Insightful Addition to Vietnam War Literature

Article excerpt

Insightful Addition to Vietnam War Literature One Hell of a Ride: Inside an Armored Cavalry Task Force in Vietnam. William C. Haponski. Combatant Books. 560 pages; black-and-white photographs; index; $23.99.

Early in this narrative, retired COL William Haponski, former commander of the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry, 1st Infantry Division - the famous "Quarter Horse" of the Big Red One - states that during the first half of 1969, "At battalion level, and especially in Vietnam because of the helicopter, the commander could at one moment be up among the generals doing the directing and in another down fighting alongside the soldiers doing the dying." This multidimensional theme, which permeates One Hell of a Ride, ranges from high-level, long-term views (including a rare and invaluable sojourn into what lessons we might have learned from the French experience in Indochine) to the views of the trooper mounted behind the machine guns on his M113 or taking cover behind the ubiquitous rockhard termite mounds. One Hell of a Ride is packed with personal accounts at each of these levels, including Haponski's, those of other Quarter Horse troopers, enemy prisoners, captured documents and postwar histories written in Hanoi.

It helps to think like a Cavalryman as you read One Hell of a Ride, as Haponski flows between chronological narrative and historical precedent, from personal memoir and brutally honest assessments of self, commanders, peers and subordinates to the conduct of the war - from the stackedup colonels' and generals' helicopters above a firefight to the withering exchange of caliber .50s and rocket-propelled grenades inside the Michelin Rubber Plantation. Haponski relates his virtually continuous struggles to convince senior commanders that, contrary to popular opinion, Vietnam could indeed be "tank country" and that "penny-packeting" the armored cavalry assault vehicles (ACAVs) and tanks of his squadron to protect infantry and artillery firebases or daily logistics convoys was not the optimal use of the flexibility, firepower and mobility of the Quarter Horse.

One Hell of a Ride is unique among the growing library of Vietnam War literature. Haponski had the great fortune to meet- albeit electronically - a man who had fought over the same terrain about 20 years earlier. As a young armored cavalry platoon leader and company commander, Jean Delaunay led his native French and colonial soldiers against the communists who, by the late 1940s and early 1950s, had been actively resisting French rule in the Michelin Plantation for well over two decades. Not only did Delaunay (who retired in 1983 as the chief of staff of the French Army) provide French-language sources written by him and many of his colleagues during and after their days in Indochina, but Haponski also maintained his own personal journals, recording his thoughts and observations as soon after the fact as his command responsibilities allowed. Haponski uses these firsthand sources to provide both context and on-the-scene details for the day-today operations and pitched battles his armored cavalry squadron conducted inside and around the Michelin Plantation and along Thunder Road (National Highway 13) from Lai Khe, past An Loc and Quan Loi, to Loc Ninh.

Haponski and his "Quarter Cav" research team (made up of officers, NCOs and troopers who served under his command in 1969) scoured the National Archives to find official records from the time covered by the narrative. The research team's efforts among the original documentation were supplemented by sources from the former enemy. In this area, Haponski was assisted by former intelligence analyst and Vietnamese language translator Merle Pribbenow, whose analysis of enemy actions and intentions provide unique insights into what the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong commanders opposing the Quarter Horse were doing and why they were doing it as they maneuvered in and around Michelin and along Thunder Road in 1969. …