Last fall, months before I signed up for the 2010 Vietnam Reading Challenge, my husband attended a weekend retreat, where he met a gentleman who was a Vietnam Veteran. When my husband mentioned that I was a book blogger, the gentleman immediately recommended that I read and review "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" and declared it to be one of the best Vietnam books he'd ever read. Recommendations don't come any higher than this.
The book's message was in good hands. The author is a seasoned war correspondent whose brother, Bill, served in Vietnam as a "Catkiller" pilot in the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Bill and his merry band of "Myth Makers" had the role of flying flimsy little single-engine Cessnas, that could barely exceed speeds of a passenger car, to seek out the positions of the enemy, provide assistance to troops in peril, and engage in combat if necessary.
I've ridden in one of these airplanes; my dad owned and flew one on the farm in the '70's. These are little more than motorized tin cans with some wings and plastic windows. The very idea that these pilots would fly into some of the most hostile terrain in the war, scribbling radio frequencies and coordinates with wax pencils on the windows, communicating with troops under fire and ground control, in zero-visibility weather, literally hanging out of their windows shooting weapons and throwing grenades, all at only hundreds of feet above the ground in mountainous territory and with plumes of napalm exploding around them...it is terrifying. These boys had nerves of steel.
When Jim Hooper began to help his brother compile his thoughts about his experiences in Nam, he located some of his brother's platoon mates and found them eager to share their memories as well. As horrific as the war was, it seems that they were not only adrenaline junkies, feeding off the constant thrill of near-death experiences, but also felt the camaraderie and the bond of a unified cause to be unparalleled in life. The result was something more than just a book. It is a real-time narrative, with all of the players taking turns, jumping in with their contribution to the story. I would liken this reading experience to transporting yourself back in time, into the cockpit, re-living some of their most memorable missions.
We get to know the pilot's personalities, their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. Because of the intense pressure experienced in the air, these boys had to blow off steam through drinking, fart humor, poker, and practical jokes that were nearly as dangerous as combat. Bless Hooper, because he includes pictures - I love pictures - so the reality of their brave, handsome faces are etched in your mind. Hooper's last gift to us is the epilogue, letting us know what happened to the boys after the war. (I get the sense that many of the pilots continued to seek that same adrenaline rush once they had returned stateside.)
For those who decide to read this, I will mention that you may have some initial issues in reading some of the dialogue. It is snappy and filled with pilot and war lingo. There is a helpful glossary in the back to help you wade through, but this was a drag on my momentum, so I just went for it. No, I didn't know what a Kit Carson scout was, or a Delta-1, but I got the idea.
Often, you will hear that "The Things They Carried" is the quintessential Vietnam novel. In many ways I would agree - it is an everyman's story of the war on the ground. I would argue that "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" should carry just as much gravitas, only from the perspective of the sky and with a grittier voice.
5 out of 5 stars