Phantom in the Sky Cover

Phantom in the Sky

A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War

Terry L. Thorsen

University of North Texas Press, Denton, Texas, 2019, 400 pages

Book Review published on: April 17, 2020

Phantom in the Sky: A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War tells the story of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the “Winged Warriors” who flew combat missions. Unlike other books on Vietnam-era aviation operations, this memoir is a tribute to the experiences of the radar intercept officers (RIOs), affectionately referred to as “guy in the back,” who have not received the attention they deserve until now. Author Terry L. Thorsen is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who flew 123 combat sorties as a RIO in an F4 Phantom jet during the war–earning ten Air Medals and a Bronze star—and chronicles his active duty experiences from 1966 to 1970.

The book is easy to read and extremely engaging, and the first quarter of the book focuses on Thorsen’s brief transition from college; his experiences as a “maggot” during Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia; and his subsequent experiences during naval flight officer training at Pensacola Naval Air Station. His detailed description of the requisite individual technical aircraft and system knowledge, flight operations, and intercept training gives readers a greater appreciation for both the mental and physical stresses (G forces and airsickness) placed on individuals going through the aircrew training “pipeline” as part of the United States’ growing commitment of forces to the war in Vietnam. The remainder of the book focuses on Thorsen’s predeployment training and experiences flying combat missions over Vietnam in 1969 as a member of the “Red Devils” (Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, VMFA-232) and the “Falcons” (Marine Fighter Attack Squadron, VMFA-334), which supported air operations out of Chu Lai Air Base. Thorsen takes readers into the cockpit, describing how aircrews trained, planned, and executed missions including air intercept, close air support, and aerial refueling in extreme terrain and weather along the demilitarized zone and South Vietnam. Perhaps the most insightful part of the book focuses on the special pilot/RIO relationship and the bonds forged in combat, highlighting the human dimension of war where trust and teamwork were not only critical to the mission but also survival during every flight.

I highly recommend Phantom in the Sky to both the general reader, military professionals, and anyone interested in Marine Corps aviation history and aircrew training during the Vietnam War. Much of the doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures developed during the conduct of the war is still used today. To complement his narrative, Thorsen provides a useful glossary of terms, a map of I Corps Tactical Zone in South Vietnam, numerous photos, and multiple appendices on Marine Corps service and aviation history. The value of reading this book lays in its lessons for the current generation: the lessons of professionalism, resilience, and sacrifice.

Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Edward D. Jennings, U.S. Army, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas