It is surprising how few good book covers there are for novels about military history. I think best cover I have seen is “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes. It is an intriguing, yet simple image that tells a story. It also has a great sense of mystery because of the mist that covered the valley and moutains. I hope to find the same type of image for my war novel “We Stand Alone.” I am not interested in retro, drawings or black and white historical photos as covers. Both have been overdone in the genre. I want something fresh that grabs the potential readers’ attention. I also really like the movie poster “Apocalypse Now” by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola. It is more busy than Matterhorn, but really grabs the potential viewer because of its vivid imagery and it set the location of the movie on a river which is a key element to the story.
The book deals with the last battle in the Indochina War or what I like to call “The War Before The War” between the Viet Minh communists and their French overlords. The outcome of the final battle in the valley of Dien Bien Phu literally defined modern history for generations to come and resulted in America entering the Vietnam War. The novel is based on a true story and most of the characters were real people. The main character is a freelance American pilot that flew vital dangerous resupply missions for the French. He falls in love with a French correspondent reporting on the battle from inside the French garrison. She was a strong, brave woman with ideas before her time and actually parachuted several times under fire into battefields. The airfield was the key position for the French. It was their lifeline. The story is similar in tone to the book and movie “A Bridge Too Far” in that it about what happens to the common soldier when their commanding generals overreach. It is a sad story in which over ten thousand soldiers on both sides die. It is a warning not to rush into war.
So, the images that are part of the novel include a huge French garrison and airfield in a valley in Northeast Vietnam, a large cargo plane (C-119 boxcar) named “Dora May” after the cartoon character in the comic strip “L’il Abner”, lots of artillery and anti-aircraft guns on both sides, a love story between an American pilot and French journalist and of course the generals and the soldiers that fought. No helicopters, please. Also, the valley and surrounding mountains were often covered in a mist and the French parachuted into the valley. Too much for one book cover. If a designer would to include everything it would be too busy. So, I would choose simplicity over inclusivity when creating the cover.
Please keep in mind that the Indochina War and the battle of Dien Bien Phu on which the novel was based took place in 1954, before the American Vietnam War. The French controlled the skies with their Airforce (the Viet Minh did not have any planes) and made extensive use of artillery to support their ground troops. It was a set battle which means the French built a garrison (fortress on hillsides) with barbwire, trenches, blockhouses and artillery pits. The Viet Minh surrounded the French garrison and dug approach trenches then bombarded the French troops with artillery and attacked in human waves up the hills on which the French garrison was built. The Viet Minh always attacked at night under the cover of darkness and the mist, while the French almost always counterattack during the day, so their Airforce could assist them by bombing and shooting rockets at the Viet Mihn. At night the French launched firefly flares on little parachutes from airplanes flying over the battlefield. The French fought with paratroopers and legionnaires many of which jumped into the valley during the battle. The Viet Minh used artillery located in tunnels in the surrounding mountains to bombard the French positions while keeping their own artillery safe from counterfire. The Viet Minh also made extensive use of anti-aircraft guns hidden in the forests on the mountain slopes to shoot down French aircraft, especially the cargo planes flown by the American pilots. The airfield in Dien Bien Phu was the key to the battle. The French were too far from their supply depots to resupply by land, so everything had to flown into the garrison. The airfield was their lifeline and when it fell the French garrison was doomed. Many supplies and reinforcements were dropped by parachute by the American pilots flying C-119 and the French flying C-47's. Unfortunately almost half of those supplies and many reinforcements fell behind enemy lines. Although the French did have a few helicopters they weren't really used during this particular battle because they could not carry enough troops and supplies to really make a difference. This battle was all about cargo planes, especially the C-119s that the Americans flew because of the massive cargo holds and the ability to push cargo on parachutes out their large back doors in the tail of the aircraft.
Vietnam is very green with tree covered mountains, valleys filled with rice paddies, long elephants grass covering most of the hillsides and rivers with monkey bridges made of bamboo. Mist usually covers the mountains and valleys at night and in the early mornings giving the countryside (and the battlefield a sense of mystery.
I would love to see a few designs similar to the "Airborne" poster that I attached. It's the one with a paratrooper about to jump out of a plane into a battle raging below. The design would need to be for Vietnam 1954 and the French paratrooper should be jumping out of the back of a C-119 which has large cargo door in the rear end of the cargo hold. I like the idea of not being able to see the actual battle, but instead seeing a mist over the valley and mountains with only the orange glow on explosions visible. And maybe there are already a three of four paratrooper already floating down below the aircraft.
Last suggestion for those that want to portray the French paratroopers jumping into battle (I hope that only a few designs take this approach as there are many other great ways to convey this story). Make use of the mist and night to create a sense of mystery if possible. Think about a battle raging below that we cannot see, except for the glow of explosions or tracer bullets from machine guns. Imagine a paratrooper jumping from the rear of a C-119 into a hell that he cannot see, but knows is there. Also, only two Americans died in the battle and both were pilots (one was a main character in the novel). Their C-119 was hit on takeoff from the French airfield by a Viet Minh anti-aircraft gun hidden in the surrounding mountain forest and crashed. This scene might be another great image for the cover.
The novel is named "We Stand Alone" because when the situation became hopeless the French garrison was abandoned by their own country and left to die. This battle ended the Indochina War and the French left Vietnam for good. Ten years later the Americans took up the fight in the Vietnam War. We should learn from history.
I have included some covers and movie posters I like, along with some photos of the planes and artillery. I have also included the cover to my last novel “Monsoon Rising” which I think is excellent for a psychological thriller and was designed by B&J using a 99 Designs contest. Good luck!
David Lee Corley