#Reviewing Nine Days In May

Nine Days In May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967. Warren K. Wilkins. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.


Battles like Ia Drang, Con Tien, Khe Sanh, and Hue standout in the history of the American war in South Vietnam. While hardly typical, those clashes resonate well in popular histories and documentaries. On the other hand, transpiring on tracks of land away from large urban areas and not on some named, fortified hilltop—and at a time when multiple larger American military operations occurred across South Vietnam—nine May battles took place that lacked the consistent intensity of the aforementioned engagements, but typified the experience of many in Vietnam. Although these May battles were both remote physically and mentally for those not involved, participants experienced the savagery that came with the few, intense instances of contact with the enemy.

These nameless battles—the ones not beamed back to televisions in the U.S.—capture the often fierce struggle between American and North Vietnamese forces that materialized in the hinterlands of South Vietnam. Nine Days In May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967, by Warren K. Wilkins, tells the story of battles that, although epic for those involved, lacked the size for official name designations. More significantly, the battles covered by Wilkins were born out of a strategy shared by both the Americans and North Vietnamese to fight a war in the remote hinterlands of South Vietnam.

Organized into three parts, with each covering a different battalion, Wilkins’s work provides readers with a well-written battle history grounded in historiographical progress and well-supported with evidence. The author offers a gripping account of the battles from the perspective of the American soldiers of the 1-8, 3-12, and 3-8 Infantry Battalions who fought in the jungled terrain of Pleiku Province in 1967. In that Central Highland province, I Field Force, Vietnam executed operations to achieve the strategy of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, fighting the war away from the more densely populated areas of the region. Operation Francis Marion was one of those efforts to bring the People’s Army of Vietnam to battle in Pleiku Province. Those operations spawned the search and destroy sweeps that ultimately resulted in the battles covered by Wilkins.

Both the Americans and North Vietnamese envisaged similar strategies for tying down opposing forces. As the author notes, the B3 Front—the entity that controlled the People’s Army of Vietnam forces in the Central Highlands—sought to draw American military forces to the borderlands. The People’s Army of Vietnam’s 32nd, 33rd, and 66th Regiments of the 1st Division operated under command of the B3 Front. In keeping U.S. Army units away from the cities and the guerrilla networks, the B3 Front adopted a strategy best suited to distracting Military Assistance Command, Vietnam from Hanoi’s own efforts to pacify South Vietnam.[1] This served the further purpose of drawing U.S. forces away from the urban areas to set the stage for the 1968 Tet Offensive. Thus, what transpired in Pleiku Province was a series of battles in line with the strategies of both belligerents.

Thus, what transpired in Pleiku Province was a series of battles in line with the strategies of both belligerents.

Critics of Westmoreland seem set on an overly negative view of the general, ignoring more recent scholarship. One recent review claims Wilkins mischaracterizes Westmoreland's strategy as the commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wilkins follows the well-established historiography arguing that Military Assistance Command, Vietnam developed and pursued a strategy congruent with pacification.[2] Since 2008, through prodigious archival research, historians Andrew Birtle and Gregory Daddis have firmly countered the contention pressed by scholars such as Andrew Krepinevich and Lewis Sorley that the U.S. Army failed to appreciate the nature of the war in South Vietnam, and thus practiced a strategy focused on conventional warfare, ignoring its insurgency aspects. Essentially, such a contention amounts to an accusation the U.S. Army bungled its way through the Vietnam War under Westmoreland.[3]

Birtle, Daddis, and subsequent scholars make it clear, though, that Westmoreland was well versed in counterinsurgency discourse and keenly understood the unconventional aspects of the war in South Vietnam. Both scholars argue convincingly that Westmoreland understood the dual threat posed by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the People’s Liberation Armed Forces to pacification.[4] Indeed, Westmoreland was anything but the oft-painted caricature that lost the war in Vietnam by ignoring pacification for the sake of pursuing a big unit war against the People’s Army of Vietnam. Rather than continue the myth that Westmoreland’s strategy amounted to attrition and ignored pacification, Wilkins’s book expands on historiographical developments post-1999. This alone makes his work a valuable addition to the canon of Vietnam scholarship.

  American military commander General William C. Westmoreland (right) reviews the men of the US Army's 1st Infantry Division | Vietnam, November 1966. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

American military commander General William C. Westmoreland (right) reviews the men of the US Army's 1st Infantry Division | Vietnam, November 1966. (Photo by Co Rentmeester/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Nine Days In May goes far beyond an analysis of Westmoreland, however. The author firmly links tactics with strategy, paying special attention to the search and destroy operations that ultimately produced significant contact between U.S. Army and People Army of Vietnam forces. Indeed, the bulk of the book is on how his strategy played out—with emphasis on how soldiers experienced it. In getting into the weeds of history, Wilkins reveals that although Westmoreland had a strategy for combating the People’s Army of Vietnam’s presence in South Vietnam, the battles themselves transpired on the enemy’s terms. Indeed, the People’s Army of Vietnam deftly baited and ambushed the 4th Infantry Division’s battalions in Pleiku Province, often undermining the firepower advantage of their American counterparts by fighting within a few hundred meters or fewer.

  4th Infantry Division Vietnam Pleiku Province | Henri Huet

4th Infantry Division Vietnam Pleiku Province | Henri Huet

With interviews from veterans of the battles, and primary sources gleaned from the U.S. Army Center of Military History, Wilkins takes readers into the thick of battle. Authors should take note of Wilkins’s style. He captures the visceral personal experiences of soldiers to color our affective understanding of the conflict, as in one instance in which he describes an American soldier exchanging provocations with his North Vietnamese foes: “‘Come and get us, you bastards,’ he taunted the NVA defiantly…’ Come and get us, GI,’ mocked a hidden North Vietnamese soldier.”[5] In another example, Wilkins demonstrates his ability to weave together the intensity of battle and biographical information to produce a vivid account of battle. Consider the scene:

Chunks of scalding-hot steel bounced off the boulders scattered atop the knoll. Crammed into a shallow hole, Pfc. Gary Mills of Wichita, Kansas, hugged the ground and waited for a lull in the fighting. Mills had leaped into the foot-deep hole–along with five other soldiers–after a mortar round had landed in front of them. Incredibly, the round did not go off, saving the six startled grunts. The hole, though, was dangerously vulnerable to 82-mm mortar and small-arms fire, but every time Mills or one of the other grunts attempted to wiggle away, a North Vietnamese sniper would snap off a round and force them back down.[6]

Ultimately, Operation Francis Marion exacted a heavy toll on People’s Army of Vietnam manpower. As stated by the author, the operation “frustrated a major enemy initiative in western Pleiku Province.”[7] Yet he notes I Field Force, Vietnam’s gains did “little to change the strategic trajectory of the war in the Central Highlands.”[8] While successfully countered in that province, the enemy elsewhere nonetheless remained capable of preparing for, and launching, the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Scholars of the war will appreciate how Wilkins’s book adds depth to works by others on Westmoreland’s strategy.

It would have been helpful to see the author take his closing remarks a bit further. Did I Field Force, Vietnam want more operations like Francis Marion? As I Field Force, Vietnam often sought to replicate so-called successful operations, how, if at all, did Francis Marion factor into future war planning? In extending his closing commentary, the author could have demonstrated whether there was any capacity for I Field Force, Vietnam to learn lessons as the war progressed. All the same, Nine Days In May leaves readers informed of the operation’s impact, or lack thereof, on the war.

Scholars of the war will appreciate how Wilkins’s book adds depth to works by others on Westmoreland’s strategy. As his work covers the war from a bottom-up perspective, Wilkins adds an angle not covered in the top-down studies. This contribution to the body of scholarship introduced by Daddis is, in historiographical terms, quite new. The work of Wilkins is an exciting contribution to that new scholarship, but more is certainly to come. Therefore, Nine Days In May functions as a valuable companion to Daddis’s macro study of strategy in Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam. And, in the end, readers searching for an engaging battle narrative of the Vietnam War will surely want to obtain a copy of Nine Days In May.


Dr. Robert J. Thompson completed his PhD in U.S. History at the University of Southern Mississippi, and is a Featured Contributor on The Strategy Bridge. His dissertation is titled "More Sieve Than Shield: the U.S. Army and CORDS in the Pacification of Phu Yen Province, Republic of Vietnam, 1965-1972"


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Notes:

[1] Warren K. Wilkins, Nine Days In May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967 (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017), 8.

[2] See: “Nine Days In May: The Battles of the 4th Infantry Division on the Cambodian Border, 1967,” Publishers Weekly, 10 April 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-8061-5715-3.

[3] See: Andrew F. Krepinevich, The Army and Vietnam (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam (Orlando: Harcourt, 1999); Sorley, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011).

[4] See: Andrew J. Birtle, “PROVN, Westmoreland, and the Historians: A Reappraisal." The Journal of Military History 72, no. 4 (2008): 1213-1247; Gregory A. Daddis, Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[5] Wilkins, 75.

[6] Ibid, 266-277.

[7] Ibid, 353.

[8] Ibid.