Books on the Vietnam War can be tedious reading. As a professional military officer for over twenty years and as someone who owns a rather extensive library of military history, I’ve read my fair share of books on Vietnam and have often found that it was only my interest in the subject matter that kept me reading rather than any enjoyment of the writing itself. Ed Rasimus’ excellent book When Thunder Rolled has been a notable exception to that experience.
Rasimus’ book is a memoir of his experience flying the F-105 Thunderchief during operation “Rolling Thunder,” the first real air campaign over North Vietnam. Beginning with Rasimus’ transition training in the F-105 in the spring of 1966, the book focuses on his experiences flying his 100 combat missions over North Vietnam from May to November 1966. It is written from a first person perspective and not only details the events Rasimus endured but also presents the way he saw them through the eyes of a “green” lieutenant flying his first fighter and engaging in the bloodiest conflict in which the US has participated since the end of the Second World War. It was a fast-moving, interesting read that kept me engaged from the beginning to the end and didn’t read like it was history at all. On a personal note, as a young lieutenant entering the USAF in the early 1980’s, I heard many of the “old guys” in my OV-10 FAC squadron talk about the F-105 or “Thud” in terms of reverence and endearment. After reading When Thunder rolled, I understand that reverence and endearment much better – even all these years later.
Now if you’re one of the many who has strong political views about the Vietnam War, either pro or con, the good news here is that those views don’t really matter when it comes to enjoying the book. While Rasimus hints at the political frustrations of the war, he focuses, rightly in my opinion, on the human cost of the war from the pilot’s perspective. In the final chapter of the of the book he writes:
“The losses were appalling. The class of nine that had been six weeks ahead of mine at Nellis lost four. The class that followed me lost five out of nine. The first short course class of “universally assignable” pilots lost fifteen out of sixteen, all either killed or captured. My group of nine had three shot down during the hundred missions but all were recovered successfully and went on to finish. Karl was our only loss, and that was on his second tour. The Newsweek statistic that a 105 pilot was shot down on average once every sixty-five missions was true. For every five pilots that started the tour, three would not complete it.”
Rasimus also indicts the senior leadership of the USAF for not taking better care of their people and not standing up to the political leadership when it came to the ridiculously restrictive rules of engagement or limited target arrays that aircraft were allowed to engage. He faults “the colonels and generals” with being more worried about their own careers than doing the right thing and taking care of their people. An opinion I heartily agree with and in fact, a phenomenon that hadn’t abated by the time I made the decision to retire from the USAF in 2001.
If you’re looking for a book that puts you inside the cockpit of a fighter and inside the mind of a warrior over North Vietnam, you can’t do much better than “When Thunder Rolled.”