Call Sign Rustic: The Secret War Over Cambodia, 1970-1973. By Richard Wood. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002. ISBN 1-58834-049-X. Maps. Photographs. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xiv, 186. $24.95.
The forward air controllers (FACs) who flew in Cambodia between June 1970 and August 1973 have received slight historical attention because of [End Page 305] the highly classified nature of their work and the paucity of contemporary records. Author Wood—call sign Rustic 11—has made a heroic effort to preserve the memory of his fellow FACs, relying primarily on oral history to document their activities.
Micromanaged by the White House and subject to restrictive—and frequently changing—Rules of Engagement, the Rustics were a central part of President Richard Nixon's efforts to support the Cambodian government while complying with a congressional ban on the use of American ground troops in the beleaguered country. Air assets could be used in the conflict, and the Rustics provided twenty-four-hour target identification for the U.S. Air Force fighter-bombers that were aiding the Lon Nol forces in their losing struggle against the Khmer Rouge.
Some 250 pilots passed through the Rustic program, and three FACs were killed in action. In comparison, thirty-one Raven FACs lost their lives in Laos, at the rate of four per year. In both countries, the FACs developed close relationships with the men on the ground, and most airmen became embittered over the policies of the U.S. government.
One of the more interesting aspects of the Rustic program grew out of language problems. Few Cambodians spoke English and no FACs spoke Cambodian. Thanks to the heritage of French colonial rule, however, Cambodian officers frequently had learned French as a second language. The solution was to recruit—quickly—French-speaking enlisted men. As a result, cooks and clerk-typists ended up in the backseats of OV-10s, performing their demanding duties without (initially) the recognition of wings and air medals, not to mention hazard pay. Although Wood is incorrect in seeing their participation as "unique"—U.S. Air Force enlisted men flew as Butterfly FACs in Laos with Air America and Continental Air Service—their story forms an especially interesting chapter of the air war in Southeast Asia.
Wood has done a fine job of setting out the organizational nature of the
Rustic program, identifying the many problems faced by the FACs, examining
the pluses and minuses of the aircraft they flew, and documenting the
skill and courage of many of the individuals who participated in the often
hazardous missions. One suspects, however, that the Rustics encountered
personnel problems that they now prefer to leave in the past. Also,
his portrayal of the relationship between the FACs and higher Air Force
authority is necessarily one-sided. Call Sign Rustic cannot be
considered the definitive account of an important aspect of FAC efforts
in Southeast Asia, but it will have to serve until better documentary
records become available—if they exist.
William M. Leary
University of Georgia