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True Faith and Allegiance: An American Paratrooper and the 1972 Battle for An Loc

 by Mike McDermott, University of Alabama Press, 2012

Firsthand “boots on the ground” accounts of combat have long been a staple of the Vietnam War’s rich historiography. The genre is so well represented, in fact, that it has become increasingly difficult in recent years for authors to break new literary ground or put a fresh spin on a familiar script. Airborne veteran Mike McDermott, remarkably, manages to do a good bit of both in his new book, True Faith and Allegiance: An American Paratrooper and the 1972 Battle for An Loc.

McDermott captures in vivid—and often graphic—detail his experiences during the bloody 1972 battle for An Loc. Spearheading Hanoi’s Easter Offensive in III Corps in April,thousands of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) troops, supported by tanks and artillery, surged across Cambodia’s border bound for the Binh Long province capital,An Loc. President Nguyen Van Thieu ordered the 5th Division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) to hold the city. The 1st Airborne Brigade of the elite South Vietnamese Airborne Division, meanwhile, was ordered in early April to push north up Highway 13 and relieve the hard-pressed An Loc garrison. McDermott, then an American adviser with the subordinate 5th Airborne Battalion, grabbed his pump-action shotgun and trucked off to battle with his South Vietnamese paratroopers.

The oldest of five children, McDermott was raised in rural South Dakota and believed fervently in the crusade against communism in Southeast Asia. Idealistic and committed, he served three tours with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam before volunteering to stay on with Advisory Team 162, the American contingent serving with the South Vietnamese Airborne Division.“Even though the American Army, to include the 101st Airborne Division, was pulling out, my fidelity to the mission remained,” McDermott candidly writes of his reasons for staying in Vietnam. “The purpose of the fight I had embraced years before had not changed.”

Nor had the resolve of the South Vietnamese paratroopers to whom he had been assigned. After a series of sharp engagements with NVA forces blocking Highway 13, the 1st Airborne Brigade was airlifted north on April 14 and 15 to participate more directly in the defense of An Loc. Dug in near a rubber plantation, the 5th Airborne Battalion heroically defended the southeast approaches to the city despite appalling living conditions, tree-splitting NVA artillery barrages and relentless enemy ground assaults. McDermott, while no stranger to good soldiering, marveled at the enduring courage and fortitude of his South Vietnamese comrades.

Nevertheless, if not for American air support, the outnumbered and outgunned 5th Airborne would almost certainly have been overrun. Time and again the author, from the cramped confines of a sweltering bunker, coordinated the airstrikes that were instrumental to the battalion’s survival. The effects of some of those strikes, and the fascinating collaboration between the adviser on the ground and the forward air controller (FAC) overhead, are recounted in illuminating detail. McDermott, moreover, testifies to the highly sophisticated, technologically advanced air defense system the North Vietnamese installed around the besieged city. That system forced the battalion and the defenders of An Loc to rely on parachute drops for resupply.

Days of squalor, privation and death on the outskirts of An Loc turned into weeks. Filthy, exhausted and tormented by bouts of dysentery, McDermott struggled to maintain the mental acuity needed to continue putting in the airstrikes the 5th Airborne desperately depended on. With no Americans on hand to confide in, he began to feel hopelessly isolated,and as conditions continued to deteriorate his mood grew progressively darker. Knowing that he possessed the extraordinary power to exact revenge on his enemies with airstrikes, however, motivated him to persevere.

Tasked with defending the city itself, the 5th Airborne, reduced now to half its original strength, entered the shattered ruins of An Loc on May 17. McDermott was stunned. The once-thriving metropolis looked like a scene from the“old newsreels of war-torn towns” he had seen as a kid. Smoldering heaps of shell-smashed buildings overlooked streets littered with rubble, debris and the rotting corpses of soldiers, civilians and animals. Here, amid the hazy, decaying remains of An Loc, he confronted—memorably—gangrenous paratroopers, pregnant women and the remorseless demands of urban combat.

Thoughtfully written, True Faith and Allegiance weaves McDermott’s personal recollections into a poignant reminder of forgotten valor and unheralded sacrifice in the final years of the Vietnam War.


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.