The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Assault from the Sky

An account of US Marine Corps helicopter operations in Vietnam reviewed

Published on 30 JAN 2014 6:29am by Paul Robinson
  1. vietnam conflict, operational, background / research material, helicopter / rotary wing combat, asia, english

Well it is off to the jungles and hilltops of Vietnam for this reviewer.  Authored by Colonel Dick Camp, a 26 year veteran of the US Marine Corps, this book describes the helicopter operations of that Corps throughout the Vietnam War.  The author provides an authentic voice to tell this story.  A vet himself he describes in the book’s prologue his experience of this element of that war; part of his overview is worth repeating and sets the scene nicely for the subject of this review:

The birds carried the grunt into combat, provided him with rations, ammunition, close air support, and carried him out of battle, dead or alive.  I, for one, can never forget the stench of JP-4, the hot blast of engine exhaust, the drip of hydraulic fluid, the orange colored nylon seats and the leap of faith jumping off the ramp of a hovering ’46 into the ten foot high elephant grass …….. and the medevac helicopter’s promise of life.  The memory of holding a critically wounded Marine’s head in my hands, and praying for the life flight, is still an open wound”.

The book is organized into three parts.  Firstly the American build up from 1962 to 64; secondly the increasingly heavy combat operations from 1967 to 69 and finally the American evacuation in 1975.  These main parts are split into chapters that provide case studies reviewing the evolution of helicopter combat operations.   It is worth noting that whilst the book is, obviously, set out in chronological order it is not a complete history of Marine Corps helicopter operations, nor is it intended to be.  This is a series of snapshots which enables the reader to gain an informed impression of how, for example, tactics and helicopter types developed over the course of the war.

The case studies are quite varied and cover a really good range of examples.  We have landings in hot LZs, flying in support to Khe Sanh during the siege, Viet Cong assaults on air bases and special forces camps and some hair raising rescues of comrades under fire.  The final part of the book covering the evacuation of the final US elements is particularly good and perhaps provides the longest and most complete narrative in the book about a particular aspect of the war (by the way for an excellent fictionalised account of this element of the war I’ll take the liberty of recommending [the late] Gerry Carroll’s “No Place to Hide”).

One of the big questions you will hopefully ask yourself when reading some of these stories is how some of the crews of the copters came out of these situations alive (or even unwounded) and with their craft still flying (and of course many did not). It is a similar situation in many ways to recent combat operations in Afghanistan.  How some of MERT Chinooks ever got out of some operations is beyond me!  Anyway back to Vietnam. 

The heroism of those involved is highlighted in the book.  Throughout are numerous citations for medals to those who survived and those who could only be given awards posthumously.  Those familiar with such things will forgive me for quoting from the end of just one: “By his initiative, skill and selfless devotion Major Dauphiney upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and of the United States Naval Service”.    Such words bring a lump to the throat of even this cynically hack.  Nice to see them given an airing.

The book is a bit of a curiosity as it just doesn’t include these operational histories. The various chapters also have various information boxes inserted into them.  These range from biographies of some of the Marines referred to, a detailed description of a particular helicopter type and in one case the breakdown of the organisation of a Vietcong sapper unit and the tactics they employed.  Of course these are all relevant to the particular case study or example set out in that chapter. They are not quite what you expect in this kind of book (they are usually found in more glossy books about equipment and weaponry) but certainly add to the work as a whole.

Each chapter is well served with a number of black and white photographs showing those involved in the action; helicopters and aerial shots of the locations where the events described unfolded.  These have been all well chosen to add to the stories, rather than just generic pictures of stuff related to Vietnam War copters.  There are also a number of maps to help locate the action.

Overall this is an excellent book.  For those who are already familiar with the Vietnam War I am sure you will find something here-this book is mostly the story of individuals, crews or small units so there will be lots of detail you will not have read before.  For those who wargame this conflict you will find lots of material for some excellent scenarios and find lots of reasons for putting more helicopter models onto (above?) your table tops.  And in that context the book also reminded me that the helicopter in Vietnam war was not just the ubiquitous Huey or even Chinook; there was a wide variety of aircraft types used in large numbers, so you can go to town on your model aircraft park! (and a short Appendix to the book describes the development of rotary aircraft in the US marine Corps).  For the general student of military history this is an excellent primer about the first whole scale use of helicopters in a major conflict.  The scale of their use in Vietnam was a scale of magnitude beyond say the Korean War or say British counter insurgency operations of the 1950s and 1960s.  

For once I’ll leave the final word to the author quoting Harry Reasoner of ABC Evening News:

“… being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot; and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble.  They know if anything bad has not happened it is about to.”

 “Assault from the Sky” available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price £20.00/$32.95 (ISBN 9781612001289)