Friday, July 16, 2010

A Hundred Feet Over Hell - Jim Hooper


Last fall, months before I signed up for the 2010 Vietnam Reading Challenge, my husband attended a weekend retreat, where he met a gentleman who was a Vietnam Veteran. When my husband mentioned that I was a book blogger, the gentleman immediately recommended that I read and review "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" and declared it to be one of the best Vietnam books he'd ever read. Recommendations don't come any higher than this.

The book's message was in good hands. The author is a seasoned war correspondent whose brother, Bill, served in Vietnam as a "Catkiller" pilot in the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company. Bill and his merry band of "Myth Makers" had the role of flying flimsy little single-engine Cessnas, that could barely exceed speeds of a passenger car, to seek out the positions of the enemy, provide assistance to troops in peril, and engage in combat if necessary.

I've ridden in one of these airplanes; my dad owned and flew one on the farm in the '70's. These are little more than motorized tin cans with some wings and plastic windows. The very idea that these pilots would fly into some of the most hostile terrain in the war, scribbling radio frequencies and coordinates with wax pencils on the windows, communicating with troops under fire and ground control, in zero-visibility weather, literally hanging out of their windows shooting weapons and throwing grenades, all at only hundreds of feet above the ground in mountainous territory and with plumes of napalm exploding around them...it is terrifying. These boys had nerves of steel.

When Jim Hooper began to help his brother compile his thoughts about his experiences in Nam, he located some of his brother's platoon mates and found them eager to share their memories as well. As horrific as the war was, it seems that they were not only adrenaline junkies, feeding off the constant thrill of near-death experiences, but also felt the camaraderie and the bond of a unified cause to be unparalleled in life. The result was something more than just a book. It is a real-time narrative, with all of the players taking turns, jumping in with their contribution to the story. I would liken this reading experience to transporting yourself back in time, into the cockpit, re-living some of their most memorable missions.

We get to know the pilot's personalities, their quirks, their strengths and weaknesses. Because of the intense pressure experienced in the air, these boys had to blow off steam through drinking, fart humor, poker, and practical jokes that were nearly as dangerous as combat. Bless Hooper, because he includes pictures - I love pictures - so the reality of their brave, handsome faces are etched in your mind. Hooper's last gift to us is the epilogue, letting us know what happened to the boys after the war. (I get the sense that many of the pilots continued to seek that same adrenaline rush once they had returned stateside.)

For those who decide to read this, I will mention that you may have some initial issues in reading some of the dialogue. It is snappy and filled with pilot and war lingo. There is a helpful glossary in the back to help you wade through, but this was a drag on my momentum, so I just went for it. No, I didn't know what a Kit Carson scout was, or a Delta-1, but I got the idea.



Often, you will hear that "The Things They Carried" is the quintessential Vietnam novel. In many ways I would agree - it is an everyman's story of the war on the ground. I would argue that "A Hundred Feet Over Hell" should carry just as much gravitas, only from the perspective of the sky and with a grittier voice.

5 out of 5 stars


16 comments:

bermudaonion said...

Wow, that's quite a recommendation. When I read these books, I can't help but be sad, though - war really is hell, isn't it?

Anna said...

I highly recommend this one as well. I wouldn't have been able to handle even a fraction of what these men endured on a daily basis. And hearing it in their own words and feeling like you're right there with them in the plane...powerful.

We'll get this posted on War Through the Generations soon.

Beth F said...

Sounds wonderful. I don't read many Vietnam books -- probably my age -- I knew people who died there and fought there.

Dispatches was one I read a long time ago.

Julie P. said...

Holy moly -- another great book! I didn't realize that there were so many Vietnam books that were this good!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This sounds good, and I love pictures too! Even when a nonfiction book doesn't include them, I usually go hunt them out on the internet!

Serena said...

I am still reading this one, and I cannot tell you how engrossing it is. I don't want to leave these pilots...but I also don't want to read on afraid they will perish

Zibilee said...

I can think of quite a few guys in my life that would probably love this book. Best part is, if I grab them a copy, I can snag it when they are done!! Great review, Sandy! This sounds like a really cool read!

Catherine Ensley said...

It's such a shame that 50,000 American troops died "to stop the spread of Communism" and yet in our own country, beginning around 1969, these very men who were giving their lives became despised at home. They had been drafted; they were patriotic; yet they got no respect for decades afterwards. It was despicable, but at least the climate towards them is now less hostile.

Jenners said...

It sounds like this book puts you right there.

Michele at Reader's Respite said...

Well, this one sounds right up my alley....I will absolutely read this one for the challenge! (I speak pilot, LOL)

Alyce said...

This one is definitely getting added to my wish list.

The first plane I ever rode in was a Cessna, so I know what you mean about the size and speed.

Great review!

Iliana said...

Wow, another 5 star book! You are doing great with your challenge.

Melissa M said...

Another 5 star read! You are on a roll with the good books. :)

Literary Feline said...

Thanks for this great review, Sandy. I hadn't heard of this book before but it does sound like a must read, especially for those interested in reading more about the Vietnam War.

Alice Teh said...

I so want to read this! Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I love military books and I don't mind the jargon or terms at all. We all learn something new every day and I sure did after going through several of the books. Makes me want to join the army straight away. I've It's awesome that you've ridden in one of these airplanes. Reading in your review about what these pilots would do when flying made me whole my breath.

Kathleen said...

I'll add this to my list of books to read related to Vietnam. I still need to read The Things They Carried too. I had it out from the library at one point and had to return it unread because someone had requested it (I couldn't renew it).