218th review Bloody Sixteen The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 during the Vietnam War – Peter Frey
ALSO IN ADIOBOOK VERSION!!!
Much is published about the Vietnam War between the USA and North-Vietnam especially about the ground offensives and the enormous lost of human lives on American side. This book is solely dedicated to the operations of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany that together with Air Wing 16 has contributed in an important part in the air war with North Vietnam. In Europe this war was not so on our minds as the cold war with Russia was on its top and our air forces were ready for nuclear repercussions if Russia would attack us.
However in Vietnam a conventional war was fought on land and in the air. Peter Frey has restricted his in depth research to the events in which Air Wing 16 played an important role. He created a chilling and detailed story of all events and missions that air wing 16 executed in that period. The lost of pilots and planes during the three tours of CVW-16 made with the USS Oriskany were enormous. During the whole Vietnam War America lost between the 850 and 900 warplanes of which the biggest part were lost by the navy. During the 2 big air campaigns of the Americans with Rolling Thunder as the most important one in which the air wing was involved the losses were dramatic due to the heavy resistance of the North-Vietnamese defence, but also by the restrictions that the Johnson administration, the so called ROE, (rules of engagement) forced on the air wing in the selection of their targets.
America was afraid of a possible involvement of China and Russia and therefore bombing in dense populated areas and the big cities were to be avoided. Also harbours where transport ships, mainly Russian and Chinese (!), their war supplies unloaded, were a no go. But the NVA misused that to build up their war supplies and troops. Because of the changing and ambivalent attitude of the Johnson Administration in the choice of the targets, prompted by their wish to start peace negotiations, the Vietnamese were able to repair damaged factories and airfields and the marine pilots could start all over again.
The book is filled with stories about heroic air strikes and dangerous SAR operations (search and rescue) to save and recover shot down pilots often under heavy enemy fire. The pressure on the pilots and the carrier ground crews to perform their tasks, was enormous as weather conditions and the intense flight program (24 hours) took a heavy toll on the men. Two big disasters hit the USS Oriskany and the USS Forrestal as a fire damaged both ships in such a way that they had to skip their operations for a couple of months. Besides that both fires took many lives of seamen and pilots that were trapped in their quarters and could not escape the fierce fire. Caused by negligent behaviour and a malfunctioned missile.
The Johnson Administration gets a lot of critics in this book. McNamara, the war secretary, lacked military experience and he and his civilian advisers were responsible for the list of bombing targets that should bring North-Vietnam on their knees. However they ignored completely the advises of the Chiefs of Staffs and were strongly influenced by political motives. In short the responsible commanders on the aircraft carriers as well of the air force were very limited in all possible ways to effectively destroy the targets, that were really important such as MIG airfields and the SAM ( ground to air missiles) launch installations.
In fact I have never read a book about the air war in Vietnam that describes so well and in detail the different air operations of the navy pilots, their determination to successfully finish their mission, the dangerous job of the carrier ground crews and the political influence of the American politicians on the bombardments. With chicken skin you will read the stories about the pilots that were wounded and had to find their ship in a damaged plane in the dark without instruments or radio. Some made it, some had to bail out over the dark and cold sea and many were lost and never found.
A paragraph in this book is devoted to the prisoners of war that lived in terrible circumstances and were considered as war criminals by the Vietnamese. War heroes like the later president candidate John McCain and vice president candidate Jim Stockdale both pilots from Air Wing 16 and who were shot down over Vietnam becoming real heroes as POW and were real leaders for their fellow prisoners leading and motivating them during that terrible period as POW.
Peter Frey has given us a splendid and dramatic picture of the period that the USS Oriskany was in action along the coast of Northern Vietnam thanks to his in depth research and as a fascinating story teller. The photo material is modest, a couple of pages with black and white photos from that period), but despite that it is a beautiful book with nearly 400 pages executed in classic and luxury bounded materials and even with a word of appreciation from Stephen Coonts himself. The book has fascinated me from the beginning until the end and will be doing so for a long time.