Book Review: Thud Ridge & Going Downtown by Jack Broughton

Thud Ridge

Colonel Jacksel “Jack” Broughton’s personal memoir of his time flying the F-105 Thunderchief (AKA the Thud) in Vietnam. This book is perhaps most notable for being one of the first memoirs to be published about the air war in Vietnam. In fact, it was published in 1969 while the war was still ongoing. Broughton writes about a number of missions he flew over Hanoi and the infamous “Thud Ridge” mountains to the northwest.

Broughton carried a small tape recorder (anyone remember what those are?) in his cockpit which allowed him to capture the radio chatter during bombing missions. He includes a great amount of detail with regards to communications, and the reconstructed dialogue adds a more immersive feeling to the text. This is great if you’re looking for a “there-in-the-cockpit” style of aviation memoir, but it does hinder the overall narrative in some ways.

My biggest issue is that the narrative reads more like a stream of consciousness, and I found it very difficult to build a mental picture of what happened. In describing the action, the dialogue consists mostly of tactical radio chatter, and while the radio chatter is accurate, if you’re not familiar with some of the jargon, then you may be lost for much of this. Unfortunately, the descriptive narrative which is supposed to tie it all together isn’t very well-written, either. Since Broughton provides no dates for when these events occurred (likely for security reasons since the war was still ongoing), the action turns into a nameless and unspecified series of bombing missions. After a while, it all seems to blend together as Broughton continuously references the jungle, the bad weather, Thud Ridge, SAMs, AAA, various call-signs, and the difficulties with the higher-ups in Washington trying to micromanage the war from afar.

A passage will read something like:

I rolled my Thud to the left while chasing the enemy MiGs. As I did, someone called SAM launches to our 4 ‘o-clock. As I flew over the mountains of Thud Ridge, I could see AAA bursting in angry brown clouds. One Thud got shot down and the pilots emergency beacon screeched over the radio. Spads lumbered into the area in an attempt to provide cover for the downed pilot as rescue choppers spun up. The MiGs were coming back around. If only those idiots in Washington allowed us to do our jobs and shoot them up while they were still on the ground. Running low on gas, we needed to dash for a refueling tanker. Meanwhile, some idiot was clogging up the radios with needless chatter while the downed pilot’s beacon howled in my ears.

See what I’m saying? Now, imagine that for chapter after chapter. It’s very descriptive, but at the same time, not very specific. It’s nearly impossible to tell over what time frame these events occurred and where all of the moving parts were as these air battles dragged on. On the upshot, the reader does get a fairly interesting perspective on some of the workings of the F-105. Whereas today, we’re used to so many fly-by-wire, computer-driven, push-botton, multirole, wonder planes, the “Thud” is definitely from a different and older era of fighter-bombers. The reader gets the feeling that the F-105 is definitely more of a “old-school” aircraft when compared to our current generation of fighters. For example, the modern F/A-18 Hornet can transition between air-to-air and air-to-ground modes with a single button press. The same process in the F-105 requires upwards of nine.

Interspersed with all the flying are Broughton’s endless complaints about the incessant micromanagers in Washington who dictated the overly-restrictive rules of engagement, and the the clueless higher-ups at headquarters; not to mention the little people who weren’t awesome enough to become fighter jocks.

While this book is considered a classic of military aviation, at least with regard to the Vietnam War, honestly, I find it to be rather dated. Perhaps I would appreciate it more if I studied military aviation and the Vietnam War more intently. While I certainly sympathize with the frustration these men felt as they chaffed against the obtuse bureaucracy of the military and the micromanaging politicians in Washington, I don’t find the writing in this book to be very special. It fails to give a broader context of the war in which the battles in this book took place. The lack of dates means the action becomes bland, and the endless tirades against the higher-ups becomes annoying. As a memoir, it’s pretty forgettable. As a military history, it’s poor.

Overall: 2 out of 5

Going Downtown

Unlike Thud Ridge which was published while the Vietnam War was still ongoing, Going Downtown: The War Against Hanoi and Washington, was published in 1988. As a result, the narrative contains more specifics with regard to dates, and it flows much more smoothly.

Going Downtown is far broader in scope and covers Colonel Broughton’s time flying in both the Korean War and Vietnam War. Broughton served as the vice commander (from September of 1966 to June of 1967) for the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing who were flying out of Takhli Air Base in Thailand. Some of the same events in Thud Ridge also appear in Going Downtown, however, the inclusion of more dates provides greater specificity and context to the action. He even references the action where Leo K. Thorsness, future Medal of Honor recipient, was shot down. Thorsness was flying with the 355th fighter wing at the time. He was shot down in April of 1967 only to spend a brutal six years in captivity before being released in 1973…but that’s another story.

As a result of the greater degree of detail, the reader can get a better picture of the overall air war and how it was conducted in Vietnam at the time. You definitely get a sense of the tension between the heavy bomber community and the tactical fighter community. Broughton is obviously of the latter, and notes the conservatism of the former who lacked an appreciation of the tactical finesse required of strike fighters. Apparently, the generals (and some of the politicians) were mostly veterans of the massive bombing campaigns of WWII and stodgily clung to the hopes of reliving those glory days, but with Vietnam replacing Europe. Obviously, the geopolitical situation in Southeast Asia was a far cry from bombing the Third Reich. Not that the higher-ups cared.

The last portion of the book details a court martial that resulted from a plane under Broughton’s command strafing an off-limits Soviet ship in Haiphong harbor. When the plane returned to base, Broughton destroyed the gun camera footage to cover up the incident (in what became known as the Turkestan Incident). Unfortunately, this incident ran Broughton afoul of a 4-star general who apparently had a problem with him and the subsequent investigation led to a court martial presided over by Chuck Yeager. Ultimately, Broughton’s men were excused and Broughton himself was found not guilty of the most serious of charges. However, he was found guilty of destroying $42.50 of government property (the film), fined $600, and admonished. In the end, Broughton was shipped out of Vietnam and signed his retirement papers, ending his career in the Air Force. While in Washington, he filed for an appeal of the court martial, and some time later, the ruling was overturned by the Pentagon.

The biggest issue I have with both of these books is Broughton’s ego. As is apparent, and perhaps understandably, he only views the war through his own lens of being a fighter pilot. I can certainly sympathize with many of Broughton’s issues with higher command and the endless micromanaging by the higher ups. That’s true for just about any field. The rules of engagement effectively tied the hands of many doing the fighting in Vietnam. That being said, we only hear Broughton’s side of the story, and while he has many valid grievances, I just can’t abide him destroying evidence in an effort to cover up the actions of his people. I’m not questioning his leadership, as I’m sure he was an excellent “lead from the front” kind of guy, but I think he went a bit too far.

A common theme I’ve seen in many Vietnam War memoirs is that it was war run by a very large bureaucracy plagued by systemic and unyielding conservatism (and not a little vindictiveness in many cases). It stands as a classic example of micromanagers in far off places being overly confident on technological superiority, while at the same time ignorant of the real situation on the ground. Broughton’s books are no exception and make this perfectly clear. For a more on the ground perspective, just read any of Colonel David Hackworth’s books about his experiences leading an infantry battalion in southern Vietnam. The angst felt by the Vietnam vets is likely justified and the micromanaging probably really was that bad.

In the end, Going Downtown is a step up from Thud Ridge in writing and as a military history. It provides more dates and specifics with regards to the action, and Broughton is able to reflect on his experiences with a few more years of hindsight. The problem with both of these books deals with Broughton’s somewhat myopic view of war, given that he’s a fighter pilot. However, this is not exclusive to Broughton or the fighter pilot community. As with many war memoirs, if you were to take every word of these guys as gospel, then they could’ve won the war all by themselves.

Overall: 3 out of 5

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