Chuck Gross is the author of the memoir, Rattler One-Seven: A Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s War Story. Gross flew helicopters in Vietnam and was shot down twice. He had a post-war career as a commercial airline pilot, and currently teaches helicopter flight instruction.
First Light: A POWs Rescue Mission That Never Can Be Acknowledged (Hickory Hill Press, 264 pp., $15.77, paper) is packaged to look like a Vietnam War memoir or true first-person account of a POW rescue mission, but it is labeled “a novel.” As the back cover blurb says: “Gross weaves reality into a story that will leave the reader wondering is it fiction or reality.”
The cover features a POW visual cliché of a barbed wire fence and a guard tower silhouetted against an darkening orange sky. The book is set appropriately in the Orwellian Year of 1984. It helps a reader’s motivation and enthusiasm for this story to believe it is likely or even possible—let alone sensible—that Southeast Asians would still have American captives ten years after the American War petered out.
Curt Gray, the hero of this tale, is an “ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot.” He’s approached by a government operative. The preposterous plot is that there is a prison camp holding American POWs and our hero can locate it by seducing a woman who fourteen years earlier had saved his life when he was a downed pilot.
The dedication of this book tells us the target audience for this book. To wit: “First Light is dedicated to all the POW’s and MIA’s that were left behind in Southeast Asia.”
Curt Gray, we are told, “finds himself entangled in a dark web of deception and emotional mayhem.” I have no idea what emotional mayhem is. Early in the book, the main character bemoans the fact that the “war’s unpopularity had not made for a good welcome upon returning home.” Perhaps that was because we did not return en masse from a victory the way the World War II troops did.
Each of us slunk home alone over a period of many years. As my 91- year-old mother told me on the phone the other night when I whined about something: “Pull up your socks and get on with things. Suck it up.” That also was the advice from the “Greatest Generation” when we came home from Vietnam.
Back to the plot: Our hero’s friend who saved his life, Ms. Lee, is now the head secretary of Gen. Hung Samrin, one of the top commanders of the occupying Vietnamese forces in Cambodia. Gray embarks on the secret Project Ajax Cleanup to seduce Ms. Lee and find out where six POWs are being held. He must do this despite being happily married and his wife is pregnant with their second child.
So our hero sneaks into Cambodia on a false passport and hangs around until he runs into Ms. Lee. Does he find the six POWs and free them to worldwide acclaim? Read the book and find out.
Once the book gets started, it moves along pretty well and is not badly written. But a good editor would have made this book shorter and much better.
The author includes potted histories of various Southeast Asian countries and long, statistic-laden conversations. We learn, for instance, that there were 223,748 ARVN troops killed in the American war. Interesting statistic, but not really germane; plus, it slows the plot down.
Gray includes a totally inappropriate lecture in the middle of action about having to rebuke his wife when she came home with a Jane Fonda exercise tape. He explains to his wife Jane’s treasonous escapade in North Vietnam. She happily returns the tape.
Worse than the Fonda rant is a explanation that as a Caucasian the hero does not find Vietnamese women attractive unless they have French ancestry. Marginally worse is that Gray tells of “spraying a chemical called Orange,” and says that it was fun spraying it. His shot at the peace movement consists of calling war protesters cowards who were afraid of the draft.
The best part of this book is the long section that flashes back to Gray’s time flying Hueys and surviving a crash due to the intervention of Ms. Lee and her brother. I enjoyed most of the Vietnam War flashback section, and I know why. It was written out of real-life experience.
The author’s web site is www.vietnamhelicopterpilot.com