Along for the Ride by Henry Zeybel

Retired USAF Lt. Col. Henry Zeybel wrote and published three novels in the 1980s about SAC B-47 operations during the Cold War, F-4 Phantom missions over North Vietnam, and AC-130 Spectre gunship operations during the Vietnam War. He served in the war as a navigator on USAF C-130 Hercules “Trash Haulers” in 1967-68, as a sensor operator on AC-130 Spectre gunships in 1970-71, and as a Special Ops adviser in 1972-73.

Now comes Hank Zeybel’s first book of nonfiction, Along for the Ride: Navigating Through the Cold War, Vietnam, Laos & More (Casemate, 288 pp. $34.95), a tour de force of an autobiography. The book is filled with captivating and introspective looks at every part of Zeybel’s life, primarily his military career, growing up in Pittsburgh, and the eventful forty-plus years since he retired from the Air Force in 1976.

The most vivid writing comes in the sections—including the riveting opening chapter, “Downtown Tchepone”—in which Zeybel takes the reader along with him inside the Spectre gunships he crewed on during his second tour of duty. The depictions of the 13-man crew dodging surface-to-air missiles over the Ho Chi Minh Trail stand among the most evocative air-combat writing in the Vietnam War literary canon.

Zeybel’s sections on the 775 combat support sorties he flew inside C-130 Hercules transports during his first tour come in a close second in the verisimilitude department. We get many evocations of what it was like, as he puts it, “transporting the alive, wounded, and dead; relocating villagers; and performing an endless list of mundane tasks.”

Zeybel deftly weaves his life story into the narrative, flashing back and forth to events from his childhood in the 1940s. He grew up the son of a sports-loving Pittsburgh Press journalist father and a stay-at-home mother, whom he pithily describes as “Wife. Mother. Homemaker. Excellent cook…. Tutor. Disciplinarian…. Avid reader of contemporary novels. Crossword puzzle pro.” He graduated from high school in 1951, from Penn State in 1955, and joined the U.S. Air Force via ROTC.

There’s also great descriptive writing about the decades following his retirement from the Air Force in 1976. That includes his many writing assignments for National Defense, Eagle, and Airpower magazines. And his (mostly) rewarding work tutoring football players and other athletes at the University of Texas at Austin where he has lived for decades.

A Spectre at Thailand’s Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base during the Vietnam War

The book also is filled with lots of clever, caustic prose. Such as:

  • On Air Force office duties: “The design of military force is to prosecute war and to defeat the enemy on a given spot; in comparison, the outcomes of conferences, staff meetings, and power point presentations are ethereal and not worth a half-hearted fuck.” (Did I mention that Zeybel drops more than a few dozen F-bombs in the book?)
  • On a trigger-happy Spectre gunship pilot: “He blasted away as if trying to keep time to an album titled Jimi Hendrix Goes Completely Fucking Nuts.”
  • On the first time he came face to face with dead American troops as he and his crew loaded 22 body bags into their C-130: “Describing the setting as ‘dank’ would be a compliment to the atmosphere.”

Hank Zeybel has written more than 300 book reviews for Books in Review II since October 2014. He’s still regularly producing first-rate reviews for us today, in his 89th year.

–Marc Leepson

A version of the review appeared in the September/October print and online editions of The VVA Veteran.

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot by Mike Leonard

During his 1969-70 Vietnam War tour of duty Mike Leonard earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses (one with a V device) for performing bold feats in the O-1 Bird Dog throughout central South Vietnam. But don’t expect an overflowing collection of stories about a forward air controller’s combat action in his new memoir, An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot: From the Battlefield of Vietnam and Beyond (SOPREP, 330 pp. $14.99, paper; $9.99, Kindle) because Leonard devotes only 64 pages of the book to those achievements.

What we get are other hyper-interesting stories of combat that recreate support missions mostly flying under four hundred feet of altitude in attacks on North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong troops. Leonard’s proudest moments in the air led to the rescue of a shot-down helicopter crew that crashed practically in the laps of the enemy.

Mike Leonard’s life has been filled with joy and drama in war and peace, yet he reflects a humble approach to all of it. His level of introspection remains constant whether a situation is good, bad, or otherwise.

Beyond the Vietnam War, his stories about flying the C-5A Galaxy and his post-Air Force life as an executive in the satellite market steal the show. Straight from the war Leonard went to piloting the C-5A in the midst of its growing pains. Whatever could go wrong with those airplanes went wrong. Fear of flight problems caused the Air Force brass to limit the aircraft’s tactical deployment. Still, one preposterous situation followed another.

Leonard repeatedly experienced the unexpected, and his descriptions of those events made me laugh out loud—and then I read those passages to my wife, who laughed along with me. Screw-ups that produced positive results in which Leonard took part advanced the C-5A’s tactical growth faster and more accurately than command guidance did.

After exactly twenty years of military service, he retired as a lieutenant colonel and went to work in the satellite industry. He describes his second career as intermittently intense, mundane, borderline illegal and unethical, and highly stressful. He reveals the intrigue behind years of knock-down, drag-out deal making and tells better stories than most present-day television and movies do.

Leonard in country with his Bird Dog, 1969

Mike Leonard’s business ventures made him a wealthy man. I believe he should have expanded the 100 pages about commerce in this memoir into a book of its own.

As an introduction to all of the above, Leonard presents a bizarre history of his family. He rates growing up in St. Louis as a surprisingly good experience. The pace of the book slows a bit when Leonard writes about enlisting in the Air Force and then going through Officer Training School; and his experiences as an EC-121 Warning Star weapons controller (including a rotation to Tan Son Nhut in south Vietnam), and during pilot training. Much of this ground has been covered many times in other memoirs, but Leonard re-evaluates the events in his terms.

An American Combat Bird Dog Pilot compensates for its misleading title by providing stories that should entertain anyone with the slightest interest in aircraft and the people associated with them, as well as exposing how a few sly devils manipulate big businesses.

—Henry Zeybel         

Noble Canine by Jimmie Moore

To avoid the likely possibility of living a grunt’s life in the jungle, Jimmie Moore plotted his own course through the Vietnam War. With the draft breathing down his neck, Moore enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, completed basic training and Security Police School, and became a K-9 sentry dog handler. During his 1969-70 tour of duty with the 37th Security Police Squadron at Phu Cat Air Base he patrolled the perimeter every night but six, he says, with German Shepherds Duke II and Junior.

Interactions between handlers and animals constitute the core of Moore’s Noble Canine: Search for the Edge (Steel Crow Productions, 240 pp. $27.95, hardcover; $16.95, paper; $9.95, Kindle). He examines those relationships in totality in the book, and his candor makes enjoyable reading. Beyond that, Moore’s accounts of in-country activities parallel the experiences of many Vietnam War veterans.

Moore recalls the challenges of K-9 training at Lackland Air Force Base, a time when a seasoned sentry dog severely tested his ability to control him. In Vietnam, Moore faced similar challenges while working with Duke II and Junior, both of whom were later euthanized. Moore deplores Air Force policy that dictates death for sentry dogs that no longer can perform their duties; their aggression, the military argues, precludesthem from becoming pets.

A dog’s highly refined ability to hear and smell made it the team leader in nighttime patrolling. Dogs responded to anything approaching the base far sooner than handlers could. Moore often visualized life without a dog and how he might be shot and killed before recognizing a threat.

Jimmie Moore was nineteen years old while at Phu Cat. Initially, he spent as much time as possible in nearby Qui Nhon. He gets specific when reminiscing about local women and the pleasures they taught him. Eventually, following ten-hour night patrols, he grew contented with 8:00 a.m. beer drinking and poker games with eight other handlers he had trained with at Lackland.


He recalls events meaningful to all of them. Viet Cong fighters attacked the base four times during the year he was there, but they hit distant ammunition and fuel storage areas. Along with Moore, the eight handlers ate in mess halls, slept in beds, and made it through the year unscathed.

Old documents, letters, and recollections frame this memoir. The book overflows with reconstructed dialogue as Moore took, he says, “a few liberties to fill in the blanks without infringing on the story’s truth.”

People who love dogs should love Noble Canine.

The book’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

Sherman Lead by Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.


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

Racing Back to Vietnam by John Pendergrass


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.

—Henry Zeybel


The Air Force Way of War by Brian D. Laslie

Long ago—in the 1950s and 60s—Strategic Air Command bombers ruled the world. SAC, for one thing, controlled ninety-five percent of the Free World’s striking power. Its city-busting thermonuclear war plans held top priority. Tactical fighter pilots hated SAC’s dominance.

Then came the Vietnam War and fighter jocks began doing the bombers’ job—deep-penetration attacks on strategic targets in North Vietnam. The jocks paid a heavy and disproportionate toll in losses, but gained heroic superiority.

Following years of obliterating tactical targets such as remote jungle outposts in Laos, SAC B-52s began to strike strategic targets in North Vietnam during the penultimate month of the war. But it was too late for SAC. The many years of role reversals had allowed tactical air force thinkers to gain equality in air war planning.

Working from this background, NORAD deputy command historian Brian D. Laslie examines what happened after the Vietnam War in The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (University Press of Kentucky, 256 pp.; $40, hardcover; $38, Kindle). Laslie convincingly shows that inadequate training was the primary cause of combat losses in Vietnam. He points out that studies revealed that the first ten “actual combat missions” over North Vietnam took the greatest toll on pilots. Consequently, the Air Force revised pilot training to make it as realistic as the first ten actual combat missions.

Laslie goes on to explain the steps that revised the approach to training: creation of “designed operational capability,” agreement on “thirty-one initiatives” with the Army, evolution of Red Flag war games, and development of new aircraft. In other words, under the new system, technology influenced training, which influenced tactics, which influenced doctrine.

Of course, Laslie holds fighter pilots in high esteem (rightfully so, especially those who flew over North Vietnam) and therefore strongly supports their views. As an old B-47, B-52, and Spectre gunship crewdog, I occasionally found his arguments credible but slanted.

 Vietnam War B-52 Stratofortress taking off

At the same time, I admire his honesty. He names generals who accepted mediocrity based on their inability to recognize the need for change. And he lauds leaders who championed crew survivability. Laslie should have said more about inadequate pre-strike intelligence, but perhaps he considered that weaknesses as a given.

The book’s final chapters describe the impact of improved training methods on combat operations starting with the attack on Libya in 1986. Swept up in the fighter pilots’ quest for control, Laslie makes the following pronouncements: “Many have dubbed the air war over Iraq and Kuwait as a ‘strategic air war.’ In the purest use of the term, this is a misnomer. The air war over Iraq and Kuwait was actually a tactical air war that caused strategic level effects.  Everything about air power in the way it was traditionally conceived was overturned during Desert Storm.” Along with winning Desert Storm, fighter pilots also finally won control of the United States Air Force.

And: “Perhaps the most damning statement in [a GAO] report was that the B-52’s contribution to the overall war effort was minimal and did not ‘stand out’ over that of the far more numerous tactical fighters.” Basically, the report said that SAC had no role “outside the nuclear realm.” Clearly, fighter pilots wanted to run the Air Force without compromise.

Laslie best captures the mood of the time in his account of planning for Desert Shield. Personality clashes created scenes of drama equal to the most intense you can find on a good TV miniseries.

Brian D. Laslie

As a wrap-up, Laslie explains the 1992 restructuring of the entire Air Force. He clarifies the merger of TAC and SAC into the Air Combat Command by saying: “The former members of SAC moved into ACC seamlessly as they reorganized the bomber doctrine and made it fit with what the tactical community had been doing for years.”

Laslie offers a postscript by analyzing USAF participation under NATO in the Balkan Campaigns. He finds faults in NATO’s lack of planning and clear objectives. But he credits Red Flag training for the good things that have happened, including the USAF’s ability to conduct day-and-night operations. He does not delve into air operations in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The book has excellent endnotes, along with a “Flag” appendix, bibliography, index, and seven pages of photographs.

—Henry Zeybel

Eleven Months and Nineteen Days by John Bowen

John Bowen’s Eleven Months and Nineteen Days: A Vietnam Illustrator’s Memoir (Middle River Press, 264 pp., $24.95, paper) is a unique book. It documents his experiences as the only U.S. Air Force illustrator assigned to Tan Son Nhut Air Base outside of Saigon from 1967-68.

Bowen was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey. He began working in the commercial art field after high school, then joined the U.S. Air Force in 1961 as an illustrator. Six years later, he was a staff sergeant and received orders to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the 834th Air Division Headquarters Unit.

As the only illustrator, his primary duty was documenting airlift resupply operations by drawing and painting what he observed. His many sketches and drawings placed liberally throughout this book enhance the reader’s ability to visualize what the author is writing. Some of his works are on display at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

A large majority of those who served in the Vietnam War were support troops. This is one of their stories. Bowen aptly describes the transformation in his unit from an almost state-side quality of day-to-day life—living in a barracks, sleeping in a bed, taking a warm showers, watching full-length movies, and dining in a mess hall—to life after the 1968 Tet Offensive.

Tan Son Nhut Air Base and nearby Saigon were in the thick of it. A good friend of Bowen’s was killed by an enemy rocket inside the civilian terminal while waiting in line to board a plane back to The World.

By John Bowen

While security forces from the U.S. Army and ARVN Airborne moved through the area responding to enemy attacks, Bowen and his men were on placed on alert, ready to respond. Enemy rocket attacks continued night and day through February and into March, concentrating on the flight line and housing areas. The base control tower even sustained a direct hit. Bowen includes many sketches of the destruction in his book.

Especially poignant was Bowen comforting another airman who was on a sandbag-filling detail when they were bracketed by a salvo of rockets, killing and wounding several men.

The enemy’s May 1968 Spring Offensive saw more attacks on Tan Son Nhut. Again, the combined U.S. Army, Air Force, and ARVN units prevented the base from being overrun.

The author’s unit, the 834th Air Division, received two Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding performance during the Tet Offensive and the Spring Offensive. After reading John Bowen’s well-written and profusely illustrated book, you will have a new appreciation for the troops who kept our supplies coming, no matter what.

For ordering info, go to the author’s website,

—-James P. Coan

Shamrock 22 by Rick Hudlow

Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Rick Hudlow recounts his life story in Shamrock 22: “An American Aviator’s Story” (AuthorHouse, 415 pp., $31.99, hardcover; $23.95, paper; $3.99, e book). Hudlow is a man who lived to fly and who devoted his career to the Strategic Air Command—particularly the B-52.

“As a young man I served but did not get into combat in WWII,” Hudlow humbly writes. “I served through Korea but was deeply involved in the new B-47 so did not serve in Korea. I served in Vietnam and saw our forces in action in the field and participated in the bombing campaigns in Vietnam.”

Hudlow’s story follows a path laid out by his father—a pilot, business owner, and consultant. Hudlow spent his boyhood at airports. He began flying by standing at the wheel of a Ford Tri-Motor because he was too small to see out the windshield. He enlisted in the Army aviation cadet program at age eighteen. Throughout his career, Hudlow extended to his subordinates the same high degree of confidence and respect that his father showed to him.

Rick Hudlow

The core of Hudlow’s book deals with the Cold War, a topic practically forgotten since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. He entered SAC with the initial B-47 deliveries and rose in rank and influence as the Command’s importance toward deterring nuclear war increased.

Hudlow clearly enjoyed and was “most proud of” the everyday performance of his B-47 and B-52 crew duties. Promoted to staff level, he conceived modifications that improved B-52 capabilities.

In Vietnam, Hudlow served on a targeting panel. He came to recognize that B-52 bombs were being fused incorrectly. He inspected recently bombed areas and flew with forward air controllers to validate that observation. He then designed new fusing practices that improved bombing results. After that, the Seventh Air Force Commander consulted with Hudlow about other bombing tactics.

Upon his return from Vietnam, Hudlow failed to achieve his life-long goal of becoming a SAC Wing Commander and retired. He immediately went to work in private industry and spent many years traveling to parts of the world he missed while serving in the Air Force.

—Henry Zeybel

Stumbling Through the Sixties by Howard Flomberg

Howard Flomberg undertook his short autobiography, Stumbling Through the Sixties (CreateSpace, 162pp. $12.95 paper), as a project to stay sane once poor health forced him into retirement. He takes the reader through his impoverished childhood in Queens, New York, through his Air Force career, and to the present day.

His style is breezy and anecdotal, like that old uncle you had when you were a kid who loved to tell stories and wax philosophical. Flomberg seems to have had a desperate childhood, growing up as an orthodox Jew in a difficult household. His father died when he was quite young, to be succeeded by a brutish, alcoholic stepfather. Relatives sometime helped, but money was a constant issue. Flomberg had trouble in school. He was smart but easily bored, and his grades were poor. He was chubby and wore hand-me-downs. 

Howard Flomberg

After flunking out of college, he entered the Air Force as the lesser evil—the other choices were the Army and the Marines. Luckily, they trained him in the very earliest computers, vacuum tube models. He was stationed in Bangkok, where, in one of the book’s more exciting scenes, he acquitted himself well in a knife fight with some local toughs.

Flomberg writes about a CIA operation, Igloo White, that placed sensors along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and used the results to analyze the data in South Vietnam. Flomberg was flown into the Igloo White base to pull maintenance on the systems, and there were firefights all around him.

Perhaps in a future book Howard Flomberg will write more about Igloo White, an intriguing, outlandish undertaking. He should be congratulated just for getting his book in print. Like your uncle, he’s often entertaining.

The author’s website is

—John Mort