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Posted on Oct 26, 2010 in Books and Movies

Naked in Da Nang – Book Review

By Steve Schultz

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.

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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.

2 Comments

  1. A honest re-view but I don’t buy the somewhat negative comment about the Amazon reference of the book quote:

    “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.”

    There is at least about five other biography’s on FACs in Vietnam that I know of and accusing them to and their authors to be “half true” is somewhat upsetting. I wonder if Mr Schultz read any of them.

    What one expects from a book is highly individual and for me studying the Vietnam war missions and in country observations is more of essence then the veterans life post war (that is under a different category).

    I feel that Naked in Danang is mostly about the author himself and less of the actual war. If people like this kind of literature it’s fine by me, but as an observer we get about less then 10% cockpit time of maybe 40% in-country time which might bring up some debate about what to expect of it when first seeing it praising the pilot and important missions flown by these guys (most books have 90% in-country where at least 50% of it is cockpit time).

    I mean he did fly over 200 missions and only re-capped maybe half a dozen of them. So to complete the re-view, if you are interested in the work FACs did in Vietnam I suggest you try to find some of the others around (of course you probably still have to buy this one in the end as he does explain some interesting technical aspects of the O-2 in field). But If you like the personal tale of a veteran going through life with his experiences and some insights of Forward air controlling and life at base this is a good book for you.

  2. Pappy,

    Apparently you didn’t understand my comment. I never in anyway claimed this book, nor any other written by FACs, is “half-true” — in fact, if you read what I wrote, it specifically says this book is NOT a collection of half-true combat stories.

    My comment about “shoot ‘em up” was in reference to a “review” of this book posted on Amazon in which the reader rated the book poorly since it didn’t focus solely on the author’s combat flying missions. As I said in my review, that reader completely missed the point of this book.

    This is not a book about the author’s combat flying experience — as I said, if that’s what you’re after, give this a pass. The book is about the larger picture of the author’s overall experience in Vietnam — it’s a story of what it’s like to be an Air Force combat aircrew member deployed in a war zone (considering I’ve “been there, done that,” I speak with the voice of experience when I say this). Again, as I said in my review, I believe the way in which the author approaches the larger story of his overall Vietnam experience makes it a much stronger book.

    To answer your charge, not only have I read other books by and about FACs in Vietnam, I’ve also read the vast majority of books written about the overall air war in Vietnam. That’s why I attempted to be very specific in my description of what this book is and what it is not.

    - Maj Steve Schultz

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