Flying with the SPOOKS, Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War

by Herbert P. Shippey

This book is one man’s very personal and detailed accounting as he remembers his experiences during the Vietnam conflict. Unusually sensitive, observant, and contemplative of his surroundings and of events, Herbert Shippey’s own intellect and interests come across clearly on every page due to his fine command of the language.

Parsing out the title: SPOOKS is the word by which those specially selected and trained technicians who conducted intelligence operations behind the veil of absolute secrecy were known. Specifically the group with which Shippey served in Vietnam flew reconnaissance missions out of Da Nang in specially equipped aircraft intercepting radio signals and communications. 

Two of the three aircraft flown are shown on the book’s cover. The aircraft above the clouds in civilian life is a Lockheed Constellation. Its Navy designation is EC-121 Warning Star. The bird in the foreground is also Lockheed-built, named by its maker an Electra and designated by the Navy a P-3 Orion. Both were essentially unarmed while being very specially outfitted with, as can be seen, large radomes above and below the fuselage. Inside each were packed all manner of electronics for listening to and recording whatever could be heard. And, in the case of the P-3 there’s also that distinctive tail extension whose purpose was magnetic anomaly detection of submarines. The third airplane, not shown, was purely a military bird built by Douglas. The A-3 Skywarrior was a carrier-capable strategic bomber. Shippey was one of those on-board listeners who had been specially trained in linguistics, specifically Vietnamese.   

Because of the high secrecy involved then—and because “some of what [Shippey] writes about was classified for approximately forty years”—he submitted his entire manuscript to the NSA for review. It was determined that all he’d covered in his writings was, indeed, now unclassified and thus approved for publication. Regarding that “fine command of the language,” know that today Dr. Herbert Shippey is Professor Emeritus of English with the state of Georgia’s Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College. 

Interestingly, what an earlier reviewer of this book had panned, labeling Shippey’s writings “rambling” was for this commentator one of its most engaging aspects. Perhaps it was due to Shippey being centered and mature beyond his chronological very-earliest-20s age that, when coupled with his education and “interests in literature, art, history, and culture in general,” he was motivated to make the best use all free or personal time during each and every posting by visiting, “as many libraries, museums, churches, temples, parks, and historical sites,” and reading—always reading—books. Best yet, he includes the titles of many of his readings in his narrative along with describing many of the places he visited in sufficient detail that the reader is visiting and experiencing those places too.

No surprise, Shippey puts the same detail into the pages that tell of his military service and duties as well as fellow spooks who, in one passage, he describes with these words: “The men of the detachment in Da Nang were an intelligent and lively group . . . They had agile minds and often could size up another person or situation better than I could. Some of them also had more book knowledge than I could muster up, in addition to technical expertise, common sense and pragmatic knowledge.

People, places, and events are remembered in chronological order commencing with “Entering the Navy and Recruit Training” and “Language Training” until (on the 57th page) “Arrival in Da Nang” early in 1971 where he would spend the next year. The balance of the book is devoted to details of various of the nearly daily flights out over the Gulf of Tonkin, back west over Laos, then along the North Vietnamese border (some harrowing), life on and around the base that included life-threatening rocket attacks, riding out typhoons, and a brief hiatus to attend the Navy’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape school.

Depending upon the reader’s age, Shippey’s words will resonate with many, while for others his book will be a learning and enlightening read. And the thoughts he expresses in his preface and epilogue are so poignant, you’ll find yourself reading them over and over.

Flying with the SPOOKS
Memoir of a Navy Linguist in the Vietnam War
by Herbert P. Shippey
McFarland & Company, 2022
242 pages, 28 b/w images, softcover
List Price: $29.95
ISBN 13: 978 1 4766 8672 1

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