The past 12 months or so have been fruitful for people I know publishing books (see here and here). My friend and former colleague Peter Fey makes it a hat trick with his first book, Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 during the Vietnam War, which came out early last summer.
The book chronicles Oriskany’s three deployments to Vietnam with Carrier Air Wing 16 (CVW-16) in the late 1960s. The three cruises were during Operation Rolling Thunder, the ultimately unsuccessful air war against North Vietnam. CVW-16’s time on the line often coincided with the most harrowing parts of the campaign, and the air wing accounted for a quarter of all Navy aircraft lost during that phase of the war.
Fey’s work is thoroughly researched, and his account of Oriskany’s cruises and her air wing’s missions are skillfully couched within the broader context of not just the Johnson Administration’s policy in Vietnam, but also its broader Cold War strategy as well as ambitious legislative aspirations at home. The author pulls no punches in emphasizing the effect that policymakers’ involvement in tactical decision-making and the halting escalation – interspersed with complete pauses – on the day-to-day fortunes of the pilots going over the beach.
In the end, it’s as hard to miss his final assessment of the administration’s strategic – and tactical – execution as it is to argue with his position.
But the book is more than an academic analysis and debate about the conduct of a particular campaign. The work is, in part, the fruit of relationships Fey’s built with some of the air wing’s veterans. Interspersed among the discussion of policy and strategy are gripping accounts of some of the missions, telling some of the aircrews’ most harrowing stories. There’s an evocative discussion of the time spent as prisoners of war by many of the Air Wing’s pilots. And there’s a gripping account of the deadly fire that tore through the ship, taking with it some of the wing’s most seasoned leaders.
The book will naturally appeal to people interested in military history in general and Naval Aviation in particular. But it deserves a broader readership than that. As of 2015, seven percent of all living Americans have served in the military; about five percent served in wartime, and an even smaller percentage has any firsthand exposure to combat. 18.8% of the 115th Congress served. It would do the electorate – and the vast majority of the elected representatives – well to have a better of understanding of what they ask of those who serve and what happens when the state is less than wise in its commitment of military force.