A historical military thriller that follows the eventful career of an American fighter pilot during dangerous geopolitical times.
Pete O’Neil has always wanted to fly fighter planes. His father tries to recruit him to work in the family’s lumber business, but instead Pete goes to college on a swimming scholarship. From there, he enlists in the Air Force, as do his two closest friends, Sam and George. They all become pilots, and Pete, while serving as a flight instructor, is offered a special assignment to fly U-2 spy planes in 1957; he turns it down and instead flies top-secret reconnaissance missions over Cuba. (Later, he even speaks on the phone with President John F. Kennedy himself.) Eventually, he’s tasked with flying an F-4 in Vietnam, where he finally gets a taste of combat; he’s shot down during a mission with Col. Al Hawthorne, but the two manage to evade capture. Pete’s friend George, though, goes missing for months after his own plane is shot down. Pete’s wife, Trixie, a military contractor and photographer (whom he married in 1965), shows him aerial photographs that indicate that George may be alive somewhere in northwestern Vietnam. Pete is committed to finding Sam, although he struggles to find someone to officially authorize the search. Meanwhile, he’s tasked by President Lyndon Johnson to fly a very special mission over Hanoi. Bauer (Wakulla Bones, 2013, etc.) packs this historical novel with plenty of vividly described action, and his extraordinary knowledge of military aviation is constantly on display. Pete’s adventures follow the tumultuous arc of the second half of the 20th century, and after his adventures in Southeast Asia, he’s sent to work with the Royal Air Force in England, and he also gets to speak personally with Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. It’s implausible that a fighter pilot would have direct contact with any president, let alone a string of them; as a result, these scenes seem campy, rather than dramatic. Also, as excitingly rendered as the combat scenes are, the storyline between them is slow and sometimes wandering. Bauer’s unpredictable plot twists will keep readers engaged, though, as he paints an inspiring portrait of martial valor.
A well-documented and often suspenseful dramatization of American military engagement.