Taking Fire by Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters

Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters’s Taking Fire: Saving Captain Aikman: A Story of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 216 pp., $32.95) is a tribute to airmen who are dedicated to saving lives. The authors have created a vivid, page-turning narrative of war from the first to the final page. A few times I thought I was watching a movie and not just reading about loyalty, courage, sacrifice, and true heroism.

O’Rourke and Peters use an unusual writing technique. Nonfiction books usually are written in the past tense. These veteran authors, however, switch to the present tense when describing the action scenes. This creates the sensation that the reader is in the midst of the action. Dozens of well-placed photos support this real-time sensation.

Retired Gen. Dale Stovall opens his Forward with a quote from Gen. John Voght that he says made him cry: “I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews to get just one man out. Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. I just said, go do it!” This becomes a theme of the rescue mission.

In their Introduction, the authors remind the reader that the number of American ground forces dropped to about 25,000 by 1972. The North Vietnamese used the draw down to upgrade and strengthen their armed forces with Russian and Chinese assistance.   

Sgt. Chuck McGrath of the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron is introduced on the first page the book. Following McGrath through his rigorous rescue training the reader gains insight into the character of the men who did a dangerous job—men who lived up to their motto, “That Others Might Live.”

The Air Force men of the squadron became known as PJs, somewhat easier to pronounce than Pararescuemen. They flew Greyhound-bus-sized Sikorski II helicopters, those workhorses more commonly known as Jolly Green Giants.

The intensity of the story builds with each chapter as the reader learns about the activities of the pilots before, during, and after June 27, 1972, when four USAF F-4 Phantoms were shot down .The reader is given a front-seat view of what American pilots faced when flying upcountry.

O’Rourke and Peter hurl us into the middle of antiaircraft fire and MIG fighters that had to be dealt with before any actual bombing took place.  Appreciation of the pilots’ evasion skills increases exponentially on the flight north.

When Lynn Aikman and Tom Hamilton, his backseat man, eject from their doomed plane, the reader floats earthward into a world of danger, violence, and imminent death. Capture by the enemy is very likely, but thanks to the PJ teams, rescue is at least a strong possibility.

The rescue extraction doesn’t work well on the first try. so a second team led by pilot Dale Stovall has a go at the rescue. To hear these men recall their work on June 27, the rescue sounds like a dangerous but “just doing our job” kind of event. After vicariously experiencing the details of the rescue mission, this reader will remain forever in awe.

On the 10th anniversary of his rescue, Aikman invited several of his rescuers to a cookout at his home. Sharing hitherto untold stories with his old friends was eye-opening to his family. It also opened up something inside Aikman.

As the guests were leaving, Aikman’s father thanked Dale Stovall for saving his son’s life. Stovall responded that it had just been his mission.

The elder Aikman said, “No, not ten years ago. I meant today.”

—Joseph Reitz

Lynn Aikman