The Sentinel & the Shooter by Douglas W. Bonnot

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Click on cover image to purchase a copy

MWSA Review

The Sentinel and the Shooter is a fascinating book about the exploits of an Army Security Agency Radio Research Company (Airborne), the 265th RRC (ABN), and the deeds of the dedicated men who made a (unrecognized by many) difference in Viet Nam. Alternate titles could be: From A Usually Reliable Source or The Company That Wasn't There. 

The Army Security Agency (ASA) was (is?) a separate activity within the Army, existing as a self-contained entity. ASA's purpose was to produce intelligence for the U.S. Army. Such intelligence was obtained by capturing (listening in on) the enemy's communications--Signals Intelligence. Directional finding equipment (on the ground and in the air) was used to located the sources of radio transmissions, providing targeting information to the shooters. Wire taps were also employed. 

Prior to the beginning of the Viet Nam War, ASA doctrine and tactical components were based upon supporting a European conflict against the Soviet model. Viet Nam presented a different kind of war, requiring different tactics, and the ASA was not prepared to support it. 

The 265th RRC (ABN) was activated in the spring of 1967 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky to provide Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) to the 101st Airborne Division, and deployed to Viet Nam that December--just in time to be part of the 1968 Tet Offensive. Squads and platoons of the 265th soon found themselves spread across the 101st's operating area. 265th RRC (ABN) teams (Sentinels) established listening posts on Fire Support Bases (FSBs) and fought alongside the men of the 101st (Shooters). In 1969 the 265th RRC (ABN) personnel were in the battles of Dong Ap Bia (Hamburger Hill) and Dong A Tray (Bloody Ridge), and helped fight off sapper attacks at FSB Berchtesgaden. Afterward they deployed to insert units into combat to support of the Tactical Emergency declared by the 23rd Infantry Division one hundred miles to the south. 

The book is filled with similar events until the 265th RRC (ABN) was disbanded in 1972. No record of the company can be found, although its inputs saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of American and South Viet Nam soldiers. 

The author, SFC Douglas W. Bonnot, tells the story through the eyes of the company's NCOs, lieutenants and captains. He chose to write the book to document the story of the 265th RRC (ABN), a unit that somehow seems to have escaped being in the official record--The Company That Wasn't There. The Sentinel and the Shooter is a tribute to the men who did so much and received so little in return. The story is filled with quotes for various men providing first hand accounts to events being described. 

An excellent book! This is a story of those who were there, for historians, and for others who seek to understand what happened. The book is filled with military terms, and provides comprehensive glossary and a unit roster. After I share the book with fellow Military Officers Association of America members, I plan to reread it and then place it in my library. 

Security and chain of command are the cause of much of the 265th RRC (ABN)'s problems. A team inserted onto a FSB sets up a listening post, but does not report the FSB commander (the King of the Hill). However, the King of the Hill must provide logistical support, food, water, etc. Very few officers and NCOs were cleared for SIGINT, thus the King of the Hill did not know what these men with no symbols on their uniforms did or why they were there. A few figured it out. Men of the 265th RRC (ABN) found that serving two masters can be troublesome. 

Intelligence produced must be passed up the ASA chain of command to the platoon, company headquarters, and then up to the 8th Radio Research Field Station (RRFS), which controlled personnel assignments, promotions, and equipment logistics. Conflict between the 8th RRFS and the 265th RRC (ABN) was continuous. Input from the 265th RRC (ABN)/8th RRFS was highly classified, and its distribution limited to those officers with the proper clearance. Input was usually reported as information obtained from "A Usually Reliable Source." In a couple of incidents, the SS2 was not cleared to receive the intelligence he needed. In another case, the S2 refused to believe the intelligence. 

It appears that the Army has failed to properly instruct its combat officers on how SIGINT intelligence is obtained and its importance. 

Most commanders appreciated the intelligence inputs, but a few resented them. Many of the field grade officers in the 8th RRFS had little or no field experience and looked down at the accomplishments of the men of the 265th RRC (ABN) as loose cannons or mavericks. The effective commanding generals did appreciate the 265th RRC (ABN)'s contributions, and could care less if they were mavericks. 

As the conflict intensified, the NCOs found methods or transmitting very perishable intelligence to the Kings of the Hills. Knowing your position is about to be attacked by a greatly superior force gets the creative juices flowing. 

The Sentinel and the Shooter was written to provide a history of the 265th RRC (ABN), and that it does. It is also one more of the many great books written about the Viet Nam conflict by men and women who were there and did that. Highly recommended.

Reviewed by: Lee Boyland (2011)

Author's Synopsis

Secret societies have existed for millennia; their purposes myriad. Generally, they are exclusive and require members to take an oath to keep their organization and activities secret. They possess guarded means of identification and communication. Some exist in the open, their purposes known, their activities undisclosed, and their practitioners anonymous. The US Army Security Agency was a separate organization within the Army having its own installations, training, academic, logistic, communications and scientific institutions and members took an oath to keep the organization and its activities secret, their identity and communications guarded. Until the advent of the Vietnam War, their purpose was intelligence gathering for national strategic objectives. As the US role expanded from advisory to active combat, intelligence support to combat units changed the structure and character of the Agency. Organizational secrecy, guarded communications, and member anonymity remained. The 265th Radio Research Company (Airborne) sentinels operated in the shadows, yet stood beside their warrior counterpart providing intelligence to the 101st Airborne Division. 101st Airborne units involved in the war are etched in the stone of their memorial at Arlington Cemetery. The 265th RRC (ABN), the only unit etched on the back, remains in the shadows. Nearly forty years have passed since the last Sentinel departed Vietnam. This is their story.