Reviewed by Lt. Col. James H. Willbanks, U.S. Army (ret.)
By Carol Reardon
University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2004
On Easter Sunday, March 30, 1972, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) began its Nguyen Hue Offensive, a massive conventional invasion of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam) across the Demilitarized Zone. Americans know this as the Eastertide Offensive. Secure in the belief that the United States would not invade the North and that the RVN could not do so, the DRV committed 12 of its army”s 15 divisions to the invasion, retaining only two in Laos and one in North Vietnam. The DRV leadership was confident that the United States would not intervene and that this offensive would win the war in 1972.
President Richard Nixon was determined to take action, however. Because most U.S. ground forces had already departed South Vietnam in the Vietnamization program, Nixon responded with a massive display of air power. In Operation Linebacker, he sent U.S. aircraft against the North without the restrictions of the earlier, lengthy Rolling Thunder campaign.
Launch the Intruders: A Naval Attack Squadron in the Vietnam War, 1972, by Carol Reardon (University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2004, hardcover $34.95), is the story of that 1972-73 deployment. Reardon, an associate professor of history at Penn State University, used the squadron log, archival sources and personal recollections — based on numerous interviews with surviving squadron members — to provide a carefully crafted study of U.S. Navy Medium Attack Squadron 75, or VA-75 — the “Sunday Punchers — during Operations Linebacker I and II. While Reardon”s narrative centers on the pilots of the squadron, she does not ignore the men who kept the planes flying, fueled and supplied with ordnance. Reardon also reminds the reader of events occurring in the United States and how these affected both the members of the squadron and the attitudes of their family members toward the war. Launch the Intruders is a comprehensive study; it runs 440 pages and includes 37 photographs and four maps.
Most books published about the air war over Vietnam concentrate on the U.S. Air Force and, especially during 1972, the Boeing B-52 strategic bombers. The few studies of the naval air arm, with the notable exception of Stephen Coonts” historical novel Flight of the Intruder, tend to emphasize the “Top Gun pilots who flew the McDonnell F-4 Phantom. Squadron 75″s task was not to engage and shoot down North Vietnamese MiGs. Its mission was more prosaic — flying the Grumman A-6 Intruder in a variety of attack missions.
VA-75 traced its roots back to the Pacific theater in World War II. It had seen combat in the Korean War, and it was the first naval air squadron to receive the A-6. Described as a “flying drumstick, the Intruder began operations in Vietnam in 1965 and was in the forefront of the air war there until the end of the conflict.
Popular with its crews, the A-6 could fly in all conditions, day or night, and its sophisticated navigation system made it suitable for all types of missions, including attack, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and tanker duty. It was capable of delivering a larger bombload than any other carrier plane of its time, from general-purpose iron bombs to smart bombs and even nuclear weapons.
A-6 operations flown from carriers on Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin during 1972 have generally been slighted. To quantify the squadron”s importance, during the 1972 Vietnam deployment, VA-75 dropped 10 million pounds of bombs on North Vietnamese targets. Its missions included strikes on SAM sites, bridges, power plants and storage facilities, as well as the mining of rivers and harbors, such as Hanoi”s port of Haiphong. During their deployment, the Sunday Punchers were credited with the destruction of 295 structures, 17 AAA sites and 191 vehicles; damage to five SAM sites and five runways; and 310 secondary explosions and 148 sustained fires.
Reardon references VA-75″s master logbook that detailed every mission — the crews involved, ordnance expended, bomb damage assessment and opposition. Clearly, U.S. and RVN air assets were instrumental in defeating the Nguyen Hue Offensive, denying the North Vietnamese troops the logistical support their conventional ground offensive required.
When, in December, North Vietnam balked at renegotiating the already agreed upon settlement reached in Paris, and Nixon unleashed a new wave of bombings on the North, the men of VA-75 helped bring Hanoi back to the negotiating table, making it possible to end the American phase of the Vietnam War. The mining of Haiphong was so disruptive to the North”s economy that Hanoi insisted on removal of the mines as a condition for the release of U.S. POWs. Sadly, four members of the squadron perished. In 1997 VA-75 was inactivated and the A-6 retired from the Navy.
Launch the Intruders is, and no doubt will remain, one of the best “cockpit studies of the Vietnam War. It is at once a major contribution to the literature of naval aviation in the war, a splendid story of a unit working at peak efficiency in combat and a record of the individuals who made that possible.