The Wargamer

26 May 2017

Book Review: Da Nang Diary

A Forward Air Controllers Gunsight View of Flying with SOG

Published on 16 OCT 2014 9:51am by Paul Robinson
  1. vietnam conflict, background / research material, asia, buyer's guide, english

This is the kind of book reviewers love to receive; about a subject they know something about and a genuinely interesting read! The Vietnam War is an area I’ve wargamed and developed a keen interest in the aerial side (initially largely thanks to the books of Stephen Coonts and the late Gerry Carroll).

Here the Author, Tom Yarborough takes us through his year as a Forward Air Controller (FAC).  He and his fellow “Covey” pilots (Covey was his unit’s call-sign) carried out observation sorties over the Ho Chi Minh trail and called in airstrikes to interdict movement and destroy supply dumps and vehicle parks.  So not a mainstream Vietnam tale.  There is an extra twist thrown in.  This is that the action takes place towards the end of the War; with Yarborough’s tour taking place between 1970 and 1971.  Add to that the fact after only a short time into his tour he was recruited as a “Prairie Fire” Covey and thus ended up supporting the ultra-secret (at the time) Studies and Observation Group’s operations; then you have a very special story indeed.

Any of you who think you might already be familiar with this story then you might be right.  This was originally published in a shorter form in 1990 as “Da Nang Diary: a Forward Air Controller’s Year of Combat over Vietnam”.  Why a new version?  I’ll leave it to the Author to explain: “While it has been a matter of quiet satisfaction to me that the main outlines of the original book require little revision, I nevertheless welcome the opportunity to update, refine and expand my treatment of Da Nag diary by including additional background and details previously locked away in some dusty Pentagon safe marked ‘Top Secret’”.

Like all such books the War is seen from a highly personal perspective.   This isn’t a history of the Vietnam War, nor one of the Studies and Observation Group, but it is a compelling read with tragedy, raw emotion, those bizarre hi-jinks that crop up time and time again in military memoirs. It shows how, despite the danger, war can draw warriors back into the line of fire when you would think they would be the last people to want to go through those travails again.

The book starts with the Prologue.  Here the Author provides us with a teaser explaining his recruitment into “Prairie Fire”.  It is, in many, ways a massive Special Ops cliché.  The Author says to the fellow pilot who is trying to bring him into the clandestine world, how can I join something I know nothing about?  Fuzzy, the recruiter, simply says “Sorry: I can’t tell you anything except it‘s the most exciting FAC mission going.  If you sign up, we’ll tell you the whole nine yards.  I promise you’ll love it”.   The Author then winds the clock back a little and takes us back to the beginning.

It is worth saying something at this point about the book’s structure.  Basically each of the Thirteen Chapters covers a month of the Author’s Tour (the final one The Year of Fifty Three Weeks explains why thirteen and not twelve!) and each commences with a number of extracts from his diary written at the time.  These largely consist of records of other FACs who have been shot down or crashed in other incidents or accidents.  These make for bleak reading and they actually have a certain macabre monotony about them.  So the basic storyline of most chapters (once Yarborough has got through his early inductions and in country qualification flights) is an ever increasing intensity of operations.  We see Yarborough go from an idealistic rookie to a hard bitten, burnt out veteran who has seen too many friends die but volunteers anyway for more clandestine operations over Cambodia in 1973.

As I have said the book is not a history of SOG but Chapter Four, Prairie Fire, uses the opportunity of describing a briefing the Author received into the activities of SOG to briefly set out the history and organisation of SOG.   The main elements are succinctly described – Agent Networks and Deception, Covert Maritime Operations, “Black” Psychological Warfare and Covert Operations against the Ho Chi Minh trail. And then how the elements of Prairie Fire were divided up into three geographic operational regions (South, Central and North) and then how they operated tactically.  The author gets a lot of information over in a very short space.  A hangover I guess of having to give detailed situation reports across multiple radio channels to ground forces, fixed wing aircraft and helicopters; all while under fire from a wide range of enemy antiaircraft weaponry.

The book is not all about hair raising missions bringing danger close fire support to Special Forces team about to be overrun by superior North Vietnamese Army units (but that is the main focus!).  There is a great deal about the relationships between the pilots and others they interact with (ground crew, nurses, and Special Forces operators) and how they all let off steam.  It has to be said that this largely involves the consumption of vast amounts of alcohol and (to the outside observer) juvenile behaviour.   But when you are operating on the ragged edge of the envelope every day you get cut some slack.  This juxtaposition between the danger and the extreme behaviours that war engenders amongst its participants really comes out best in Chapter 8 Outside the Envelope.  Here in a few short pages Yarborough describes the only occasion in his tour where he is shot at by 85mm anti-aircraft fire, duck hunting using the four 7.62mm machine guns fixed under his aircraft’s wings and stalking pigs using Cobra attack helicopters (yes that is pigs as in four legs, snout and curly tail)!

As is normal the book is supported by a number of black and white photographs.  These resonate more than usual due to the comparative short period of the book and that a number are of the people described in detail by the Author.  So they are more immediate and more relevant. My favourite is Yarborough being handed a bottle of beer after his last ever FAC flight over South East Asia.  This becomes even more poignant when you read the relevant part of the text.  There is also a glossary at the rear of the book so you can tell your Daisy Cutter from your Whifferdill!  And a nice touch is the Where Are They Now section at the end of the book.  This paints very brief portraits of what most of the people described in the book did after the War.

Finally mention has to go to the other main character in the book besides Colonel Tom Yarborough; this is the OV10 Bronco that he flew during his FAC missions-tough, reliable and a life saver on many occasions. 

This is an excellent book; exciting, sad, funny, surprising and above all a damn good read.  Clearly this will appeal to those with an interest in the Vietnam War, Special Forces operations and aerial combat and close air support.  However it should also be of interest for anyone interested in how war effects the men and women who take part.  Highly, highly recommended.

“Da Nang Diary” available now in hardback from Casemate Publishing, normal price $32.95/£20.00 (ISBN 9781612002200).

Casemate UK - http://www.casematepublishing.co.uk/title.php?isbn=9781612002200

Casemate US - http://www.casematepublishing.com/title.php?isbn=9781612002200