If you want to know about flying in F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War and competing in triathlons years later, you must read John Pendergrass’s Racing Back to Vietnam: A Journey in War and Peace (Hatherleigh, 256 pp. $22, hardcover; $7.99, Kindle).
In the book, former U.S.A.F. flight surgeon John Pendergrass writes about his Vietnam War tour of duty with the 390th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Da Nang Air Base in 1971-72. Much of what he relates has been well reported. However, when a writer presents the drama of war from a highly individualized perspective as Pendergrass does, that type of storytelling does not grow old.
Pendergrass’s prose is easy to read. He nicely turns many a phrase, including “checking out a slow learner in a fast mover.” Honesty is his forte. When he does something beyond the ordinary, Pendergrass explains why he did it, especially if it benefits him. He is free of pretense and rich in enthusiasm.
Like most doctors with whom he served, John Pendergrass did not want to go to Vietnam, but after he got there, he voluntarily flew fifty-four missions over Laos, Cambodia, and both South and North Vietnam in the back seat of the F-4 Phantom. He recalls the post-mission feeling of being “more alive than when I took off, anxious to go again.” At the same time, the fear he experienced is palpable.
His squadron’s basic assignment was to interdict trucks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He describes virtually every step of preparing for and executing flights that dropped lots of bombs.
He also devotes chapters to life as a prisoner of war and to complications involved with being shot down and rescued, situations that he luckily avoided. On his final mission at the battle for An Loc, Pendergrass witnessed events that altered his perspective of the war.
He includes observations about air power that I had not read before, but with which I concur. His conclusions ended his combat life on a down note.
Pendergrass’s account of his war makes up only half of this memoir. In 2016 he returned to Da Nang at the age of seventy and participated in an Ironman Triathlon. He did it partially to satisfy “a mixture of nostalgia and reflection,” Pendergrass, an eye surgeon in Mississippi, says.
The triathlon took only one morning. He then drove to Laos with a guide to exolore the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He worked his way to Hanoi and shuffled through Uncle Ho’s tomb. Next, he visited battlefields in the South and ended up in Saigon.
Having experienced my share of flying in the Vietnam War, I found Pendergrass’ peacetime travel to be the most enlightening part of the book. I learned a lot I would not have on my own. Pendergrass talked to everyone who gave him time. As a result, he offers insights about today’s Vietnamese and their lifestyles. Farmers work unobstructed, except for uncovering unexploded ordnance. The tourist trade flourishes and most people have forgotten the American War.
Pendergrass speaks of the “absurdity of war,” and in the same breath he recalls combat as “the great adventure of [his] life.” This paradox reminds me of returning to the scene of an old crime, intrigued by questions that should have been resolved half a lifetime earlier. Seeking justification for what one did in war is unnecessary. No guilt should be associated with adrenaline rushes related to acts a person performed practically in childhood.
Recently I reviewed another flight surgeon’s account of the war, Sharkbait by Guy Clark. He flew eighty-six combat strike missions in back seats of Phantoms.
His six-hundred-plus-page memoir offers readers an opportunity to learn more than they ever expected (or perhaps wanted to know) about Vietnam War Phantom and Air Force operations.
Both Clark and Pendergrass extol the skill and courage of pilots with whom they faced death.