Plenty of authors and publishers try to boost sales by larding book titles with such undeserved adjectives as “unknown,” “forgotten,” or “secret.” But Ed Sherwood is completely justified in using “hidden” in the title of this book. Courage Under Fire accurately captures the treatment that U.S. government officials and most military histories of the Vietnam War have given the Battle of Tam Ky (also known as Operation Lamar Plain) fought from May through August 1969 by the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile) in Quang Tin Province south of Danang. Sherwood, a participant in the bloody battle and now, with this book, its most authoritative chronicler, documents how President Richard M. Nixon, General Creighton Abrams Jr., the commander of U.S. military operations in Vietnam, and other U.S. officials deliberately and literally “hid” the costly operation from all public scrutiny.
The reason that the valor and blood sacrifice of the men in the 1st Brigade of the “Screaming Eagles” at Tam Ky has been deliberately hidden for decades is simple. As Operation Lamar Plain got underway on May 15, headlines in the United States were dominated by the division’s “meatgrinder” Battle of Hamburger Hill (officially, Operation Apache Snow, or the Battle of Dong Ap Bia) some 100 miles northwest of Tam Ky, which left more than 620 of the 101st Division’s 3rd Brigade troops killed or wounded. The politically embattled Nixon administration couldn’t afford to publicly acknowledge that 525 additional American soldiers had been killed or wounded in the Battle of Tam Ky, coming as it did immediately on the heels of the debacle at Hamburger Hill. Nixon was elected on a promise to end the Vietnam War, not to prolong it indefinitely. Tam Ky had to remain “hidden.”
Sherwood has written one of the best, most comprehensive accounts of Vietnam War combat published to date. He masterfully places the fighting within that post-Tet ’68 stage of the war’s strategic, operational, and tactical frameworks with the knowledge and skill of a soldier-participant (and Purple Heart recipient). A platoon leader (3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry) in the Tam Ky battle, Sherwood writes from invaluable firsthand knowledge, but he has also mined official records, interviewed dozens of other veterans of the battle, and crafted a compelling narrative that readers will find engrossing from beginning to end.
Sherwood brings the combat actions of his fellow soldiers dramatically to life. Throughout the book (and in informative, helpful appendixes) he introduces readers to his fellow soldiers in D Company, “Geronimo” battalion, and we learn their names, backgrounds, and fates—we come to really know and care about the men we sent to fight and die in Vietnam.
Like most such “operations” in the Vietnam War, Tam Ky consisted of months of intense and often brutal small-unit actions. Counted day by day, the casualties may have seemed somewhat small compared to those in World War I or World War II, but the numbers of dead, wounded, and missing on both sides gradually but inexorably mounted into the hundreds or thousands. How could that have happened? Sherwood’s detailed chronicle provides the answer—for Tam Ky and, as it stands as an example, for essentially all such engagements in the Vietnam War. When the military objective was simply to find and kill as many of the enemy as possible, operations inevitably dragged on until one side or the other, having had enough, withdrew.
Sherwood has included many extremely useful strategic, operational, and tactical maps, as well as nine appendixes and a glossary. These additions extend this book’s usefulness and enrich any further study of the Vietnam War.
If I were still teaching military service school and civilian university courses on the Vietnam War, Ed Sherwood’s Courage Under Fire is the one book I would select as required reading on how the war was fought.
Jerry Morelock, a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War, is a prize-winning military historian whose books include Generals of the Bulge: Leadership in the U.S Army’s Greatest Battle, The Army Times Book of Great Land Battles from the Civil War to the Gulf War, and, as a contributing editor, Pershing’s Lieutenants: American Military Leadership in World War I.
This article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (Vol. 33, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews | Courage Under Fire: The 101st Airborne’s Hidden Battle at Tam Ky
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