I received my pilot’s wings in September 1953 then flew the F-86 SabreJet and the F-100 Super Sabre in Germany, France, and the U.S. In the early ‘60s, the USAF sent me to Arizona State University to get an engineering degree. While there, the Vietnam War became more intense. Upon graduation from ASU in August 1965, the Air Force assigned me to the Ballistic Missile Division.
Nothing doing, I said to myself. I am a fighter pilot and there is a war on. After much chasing around to get reassigned to a fighter outfit bound for Vietnam, I found out my former squadron Officers School Commander, BG Herb Bench, was the Tactical Air Command’s (TAC) Director for Personnel (DP). I wrote him a letter in an attempt to snivel a fighter reassignment. In a matter of days I got a telegram reassigning me to an F-100 squadron at England Air Force Base, Alexandria Louisiana.
And so it was that in mid-December 1965 I arrived at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam as a pilot in the 531st Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) in the 3rd Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW). We had a python named Ramrod as our squadron mascot. (See my article, Ramrod the Combat Snake.) I flew over 250 missions and was reassigned back in the States to a desk job at the Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO) in El Segundo, California. Though I was able to fly the T-39 Sabreliner, I was not happy. The war tempo had increased. Every day I’d pick up a copy of the Stars & Stripes and read were another buddy had been shot down and either killed or captured. I had a pretty nice pad on Venice Beach overlooking the Pacific. (I hung out at Donkin’s in Marina del Rey.) But I knew I couldn’t stay on the beach, so once again I chased around to get reassigned to a fighter squadron. As it was previously, I found I had served under the new TAC DP, BG Jack Barnes, in France years before. I made contact and soon found myself at George Air Force Base, Victorville, California, upgrading into the F-4 Phantom.
Thus, on the 1st of November, 1968, I signed in to the 497th TFS at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in upcountry Thailand. There I flew over 240 missions both as a Night Owl and as a Wolf Forward Air Controller (FAC). (See my articles Night Mission on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Trolling for Guns on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.)
At the end of my tour in November 1969, I was again assigned to SAMSO and, once more very unhappy as the war was still going on. (The Air Force Systems Command, who sponsored my degree at ASU, was bound and determined to get its pound of flesh.) I immediately applied for a third fighter tour but was turned down. The reason being, at that particular time, one could not serve three tours in a fighter cockpit. I heard the State Department had opened up a new embassy in Phnom Penh Cambodia. I applied for and was accepted into the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) with duty in the embassy as an Assistant Air Attaché. I spent two years there running around with the Khmer Air Force and flying the venerable C-47 Gooney Bird and the U-10 Helio Courier. (See my article To War in Style.)
When I returned to the U.S. I was assigned to my first non-flying job at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. By then I was pretty burned out and retired from the USAF after 23 years of service.
I lived three years in Germany and France running international sales for a California military spare parts manufacturer. In Paris I met my wife-to-be, Mary Bess. We married and moved to a horse farm in Virginia after I quit my sales job.
While Mary Bess trained hunter-jumpers, I traveled internationally as I wrote pilot/reporter articles for the Air Force Magazine and the Asian Defense Journal. I didn’t know it at the time that my experiences, not only in the war, but in the U.S., were churning around in the back of my mind.
I had learned of the incredible micromanagement of the war by President Johnson and Secretary of Defense McNamara. I saw firsthand the treatment of our young G.I.s as they returned to the U.S. and were spat upon, reviled, and called baby killers when they tried to go to college. One young student screeched at a G.I. amputee, “Serves you right.”
This miasma came gushing forward when I started writing my five-book Wings of War series. I became terribly focused and wrote a book a year for five years.
Up to the point of writing the books, I had no idea that a rage was building within me. I remember I was surprised a few times when I broke into tears and sometimes heavy sobs as something triggered me about what had happened to our country and especially our young men who served rather than running to Canada.
It all spilled out into my books.
Lt Col Mark E. Berent, USAF (Ret), was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He graduated from Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, attended St. Thomas College, and later graduated from Arizona State University under the Air Force Institute of Technology program with a BSME. Berent began his Air Force career as an enlisted man, then entered the aviation cadet program. He attended pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi and Laredo Air Force Base, Texas flying the T-6, T-28, and T-33 aircraft. He moved on to the F-86 Sabre Jet at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. He served on active duty for 23 years until retirement in 1974.
After completing his training, he began his operational flying career in the F-86 and F-100 flying at various posts throughout the United States and Europe. He later served three combat tours, completing 452 combat sorties flying the F-100 at Bien Hoa Air Base, South Vietnam, and 450 combat sorties in the F-4 at Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand. After those tours, he was stationed in the American Embassy, Phnom Penh, Cambodia for two years to fly things with propellers on them and through a fluke in communications timing, to personally run the air war for a few weeks from a most unusual place.
He has also served two tours at the United States Space and Missile System Organization (SAMSO) at Los Angeles, California working first in the Satellites Control Facility and later as a staff developmental engineer for the space shuttle. He also served as Chief of Test Control Branch at the Air Development and Test Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. He also served as an instructor at the Air Force's Squadron Officer School.
During his flying career he has logged over 4300 hours of flying time, 1084 of those in combat missions in the F-100, F-4, C-47 and U-10 over North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. He has flown 30 different aircraft.
His decorations include the Silver Star, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with one oak leaf cluster, Bronze Star, Air Medal with twenty four oak leaf clusters, Vietnam Cross of Gallantry, Cambodian Divisional Medal, and numerous Vietnam Campaign ribbons. He completed jump school with the Special Forces. Later, he jumped with and was awarded Cambodian paratrooper wings. He also flew with and received Cambodian pilot wings. After retiring from the Air Force he lived in Europe to establish and direct international operations for the sale of spares for military aircraft. He has flown many foreign aircraft such as the Swedish Viggen, the German Tornado, and the Royal Air Force Jaguar and Hawk. He also established Berent and Woods Inc, a firm that managed many aviation related activities.
Over the years he had published numerous articles for such publications as Air Force Magazine and the Washington Times, and for 18 years wrote a monthly pilot/reporter column for the Asian Defense Journal. Under the name Berent Sandberg he and Peter Sandberg collaborated on three novels. He now has five Vietnam air war historical fiction novels in print, Rolling Thunder, Steel Tiger, Phantom Leader, Eagle Station, and Storm Flight. (The Wings of War series.) Berent states it is never too late for any endeavor: he published the first of his five book Wings of War series at age 58, ran his first Marathon at 59, bought a T-6 warbird and flew in airshows at 64, and rode in his first cattle roundup in Montana at 74. He was inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame in 2012.
Berent says: “There is the dark side of why I am a military writer. The dark side that surfaces in untoward moments when bad memories spring unbidden from a well I try to keep capped. Moments when others, not of the sky, hear my harsh laughter and see the frost in my eyes. It is the side that bears extreme malice and near-consuming rage toward those who wasted the lives of my fellow airmen on missions that accomplished little except strengthen the enemy's resolve. Missions that gratified only the arrogant civilian Caesars who, at White House luncheons, picked not only the targets but the bomb loads and the ingress and egress routes as well. It is the side that detests those members of the media who trivialized and scorned our efforts; it is the side that despises that wretched movie female who sat at an enemy antiaircraft gun, made broadcasts from Hanoi, and called our tortured POWs liars; it is the side that bears hard anger toward some of our own men in uniform who saw war only as a career enhancing program. It is also of these contemptible people I am compelled to write.”
When did you first start writing?
I first started writing when I was in the United States Air Force. I had had some interesting combat experiences. I selected one about a Python mascot we had in An F-100 fighter squadron at Bien Hoa Air Base in South Vietnam. I wrote it in a humorous style and was amazed when the Air Force Magazine accepted the article. Like all new authors I was quite excited to see my first byline. They then published two more articles I wrote about air combat on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
Shortly after that I retired from the Air Force and traveled internationally on assignment for the Air Force Magazine and the Asian Defense Journal as a pilot/reporter. During that time I wrote dozens of articles about various foreign military airplanes that I flew such as the Swedish Viggen, the Royal Air Force Jaguar and Hawk, the German Tornado and Fanjet, and trainers from Switzerland and Brazil.
During that time, I was living on a horse farm in Northern Virginia when I received a call from a literary agent in New York. He thought I should write a novel about my experiences in the Air Force during the Vietnam war. I put him off for several months because I really did not think I could write fiction.
Through circumstances, that I may relate here at a later date, I started to write. After all, I spent my Air Force career as a fighter pilot and we are known to take chances.
Who are your favorite authors?
I was a voracious reader starting as far back as I can remember, grade school probably. In later years I discovered John D MacDonald and WEB Griffin. Each influenced me in a different way. McDonald for his descriptive powers and Griffin for his episodic style. For reasons I keep to myself, I have never been a Hemingway fan.
What is your writing process?
"Process" can be either the physical approach or mental approach to writing.
I had written all my articles in longhand which my wife typed out for me. It was a time-consuming process to correct and retype product suitable for submission. I purchased a computer with a word processing program and found I could compose on a keyboard though I am not a typist
My mental process for all my articles and books is quite simple; I see everything as if on a screen just behind my eyes and, if I listen carefully, the dialogue just seems to spring out. Sometimes characters appear from nowhere and I watch and listen to them.
You give up a lot when you write.
Of course, it is never that easy. I do outlines, character capsules, plot lines, and incredible research. In fact, when I wrote these books there was no Internet. I had to travel all over the country interviewing people, going to the USAF Air University library in Montgomery, Alabama, and purchase many books about the real characters in my historical novels.
What do you read for pleasure?
I definitely read for pleasure. I have always been a voracious reader but the last few years I have read mostly page-turners.
What motivated you to write about the Vietnam War?
Although historical fiction, my books are about the men and women who gave everything they had in a war they weren't allowed to win. I just had to write about them. I had to inform civilians exactly how it was for us on the line in the Vietnam war.
FAC pilots, Phantom crews, Thud, Hun, and Buff crews, gunship pilots and gunners, green berets, grunts, carrier jocks, MAC contract stews, boomers and tankers, from corporals to colonels; the whole nine yards about the day-to-day heroism and heroes we all know and loved . . . and some we hated. By way of contrast, LBJ in the Oval Office and McNamara in the Pentagon E Ring are included and the words they spoke as they picked strike targets over lunch are included in great detail, yes indeed. As are those of Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden.
But there is the dark side of why I am a military writer. The dark side that surfaces in untoward moments when bad memories spring unbidden from a well I try to keep capped. Moments when others, not of the sky, hear my harsh laughter and see the frost in my eyes. It is the side that bears extreme malice and near-consuming rage toward those who wasted the lives of my fellow airmen on missions that accomplished little except strengthen the enemy's resolve. Missions that gratified only the arrogant civilian Caesars who, at White House luncheons, picked not only the targets but the bomb loads and the ingress and egress routes as well. It is the side that detests those members of the media who trivialized and scorned our efforts, it is the side that despises that wretched movie female who made broadcasts from Hanoi and called our tortured POWs liars, it is the side that bears hard anger toward some of our own men in uniform who saw war only as a career enhancing program. It is also of these contemptible people I am compelled to write.
My books have won critical acclaim from Tom Clancy, Chuck Yeager, Dale Brown, WEB Griffin, Steve Koontz, and numerous newspaper and magazine critics.
How old were you when your first book was published?
I was 58 years old. I wrote a book a year for five years to complete my Wings of War series. I firmly believe one is never too old to start a new venture. Remember Grandma Moses who began painting in her 80s. To take a break from my writing I started running. As a result, I ran my first marathon at 59. I kept running marathons up to my late 60s. Read my short story, The Graduate, and you will see I started riding horses after a 60-year layoff and wound up on a roundup in Montana when I was 74.
What else have you uploaded?
After I uploaded all five books, I decided to upload eight nonfiction stories I had written. I do not charge for them but include at the end of each a blurb about my books. Three of them are the articles I wrote for the Air Force Magazine. As you know, when a magazine buys an article or a story they retain the copyright. Years ago I contacted the editor and he was kind enough to return the copyrights to me.
Sent to Authors Den 07/07/14