Thomas McKelvey Cleaver, Going Downtown (Osprey, 2022)
For many of us, the Vietnam War conjures up images of ‘grunts’ wading through paddy fields or hacking through the jungle. When the air war is mentioned, we picture B-52 strikes at a distance or Phantoms dropping napalm onto the aforementioned jungle. But, as Thomas McKelvey Cleaver illustrates in Going Downtown, the air war over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia from 1961 to 1975 was a complex and ever-changing combat environment that in many ways echoed the struggles on the ground yet in others differed little from by then traditional methods.
Cleaver sets the background of the Vietnam War with its deep roots and a foreboding about the inevitability of US involvement. A sense of ‘mission creep’ is also there from the beginning in his account, as with so many others, when initial clandestine involvement developed quickly into an all out war that the US had not planned for as a Cold War scenario. They didn’t need to, or so they thought, because the North Vietnamese would fold against superior US technology and numbers. It would not take long for the US planners to discover their ‘deficiencies’ and ‘failures’. Cleaver narrates the various operations the US launched, such as Rolling Thunder, Barrel Roll, and Steel Tiger. Most early actions took place over South Vietnam, but it was missions in North Vietnam where the SAMs, AAA, and MiGs would take the greatest toll on American planes and pilots.
President Johnson escalated the air war, but as Cleaver notes, most USAF pilots were not initially trained for air-to-air combat. North Vietnam had its issues too, and Cleaver covers those, though his focus is on the US Air Force. He also describes and assesses the various warplanes and missiles that flew through Vietnam’s lethal skies. Much of Cleaver’s narrative is set in 1967, which makes sense because of the increasing level of combat, and by the end of that year, he notes, the US was running out of targets in North Vietnam. The tail-off in bombing North Vietnam came in November 1968, with some clandestine bombing in Cambodia and Laos continuing until 1972 when fighting ramped up again to counter the threat of invasion from North Vietnam. Then Nixon unleashed the Christmas bombing campaign over North Vietnam in 1972, which brought the North Vietnamese to the peace table. US drawdown was already underway by then and continued until very few USAF units remained. The last US action Cleaver describes took place in May 1975.
That summary is not the whole book, however. What lifts Cleaver’s work from other nuts-and-bolts histories are his frequent accounts of combat told mostly by the pilots that fought in them. What becomes clear is that while the technology of aerial warfare had advanced in leaps and bounds from previous wars, what combats often came down to were individual duels between courageous men that combat pilots of all eras could attest to. Cleaver has a real knack for telling pilots’ often hair-raising stories (the rescue of two downed pilots in 1969 should be a movie!) At the higher level of operations, Cleaver is often scathing of the US command and bureaucracy. There is an argument that US forces fought with one arm tied behind their backs, and Cleaver does little to dispel that. His Vietnam heroes were the ones doing the fighting, perhaps as it should be. Overall, this is an outstanding account of the USAF in southeast Asia, and one that every student of the war should read.