Apr 8, 2010

Book Review: A Hundred Feet Over Hell

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Hooper, Jim
Zenith Press, 2009
258 pages


Hooper's A Hundred Feet Over Hell chronicles the Vietnam War experience of the Catkillers, a group of aviators who made up the U.S. Army's 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. The Catkillers flew the Cessna O-1G "Bird Dog" at speeds of only 100 miles an hour in reconnaissance missions over and near the DMZ to locate NVA troops and call in artillery and air strikes in support of army and marine units.

Flying slow aircraft with little firepower is dangerous enough in wartime, but the men of the 220th regularly flew in areas in which North Vietnamese troops possessed advanced anti-aircraft weapons. It is difficult for a 21st century observer - in the age of remote digital warfare - to comprehend the sheer audacity these pilots exhibited in their frequently deadly missions, and as Hooper pointed out, luck is the only reason more Catkillers did not perish in combat.

Hooper followed a roughly chronological approach in his history of the Catkillers in the years 1968-69. The book consists of interviews with participants in Catkiller missions interspersed with historical narrative, and some of the quotes are especially compelling. Catkiller Bill Hooper recalled one harrowing moment in an emergency field hospital:
As they were rolling me this way and that to take the X-rays, I remember hearing someone scream every few moments. I was thinking I was better off than some poor bastard there, until it registered that I was the one screaming.

A Hundred Feet Over Hell includes a number of extras, including a section of photographs, a glossary of terms, and a well-referenced index. The book is worthy of inclusion in any library of the Vietnam War, and the insights and recollections of the profiled Catkillers offer a great deal of material to scholars interested in aerial warfare. The book is also highly recommended for general readers interested in the topic, and Hooper's literate-but-concise writing style will not bog down non-specialists.

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