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The Hellish Vortex: Between Breakfast and Dinner

 By Richard M. Baughn. 394 pp. BookSurge, 2006. $20.99.

 Nonfiction books about air power abound, but there is a serious shortage of good air war novels. The Hunters, James Salter’s classic tale of life in an F-86 fighter interceptor squadron during the Korean War, probably leads the field. World War II–era standouts include John Hersey’s The War Lover, Len Deighton’s Bomber, and Gerd Gaiser’s The Last Squadron. (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is in a class by itself.) So when a really fine aviation novel appears, we should take notice.

Richard M. Baughn’s The Hellish Vortex is such a book, though it would be easy to overlook. It is a print-ondemand paperback and has not been heavily marketed. I only learned of it via word of mouth from a former professor, himself a retired USAF officer and decorated Vietnam War rescue helicopter pilot. He said, “Baughn was there and it shows…and he gets his history right!”

My professor is correct on both counts. Baughn had a long and distinguished air force career, taking F-105s “up north” during the Vietnam War and retiring as a brigadier general. For this novel, he reaches back to his experiences as a young lieutenant flying P-51 Mustangs with the Eighth Air Force.

Baughn tells the tale of Robb Baines, a young pilot assigned to the fictional 345th Fighter Group at Goxhill. He follows his protagonist and his squadron mates through the winter of 1943–1944, the “Big Week” assault on German aircraft production, the first daylight raids on Berlin, the Normandy invasion to the Bulge, and after. His combat descriptions have the spare authenticity of an afteraction report and, at the same time, are completely gripping. He nails the details that bring the story to life, such as the disorienting terror of flying through bad weather, the petty annoyances of military bureaucracy, and the accidents that claimed as many friends as did the Luftwaffe. His vivid description of a rain-soaked takeoff—in which the Mustangs’ propwash created “foamy cylinders” of vapor illuminated by the blue exhaust flames—is reminiscent of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

Some historical novels, in order to establish context, either supply a great deal of background narration or else endow their protagonists with an unlikely knowledge of the war’s strategic and political backdrop. Baughn very neatly manages to finesse this problem. Robb survives the war, and ten years later, as a major attending Armed Forces Staff College, he is determined to “learn more about the key players and what the hell went on behind the scenes.” The result of this investigation—Robb’s staff college thesis—is presented at intervals throughout the novel, filling in the historical backdrop and showing Robb’s mature reflection on the events he witnessed as a young man. It is a fine piece of historical writing in its own right.

The Hellish Vortex is not perfect. One of the major subplots, involving a romantic interlude and Robb’s involvement in a clandestine mission, is somewhat contrived and depends upon a series of implausible coincidences. Some of his characterizations might strike the reader as biased or unfair. His characters are scathing in their denunciations of British wartime leadership and performance, and U.S. Army ground commanders come in for similar rough treatment. Some may point out that Baughn fails to appreciate that our British allies faced very different priorities and challenges, or that disagreements about strategy were not always the product of national or service parochialism. Yet Baughn is convinced that the airmen’s sacrifice was not given its just due—and he comes by his perspective honestly.

So honestly, in fact, that this book is generating a significant amount of interest within today’s U.S. Air Force. They’re on to something— The Hellish Vortex is well worth your time. In the words of one of Baughn’s protagonists, “To write about aerial combat, you got to have been there…seen it…felt it…and survived its hellish vortex.” Or at least pay attention to those who have—and can take us there.


Originally published in the July 2008 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.