Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin by Eileen A. Bjorkman

Eileen A. Bjorkman’s Unforgotten in the Gulf: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (Potomac Books, 256 pp., $34.95) is a well-written, meticulously researched and annotated story of the history and development of air rescue and retrieval from World War I to the present day. 

Bjorkman, a civilian flight test engineer and aviator, skillfully weaves the story of one rescue—of Navy aviator Willi Sharp from the Gulf of Tonkin after his F-8 Crusader was downed by enemy fire on November 18, 1965—throughout the book.

We don’t see 1st Lt. Sharp in the water until about three-fourths of the way through the book, yet his story provides the thread upon which Bjorkman builds the entire fabric of the book. Bjorkman writes about Sharp’s pilot training, first flights, and carrier deployments, and weaves in a well-developed picture of the history of air-rescue missions.

As worldwide U.S. military involvement waxed and waned over the 20th century, so did the need for airborne combat search and rescue (CSAR). The concept was developed during World War II, re-engaged during the Korean War, and honed during the Vietnam War. The introduction of helicopters into war theaters as a weapon and a rescue vehicle has defined current CSAR operations.

Throughout this book Bjorkman writes about gallows humor, the terror and elation involved in successful missions, and the sorrow of losing comrades. She notes that the vast majority of Vietnam War rescues involved aviators—and notes that the possibility of capture always lurked in the minds those who flew combat and rescue missions.

Eileen Bjorkman in the cockpit

She speaks as well of the successes of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and its continued operations repatriating the missing from all conflicts, even though the focus tends to be on pilots from the Vietnam War.

Bjorkman devotes a well-reasoned chapter to PTSD, even among aviators who seldom saw the devastation their efforts caused. Her interviews with Sharp and his fellow fliers are telling in the simplicity of their messages. All of them spoke volumes within their short answers.

This is a well-written and edited book that I strongly recommend.

–Tom Werzyn