Red Markers, Close Air Support for the Vietnamese Airborne, 1962-1975, by Gary Willis

Click on cover image to purchase a copy

Click on cover image to purchase a copy

MWSA Review

“Red Markers” is an excellent history for anyone interested in the Vietnamese War and understanding of the difficulties and hazards of coordinating successfull close air support for combat troops engaged in firefights on the ground.

As the nation’s tactical reserve, units of the South Vietnamese Airborne were constantly rushed into hotspots throughout the country during the 1962-75 war. A major factor in their successes was the close air support made possible by a small group of U.S. Air Force Forward Air Controllers (FAC) attached to Vietnamese. Their true story is told in “Red Markers,” an entertaining and informative history of American airmen who also became paratroopers and wore the jaunty red berets and jungle fatigues of the airborne units they supported.

Using official records, interviews with veteran ‘red hatters’ and individual diaries, Gary Willis writes with clarity about the ingenuity, dedication and bravery of the men who flew small, unarmed and unarmored ‘Bird Dog’ aircraft close to extensive ground combat in order to direct close-in fighters and high flying bombers onto critical targets.

The FACs, who had one of the most dangerous jobs in the Air Force, coped with a myriad of difficult issues including logistics, language, improvised landing strips, incompatible radios, extreme weather conditions and often times, blistering enemy ground fire. Some of the challenges they faced were summed up in one FAC’s comment after an long, intense battle: “At one point I think I was talking to the US Advisors on the ground, the (Vietnamese) lieutenant in the back seat, the gunship commanders, several fighter flight leaders, the artillery fire control center, Red Marker control at Tan Son Nhut – all on different frequencies and more or less at once.”

Initially, there was only one American Air Liason Officer assigned to the Vietnamese Airborne. But as the war intensified, FAC unit grew to a maximum of 36 at any one time.  Yet, during the 13 years of U.S. involvement, only 175 pilots, crew chiefs and radio operators were assigned to coordinate air support for the airborne battalions scattered throughout the country.

Despite peppering the book with a barrage of acronyms normally associated with military operations (there is a glossary), the author uses easily understood maps, footnotes and scores of good photographs to illustrate the history of the Red Markers. Interesting personal anecdotes, many humorous, gleamed from interviews with 76 veterans of the unit are interspersed amid the narratives of battles and changes of policy, military and political circumstances that added to the fogs of war.

Reviewed by: Joe Epley (2014)

Author's Synopsis

Award-winning history of a segment of the Vietnam War . . . From 1962 until early 1973, a handful of Usaf officers and airmen directed close air support for the Vietnamese Airborne and its American advisors in Macv Advisory Team 162. This Red Marker detachment began as a single Air Liaison Officer. It grew into a combat unit of 36 personnel with a dozen aircraft before shrinking to a single officer as the United States withdrew from combat. Over the decade of its existence, less than 175 men served in the unit. Five of them died in combat. This award winning history of these forward air controllers from the beginning to the end is based on contributions from 76 men who were there.