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Honor Denied: The Truth About Air America and the CIA by Allen Cates, iUniverse Publishing, 2011

Allen Cates’ book is the first in a long while to paint an accurate picture of what it was like to be a pilot for Air America during the war in Indochina.

Cates, who flew rotary and fixed-wing aircraft for the airline in Laos after his tour as a Marine H-34 helicopter pilot, negates the oft-held belief that it was the CIA that owned and operated the airline for its clandestine purposes. While Cates acknowledges the CIA was a frequent flyer on Air America, he writes that the real owner was the U.S. government, which also conjured the image of a band of drug-running rogue pilots so it could wash its hands of Air America once the war was over.

Practically all Air America veterans are bitter about the U.S. government’s total disregard for the sacrifices the airline’s employees made flying missions that were often more dangerous than those of their counterparts in uniform. The government, according to Cates, includes no mention of Air America’s participation in the largest search and rescue (SAR) mission in the Vietnam War: the March 1972 rescue of an Air Force C-130, call sign Spectre 22, over the Ho Chi Minh Trail in southern Laos.

“It was a final act that completed the successful recovery of all 15 crew members…the largest successful aircrew recovery of the war,” Cates declares. “Yet Air America was not to be recognized….On the other hand, the pilot in command of the Air Force’s AC-130 is rumored to have received the Air Force Cross.” It was as though Air America did not exist.

The several hundred pilots and ground crew who volunteered for Air America, many who could have gone home after completing their mandatory service, cared deeply for Indochina and its people. “More than 30 Air America flight crews stayed and flew the last day in Saigon,” Cates writes. “Right, wrong, or indifferent, we did our job and often performed duties above and beyond those assigned to us.”

Honor Denied is a compelling read for other reasons. A former helicopter pilot, Cates describes what it feels like to fly, how he controls power and airspeed. And, through a conversation with helicopter pilot Bruce Jachens, Cates takes readers on an Air America flight involved in the rescue of an Air Force pilot and his crew in Laos:

Jachens shouted, “How’s our passenger doing?”

“He looks a little white around the gills,” the flight mechanic replied.

Bruce reached over and grabbed one of the sandwiches from the lunch that the cook had made for him that morning, and he handed it down to the mechanic. “Give him one of these.” Leaning over the frightened survivor, he handed him the sandwich and said with a smile,

“Welcome to Air America.”

Readers of Honor Denied will also be welcomed to Air America—and will learn the real story this time.

—Reviewed by Marc Yablonka