The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos
By David R. “Buff” Honodel
A “small-town boy from the farm country of southern Pennsylvania,” David R. Honodel’s describes service during the Vietnam War as “an amazingly lonely experience.” As a US Air Force fighter pilot, “Buff” Honodel flew the McDonnell Douglas F-4D Phantom II from Udorn Air Base in Thailand. But his missions seldom carried him into Vietnamese air space. Instead he flew bombing missions in Laos, striking targets along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
While no two Americans experienced the same war, Honodel does more than add his voice to the volumes of memoirs written by Vietnam War veterans. He also sheds light on a lesser known facet to the air war. The CIA was widely involved in operations in Laos. Many details of American involvement in Laos, however, were not available until long after the war’s end. In The Phantom Vietnam War we get a first hand account of what USAF involvement looked like.
We also get a taste for the frustrations felt by men who were told by the military and government that they were not part of the war, which led to the denial of combat pay. Honodel’s unit worked around this by flying missions over South Vietnam once a month, dropping ordnance in free fire zones. These “Combat Sky Spot” missions are illustrative of the disconnect of air war participants from the civilian casualties they inflicted. Though Honodel offers insight periodically throughout his memoir, gained through years following his tour, there are also critical points in which such insight is blatantly missing. His recollection and description of Sky Spot missions is one such area. (In the epilogue, he briefly mentions the UXO efforts in Laos and Vietnam, but there is no connection with himself and his own actions during the war.)
Honodel is writing about his war as it happened nearly 50 years ago, and it seems long over, but the fact of the matter is that the United States is still not finished reckoning with the events and implications of Vietnam. Many veterans embody this ongoing struggle and Honodel is no exception. He demands understanding and sympathy from civilians without taking the time to understand them. While this is a very human trait, it does become tiresome to see again and again from numerous veterans decades after the war's end; Honodel's frustration in the context of his experiences as a young man comes across as genuine, but needs to be balanced with presentation of his personal growth since.
Overall, Honodel presents us with a well written account that was very hard to put down. As someone with no military experience and no technical knowledge of aircraft, his descriptions were easy to follow and engaging. Honodel is very adept at bringing his story to life. This is Top Gun in book form.