Retired Marine Corps Capt. Robert G. Lathrop’s The Dark Side of Heaven (AgeView Press, 68 pp., $24.99), as the title suggests, is a dark book. Lathrop, a former A-4 Skyhawk pilot, arrived in Vietnam during the 1968 Tet Offensive. In fifteen months, he flew more than 275 missions. His squadron, VMA-311, flew 54,625 sorties and dropped some 9 million tons of bombs.
We’re told this record will never be broken. I believe it. This is a book for those who believe that if we’d only dropped more bombs on Vietnam, the outcome of the war would have been different.
Lathrop was tortured by his role in the Vietnam War and he wrote some moving and powerful poems about what he viewed as war atrocities. “He wrote them to honor the men and women who served,” the book’s collaboration Jeanette Vaughan writes.
The poems often moved me to tears, as did reading Gene Lathrop’s biography and how he spent his time after the war. He was born in Walla Walla, Washington on June 8, 1942. He graduated from Dayton High School in 1960. This overlap with my own biography and the skill of his writing, often made me feel as though I could have easily ended up in his shoes.
His being the exact same age as I am—and being born and raised in Washington State—was often on my mind as I read his verses. The old cliché, “There but fortune go I,” dogged me throughout the book.
After the war, Lathrop endured PTSD and sought treatment at the VA’s American Lake Hospital near Tacoma, Washington, where many of my close friends also have been treated. Lathrop spent much of his retirement “in periods of solitude,” writing down his memories of his experiences in Vietnam, seeking “answers and meaning to the controversial questions, occurrences and mysteries that took place during the Vietnam Conflict.”
Lathrop was a lucky man, in that he married the love of his life, Joy. “She was his confidant and supporter as PTSD threatened to unravel Gene’s mind and destroy relationships with friends and family.” Gene Lathrop died on June 13, 2012, “while out on his farm doing what he loved, working the land in solitude.”
This small book of verse is dark and honest and tormented. The titles of the thirteen poems include “As I Lay Dying,” “After Mission 186,” “The Field of Despair,” and “The Phantom Battalion.” It’s difficult to quote from a book of this sort, so I won’t even try, but the language of war and of pilots has never been served better in any book I’ve read.
“All of the missions described in this work are purely from the imagination of the author,” Vaughan writes. “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Okay, I buy that, but Gene Lathrop paid the dues that made each of the poems seem to me to be the purest of truths.
The pen and ink drawings by Laura Brown and L. Lederman are perfect to support and amplify the poems. This is a book that everyone concerned about the costs of war should read.