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Catkiller 3-2: An Army Pilot Flying for the Marines in the Vietnam War

Catkiller 3-2: An Army Pilot Flying for the Marines in the Vietnam War by Raymond G. Caryl, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 264 pp. 

Raymond G. Caryl’s Catkillers: An Army Pilot Flying for the Marines in the Vietnam War provides one Army pilot’s experience flying with the Marines before and just after the Tet Offensive. Army fixed-wing pilots were a comparative rarity in the war—and those assigned to support Marines even rarer—thus, Caryl’s work provides a highly unique perspective.  

The Catkillers, the nickname for the 220th Reconnaissance Airplane Company (RAC) came into existence at the Marine Corps’ request because it desperately needed more aircraft to provide forward air control. Initially, Caryl had extreme reservations about being assigned to the 220th RAC because of the dangers involved in flying so close to North Vietnam. But the memoir highlights how he embraced his time in the 220th RAC, even becoming “homesick”  for his friends in the company while on R&R in Hong Kong. 

Caryl began writing his work to help his grandchildren understand his Vietnam War experience (p. 2). He begins his account by highlighting his strained relationship with his stepfather, a pilot whose harsh methods managed to inculcate a fear of flying in Caryl. Ultimately, though, he overcame this fear to serve almost 40 years as a fixed- and rotary-wing pilot (p. 219).  

In a war characterized by creative and determined efforts to use advanced technology, Caryl served in a low-tech aircraft—the Cessna 0-1. The nickname of “Bird Dog” aptly characterized its job fulfilling one of airpower’s oldest roles: to provide reconnaissance and support artillery spotting and close air support (CAS). Usually flying less than 1,000 feet above the ground, Caryl’s aircraft provided an impressive vantage point for reconnaissance. He even claims to have been able to distinguish between men and women by differences in gaits and to detect evidence of increased use of trails simply because they looked shinier (pp. 59, 106). As Caryl himself noted, his older, simpler technology functioned much more smoothly and effectively in combat than the latest and greatest (p. 166).  

Caryl has the highest respect for the Marines with whom he served (p. 2). The same is not true regarding his perspective of the Air Force. He dismisses Air Force pilots as being more concerned with arriving on time to “Happy Hour” at the O-Club than supporting soldiers (pp. 13, 110). He also highlights the tension he saw between the Air Force’s desire to centrally control airpower and the Marines’ desire to provide highly responsive CAS (p. 49). He even points out that he only saw one set of jets ever fail to hit their targets accurately, and Air Force pilots flew it (p. 50). By contrast, Caryl strongly identifies with the Army Aviation motto of serving “Above the Best” (p. 23). As he explains, “I never knew or heard of a Catkiller who wouldn’t fly his Birddog right up an NVA soldier’s ass if that’s what it took to get the job done” (p. 196). Caryl’s memoir provides examples of how he sought to live up to this view, in one case flying extremely low while shooting his rifle out of the plane’s windows in a desperate attempt to keep North Vietnamese troops from annihilating some encircled Marines until jets could arrive (pp. 197–98).  

Writing retrospectively, Caryl compares his experience to that of today’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) pilots and suggests that living apart from the men one is supporting and not being “exposed to the same dangers” provides a kind of separation that prevents the same level of support that his fellow Bird Dog pilots did (pp. 64–65). UAV pilots might offer some counterarguments to this perspective. There are limits to his close perspective, however. He reveals this, perhaps unwittingly, in recounting his experience of riding on a convoy while temporarily grounded from flying. Noting the ceaseless smiling of Vietnamese children, he explains how he “felt real compassion for the Vietnamese people and their plight.” He undercuts this sentiment, however, by demonstrating the short-lived nature of that sentiment. Even someone flying so low and slow struggled to “see” the ground war the same way that infantrymen did (pp. 214–15).  

Although replete with “there I was stories,” the book is not a tell-all.  Where he has omitted the hijinks of his fellow pilots, Caryl notes that he believes they are “best” to leave unsaid (p. 67). Still, the book ranges from a mix of dark humor and the belittling of the Vietnamese—in what some might consider the normal venting of frustrated service members and others might find less excusable—to descriptions of Marines risking their lives to help Vietnamese civilians caught in crossfires (pp. 67, 99, 109). In one of his more humorous stories, Caryl recounts his reaction to attacks at the beginning of the Tet Offensive. Enjoying his fourth scotch of the night at the O Club, Caryl quickly but carefully ran with his glass to his Bird Dog as he set out to try to provide support (p. 158). Shortly thereafter, Caryl finds himself reassigned to a more dangerous company located even closer to the Demilitarized Zone. It is at this point that the reader notes the gradual but increasing tendency of Caryl to feel safer while flying as opposed to his intensifying insecurity being on the ground (p. 214).  

The book is written simply and in a straight-forward style that is not as lyrical or moving as the classic war memoirs. In a notable exception, however, Caryl departs from his typical writing style to note more philosophically that “combat causes a sort of paradigm shift in what is normal” (p. 153). Students of the experience of combat might want these kinds of insights to be more liberally sprinkled throughout. In many ways, Caryl’s experience overlaps with others in the mix of anger, frustration, joy, and comradeship of combat. Perhaps the most notable aspect of his close service with Marines is how quickly service affiliation seemed to fade in combat. In the paraphrased words of an old country classic, Caryl became “purple” before purple was cool.  

Heather Venable, PhD 

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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