Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Hundred Feet Over Hell: Flying with the Men of the 220th Recon Airplane Company Over I Corps and the DMZ, Vietnam 1968-1969 by Jim Hooper

I don't believe in war, but I deeply respect the people who fight it. Along with their families, they are bearing sacrifices for the rest of us. As the wife of a police officer, I've had glimpses into the world of those who serve in dangerous situations and the bonds that form among people whose lives depend on one another. But I have no experience with military life, and I was fascinated by my vicarious experiences in this book.

When Bill Hooper returned to Florida after being injured on active duty in Vietnam, he was angry. It was not a reaction to having suffered a brutal ordeal in an unpopular war. He was angry about being home. He was separated from his military family, the men he was committed to serving and protecting. At first, this was difficult for his brother Jim to understand. Decades later, after surviving his own combat experiences as a war correspondent in Africa and the Balkans, Jim began to explore Bill's Vietnam experiences. After extensive research and interviews with men who served with Bill, this book took shape.

The author seamlessly wove together first-person accounts of soldiers with his own narrative. It flowed smoothly, and I came to really care about the people whose voices filled the pages. There's also a great deal of action in this book. I agree with another reviewer, Julie at My Book Retreat, who wrote: "Reading this book was like watching a war movie. It was full of action "scenes" where Catkiller pilots are flying over the DMZ taking enemy fire, while relaying vital information about troop locations, and guiding fighter pilots to fire at the VC troops while avoiding the friendlies."

Shortly after arriving in North Vietnam, Bill shot his first human targets. He was flying over an area that had been declared a Freefire Zone because the North Vietnamese used it to move weapons and supplies -- anyone spotted there would be shot on sight. When he killed several people herding buffalo, a comrade shouted triumphantly, "You got both of them!" Only later, in the privacy of his room, did Bill shed tears. Soon Bill adapted to his duties, and in time he became, in his own words, "addicted to combat." As I became absorbed in the experiences of these men, I understood what he meant. Bill asked to be reassigned to the "Catkillers" of the U.S. Army's 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company where he served for the rest of his time "in country." The Catkillers flew dangerous missions close to the ground, almost daily, providing support to ground forces. As one reviewer, at Orvilleville, noted, "In the second war of the Jet Age, the Bird Dog was a very unglamorous aircraft, but to the men on the ground, having a Bird Dog overhead was like having your own personal guardian angel.."

The reasons for the war they were fighting seemed unclear. But these men were passionately focused on their mission, to support each other and save American lives. Some parts of this book are actually laugh out loud funny. These young men escaped the pressures of combat by cutting loose during their downtime, and many of their experiences are hilarious. For example, one night a bunch of guys were in the middle of a poker game when the camp was struck by enemy fire. "Wisby was yelling at us to get to the bunker, but we just sat there because of all the cash on the table. There had to be $500 in that pot! Rockets were impacting everywhere. Then the lights went out. Everyone had a Zippo, and we got a candle lit and finished the hand. I thought we were going to die for sure." (p. 53)

Other parts of the book are infuriating. We see the brutality faced by both soldiers and Vietnamese civilians on a daily basis and the lack of support our serviceman received from the South Vietnamese, who they were trying to help, and from their own government. During their down time, the Catkillers were sometimes immersed in "hate sessions." They vented about the indifference of the South Vietnamese, the baffling decisions made by the military bureaucracy, which sometimes cost the lives of their comrades in arms, and the frustrations of being caught in limited warfare, trying to save American lives but not allowed to invade North Vietnam.

A news correspondent who had served in World War II was at one of these "hate sessions." He said the experiences he'd seen in the 1940s, servicemen struggling to preserve each others lives in the face of lack of support and seemingly absurd decisions from further up the hierarchy, were being repeated "with only cosmetic differences" in Vietnam. I found this disheartening on many levels, and I suspect the same issues are being faced -- again, with only cosmetic differences -- by our troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Some accounts of war play on our emotions in a very intentional way, striving to send the obvious message that "war is hell." Others glorify war. A Hundred Feet Over Hell does neither. It simply tells the soldiers' stories, very personal stories of courage, fear, grief, and pride in a job well done, in what David Mitchell at BiblioBuffet aptly called a "concise but literate style." This is an important work of contemporary history and a powerful tribute to men who devoted themselves to protecting their brethren.

Many thanks to Lisa Roe for providing me a copy of this book to review.  

Read More Reviews: OrvilleVille; Cessna Warbirds; My Book Retreat; HistoryMike; BiblioBuffet

Rating: 4.5

5- Cherished Favorite4 - Keep in My Library3 - Good Read2 - Meh1 - Definitely Not
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