Dragon’s Jaw: An Epic Story of Courage and Tenacity in Vietnam by Stephen Coonts and Barrett Tillman (Da Capo Press, 2019, 320 pages)
Dragon’s Jaw describes the pivotal and long-running battle over the Thanh Hoa railway bridge. It is neither a dispassionate history nor an overly emotional memoir–the authors have found the readable and informative middle ground. At first, the delivery seems choppy, going in and out of different levels of focus. But, the flow resolves as a match for a flight profile–-big picture navigation, smaller approach, tiny target–reversing on the way home. As the authors smoothly compartmentalize each bit in turn, the book draws the reader into its relentless rhythm.
The Thanh Hoa railway bridge earned the nickname Dragon’s Jaw for its imposing physical setting. The difficulties of bombing a well-defended and resilient point target are clear and the years of strikes against the bridge the reason for the book.
At the center is the story of the aviators during the Vietnam War, up close, and personal. Reconnaissance, strike, rescue, munitions, and maintenance all share turns in the spotlight. Even in a single-seat jet, nobody flies alone. The tragic losses are in context without losing the sense of desperation, ingenuity, and dedication of all participants, making the story a real and important epic.
On another level, the authors describe the strategic importance of the bridge in wartime logistics and explain why we expended a significant level of effort on this single bridge. Awareness of the overall situation helps explain why strike planners could not just disregard this bridge, despite the difficulties. The Thanh Hoa Bridge was vital, everyone knew it; and the match was to the death. Further, the authors explain the various attempts to alter offensive and defensive technology, tactics, and other skills to match the daunting task. They also interject frequent comic moments, heartbreaking failures, blundering mistakes, and frightening mishaps. .
The global political environment is a third component of the narrative. While fifty years have passed since these events, the years have not dulled the obvious pain, frustration, and anger that surrounded the war and the Thanh Hoa railway bridge as a symbol of it. The authors take well-aimed shots at politicians, bureaucrats, activists, and bystanders, some long dead. These asides did not overload the story, and instead sustained the emotional context and meaning of the epic. Every good story needs heroes and villains. This story has many of both.
Overall, Dragon’s Jaw includes the detail expected from a retrospective history with the passion and heartache of a raw first-person account. The aviation accounts appealed to my eight years as a Naval Flight Officer, while the details of the logistics and engineering challenges appealed to my twelve years as a Civil Engineer Corps officer. Although the Vietnam War from my dad’s era (Specialist, US Army), is fifty years behind us, the story is not lost in a bygone time. It matters today. This is a flowing, engaging, and detailed story that should be interesting to a wide audience, especially military readers.
This review was submitted by Christopher J. Krus, LCDR, CEC, USN (ret.), Connect with and learn more about Chris at https://www.linkedin.com/in/christopher-krus-pe-phd-cem-leed-green-associate-bb405739/