Andrew Biggio tells the story of 19 combat veterans who served on the front lines in World War II. Each vignette in The Rifle: Combat Stories from America’s Last WWII Veterans, Told Through an M1 Garand chronicles the individual journey of a World War II soldier or Marine during his time in combat. Each veteran, upon completing his interview, signed his name on an M1 that Biggio owns. The same autographed rifle appears on the book’s cover.

Each veteran took a different path into the military. Some volunteered and some were drafted. One of the featured players in this rousing ensemble is Joe Drago who, for several years, lived next door to the author. “My whole life, I thought I knew Drago,” Biggio writes. “He was a grouch. … It wasn’t until I became a Marine that Drago ever really warmed up to me, and by warmed up I mean that he waved to me occasionally from his porch. Ever the consummate grouch. Now I know that it was more complex than that.” Indeed it was. For Drago had some war trophies that would forever alter Biggio’s perception of him.

Biggio also tells the story of Santo DiSalvo, an Italian American who fought in the Italian Campaign with the 36th Infantry Division of the Texas National Guard. “What was it like to be Italian fighting in Italy?” Biggio asked. DiSalvo beamed: “The Italian people were so grateful for us. Most of them had cousins and family living in the United States.” Still, the fighting was fierce. DiSalvo recalls his unit’s assault on the Axis-held town of San Pietro and the enormous casualties his unit suffered while trying to cross the nearby Rapido River.

Another fascinating chronicle comes from Levi Oakes, a Native American and member of the Mohawk tribe. Although the Navajo Code Talkers have since become the stuff of legend, there were, in fact, several other Native American tribes who used their indigenous languages as wartime codes, including the Comanche, Choctaw, Seminole and Mohawk. Oakes spoke his native Mohawk language as a means to communicate sensitive information during the war. Just as with the Navajo language, the Japanese were never able to decipher the Mohawk language.

These stories and more are tied together through Biggio’s deftly written narrative. His efforts with The Rifle ensure that another swath of World War II veterans have had their stories preserved for the benefit of future generations. This book belongs on the shelf of every World War II historian.

Mike Guardia is an author and military historian. He served six years as an armor officer in the Army. He is the author of Hal Moore: A Soldier Once … And Always and co-author of Hal Moore on Leadership: Winning When Outgunned and Outmanned. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in American history from the University of Houston.

* * *

Book Brings Korean Conflict Into Focus

book cover

Korean Showdown: National Policy and Military Strategy in a Limited War, 1951–1952. Bryan Gibby. University of Alabama Press. 408 pages. $54.95

By Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army Reserve retired

Bryan Gibby’s latest offering, Korean Showdown: National Policy and Military Strategy in a Limited War, 1951–1952, delivers one of the most soundly researched, comprehensive and in-depth analyses of the Korean War published to date. Clearly linking all the levels of conflict, the author offers a perspective that springs from a keen and long-lasting interest in the Korean War, previously demonstrated in his other book on the subject. This interest shows in a level of effort indicated by Gibby’s meticulousness, passion for research and attention to detail.

Gibby maintains that 1952, the “forgotten year” of the war, was the only real time frame of major conflict, with both sides attempting to force conclusion through armed contest. Yet Gibby’s guiding premise in Korean Showdown is that the political decisions of the governments on both sides resulted in an unnecessary prolongation of the war.

Additionally, the author says the military efforts in 1952 to bring the conflict to termination were buried by more seemingly newsworthy events of the war, such as the negotiations themselves, treatment of prisoners, accusations of the use of biological weapons and the air war in the famous “MiG Alley,” to name just a few. When an armistice was finally signed in 1953, Gen. Mark Clark, commander of U.N. forces in Korea, wryly said the war gave him “the unenviable distinction of being the first United States Army commander in history to sign an armistice without victory.”

The U.S. Army had suffered from a period of neglect since the end of World War II. This was a problem affecting the Navy as well, although the Marines Corps had taken measures to mitigate cutbacks in defense spending. The lack of preparedness resulted in an armed force that had limited ways and means to achieve desired ends that were clearly not limited: containing the spread of international communism.

Both sides in Korea experienced this lack of synchronization between political goals and military capabilities. Hence, the brutal slugfest of 1952—coupled with logistical problems, unforgiving weather and difficult terrain—resulted in high casualties, the destruction of virtually all South Korean cities and a higher civilian death rate than during World War II.

Gibby’s observation that the Korean War was an “unsatisfactory conflict [that] remains captive somewhere between the triumph of an Allied unconditional victory in World War II and a Vietnam quagmire” is exceptionally astute and well phrased. Because of its inconclusive end, Gibby claims that the Korean War does not evoke a sense of victory in those who fought it but instead feeds a bitterness and resentment that persists to this day. It also shows how military and civilian leadership must have a clearly unified effort and agreement on what is to be accomplished.

Readers will find this book to be an excellent and well-documented work that sets a standard for the historian and casual reader alike. I highly recommend this scholarly effort to both soldiers and laymen who engage in a study of the Korean War as a superb historical account of that conflict. It will become a staple reference work for students of both the Korean War and the Cold War.

Col. Steve Patarcity, U.S. Army Reserve retired, is a civilian strategic planner on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Army Reserve, the Pentagon. He retired in 2010 after 33 years of service in the active Army and the Army Reserve, which included military police and armor assignments in the U.S., Kuwait and Iraq.