Taking Fire! by David L. Porter

David L. Porter served twenty-seven years in the U.S. Army, retiring as as a colonel in 1995. The most memorable time of his career occurred when, immediately after he received his wings as a helicopter pilot, he flew the Hughes Cayuse OH-6 Scout LOH as an Aerial Scout Section Leader with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment (known as the Thunderhorse) from Quan Loi, Vietnam in 1969-70. 

Porter recalls those days in Taking Fire!: Memoir of an Aerial Scout in Vietnam (McFarland, 182 pp. $29.95, paper; $9.99, Kindle). Porter tells his story with “no surnames” and “no attempt to identify any themes nor to draw any conclusions.” He leaves those tasks to readers, he says, and claims to offer only his “description of events.”

The memoir revolves around Hunter-Killer operations, which died with the war. The tactic could not have been simpler: An OH-6 LOH (Light Observation Helicopter or “Loach”) flew around Viet Cong- and NVA-controlled territory at or below treetop level until it drew fire, then marked the spot with a smoke grenade. Instantly, an AH-1G Cobra waiting overhead would attack the area.

These encounters quickly escalated as Cobra pilots directed artillery onto enemy positions. Ideally, an Air Force OV-10 Bronco forward air controller then brought in F-4 Phantoms to finish the job. 

American ground forces requested these missions, which were known as VR (visual reconnaissance) to try to find the elusive enemy. The ballsiest part of the operation fell to the LOH pilot—Porter’s role. An observer—called OSCAR—accompanied him and provided the primary set of eyes for locating the enemy. LOH pilots and OSCARs refused to consider themselves as bait.

Porter flew Thunderhorse Hunter-Killer strikes from October 1969 through February 1970. His recollection of facts during that time is astounding. The details of his physical and mental states often made me feel as if I were in his body or mind.

He brings everything to life, on the ground and in the air, on-duty and off. Although Porter uses no surnames, he gives us memorable personalities and dissects the idiosyncrasies of men of all ranks. For him as a lieutenant, watching and listening to experienced people was akin to attending school.

He examines LOH tactics in depth by analyzing missions and after-action discussions about arbitrary maneuvers such as which way to break over a target. His reflections on the morality of machine-gunning three VC—men he had initially attempted to capture—puts a heartrending slant on death, even in combat.

David L. Porter

One might read Taking Fire! as a coming-of-age story. Frequent turnovers in commanders allowed Porter to analyze leadership techniques from aggressive and violent, to careful and deliberate and, I believe, establish his own criteria for how best to command troops. Furthermore, the losses and injuries of many close friends had a strong impact on Porter’s appreciation for life. That said, these conclusions are merely mine.

Without intending to do so, David Porter also convinced me (for at least my tenth time) that flying helicopters is the toughest aviation job in warfare.

—Henry Zeybel

Taking Fire by Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters

Kevin O’Rourke and Joe Peters’s Taking Fire: Saving Captain Aikman: A Story of the Vietnam War (Casemate, 216 pp., $32.95) is a tribute to airmen who are dedicated to saving lives. The authors have created a vivid, page-turning narrative of war from the first to the final page. A few times I thought I was watching a movie and not just reading about loyalty, courage, sacrifice, and true heroism.

O’Rourke and Peters use an unusual writing technique. Nonfiction books usually are written in the past tense. These veteran authors, however, switch to the present tense when describing the action scenes. This creates the sensation that the reader is in the midst of the action. Dozens of well-placed photos support this real-time sensation.

Retired Gen. Dale Stovall opens his Forward with a quote from Gen. John Voght that he says made him cry: “I had to decide whether we should risk the loss of maybe a dozen airplanes and crews to get just one man out. Goddamn it, the one thing that keeps our boys motivated is the certain belief that if they go down, we will do absolutely everything we can to get them out. I just said, go do it!” This becomes a theme of the rescue mission.

In their Introduction, the authors remind the reader that the number of American ground forces dropped to about 25,000 by 1972. The North Vietnamese used the draw down to upgrade and strengthen their armed forces with Russian and Chinese assistance.   

Sgt. Chuck McGrath of the 40th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron is introduced on the first page the book. Following McGrath through his rigorous rescue training the reader gains insight into the character of the men who did a dangerous job—men who lived up to their motto, “That Others Might Live.”

The Air Force men of the squadron became known as PJs, somewhat easier to pronounce than Pararescuemen. They flew Greyhound-bus-sized Sikorski II helicopters, those workhorses more commonly known as Jolly Green Giants.

The intensity of the story builds with each chapter as the reader learns about the activities of the pilots before, during, and after June 27, 1972, when four USAF F-4 Phantoms were shot down .The reader is given a front-seat view of what American pilots faced when flying upcountry.

O’Rourke and Peter hurl us into the middle of antiaircraft fire and MIG fighters that had to be dealt with before any actual bombing took place.  Appreciation of the pilots’ evasion skills increases exponentially on the flight north.

When Lynn Aikman and Tom Hamilton, his backseat man, eject from their doomed plane, the reader floats earthward into a world of danger, violence, and imminent death. Capture by the enemy is very likely, but thanks to the PJ teams, rescue is at least a strong possibility.

The rescue extraction doesn’t work well on the first try. so a second team led by pilot Dale Stovall has a go at the rescue. To hear these men recall their work on June 27, the rescue sounds like a dangerous but “just doing our job” kind of event. After vicariously experiencing the details of the rescue mission, this reader will remain forever in awe.

On the 10th anniversary of his rescue, Aikman invited several of his rescuers to a cookout at his home. Sharing hitherto untold stories with his old friends was eye-opening to his family. It also opened up something inside Aikman.

As the guests were leaving, Aikman’s father thanked Dale Stovall for saving his son’s life. Stovall responded that it had just been his mission.

The elder Aikman said, “No, not ten years ago. I meant today.”

—Joseph Reitz

Lynn Aikman