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Stories of Suspense, War : Vietnam Air War Drama Unfolds in Pilot's Tale

September 03, 1987|THOMAS CARRINGTON UTTS

EL CAJON — Retired Air Force pilot and Vietnam veteran G.I. Basel was unhappy with the way military people are often portrayed in books and films. So he did something about it--he wrote a book based on his experience as a fighter-bomber pilot in Vietnam.

"Pak Six," a Jove paperback published by Berkley, centers on Basel's experiences in the air war over North Vietnam, especially in the Hanoi-Haiphong area that became the most heavily defended territory in the history of aerial conflict.

Basel, 52, who retired as a lieutenant colonel after 23 years of service, disagrees with the depiction of those who fought in Vietnam as being so callous that they didn't care if they killed women and children.

"In my experience, no one felt that way," he said in an interview. "The pilots I knew worked extra hard to make sure their bombs didn't go where they weren't suppose to."

He especially disliked the way jet pilots were portrayed either as super heroes or robots. In his book Basel wrote, "Pilots are real people. They are ordinary men who have been well-trained, and who work very hard to learn to fly these complex machines."

Basel's given names, Gene Ivan, quickly evolved into G.I. after he entered the Air Force. During the Vietnam War he flew F-105 fighter-bombers. Nicknamed the Thud by its pilots, the F-105 was the largest single-engine, single-seat combat aircraft ever built. (A two seat-version came later but was less common.)

Rugged Aircraft

Because of its rugged construction, high speed at low altitudes and the ability to carry a heavy bomb load, the Thud was given one of the most demanding roles in the war, attacking strategic ground targets in North Vietnam.

The author is a Seattle native who enlisted in the Air Force in 1956 after 2 1/2 half years at the University of Washington studying aeronautical engineering. He qualified for the Aviation Cadet program from the enlisted ranks and went on to earn his wings and a commission.

"I didn't care one way or the other about the officer bit," he related in "Pak Six," "but I always wanted to fly."

During his first 11 years as a pilot, Basel flew several different fighters, the last being the F-100 Supersaber. In 1967, Basel, then a captain, was ordered to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for flight training in the F-105.

His next stop was Takhli Royal Thai Air Force Base and the war.

The generals running the air war against North Vietnam divided the country into different areas known as "Route Packages." Beginning with Route Package One, which was just north of the DMZ separating North and South Vietnam, the packages escalated in importance into the heart of the Red River Delta around Hanoi--the major league of air combat.

The title for Basel's book comes from the name of this division. He wrote, "Pak Six contained all the good stuff--the air fields, the main industries, the underground military headquarters and the capital city, Hanoi." The city itself was never hit, he said, just military targets in the area.

Vivid Memories of Mission

The mission he remembers most vividly was the first, Basel said during the interview at his El Cajon home. "Even though that flight didn't get shot at much, it's the one that is still with me."

When Basel talks about what he recalls with pride he doesn't mention flying through intense flak, dog fighting with MiGs, or striking heavily defended targets. Pride for Basel is having flown with men who never said no.

"No one ever refused to go. No one tried to get out of anything," he said. "It wasn't because they weren't afraid. No one was eager to go, that was scary stuff, but they did it any way."

Air Force pilots were given credit for a completed tour when they had flown 100 combat mission over North Vietnam. Basel said. "We were all there for the big prize, 100 missions. Once that was reached, we could sew on the coveted red, white and blue patch and go home with honor."

"Pak Six" puts the reader in the cockpit, planning flights, refueling in the air and choosing mission tactics.

Of the flying around Hanoi, Basel wrote, "Almost daily, one could witness high altitude explosions of crimson and black, the sky laced with the squiggly trails of soaring SAMs (surface-to-air missiles), blazing aircraft tearing across rooftops, dog fights on a grand scale--MiGs and Thuds and Phantoms, locked in a dazzling death struggle."

This book goes beyond just combat. Basel related the day-to-day humor that kept the men going and tells of "snake school" in the Philippines, where pilots were taught to survive on the ground if they were shot down down over enemy territory. And he recounted that, even in the midst of war, pilots were never able to completely escape the burdens of military bureaucracy--the paper work, training and additional duties.

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