War in the Shallows

War in the Shallows

U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965–1968

John Darrell Sherwood

Naval History and Heritage Command, Washington, D.C., 2015, 448 pages

Book Review published on: April 14, 2017

While the author's purpose is to provide a social and operational history of the U.S. Navy's coastal and riverine war during the Vietnam War, there is far more to this book than that. Sherwood tells the story of how the U.S. Navy—organized, equipped, and manned for high-technology warfare at sea against the Soviet Navy—quickly adapted to the demands of lower-technology maritime counterinsurgency. Significantly for the Navy as an institution, its junior leaders, both commissioned and petty officers, immediately rose to the challenge, taking on responsibilities that were more arduous than their “big-deck” counterparts. While there have been other books on coastal and riverine warfare in Vietnam, this volume is indisputably the most definitive and impartial among them.

While the work is primarily an academic one, Sherwood's writing style engages the reader. He covers the large institutional issues, matters of strategy and operations, and of course, the tactical actions showcasing the formidable abilities of Navy junior personnel in life-or-death situations. Sherwood also gives the U.S. Coast Guard its due throughout his narrative. There are plenty of photos and a sufficient quantity of maps to enhance visualizing this kind of war. As one would expect, the majority of the book is organized chronologically; however, the chapters bounce back and forth between “green water” coastal warfare and “brown water” riverine operations. The first chapter, “Early Years,” and the last one, “Tet 1968,” cover both together and serve as contrasting bookends for the story. The short conclusions at the end, while well summarizing the book’s major thematic threads, highlight the one drawback in Sherwood's historical treatment: it foreshadows but does not cover Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt's 1968-1969 SEALORDS (Southeast Asia Lake, Ocean, River, and Delta) strategy. That is sorely missed. Sherwood argues that the Tet Offensive represented the apogee of the Navy's interdiction efforts throughout Vietnam; SEALORDS operations were subsequently far more localized in the inland waterways near the Cambodian border. In the preface, he says that a separate book would be necessary to do justice to the subject. This reviewer can only hope that this author is the one who writes it.

Army and Marine Corps readers will appreciate what the coastal and riverine forces can bring to the counterinsurgency fight on shore. Intelligence, psychological operations, civil affairs, naval direct and indirect fires, floating air-conditioned barracks, land-force riverine transport, and maritime interdiction of waterborne insurgent supply lines are well described and accompanied by examples. Perhaps most significant is the author’s analysis of the command-and-control relationships between riverine forces and their landward counterpart headquarters, particularly between the Navy's Task Force 117 commander directing the Mobile Riverine Force and the Army’s 9th Infantry Division leadership.

War in the Shallows serves well as operational and social history, but also as a treasure trove of case study material on organizational innovation and adaptation. It is highly recommended for Vietnam and naval historians, students of organizational behavior, and operational-level counterinsurgency specialists.

Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia