Book Review

Secret Army, Secret War by Sedgwick Tourison

Secret Army, Secret War

29 May 2005

Kenn Miller

Unless you read Vietnamese, there aren't many books out there about the ARVN's. There are some very good books by and about American advisors that deal with their counterparts, but they rarely concentrate on the ARVN troops that make them stand out as individuals.

There is 1st Cav. Veteran Stephen Fleming's fine novel, The EXILE OF SERGEANT NIM, which takes place mainly in the U.S.A., and is unfortunately, out of print. There's an ex-LLDB officer down near Disneyland who's been working on a translation of the An Loc novel, BLAZING SUMMER, for years now, while running a business and raising a family. Unfortunately, last I checked with him, he was still translating from Vietnamese in to French, French to English and it was going kind of slow.

Now, however, we have SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR by Sedgwick Tourison. SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR is not merely a book about South Vietnamese soldiers-it is a book about the most extreme, valiant, and heartbreaking allied special operations of the Vietnam war.

There's been a lot of written about spec ops in the Vietnam War, but except for brief mentions of the program they were part of, there is almost no attention paid to the Vietnamese (and a small number of Taiwanese) commandos involved in the hairiest covert missions of all, the “long range”-and very long duration-missions deep in to North Vietnam. SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR changes all that.

Most of the missions Tourison describes in his book were originally slated to last two years. But since all of the teams sent in by air or by sea were captured almost immediately, no one got home in a “mere” two years. Some of these men had to endure more than twenty years of horrible imprisonment in the north.

Think about it for a moment. These missions were supposed to last no more than two years, and the program that trained and launched them continued throughout the 60's. You would think that after, say, 1966 or so, at least someone in the rear would have realized that none of these teams had completed their missions and returned to the South. It was amazing that they still found volunteers.

SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR shows a large number of team pictures taken during training and just before launching on their missions. They are heart wrenching. So are the stories told to Tourison by former commandos. The tales of teams launched teams compromised, and teams rolled up shortly after insertion, are so horribly similar, that the book teeters on the edge of boredom. But then morbid curiosity takes over as you read on hoping to find a successful mission. I'll warn you now-you won't. There were no successful “long range” missions in North Vietnam. Not one. There was some sort of terrible security leak in the office of the Vietnamese Strategic Directorate, and every team was comprised before setting foot on the ground in North Vietnam or Laos. As the NVA captors say to their prisoners at one point in the book, “We know you were coming”. And because the communists had the SOIs (Signal Operating Instructions), broke most of the RTOs, and knew the authentication codes, they had little difficulty requesting reinforcements and resupply for teams they had already captured, then taking them, too.

When the misgiving of American CIA and military officers reached Robert MacNamara, he routinely dismisses them with a lecture about his sacred numbers, and the failed missions continue. There are financial irregularities, and families of the missing commandos get screwed out of continuing pay and/or settlements by indifferent clerks and unruffled finance officers.

The training for the commandos was tough, and even if they had not been compromised from the very beginning, the missions would still have been almost unthinkably dangerous. Yet, still courageous young ARVN soldiers volunteered for these missions, ready to jump in to North Vietnam on missions designed to last two years. They had to have expected that the missions were compromised humbugs from the “go”.

SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR isn't the most entertaining Vietnam war book on the market today, but it may be one of the most important. Very few GIs serving Vietnam saw our South Vietnamese allies at their and maybe you'll have to wait for BLAZING SUMMER or some other yet un-translated ARVN novel for that. Even in SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR you won't see anyone at his operational best. What you will see is ARVN special operations troops at their futile bravest. It isn't a pretty story-particularly when detailing the terrible suffering and courageous resistance of the imprisoned commandos-but it is a fascinating, instructive, and sadly inspiring one.

In part because you are reading Vietnamese names that are difficult to keep track of, and in part because a good proportion of the book deals with the commandos' prison ordeals, SECRET ARMY, SECRET WAR ain't exactly light reading. But no special operations bookshelf-no library of Vietnam war literature-can be complete with out it. These brave men deserve to have their story told, and you deserve to know it. It may even give you a new perspective on the war.

This article was originally published in Behind The Lines magazine. has reproduced this article with the kind permission of Gary Linderer.

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