Rolling Thunder by L. Erik Fleming

The back cover blurb of L. Erik Fleming’s Rolling Thunder (Strategic Book Publishing, 438 pp., $23, paper) tells us that the author is an air traffic controller and flight instructor. Nothing is said of military experience. Rolling Thunder is a romance novel set in the time of war. 

I’ve lost track of how many books and movies about the Vietnam War have used the words “rolling thunder.” But I believe it’s a first that the first sentence any of these works is in Vietnamese. It’s immediately translated into English, but the next paragraph also contains another Vietnamese sentence.

I wondered where this book was going. The back cover blurb tells us: “Welcome to Linh Thu, South Vietnam, where the Pathet Lao strikes nightly from just outside the base. Supplies are almost gone, and comfort and security are a fading memory. Into the melee arrives a recently broken-hearted fighter pilot hoping to serve his tour and go home, but that was before it was discovered he could speak the native language.” A tortured blurb, to be sure, but one packed with potential action.

The hero is Captain Jordan. The name conjures up a character from a Hemingway novel, but the prose does not. The book and its tiny print were heavy going for me at first. Too much flight jargon and no glossary. Among other terms I encountered:  Immelmanns, barrel rolls, furballs, high g Derry turn, climbing yo-yo, overshoot, and bug out.  Some I could guess at, but others remained a mystery.

Almost two hundred pages into this large novel Jordan’s fiancée Virginia lets him know that she has moved on and that one of the reasons is “your stupid war.” This happens in a phone call during which she also indicates that she has found a lover who suits her better, especially in the financial department. Captain Jordan gets to speak to his girlfriend’s new lover, a businessman who gives Virginia the large diamond she wants—not the tiny rock Captain Jordan scrimped and saved for.

Gradually his love interest becomes a local girl, the woman in charge of a store which seems to supply everything needed in a war zone, from a tiny piece that makes an air conditioner work to parts of anti-aircraft guns to shoot down American fighter planes. We are told several times that she is the most beautiful girl in the world, but she is also a communist.

Jordan deals with that. Most American military men of that time and place would not have been able to do so. He is exceptional.

He’s convinced that Washington does not want to win the war and that it’s all about the money. I can see his reasoning. Meanwhile, his buddies are dying as their planes are shot down, or they are being captured and held as POWs. The book presents several harrowing scenes of flyers brutalized in the Hanoi Hilton or a similar facility.

The book also endeavors, with some success, to present the reader with two NVA MIG pilots, Captain Phan and Colonel Tomb, skilled fighter pilots who take part in dog fights with the American pilots. Colonel Tomb is a convincingly evil Russian who lacks all courtesy and principles and even shoots to kill American pilots attempting to parachute to safety.

The politics of this book are a surprise to this reader. The usual rhetoric about American antiwar people is there, but other than that, the book seems primarily antiwar itself, not a celebration of America’s noble attempt to stem the flood of worldwide communism.

I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the book takes the reader to a successful POW rescue, home to America, to the dedication of The Wall in Washington, and on a pilgrimage by Captain Jordan back to Vietnam. There he receives redemption for the bombing of civilian villages during his war, including the village where his love interest lived.

It seems unrealistic to me, but I’ve not gone back to Vietnam to ask for forgiveness for my part in the American war there. For all of you who have made that journey, or considered it, I highly recommend this romance novel. It’s one of a kind.

—David Willson

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