The Phantom Vietnam War – An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos, David R. ‘Buff’ Honodel

The Phantom Vietnam War – An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos, David R. ‘Buff’ Honodel

David ‘Buff’ Honodel served as an F-4 Phantom pilot at the height of the US involvement in Vietnam, but was based in Thailand and mainly operated over Laos, at a time when the American involvement in that country was still secret.

We start with the author back in the US, undergoing his last bit of training before heading off to fight in Vietnam. His first shock was that he actually ended up in Thailand and fighting over Laos, a country he had barely heard of. His second shock was that he wasn’t quite the hot shot fighter ace he had believed himself to be, and instead had a great deal to learn about the realities of combat (some of this is inevitable, but some elements come across as a clear failure of training – in particular a lack of realistic training at full combat weights, which altered the handling of the aircraft).

We follow him as he became more experienced and regained some of his early confidence, but then see the stresses of combat slowly wear that away – friends were shot down, he had his fair share of close shaves, flew on stressful night operations for some time and became increasingly frustrated with the way the war was being conducted. For most of his time in combat the Americans weren’t operating over North Vietnam, so he often found himself attempting to attack individual trucks making their way along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, often being shot at by guns that were ‘out of bounds’ on the other side of the North Vietnamese border. Somewhat ironically a spell of R&R in Sydney finally convinced him he wanted out, so instead of signing on for an extra six months he took the first chance that came to leave Thailand.

We finish with his rather melancholy return to the United States, where the anti-war movement had gathered steam, and returning servicemen were often treated badly. I can entirely sympathise with his attitude – it must have been very frustrating to have been blamed for the decisions of political leaders, especially in a period where the military draft was in place, so most of the men fighting in Vietnam had no real choice (having said that, he had been in the USAF for several years before volunteering to go to Vietnam, so can’t entirely pass the blame for his being there on to others).

This is a compelling first hand account of the stresses of aerial combat. A series of incidents stand out – including an early night mission in which he lost his bearings, over-reacted to a missile lock, and nearly ran out of fuel, a search and rescue mission in which he was responsible for eliminating a Vietnamese AA gun that was preventing the rescue of a shot down airman, and a three day strike on the North Vietnamese base area just across their border. How much difference it would have made if the Americans had decided to repeat this is unclear – one suspects that the North Vietnamese would have simply dispersed their supply bases in the same way they dispersed the Hi Chi Minh trail itself.

1 – The Summer of ‘69
2 – My Turn
3 – Combat
4 – The War That Wasn’t
5 – The Golden BB
6 – Hot Dog
7 – Bad Moon Rising
8 – Dry-Season’s Greetings
9 – God Said No
10 – The Proudest Day
11 – R and R
12 – Nemesis
13 – May 1970
14 – Home
15 – Bomb Damage Assessment

Author: David R. ‘Buff’ Honodel
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 416
Publisher: UNT Press
Year: 2018

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