Marolda, Edward J., and R. Blake Dunnavent. 2015. Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam. Washington, DC: Department of the Navy. 82 pp. http://purl.fdlp.gov/GPO/gpo58688

The “Brown-Water Navy” in Vietnam gained fame by numerous books, such movies as Apocalypse Now, and the Presidential candidacy of Senator John Kerry, a “swift-boat” veteran. Commendably, this compact and lavishly illustrated history begins with an executive summary of riverine operations from the French Indochina War to the withdrawal of the United States Navy in the 1970’s. Subsequent chapters describe the major campaigns, milestone by milestone.

The Navy had conducted coastal and riverine warfare, yet arrived in Vietnam oddly unprepared in what we now call best practices. At first, the Navy adapted French naval tactics from the earlier conflict, establishing the River Patrol Force (RPF) to protect the sea route to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Later, the RPF interdicted war supplies and supported infantry assaults in the Mekong Delta and elsewhere, acting, as it were, as floating helicopters. River Patrol Force’s Operation Game Warden evolved into the Army-Navy Mobile Riverine Force and its wider-ranging Operation SEALORDS.

The iconic swift-boats arrived late in the conflict, and supplemented many older or retrofitted craft. The Navy updated its equipment, even anchoring ships and barges into floating bases for rest and refit. Throughout, sailors faced intense combat, exhausting tropical conditions, and underwater mines as ingenious and deadly as booby-traps on land. Each chapter alternates between command-level decisions and hair-raising accounts of surface-level combat.

The concluding chapters recount the Vietnamization program as the Navy withdrew, and the budgetary circumstances that unraveled its hard-won successes. The authors conclude that the “Brown-Water Navy” sailors and commanders, notably Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., fought and functioned, for the most part, effectively. Much of the experience informed and supported successful operations on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers during the Iraq War.

This booklet is aimed at naval officers facing possible future riverine warfare. For general audiences, it is a bit heavy on military acronyms and other technical details, but still useful as an introduction to general histories or memoirs of naval combat in Vietnam.—Carl Olson, Librarian at Towson University


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