The Hamfist Trilogy by G. E. Nolly

This immense, 900-plus-page trilogy adds up to one giant book, so we are considering all three volumes in one review.  At first, the narrative seems to be no more than a vast memoir of everything that happened to the author, G. E. Nolly, during his two tours as a U.S. Air Force 0-2A and F-4 pilot in Vietnam.  As I read further into the trilogy, I changed that judgment.

These books, Nolly says, were “inspired by actual events,” but much of what happens is preposterous and unbelievable. I never felt that I was reading the Catch-22 of the Vietnam War, but I did feel that the author had spent a lot of time in the air, perhaps more than Joseph Heller did in World War II.

The masterfully written cover blurb on the first book—Hamfist Over the Trail: The Air Combat Adventures of Hamilton “Hamfist” Hancock (Create Space, 266 pp., $10.95, paper)—tells us all we need to know to enable a potential reader to decide if this is the book for him or her.

“It’s 1968. Hamilton Hancock is on the fast track to become a fighter pilot.  He’s slated to fly an F-105, F-4 or F-100 in Vietnam. Then, the ‘needs of the service’ intervenes and he is assigned to fly one of the smallest, slowest aircraft in the Air Force inventory, the O-2A. Hamilton becomes a Forward Air Controller (FAC) in Vietnam and picks up the name, ‘Hamfist.’”

Almost all of the pilots in this trilogy have ridiculous nicknames of this sort.  Apparently it was part of the mystique of being a pilot. I was in the Army and never experienced any of the detailed and well-delineated stuff that Nolly lays out for us in the three books.

I’ve read a few novels and memoirs about FACs in the Vietnam War, and this one holds its own with the best of them. The dangers, as well as the perquisites, are presented, right down to the tiniest details of the air-conditioning and the all-you-can-eat meals available 24 hours a day in the officers’ mess for 27 cents a meal.

Hamfist Down! Evasion, Survival and Combat in the Jungle (CreateSpace, 238 pp., $10.95), the second book in the trilogy, is a continuation of the first one. It’s as though one book was just arbitrarily broken into two parts. It’s now August 1969, and Hamfist Hancock has been shot down over Laos.

Nolly compares Hamfist’s experience to his boyhood adventures after coming home from seeing a John Wayne movie. Hamfist is very honest about his shortcomings, such as difficulties with reading contour lines on a map, and does not rate himself super highly as a FAC.

G.E. Nolly

This volume reminds me of the classic Vietnam War memoir, BAT-21, which was made into an exciting 1988 war rescue movie starring Gene Hackman and Danny Glover.

Hamfist Over Hanoi: Wolfpack on the Prowl (CreateSpace, 420 pp., $17.95, paper) is the third book in the trilogy. It’s now 1972. Hamfist is back in action after his adopted son is killed by a rocket attack. He flies an F-4 Phantom II from a base in Thailand just as Operation Linebacker starts.

The book contains a heavy load of information on how to fly an F-4 fighter. I cannot imagine anyone reading it and wishing for more detail. A glossary of terms would have been appreciated by this reader.

The book never convincingly makes the cases that Hamfist adopted the kid. Hamfist visits the child a few times in an orphanage and that is about it.

It is interesting to encounter the point of view of an Air Force Academy graduate. It is very different than the point of view of an Army draftee. Nolly/Hamfist talks of seeking assignment to Vietnam “to support the war effort” or to “get experience in a combat situation.”

When I was in Vietnam for thirteen-and-a-half months in 1966-67, it seemed apparent to me that the war was hopeless and well on its way to being lost. But this Air Force officer is enthusiastic about the war in 1972.  We called this a lifer attitude in Vietnam in 1967, which I acknowledge is the unenlightened opinion of a draftee who only had a rudimentary four-year education at a state university and just one semester in Air Force ROTC.

These books show also no respect for antiwar protesters, conscientious objectors, or for Jane Fonda, who gets a two-page rant in which she is called a traitor and compared to Tokyo Rose.

After reading this 900-plus page opus, I feel no need to ever read another book on the air war in Vietnam. I recommend highly this trilogy to anyone who wishes to know all there is to know about the attitudes and daily activities of those who flew airplanes in the Vietnam War.

The author’s website is  http://genolly.com

—David Willson

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