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Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War.

Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War by John Darrell Sherwood. New York University Press (, 838 Broadway, 3rd Floor, New York, New York 10003, 2004, 368 pages, $35.00 (hardcover).

"Pilots, in many instances, were simply 'voice-actuated autopilots' ... not nearly as crucial to the overall outcome as the guy in the backseat" (p. 93). Such is just one of the perspectives John Darrell Sherwood repeatedly offers in his latest book on jetera fighter aviation. Afterburner makes several contributions to airpower history, most notably Sherwood's use of new interviews he conducted himself.

The book begins with a narrative of operations over Laos in old A-4C Skyhawks from a worn, tired carrier--the USS Shang-ri La. The heart of Afterburner relies on the wartime diary of naval flight officer James B. Souder, among the best of the Navy's F-4 Phantom "backseaters." Not a collection of "there I was" yarns, the book uses sources that address several issues of great importance to Air Force war fighters. Souder's experience is the most compelling, for it sheds light on the aircrew-leadership challenges he faced working with pilots transitioning from the single-seat F-8 Crusader to the two-seat F-4. The author explains how the refusal of many pilots to exploit the abilities of their naval flight officers resulted in missed opportunities to shoot down North Vietnamese fighters, divided squadrons into cliques, and even risked fratricide. Souder's story highlights the leadership challenge of a subordinate in a lower-status position who possesses better airmanship, sense, and knowledge than his superior. Indeed, Afterburner raises a fundamental leadership question: does authority rest on professional skill or self-conferred status? Souder's behavior as a prisoner of war (POW) is an object lesson in the Air Force core value of service before self. He nursed to health several severely injured pilots in 1972, even going so far as to clean out the large intestines of one helpless prisoner with his bare hands, no doubt saving the man's life.

Sherwood offers a second example of sacrificial leadership--that of Roger Sheets, commander of the air group, an experienced F-4 and F-8 pilot. Embarking upon the USS Coral Sea, he recognized that a Marine A-6 squadron desperately needed experienced leadership. Sheets chose to fly with it and lead those marines, knowing full well he was sacrificing his last chance for a MiG kill and "the distinct possibility of an admiral's star" (p. 193).

Compelling and raw, these stories force the reader to reflect on the challenges of teamwork within a small unit at war. The book also provides a much-needed examination of the tactics and capabilities of F-4s and A-6s from the point of view of the naval flight officer. Further narratives of joint rescue operations over North Vietnam provide familiar, if hair-raising, grist for truly joint training in all phases of tactics and operations. Sherwood also contributes to the literature on the POW experience with a chapter largely based on a 1999 interview with Cdr C. Ronald Polfer, an RA-5 Vigilante pilot shot down in May 1972. His story sheds light on the lives of prisoners during a portion of the war not heretofore covered to the extent of the Rolling Thunder years. Another new addition to Vietnam history is Sherwood's use of his recent interviews of Cdr Ronald "Mugs" McKeown. The narrative of his combat action against the North Vietnamese air force not only makes for good reading, but also illustrates the advances that naval aviation made in the quest for air superiority.

Sherwood attempts to set these vignettes within a larger narrative of the war, a choice that slows down the pace and verve of the book. Indeed, three of the last four chapters degenerate into a general air history of Linebacker I and II. For a book ostensibly about naval aviation, it contains way too much Air Force history, which the author rarely contrasts to that of the Navy. Sherwood also chose to include material from Fast Movers, his previous book.

These shortcomings, however, do not prevent Afterburner from being required reading for Airmen and air leaders. On the one hand, Sherwood operates under a couple of constraints beyond his control. Navy squadrons at war do not maintain as many records as their Air Force counterparts, and the Navy has only just begun to declassify its Vietnamera documents. On the other, Sherwood is achieving command of the historical record of the air war over Vietnam and adding important new material in the form of interviews. He presents all of this in a scholarly manner that avoids the straitjacketed style of an official history. Given time to write, he clearly has the ability to contribute a book on the air war over Vietnam akin to Gerald Lindermann's masterful The World within War. In fact, Sherwood offers an important topic for study: "Why these men fought so hard and so well during these final months remains one of the great mysteries of this unpopular war" (p. 250).

Dr. Michael E. Weaver

Maxwell AFB, Alabama
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Author:Weaver, Michael E.
Publication:Air & Space Power Journal
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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