Military History – November 2010 – Letters From Readers

9/1/2010 • MH Letters

Lessons from the Mayaguez Incident
I read with great interest “What We Learned [from the Mayaguez Incident,” by William H. McMichael], in the September 2010 issue, especially the lesson learned about the delayed warning to other merchant ships in the area. I was in one of those ships.

I was master of SS Pioneer Moon, a United States Lines merchant ship under time charter to Military Sealift Command (MSC). During April and early May 1975, we were delivering ammunition to Sasebo, Japan; Okinawa; and then Subic Bay, Philippines, as the final days of the war in Vietnam took place. Upon discharge of cargo in Subic Bay, we were scheduled for a final port of discharge at Port Vayama, Thailand. Most of the ammunition cargo for Vayama was for ultimate transshipment to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and marked as such. With the fall of Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge victory in Cambodia, it was decided, by MSC, that we would proceed to Vayama anyway, not to discharge, but to load similar ammunition stockpiled there for return to the United States.

I had misgivings about sailing up the west coast of Vietnam and Cambodia en route to Thailand under such uncertain conditions but was assured by MSC that all was under control. Upon sailing from Subic on May 13, I learned, by means of a commercial news broadcast, that Mayaguez had been taken by Cambodian naval forces. I communicated by radio to MSC and was ordered to follow my sailing orders to Vayama and to report any unusual incidents to them.

I maintained full speed up the Gulf of Siam, keeping well off the coast and well clear of any other vessels or small craft. On the morning of May 14, our ship was overtaken by USS Harold E. Holt, which passed by at full speed without communicating with us.

Although we arrived safely in Vayama and completed our voyage back to the United States without further incident, I have often wondered what the political repercussions would have been had we been the ship seized and our most sensitive cargo fallen into Cambodian hands.

Captain David H. Cory
United States Lines (Ret.)
Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Malaya Emergency
Mark Moyar’s fine September 2010 article “Right Man, Right Time” seized upon the notion that the military could “solve” Malaya. To quote the popular maxim: “The military makes a great hammer, but not every problem is a nail.” No one understands better than a career soldier the limits of what armed force can achieve. It’s one of the fundamental axioms of guerrilla warfare: An insurgency can be contained by military means, but it can be “defeated” only by political means.

Evan Dale Santos
Adelanto, Ca.

I much enjoyed Stephan Wilkinson’s article [“Killer U-Boats”] in the September 2010 issue of Military History, but I do want to point out an error regarding U-53. While U-53 sank five ships after leaving Newport, R.I., they were not all Allied, as stated. Norway and the Netherlands were neutral nations in World War I, even though their ships were considered fair game by the German navy after Germany’s adoption of unrestricted submarine warfare. The three British vessels sunk by U-53 were those of a belligerent enemy power and, hence, fair game.

Kudos, especially, for the propaganda art in the same issue.

Robert W. Arnold III
Albany, N.Y.

Whose History?
I read with great interest your interview with Evan Thomas [September] regarding the lead-up to America’s war with Spain. While Thomas’ grasp of the situation in the United States is quite solid, I must disagree with his view of Spain’s armed forces. Their situation was, without doubt, unenviable. But Spanish troops in the Caribbean and the Philippines had far more at their disposal than just pride. They possessed both a rifle and a uniform superior to those of American troops. And they knew the terrain.

Thomas’ portrayal of Spanish naval actions as suicidal is also incorrect. Even though it was outnumbered, outgunned and outclassed, Spain’s Caribbean squadron was not on a suicide mission. The Spanish commander, Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete, was well aware of his ships’ limitations and worked to make the best use of the force he had at his disposal. Thomas’ assertion that the officers and crews of the Spanish squadron “wanted to die” is simply not true. “When they sailed out for their last naval battle,” the only ship Cervera planned to sacrifice was his flagship. His hope was this sacrifice would give his remaining three cruisers and two destroyers a chance to escape. His only alternatives were to be sunk at anchor inside Santiago harbor or to surrender. The Spanish squadron’s emergence from Santiago harbor was not a “parade of death,” as Thomas states. It was, rather, a calculated risk.

Andrew M. Cooperman
Waterloo, Ill.

Suez Smashup
Your article “Suez Smashup” [by David T. Zabecki, July] begins with the phrase “U.S. ally Israel.” A [State Department] spokesman actually said in 1967 that America was officially “neutral in thought, word and deed.” No treaty of alliance has ever existed between the two nations, though the United States signed dozens of such treaties during the Cold War. In the 1956 and 1967 wars, Israel used mostly French weapons. In 1948 Israel had World War II–era German weapons, sold by Czechoslovakia. The United States did begin selling Israel Phantoms and Skyhawks while Lyndon Johnson was still in office. The first free aid given Israel came from Richard Nixon (God bless him) and quite literally saved Israel in October 1973.

Michael Carson
Ione, Calif.

Boer Lessons
Excellent article on the Boer War (“Farmers at Arms,” by Martin Dugard, May 2010). The war is near and dear to me, as my mother’s father, Dan Kennedy, along with about 50 other Irish immigrants from Holyoke, Mass., and Chicago took up arms in the Boer cause. Along with the books Dugard recommends should be added A West Pointer With the Boers, by Colonel John Y. Filmore Blake, recently re-released by Kessinger Publishing. Blake was commander of the “Irish Brigade,” an exaggeration to be sure. However, I wouldn’t recommend Kitchener’s strategy to the U.S. command, as many of the Brits and all of the Irish disdained the lord’s perfecting of the concentration camp as a weapon of war.

Patrick J. Sullivan
Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve
Marshfield, Wisc.

I have thought quite a bit about the title on the May 2010 cover, HOW TO CRUSH AN INSURGENCY, and especially your subtitle, WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM THE BOER WARS.

Well, let’s see: The British destroyed any sustainable enemy asset, burning crops and farmhouses, slaughtering livestock and poisoning wells. Their concentration camps resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, mostly of women and children noncombatants.
Serious atrocities, to be sure. Very sad and difficult to comprehend.

But conversely, if the USA takes a few naughty photos of captured terrorists or makes them uncomfortable during interrogation or inhibits their ability to carry on religious activities, there is outcry that embarrasses our military, reduces its effectiveness and momentum, divides our citizens, exhilarates much of our media and ultimately makes the U.S. look like the bad guys!

It seems to me the lesson is America should stay out of war at almost any reasonable cost, because we don’t have what it takes to win one.

The British knew (and did) what it took to win. I don’t condone it. But war is “hell” not “heck.” Success is almost always all or nothing, with little room for shades of gray to interfere with its operation. Our current “war” has gone triple the length of the Second Boer War. That is ridiculously unacceptable.

Rik Fontana
West Jordan, Utah

[Re: “U.S. Navy Lifts Ban on Female Submariners,” by Brendan Manley, July:] As a submarine veteran, I’d just like to point out that the Los Angeles–class submarines were built with a separate 21-man berthing section complete with their own heads and showers. The officers had separate two-man staterooms (if a space with barely room for two bunks and a fold-down desk is a stateroom), so there is no additional cost to building subs that can accommodate women. Also, my total exposure to radiation over four years was 0.005 milliroentgens, so I don’t think that’s a risk either.

Thurman Wilson
Bristol, Va.

Acts of War
The sidebar on P. 29 of the March 2010 issue of Military History [“Acts of War,” by Mitch Lerner] omits the April 15, 1969, North Korean shoot-down of a U.S. Navy EC-121M signals-intelligence collection flight over the Sea of Japan. Thirty-one persons died as a result of the attack. The attack aircraft were MiG-17s from Chongjin Air Base.

Jim Wagner
St. Louis, Mo.

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