Combat and Courage

By Daniel Ford (from the Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2003)

Ed Rasimus set out for the war in May 1966, coach passenger in a Boeing 707 jetliner. As he tells us in When Thunder Rolled (Smithsonian, 261 pages, $27.95), he wasn't feeling especially bellicose: "To say I felt sick is an understatement. Did you ever spend much time thinking about death? . . . Your death. The end, nothing, darkness, eternity. The sleep from which you don't awake. And you're only twenty-three years old."

At Korat airfield in Thailand, Mr. Rasimus became one of two dozen pilots in the 421st Tactical Fighter Squadron, U.S. Air Force, flying an F-105 Thunderchief over Laos and North Vietnam. (The book's title plays off the airplane's name and also the Pentagon's campaign to discourage Ho Chi Minh from supporting revolution in South Vietnam: Operation Rolling Thunder.) The F-105 was a brute, a single-engine, single-seat fighter plane weighing almost as much as the B-17 Flying Fortress that ravaged Germany during World War II and carrying a comparable bomb load: 6,000 pounds.

More than half the F-105s ever built were lost in Southeast Asia, mostly to North Vietnamese anti-aircraft guns and missiles. The pilots fared somewhat better, since they could be rescued, and since they could go home after 100 combat missions. How he completed those missions, and mastered his fear, is the story Mr. Rasimus has set out to tell. (The fear never goes away, of course, but a brave man can work through it and even use it to his advantage.) The result is one of the finest combat memoirs I have ever read, from any air force in any war.

Mr. Rasimus is a patriot in his quiet way, but he's not sentimental about the work his country sent him to do or about the manner in which he was supposed to accomplish it. Over North Vietnam, it was OK to attack a missile site if it fired at him but not if it was still under construction. He wasn't allowed within 20 miles of the China-Vietnam border, nor could he attack the North Vietnam seacoast, which was reserved for U.S. Navy fighter-bombers.

On one mission, he and his $15 million aircraft were risked in an attempt to destroy 50 barrels of petroleum -- about as much fuel as his F-105 burned in the attempt. Returning to Thailand with flak holes in the wing and hydraulic systems gone, he had to report his troubles as a "mishap" because officially there were no warplanes in Thailand, hence no battle damage was possible.

At the age of 23, flying a single-seat fighter plane over Vietnam.

But he did the job, did it well and recalls it in terms that a layman can appreciate: "We're back into our speed and clear of the flak in less than a minute. As we're on our way outbound, a strange notion enters my head. This is fun. It's a rush, a thrill, a challenge to do something that most people can't even conceive of and couldn't do even if they wanted to. Parrot flight [each mission has a name, often whimsical] is roaring across the countryside, headed for the coast, and it suddenly occurs to me that what we're doing is a lot like stealing hubcaps."

Each graduating class of F-105 pilots consisted of nine young men. Of Mr. Rasimus's class, three were shot down, though all were snatched to safety by ubiquitous and heroic "Jolly Green Giant" helicopter crews. Of the class that followed his, five were killed or captured. Indeed, the Air Force lost so many F-105 drivers in Vietnam that it conscripted bomber and cargo pilots to replace them, retraining them in shorter courses with more students. Of the first such group, 15 of 16 lost their lives or freedom in Southeast Asia.

Six months after he left, Mr. Rasimus was back at Travis Air Force Base in California, wearing a bunch of medals and a handlebar mustache that he was assured was bulletproof. (It must have been, since he survived.) He intended to rent a car and drive into San Francisco for a night on the town, but Hertz turned him down, as he recalls. Still 23, he was apparently too young to be trusted with an automobile.

"It's thirty-five years since that summer of '66," Mr. Rasimus writes in conclusion, "and [our] view of the war today is only slightly clearer than it was then. We don't know yet why we were there or what the objective was ... nor has anyone told us why we squandered such a valuable treasure of manpower and machines."

But that's not the entire story. As bitter as he was at the lack of a clear objective in Vietnam, at generals who didn't stand up to the politicians, at "long-haired, slogan-chanting hippies" and even at some of his comrades who shirked their duty, Mr. Rasimus nevertheless volunteered for a second tour in 1972. He lived at the same airfield, drank at the same club and attacked the same targets as he had six years before. "In truth," he admits, "we loved it."

Mr. Ford is the author of "Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault and the American Volunteer Group."

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