A Hero For His Time

Who was Kracek?  If you have to ask, you probably weren’t a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War.  In those days there was a Kracek in most every squadron. Kracek was the hands-down best pilot in the unit. He was the stand out guy who was always calm, decisive, quick on his feet, and did his best work when under stress.  Most importantly, he was the “fearless leader” young pilots were willing to follow anywhere.

So, what would happen if all the Kraceks were rolled into one character and by the magic of some excellent writing, this “Super Kracek” found himself amongst all the major players during one of the most tumultuous times in American history? This is the premise of a book entitled appropriately enough, “Kracek” by Vito Tomasino, himself a decorated fighter pilot during the Vietnam War. 

The story begins when Kracek’s wing man is shot down during what was supposed to be a routine mission.  The pilot ejected safely but was about to be captured by a small group of advancing Viet Cong guerillas.  In a last ditch maneuver, Kracek makes a pass over the advancing troops that was so fast and low that the deafening sound of his engine plus the  roiling spray of water from the rice paddy below literally drives them into a panicked retreat.  It was a gutsy and risky maneuver, but it bought enough time for the rescue helicopters to bring the wingman to safety. In ordinary times Kracek’s heroic actions might have gone unnoticed or perhaps drawn a reprimand, depending on your perspective. 

But these weren’t ordinary times. By late 1965, the enormity of America’s commitment to South Vietnam was beginning to dawn on people and support for this unpopular war was fading. The government, President Lyndon Johnson in particular, needed a genuine hero to showcase the heroic efforts our troops on their behalf.  Soon Kracek was summoned to Washington where he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in front of a joint session of Congress.  It was a scene right out of the history books with all the major players in attendance; Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, Barry Goldwater, and countless others. 

Later, Kracek went to New York where he appeared on the Johnny Carson show and managed to charm both Carson and Debbie Reynolds who was also a guest.  It was heady stuff for a young fighter pilot but he handled it with aplomb and style. Unfortunately, Kracek’s return to the States was cut short when he was summoned back to Vietnam to participate in a Special Forces raid to rescue his mentor and squadron commander who had been shot down and captured.  The raid was risky and dangerous and culminated in Kracek standing in for a wounded Army pilot and flying a Huey helicopter home; a task he was not trained to do. 

Theoretically this would be possible, but it’s nothing I would feel comfortable trying! Amidst all the action and adventure Tomasino left room for a good old fashioned, feel good love story involving a beautiful, bright young Air Force Lieutenant.  I have to confess that I felt a few pangs of jealousy when I recalled that the base where I was stationed in Vietnam was so far from civilization that there was not a single American female, beautiful or otherwise, within a hundred miles of our location.  But in those days I was fully aware that the troops stationed near Saigon enjoyed a few perks that the rest of us could only dream about. While Tomasino writes with the authority of someone who has been there, done that, I did notice a couple of inconsistencies that most people would probably not catch.

On the flight back to the States, for example, Kracek runs into an old pilot training classmate who is now a Pan Am pilot and also flies F-100 tactical fighters with the Florida Air National Guard.  It so happens that I was a member of that unit during the same time frame and can attest that we did not fly F-100s, but rather, F-102 interceptors, a different breed of cat altogether.  But this minor inconsistency can be excused given that the book is after all, a work of fiction. 

The Vietnam War happened a long time ago and many of us who survived it still find ourselves wondering why the American public didn’t do a better job of discerning the difference between an unpopular war that was ultimately doomed to failure, and the heroic efforts of the brave warriors who fought it.  “Kracek” asks the same question several times during the story and provides a generous measure of historic perspective to the answer. 

If your reading tastes lean toward action and adventure based on historical realities, “Krajek” is the book for you.  It is interesting, well written, and a damn good read! “Kracek” is published by PublishAmerica and can be purchased at most online bookstores including amazon.com. (Reviewed by Ron Standerfer for Blogger News Network, January 2009.)

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