John Bercaw went into the Marine Corps in 1960 as “an undisciplined and troubled high school dropout,” he writes in his memoir, A Pink Mist (CreateSpace, 296 pp., $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle). He served for four years in the Marines. In September 1967 Bercaw reinvented himself as an Army Warrant Officer trained to fly Hueys, which he did in Vietnam with great distinction.
After the war, Bercaw served as an instrument instructor at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia before he joined the Illinois Army National Guard. He retired in 1990 as CWO4 and a Master Army Aviator.
A short list of his medals includes: the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, and an Air Medal with “V” Device. He has a BA degree from Aurora University and spent nine years as a instructor at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.
John Bercaw is a smart, literate, self-deprecating, and witty writer who has worked hard with his research to make his book as good as it can be. He wears his learning lightly, but it makes the book a delightful reading experience. He begins with a quote from the Italian poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days; we remember moments.”
We get a brief and entertaining section on Bercaw’s time in the Marines, but the book is about his year in the Vietnam War flying Hueys, mostly for the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry, known as the One Quarter Cav.
The “Pink Mist” of the title refers the time when Bercaw was flying his Huey and got shot in the leg by a machine gun and the cockpit of the helicopter filled with a pink mist of blood.
The book is arranged chronologically in short sections. These episodes or vignettes are often violent and exciting, but are sometimes funny or moving. Sometimes a section is all of these things and more.
I read this book pell-mell, transfixed by Bercaw’s narrative voice and by the wonderment that he survived so many medevacs, resupply, and rescue missions.
The book left me with a profound respect for the Huey as a versatile machine that could do much more than it was designed to when flown by the brave young men who took them up in all kinds of weather and conditions, often while being shot at.
A Pink Mist ranks near the top of this genre, along with the classic Chickenhawk by Robert Mason. I highly recommend it all who want to know what flying a Huey in the Vietnam War was all about.
Near the end of the book, Bercaw says, “I was leaving Vietnam. I did not yet understand that Vietnam would never leave me.” I’m certain that every Vietnam veteran knows what he is talking about.
I know that I do.