Surviving Viet Nam: Tales of a Narcoleptic Hanger Rat by Noah B. Dillion

Noah Dillion served in Vietnam in 1969 with the elite assault helicopter company, Knights of the Air. He includes a twelve-page glossary in his memoir, Surviving Viet Nam: Tales of a Narcoleptic Hanger Rat (Avid Readers Publishing Group, 198 pp., $16.95, paper), to help the reader understand the frequently arcane words and phrases in the book.  

It’s a blend of familiar terms such as “R & R,” with terms I’d never heard of such as rocket pods. The definitions are detailed and erudite. There are lots of black-and-white photographs, including a good one of the author sitting behind a desk in jungle fatigues. Inexplicably, he is wearing headgear inside. 

His first chapter,  “What is Narcolepsy?” explains the serious sleeping disorder cogently and clearly with brain diagrams and photos. After three chapters on narcolepsy, we get one on the author’s life before his time in the Army. Dillion had basic training at Fort Benning, graduating in April of 1968.

His basic training was very different from the one I remember from early 1966 at Ford Ord. No 2nd Lieutenant ever yelled at me. I don’t recollect any interaction with any lieutenants in basic training, only corporals and sergeants. Dillion says he dozed through basic training. I did, too, whenever possible.

Dillion finished AIT and went in and out of OCS, which didn’t work out. In November 1968 he began his tour with the 1st Aviation Brigade, 13th Combat Aviation Battalion, 221st Recon Airplane Company in IV Corps at Soc Trang Airfield.

The author

He was never issued a “full set of field gear, as mechanics did not need all that crap.” This honesty is typical of the author’s no-nonsense prose style, which gets the job done as he describes what his life and duties were in Soc Trang. He worked at night and slept all day. There was a USO craft shop where he did leather work or spent time in the darkroom developing photographs.

When he was promoted to SP5, Dillion became an Aviation Electrician, for which he had no training. He was told he’d get OJT.

Dillion relates many interesting and sometimes amusing stories in the section he calls “Shotgun War Stories,” which are well worth reading. His descriptions of the dangers of fueling aircraft made me glad I’d spent my tour of duty sitting in an office working behind a manual Adler typewriter. It generated no static electricity and there was no airplane fuel to ignite. The most dangerous fluid in the office was the pot of coffee I brewed up every morning for the officers to drink all day long.

Dillion’s encounter with Scolopendra subspinipes, a giant venomous centipede, gave me the shudders. The biggest insect I saw in Vietnam was the occasional preying mantis sitting on the screen of the IG Office.

The author did not trust the perimeter at Soc Trang, and was reprimanded by an officer for challenging him about that. He wrote his congressman, but that came to nothing. His visit to the Inspector General also did no good. “In Vietnam I quickly learned there was no such thing as normal,” Dillion writes. He is right about that.

After Vietnam, Dillion went to the 507th Transportation Company at Fort Knox. He tells how he encountered a stateside Army attitude toward Spec5s returning from Vietnam, and how the NCOs would drum up excuses to bust them down in rank. 

Seven days before Dillion was due to ETS, he had to report to the re-enlistment office. Due to his desirable MOS, they wanted him to re-up, which guaranteed another tour in Vietnam. He’d get promoted to E-6, and a large pile of money was placed on the table as an additional inducement.

The guaranteed tour in Vietnam was the deal breaker. I couldn’t stop myself from remembering I’d been made a similar offer, but without cash on the table. I would have been assigned to Fort Ben Harrison to teach steno school. I would have rather done a second tour in Vietnam.

The book concludes with positive sections on how—even as a narcoleptic—Dillion has lived a successful and happy post-war life with a career and a loving wife and children. The book is honest and an inspiration.

I enjoyed the book and highly recommend it for its portrayal of a part of the war that is seldom written about. Both Dillion and I were assigned to the “rear” in Vietnam, but there was a huge difference in the degree of vulnerability in our assignments.

I do not envy Dillion’s assignment or his MOS. There is no entry for “REMF” in this book’s  glossary or for “grunt” either. Noah Dillion is not a name-caller.

—David Willson

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