Da Nang Diary: A Forward Air Controller’s Gunsight View of Flying with SOG is Colonel Tom Yarborough’s account of his 5,000 hours of flying time (a third of them in combat) during his 600 sorties in Vietnam as a forward air controller. Among other decorations, his distinguished service there won him the Silver Star, the DFC, a Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Vietnamese Gallantry Cross with Bronze Star. I was given the “Revised and Expanded Edition” to review, which is 50,000 words longer than the original 1990 edition. Recent scholarship and declassification led Colonel Yarborough to revisit his acclaimed classic and add further detail to the story of how he supported American special forces by air as they infiltrated Laos and Cambodia in an attempt to stymie Communist advances in Indochina.
The book is a standard 6”x9” hardback with an RRP of £20. The printing is done sharply on high quality paper, and Colonel Yarborough’s academic background is clear in the way he sets out his aims and limits for the work before beginning a tome of exceptional interest and lucidity. This is no dry dissertation, this is living history as a novel. I could wax lyrical, but that would undercut my point – the Colonel uses plain, understated language to make this an accessible work at every level, from layman to historian to soldier – and the fans of this book in both editions are testament to that.
Every new bit of jargon is explained, and at no point did I feel overwhelmed, despite only a basic acquaintance with the exploits of the Special Operations Group during the Vietnam War. Colonel Yarborough’s account, based on twelve hundred pages of diary notes written in-theatre, gave a whole new dimension to my understanding of the war, which had previously focused on the south and west of the country.
I called this book history as a novel, because although there is no invention here, the style drags you along as effortlessly as the best fictional stories. There are few digressions, no rants disconnected from the narrative – just the story of a young man who left home to serve his country and found himself at the bleeding edge of his comrades’ war. The difficulties, the dangers, the frustrations are all eloquently and simply expressed in a book which is very worth reading for anyone interested in Vietnam or the ability and experiences of the citizen soldier. The anecdote that really hit home for me – because it was so unexpected – was of how Forward Air Controllers could expect to lose seven pounds a day through dehydration, just by sitting in their cockpits for a single shift. It is perhaps impossible for people living a relatively pampered and almost entirely safe life in the modern world to empathise with the experiences of soldiers living out on the sharp edge, but prose like this goes a long way towards bridging the gap.
Da Nang Diary deserves its status as a classic in my opinion, and I would urge anyone who is interested in SOG actions in Vietnam – or elsewhere in the Cold War – to pick up a copy of this book.