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Into the Teeth of the Dragon’s Jaw in Vietnam

Books
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Erik Moshe is an HNN Features Editor. 

 

What’s worse: a wall of antiaircraft artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles, a relentless amount of enemy MiG planes on your tail, or the reality that the war being waged is unwinnable? How about a target that just can’t be taken down for the duration of an entire long conflict? Many young US airmen during the Vietnam War dealt with these harsh conditions for seven years as they carried out efforts to destroy the heavily defended and strategically important bridge called the Thanh Hoa, or “dragon’s jaw” in Vietnamese. The bridge was located in the Thanh Hoa Provide of North Vietnam and endured hundreds of attacks from the US Air Force and the US Navy before it finally gave way. The campaigns required intense perseverance, unguided and laser-guided missiles, and many sacrifices to eliminate it from the battlefield in 1972. Many American airmen were shot down, killed, or captured and taken to the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” POW camp. 

 

The bridge became a symbol of unbeatable spirit for North Vietnamese identity. US war planners fought hard and plotted for years to uproot it from the Song Ma river. Veterans of the Vietnam War who remember it shared their stories about dogfights, losses, desperate conditions, valor, and lessons learned in air combat. In an interview, best-selling author and Vietnam War veteran Stephen Coonts and military aviation historian Barrett Tillman spoke with us about their latest book which is available now for purchase, Dragon's Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam.

 

 

First, can you both talk about the courage and tenacity it took to take down the Thanh Hoa bridge?

 

Barrett: If you have time, Erik, I would refer you to a book I co-authored aboutmore than 30 years ago. It was called On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam, and it was about one of the three best friends I ever had, Commander John Nichols, athree-tour F-8 Crusader pilot and we included a chapter in that on professionalism, and I know Steve will agree with this wholeheartedly. The motivation that kept that generation of American aircrews flying into literally the teeth of the Dragon throughout Southeast Asia was professionalism, and they had one another. Steve, do I remember correctly that the original title of Flight of the Intruder was For Each other

 

Stephen: That is correct. Barrett hit the nail right on the head. It should impress anyone who sits down with Dragon’s Jaw and reads about hundreds of young aviators, some of them reservists, but most of them regular Air Force or Navy. They kept going back again and again, not because it's Lyndon Johnson's war or anything else, it's because they're professionals, it's just what they do, and they owe it to each other. It's the old story: “If I don't go, somebody else will have to, so I'm going.”I think that's the essence of what military professionalism is all about. 

 

Barrett: One of the most impressive people I've ever known was ViceAdmiral Jim Stockdale, who got sidelined into politics after sevenyears in Hanoi as a prisoner of war and he is best known, unfortunately, as Ross Perot's running mate. But Jim was a consummate professional, an aviator and a philosopher at the same time. At a Tailhook Association banquet in 1988, he relayed that in 1965 or so (which was the year he got shot down and captured) then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara came out to Yankee station and was aboard the carrier Oriskany for a short time. He just flat out told the pilots and aircrew of Air Wing 16, "You are expected to take unlimited losses in pursuit of limited goals." And Jim let that sink in for a moment-- just a hush in the room. Then he said, "What you must remember: it's nothing limited about your efforts when you're over the target," and that speaks eloquently to the concept of professionalism.

 

Stephen: I certainly second that. We managed to put that vignette Barrett mentioned in the book and that was a powerful moment. 

 

If military brass on both sides of the Vietnam War were somehow still alive and got a chance to review this book thoroughly from a battle strategy standpoint, what do you think their reactions might be?

 

Stephen: The North Vietnamese did the very best they could with the assets they had.The American military certainly realized that. I don't think the American politicians truly understood [the advantage] that absolute dictatorship gave the North Vietnamese. From a military standpoint, the North Vietnamese were darn tough soldiers and they did the best they could with what they had, as did the Americans. There was mutual respect on both sides.

 

Military history tends to always be relevant and timeless, especially while the American public is both drawn to and repelled by a controversial presidential administration which is running multiple theaters of war. But why the Dragon’s Jaw bridge, and why now?

 

Stephen: Barrett and I were talking about this book about 5 years ago this month, that the Thanh Hoa bridge was the most notorious target in North Vietnam, it was almost indestructible, like the thing were made out of kryptonite. The weapons during the early stages of the war were absolutely inadequate to knock it down and American Airmen went against it for seven long years. About a dozen planes were shot down, people were killed, imprisoned and so on. Millions of dollars worth of airplanes, tens of millions of dollars worth of fuel and ordinance and all that were expended against that bridge. The story had never been told, and we thought, we ought to do this book while these people are still alive to talk about it. 

 

If we would have waited another 10 years and these guys that flew these missions in the 60s and early 70s either won't remember or they’re no longer capable of talking about it. We thought, we'd better get busy and do this, before life or other projectsget in the way. Finally, we said, “I don't care, we're going to do it.”Barrett agreed to do the research and I agree to write the book and that's basically what came down. Fortunately, Barrett is the premier military aviation historian alive today in America, so boy, you talk about aces up, we had a guy that knew everybody, knew the American military, and made a career out of writing about military aviation and he just dove right in.It gaveus a wealth of material; I had to sit down to try to write the English side of it and put the pronouns in the right places. This is why we did it now because we thought it was a story worth telling and we wanted to get it out here while the people who lived it were there to tell it to us. 

 

Barrett: That's a big part of it, believe me, because going in, Steve and I realized this was a rare opportunity to focus on a primary topic of the entire Vietnam War. We approached the bridge almost as if it's a character among the human participants,and we decided to treat the campaign which as Steve said was off and on for seven years as a microcosm of that crazy Asian War. It's all there: the tactics, the strategy, the politics, the courage, the losses, it all comes together over Thanh Hoa, which is about 70 or 80 miles south of Hanoi. It's well into North Vietnam and it's the belly of the beast that became such a focus for so many years for hundreds of American aircrew. 

 

What will hardcore historians find useful about this book -- from all walks of the discipline, from military history to even Southeast Asian studies and historical fiction?

 

Barrett: The major advantage for the readership you are addressing is the breadth of the material that we've assembled. Not only is this the first book about Thanh Hoa bridge, but it's also a top-to-bottom, left-to-right, in-and-out assessment from not just the American side-- we had about 70 contributors and they represent the US Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, some civilian contractors, and also, we had some tremendous material out of Vietnam that as far as I can tell has never been accessed before. It took these fiveyears since Steve first called me back in April of 2014 to learn the lay of the land. If we had tried to complete the book and publish it any sooner, we would have lost an awful lot of that benefit. For instance, I had contacted our embassy in Vietnam and their embassy over here, asking about sources and contacts and never got a reply from either of them. It's not that I really expected it but in the meantime there's a very well-connected assembly of Southeast Asia researchers and scholars in this country and elsewhere. One of our main contributors is a lieutenant colonel in the Hungarian Air Force, so that assemblage made all the difference and if we were just to try to tell the story from the American viewpoint, honestly I think we would have less than half the story we're telling. 

 

Stephen: I would add that from a historian's standpoint, one of the major themes of the book is the development of precision weapons, or guided weapons. It went from World War II type dumb bombs (if you just point the airplane at the target and drop the bomb) to what are now precision-guided weapons. They were all born during that era and from American frustration with the Thanh Hoa bridge and its seeming invincibility. 

 

One of the problems with the Thanh Hoa bridge is to deliver a weapon you had to get into the heart of the anti-aircraft envelope to deliver the weapon and expose the plane and the pilot to death or capture, or whatever. The drive was not only for accurate weapons but weapons that could be launched from outside the antiaircraft envelope defending the target. All these themes came together during the Gulf War in 1991 and later on. From a historical standpoint, in this book you see the driving force, the driving feature that lead the military and Industry to develop smart stand-off weapons.

 

Did this book project help toopen up any new doors of research that might allow you to write a future book about Vietnam in a more detailed way than you have been able to access in the past?

 

Barrett: That's a very good question. I haven’t given any specific thought to another Vietnam book but as Steve lightly notes, now is the time to do that. I'll back up fortyyears to when the Naval Institute published my first book. It was the history of the Douglas dive bomber my father flew and at that time, it was basically thirty years after World War II. There were hundreds of thousands of living, breathing, remembering WWII veterans, but now we're beyond that same place in regard to Vietnam's. My Facebook tagline is "Do It Now" and if I get the opportunity to write another Vietnam book, undoubtedly it would be aviation-oriented, and as Steve notes, I have had two tactical missions in A-6s. I'd love to write about the definitive history of the Intruder so that might be another possibility. 

 

Stephen: It might be. [laughter]

 

Can you talk about some of the differences between the Johnson administration and the Nixon administration, and how each leader and their war planners used strategy, priorities, and made decisions that affected America’s approach in the Vietnam War and with China/Soviet Union relations?

 

Stephen: Well, wars don't get developed in a vacuum. It's the geopolitical milieu at the time that causes these conflicts to spark and sustain themselves.The Vietnam War was really launched in the heart of the Cold War by the Kennedy administration, which was scared to death of having a nuclear confrontation with Russia and, to a lesser extent, with China. 

 

President Kennedy was looking for a way to stand up to the spread of what they thought was world communism and that whole era is sort of hard for a millennial today to understand. They talked about how many square miles of the Earth's surface was going communist every year, as if this scourge was going to eat the whole Earth. People believed that. Politics is all about perception. The Johnson Administration inherited the Vietnam War and simply nobody had ever accused Lyndon Johnson of being an intellectual. He was just a log-rolling politician, an arm twister, and he never asked the basic questions about Vietnam: Was it International interest? What are the upsides and downsides? Should we be there? Is it worth the treasure we're committing?

 

Further, the problem was Johnson never bothered to figure out an exit strategy. He kept feeding men and arms into Vietnam, expanding the war, thinking he could leave at any time and that was never the case, it was total fantasy. When he finally realized he wasn't willing to apply the military pressure it would take to get a military victory, he was in too deep. 

 

Richard Nixon got elected, and Nixon, on the other hand, had more backbone and realized, I think, with Henry Kissinger's help, that the solution to this war, like all wars is it's got to be political. Nixon went and try to open up a relationship with China but what he found out was China wasn't going to war over Vietnam under any circumstances. The United States got the license to talk about the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and a better detente, a better relationship. All these things took the threat of nuclear war and allowed Nixon to get us the heck out of Vietnam in a way that the Johnson Administration had never been able to see how to do. 

 

It was a human tragedy; 58,000 Americans lost their lives in Vietnam. Over a million Vietnamese, and the Communists won. It was America's first war they actually lost, and maybe even the championship team needs to get its butt kicked occasionally, and we did. Maybe we learned something from that. We'll see. 

 

Barrett: Fairly early on in the book, a portion describes the reality in China and in Russia to a lesser extent versus the perception inside the beltway in DC. Anybody who is reasonably well-informed today would look back and wonder, how in the world did the Johnson Administration-- sometimes regime--what was happening in China to think that China was going to get involved on the ground in a major way like it had in Korea in 1950? Throughout the 60sand well into the 70s, Mao's China was in turmoil. They had the so-called Great Leap Forward which was a cultural topsy-turvy. They had massive starvation;we still don't know how many million trainees died of malnutrition. Additionally, Russia and China had both political and philosophical differences. I forget the name of the island but there was combat with casualties on both sides between China and Russia. At this remove, you have to look back in wonder: what were Johnson and McNamara and Rusk thinking because they had to know what was actually happening between Russia and China, but they seemed to ignore it. 

 

What was the most eye opening aspect of writing this book? For example, was it just how stubborn the bridge was, that it wouldn’t fall, or was it something more subtle which revealed itself as the project came together?

 

Stephen: Well, it was all of the above. The political stupidities, the military difficulty, knocking down a grossly overbuilt steel and concrete bridge with the weapons available in the teeth of fierce defenses. When it all came together, we thought it was a very powerful tale. We thought it was worth our time and effort and we gave it the best we could.

 

You’ve both conducted original interviews with many combat veterans and have made reference to insights and testimonies that veterans and politicians had given from the past. Do you use a combined effort in reaching out to the community of veterans or is the research stage also dependant on others’ assistance to consult with a network of witnesses who were there, who played a part in what happened at the Dragon’s Jaw? Secondly, what were those interviews like? Was it painful for the pilots to re-enact those life-or-death scenes?

 

Stephen: Obviously, Barrett is our expert. He talked to I would say 90 to 95% of the people who are quoted in the book. I talked to several but I also put out appeals to the A-6 Intruder Association, and I think Barrett did to the Tailhook Association that everybody who had ever bombed the Thanh Hoa bridge, we want to hear from you. Drop us an email, write us a letter, and we got a great many responses from that. Barrett did most of the interviews and he's an expert at that. He knows the technology, he knows the people, he knows what they're talking about. He's a historian; that's his thing. 

 

Barrett: Thank you, Steve. I'll just add briefly that coming from a naval preference in my work going back to the 60s and 70s, I knew quite a few people, people like Jim Stockdale and Wynn Foster, so many of the others who are quoted in the book but I was not so well-connected on the Air Force side. However, through the River Valley Fighter Pilots Association (they called themselves the River Rats) and a couple of other contacts, I started learning about some wonderful sources. They included the Air Force Phantom crew that didn't destroy the bridge in the main 1972 mission but they dislodged the span and that pilot had a cockpit recording. It's interesting, he asked me out of the blue during a phone conversation, "I still have this recording, would you like to have it?" and I thought, "oh my Lord, this is the Big Rock Candy Mountain," and it gives a sense of immediacy that just isn't possible otherwise. 

 

You'll see in one of the later chapters where the pilot and his backseater are exchanging comments because the mission was slowing, and fog and haze reduced visibility; one of my favorite lines in the book is, "Where are ya, bridge?" and "Oh! There it is, 11 o'clock right," so that type of immediacy would not have been possible if we hadn’t been able to talk to so many of the actual participants.

 

Stephen: Barrett listened to that particular cassette tape a million times and transcribed it. He got it all written down but I'm sure that the background noise, the calls, the counter measures and emotional voices of the crew, it must have put you right in the cockpit, Barrett, because you did a great job. 

 

Barrett: Well, thank you!

 

You wrote that, “It is not our purpose in this book to write a history of the Vietnam War but to illuminate Americans’ efforts to destroy and, to the extent we can, North Vietnamese efforts to defend just one bridge, the Dragon’s Jaw at Thanh Hoa.” The book is full of the first part of the book’s purpose. American efforts to destroy the bridge are clearly and painstakingly defined and explored in the book, down to the bullets, the cigars in the cockpits, casualty statistics, flight hours. 

 

How difficult was investigating the extent of how the North Vietnamese defended the bridge? What did this type of research entail? Were you both limited by language barriers or barriers to trustworthy information?

 

Barrett: Originally, other than the already published sources and existing literature, I was fortunate years ago, before I ever thought of writing the book, in meeting a guy named Gary Wayne Foster. He's a structural engineer who has worked all over the Far East and he had a particular interest in the bridge because he knew a Navy Phantom crew that have been shot down. They were captured whilst trying to bomb the bridge. Gary's interest in the bridge went beyond the historical aspect. He started looking at it from an engineering viewpoint, and he was so intrigued that he went up to Hanoi and tracked down the architect who is credited with designing the famous Dragon’s Jawbridge in 1964 that resisted all of the American ordnance.

 

Through a couple of almost casual comments made, I started looking elsewhere and filled in the blanks--essentially built a matrix of the North Vietnamese air defense network. I identified the 238th People's Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment which was defending the bridge for most of that time. Things expanded into the surface-to-air missile category and I already knew a good deal about the MiG jet fighters that were involved in defending the bridge early on. It was essentially a building block process that not only provided information but personal accounts and as you see in the book, we have more than a few passages quoting either individual Vietnamese or official documents. To me, that was probably the most satisfying portion of the research, before I wrote a rough draft and Steve took that and ran with it. Having that kind of immediacy was more than I expected we might have going in and so it was almost as if this project was just waiting for Steve and I to discover it and once we started, it just blossomed. 

 

Barrett: We both had a good time writing it. Writers write, that's what they do and Barrett's a terrific historian and writer and I've been doing novels for most of my career. Putting it all together, writing about something so immediate and so powerful and that meant so much to our generation. I flew in A-6s in Vietnam for the last two cruises of the Enterprise during the war. I never bombed the bridge and I bombed everywhere else, and these are my guys, man. I know these guys, I lived with them, I went on liberty with them, and so it's not only their story, it's my story too and it was fun to tell it. 

 

Barrett: I'd like to add that Steve's skills as a novelist shine throughout because to me it's so much more than a campaign history, it's an immediacy, pounding, ‘you were there’ treatment that you almost expect Jake Grafton to roll down on the bridge at any moment. I know that's a big part of the strength and the appeal of Dragon's Jaw.

 

How was the experience joining forces to write about the Vietnam War -- a conflict that Stephen received a Distinguished Flying Cross in, respectively, and that Barrett is an expert in, and which carries strong political and foreign policy currents? Was it okay that perhaps your experiences and political beliefs didn’t align exactly? For example, one author is a Nixon and Kissinger supporter, while the other has a few reservations?

 

Stephen: I don't think at this point that our political views are very far apart on this war. The more you study the Vietnam War, you realize the tragedy from any angle: how many families lost sons and husbands and fathers and so on. It probably was a war that should have never been fought. The stupidities of the politicians -- I think Barrett and I are both joined at the hip. We both thought that the Johnson Administration was inept, incompetent, and really stupid.We thought the people that did the fighting actually did the best they could under very difficult circumstances. America just gave up because they were trying to do something that just couldn't be done which was defend a nation that wasn't a nation and to turn South Vietnam into a real nation state, and that was fantasy.

 

Barrett: Steve has very generously included me in two or three of his anthologies, including a couple of original fiction compilations, so we've been acquainted since before Flight of the Intruder when it was originally For Eachother, because we had the same publisher, Naval Institute Press in Annapolis. I remember commenting to the editor who had sent me the manuscript for my opinion and I said, "This is so good, if you don't publish it, I will!" and Steve and I have been, as he said, 'joined at the hip' ever since.

 

Stephen: It's been an amazing adventure along the years; it's really amazing that this is our first book together!

 

When Stephen was a guest on Oliver North’s radio show in May of 1998 (at the 20 min. mark), he got a call from a fellow tailhooker, Barrett, who asked him about a contradiction in the publishing business, where agents and publishers decided there was no longer a market for military-themed books. Stephen, your book, Flight of the Intruder, got rejected by publishers 34 times before it was published. What’s the state of military fiction today in comparison to back then?

 

Stephen: I didn't realize that was Barrett but military history well told does find an audience. Now it isn't going to be bestseller fiction, but if it's an important subject well worth writing then there'll always be a market for it, not just for the people who were there but the students of politics, students of our national identity, people who are worried about the future. If you wanted to learn about the future, read about the past.

 

How does military fiction today compare to back in the late 90s?

 

Stephen: Well, talking about military fiction, I think it's worse than it was because back then. When I was shopping the Flight of the Intruder around in the mid-80s, theytold me there's no market at all for Vietnam fiction. "Nobody wants to hear about a war we lost" and "we're not going to publish it," and they literally said, their corporate decision was, “we're not going to publish anything about Vietnam,” so times change. Military fiction, per say, is certainly not as big as it was when Tom Clancy and I were writing the so-called techno-thrillers, and those sort of died out as a genre of fiction. The big fiction today is still the same old stuff: sex, murder, whodunnits, the usual. 

 

Barrett: There is a cycle to what the publishing business receives as viable. I remember in about 1993-94, I was discussing the future of World War II history with two of my colleagues and they both had multiple, superb WWII books to their credit. All three of us had heard this emerging conventional wisdom that after the 50th anniversary of WWII in 1995, the market was going to drop off and none of us believed it, because we knew there was tons of material out there that still waited to be revealed and deserved to be told. 

 

Here we are 25 years laterand there’s still a market for a good WWII material, whether it's Rick Atkinson or Adam Makos or Christopher Shores in Britain. As long as the WWII generation continues breathing (and that's shifting) there will always be a market for it and I really believe the same for Vietnam, because that was the defining event of our generation and I just don't think it's going to dissipate anytime soon.

 

Stephen: The second generation, the children of WWII veterans are buying WWII histories now to see what their dad and their parents went through. It’s going to do that with Vietnam veterans.Their children are going to be interested in what their parents went through, a natural progression, but we're talking history, not fiction.Fiction and history are two different things.

 

Is it a good idea to keep track of oral history databases already out in the public domain as you interview pilots? 

 

Barrett: Oh, sure. Oral histories have only relatively recently become common references, even though they go back to at least the 1950s. Several years ago on one of the C-SPAN programs on the History channel, Rick Atkinson was asked about his research procedures. He said he almost never interviews WWII veterans-- he won the Pulitzer Prize for his World War II U.S. Army trilogy-- because of slipping memories, and that is a factor. Atkinson specifically mentioned the enormous depth and variety of oral histories are going to be increasingly important, because more often than not, those were conducted when the subjects were relatively young, frequently within 20 and sometimes 30 years of the events they are describing. There's a lot to be said for that. However, if Steve and I had accepted Atkinson's attitude at face value, saying, “no, we're not going to interview any of the veterans because it has been fifty years now, ”the book would not be anywhere as worthwhile and it certainly wouldn’t have asense of immediacy. I'm a firm believer that if a conscientious writer/historian looks for the best and most reliable people to interview, and you can determine that without much effort, individual interviews still have a major role to play in recording history. 

 

Are your collaborative efforts symbolic in some way of what you hope to achieve in both areas, or about how you want to bridge the gap to entertain readers and educate and engage the public?

 

Stephen: I personally think that the Dragon's Jaw is good, solid history. It's factually based and it's written as immediate as we could write it and we want to reach out and grab people by the shirts and say, "this is what the people that serve our country do, and they risk their lives and their future and their families to do whatever it is politicians ask for them to do.” I think that comes through. In fact, one of my friends was an F-8 pilot in Vietnam; he went on to become a chief of the naval operations and he looked at this book and he told me, "this just wasn't for the guys who were there, this is for all the guys in the future who are going to be asked to lay it on the line for the United States of America." When we did the dedication to all those American military Airmen, past, present, future, who have been or will be called upon the fight in the defense of freedom.

 

Is there any expectation that this will be translated into Vietnamese and released on the market there?

 

Stephen: The problem is, in the book, in some ways we burst a lot of North Vietnamese bubbles. For example, they grossly exaggerated claims about the shoot down rate for propaganda purposes and so when you read a North Vietnamese government-approved account, it's usually just BS. I can't imagine that the communist government in North Vietnam is going to want a book like this floating around that in effect points out all of the lies they've told through the years.

 

Barrett: On the other hand it wouldn't surprise me to see, say, Japanese and maybe even Chinese rights purchased for Dragon’s Jaw

 

Stephen: That's true!

 

Thank you both for your time and I look forward to the book’s release!


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