New York University Press, New York 2004, $32.95.

John D. Sherwood has done it again, matching and perhaps exceeding the extremely high quality of his celebrated Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in Korea and Fast Movers: Jet Pilots and the Vietnam Experience.

AFTERBURNER: NAVAL AVIATORS AND THE VIETNAM WAR, is compelling reading for the author has a rare gift in his sometimes magisterial writing, that of projecting situational awareness. Sherwood is able to slap you into the cockpit of a Phantom, throw you into combat, keep up a continuous stream of cockpit narrative, while still making you aware of the total battle as you close in on a MiG.

And that is the least of it. Far more important is his ability to penetrate the characters of the many Naval Aviators he introduces, and translate them with vivid imagery into characters that you feel you know. He has the same aptitude for ships, giving the carriers from which his pilots and weapon systems officers fought a personality of their own.

This ability to humanize not only people, but aircraft and ships extends as well to campaigns, and enables Sherwood to craft his book into six sections, each dealing with an individual facet of the naval aviator as a class, or the naval aviator experience in Vietnam. It is particularly useful in addressing the often overlooked story of naval flight officers (NFOs). He provides a more than adequate background to understand the war in Southeast Asia, (as much as that war could ever be understood) and begins with an interesting reviews of the lesser known operations in Laos. He follows this with a section dealing with the technological advances that created a new situation, the appearance of the non-pilot aviator. His Chapter 8 “War and Ejection from the Squadron” is the most honest, telling and graphic expositions of service life that I have ever read, and I salute the author for telling it exactly as it was. In it, Sherwood continues his tale of James B. Souder, taking him from washing out of flying training because of a perceived night-vision problem through his difficulties with his front-seater on the carrier all the way to his bail out over North Vietnam. In essence, Souder was the victim of discrimination, not for his sex, religion or gender, but for being a backseater. A similar stupid phenomenon used to exist in the USAF with pilots being condescending and worse to navigators, bombardiers and radar operators.

Sherwood then uses Souder’s experiences after ejection to segue into a brilliant exposition of the bitter experiences of prisoners of war in Vietnam from 1969 to 1973. Here we meet many of the renowned heroes-Robinson Risner, Bud Day, James Stockdale and others-and see just how vicious the North Vietnamese were in their on-the-spot treatment of captured airmen and the subsequent systematized brutality of life in the Hanoi Hilton. Souder, the despised back-seater becomes a de facto medical officer, and a hero to the group.

Sherwood’s description of the sadistic treatment prisoners was written long before the current flap over the treatment of a few Iraqi terrorists, but it is worth while to compare the two. As stupid and aesthetically gross as the Iraqi prison incidents were, they simply do not equate to the omnipresent ritual beating, often to death, of wounded prisoners, the policy of years of starvation and the sadistic random torture that was exercised not to gain information from terrorists, but for the sheer pleasure of it.

Yet as the author describes, the American prisoners of war not only endured, they triumphed spiritually and morally over their despicable captors, who greatly reduced their harsh treatment during Linebacker II, as they began to worry about their own sorry hides.

This is an important book and should be required reading in every school in the United States, for it shows how a small group of highly trained personnel responded to year after year of intense personal challenges, always trying to excel, even when, intellectually, they knew that they were fighting in a politically forfeit cause.