Shadow Commander: The Epic Story of Donald D. Blackburn
Author: Mike Guardia
Publisher: Casemate (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 240 pages
The fires on Bataan burned with a primitive fury on the evening of April 9, 1942 - illuminating the white flags of surrender against the nighttime sky. Woefully outnumbered, outgunned, and ill-equipped, the battered remnants of the American-Philippine army surrendered to the forces of the Rising Sun. Yet amongst the chaos and devastation of the American defeat, Army Captain Donald D. Blackburn refused to lay down his arms.
With future SF legend Russell Volckmann, Blackburn escaped from Bataan and fled to the mountainous jungles of North Luzon, where they raised a private army of over 22,000 men against the Japanese. Once there, Blackburn organized a guerrilla regiment from among the native tribes in the Cagayan Valley. "Blackburn's Headhunters," as they came to be known, devastated the Japanese 14th Army within the eastern provinces of North Luzon and destroyed the Japanese naval base at Aparri.
After the war, Blackburn remained on active duty and played a key role in initiating Special Forces operations in Southeast Asia. In 1959, as commander of the 77th Special Forces Group, he spearheaded Operation White Star in Laos. Seven years later, Blackburn took command of the highly classified Studies and Observations Group (SOG), charged with performing secret missions now that main-force Communist incursions were on the rise.
In the wake of the CIA's disastrous Leaping Lena program, Blackburn revitalized the Special Operations campaign in South Vietnam. Sending cross-border reconnaissance teams into Laos, he discovered the clandestine networks and supply nodes of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Taking this information directly to General Westmoreland, Blackburn received authorization to conduct full-scale operations against the NVA and Viet Cong operating along the Trail. In combats large and small, the Communists realized they had met a master of insurgent tactics - and he was on the US side.
Following his return to the United States, Blackburn was appointed "Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities," where he was the architect of the infamous Son Tay Prison Raid. Officially termed Operation Ivory Coast (and later, Operation Kingpin), the Son Tay raid was the largest POW rescue mission - and indeed, the largest Special Forces operation - of the Vietnam War.
During a period when United States troops in Southeast Asia faced guerrilla armies on every side, it has seldom been recognized today that America had a superb covert commander of its own, his guerrilla skills honed in resistance against Japan. This book follows Donald D. Blackburn from his youthful days in combat against an Empire, through his days as a senior commander, imparting his lessons to the newly-realized ranks of America's own Special Forces.
Shadow Commander, the epic story of Donald D Blackburn, Guerilla leader and Special Forces hero, is an excellent biography of one the Army’s lesser known but very important leaders. Facing imminent surrender in the Philippines in 1942 to the invading Japanese forces, Lieutenant Donald Blackburn made the tough decision and refused to lay down his arms. Instead he evaded capture by fleeing deep into the jungle with another Army officer.
Their objective was straightforward. Join or establish guerilla forces in the inhospitable jungles of North Luzon and continue the fight against the Japanese. Implementing that plan Blackburn soon recognized would be nearly impossible. Surviving the jungle, the ravages of malaria, and evading the Japanese army took their toll. Despite the daunting obstacles, by the time the allied forces were ready to invade and take back the Philippines, Blackburn’s guerilla forces proved to be a very valuable asset. Blackburn’s activities in World War II alone would make him a hero, but the author goes on to cite in some detail Blackburn’s other contributions in Viet Nam as well as to the evolution of Army Special Forces.
The author’s detailed accounts of Blackburn’s activities make this book a must read for anyone interested in military history, World War II, and particularly for anyone studying or who simply enjoys reading about guerilla warfare or Army Special Forces.
Reviewed by: Bob Doerr (2012)