Lieutenant Jake Grafton and his bombardier-navigator are flying a routine mission over North Vietnam when, as the result of a chance shot, the bombardier is killed--despite Jake’s attempt to keep him from bleeding to death, while flying the A-6A Intruder back to the safety of their home base aboard the aircraft carrier the USS Shiloh. Wracked by guilt over the death of his fellow officer, Jake plans to revenge him by bombing Ho Chi Minh’s grave in Hanoi, an off-limits target during the sensitive peace negotiations in Paris. His attack is diverted to the National Assembly building, and Jake and his new bombardier carry out the raid but miss their target. The chain of command is understandably angered at Jake’s action but does not court-martial either officer because of a shift of strategy from the White House authorizing the massive bombing of Hanoi in a desperate attempt to force the North Vietnamese to the conference table. The story ends when Jake and Virgil Cole are shot down in Laos, both wounded but alive and presumably on their way home.
Although the novel avoids the polemics surrounding the war, there are advocates for both political sides of the question of American involvement in the conflict. There is also insight into the rigidity of the military system, some understandable and some not. Jake meets an American woman, Callie, who works in Hong King; falling in love with her increases his need to withdraw from the combat and lead a more “normal” life.
The aerial scenes in the novel make it one of the more tense action books of recent years. Unfortunately, the material between bombing raids often palls by comparison, leaving the reader with little knowledge of Jake’s motivation or of his personality. A first-rate action thriller could have been made better with a little more work on the central character. The realism is extraordinary though, and the air scenes are truly exciting, creating an unforgettable reading experience.