Fly By Knights Edited By Roger D. Graham

In Fly By Knights: Air Force A/B/RB-26 Air Commando Missions in the Vietnam War (McFarland, 290 pp. $39.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) retired USAF Col. Roger Graham, with help from fellow Air Force flyers, has constructed a roller-coaster ride of stories about daring feats, successes and screw-ups, unimaginable events, close calls, and losses.

The book’s stories come from 35 Air Commandos (and three family members) in parallel with Graham’s account of the aircraft’s evolution from B-26B to A-26A. He interviewed pilots, navigator/copilots, maintenance and armament personnel, and civilian contractors. The men all expressed positive attitudes about the war and their role in it.

The Air Commandos took part in three Vietnam War operations: Farm Gate at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam from 1961-64, and Big Eagle and Nimrod (Hunter) at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base, 1966-1969. From 1964-66 Operation Farm Gate’s B-26s proved to be too old for their task.

The B-26 had excelled in World War II and Korea, and its availability led planners to use those light bombers for close air support and interdiction missions for the “Secret War” in Laos. After 1963-64 incidents in which three B-26Bs lost a wing during low-level pull-ups, headquarters grounded the plane.

Long before that happened, the aircraft had problems. It lacked up-to-date instrumentation. Systems frequently failed. Repairs depended on cannibalization because spare parts seldom were available.

The ancient war plane’s unpredictability grew almost humorous. As an old armorer put it: “The B Model was a maintenance nightmare. It would be just sitting on the ramp with no one around and suddenly decide to start dropping bombs on the ramp.”

Many Air Force units had flown the planes in many different roles and no two planes were alike. Some, for example, had been flown in support of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Despite those handicaps, B-26 crewmen rightfully exuded pride in flying them.

Convinced it was still the best machine for the task, the Air Force corrected the aircraft’s wing spar failures by having On Mark Engineering Company convert 40 B-26s to B-26Ks. Innovative technical and aerodynamic designs brought the airplane up to modern standards. 

With the new B-26Ks, the Commandos eagerly deployed to Nakhon Phanom in 1966. Focused on interdicting the Ho Chi Minh Trail, they destroyed or damaged more trucks than anyone else. They operated under the Nimrod call sign, but the plane’s designation was changed to A-26 for political purposes. Those flyers, too, found exceptional satisfaction in their mission and unit camaraderie. Increasingly intense and accurate North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft artillery eventually drove the A-26s from Laos.

Fly By Knights contains unit rosters, squadron history documents, and heart-touching reflections on war by members of flyers’ families. The well-written history documents provide insights on truck interdiction tactics.

Roger D. Graham is a 1963 U.S. Air Force Academy graduate, and served on active duty as a navigator-bombardier and a judge advocate. As an editor, he definitely gets the most from other people’s stories.

—Henry Zeybel

Vector to Destiny by George W. Kohn

Vector to Destiny: Journey of a Vietnam F-4 Fighter Pilot (Koehler Books, 274 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $18.49, Kindle) fits comfortably inside the age-old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. In this war memoir, George W. Kohn writes about his rise from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse to flying USAF F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War in 1969. To his credit, Kohn climbed the ladder of his dreams on his own God-given initiative.

While still a child as a Wisconsin farmer’s only son, Kohn rose well before school hours to perform demanding chores. On several mornings while milking cows, he heard a low-flying B-58 Hustler bomber’s “earth-vibrating, thunderous boom that drowned out all the other sounds,” he says. The noise also heralded a message: the farm boy’s destiny would be to fly an airplane like that one.

In telling his story, Kohn—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—sets out in great detail the many difficult tasks required to overcome the conventions of farm life and the hardship of an inferior education. He became a self-made man in order to find a path through his high school’s pecking order and through University of Wisconsin classes beyond his learning skills, as well as the trials of ROTC and summer camp, pilot training, survival school, and F-4 familiarization. It all culminated in his assignment to fly with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Danang in November 1969.

Along the way, he records his thoughts about the Vietnam War era, lauding the good and castigating the bad within America’s political structure and among his peers. His war stories do not begin until well into Part Five of the book.

In 201 missions as an F-4 back-seater, he bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, supply depots in Cambodia, and the city of Vinh when the Nixon Administration resumed attacks on North Vietnam in 1970. In most cases, his combat action centers on problem-solving in which logic dominated emotion. He got pissed off, but practiced restraint by repeatedly reminding himself how lucky he was to be where he was.

Vector to Destiny will appeal to readers with limited knowledge of Air Force activities, in other words, those who would benefit from Kohn writing about military tasks step by step—everything from classroom demands to test flying an F-4 at Mach two. Old timers might view those details as overkill.

To me, Kohn’s boyhood farm activities are as interesting as his combat stories, maybe more so. They definitely fulfill the book’s rags-to-riches theme. Of course, I reacted to the country scenes as a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh and who once believed that vegetables grew in plastic crates at Kroger.

Kohn’s website is hgwkohnauthor.com

—Henry Zeybel

Going Downtown by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an author and screenwriter. He also is a U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran and a licensed pilot with a lifelong interest in all things aeronautic. All of the above give him a unique insight into the American air war in Vietnam.

Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The U.S. Air Force over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1967-1975 (Osprey, 352 pp. $30, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) is a compilation of pilot biographies and memoirs interspersed with analyses of political and military decisions about how the USAF and the North Vietnamese ran air operations during the war.

Using extensive research and interviews, Cleaver has combined seemingly mundane, behind-the-scenes events with bone-chilling battle scenes. For me, Going Downtown was one of those “can’t put it down” reads, although I did put it down periodically just to digest the mountains of information I was learning.

Many aircraft and pilots are showcased throughout Going Downtown. It was an unexpected delight to read many accounts of our former enemy pilots as well.

The American pilots faced several deadly factors: North Vietnamese air defenses, including MIGs, SAMs, and antiaircraft buns of all types; Rules of Engagement devised by men in the White House and Defense Department, many of whom had little or no military backgrounds; faulty aircraft armament which led to many air-to-air missiles malfunctioning or being too cumbersome to use in combat; and poor tactics, one of which forced all aircraft in a flight to jettison their bombs, abort an attack, and head for home as soon as an approaching MIG was sighted.

Cleaver says some strategists felt that the outcome of the USAF air campaign in Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power, while many who actually fought felt that what happened demonstrated the results of imposing limitations on air power. Cleaver shows that at times the NVA maintained unquestionable air superiority, but when the Rules of Engagement were relaxed, the U.S. immediately took over the skies of North Vietnam.

I highly recommend Going Downtown to historians, action readers, and aviation buffs. It is a good companion to Cleaver’s The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in Vietnam, which was published in 2021.

–Bob Wartman

The Spirit to Soar by Jim Petersen

Jim Petersen’s The Spirit to Soar: Life Lessons and Values for a Victorious Life (Morgan James Publishing, 246 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) revolves around the themes of what sustains a person and allowing happiness to come from inside you.

Petersen, a retired Navy submarine officer who heads his own business coaching firm, tells the life story of retired USAF Lt. Col. Barry Bridger, a friend and colleague. The story begins when Bridger became an orphan at age six, and continued through a love-filled adoption, Bridger’s military service as a fighter pilot, his six years (1967-73) as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton, and his post-military career as a successful family man and businessman. It’s quite a story.

The 18 chapters are filled with wisdom, positive thinking, and anecdotes that illustrate the theme of success and self-directed, positive reactions to the events surrounding you daily life. Petersen’s recounting of Bridger’s life experiences contain a solid message. That includes the need for a spiritual grounding, even though there are no chapters devoted to that subject in the book nor is there any pulpit-thumping rhetoric.

Each chapter begins with a different topic and continues with Bridger bringing his message. Themes frequently overlap—including a few repetitions of an entire paragraph.  Reading much of Bridger’s comments feels like listening to a conversation or a reminiscence containing good information. If you let it, and are open to it, the positive message in this book will grow on you as you continue to read

This is a wonderfully positive book with a genuine hero as its subject and lives up to the subtitle—plus, it‘s readable and begging to be shared with others.

The book’s website is thespirittosoar.com

–Tom Werzyn

Ghostriders 1968-1975 by William Walter

Retired Chief Master Sgt. William Walter has written the book that many of us have been waiting for since the last century: Ghostriders 1968-1975: “Mors de Caelis” Combat History of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia (Knox Press, 352 pp. $35, hardcover; $14.99, Kindle). In it, Walter describes a six-year battle matching the U.S. Air Force’s 16th Special Operations Squadron against the North Vietnamese Army’s 591st Anti-Aircraft Regiment. The two units clashed in Laos above the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Comprised of AC-130 Spectre gunships, the 16th SOS destroyed trucks and other vehicles along the Trail, while the 591st tried to shoot down the gunships. The 16th dominated the arena, but in the end, the 591st deployed a sufficient array of weapons to drive the gunships from the theater.

After crewing as a Spectre gunner from 1978-2005, Walter spent more than a decade researching this book. He recreates the multi-year battle based on information from USAF records, archives, and 16th post-strike combat reports; as well as interviews with former 16th crewmembers; and NVA commanders’ writings and other publications. In portraying turning points of combat, Walter provides nearly night-by-night accounts of the ploys and counter ploys employed by the gunships and by the NVA defenses. Anti-aircraft fire intensified in proportion to the number of trucks destroyed or damaged.

Walter tells his stories from crewmen’s viewpoints, and they overflow with authenticity. His narrative grows more off-beat and captivating as firepower and accuracy balanced out between the two sides. He shows us why and how Spectre crews performed over the Trail and shows how the enemy truck drivers reacted on the ground. He compares the responses of American and North Vietnamese combatants to the thinking of their higher-level decision makers.

Encounters over the Trail often became a take-your-best-shot situation. For the first five years of the battle, gunships took frequent survivable hits, but trucks suffered large numbers of fatalities. Drivers became demoralized and frightened by the gunships’ ability to locate them, a mentality that enemy leaders found difficult to deal with. Often, the mere presence of a gunship overhead caused drivers to stop, shut down their engines, abandon their vehicles, or do whatever else might save them from discovery.  Consequently, transportation of men and materiel ceased for the duration of a gunship’s overfly.

During the final year of battle, Trail defenses grew more prolific and powerful with the introduction of  85- and 100-mm guns, along with SA-2 and SA-7 missiles. The improved defensive structure forced gunships to fly higher and higher, thereby reducing the effectiveness and accuracy of their weapons. The NVA shot down four gunships, causing tactical changes that curtailed truck hunting. Spectre’s main task then became night protection of Saigon and, after the war ended in 1973, close air support for Cambodians fighting the Khmer Rouge.  

At length, Walter sorts out a controversy regarding the lethality of a gunship’s weapons. Studies showed that AC-130 practices for close air support, interdiction, command and control, and search and rescue developed through on-the-job training—meaning in combat.

Ghostriders‘ short final chapter records the 16th SOS’s role in the recovery of the U.S.S. Mayaguez in 1975. On that mission, Spectre flew 15 support missions during three days of utter confusion, its final combat role in Southeast Asia.

An AC-130 Spectre Gunship in action in Vietnam

The book is user friendly. In a brief Forward, Walter clearly explains the birth and evolution of the AC-130 structure, manning, and basic maneuvers. He tailored the book to ensure that a reader understands exactly what is taking place at all times by adding an event chronology, glossary, references, and index.

“Either by design or by chance,” Walter says, “the AC-130 earned a unique position in military history.” 

I operated sensors for Spectre during 1970-71 and found Walter’s accounts to be complete in every way. I believe a person unfamiliar with the aircraft will be spellbound by the facts Walter has accumulated. The book took me back to familiar places and taught me things I had not known.

Knox Press recently published Ghostriders 1976-1995: “Invictus” Combat History of the AC-130 Spectre Gunship, Iran, El Salvador, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia,”  Walter’s sequel to Ghostriders 1968-1975. The second book covers U.S. actions in areas less familiar to the public than those in the highly reported war in Vietnam.

—Henry Zeybel

Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.

In the Year of the Rabbit by Terence A. Harkin

Terrence A. Harkin’s new novel, In the Year of the Rabbit (Silkworm Books, 316 pp., paper ), is the sequel to his critically acclaimed The Big Buddha Bicycle Race, but Rabbit is a profound and compelling novel in its own right.

The story opens with Harkin’s Brendan Leary, an American cameraman and self-proclaimed pacifist, entering a hospital following a terrorist attack on the bicycle race he organized.. Though Leary is in dire need of rest, Harkin—a member of Vietnam Veterans of America who served in a USAF photo unit at Ubon RTAB during the Vietnam War—pushes him straight into action in the form of an epic journey through Thailand and Laos alongside wise-cracking door gunner Harley Baker.

Together, Leary and Baker encounter college rock bands, North Vietnamese armed vehicles, and Buddhist monasteries. Though he tries to put the past behind him, Leary is haunted by the memory of his former girlfriend Tukada and the violence he has inflicted in the war. Ultimately, Leary chooses to remain in Asia and become a Buddhist monk.

Much of the novel’s interest comes from the unique relationship between Baker and Leary, which is at once loving and tense. The men view the world in ways that are fundamentally incompatible: Baker is, in his own words, “a gunner and a bomb loader” who likes combat and “that nasty feeling—those butterflies in my belly.” Leary is an introspective pacifist. Yet the men bond through their shared experiences in the war.

At times, both characters verge on clichéd embodiments of their philosophies. But their differences still made this reader ponder the nature of violence and nationalism. Also on the plus side, the book contains many moments of humor and lightness. Baker’s droll callousness is reminiscent of characters in the movie and TV series M.A.S.H. Not coincidentally, Harkin was a cameraman for that famed TV show, among many others.

At its heart, In the Year of the Rabbit is the story of a man’s journey to find peace in a chaotic and violent world. The thoughtfulness and careful prose of In the Year of the Rabbit make Terry Harkin’s second novel a thoroughly worthwhile read.

The author’s website is taharkin.net

–Meg Bywater

Air Power’s Lost Cause by Brian D. Laslie

Brian Laslie presents history in a formidable style that challenges the reader to evaluate facts and question the conclusions he derives from them. His latest book, Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (Rowman & Littlefield, 272 pp. $39, hardcover; $36, Kindle), divides and analyzes the U.S. Air Force’s combat in the Vietnam War into six parts. The book is part of the War and Society Series, which investigates the history of the conduct of war, along with its social consequences.

Laslie, who holds a doctorate from Kansas State University, is the NORAD and USNORTHCOM deputy command historian at Peterson AFB in Colorado and an adjunct professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy and The Citadel.

I read and enjoyed Laslie’s previous book, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015). In it, he said that inadequate pilot training was the primary cause of aircraft losses in the Vietnam War. Because of that the Air Force revised its training and Laslie explained how, under a new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine. I found his arguments credible, although sometimes slanted.

Air Power’s Lost Cause includes material from The Air Force Way of War, but in greater detail. By separating Air Force operations into six phases, Laslie presents a sharper view of the differences between units at different stages of the war. Chapter 7, “Laos, Cambodia, and the War against the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” instantly attracted me because I flew on AC-130 Spectre gunships over Laos during 1970-71.

Laslie says that the U.S. military failed to interdict the Trail because of problems on the ground rather than in the air. He mentions airpower twice: short-lived, fast-FAC Misty F-100 missions in Laos, and B-52 bombings of NVA supply depots in Cambodia. He blames the failure on technical problems with Operation Igloo White’s sensor system, with Lima TACAN radar sites’ inability to function and survive under attack, and the fact that the Trail had no central artery to cut because it was a network of often-changing paths.

To my chagrin as a crewdog on Spectre missions over the Trail, Laslie never mentions those SOS operations in Southern Laos. He completely ignores the thousands upon thousands of trucks destroyed and damaged—sometimes amid controversy—year after year. Laslie’s omission was like leaving a story about a Yankees’ seventh World Series game out of the sports section of The New York Times.

North Vietnamese Army truck on the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Two other segments deal with areas of the war I knew well: “The War in the South: Buildup and Close Air Support,” which I saw as a C-130 navigator in 1967-68, and “To Deter Hanoi…The War in the North,” which fighter jock friends have described to me at length and about which I have read in dozens of memoirs.

I found no surprises there. “The Buildup” massed aircraft of every design. “Close Air Support” employed fighters against Viet Cong and NVA troops using tactics that firmly bonded Air Force efforts to Army ground combat needs in the South.

“Up North” bombing did not work, Laslie says. The crux of the matter was that the U.S. used conventional weapons designed for conventional war against an unconventional enemy with minuscule supply needs. He includes a sound argument—with which he disagrees—that heavier bombing earlier in the war would have ended it sooner. He suggests that nothing short of a ground invasion of Laos could have cut the Trail. He mentions but does not analyze the disastrous 1971 Operation Lam Son 719.

With those facts and opinions in mind, here’s my analysis of the entire book:

Air Power’s Lost Cause abounds with declarative conclusions. It validates the idea that the whole war was overly compartmentalized. In the North, Air Force fighter-bomber tactics were predictable and costly. SAC refused to let go of its preferred method of war and paid a heavy price.

The Air Force used the wrong equipment in the wrong way. The Navy did it better. The air war often was a learning experience on tactics and technology, and the Navy immediately applied new lessons during the war while the Air Force waited until later. The Navy’s Top Gun school, for example, came up with a training program eventually used for post-war Air Force fighter pilot training.

Laslie’s chapter, “Air to Air War,” is an excellent summation of dogfighting combat. It includes a glimpse of North Vietnamese pilots.   

In showing the pros and cons of American air wars in Vietnam, Laslie avoids lengthy political analyses. He more than suggests, however, that many military problems were born outside of the military environment. He points out, for example, that away from the battlefields, American politicians interfered with military aims and objectives. In that regard, Laslie quotes David Halberstam: “America, like the French before them, tended to underestimate the bravery, strength, resilience, and the political dynamics, which fed the indigenous force they were fighting.”

Laslie ends the book with a story from Mark Bowden about former U.S. Army Col. Harry Summers, who “told a North Vietnamese counterpart, ‘You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield,’ to which the Communist officer replied, ‘That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.'”

The aim of Air Power’s Lost Cause is to tell the complete history of Laslie’s six air power groups from the beginning of American involvement until final withdrawal. He definitively does so, but leaves some loopholes for a reader to challenge his thinking. 

—Henry Zeybel

Palace Gate by Richard L. Brown

Richard L. Brown’s Palace Gate: Under Siege in Hue City: TET January 1968 (Schiffer Publishing, 224 pp., $25.54), which was published in 2004, is a splendid little book. Retired USAF Lt. Col. Brown starts with biographical information before embarking on a good story built around his exploits as a Forward Air Controller pilot flying 0-1 and 0-2 Bird Dog aircraft over I Corps during his 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War—primarily in the A Shau Valley.

The late Lt. Col. Brown had flown fighters toward the end of World War II and in the Korean War, then mustered out to reserve status. He was recalled to serve out his last year-and-a-half of active duty as a FAC pilot and unit commander. Headquartered in Can Tho, the FAC mission in-country was called Palace Gate, which gives the book its title, although the subtitle describes the main story Brown tells in the book.

Told in a personal, conversational style, Palace Gate is filled with anecdotes and asides that support the major story line and add much to book. The daily coverage of his time stuck on the ground in Hue City during Tet ’68 is well written and informative. It’s augmented with a word-for-word transcription of some audio tapes Brown mailed to his wife. The book’s photos further augment his story and illustrate his mission.

We are taken along in the second seat of a one-seat aircraft on memorable—and mundane—missions in support of tactical air operations and on visual recon flights. From Brown’s aerial vantage point we see an often stunning countryside well beyond the war below.

Brown occasionally waxes eloquently and philosophically about his overall mission, his daily operations, the Vietnamese people, and war in general. He also questions some of the command decisions from U.S. headquarters in Saigon and from the Pentagon.

This is a very well-written, edited, and presented book—a readable and enjoyable effort.                                                   

–Tom Werzyn

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot by Mike Leonard

During his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty Mike Leonard earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a V device) for performing bold feats in the O-1 Bird Dog throughout central South Vietnam. But don’t expect an overflowing collection of stories about a forward air controller’s combat action in his new memoir, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond (SOPREP, 330 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) because Leonard devotes only 64 pages of the book to those achievements.

What we get are other hyper-interesting stories of combat that recreate support missions mostly flying under four hundred feet of altitude in attacks on North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Leonard’s proudest moments in the air led to the rescue of a shot-down helicopter crew that crashed practically in the laps of the enemy.

Mike Leonard’s life has been filled with joy and drama in war and peace, yet he reflects a humble approach to all of it. His level of introspection remains constant whether a situation is good, bad, or otherwise.

Beyond the Vietnam War, his stories about flying the C-5A Galaxy and his post-Air Force life as an executive in the satellite market steal the show. Straight from the war Leonard went to piloting the C-5A in the midst of its growing pains. Whatever could go wrong with those airplanes went wrong. Fear of flight problems caused the Air Force brass to limit the aircraft’s tactical deployment. Still, one preposterous situation followed another.

Leonard repeatedly experienced the unexpected, and his descriptions of those events made me laugh out loud—and then I read those passages to my wife, who laughed along with me. Screw-ups that produced positive results in which Leonard took part advanced the C-5A’s tactical growth faster and more accurately than command guidance did.

After exactly twenty years of military service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work in the satellite industry. He describes his second career as intermittently intense, mundane, borderline illegal and unethical, and highly stressful. He reveals the intrigue behind years of knock-down, drag-out deal making and tells better stories than most present-day television and movies do.

Leonard in country with his Bird Dog, 1969

Mike Leonard’s business ventures made him a wealthy man. I believe he should have expanded the 100 pages about commerce in this memoir into a book of its own.

As an introduction to all of the above, Leonard presents a bizarre history of his family. He rates growing up in St. Louis as a surprisingly good experience. The pace of the book slows a bit when Leonard writes about enlisting in the Air Force and then going through Officer Training School; and his experiences as an EC-121 Warning Star weapons controller (including a rotation to Tan Son Nhut in south Vietnam), and during pilot training. Much of this ground has been covered many times in other memoirs, but Leonard re-evaluates the events in his terms.

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot compensates for its misleading title by providing stories that should entertain anyone with the slightest interest in aircraft and the people associated with them, as well as exposing how a few sly devils manipulate big businesses.

—Henry Zeybel