memoir flying covert reconnaissance missions in the vietnam war

Author Guest Post: Francis A Doherty

The author of Pen & Sword’s Only the Light Moves writes about the experiences that led to him writing his memoir.

It took five years to write Only the Light Moves. The title quotes a line from a poem by Leonora Carrington. “We went down into the silent garden. Dawn is the time when nothing breathes, the hour of silence. Everything is transfixed. Only the light moves.” Laos, at dawn, the silent garden.

In 2011 my company commander, Arlie Deaton, passed away from diabetes. In 2013 cancer killed my dear friend John Pappas, with whom I flew the last few weeks of my year in Vietnam. Only then, in the cemetery at West Point, during John’s burial, did I feel that I had permission from Arlie and John to talk about the twelve months I spent in the Central Highlands. I began to write about my war after retrieving my medals which had been buried in the back of my sock drawer. My wife Katie asked me about one of them, the Distinguished Flying Cross. She asked me what it was and why I had it. The words began to tumble out, resulting in a memoir about Vietnam, about flying for MACVSOG into Laos, into Cambodia, then for Western and Delta Airlines. About parents furious that I volunteered to join the Army but supporting me when I did. About learning from a Vietnamese Nun at an orphanage what love really means.

Only the Light Moves reconnaissance missions in the vietnam war

Two conflicts were occurring simultaneously in Southeast Asia. One, the Vietnam war, the world knew about. The other war, a secret war nobody knew about, occurred in Laos, in Cambodia. It was waged by SOG, the Studies and Observations Group, a Green Beret unit no one knew about either. Young men in non-descript clothes, volunteers, were inserted by helicopter near the Ho Chi Minh Trail amid thousands of North Vietnamese troops who traveled that trail into South Vietnam. Over the course of this secret war a handful of Army pilots volunteered to fly O-1 Bird Dogs on covert reconnaissance missions over Laos for SOG. Maybe a dozen pilots in all, attached to the SOG base in Kontum. Taking off before daybreak to search for trucks and troops and cannons and machine guns. SOG called us their Sneaky Pete Air Force. Our call-sign was SPAF. Five SPAFs were killed. The report of their deaths never admitted that they died along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. It always recorded them as near the border. Because no one could know about our mission. Our secret war. 

My small, unarmed, single engine airplane and me, sometimes with a photographer or an observer in the back seat, launched from Kontum before the sun rose, and raced to get over a target in Laos or Cambodia before the sun rose. Then, with the sun at my back, I used the first slanted rays of daylight that shined sideways through the jungle to illuminate what I was looking for. When the North Vietnamese heard my O-1 Bird Dog, when they saw me, almost always all hell broke loose. My Bird Dog took bullets meant for me. Within my book’s pages are some of the very best times and too many of the very worst times I have ever experienced. Laos, Cambodia, every day, eyeball to eyeball. Never impersonal. Not even close. Not even when catastrophe seemed commonplace. Because the North Vietnamese could see my face. And I could see theirs. Because my airplane, so close to the ground, barely skimmed the jungle’s canopy.

In Only the Light Moves, what I remember so clearly from half a century ago are faces. Faces of people with whom I flew, fought alongside, rejoiced in their survival, wept at their passing. After leaving Vietnam, finally safe at home, I tried to find the boy I once was.

Francis Doherty, a former U.S. Army captain, piloted a small, unarmed, airplane over sections of the Ho Chi Minh Trail during the war in Vietnam. he spent ten months flying in support of a covert unit of the Army’s Fifth Special Forces, which waged a clandestine war against the North Vietnamese Army, interdicting their supply line through Laos and Cambodia. Only the Light Moves is his first book. After leaving the military, he spent thirty-two years as a commercial airline pilot.

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