AFTERBURNER: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War

AFTERBURNER: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War

Munns, David W

AFTERBURNER: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War by John Darrell Sherwood, New York: New York University Press, May 2004. 352 pp. $32.95 ISBN: 0-8147-9842-X

Although the Vietnam War ended nearly three decades ago, its grave images were prescient of future American conflicts. The war itself draws many parallels to America’s current history. The foreign policy lessons learned and interpretations of the conflict are still impossible to overlook.

The third volume of a Naval Historical Center project documenting this struggle, Afterburner: Naval Aviators and the Vietnam War, examines the most costly and widely disputed period of the Vietnam War, the American air warfare campaign between 1968 and 1972. Naval aviation during this period is often overlooked in lieu of larger, more publicized Air Force operations and an inability to access previously classified naval records.

Despite its somewhat covert history, naval aviation made a significant contribution to America’s air campaign in Southeast Asia. There were 17 U.S. carriers, making 73 cruises and totaling 8,248 days of naval conflict in Vietnam. Nearly 20 percent of the Navy personnel killed in action were aviators.

President Lyndon B. Johnson’s halt to bombing operations in North Vietnam for the late-1968 to early-1972 period is part of the reason the naval air campaign during this time is largely discounted. However, major bombings did continue along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an ill-defined assemblage of jungle paths and supply lines in Laos that were the primary arteries to equip North Vietnamese fighters.

This book is divided in six parts detailing the Laotian campaign, the induction of non-pilot naval flight officers, prisoners of war, the Navy’s successful operation mining Haiphong harbor, the most intense year of naval air warfare in 1972 and the final chapters of air war over North Vietnam: the Easter Offensive, Linebacker I and Linebacker II.

Afterburner takes a biographical approach to recording this period. It portrays the conflict in personal terms with anecdotes from aviators that exemplify a larger history of the war. Often colorful, these incidents help to convey their personal triumphs and struggles as their roles were essentially overhauled with newly moded air fighting techniques and creative approaches to combating North Vietnamese attacks on strongholds in South Vietnam.

By documenting this era with tales of victory and defeat, the lives of the men who served in Vietnam are brought to the forefront of the conflict. Their stories offer an allegorical truth to the increasing intensity of an air campaign that was barely permitted to be fought.

While a more complete chronology might present the big picture as to why, despite tremendous expense and hundreds of casualties, America was unable to claim a definitive victory in one of the most intense air campaigns to date, this book is a welcome addition to the history of naval aviation and fills a much-needed void by detailing the later years of the Vietnam naval air campaign.


Assistant Editor

Copyright Navy League of the United States Oct 2004

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