To his surprise, F-4 Phantom jock Captain David R. “Buff” Honodel fought his share of the Vietnam War entirely in Laos during his 1969-70 tour of duty. He flew with the 555th Tactical Fighter Squadron from Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, which provided air power against North Vietnamese along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and on the Plain of Jars.
Honodel—who died in February this year before the publication of this book—had prepared “to fight in Vietnam,” he wrote, “not some ancillary backwater skirmish in a primitive, jungle covered wilderness.” Mainly, the 555th crews killed trucks.
Furthermore, Honodel quickly realized that combat missions vastly differed from what he had expected, even though he ranked himself as “the world’s greatest fighter pilot.” Mostly, he had to relearn maneuvers he believed he had mastered because controlling a heavyweight, bomb-laden Phantom was like flying an entirely different aircraft.
Honodel related his experiences in these operations with a sometimes puzzled, but always eager, attitude in The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat Over Laos (University of North Texas Press, 330 pp. $29.95, hardcover and Kindle). As a young man, he sought and found excitement, drama, and satisfaction amid the chaos of enemy gunfire and Air Force leadership.
The book thoroughly walks the reader through preparing for and flying fighter-bomber missions against targets seriously defended by antiaircraft weapons. Of Honodel’s 137 combat missions, 53 were as a Night Owl, which taught him a lot about himself. “When I crossed the Fence that first night,” he wrote, “I had no idea that I entered a new war, an environment that brought new terror.”
Night Owls flew in absolute blackness, or as Honodel put it: “About the only thing darker would be the inside of a coffin.” Lessons he learned on both night and day missions fill the book, and their details should delight flying enthusiasts as well as readers unfamiliar with military matters.
Self-criticism overrode much of his airmanship because no matter how well he performed, he still wanted to do better. At times, he viewed perfection as unattainable. Yet he recalled a foolhardy shootout and destruction of an antiaircraft gun and its crew that cleared the way for a successful helicopter rescue of a downed flyer and called the feat “the proudest day of my life.”
Often, Buff Honodel and his squadron mates were dissatisfied with the conduct of the war for reasons such as deaths and disappearances of fellow crewmen; too many tactical restrictions; inappropriate targeting; and illogical expectations from higher headquarters. Their criticism did not diminish their level of dedication to the task, however.
To deepen readers’ understanding of flying the F-4, Honodel provided fourteen pages of images with explanations of the interior of the aircraft’s cockpit, along with a crash course on ejection procedures. He also included twenty-four pages of photographs of the men and weapons discussed throughout the book.
Honodel returned to the United States in mid-1970 to fly the F-4 at Holloman Air Force Base. In 1972, he got to fight in South Vietnam when his squadron unexpectedly deployed to Southeast Asia to counter the North Vietnamese Army’s Easter Offensive. He targeted infantry during forty-some missions, which he mentioned only briefly in this book.
The Phantom Vietnam War closes with Honodel’s grim but reasonable conclusions regarding the war’s significance. The men with whom he flew are his heroes, especially those killed or missing in action. He appreciated what they all accomplished more than why they did it.
Honodel admitted to writing The Phantom Vietnam War exclusively from memory. At times, the book has a novelistic tone because he created dialogue and recreated radio transmissions. A few of his generalizations could have been better supported. None of this, however, detracts from the overall impact of his feelings.
Following more than four decades of consideration, they still were fresh and sincere and comprise the foundation for his memoir.