[Review of The Battle for Oscar Six by Eugene R. De Lalla]
The Battle for Oscar Six: Life and Death in Vietnam – April, 1968, by Eugene DeLalla, LaSalette Publications, 2010
In this short fictionalized account of a bloody battle at the observation tower Oscar Six on the perimeter of Tuy Hoa Air Force Base in South Vietnam during the height of that protracted war, author Eugene DeLalla brings the reader a realistic account of what that awful war was and how very unglamorous war in general can be. He knows this from first-hand experience. Mr. DeLalla – Staff Sergeant DeLalla – was an Air Force Security Policeman. The job of these men was to defend the perimeters of the United States Air Force bases that were so crucial to the conduct of the war. If the perimeter could be compromised by the enemy, planes, munitions, and personnel were at risk of being lost to the essential conduct of the conflict.
As with all military jobs, these Air Force policemen were highly trained in the use of many different weapons; they knew exactly what was expected of them and how to co-ordinate their actions with other personnel in the field and in the air.
The enemy was no different. The American military fought two prongs of the same enemy: One, the North Vietnamese Communist regular army; the other, the local militias – the Viet Cong. The latter were the henchmen of the Communists who were willing to bleed and die in large numbers for the Communist cause. In effect, they were the rag-tag local revolutionaries so dedicated to the Communist cause and so determined to drive out the Americans and Communize South Vietnam that they risked all to achieve this goal.
Our author arrived “in country” on December 16, 1967, a twenty-something-year-old from The Bronx, New York. His tour as a perimeter cop would be exactly one year – that is, if he could stay alive and well! His introduction to Vietnam took place at Phu Cat base camp at night when the sky was lighted up by tracer rounds fired from .50 caliber heavy machine guns aimed at enemy positions in the surrounding hills. A Baptism by fire indeed! The timing was crucial – just before the massive Tet Offensive by Allied troops in January, only one month after his arrival. Although the Tet Offensive was successful for the Allies and many of the enemy units had been decimated, the American press – liberal and very much anti-this war – gave the American public the opposite impression. There was still much work to be done before the job could be completed successfully, and Sgt. DeLalla’s duty was to help keep those air bases safe from penetration by the bad guys. In his words, the reputation of the Air Force Security Police among the enemy was that they were “hard nuts to crack.” That is why ground attacks were unusual; they cost the Communists too much in manpower and materiel.
But, they were not unheard of, and our author was involved in one of them.
Tough Times in the USA
Our Sergeant gives a good background of the political climate in the United States at that time. There was much ill feeling against the Vietnam War, fueled by the likes of Walter Cronkite on the nightly news. Liberal newscasters made it seem that the U S was losing badly in order to turn public opinion against the war. There were horrible happenings stateside as well – the assassination of Martin Luther King, which engendered animosity among many of the Black soldiers and, later that year, of Robert Kennedy. One touching incident tells of DeLalla’s friendship with two Black buddies, Tom from Houston and George from Atlanta — one, poor, the other, middle class. When King was killed in April, shortly after the Battle for Oscar Six, a memorial service for him was held at the airbase. Sergeant DeLalla felt the hurt and sorrow of his two friends and determined to accompany them to the service. His was the only white face in the crowd.
Along the way we meet several more of the Sergeant’s “brothers.” There was “Kid” Mulvaney — so called because he was a small and wiry fellow, a first generation American-born Irishman from the Boston area. DeLalla and Kid had their Catholic Faith in common and often compared notes on politics and religion. Gregg was a short timer, meaning he had fewer than thirty days remaining “in country.” He was looking forward to returning to Michigan soon to marry his childhood sweetheart. We meet the unforgettable Father Michael, the base Catholic chaplain, who ministered to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Father Michael was instrumental in bringing back several fallen-away Catholics to the sacraments, as well as converting several Protestant and even an atheist soldier into the Faith. In our author’s eyes, Father Michael was a hero in the battle for Oscar Six. DeLalla introduces us to many of his other “brothers” in battle. As a writer, he makes the story a very personal one, drawing the reader in and actually making him care about these guys, so much so, in fact, that the reader finds himself hoping that they all make it back home alive and well.
A great fear of the American fighting men was that locals who worked at the airbase could be, and often were, actually agents of the Communists. They compromised morale by gaining personal information about the Americans and passed that on to Communist officials. Hanoi Hanna, a radio personality akin to Tokyo Rose of World War II fame, would broadcast this personal information in a skewed manner in order to spread lies and misinformation, in an attempt to bring down the spirits of the troops. Sometimes the soldiers felt that they were fighting the enemy and their own people at the same time.
April Fool Surprise
On April 1, 1968, Sergeant DeLalla was assigned to one of the most sought-after posts on the base: Oscar Six, the big observation tower guarding the southern perimeter of the base with the South China Sea to its immediate east, a main highway to its south, and the enemy just over the hills to the north. This night would be the exception to the general rule: the enemy would make a vicious effort to breach the concertina wire encircling the base and blast Oscar Six and all its defenders into kingdom come. They were battalion size – about 150 strong VCs, some of the most determined enemy soldiers the base defenders had faced.
The story of this night from hell, who survived to tell about it (obviously our author did!), which of his buddies died and who were wounded makes up the bulk of the book. There are many photos of DeLalla and his fellow Security Police in action and at leisure. There is an interesting map of the battle area, and a very helpful glossary of terms and names, most of which are explanations of military lingo, something this non-military reader found very helpful.
The battle was bloody and horrific. DeLalla spares no detail of what his advanced weaponry could do to a human body. He shows his humanity in realizing that these, too, were God’s creatures, and he prays throughout – his Rosary – asking God to take care of himself and his “brothers” and bring them home safely.
This short book is an exciting read. It reminds us of the horrors of war and the gallantry of ordinary men in the heat of battle from a war that many Americans have already forgotten.