by Colonel Mike McCarthy. Praeger Security International, Westport, Conn., 2006, hardcover $35.
One of the toughest roles to endure in life is that of the disaster or combat survivor. Relief at being alive often conflicts with feelings of guilt and personal doubts as to why others died while you did not. Only those who’ve suffered it can appreciate its pain or express its enduring personal impact. To a great extent, understanding one of the most painful events of his combat tour during the Vietnam war led Colonel Mike McCarthy to write Phantom Reflections. It is a memoir of his tour with the 443rd Tactical Fighter Squadron operating out of Udorn, Thailand, from 1967 to 1968, but its post-acknowledgment introduction opens with him listening to a recording of the radio traffic from the attempted rescue of his downed wingman over North Vietnam on July 8, 1968. In a straightforward narrative style, the author uses the incident to explain what drove him to write the book and how his Vietnam service had changed him. He then guides the reader through his flight training, combat operations and motivations at the time and since.
Colonel McCarthy started his flying career with training at Laredo Air Force Base in the summer of 1962. Although he graduated in the top five of his training class, he suffered the disappointment of being assigned as a flight instructor for T-37s. It took him nearly four years to get assigned to fly fighters, in his case the F-4D Phantom II. Once checked out and qualified in the F-4, he was ordered to Udorn, where he joined the highly respected 443rd Tactical Fighter Squadron.
From that point on, the book accelerates as the author runs the reader through combat missions, aircraft tactics and the technology of the era. The difficulties of flying in close formation to ensure the effectiveness of his flight’s jamming pods are presented in an engaging manner. A fast-paced and educational narrative rapidly leads to a detailed recounting of the difficult two-day “Roman 2” Combat search and rescue effort: The mission that pulled his oldest friend at Udorn, Chuck Mosley, and Chuck’s weapons specialist officer Don Hallenbeck, from the jungles of North Vietnam.
Phantom Reflections is exactly that: a reflection of a Phantom pilot’s service during the Vietnam War, preceded and followed by brief recountings of what brought him there and what followed afterward. Perhaps the book’s most important message is in its final chapter, where the author discusses what he learned about high-level decision making when he was stationed at the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He remarks on the incomplete information available and the press for time that decision makers face. All the more reason, he says, for leaders and staff officers to review and question the assumptions driving their beliefs and shaping their plans.
Phantom Reflections doesn’t read like an action thriller. Nor is it a book for those seeking dynamic combat sequences. But it is a concise memoir, and one that is easy to read and understand. This is a book for those interested in the pilots who fought in the Vietnam war, their tactics and their thoughts.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here.