The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club – Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War, Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club – Naval Aviation in the Vietnam War, Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

US naval aviation played a major role in the Vietnam War, with a series of US aircraft carriers taking up position off the Vietnamese coast, and Naval aircraft taking part in just about every major air campaign of the war. During the war this included a major strategic bombing campaign in which more bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than on the Germans and Japanese during the Second World War, an unexpectedly high number of dogfights with Vietnamese MiGs and the struggle against what became one of the most powerful anti-aircraft defence systems in the world. 

There are definitely moments when you can entirely sympathise with the politicians desire to control targets. One pilot talks about the frustration he felt when he saw a couple of trains and wasn’t allowed to blow them up with cluster bombs as they weren’t his target, apparently without any acknowledgement that they might not have been military targets at all! The senior politicians making these decisions had been more junior politicians during the Korean War, when the unrestrained military led dash north had resulted in the Chinese intervening and inflicting a massive, humiliating defeat on the US Army. When the rules of engagement did relax later in the war, then the focus of the excuse turns to whatever is excluded. This feels very much like a return to the obsession with strategic bombing of the ‘bomber barons’ of the Second World War. Even at the time some on the US military were aware that North Vietnam was a poor target for a strategic bombing campaign, and the most effective bombing of the entire war appears to have come when the US focused on the assembly areas for the transport routes south,

One key factor is that the air war that developed over Vietnam wasn’t the one that the US Navy had been preparing for (a familiar story!). The assumption had been made that the main threat to the fleet would come from Soviet heavy bombers carrying nuclear weapons, so naval fighters and their weapons were designed to intercept targets flying straight and level, and as far from the fleet as possible. The Navy thus began the war with fighters armed with missiles and no guns, and with missiles designed to hit targets out of visual range. When they ended up in dogfights with North Vietnamese MiGs these missiles were being used at much shorter range and the pilots weren’t trained for close-in battles.  One key element of this book is an examination of how the US Navy and USAF responded to this shared problem, with the Air Force focusing on improving its technology and the Navy (eventually) focusing on training, creating the famous ‘Top Gun’ school, and taking advantage of trials of captured MiGs to work out their capabilities and how to defeat them.

The book is split between chapters looking at wider events – the main bombing campaigns, the aircraft involved etc, and chapters that focus on the detail of the air combat. I must the first chapter made me expect there would be more from the Vietnamese side, but that largely fades away for most of the text, and the focus is almost entirely on the American view of the fighting. We do get an impressive amount of eyewitness accounts of the action, and I think you can see the influence of the Top Gun school’s approach here, as many of the writers give quite technical accounts of how the fight went. The more general chapters mean we have a proper framework for the action, and we go beyond 1972’s Operation Linebacker to look at the final campaign of 1975 and the Navy’s part in the evacuation from Saigon, before ending with a disastrous attempt to rescue American sailors from the Khmer Rouge. 

Overall the result is an atmospheric account of carrier aviation’s role in the Vietnamese War, with a good balance between looking at the wider picture and focusing on the daily experiences of the aircrew, and the way in which the US Navy learnt from the disappointing results of early clashes and greatly improved its level of success in air to air fights.

1 – Shooting at Flying Fish
2 – Naval Aviation’s Revolutionary New Sword
3 – Opponents
4 – The Rules of Engagement
5 – Rolling Thunder, 1965-68
6 – Air Combat, 1964-66
7 – Air Combat, 1967-68
8 – Alpha Strike
9 – Spads vs Migs
10 – “The Forrest Fire”
11 – Top Gun
12 – Interregnum, 1968-72
13 – A New War
14 – Operation Linebacker, 1972
15 – The DFCs in Seven Days
16 – End Game, April 1975
17 – Southeast Asian Finale

Author: Thomas McKelvey Cleaver
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 400
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2021

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