Firehammer by Ric Hunter

Ric Hunter, the author of Firehammer (Red Engine Press, 274 pp., $17.95, paper), is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, a former fighter pilot who flew the F-4 Phantom and F-15C Eagle. He commanded an Eagle squadron and was a three-time Top Gun.

In the acknowledgements section of this book—“a novel of daring and revenge in the skies over Cambodia”—Hunter says that the men and women of the 34th Tactical Fighter Squadron “formed the basis of the characters in Firehammer.”  Under the title are the words, “Based on a True Story.” 

I began reading this short novel with high hopes. The Air Force part of the story begins on January 3, 1975, in Thailand. Captain Randy Houston steps off a C-141 onto the steaming tarmac “into the ripe stench of human dung used as fertilizer.”

This book introduced me to a totally alien world—of men who fly F-4’s. This novel is the real deal, written from the inside by a man who knows the language and has the experience few others do. Every page has the stench of authenticity.

Ric Hunter on active duty

This book uses the expression “the fog of war,” and gives examples of it. The author makes the point that we left behind more than $2 billion in serviceable equipment at the end of the Vietnam War, but I still don’t get why “Pepper,” the nickname of the hero of this book, shoots down an F-5 flown by an enemy pilot, the last air-to-air kill of the war.

My question is: Why was the enemy flying F-5’s while we were flying F-4’s? I know that F-5’s were captured by the North Vietnamese when they overran South Vietnam, but the author never explains why we had none of them and, in fact, were flying the older, slower, larger E-4’s.

Plus, the South Vietnamese left F-5’s on the field, fueled up and ready to fly. You might almost suspect collusion on their part with the enemy.

I was never in a fraternity, so the behavior of the pilots in this book puzzles me. I am sure it is a cultural loss on my part, but the shells and all raw-egg-eating character called Animal displays extreme Tailhook behavior. I have to admit that I am in the part of society represented by a nurse character, new to the Vietnam War, who says, “You assholes belong in a fucking zoo,” after she ends up wallowing in the filthy  wet mess left behind in a  bar where the pilots had engaged in what they called a “MiG Sweep.”

The chapter devoted to Roscoe, the unit mascot, an ancient black lab, is my favorite part of the book. Roscoe was a puppy when he was adopted, and now is old and arthritic, on his last legs. Nothing in the book illustrates more powerfully that this war went on too long. Roscoe’s death symbolizes the death of that war. Pepper’s dialogue with Roscoe about killing a North Vietnamese flyer who was “just doing his job” really hit home with me.

I’ve said this before, but if anyone wonders why we lost that dirty little war in South Vietnam, read this book. Hunter makes it clear in every chapter.

The author’s website is www.firehammernovel.com

—David Willson

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