Naked in Da Nang – Book Review
Naked in Da Nang: A Forward Air Controller in Vietnam. By Mike Jackson and Tara Dixon-Engel. Zenith Press, 2010. 304 pages, softcover. $17.99.
Jackson’s story is the real story of the vast majority of Vietnam veterans.
Imagine flying a prop-driven aircraft through varying weather conditions at low altitude while trying to pin-point activity on the ground—ground that is mostly covered by dense jungle. Now throw in people on the ground shooting at you with everything from slingshots to missiles, while you’re “armed” with nothing more than white phosphorous rockets for marking ground targets. Finally, add to all this the fact people’s lives depend on you doing your job with precision.
Now you have at least a sense of what it was like to serve as a Forward Air Controller (FAC), flying Cessna O-2A Skymasters in Vietnam, serving a tour of duty in a foreign land thousands of miles from home.
The US Army Air Corps learned important lessons during World War Two regarding aerial support of ground troops engaged with enemy forces, a mission known as close air support (CAS). Sadly, the importance of these lessons was lost on an air force struggling for independence and focused on strategic bombardment as a way to win status as a separate service. During the Korean War, the service branch that was by then known as the US Air Force had to re-learn all the lessons regarding CAS it’d forgotten since the close of World War Two. One of these lessons involved the use of dedicated aerial observers to direct ground attack aircraft.
Unfortunately, the Air Force of the 1950s and 1960s focused so intently on its strategic nuclear war mission that all other offensive missions suffered considerably (even new fighter aircraft were designed primarily for a nuclear mission and did not even include internal cannons). As the Vietnam War ramped up, the need became abundantly evident for forward air controllers (FACs) in relatively slow-moving aircraft to direct the ground attacks of fast, jet-powered strike aircraft.
The first FAC aircraft in Vietnam were O-1 Bird Dogs, a version of the L-19 based on the 1940s-era Cessna 170. While an excellent peacetime aerial search and rescue platform, the O-1 was not suited to the rigors of wartime service. In 1967, twin-engine Cessna O-2As began replacing the O-1s in Vietnam. While faster and slightly more robust, the Skymasters, like the Bird Dogs, were nothing more than civilian aircraft pressed into military service.
Mike Jackson found himself flying over Vietnam from 1971 to 1972. During this time, he completed 210 combat missions in the venerable Skymaster while surviving a year in Southeast Asia. Naked in Da Nang tells his story.
Yet, Jackson’s story is larger than himself. Yes, it is the story of all FACs, but it is even larger than that. In the end, Jackson’s story is the real story of the vast majority of Vietnam veterans. Before the war even ended, the media (along with many self-appointed “intelligentsia” and far too many politicians) claimed the Vietnam vet was an antisocial, drug-addicted psychotic bent on killing babies and puppies. Jackson’s story paints the actual picture: honorable American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines doing the best job possible under the given conditions while never losing that quality which throughout our nation’s history has defined every American service member—humanity.
Zenith press originally released Naked in Da Nang in 2004. This 2010 version is the third printing of the book and includes a new afterward by the authors. In a world where printed books, particularly war memoirs, quickly come and go, the fact this book is in its third printing should tell you something about its quality and enduring character.
If you’re looking for Soldier of Fortune–style “shoot ‘em up stories,” this book isn’t for you. One reader on Amazon complained about the lack of gritty combat flying narratives in this book. Unfortunately, he missed the point. Naked in Da Nang is not a collection of half-true “there I was” tales of combat. The book instead tells the story of what it’s like to spend part of one’s life thousands of miles from home during a combat tour, never sure what the next day (or even next minute) might bring. I believe most veterans of all conflicts will strongly relate to Jackson’s narrative and find themselves recalling their own times spent with commands in faraway lands—not all of whom came home. For those who served in combat, Charles Dickens nailed it: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I’ll let Jackson sum up his book for you: “So the mission of this book is simply to confirm that human beings bring to war exactly what they bring to life—humanity, in all its many tones and hues … I was one of the lucky ones. I lived through it. And while I am still young enough to do so, I offer this record—a personal odyssey—of what Vietnam was like for me, one little guy from Tipp City, Ohio, who remembers Southeast Asia with a range of emotions, including, always laughter.”
Finally, I leave you with the words of a much more qualified reviewer than myself, triple ace Brigadier General Robin Olds: “If you weren’t there, or were young, read and understand. Discover the real meaning and definition of courage. As one who fought in two wars, I am indebted to Mike Jackson for telling it like it was, is, and always will be.”
Steve Schultz is a former active duty Air Force officer and pilot. He holds a master’s degree in military history and writes from southwest Florida.