Going Downtown by Thomas McKelvey Cleaver

Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an author and screenwriter. He also is a U.S. Navy Vietnam War veteran and a licensed pilot with a lifelong interest in all things aeronautic. All of the above give him a unique insight into the American air war in Vietnam.

Cleaver’s Going Downtown: The U.S. Air Force over Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, 1967-1975 (Osprey, 352 pp. $30, hardcover; $12.60, Kindle) is a compilation of pilot biographies and memoirs interspersed with analyses of political and military decisions about how the USAF and the North Vietnamese ran air operations during the war.

Using extensive research and interviews, Cleaver has combined seemingly mundane, behind-the-scenes events with bone-chilling battle scenes. For me, Going Downtown was one of those “can’t put it down” reads, although I did put it down periodically just to digest the mountains of information I was learning.

Many aircraft and pilots are showcased throughout Going Downtown. It was an unexpected delight to read many accounts of our former enemy pilots as well.

The American pilots faced several deadly factors: North Vietnamese air defenses, including MIGs, SAMs, and antiaircraft buns of all types; Rules of Engagement devised by men in the White House and Defense Department, many of whom had little or no military backgrounds; faulty aircraft armament which led to many air-to-air missiles malfunctioning or being too cumbersome to use in combat; and poor tactics, one of which forced all aircraft in a flight to jettison their bombs, abort an attack, and head for home as soon as an approaching MIG was sighted.

Cleaver says some strategists felt that the outcome of the USAF air campaign in Vietnam War demonstrated the limitations of air power, while many who actually fought felt that what happened demonstrated the results of imposing limitations on air power. Cleaver shows that at times the NVA maintained unquestionable air superiority, but when the Rules of Engagement were relaxed, the U.S. immediately took over the skies of North Vietnam.

I highly recommend Going Downtown to historians, action readers, and aviation buffs. It is a good companion to Cleaver’s The Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: Naval Aviation in Vietnam, which was published in 2021.

–Bob Wartman