Bury Us Upside Down : The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail
They had the most dangerous job n the Air Force. Now Bury Us Upside Down reveals the never-before-told story of the Vietnam War's top-secret jet-fighter outfit-an all-volunteer unit composed of truly extraordinary men who flew missions from which heroes are made.
In today's wars, computers, targeting pods, lasers, and precision-guided bombs help FAC (forward air controller) pilots identify and destroy targets from safe distances. But in the search for enemy traffic on the elusive Ho Chi Minh Trail, always risking enemy fire, capture, and death, pilots had to drop low enough to glimpse the telltale signs of movement such as suspicious dust on treetops or disappearing tire marks on a dirt road (indicating a hidden truck park). Written by an accomplished journalist and veteran, Bury Us Upside Down is the stunning story of these brave Americans, the men who flew in the covert Operation Commando Sabre-or "Misty"-the most innovative air operation of the war.
In missions that lasted for hours, the pilots of Misty flew zigzag patterns searching for enemy troops, vehicles, and weapons, without benefit of night-vision goggles, infrared devices, or other now common sensors. What they gained in exhilarating autonomy also cost them: of 157 pilots, 34 were shot down, 3 captured, and 7 killed. Here is a firsthand account of courage and technical mastery under fire. Here, too, is a tale of forbearance and loss, including the experience of the family of a missing Misty flier-Howard K. Williams-as they learn, after twenty-three years, that his remains have been found.
Now that bombs are smart and remote sensors are even smarter, the missions that the Mistys flew would now be considered no less than suicidal. Bury Us Upside Down reminds us that for some, such dangers simply came with the territory.
This thoroughly readable, absorbing history chronicles the air operations known as Misty (officially called Commando Sabre) along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Flying mostly F-100s, the air force pilots acted as FACs (forward air controllers) for strike aircraft, directing them to North Vietnamese supply convoys and other targets along the conduit. Newman, a journalist, and Shepperd, a retired two-star air force general and current CNN commentator, launch their account with the story of Howard K. Williams, a pilot shot down on a Misty mission in 1968 and declared deceased in 1978 (his remains were recovered in 1991). They also bring to life a wide cast of Misty characters, including Williams's long-suffering widow, Monalee, daredevil Jim Fiorelli, hyperconfident pilot Dick Rutan and several airmen who were shot down, captured and tortured. Shepperd, a former Misty pilot, also figures in the story, as does Sen. John McCain, who provides the book's foreword. The courage and skill of the pilots emerges clearly, as does the dubious bureaucratic rationale that subjected their families to nightmarish ordeals. A distinguished addition to Vietnam War aviation literature, the volume raises serious questions about both tactics and politics. (Feb.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 26, 2007
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Excerpt from Bury Us Upside Down by Rick Newman
The casket seemed like overkill. But it was too awkward for anybody to mention.
As seventy-five guests sat anxiously in the chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, the organist softly playing "Amazing Grace," a military caisson clanked to a stop outside the gates. Pallbearers from the Air Force Honor Guard, every thread of their uniforms neatly in place, lowered a flag-draped coffin from the horse-drawn carriage. The men carried it up the steps and methodically marched it down the aisle, then set it before the small altar at the front of the chapel. The stiff, practiced precision of the pallbearers' movements, their reverential bearing, all of the military formality--it was impressive, to be sure. Yet it was starkly at odds with what was inside the casket: practically nothing.
In the second pew, Jean Kahoon grew uncomfortable as she listened to friends and colleagues eulogize Howard Keith Williams, her big brother. He had been shot down while flying an F-100 fighter jet over North Vietnam twenty-four years earlier and never heard from again. John Buckmelter, a childhood friend, described how Howard had fallen in love with flying when he was just a boy hanging out at the Jefferson County airfield near Steubenville, Ohio. Roger Williams, Howard's younger brother, described how pleased he had been to be able to go to Vietnam as an Army soldier at the same time Howard, his hero, had gone over to fly jets. Fellow pilots Roger Wise and Chuck O'Connor told stories of going to flight school and learning how to be fighter jocks with "Willy." "He was always a little more focused, a little more mature," O'Connor recalled.
But there was so much more to him, thought Jean, than his military career and his fascination with flying. There was the neighborhood sled-riding hill where she and her brother and dozens of other kids would go careening over rocks and bushes and have to jump off their sleds to avoid landing in the creek at the bottom. There were all the jobs Howard worked as a kid to pick up spending money and add to the family clothing fund: the paper routes, the lawns he mowed, the summer labor at their grandfather's farm in West Virginia where they'd bale hay and plow up potatoes and milk cows. Best of all was the three-man band Howard helped form. He played trumpet and was good enough to get paying gigs at local nightclubs on weekends. In her mind, Jean could still see the drum majorette her brother had dated for a while in high school, the one with the great legs who wore her skirt so short it barely covered her panties.
Then there were all the special things between Jean and Howard, born two years apart and the oldest of eight children. Jean helped Howard deliver the papers and took over the route when he moved on to bigger jobs. She was with Howard at the farm in West Virginia when he tried chewing tobacco for the first time--a short-lived habit. And all the nights they spent together hiding in the attic, talking and drawing, came cascading back. Their dad had been a carpenter for U.S. Steel, and he had been injured and out of work for a while. The family could afford just one upstairs bedroom for the girls, and one for the boys. But the setup had its charms. Each bedroom had a closet that led to a crawl space at the top of the house. That's where the family kept its supply of drawing paper--blank newsprint that occasionally came bundled with the morning news. Jean and Howard would sneak up there once the younger kids were asleep and spend hours drawing cartoons and planning out the future. They'd clamber back down to their beds once they heard their mom climbing the steps to check on the kids. Not once did they ever get caught--not surprising, since Mom knew what they were up to all along.
And there, in a box twenty feet in front of her, Jean's big brother Howard, who caused her profound heartache when he left home and giddy joy whenever he came back to visit, had been literally reduced to shards: a bone fragment, one tooth, a sliver from a signal mirror that was part of his survival gear, and a piece of a plastic Ace comb. The remains, recovered by American investigators a year earlier, in 1991, were so sparse that Jean wondered, what's the point of putting them in a casket? She even had her doubts about whether they were actually Howard's. There had been so much that didn't make sense, so many fishy explanations, that it was hard to believe anything the government said.