A Backseat View from the Phantom by Fleet S. Lentz

   

I did time at Ubon, U-Tapao, Nakhon Phanom, and Don Muang Royal Thai Air Force bases during the Vietnam War. And I knew guys from Takhli, Udorn, and Korat. But I never heard of Nam Phong RTAFB until I read A Backseat View from the Phantom: A Memoir of a Marine Radar Intercept Officer in Vietnam (McFarland, 229 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle) by Retired Marine Corps Col. Fleet S. Lentz, Jr.

As part of the wind down of the Vietnam War, the Marines moved the F-4 Phantoms of the VMFA-115 Silver Eagles from Da Nang in South Vietnam to Nam Phong in Thailand. From there, the squadron bombed targets in Laos, North Vietnam, and Cambodia for 15 months from 1972-73. Never completed for its original purpose, Nam Phong had been a “bare base” used by the CIA to support the dispersal and staging of theater forces.

Lentz served as a Radar Intercept Officer with the Silver Eagles. “To my knowledge,” he says, “no one has written of the Marine aviation effort during those final months.” By the time he arrived in Southeast Asia, Lentz writes, “Marine infantry had been pulled out of Vietnam, as had Army infantry. We were the last Marines in combat in Southeast Asia.”

Lentz wrote the book primarily from memory, but also used information from conversations he had with others stationed at Nam Phong, his Aviator Flight Log, and a Silver Eagles Cruise Book reminiscent of a high school yearbook. He identifies people by title, call sign, or nickname.

Lentz tells his tale in four acts from the viewpoint of a 26-year-old first lieutenant. The first—”My New World”—concentrates on the wealth of privations at Nam Phong, which Marines called the Rose Garden. The base featured a 10,000-foot runway that Lentz says resembled “a long hazy gash or a dirty flesh wound with a faint gray line down the middle.”

The living and working areas consisted of canvas tents above plywood floors on hardened dirt. The tallest building was “the shortest control tower I had even seen,” Lentz says. It looked like “a wooden water tank on stilts or maybe a deer blind.” The facilities, in other words, were deplorable. On the plus side, the Silver Eagles had an unparalleled commander.

Lentz plays a hyper-positive role in Act Two—”Hops”—the Marine term for a takeoff and landing. He learned by doing and tells all about perfecting Phantom crew skills: air-to-air re-fueling, in-flight emergencies, bomb runs, night operations in absolute darkness, missiles, air-to-air combat tactics, and frags (self-inflicted damage caused by flying through your own bomb shrapnel pattern).

“Air crews didn’t have much true intelligence as to their targets,” Lentz says. Generally, a crew flew to a designated area in Laos or Cambodia, hooked up with a forward air controller, and went after the targets the FAC designated. “We assisted allied ground forces, but we never knew for certain who they were,” Lentz says. After American combat troops pulled out of Vietnam in January 1973, bombing was limited to Cambodia.

Lentz carefully analyzes relationships between pilots and RIOs, who very much needed each other. Because the same pilot and RIO did not commonly fly together, irregular teaming up occasionally caused personality problems, and Lentz’s stories on the subject provide excellent entertainment.

His narrative style has a matter-of-fact quality that is more lesson-like than adventure-packed. Of course, the facts of combat and flying beyond Mach 1 need no hyperbole. His stories satisfyingly recollect good and bad times, and he sometimes even pokes fun at his own naiveté.

Act Three—”Special Times, Special People”—continues his dive into the psyches of fellow flyers. He offers insider views of combat pilot behavior that defy understanding and yet produce admiration. An underlying theme in most of his stories is the willingness of one man to help another. To improve a unit, “salts” (older Marines) shared their knowledge and experiences with new guys. “Unit loyalty in the Marine Corps was and is paramount,” Lentz says.         

The final act—”Things Changed”—discusses Operation Sunset, the departure of the Silver Eagles from the Rose Garden. Lentz moved to the higher echelon of Marine Air Group 15 as a supply and then an embarkation officer. He disliked the supply job until he was allowed to act independently. Some accounts of his cumshawing (scrounging) gear for Marines border on legend. For embarkation, Lentz directed 23 days of “shipping everything out,” he says, and was one of the last men to depart from Nam Phong, leaving the base either to the Thais or the jungle.

Visiting Officers’ Quarters as Nam Phong Air Base in Thailand

Scattered photographs dress up the book. A series of appendices add perspective about the war and Lentz’s squadron’s history and leadership.

Operation Sunset provided the final lesson in Fleet Lentz’s wartime career, but what he learned at Nam Phong impelled him to stay in the Marine Corps and make it a career. The men with whom he flew provided outstanding role models. Several pilots at the Rose Garden became generals.

The book’s most significant lesson is the importance of learning from one’s superiors and modeling one’s behavior accordingly when in a leadership role. Lentz mastered that task.

The book’s Facebook page is facebook.com/fleetlentz

—Henry Zeybel