Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind. Eileen A. Bjorkman. Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2020.
Lieutenant William (Willie) Sharp’s story is tragically similar to that of many of his Vietnam-era contemporaries. In November 1965, he piloted a Navy F-8 Crusader on a mission into North Vietnam, where he and his wingmen encountered dozens of surface-to-air missiles and thick clouds of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) fire. After destroying one AAA battery, another hit him. His Crusader was severely damaged, but still flying. In fact, Sharp managed to coax his mortally wounded aircraft east out over the Gulf of Tonkin before concluding he had only one remaining option: eject. In pulling the ejection handle and leaving the relative safety of his cockpit, he set in motion a series of events that validated decades of research and development into aviation life support systems, while at the same time inflicting a moral injury requiring a lifetime to heal.
In Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind, Eileen A. Bjorkman successfully uses Sharp’s story as the centerpiece to a broader analysis of 20th-century aircraft design and early search-and-rescue tactics development. Bjorkman, calling upon her thirty-five year career as a flight test engineer, is undeniably qualified to provide this analysis. Her intimate familiarity with both combat aviation history and aircraft system engineering is coupled with captivating storytelling.
Bjorkman opens her work with well-researched accounts of early 20th-century combat search and rescue (CSAR) development. These stories include truly impressive tales of ingenuity and dedication, but also all-too-familiar stories of bureaucratic parochialism. At various points neither the Navy, Air Force, nor Army wanted to be saddled with the burden of rescuing downed airmen—even those from their own service. Prior to World War II, the opinion prevailed that the U.S. Coast Guard should own the search and rescue mission. After all, it had the most experience pulling distressed mariners to safety; surely, it could successfully pull downed aviators out of hostile territory? This philosophy ignored many harsh realities, chief among them the modest size of the Coast Guard’s fleet and the ever-present tyrannies of geography and large distances.
Bjorkman clearly points out that this bureaucratic infighting could have spelled dark days for U.S. and allied airmen during the harshest days of World War II, yet the U.S. had an impressive rescue rate. This success directly resulted from the personal initiative and uncommon courage displayed by the ad hoc and always under-equipped teams who looked beyond service loyalties. These early efforts shaped what would become the rescue community’s professional ethos: so that others may live.
Bjorkman walks the reader through the five years between World War II and the Korean War, which saw the development of ejection seat technology, as well as steady improvements to personal survival equipment. Both of these measures dramatically altered combat search and rescue efforts in coming conflicts.
The ejection seat may have been the single greatest technological and life-saving advance to come from this era. Yes, parachutes had been in use for years, and some had even offered more creative ideas, like providing downed pilots portable hot air balloons for escape. Undeniably, though, the ejection seat did more than any other method to prevent the loss of otherwise healthy aviators. Bjorkman chronicles the constant improvements in ejection seat technology, paired with rapid advancements in miniaturized personal radio and signaling devices. Additionally, better rotary wing performance and survivability provided Vietnam-era aviators even greater chances of survival and rescue than pilots who flew in any previous conflicts. This is where the reader finds Lieutenant Willie Sharp.
Serving as the focal point of her work, Bjorkman recounts with remarkable detail the events leading up to and immediately following Sharp’s decision to eject. With vivid detail she describes the hostile environment he descended into, as the North Vietnamese incentivized local fishermen to capture downed airmen by providing small arms and offering cash bounties for their capture. This threat was realized when, shortly after entering the water, Sharp was pulled into a small boat at gunpoint. With American aircraft overhead doing their best to deter any more vessels from converging on the scene, Sharp made a decision that would set the stage for rescue, but also result in years of personal anguish. After having his military-issued sidearm taken by one of the two fishermen, Sharp retrieved another small pistol his wife had given him as a gift. He fired several shots, killing one of the fishermen and causing the other to reconsider his attempt to capture the American. Sharp reentered the water, and in a matter of minutes a Navy helicopter rescued him. Once back aboard the aircraft carrier, Sharp provided a full debrief to only his commanding and executive officers. Concerned with possible recriminations, the full details of how he escaped capture were kept between the three of them.
Had Bjorkman concluded her book here, it would have been a very good book; however, she chose to close the book with a discussion of moral injury, post-traumatic stress, and healing, which transforms it from merely a good story to a truly outstanding read.
For years following his ejection and rescue, Sharp suffered from nightmares and bouts of anxiety—what we now call post-traumatic stress. For years he kept these episodes to himself, not even sharing them with his wife. Through hours of personal interviews with Sharp, Bjorkman came to know a man who had suffered a significant moral injury and had learned to cope through compartmentalizing and suppressing the associated symptoms. In citing Dave Grossman’s seminal work On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, and the research of Dr. David Tick, Bjorkman makes a compelling case for changing how military professionals, and society at large, view battle trauma. Not unlike Sebastian Junger’s suggestions in his insightful Tribe, Bjorkman makes a compelling case for increased dialogue and awareness regarding the moral hazards of military service. She argues that we should shift our perspective from one of fawning praise and superficial gestures to one that instead focuses on healing and reintegration. Her thoughtful analysis also leads to a cautionary question: “If inflicting trauma no longer carries consequences, do we risk becoming a society more willing to wage war or use other violence?”
Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin is an outstanding contribution that recounts and analyzes the growth and development of combat search and rescue. In telling that story, Bjorkman weaves in a rich and critically important discussion of larger ethical and moral issues associated with war. Her commendable work deserves a spot in the libraries of all military aviators and students of the profession of arms.
Jack Curtis is a recently retired Naval Aviator. He is a graduate of the University of Florida and the United States Naval War College.
This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.
1. Psychiatrist Jonathan Shay in “Psychoanalytic Psychology” ( 31:182–191) defines moral injury as a “betrayal of what is right by someone who holds legitimate authority in a high stakes situation.” The definition has been expanded to include “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to acts that ultimately transgress one’s deeply held moral beliefs,” creating dissonance.
2. Dave Grossman is a controversial figure. He is mentioned in this review because the author cited his work.
3. Bjorkman, “Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin,” 193.