Flying With the Spooks by Herbert Shippey

In Flying with the Spooks: Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 242 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle) Herbert Shippey tells the story of his Vietnam War tour of duty, including how “all that good intel” about enemy air activity was collected and put to use. This is an intriguing tale for those of us who had not thought about how the U.S. military gathered that kind of intelligence in the Vietnam War.

Shippey tells a rambling story that includes his background, his Navy enlistment after he was about to be drafted into the U.S. Army after completing graduate school in June 1969, and his recruit and Vietnamese language. The heart of this memoir is Shippey’s recounting of the work he did while assigned to the U.S. Navy Fleet Support Detachment at Da Nang Air Base in South Vietnam.

Shippey flew SIGINT (Signal Intelligence, or Intercept) reconnaissance in several aircraft designed for just such missions: the EC-121 Warning Star, the repurposed, prop-driven Constellation; the P-3 Orion; and the two-engine jet A-3 Sky Warrior. He was the guy who had the head phones on, listening intently (and recording on reel-to-reel tapes) to everything he could gather from the airwaves. Hot intel was relayed directly to pilots for immediate action.

Shippey flew almost daily on patterns that took him over the Gulf of Tonkin and back west over Laos, Thailand, along the North Vietnamese border in unarmed aircraft. His flights were sometimes accompanied by F-4 Phantoms for security, but they were often re-routed when other missions gained priority.

Shippey describes the beauty of the Vietnamese countryside, the South China Sea, and the war-torn areas on the ground, as well as American installations and their surrounding towns and villages.

He intersperses travelogue-like observations of the places he visited, things he saw, books he read, music he enjoyed, and conversations he had with fellow self-professed nerds. The book has an index, but a better addition might have been a Glossary of basic Intel terms, including the definition of the word “spook” in intelligence circles.

All in all, Flying with the Spooks was an interesting read,

–Tom Werzyn