Bloody Sixteen by Peter Fey

Bloody Sixteen by Peter Fey

The book opens with a stark overview that sets the scene for its account of the 'improved Essex' class Oriskany's three deployments 1965-1968, marked by LBJ-led civilian meddling and micromanagement in far-away Washington - that never factored in, for example, tropical weather - by pussy-footing RoE, and mismanagement of strategy, tactics, training, and munitions provision, and the butterfly approach to target selection and totally inappropriate metrics imposed by MacNamara, which cost many US aircrew lives, the whole aggravated by admirals and generals who prioritised their personal score card above the lives of their men*. Although the original cause was just, LBJ's hedging prohibitions meant that his half-hearted war could never be won, which made its continuing conduct utterly immoral; the US was fatally in bed with a totally untrustworthy and corrupt ally. Numerous lives were lost fitfully trying to reduce the MiG and SAM threat, disregarding the limitless resupply of aircraft and missiles from the Soviet Union and China. The end result was a Communist victory, nearly sixty thousand young Americans cut down, the humiliation of the US abroad, and US civil society torn apart. The detailed story of Air Wing 16, mission after mission, is backed by a trenchant analysis of the political background as LBJ's massive misjudgements came back to haunt him.

Following her Korean War service (and a starring appearance as the USS Savo Island in the film 'The Bridges of Toko-Ri') Oriskany was updated with an Atlantic bow and three British inventions, the angled deck, the steam catapult and the Mirror Landing Sight, enabling her to operate jets better. Nevertheless she was too small to accommodate either that magnificent war-wagon the Phantom or the modern AEW Hawkeye, and this contributed to pilot attrition, as did the exhausting routine required of her air group on Yankee Station off North Vietnam. In 1966 she was crippled by a massive fire caused by a piece of defective ordnance being wrongly dealt with; we are also given the story of the massive 1967 fire in the carrier USS Forrestal. The narrative rolls through one operation after another, a catalogue of awesome courage that highlights the casualties and losses, and also reminding us that the dangers were not confined to the aircrew. The cruel conclusion the book brought to me was that all that bravery (including as PoWs under revolting torture), all those deaths, all that maiming, and all that materiel cost, achieved precisely nothing, and this was due to the flawed and ignorant leadership of the US Forces' Commander in Chief.

The references, citations and bibliography are extensive. However the notes contain a number of relevant asides so that the reader has to keep two bookmarks going. The maps I found difficult to read and could perhaps have been served up on a one-third greater scale. The author has served as an aviator in the USN and that's a good indicator of a true bill.

This book has given me a far greater understanding of what was going on 'next door' during my own RN deployments to the Far East in 1965 and 1968 and resulting visits to Subic, Pearl and San Diego and travels in the US in 1967 when the Americans' tails were up and they thought they were winning.

* see also the novel 'Rolling Thunder' by ex-USAF Captain Mark Berent

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