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Low Flight, High Risk

Operation Rolling Thunder was the name given to the nearly continuous bombing of North Vietnam from 1965 until the Tet Offensive of 1968. It was a memorable part of the Vietnam War, and a controversial one, measured in a million tons of bombs and varying degrees of success. But there is a part of the air war -- throughout Rolling Thunder and after -- that is virtually unremembered because so little has been written about it.

"Bury Us Upside Down" tells the story of the so-called Misty pilots who scouted for targets in North Vietnam, trying to stop the flow of men and weapons to battlefields in the South. (The Misty code name was taken from a Johnny Mathis hit, which happened to be a favorite of the outfit's first commander.) Unarmed except for a couple of nose guns, the Misty pilots flew low and fast, daring anti-aircraft gunners to fire on them so that they could spot the trucks, ferries and missile sites defended by cannon.

Theirs was a very personal war. While the lumbering B-52 bombers rained down their explosives from six or seven miles up, the Mistys trolled at 4,500 feet (less than a mile) -- four hours at a time, six hours, even eight hours. For a closer look, they'd go down "in the weeds," 200 feet above the ground, vulnerable to a pistol shot. They came to know the North Vietnamese gunners, or thought they did: There was a gunner on a particular limestone peak, for example, the "kid on the karst," so inept that the Mistys decided to leave him in peace for fear that his replacement might be able to hit them.

Bury Us Upside Down

When a Misty found something worth attacking, he'd call for fighter planes that each carried more ordnance than a World War II heavy bomber. Sometimes, to fix a target in place, a Misty would strafe the first and last truck in a convoy with his nose guns, to block the road and scatter the drivers. Then, when the fighter planes arrived, he'd mark the target with white phosphorous rockets. The North Vietnamese became experts at camouflage, and the Mistys became experts at finding the trucks or storage tanks beneath the foliage.

Such sighting skill worked only in daytime, and tropical nights are long. Still, the Mistys could often find targets in the dark because the North Vietnamese obligingly drove with their headlights glowing bumper to bumper on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Unfortunately, the American fighter planes had to begin their dives from 6,000 feet, at which altitude they couldn't see the headlights that were so obvious to the low-flying Mistys. Nighttime targets were invulnerable, for practical purposes. Even after the sun came up, enemy traffic was often hidden by a thick bank of clouds.

Worse, Lyndon Johnson's periodic bombing halts, intended to lure the North Vietnamese to the negotiating table, instead gave them a 24-hour opportunity to jam reinforcements into the South. In 1968, when Mr. Johnson decided to wrap up the war that had toppled his presidency, he stopped all bombing except in a narrow strip just above the 17th parallel that separated North from South Vietnam. The predictable result was that even more guns were moved into the strip and targeted on the low-flying American planes.

The Mistys took casualties at an appalling rate: Of 157 pilots who served in the unit from 1967 to 1970, 34 were shot down, though most were snatched to safety by equally daring helicopter crews. Seven Mistys disappeared forever in North Vietnam and Laos, and three became prisoners of war. The POW stories, well told in "Bury Us Upside Down," are excruciating to read. To take but one example: Despite the care given to Lance Sijan by the other Mistys, who took turns cradling him to share their body heat, he died of torture and starvation, a bloody heap of rags, skin and bones. What a corrective to the accusations of abuse at Guantanamo Bay! It wasn't mere rough handling but the last extremes of pain that American pilots endured at the Hanoi Hilton -- John McCain among them. In his preface to this book, the senator pays tribute to "the impossibly dangerous mission" of the Mistys, whom he met in the Vietnamese gulag.

That "Bury Me Upside Down" reads so easily may have a lot to do with the talents of Rick Newman, a writer for U.S. News & World Report and one of the book's two authors. That it's so personal, and so moving, may owe more to his co-author, Don Shepperd, a Misty pilot in 1968. When you read of the kick provided to the F-100 jet when raw fuel was dumped into its exhaust, or the supersonic shock waves hammering it when shells exploded nearby, you know that's how it felt, because Mr. Shepperd was there.

The authors' otherwise exemplary account, vivid with its scenes of war and bravery, goes lame during its detours to the home front, an apparently obligatory feature of 21st-century military history. Yes, war has casualties beyond the battlefield -- worry and confusion and terrible news caused wives and families to suffer in their own way -- but that's no reason to turn a battle story into soap opera. Many readers will find themselves skimming through the last chapters, and they'll miss very little thereby.

As for the book's title -- well, you had to ask, didn't you? It comes from a fighter-pilot toast that expresses a warrior's disdain for those who write the rules of engagement: "When our flying days are over / When our flying days are past / We hope they'll bury us upside down / So the world can kiss our..." You get the gist.

Mr. Ford wrote about Vietnam in the novel "Incident at Muc Wa," which was made into the movie "Go Tell the Spartans," starring Burt Lancaster.

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