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Fire Base Illingworth - Philip Keith


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This book covers a battle for a Fire Base (FB) that happened in Vietnam, 1 Apr 1970, near the Cambodian border.  The FB taking its name from a young 1st Cav soldier killed a few days before the battle.  Besides the battle for the fire base itself, it also provides the context to the change in tactics being used as part of the "Vietnamization" preparation by the US.  The overall intent was to get the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) to mass their forces, which would permit easier detection and elimination.  It was believed these risky tactics could deliver a significant blow to NVA main forces, and situate the South Vietnamese Forces better as the US ground forces withdrew

Essentially the change in tactics involved building temporary FB on or near suspected NVA main supply routes (MSR), patrolling out from the FB to pinpoint enemy MSR and supply bases,  destroy them with superior firepower, then quickly abandon the FB.  This threat to the enemy's logistics, it was believed, would cause the NVA to mass their forces to protect them. The Fire Bases lack of robustness  was also bait to draw out NVA main Forces attempting to eliminate a seemingly easy target.

The book does a fair job of explaining where this worked, and in the particular case of FB Illingworth where it did not.  Despite the contemporary official US report saying otherwise, the author does a good job of using interviews of key personnel involved,  including with the NVA Regt CO that led the attack, as well as other supporting documents, to prove the fire base was almost over run.  It is clear that during the close quarter fighting, it was the detonation of  stockpiled 8" ammo that effectively broke the momentum of the enemy attack.  That, and the exceptional bravery of the US Forces involved.

Some things about the battle piqued my interest: a Canadian*, Peter Lemon, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the battle;  the numerous examples of individual leadership and initiative at the tactical level overcoming operational (Bde and higher) blunders;  the lack of artillery units ability to defend themselves, especially at night; the potentially disastrous effects of artillery units not coordinating their ammo dumping efforts with ground Forces; the parallels with efforts in Afghanistan to prepare for handover to their own National forces.

The book has an easy to follow narrative, although at times he uses an irksome "folksy" style (think "Dukes of Hazard" voice over's), but it is easy to get past that considering the depth of detail he goes into.  Accompanying this are a number of illustrations and maps, the official post battle summary written by the 1 Cav Div Comd, and an epilogue of the principal characters involved.  I think he presents a fair assessment on the nature of the war during that time period, and was well worth the read.   

Philip Keith is also the author of "Black Horse Riders", which covers the battle proceeding the one at Illingworth and for which a unit, A Troop/1st Squadron/ 11th Cav Regt/1st Cav Div, was recently granted the Presidential Unit Citation. 

* Peter Lemon was born in Toronto, but became a US citizen when he was 12 after his family moved to Michigan.
Link to his citation