Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew

  • Published

Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew by John Gargus. Texas A&M (TAMU) University Press, 2017, 272 pp. 

Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew by John Gargus is a historical and monographic narrative combining military education, Vietnam War analysis, international relations, and complex search, rescue, and recovery. This book takes the audience through a complete journey that includes Gargus’ motivation to continuously attempt to obtain resolution with the central idea that is unique to the American military—every member returns home.


One of the great aspects of this book is that Gargus introduces the audience to S-01 crew members before their tragic demise on 29 December 1967. He does this, not by just naming these heroes, their backgrounds, and images, but vividly describing what bonded them as a crew and family in Nha Trang that was prepared and committed to any outcome of the clandestine operations they accepted. He perfectly transfers the pride and commitment with which this military family performed.


Any reader of Combat Talons in Vietnam will surely wonder why the recovery of the S-01 crew took 25 years to complete. The answer to that inquiry is given in great detail through two chapters that describe the process of recovery. While Gargus identifies some flaws in the bureaucracy of the time that resulted in delays in obtaining information, he does an excellent job of ensuring readers that the US military maintains a unique commitment to bringing its fallen heroes home, at costs and risks that no other military power is willing to accept. The spark that introduces a lead in the search comes in 1995.


After identifying vague potential information about an aircraft loss, Gargus questions if the aircraft and crew loss was mentioned in a 1993 article from years earlier. He writes,

Our aircraft tragedy represented the largest single aircraft loss of life in that war. It wasn’t just ‘several Americans.’ Certainly, our C-130 aircraft’s discovery would have warranted more than just one sentence. We were all wrong.” This is a glimpse into the whirlwind of search effort that follows, illustrating the people who remained dedicated to providing closure for the families and friends of the S-01 crew.


Gargus also explains the difficulty of the Vietnam War well, including recruitment, preparation, and gains and losses of those military personnel participating. An example of this is when Gargus familiarizes the audience with the Tet Offensive of 1968. He also describes Nha Trang in vivid detail, including the acquisition of facilities, modification of living quarters, and the daily security risks, even the 25 November 1967 mortar attack that reinforced the reality of the Vietnam War.


An area of improvement in the book concerns the time immediately following the tragic crash of the S-01 crew in Vietnam in 1967. The crash happened on a night when there were deviations in normal operations. The S-01 crew contained substituted members, a new mission-planner, and a particularly difficult ingress and egress route. After losing contact with the S-01 crew however, those back in Nha Trang, the reaction of the family we had come to know through so much of the book, was only briefly mentioned. Moreover, readers are left wondering how the climate specifically changed in Nha Trang after that night. While it is apparent that this deployed unit continued on with the war, accepting that every man on that crew perished a hero, readers are left wondering how those left behind, particularly on that night, felt about the S-01 crew’s mission, the war, and the lack of closure they received even after the war concluded. However, this is somewhat resolved near the end of the book, when Gargus explains the gap in communication that exists in notifying military units of loss of life, as compared to the communication that is required for a member’s family alone.


Combat Talons in Vietnam is a worthwhile read for an audience seeking knowledge on the Vietnam War, the evolution of the C-130E(I) aircraft, and is particularly notable for those interested in recovery operations. It provides a comprehensive explanation of the process of recovery and the agencies involved with personnel recovery. It is a significant piece of information in the documentation of C-130E(I) history, as it consistently explains how the Special Operations mission evolved from the Vietnam era to the present. The heritage Gargus paints through Combat Talons in Vietnam is exceptional in providing context for the search and recovery operations in 1992–1993. The audience is not just given a resolution but also presented with the long-lasting impacts of that resolution, such as the change of status from missing in action to killed in action for some crew members, and the final return of remains after a second excavation of the crash site.


Overall, Combat Talons in Vietnam: Recovering a Covert Special Ops Crew is an outstanding piece of work that takes an alternative to historical Vietnam War recollections. In it, Gargus finds a way to introduce an audience to military training, the C-130 aircraft, the joint Special Operations mission, and the tragedy that occurred on 29 December 1967. The focus of this book then gives a detailed account of the search and recovery process, which provides resolution for the audience in an educational and inspirational manner.

Capt Donald Williams
Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."