Kit Lavell’s personal memoir of combat action actually encompasses the entire history, from conception to decommissioning, of Light Attack Squadron Four (VAL-4) the Navy’s only shore-based tactical aviation squadron in the Vietnamese War.  In the three short years of its’ existence, from April 1969 to March 1972, flying OV-10 Bronco aircraft borrowed from the Marine Corps VAL-4 achieved a remarkable record of 42,862 flight hours and 21,802 sorties while building a reputation as one of the best close air support units in the war.  In the course of their existence, they had twenty-six aircraft assigned of which seven became combat losses.  They also sustained seven KIA and nine WIA.

The commissioning of VAL-4 resulted from the need for effective rapid-reaction close air support for the Mobile Riverine Force, our “brown-water” forces in the Mekong Delta.  The initial formation, outfitting, training, deployment and combat introduction was accomplished under the direction of the first Commanding Officer, then Cdr. Gil Winans, a highly respected A-1 Skyraider pilot with extensive experience in the venerable Spad and its’ many variants.  Initially the other officers came from various backgrounds and volunteered for many different reasons. They are an eclectic and colorful bunch and many of their names will be familiar to those who served during the first three decades of the last half of the Twentieth Century. In the course of its’ existence, there would be 123 Black Pony pilots and approximately 650 enlisted men assigned to VAL-4.  Lavell has high praise for the enlisted personnel who performed magnificently under extremely adverse conditions.
A interesting subplot revolves around the logistical survival of the squadron; one, of cumshaw, barter, manipulation ‘can-do” and outright thievery, familiar to any Navy/Marine Corps personnel who have found themselves out of mainstream Dept of Navy channels.  Consequently as one assignment officer put it to a prospective pilot assignee “VAL-4 is …a sort of cross between ‘McHale’s Navy’ and ‘Black Sheep Squadron.”

With an inspirational forward by Stephen Coonts, this is an outstanding well-written, enjoyable book that deserves to be read.  Its message of effective close air support and how to achieve it is especially deserving of consideration by War College and Pentagon planners.  Any grunt will tell you, nervously, effective CAS is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve from angels 20, no matter how smart your bombs are.

Kit Lavell flew 243 combat missions with the Black Ponies.  After returning to the States he flew as a commercial pilot and is the owner of an engineering company specializing in construction of alternative energy projects.  He is the recipient of the California Affordable Housing Competition Award and is a produced playwright and screenwriter

Reviewed by Cdr. George G. Fisher, USN (ret)

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