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Reviewed by:
  • Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos
  • John F.Gene Guilmartin Jr.
Cheating Death: Combat Air Rescues in Vietnam and Laos. By George J. Marrett. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2003. ISBN 1-58834-104-6. Photographs. Map. Pp. xxii,225. $27.95.

Apart from its literary merit, this memoir is of value in addressing a largely overlooked aspect of the Vietnam War: the creation by the U.S. Air Force of a specialized combat rescue force to recover aviators downed deep within enemy territory in Laos and North Vietnam. Based on long-range Sikorsky HH-3 and later HH-53 "Jolly Green" helicopters, so-called for their radio callsign, it saved hundreds of aviators from capture and death, facing enemy antiaircraft artillery and on occasion surface-to-air missiles in addition to the usual small arms and automatic weapons fire. The big helicopters were supported by HC-130 command-and-control and communications relay aircraft that served as aerial tankers for the helicopters and—the focus of the book—a dedicated force of piston-engined Douglas A-1 Skyraider attack aircraft flying under the "Sandy" callsign.

Helicopters proved too vulnerable for search operations and Sandys were responsible for locating survivors, supporting them with fire, serving as forward air controllers for flak suppression strikes, and providing fire support for the rescue helicopter. With a massive ordnance load, excellent low-altitude endurance and surprising maneuverability for so large an aircraft, the A-1 was perfect for the job, and a demanding job it was: In addition to the survivor, enemy activity, terrain and weather, Sandy Lead had to keep track of two helicopters (Jolly Greens committed in pairs with one in reserve), his wingmen, and supporting strike flights—the list is not exhaustive. Surely, there has been no more demanding job in the history of aerial warfare. In this reviewer's opinion, rooted in combat experience flying Jolly Greens in 1965-66 and 1975, the Sandy mission represents the limiting case in situational awareness, spatial orientation, and tactical judgment. For reasons that the reader will come to appreciate, not all A-1 pilots could handle the Sandy mission and only a minority qualified as Sandy Lead.

Marrett was an experienced jet test pilot before he was a Sandy, and he addresses his subject with aeronautical sophistication. His tour with the Thailand-based 602nd Fighter Squadron (Commando) ran for a year beginning in April 1968, encompassing a full range of strike missions in support of the so-called "Secret War" in Laos in addition to an impressive array of rescue missions. Marrett's first Sandy sorties were flown as a wingman on the 31 May-2 June mission to rescue Navy A-7 pilot Lieutenant Kenny Fields, callsign Streetcar 304, the biggest rescue mission of the war to date—thirty-nine hours and 189 combat sorties—and not without cost: Fields's wingman ditched at sea, two Sandys were shot down and one pilot captured, another Sandy was heavily damaged and a Jolly Green was abandoned in enemy territory. Marrett received his baptism of fire watching his element lead shot down early in the mission and Fields's rescue required fire support so close that he was wounded by cluster bomb pellets from an accurate F-4 drop just [End Page 282] before being rescued. It is a dramatic story and well told, but by no means the end of the book.

Marrett takes the reader through his tour, repeatedly confirming the adage that flying combat consists of hours of boredom punctuated by seconds of terror, nor was the terror always caused by enemy guns: miserable weather, errors in judgment, matériel failure, and poor leadership inflicted their share of losses on Marrett's squadron and his clinical descriptions of each loss provide a catalog of all that can go wrong—and usually does—in aerial warfare. The roll of his fellow pilots lost in combat and the account of the fates of those who survived, and of those whom they rescued, adds poignancy. This is an honest, well-written and exceptionally well-informed account, conveying the airmanship and human reality of the Vietnam air war "Up North" as well...


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pp. 282-283
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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