Sherman Lead by Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.

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With the exception of compassion for the deaths and disappearances of fellow flyers, Gaillard R. Peck Jr. presents a lighthearted insider’s view of his Vietnam War experience in Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam (Osprey, 304 pp.; $32, hardcover; $22.40, Kindle).

As a pilot in the 443rd Tactical Fighter Squadron—aka Satan’s Angels—at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in 1968-69, Peck flew 163 combat missions into North Vietnam and Laos to destroy the enemy transportation system, day and night. He describes many close calls with disaster, some caused by North Vietnamese Army antiaircraft defenses, and others by his mistakes. He recounts several dangerous misadventures with humor and wonderment about his youthful good luck.

Although the book is Peck’s memoir, he includes a few long passages describing bombing missions written by his pilot systems operator Steve Mosier. For his part, Peck unhesitatingly names names. Occasionally, his appreciation of his crew members’ and buddies’ advice, friendship, and devotion to the mission nears adoration.

When citing a few incompetent individuals, Peck—whose nom de guerre was “Evil”—graciously hides their identities. He expresses intolerance for their ineptitude, especially those who jeopardized his safety simply to qualify for monthly flying and combat pay.

His thoughts on offensive tactics following Lyndon Johnson’s 1968 bombing halt of North Vietnam appear throughout the text. For example:

  • “We roamed the area looking for lucrative targets for our ordnance. By this point in the war there weren’t many.”
  • “Lack of feedback on effectiveness [from intelligence sources] added to our cynical attitude about these missions.”
  • “We joked about the fact that we seldom caused much apparent damage. The results didn’t seem to amount to much—especially given the risk involved in making the attacks.”
  • “It was just the continuation of another mind-numbing mission attacking an unseen target that would be defended with a lot of aggressive AAA.”

Peck convincingly shows the difficulties of flying the F-4D under the often-combined challenges of enemy gunfire, clouds and rain, and using the wrong weapons against, as he puts it, “whimsical” targets selected by higher-ups.

Several times, Peck assumes a teaching role and, in great detail, explains techniques of visual, radar, and laser-guided bombing. He taught me a lot with these and other interludes.

The first third of the book deals with Peck’s education at the U.S. Air Force Academy, pilot training, and preparation for deployment to Vietnam. His descriptions of POW, water, and jungle survival training closely parallel my memories of attending the same courses. Similarly, his accounts of off-duty activities at Ubon—on base and downtown—perfectly coincide with what I saw and did there in 1970-71.

Peck refers to letters he wrote and received while with the 443rd. His writing style has a casual conversational tone, and he often repeats facts to refresh a point. This is his second book, following 2012’s America’s Secret MiG Squadron, based on his flying and evaluating captured and stolen Soviet aircraft as part of a twenty-six-year military career, from which he retired as a colonel.

Significant overlap exists between Sherman Lead and other memoirs by USAF Vietnam F-4 jocks such as David R. “Buff” Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War. Each book reveals dedication and camaraderie within the fighter pilot trade that was unequaled anywhere else in the Air Force at the time—for good and bad.

Aficionados of F-4 operations might find enlightenment in comparing Peck’s USAF views with those of Navy pilot Don Pedersen in his recently published Top Gun: An American Story. Both books cover the same times and events.

—Henry Zeybel