13 Jan 23

Naval aviation is in vogue: our Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are in the news (for reasons good and bad) and the release of Top Gun: Maverick was probably the cinema event of 2022. This book can be read as Top Gun’s origin story.  McKelvey Cleaver’s most satisfying chapter deals with the foundation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School (‘Top Gun’) at Miramar in 1969. Once back at their squadrons, the programme’s graduates had a dramatic effect on combat performance in Southeast Asia during the second half of the air war: Operations LINEBACKER and LINEBACKER II.

However, this is a not a red, white and blue book. The author starkly criticises the premise for war, the August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’ which he categorically refutes having taken place in the manner relayed back to Washington.

Sprinkled throughout the book are hints of the conspiracy theorist as the author compares his research (including oral testimony) to the Pentagon’s official records. Criticism of the restrictive White House-imposed rules of engagement becomes almost as a stab-in-the-back style myth – if only the US Military had been allowed to properly prosecute the war, the US would have won.  Measurement of effect/performance was a future management concept in the 1960s; sortie rate was used by the Pentagon as a measurement of activity, analogous to the infamous body count on the ground. Other works, for example, the writings of Henry Kissinger or Lyndon Johnson’s memoir The Vantage Point cover the strategic and political aspects of the Vietnam War better than a book on the air war as fought from the sea.

Each air-air ‘kill’ is detailed and there is refreshing insight from the Vietnamese side.  As the RAF found over Iraq in 1991, anti-aircraft artillery was more dangerous in the early stages than the feared Surface to Air Missile systems (SAMs). All but the most ardent white cap WAFU (i.e., fast jet aviator) will likely find the barrel rolls, zoom climbs and missile arming tones exhaustive. Better covered in other accounts (e.g., Tom Wolfe’s excellent 1967 essay ‘Bye borty-bibe’) these action chapters are for the purists.

For the spotters, each fast jet aircraft type in use by the US Navy and the VPAF (Vietnamese People’s Air Force) is detailed from design through to combat employment, including more unusual types such the RA-5 Vigilante carrier-based photo-reconnaissance aircraft and all the sub-variants of the MiG-21 ‘Fishbed’. All these types are pictured in the excellent plates.  Matelots will enjoy the inter-service bashing at the expense of the US Air Force, especially a pilot rotation programme which disincentivised repeat tours to Southeast Asia and the accruing of combat experience.

A more accurate title for this book would have been ‘Fast Jet Carrier Aviation in the Vietnam War’. There is little mention of the US Navy and Marine helicopter squadrons, other than a fascinating account of the final evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 (Operation FREQUENT WIND) and the epilogue to American involvement in Southeast Asia, the botched breaking out of the American merchant ship SS Mayaguez from Cambodian waters. Only one USMC squadron embarked aboard an aircraft carrier during the war; VMFA(AW)-224’s A-4 Skyhawks in USS Coral Sea. The precedent survives to this day with Marine squadrons an integral part of most carrier air wings.

With no conclusion, this book ends suddenly and poignantly with the fate of three US Marines left behind on Koh Tang Island. Recovery and identification work continued into the 21st century, as has the rancour over why and how the United States prosecuted the Vietnam War.  The foreword (by a former CO Top Gun) describes The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club as a “classic historical novel”.  That goes too far on the enjoyment scale but undersells this book’s historical contribution.