Notable Documents: The Navy and Indochina, 1945-1965

June 18, 2010

Continuing with my review of Library Journal’s 2009 Notable Government Documents, today’s selection is The Approaching Storm: Conflict in Asia, 1945-1965. This first volume in a new Naval History and Heritage Command  series is designed to present “well-illustrated, engagingly written, and authoritative booklets that detail the Navy’s major involvement” in the Vietnam War.

The Approaching Storm is an auspicious beginning to this series. Its concise text places the Navy’s Southeast Asian operational activities in the post-World War II decade into the context of American and international politics. It’s instructive to follow internal political developments in South Vietnam, particularly during the Ngo Dinh Diem regime, and its effects on U.S.-Vietnamese naval collaboration. Despite the Navy’s best professional efforts in both riverine and blue water operations, “the greatest drawback to the development of the navy and other South Vietnamese armed forces was the involvement of their officers in plots, coups, and other political intrigues.” The book also presents a clear account of the Tonkin Gulf incident – a classic example of how the fog of war can obscure the facts for even the participants most closely involved in the action.

Profusely illustrated by photographs and useful maps, The Approaching Storm also includes accounts of individuals involved in the events of the time. I was particularly interested in “Escape from Laos”, which tells the story of Navy Lieutenant Charles F. Klusmann, whose reconnaissance aircraft was shot down over central Laos in 1964. After almost three months of captivity, Lieutenant Klusmann and a number of others escaped from their Pathet Lao prison camp. After three days, Klusmann and one other escapee made it to friendly lines – one of the few American flyers to escape from captivity in Laos during the entire course of the war.

Like Navy Medicine in Vietnam, a previous volume in this series that I’ve blogged about, The Approaching Storm is an excellent brief account of one aspect of the Vietnam War – still perhaps the most controversial armed conflict in American history –  whose story is neither well-known nor well-understood. You can get a copy here, browse through it here, or find it in a library here.


Prisoner Interrogation in Three Wars

June 3, 2010

Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq is an absolutely fascinating read. This book from the National Defense Intelligence College takes both an historical and policy-oriented view of prisoner of war interrogations in three wars. The World War II section examines the Army’s use of Japanese Americans – Nisei – as interrogators in the Pacific, along with incisive discussions of why Japanese soldiers seldom were taken prisoners, why a relatively high percentage of such POWs cooperated with their interrogators, and why they furnished such a significant amount of intelligence to their captors (the Japanese military hierarchy assumed that their men would not become prisoners and so did not indoctrinate them about the importance of not giving up information if they were.) This part of the book also analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of the Army and Navy Japanese language training  provided during the war.

The Vietnam section focuses on profiles of the most able interrogators in World War II (the wonderfully named R.W. G. “Tin Eye” Stephens for the British and Hans Scharff for the Germans) and a number of successful American officers during the Vietnam conflict. Throughout the book, the authors make the point that linguistic ability, a deep understanding of the captives’ culture and worldview, and a perception that torture or other violent methods were useless in soliciting information of value are the hallmarks of a successful interrogator of prisoners. This part of the book also describes these individuals’ occasional conflicts with the military bureaucracy, such as Sedgwick Tourison’s experience in reporting more information about the Tonkin Gulf incident than his superiors wanted to hear.

The final section, on Iraq, focuses on policy issues – specifically, whether Army doctrine should permit Special Operations personnel to interrogate prisoners. Again, real-world examples from personal experience provide a study that is both gripping and insightful.

Interrogation: World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq is a thoughtful and provocative analysis of what any army confronts in war – the need to gather intelligence from prisoners, the most effective way to do that, and the ineffectiveness of “harsh methods” in delivering useful information.

You can read the book here or get a copy from GPO here.  To find it in a library, search here.


Navy Medicine in Vietnam: Passage to Freedom to the Fall of Saigon

April 23, 2010

One of the goals of this blog is to review new Government publications as soon as we can, so people can find out about and, we hope, read them. Navy Medicine in Vietnam just hit my desk. It’s not a long book – around 52 pages. It provides an excellent overview of Navy medical activities in Vietnam from Passage to Freedom – the evacuation of Vietnamese from north to south after the 1954 Geneva Accords – to the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Along the way, there are brief descriptions of the work of hospitals,  hospital ships, Navy corpsmen, medevac, and more.

To me, the most fascinating parts of the book are the oral histories: the nurse in Saigon who came under fire during the coup against the Diem government, the grim recollections of another nurse on the staff of the navy Support Activity Hospital in Danang, and the amazingly modest statement of a corpsman who threw himself on a grenade (which amazingly did not detonate)to protect his patients, received a Congressional Medal of Honor and said, “It didn’t appear to me worthy of a general flying in and saying, ‘you’re a hero’.”

For sheer suspense, though, nothing tops “Dr. Dinsmore’s Souvenir”, a first-person account of a Navy surgeon who removed an unexploded 60mm mortar shell from the chest of a South Vietnamese soldier.  The X-ray of the patient has to be seen to be believed. Captain Dinsmore received the Navy Cross for this operation, but I wonder whether Engineman First Class John Lyons, who was the only other person in the operating room and safely detonated the mortar round afterward, got some recognition, too. It’s an amazing story.

You’ll find gripping reading, as well as an informative account of wartime medical activities, in Navy Medicine in Vietnam.


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