Vector to Destiny: Journey of a Vietnam F-4 Fighter Pilot (Koehler Books, 274 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $18.95, paper; $18.49, Kindle) fits comfortably inside the age-old Horatio Alger rags-to-riches stories. In this war memoir, George W. Kohn writes about his rise from a farm boy educated in a one-room schoolhouse to flying USAF F-4 Phantoms in the Vietnam War in 1969. To his credit, Kohn climbed the ladder of his dreams on his own God-given initiative.
While still a child as a Wisconsin farmer’s only son, Kohn rose well before school hours to perform demanding chores. On several mornings while milking cows, he heard a low-flying B-58 Hustler bomber’s “earth-vibrating, thunderous boom that drowned out all the other sounds,” he says. The noise also heralded a message: the farm boy’s destiny would be to fly an airplane like that one.
In telling his story, Kohn—a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America—sets out in great detail the many difficult tasks required to overcome the conventions of farm life and the hardship of an inferior education. He became a self-made man in order to find a path through his high school’s pecking order and through University of Wisconsin classes beyond his learning skills, as well as the trials of ROTC and summer camp, pilot training, survival school, and F-4 familiarization. It all culminated in his assignment to fly with the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing at Danang in November 1969.
Along the way, he records his thoughts about the Vietnam War era, lauding the good and castigating the bad within America’s political structure and among his peers. His war stories do not begin until well into Part Five of the book.
In 201 missions as an F-4 back-seater, he bombed the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, supply depots in Cambodia, and the city of Vinh when the Nixon Administration resumed attacks on North Vietnam in 1970. In most cases, his combat action centers on problem-solving in which logic dominated emotion. He got pissed off, but practiced restraint by repeatedly reminding himself how lucky he was to be where he was.
Vector to Destiny will appeal to readers with limited knowledge of Air Force activities, in other words, those who would benefit from Kohn writing about military tasks step by step—everything from classroom demands to test flying an F-4 at Mach two. Old timers might view those details as overkill.
To me, Kohn’s boyhood farm activities are as interesting as his combat stories, maybe more so. They definitely fulfill the book’s rags-to-riches theme. Of course, I reacted to the country scenes as a kid who grew up in Pittsburgh and who once believed that vegetables grew in plastic crates at Kroger.
Kohn’s website is hgwkohnauthor.com