Valor: They’re Dead Without You

Feb. 1, 1994

Many readers will recognize Mark Berent as the author of five best-selling Vietnam War novels. Taken together, these books form a powerfully dramatic history of the war in Southeast Asia, written by a fighter pilot who lived through four years of combat in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Principal characters in the continuing saga are composites of men, good and bad, whom Berent fought with and against on 235 combat missions in F-100s and 219 in F-4s, the latter while at Ubon RTAFB, Thailand, as a flight commander, then as chief of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing’s Wolf forward air control operations.

Denied a third tour in fighters, Lt. Col. Mark Berent found an assignment as an “operational” air attaché at the American Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. There he “flew things with propellers,” worked directly with Special Forces, and learned much about the political maneuvering in Washington and the Pacific. All of that, too, is reflected in his books.

There was still another string to Mark Berent’s bow that has added to the authenticity of his writing but came close to keeping him out of the fight. His early career as an F-100 and F-86 pilot was followed by an Air Force Institute of Technology assignment at the University of Arizona to earn a degree in engineering. With that background, he was assigned to Air Force Systems Command while the war in Vietnam was expanding, at least in the south. Captain Berent finally wangled an assignment to the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron. In December 1965, the 531st TFS was about to deploy to Bien Hoa AB, South Vietnam. It had been seven years since Berent had flown an F-100, but never mind that. He was going to war with a lot of fighter time behind him and a burning desire for combat.

One of Captain Berent’s most memorable early missions was flown on the afternoon of Feb. 8, 1966. He and a wingman were scrambled to support two Army of the Republic of Vietnam rifle companies that were being cut to ribbons by vastly superior Viet Cong forces.

The ARVN units were pinned against a canal in the Mekong Delta near Rach Gia, 130 miles southwest of Bien Hoa. The forward air controller reported extremely heavy ground fire. Berent remembers a battlefield that looked like a scene from World War II, with explosions and smoke making it difficult to locate friendly forces. Once they were pinpointed, which took several passes, the FAC cleared Berent and his wingman in to deliver their 500-pound Mk. 82 bombs. Berent’s first was a dud, the second right on target. Now for the cluster bomb units’ antipersonnel bomblets.

Dropping CBUs in the face of heavy ground fire was sweatier work than dive-bombing with 500-pounders. The CBUs had to be released while flying straight and level at Mach .71 and 300 feet altitude. Higher and they would drift off target; lower and they would not have time to arm. Before release on Captain Berent’s first run, his right windscreen quarter panel was shattered by an AK-47 slug, showering his face and eyes with bits of glass and smashing his gunsight. The F-100 was still under control and all gauges checked out, so he continued the run, putting his bomblets right on target, according to the FAC.

Captain Berent pulled up to assess damage to his fighter and asked the FAC how serious things were for the ARVN troops. “They’re dead without you,” the FAC replied. Not knowing if his windscreen would blow out in another Mach .71 run and with minimal fuel, Berent decided to go anyway. He wiped the glass from his eyes as best he could, dumped cabin pressure, lowered his seat, pulled down his visor, and went in for two more passes. On the second, he was hit again, this time from directly ahead by “one gutsy gunner.” With no more bombs or 20-mm, undetermined battle damage, and marginal fuel, he headed for Bien Hoa and a safe landing.

The FAC reported that after Berent’s last bomb run, VC attacks on the beleaguered ARVN troops had “virtually ceased. Captain Berent’s actions merit . . . an award for gallantry.” Mark Berent thought he was “merely doing what I was paid to do.” Those who approved a recommendation for award of the Silver Star did not agree.

In 1974, Lt. Col. Berent retired from an assignment as chief of the Test Control Branch at the Armament Development and Test Center. A much-decorated fighter pilot, he already had launched a successful writing career and, with US withdrawal from Southeast Asia, “there was no second act.” He now lives on a 250-acre farm in Virginia hunt country and, between novels and other writing, is a technical advisor for television combat documentaries.

Published February 1994. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.