Shadow Commander


Shadow Commander follows in the wake of author Mike Guardia’s first book, American Guerrilla, reviewed elsewhere on defenceWeb. Researching the former unearthed material and leads for the second – diaries, letters, photos, files, debriefs and the like.

Blackburn served under Russell W. Volckmann – focus of American Guerrilla – on north Luzon in the Philippines. Posted to the island archipelago just before the outbreak of war, he saw firsthand the speedy collapse of the under-trained, under-equipped and under-motivated US-officered American-Philippine Army. As the lines across Bataan Peninsula collapsed, 1st Lt Blackburn and Capt Volckmann escaped-and-evaded north, planning to round up other survivors and heading north to commence guerrilla warfare.

Initial challenges included terrain, climate, health & hygiene, demoralisation and breaking free of the Japanese. Food and arms were policed up from past battlefields and the population was overwhelmingly in support of the Americans – a crucial factor for logistics, recruiting and intelligence. Not all was plain sailing. Initially, the Japanese occupiers stayed in the larger population centres, allowing guerrilla bands to form around remote hill stations and attack with some freedom. A coordinated response came in late 1942/early 1943, shattering many groups. This required a second round of organising – with lessons learned – and operations resumed, peaking before the US re-invasions of 1944. By war’s end he was the youngest full-colonel in the US Army (at 29) and a regimental commander.

Reduced in rank to Lt-Colonel in the post-war drawdown, his major task was arranging amnesty for former guerrillas being charged for executing spies and collaborators during the war. Next he was officer commanding 3rd Infantry Training Regiment. This was followed by a first posting to South Vietnam as military advisor. Like fellow advisor John Paul Vann (A Bright Shining Lie – John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam) he quickly surmised how rotten a government and military the South had. In late 1958 he become OC of the 77th Special Forces Group, adding the training of Philippine-style irregular companies and battalions. This remains a core Green Beret task and training activity. In mid-1959 the unit deployed to Laos (Operation White Star). Hundreds of soldiers and Hmong tribesmen were trained to fight the insurgency. Back in Vietnam, he trained two battalions of counterinsurgency Rangers for South Vietnam. Reportedly, standards were high. Giving up command of the 77th in mid-1960 he became head of the special warfare office in the Pentagon. In 1965 he became commander of the Studies and Observation Group (SOG), tasked with reconnaissance, fire direction and guerrilla warfare in North Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh trail. After a year he was promoted brigadier general, posted to the 82nd Airborne Division, followed by a return to the special operations community in the pentagon. Here he took a lead in the raid on the prisoner war camp at Son Tay, near Hanoi. The biggest special operation of the Vietnam conflict, the 1970 raid fell upon an empty camp. Blackburn retired shortly thereafter, with honour.

Quite a portrait of a great man.

Shadow Commander – The epic story of Donald D Blackburn, Guerrilla leader and Special Forces hero

Mike Guardia

Casemate Publishers

213 pages

Illustrated , maps