Fear, Danger, and Bravery: A Young Fighter-Pilot's Memoir of the Vietnam Experience

review by Joe Rosenberg

When Thunder Rolled: An F-105 Pilot over North Vietnam
by Ed Rasimus
Smithsonian, 2003
"If one isn't willing to win, then one shouldn't risk defeat," writes author Ed Rasimus, who flew 100 bombing missions into North Vietnam. "Fighting with no purpose is the true immorality of war because it means you are asking your citizens to die for no other reason than winning the next election or making profits for a major multinational corporation…"

This book is about a pilot's experiences bombing North Vietnam from May through November 1966, clearly showing the danger faced by our fighter pilots. The pilot, Ed Rasimus, now a political science instructor, tells a story that reflects the bravery of the men who flew over enemy territory in a perilous time.

When Thunder Rolled is Rasimus' own story: a young lieutenant fighter pilot faced with flying into combat over North Vietnam. The author flew his 100-mission tour from a base in Thailand, bombing military and supply targets while facing the heaviest defenses ever gathered in one place against aerial attack.

The book tells the detailed story of squadron life and many of those missions with targets hit, other aircraft downed, and crew members rescued and lost. The single-seat F-105 pilots flew their airplanes in combat formations, but alone with their thoughts and fears. During his tour, Rasimus saw many of the F-105 aircraft assigned to the war lost in combat. The pipeline of replacement pilots and airplanes continued to feed the meat-grinder that became the war over North Vietnam.

The book captures the author's feelings and traces his activities during the period in which LBJ's Rolling Thunder bombing campaign tried to convince the North Vietnamese to withdraw from the South. Rasimus exhibits a great memory for each mission flown, taking the reader into the cockpit with him and showing how to react to the challenge of combat. We see the evolution of the young fighter pilot during six months, from initial fear and apprehension to professional competence and a bit of courage under this baptism by intense fire.

I might have enjoyed hearing more of the off-duty activities and attitudes in 1966 towards the war in general, but there is more than enough description of squadron life, R&R travels to Japan and Bangkok, and the personalities of the author's fellow squadron members that he fought alongside. Those seeking realism in the flight descriptions won't be disappointed, and those wanting to get inside the head of a combat pilot will get plenty to think about.

Although Rasimus, clearly from a 30-year perspective, did not appreciate the role the anti-war movement had in prosecuting this war, he is himself critical about the way he had to conduct his flights and the general direction of command and strategy.

At the end, this book is a memoir of an individual. It isn't meant to be a political statement, but it is inevitable, as readers proceed through his combat tour, that they will recognize the mistakes in policy and leadership that were part of the failed strategy of the war. There is cynicism and sarcasm in the language that describes the rules of engagement, the policies of the personnel system that put incompetents in leadership roles, and the convoluted targeting system that risked lives for valueless mission counts.

The last chapter sums up the experience with a short indictment of those who did the job and those who arguably lost the war: "The captains and majors had the benefit of experience…They fought and died, doing the job they had been asked to do. They led the trusting lieutenants, sometimes competently, and sometimes reaching too far…they did the best they could. The colonels and the generals were the failures. They let us down by failing to challenge our country's political leadership. They had an obligation to follow the orders of the duly elected administration, but they needed to demand clear tasking and reasonable rules under which to conduct the war.

"It's too easy to attribute the mismanagement of the war to a timid foreign policy and a reluctance to risk confrontation with the Soviets and Chinese. If one isn't willing to win, then one shouldn't risk defeat. Fighting with no purpose is the true immorality of war because it means you are asking your citizens to die for no other reason than winning the next election or making profits for a major multinational corporation…

There is more to this indictment of our failures and the recognition of how, despite the bravery and superiority of our forces, we were "beaten by a third-rate country on the other side of the globe."

You'll find it hard to disagree with the conclusions of the book, and even if you do, you won't regret having gone along for the ride in a single-seat fighter for a mission against the hardest targets ever faced in an air war.

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This story was published on April 4, 2003.