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A Shau Valor: American Combat Operations in the Valley of Death, 1963-1971.

A Shau Valor: American Combat Operations in the Valley of Death, 1963-1971. By Thomas R. Yarborough. Havertown PA: Casemate Publications, 2016. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp 311. $32.95 ISBN: 978-1-61200-354-2 (978-1-61200-355-9 digital)

Yarborough previously published Da Nang Diary, an account of his experiences as a forward-air controller during two tours and more than 600 missions during the Vietnam War. Besides a 28-year career in the Air Force, he also taught history at Indiana University. Blending his personal experiences with an academic approach combining primary and secondary sources, he has chronicled repeated American attempts to control the A Shau Valley, a remote and inhospitable region in the north-west corner of what was South Vietnam.

Proceeding in chronological order, Yarborough breaks down U.S. Army and Marine activity in the valley on a year-by-year basis. He points out the valley's strategic significance to all concerned as a principal supply route leading from the North Vietnamese "trunk lines" in off-limits Laos to the northern and central lowlands of South Vietnam. Perhaps because the Ho Chi Minh Trail network was politically "out of bounds" in neutral Laos and Cambodia, US. decisionmakers felt compelled to attack this critical line of communication once it entered South Vietnam. They would be hard pressed to find a more difficult place in which to operate with ether air-assisted special forces or conventional ground units.

Yarborough emphasizes the incredibly inhospitable terrain and the absolutely miserable weather that time and again negated the American advantage of close air support and also disrupted helicopter operations. In fact, if one ever wanted a case study on the limits of vertical airlift, this is where to go. Despite the extraordinary bravery of the individual American soldier, Marine, and airman, collectively they seldom had a chance for success.

In many respects, the inability of U.S. commanders to come to grips with the significant advantages enjoyed by the North Vietnamese (internal lines of communication, far superior topographical intelligence, superior numbers, tactical and strategic initiative) reminds one of simple arrogance. Parallels with some of America's poorest planning and execution from World War II--for example, the battle for Peleliu in the Southwest Pacific and the assault on the HUrtgen Forest in Germany--come to mind. Ultimately, American forces prevailed in these battles, but the strategic gains proved negligible, just as in the A Shau.

Whether it was repeated insertions of special reconnaissance teams with very mixed results or the deployment of division-size units, the Americans time and again would depart with the North Vietnamese once again asserting their tactical and strategic superiority. Like so much that happened in Southeast Asia, the United States failed to define victory. In many ways, the A Shau served as a microcosm of the entire conflict. To permanently control the valley required deploying far more troops than the political climate would ever allow.

While the narrative naturally focuses on ground operations, close air support operations (including details of numerous lost aircraft) receive their just due. Several pages are devoted to the actions of Major Bernard E. Fisher, flying a Douglas A-1E Skyraider in support of a special forces base in March 1965. Fisher became the first Air Force flyer in the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor after he rescued a member of his flight, Major "Jump" Myers, who had crash landed near the primitive runway.

Steven D. Ellis, Lt Col., USAFR (Ret), docent, Museum of Flight, Seattle
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Author:Ellis, Steven D.
Publication:Air Power History
Date:Dec 20, 2017
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