Friday, March 3, 2017

Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret War for the Ho Chi Minh Trail

For modern Americans the Vietnam War is the source of poignant tales of valor and dedication in defeat.  Rick Newman and Don Shepperd provide a sterling example of this literature in Bury Us Upside Down, which documents the exploits of the pilots of Commando Sabre, also known as Misty.  Commando Sabre was a secret operation that dedicated F-100 Super Sabre jet fighter planes as Forward Air Controllers over North Vietnam, replacing the older propeller driven planes used to find targets for air strikes.  As a new operation its pilots had to devise new tactics and doctrine for finding hidden trucks and supplies, finding anti-aircraft artillery sites, and calling in fighters equipped with bombs and missiles.  The unit was infamous for finding breaks in cloud cover, aggressively seeking out the enemy, and for tenaciously working to recover downed airmen.  With the bravado of fighter pilots everywhere, the Misty pilots hoped their friends would bury them upside down “So the world can kiss our ass.”
Newman and Shepperd argue that losses of slow propeller driven FACs to anti-aircraft fire over the Ho Chi Minh Trail forced the Air Force to find a more survivable airframe.  Locating anti-aircraft artillery and surface to air missiles was a primary mission for Misty pilots due to the necessity of protecting B-52 bombers and other aircraft working to interdict North Vietnamese supply lines.  The B-52s were critical to the American efforts to close the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and were particularly vulnerable to missiles due to their lack of maneuverability.  In Newman and Sheppherd’s estimation, the Ho Chi Minh trail was the key to North Vietnamese efforts in South Vietnam, justifying intensive efforts to curtail its usefulness as a supply line.

The Air Force created Commando Sabre to deal with the need for “fast” FACs, and staffed it with volunteers who served a four-month rotation before returning to their regular unit it Vietnam.  Because they were volunteers who either understood the criticality of their mission or were frustrated by the normal pattern of air operations in South Vietnam, Misty pilots were both inventive and tenacious.  They flew missions twice as long as a “normal” combat mission, frequently returning to the base at Phu Cat with damage to their planes.  Rather than avoiding anti-aircraft sites, the pilots marked them with white phosphorous rockets and called in fighter-bombers to destroy the batteries, sometimes resulting in hours-long battles involving dozens of aircraft.

Only downed pilots could draw Misty pilots away from their quarry.  Newman and Shepperd document several instances where aviators broke off attacks on large supply depots or truck convoys to cover comrades shot downed over North Vietnam.  Rescue missions sometimes turned into major battles themselves, as they took extreme measures to prevent downed pilots from suffering as Prisoners of War or being killed at the hands of their captors.  The issue of captured and missing airmen dominates that last third of Bury Us Upside Down, as Newman and Shepperd focus on the fates of pilots and families.  In addition to a vivid description of conditions in North Vietnamese prisons, Bury Us Upside Down follows the struggles of families trying to get information from the Vietnamese and United States governments.

Because Rick Newman is a war correspondent and Don Shepperd is a retired Air Force general and former Misty pilot, Bury Us Upside Down reads like a novel or a report from the front line.  They criticize Communist atrocities such as the massacre of civilians in Hue while ignoring American or South Vietnamese atrocities.  Additionally, Newman and Shepperd occasionally use the labels “Viet Cong” and “North Vietnamese Army” interchangeably, particularly in the case of the Tet Offensive.  Otherwise, Bury Us Upside Down is a well-researched and powerful account of the air war over Vietnam.

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