MARINE CORPS TANK BATTLES IN VIETNAM.
“Vietnam carried war to a whole other level of complexity and ambiguity—militarily, politically, and morally,” states Oscar “Ed” Gilbert in the preface of his third and most recent “Marine Corps Tank Battles” book.
There are many who have no idea how—or even if—Marine tanks were employed in the Vietnam War. The logic is that Vietnam was not “tank country.” And that “logic” would be valid if it were not for the aggressiveness, boldness, dedication, loyalty and ingenuity of the Marine tank°©ers who battled in the jungles that hid the enemy, through the rice paddies that hid the mines, and on city streets that bristled with antitank weapons.
Gilbert brings the Marine tanker warriors’ attributes to the reader through the tankers’ eyes and with their stories—these men who fought their tanks during the five years of Marine tank deployment in Vietnam. The experiences of the dozens of tankers Gilbert interviewed seem to jump off the pages. He weaves these day-to-day personal stories and thoughts of the Marine tankers into the fabric of the official documentation of the Vietnam War to present the reader a vivid picture of what life—and death—was like in their 52-ton M48A3 tanks.
Gilbert describes in some detail the difficulties he encountered in researching the book. The lack of documentation was particularly troublesome and challenging. The basic source of unit activity reporting was the monthly Command Chronology, which is written at the infantry and tank battalion levels. The responsibility for the document’s preparation lies with the battalion’s operations officer—the S-3.
Unfortunately, in the case of tanks, which were attached or in direct support of the infantry, the S-3 often did not know the details of the day-to-day activities of the battalion’s tanks. The supported infan°©try—if they did report on the supporting tanks’ activity—did not cite specific tanks, let alone their crews. The result, contributed to by the fog of war, exacerbated by the constant shift of personnel and redesignation of both tank and infantry units, was scant recognition of tanks. Gilbert, through dogged research and meticulously gathered oral interviews, finally “brings to life” the Vietnam War-serving Marine tanker. He shows how these leathernecks made “tank country” out of the hand they were dealt. The book’s dust cover alone speaks volumes.
Marine tank crews used their weapons system’s firepower and the tank’s mobility to its maximum capability. Long-range harassing and interdicting (H&I) fires supplemented long-range artillery. Mobility and firepower added muscle in the convoys that supported isolated fire bases. Tanks on the line protected fire bases from enemy attacks with .30- and .50-caliber ma°©chine gun, point-blank 90 mm canister fire, and occasionally by crewmen using their .45-cal. grease guns and pistols to kill the enemy as they swarmed over their tank.
In city-street fighting, tankers, working with Ontos, blasted down walls, allowing the assaulting infantry to advance from house to house out of the streets where the enemy had established killing zones. Tanks participated in a number of amphibious assaults from Operation Starlite, “The First Battle,” through a number of Dagger Thrust and Deckhouse operations.
Tankers fought conventional Marine Corps doctrine tank infantry battles against the uniformed and highly motivated, trained and equipped North Vietnamese Army (primarily north of the Hai Van Pass), sup°©ported unconventional guerrilla warfare engaging the Viet Cong, while supporting fully “the other war”—winning the hearts and minds of the largely peasant Vietnamese locals with County Fair operations (primarily south of the pass). Gilbert’s book captures all these Marine tankers’ roles through their candid colorful stories.
Oscar E. Gilbert’s book is a great read, painting a real-life picture of how Marine tankers fought the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong enemy, defeating them in every encounter.