Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Terry Thorsen flew for the Marine Corps in the F-4J Phantom as a member of the VMFA-232 Red Devils. He chronicles that experience in his memoir, Phantom in the Sky: A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp. $34.95, hardcover).
Thorsen enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from college. He did not want to go to war, but recognized an obligation to serve his country. On the other hand, he did not want to be an infantryman, fully appreciating that grunts had the toughest—and most dangerous—job of all.
His wife, Jan, and his parents also did not want him to go to war. His wife detested the Marine Corps because of its all-encompassing control of Thorsen’s time and energy.
Thorsen had a love-hate relationship with flying, which he reflects in the book in telling of fascinating, yet occasionally repetitive, incidents that led him to find his niche as an officer and crew member. He does an excellent job capturing the uncertainty he felt at critical stages during his enlistment.
Thorsen flew 123 combat missions from Chu Lai in 1969. The Red Devils employed a large inventory of munitions on targets across I Corps and into Laos and Cambodia. Day and night, their tasks included close-air support, interdiction, flak suppression, rescue, reconnaissance escort, and B-52 escorting.
The book contains a virtually day-by-day account of Thorsen’s air and ground activities. Not unexpectedly, usually uneventful flying tasks often suddenly turned into moments of sheer terror. Night rocket attacks on Chu Lai complicated his negative attitude toward the war.
Flying five missions in twenty-two hours, though, boosted his self-esteem. Supporting or rescuing overwhelmed grunts elevated him to a self-actualizing level. Those flights allowed Thorsen to achieve his full potential as a warrior:
“I didn’t expect thanks or praise,” he says. “Gratification came from a job well done. Lessening the deaths of some of our military combatants satisfied me.”
RIO duty taught him an even more gratifying lesson: An F-4 RIO’s brainpower was a pilot’s best insurance policy. Unhampered by concentrating on flying the airplane (the back seat had no control stick), an RIO sees beyond conventional behavior and recommends actions that save airplanes and lives. Thorsen describes more than enough in-flight incidents to prove that point.
In 1968 when I served in the Vietnam War, our C-130 crew made stops at Chu Lai during the Tet Offensive. We marveled at the base’s continuous flow of fighter activity. We watched fighters take off, make low-level bomb drops along the horizon, RTB, rearm, and relaunch within what seemed the same hour. We grinned in admiration for zealousness of the Marines in I Corps.
The book’s title slightly deceives because—as is the case with most Vietnam War memoirs—this book includes the author’s account of his training that preceded combat. Thorsen, that is, writes about his squadron’s year-long preparation for a combat tour of duty. Straight from a rigorous Officer Candidates School that paralleled boot camp and Naval Flight Officer training, he had poor self-confidence because of continuous bouts of airsickness that had nearly kept him from winning his RIO wings. The illness became more frequent during his squadron’s rehearsal for the physically challenging aerial maneuvers it would employ in Vietnam. He had far less frequent airsickness once he got to the war zone.
Phantom in the Sky rings with authenticity because Thorsen clearly explains his illness, conflicting attitudes, and relationship with a hard-to-please wife. He even recalls interactions that registered his own embarrassment. Furthermore, based on their situations as well as his own, he portrays and evaluates leaders and fellow fliers in clear and honest terms.
The book contains letters that Thorsen wrote home and photographs from his tour. Appendices record the history of Marine Corps units mentioned in the text.
Terry Thorsen came home from the war, took an early discharge, and opened a photography studio that failed during the 1980s recession. He then joined the active Reserves; enjoyed and retired from a crime scene investigator career; raised two sons; and, as he says, after many, many years, “Jan and I divorced.”