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Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail

Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail

4.6 13
by Rick Newman, Don Shepperd

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They had the most dangerous job n the Air Force. Now Bury Us Upside Down reveals the never-before-told story of the Vietnam War’s top-secret jet-fighter outfit–an all-volunteer unit composed of truly extraordinary men who flew missions from which heroes are made.

In today’s wars, computers, targeting pods, lasers, and precision-guided bombs


They had the most dangerous job n the Air Force. Now Bury Us Upside Down reveals the never-before-told story of the Vietnam War’s top-secret jet-fighter outfit–an all-volunteer unit composed of truly extraordinary men who flew missions from which heroes are made.

In today’s wars, computers, targeting pods, lasers, and precision-guided bombs help FAC (forward air controller) pilots identify and destroy targets from safe distances. But in the search for enemy traffic on the elusive Ho Chi Minh Trail, always risking enemy fire, capture, and death, pilots had to drop low enough to glimpse the telltale signs of movement such as suspicious dust on treetops or disappearing tire marks on a dirt road (indicating a hidden truck park). Written by an accomplished journalist and veteran, Bury Us Upside Down is the stunning story of these brave Americans, the men who flew in the covert Operation Commando Sabre–or “Misty”–the most innovative air operation of the war.

In missions that lasted for hours, the pilots of Misty flew zigzag patterns searching for enemy troops, vehicles, and weapons, without benefit of night-vision goggles, infrared devices, or other now common sensors. What they gained in exhilarating autonomy also cost them: of 157 pilots, 34 were shot down, 3 captured, and 7 killed. Here is a firsthand account of courage and technical mastery under fire. Here, too, is a tale of forbearance and loss, including the experience of the family of a missing Misty flier–Howard K. Williams–as they learn, after twenty-three years, that his remains have been found.

Now that bombs are smart and remote sensors are even smarter, the missions that the Mistys flew would now be considered no less than suicidal. Bury Us Upside Down reminds us that for some, such dangers simply came with the territory.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This thoroughly readable, absorbing history chronicles the air operations known as Misty (officially called Commando Sabre) along the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War. Flying mostly F-100s, the air force pilots acted as FACs (forward air controllers) for strike aircraft, directing them to North Vietnamese supply convoys and other targets along the conduit. Newman, a journalist, and Shepperd, a retired two-star air force general and current CNN commentator, launch their account with the story of Howard K. Williams, a pilot shot down on a Misty mission in 1968 and declared deceased in 1978 (his remains were recovered in 1991). They also bring to life a wide cast of Misty characters, including Williams's long-suffering widow, Monalee, daredevil Jim Fiorelli, hyperconfident pilot Dick Rutan and several airmen who were shot down, captured and tortured. Shepperd, a former Misty pilot, also figures in the story, as does Sen. John McCain, who provides the book's foreword. The courage and skill of the pilots emerges clearly, as does the dubious bureaucratic rationale that subjected their families to nightmarish ordeals. A distinguished addition to Vietnam War aviation literature, the volume raises serious questions about both tactics and politics. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Taut, well-written account of an unknown chapter in the Vietnam War: the perilous work of forward aerial observers along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Many brave Air Force flyers populate the pages of this collaboration by U.S. News and World Report writer Newman and Misty pilot Shepperd (Misty pilots, whose name comes, improbably, from a Johnny Mathis song, flew 247 Vietnam combat missions), but few braver than Howard Keith Williams, the Top Gun who graduated from flying transport planes to jockeying fighters up and down the most dangerous skies in Vietnam. Recruited by Dick Rutan (who in 1986 completed a nonstop solo flight around the world in a plane called Voyager) to join the unit called Commando Sabre, Williams and his comrades performed the equivalent of a ground tracker's cutting for sign, flying just above the treetops to look for telltale dust kicked up by tanks and trucks, for tire tracks that ended abruptly (indicating a transport park) and for people and vehicles moving supplies from North to South Vietnam. The Misty pilots were the secret eyes and ears of the war, though they had to deal with generally unhelpful brass (of one superior officer, a Misty pilot protested, "The guy doesn't give a shit about our war up north") and had as well to contend with a crippling lack of coordination with other intelligence agencies, especially the CIA. Still, the Misty pilots provided invaluable information to American ground forces on enemy movements, suffering terrible losses in the bargain; some pilots ended up in the Hanoi Hilton, while others-including Williams, who had come in the meanwhile to regard the war as a "farce"-were killed in action. Indeed, Williams's remains would not berecovered for 25 years, though they were not buried upside down-"So the world can kiss our ass," as the pilots' bawdy theme song put it. A welcome addition to the military history of Vietnam.
From the Publisher
Praise for Bury Us Upside Down

"The stories . . . are vivid and timeless: : the North Vietnamese gunner who was so inept that the Mistys had a standing order not to shoot him; the pilot who dissuaded his new commander from launching night Misty missions by taking him on a night flight and surreptitiously switching on the outboard lights over heavy ground fire; the Misty custom of igniting their afterburners over POW sites, sending out a familiar booming noise that told the downed airmen they were not forgotten. [A] gripping narrative. . . . It's a fabulous read."
–The Washington Post

“This is a true story about real warriors–both those who came home and those who did not–and the legacy they left. The story of the Misty pilots fills a gap in our understanding of the Vietnam War, and reminds armchair tacticians what the true cost of war is, and who pays the price.”
–Joseph Galloway, co-author of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young

“Rip that Nintendo out of your kid’s hands and hand him Bury Us Upside Down! This outstanding book will give him insight into what real aerial combat, flown by real heroes, is like. Undoubtedly the best book of its type, Bury Us Upside Down is the truth writ bold and simple–the story of the men who fought the war flying the toughest missions imaginable, and their families. It is a book of heroes, and just reading it gives you insight into what a true hero feels.”
–Walter J. Boyne, former director, National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

“With its great in-the-cockpit stories of the first jet-fighter combat forward air controllers, Bury Us Upside Down is an incredible account of how it all started. The reader will feel the G forces, the strain of avoiding ground fire, the satisfaction of a completed rescue, the black humor of combat-hardened pilots, and the effects on the families of those who didn’t return. But most of all the reader will feel proud America can produce such men.”
–Mark Berent, author of the Rolling Thunder series

“[A] thoroughly readable, absorbing history . . . a distinguished addition to Vietnam War aviation literature.”
–Publishers Weekly

From the Hardcover edition.

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Bury Us Upside Down

By Rick Newman and Don Shepperd

Random House

Rick Newman and Don Shepperd
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0345465377

Chapter One

Chapter one


The casket seemed like overkill. But it was too awkward for anybody to mention.

As seventy-five guests sat anxiously in the chapel at Arlington National Cemetery, the organist softly playing "Amazing Grace," a military caisson clanked to a stop outside the gates. Pallbearers from the Air Force Honor Guard, every thread of their uniforms neatly in place, lowered a flag-draped coffin from the horse-drawn carriage. The men carried it up the steps and methodically marched it down the aisle, then set it before the small altar at the front of the chapel. The stiff, practiced precision of the pallbearers' movements, their reverential bearing, all of the military formality--it was impressive, to be sure. Yet it was starkly at odds with what was inside the casket: practically nothing.

In the second pew, Jean Kahoon grew uncomfortable as she listened to friends and colleagues eulogize Howard Keith Williams, her big brother. He had been shot down while flying an F-100 fighter jet over North Vietnam twenty-four years earlier and never heard from again. John Buckmelter, a childhood friend, described how Howard had fallen in love with flying when he was just a boy hanging out at the Jefferson County airfield near Steubenville, Ohio. Roger Williams, Howard's younger brother, described how pleased he had been to be able to go to Vietnam as an Army soldier at the same time Howard, his hero, had gone over to fly jets. Fellow pilots Roger Wise and Chuck O'Connor told stories of going to flight school and learning how to be fighter jocks with "Willy." "He was always a little more focused, a little more mature," O'Connor recalled.

But there was so much more to him, thought Jean, than his military career and his fascination with flying. There was the neighborhood sled-riding hill where she and her brother and dozens of other kids would go careening over rocks and bushes and have to jump off their sleds to avoid landing in the creek at the bottom. There were all the jobs Howard worked as a kid to pick up spending money and add to the family clothing fund: the paper routes, the lawns he mowed, the summer labor at their grandfather's farm in West Virginia where they'd bale hay and plow up potatoes and milk cows. Best of all was the three-man band Howard helped form. He played trumpet and was good enough to get paying gigs at local nightclubs on weekends. In her mind, Jean could still see the drum majorette her brother had dated for a while in high school, the one with the great legs who wore her skirt so short it barely covered her panties.

Then there were all the special things between Jean and Howard, born two years apart and the oldest of eight children. Jean helped Howard deliver the papers and took over the route when he moved on to bigger jobs. She was with Howard at the farm in West Virginia when he tried chewing tobacco for the first time--a short-lived habit. And all the nights they spent together hiding in the attic, talking and drawing, came cascading back. Their dad had been a carpenter for U.S. Steel, and he had been injured and out of work for a while. The family could afford just one upstairs bedroom for the girls, and one for the boys. But the setup had its charms. Each bedroom had a closet that led to a crawl space at the top of the house. That's where the family kept its supply of drawing paper--blank newsprint that occasionally came bundled with the morning news. Jean and Howard would sneak up there once the younger kids were asleep and spend hours drawing cartoons and planning out the future. They'd clamber back down to their beds once they heard their mom climbing the steps to check on the kids. Not once did they ever get caught--not surprising, since Mom knew what they were up to all along.

And there, in a box twenty feet in front of her, Jean's big brother Howard, who caused her profound heartache when he left home and giddy joy whenever he came back to visit, had been literally reduced to shards: a bone fragment, one tooth, a sliver from a signal mirror that was part of his survival gear, and a piece of a plastic Ace comb. The remains, recovered by American investigators a year earlier, in 1991, were so sparse that Jean wondered, what's the point of putting them in a casket? She even had her doubts about whether they were actually Howard's. There had been so much that didn't make sense, so many fishy explanations, that it was hard to believe anything the government said.

Was it just coincidence that Howard had told her, in the last letter she ever got from him in Vietnam, that he was flying reconnaissance missions up north, taking pictures and getting shot at, and that he feared he might not make it home? Or that he wanted her to listen to a song that he said was about siblings like them--"Bang Bang, My Baby Shot Me Down"? And how could the U.S. government not have known for twenty-three years what happened to Howard? That coffin, which contained her brother's so-called remains, was about as hollow as everything else the government had offered about her brother in the years since she had last heard from him.

Jean wasn't the only person in the chapel bothered by the contents of the casket. In the front row, Keith Williams--Howard's son, who was six when his dad disappeared over North Vietnam--had his own reservations. It was Keith who had flown to Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco when the remains were first returned to the United States, to "escort" them to the San Francisco airport. It seemed ridiculous to him that the Air Force had put a handful of body parts into a full-sized coffin. And he began wondering all over again how his father had died, and how much pain he had gone through. As Keith had gotten older, people who seemed to know such things had whispered to him horror stories about American pilots who had gone down in that part of North Vietnam, close to the border with Laos. Often they were murdered the moment they were discovered by local Vietnamese militias. Other times they were captured and tortured, only to die miserably before they ever made it to infamous prisons like the Hanoi Hilton. They were even shot at in their parachutes while descending. Those who got tangled in trees could be wounded and left hanging until they bled to death.

On the flight out to Travis, Keith had begun writing a eulogy on three-by-five-inch note cards, a eulogy he stood to give in the chapel at Arlington. Most of his recollections were the vaguest of sketches, filled in over the years by the stories he heard from friends and relatives and colleagues who had flown with his dad. So Keith described his dad largely as others had to him. He was "a man whose love of life and family propelled him to excel in all of life's endeavors . . . As a self-taught artist, he shared with us his aesthetic ideal. . . . Music was another pastime my father pursued with dedication and single-mindedness. With a few songbooks, a tuning pipe, and hours of devotion, he brought laughter and joy to those who heard him play."

His true passion, however, had been flying: "Diving, turning, zooming, and rolling amid the clouds allowed my father to push himself and his aircraft to the limits. Covering a mile every six seconds, my father was privy to a view of the world reserved for very few individuals. A world with no lines or boundaries between people or nations, with a crisp blue sky surrounding him, just on the edge of heaven."

Of those who spoke at the chapel that day, Keith Williams had known the man represented by the empty casket least of all. Yet the mere appearance of the son did more to animate the memory of the father than any words could have. Keith's lanky six-foot-two frame, his mannerisms and voice, his gentle face and slightly crooked smile--almost everything about him, except the ponytail that hung over the collar of his dark suit--made it seem as if Howard himself were standing at the lectern delivering his own eulogy.

From the fourth row of the chapel, Dick Rutan was struck by the resemblance. Competitive, excitable, and unflinchingly self-confident, Rutan fit the stereotype of a fighter pilot much better than the calm and studious man he was there to honor. In Commando Sabre, the top secret unit he and Howard had belonged to when Howard was shot down, Rutan was considered one of the most aggressive pilots--and all of the pilots were aggressive. After Vietnam, Rutan had achieved aviation exploits that made him a legitimate celebrity, especially among the flight buffs in the pews around him. In December 1986 he and a female pilot, Jeana Yeager, had flown the Voyager aircraft completely around the world without ever stopping--the first time anyone had made such an unrefueled, nonstop flight. The Voyager hung for the world to see just a few miles away, across the Potomac River, in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Now, the fearless flight pioneer was uncharacteristically reserved. Rutan had been to dozens of funerals for colleagues killed in combat, yet this one punctured his emotional armor. He had last seen the lean young man at the lectern as a four- or five-year old, back when he and Howard were in training together. And now it was as if his old flying buddy were reincarnated and standing before him once again. If you have to leave the way Howie did, Rutan thought, it's good you can leave something like that behind.

But the vacant casket represented more to Rutan than just a lost flying buddy. It had been Rutan who had urged Howie, back in 1968, to join Commando Sabre, known informally by the radio call sign the unit used--"Misty." That came from the famous song by Johnny Mathis, which had been a favorite of the unit's first commander. Rutan and Howie had both been sent to Vietnam in 1967 to fly F-100 fighter-bombers on conventional missions in the South. Rutan had heard about Misty through back channels, and begged to join. The pilots would fly long missions over North Vietnam, looking for supply trucks and supplies and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and other materiel being shipped down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The pilots couldn't say much about the mission, which was just as well, because in one respect Misty sounded like suicide. To be able to find and direct strikes on targets that were expertly camouflaged, in mountainous jungle, the pilots had to fly so low they were fat targets for the North's antiaircraft guns. It was dangerous and exhausting work--and probably the most exciting flying a fighter pilot could find in Vietnam.

Rutan got in and insisted that his friend Howie join the unit. Misty needed a hotshot like Howie, Rutan argued. His trademark calm in the cockpit was the perfect demeanor for the unit's stressful missions. And Howie's flight skills were unsurpassed. Howie had won the coveted "Top Gun" trophy in his F-100 class at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, nailing the highest scores in gunnery and bombing.

The allure was irresistible, and Howie volunteerd. Misty was happy to have him. He and Rutan both loved the freedom of flying with the unit. Unlike the tightly regimented operations in conventional squadrons, the Misty pilots flew as they saw fit in order to complete their missions, often making up their own rules. The outfit had renegade status and ruffled a lot of brass feathers. But it was a favorite of Gen. William "Spike" Momyer, the top Air Force general in Saigon, and the pilots pretty much got what they wanted. To Rutan, Misty was what war was supposed to be about: courageous men taking extraordinary risks, and receiving a few extraordinary privileges in return.

Dick Rutan and Howard Williams never got to fly together. Howie was shot down on his ninth mission. When Howie didn't return and was declared missing in action, the Misty commander appointed Rutan as summary courts officer, responsible for packing up Howie's stuff, paying his accounts at the officers club, and getting his other affairs and records squared away. That was always a devastating responsibility, made even tougher when Rutan later got a letter from Howie's wife, Monalee, back in Columbus, complaining that somebody had stolen Howie's Leica camera. The Air Force had told him to expect an angry letter like that--"anger transference," they called it--but it was damned hard all the same.

Sitting in the chapel at Arlington, Rutan still felt guilty. But it had helped to see Monalee again, his first encounter with her since they had both been at Luke back in 1967. The hostility was long gone. She was now Monalee Meyers, and she sat in the front row of the chapel next to her husband Fritz, whom she had married in 1982. What she had gone through getting to that point, how tough it had been not knowing for years whether her husband was dead or alive while trying to explain to a growing boy what had happened to his dad, Rutan didn't know. He was simply relieved to see that she seemed stable and healthy and had everything under control.

Rutan also met Chuck O'Connor and Roger Wise and some of Howie's other friends and family members. Another Misty pilot was there, too--Brian Williams, known as "B. Willy." He had been Howard's crewmate on March 18, 1968, when their plane went down. They all talked about what had happened. For some of the people at the ceremony, it was the first time they had heard the story of Howie's disappearance firsthand.

B. Willy had been in the back of the two-seat F-100, with Howie in the front, flying the jet, on a typical Misty mission scouting for targets along the Trail. It was about 11:30 in the morning on a clear day. They had just spotted what they thought was a North Vietnamese supply area and were turning around to go back for another look when they heard a loud thud and felt something hit the belly of the aircraft. A moment later B. Willy saw flames in his rearview mirror. Fire was spreading rapidly throughout the back of the plane and the pilots knew they'd have to bail out. Howie aimed the plane toward high terrain, where there would be fewer enemy soldiers on the ground. Then they prepared to eject. "We better get out!" B. Willy had shouted. "I'm right behind you," Howie responded.

Excerpted from Bury Us Upside Down by Rick Newman and Don Shepperd Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rick Newman is a writer and editor at U.S. News & World Report who covered the Pentagon for seven years, including U.S. missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, and the Persian Gulf. He has written hundreds of stories on the military, including dozens of exclusives, and more than twenty cover stories.

Don Shepperd (Misty 34) reported for duty at Phu Cat Air Base on December 19, 1967, and flew fifty-eight missions as a Misty during his four-month tour. With a total of 247 combat missions in Vietnam, he retired from the Air Force in 1998 as a two-star general and head of the Air National Guard. In 2001 he joined CNN as one of their principal military analysts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Bury Us Upside Down: The Misty Pilots and the Secret Battle for the Ho Chi Minh Trail 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
WestPac2often More than 1 year ago
I have always been aware of this type operation, but this book added a degree of personalization to what transpired. Overall, it was a pretty good read and properly gives long-overdue recognition and credit to a select handful of heroes.
Guest More than 1 year ago
After 27 years and 6,000 hours of flying fighters for the USAF.USN, USAFR and the Kansas ANG and 110 missions over Viet Nam, I have been there and done all that. But, I could not put the book done until I finished it. Extremely well written and documented. Tells the story from the Jock's point of view and from the sad life of all those left behind to wait. Brought me tears and laughter. You will love it very much. This is really a 10 start story. Ronald K. Williams, Fighter pilot, Colonel USAFR
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Roburt More than 1 year ago
This is another outstanding book detailing the exploits of the MISTY FAC's. A truly heroic organization of men that volunteered to fly the most difficult and hazardous missions of the Viet Nam war. The patriotism these men displayed, as well as their families at home, is one of the finest examples for us to emulate today!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Great story of Misty FACs, another little known group in American military history. But Don Shepperd needs to remember that without the enlisted guys-nobody gets off the ground. There were enlisted men who also worked extremely hard for Misty. Those enlisted men also thought very highly of John Haltigan and Roger Van Dyken, the Misty intel officers.
Guest More than 1 year ago
They were real people, young men drawn from all walks of life, eager to test their mettle in a profession where excellence is sometimes considered mediocre---that of an Air Force fighter pilot. They were also the men who volunteered to fly the most demanding mission the Air Force had to offer during the Vietnam War---a super secret operation code-named ¿Misty.¿ But the Misty pilots were husbands, fathers and family men as well, and while the story chronicles their daily acts of bravery in rich and exciting detail, it also paints a poignant picture of families that wait, sometimes in vain, for them to return. It is that well balanced duality of soaring heroism and enduring pain that makes this book so special. But be forewarned---this is not a book to browse or skim. If you open the cover, you will read it all---every page of it. It¿s that kind of book!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a gripping story on many levels. You don¿t need to be an Air Force jock to become consumed by this piece of military history. Shepperd and Newman relate a Vietnam story that few have heard of and far fewer have understood. This story of these gutsy fighter pilots and equally heroic families back home will grip you from page one with a rollercoaster of emotions regardless of your view of the Vietnam Conflict. You get to know the Misty pilots, how they trained, how they fought, and how they partied. Just as important you get a solid glimpse of what their families went through while they were with Misty and the pain, grief, and confusion shrouding the loss of some of them. Extreme care is taken to insure that you don¿t get lost in the military lingo. You¿ve probably seen Shepperd as the military expert on CNN and, like his appearances there, you want him to be the one to tell you this story because you know it will be straight forward, factual, and logically presented. Whether you are or were a member of the military, a family member of one, a history buff, or just someone who enjoys a great piece of nonfiction, you won¿t be disappointed in this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Vietnam. We've seen the fictional movies, and the documentaries. We had perhaps a passing reference in High School history, but for those of us born in the 60's or beyond, it is tough to separate the Hollywood version from reality. Newman and Sheppard do a great job of personalizing the war by recounting the heroic efforts of the Misty pilots. With Father's day coming up, this book is sure to please. For those of you teaching US History, I would submit that books like this will do more for America¿s youth than most textbooks.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Since I¿m seldom drawn to the Contemporary Military History aisle, I would never have randomly selected this book....which would have been a great pity.( Bury Us Upside Down came to me as a gift ) From the opening page , I was totally captivated by the story...Without an overabundance of detail and with fairly sparse dialogue, the Mistys were immediately familiar, real, and ¿ knowable.¿... Somehow ( and I am not quite sure how ), the authors unraveled the still confusing Viet Nam conflict - and the efforts to shut down the Ho Chi Minh Trail ¿ into a readable, understandable story. ( Even the military acronyms provided no stumblingblocks ..) As for the elusive term ¿style¿, the simple and straitforward narrative was the perfect choice in presenting an endlessly convoluted scenario. It worked. From the beginning, I felt that I knew the Mistys as individuals. It must have been a real treasure-hunt researching this story. I would recommend this book to anybody who loves a good yarn about real people in extraordinary circumstances...
Guest More than 1 year ago
For those of us who love non-fiction,history, and a little bit of mystery all rolled into one, this is a must read. Very easy to read, a story about everyday Americans who turn out to heros. Easy to read, it will make you feel proud to be an American.