Book Reviews: February 2001
By Rob Krott
Blackjack-33: With the Special Forces in the Viet Cong Forbidden Zone
By: James C. Donahue
277 Pages, 1999, paperback $6.99
Reviewed by Rob Krott
Blackjack-33: With the Special Forces in the Viet Cong Forbidden Zone by James C. Donahue is the story of how a few U.S. Army Special Forces advisors and a battalion of Cambodians took the war to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army in their own sanctuaries. While U.S. Army Special Forces units were primarily involved in training units of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) from 1957 to 1961, their mission was significantly broadened in 1961 when they were ordered to train and advise South Vietnam’s minority groups; Montagnards, Cambodians, Nungs, and ethnic Vietnamese of the Cao-Dai and Hao Hao sects. This marked the beginning of the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program. By 1965 SF “A-teams” had established forty-eight CIDG camps. In 1967, Colonel Kelly, the commanding officer of the 5th Special Forces Group, directed the formation of Mobile Guerrilla Forces Detachment A-303 in order to introduce American led “guerrillas” to Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army (NVA) controlled sanctuaries, specifically War Zone D, a Viet Cong “secret zone”. Kelly ordered Captain James “Bo” Gritz, the executive officer of the Nha Trang Mike Force to form the MGF.
The Khmer Serei (Free Cambodians) troops Gritz recruited to form the MGF were young — many only 16 or 17 years old, but they were experienced fighters. Some of the older soldiers fought the Viet Minh. One, Thach, was at Dien Bien Phu with the 5th Para Brigade. The Khmer Serei were recruited from CIDG infantry companies already working with U.S. Army Special Forces. Donahue, an advisor to a Montagnard light infantry company at Duc Phong special forces camp, was recruited as cadre for the new unit. Donahue describes the camaraderie between Green Berets and their Cambodian troops. His rapport with the Cambodians of the MFG is readily apparent. Indeed, unlike many other memoirs of duty in Vietnam, the indigenous troops are central to the story and you get to know many of the Cambodians as well as you do their American Green Beret commanders.
James Donahue (currently the US Department of Labor’s Assistant Director for Veteran’s Employment and Training in Buffalo, NY) had enlisted in the Marine Corps and served at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during the missile crisis. After his enlistment in the U.S. Army he volunteered for Special Forces and saw action with Detachment A-343 at Duc Phong and Mobile Guerrilla Force Detachments A-303, A-304, A-361 and B-36 at Bien Hoa, Ho Ngoc Tao, and Trang Sup.
Blackjack-33 is not Donahue’s first book. No Greater love: A Day with the Mobile Guerrilla Force in Vietnam was published in 1989 and earned the George Washington Honor Medal. I read it in one sitting and remember being stunned at the ferocity of the combat Donahue described. On that mission, Blackjack 34, he was a medic and deputy patrol commander when his mobile guerrilla force (MGF) found itself surrounded and besieged by regiment sized units of Viet Cong and NVA. Donahue followed that book with Mobile Guerrilla Force published by Naval Institute Press in 1994. I’m a fan of Donahue’s books so my negative criticism of his writing style is sparse. Some of the dialogue seems a bit stilted and sometimes melodramatic and the phrasing that Donahue has had to re-create (from his journal and conversations with participants) after thirty years isn’t always what you might expect men in the heat of battle to utter. Some of the political and cultural explanations couched in dialogue seem contrived. Although a necessary mechanism to inform the reader what the author obviously already knew at the time, it is sometimes a distraction to Donahue’s otherwise vibrant, descriptive prose on the sights, sounds, and smells of Vietnam. The chirping of crickets, screeching of monkey — faint smells of wood-smoke and Vietnamese food cooking in the predawn air — Donahue makes all these come alive for the reader. His storytelling is gritty and violently factual.
War Zone D was known to the Viet Cong as “The Forbidden Zone.” It was here that the mobile guerrilla force would out-guerrilla the guerrilla: sneaking around the Viet Cong and NVA sanctuary, penetrating his inner lair, hitting the enemy where he lived, literally, in his base camps. As Donahue recounts: “It was a dangerous game — like hunting a three-hundred pound tiger with a jackknife.
” With an M-5 kit in one hand and an M-16 rifle in the other Donahue was both medic and assistant platoon leader, healer and killer. This balancing act sometimes seem incongruous especially when Donahue shoots a Viet Cong in the throat and them attempts to treat him as the enemy soldier gurgles his last breath.
While many G.I.s in Vietnam never even saw an enemy soldier, Donahue and his unit were often nearly overrun by ranks of khaki clad, pith helmet wearing North Vietnamese. In the first action described in Blackjack-33, Donahue’s unit engaged a unit of mixed black and green uniformed troops, a unit of Khaki clad regulars, Chinese mercenaries (the Cambodians recognized the language), and blue uniformed troops. One of the MFG recon platoons is overrun by the Chinese troops. James Williams, a section leader, is killed and the platoon leader, Dale England, is wounded and radios, “We’re stackin magazines. This may be my last transmission. Over”.
The MGF had to react quickly, decisively, and aggressively. Their standard operating procedure was to assault, kill a bunch of the enemy, destroy material, boobytrap the area and any ammunition stocks, then break contact and withdraw before any counterattack could outflank them. One raid included assaulting thirty or more Viet Cong, their weapons stacked uselessly behind them, while they were sitting on benches in a map reading class in their jungle schoolroom.
During another of these base camp raids on the NVA’s inner sanctum the MGF breaks contact and while withdrawing back into the relative safety of the jungle Donahue falls into a trench, landing on top of a badly wounded VC. Before he can shoot he realizes the enemy soldier is a woman. He uses his scarf to tie a tourniquet around her leg and injects her with morphine. Scenes such as this makes Blackjack-33 a riveting and at times, emotional. There is pathos here. As a firefight erupts around them Donahue’s radio operator, Ly, shouts a warning and pushes Donahue out of the way of incoming fire, only to take a fatal bullet meant for Donahue. Another, Set, has his spinal column severed and is given an overdose of morphine by his friends and dies.
In the epilogue Donahue gives a history of Khmer Serei forces from Blackjack-33 up to May 1970 when Cambodians of the 3rd Mobile Strike Force were flown to Phnom Penh for integration into the Cambodian Army, and provides post-war biographical sketches of all the participants including his Cambodian comrades. While a few found a happy ending here in the United States most did not survive their decade long struggle for freedom.
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