CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans by Bill Collier

 

In 2015, Bill Collier wrote a memoir, The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps. Earlier year he published CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans: Flying Helicopters in Laos for Air America (Wandering Star, 349 pp. $20, paper; $4.99, Kindle).

In reviewing his earlier book, I said, “Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.” Collier’s new book has similar qualities: It kept me continuously entertained. Just about anywhere readers open the book, they will find an outrageous story filled with chills and thrills, laughs, or romance.

CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans has two main stories lines.

The first deals with Air America and, of course, the “secret” war in Laos. Collier flew there from mid-1970 to the end of 1972. Chapters such as “Sleeping in the Cockpit While Flying” left me nodding and smiling. Despite the book’s title, Collier tells interesting stories without giving away secrets about war-time air operations.

His flying stories do not reach the emotional intensity of his experiences as a rookie Marine pilot. Back then, when he proudly attained aircraft commander status, he wrote timeless lines such as, “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.”

The second story line deals with the playboy activities of the well-paid Air America pilots. The men enjoyed long annual leaves and traveled internationally: Athens, Madrid, Lisbon, London, Miami, San Francisco, and San Diego once were stops on the same vacation. For shorter leaves, Collier and the other pilots stayed closer to home at Udorn, Thailand, as well  Bangkok, Hong Kong, India (visiting the Taj Mahal), Katmandu, and Sydney.

They did well with many of the women they encountered. Collier is man enough, though, to confess to times when he struck out. Primarily, the pilots shared mutual admiration, understanding, and satisfaction of physical needs with airline stewardesses.

Collier summarizes one vacation by quoting W.C. Fields. To wit: “I spent my money on whiskey and women. The rest of it I wasted.”

He validates his memory with three lengthy appendices: “The History of Air America: CIA Air Operations in Laos 1955-1974” by William M. Leary; Anne Darling’s “CIA Super Pilot Spills the Beans” from the 1972 premier issue of Oui magazine; and “Life and Death among the Hill Tribes” by Peter Aiken from a 1972 Lookeast magazine.

To wrap, Collier cites Anne Darling on the security of the Air America/CIA programs. She quotes a pilot who said, “The North Vietnamese know everything we’re doing. They’re not the problem. The security Air America is concerned about is being secure from the scrutiny of the American people.”

Even today, Bill Collier pretty much treats security in the same manner. Yet he still tells great stories about a war that never was.

—Henry Zeybel

More Than Nine Lives by Evan Balasuriya

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In More Than Nine Lives (CreateSpace, 208 pp. $24.95, hardcover; $19.95 paper ), Evan Balasuriya writes about narrow escapes from death early in his life. That theme reaches a crescendo during the 1968 Tet Offensive when his band—Savages—is in the middle of a tour entertaining American troops in South Vietnam.

Savages consisted of four men (three guitar players and a drummer) and three women (a lead singer and two go-go dancers) mainly from Sri Lanka where they were one of the country’s most popular rock bands. The group had more than nine lives, Balasuriya, notes, having cheated “death more than eleven times and perform[ed] for nearly 500,000 U.S. soldiers” during thirteen long months in-country.

Their brushes with death included rocket attacks; their van coming under small arms fire; confrontations with drunken ARVN, Korean, and American sexual predators; and speeding along narrow roads in the blackness of night in the middle of nowhere. Balasuriya plays each event for all it is worth. He personalizes a stray bullet that hits a wall near him, for example, by saying, “Yet again, I had cheated death.”

Balasuriya builds a background for the Vietnam War scenes by recalling growing up in Sri Lanka. For me, this was the most interesting part of his memoir.

Born in 1942, he describes a near-drowning and a near-emasculating bicycle accident, along with other threats to his life. The son of a doctor who worked in government hospitals, he grew up with six siblings. He labels his Catholic parents as “upper middle class,” but they had servants and their children attended boarding schools. In high school, Balasuriya excelled as a soccer goalie, captaining his team to a national championship.

Despite being his father’s scapegoat for misdeeds by the children, Balasuriya developed a strong personality and sense of responsibility without harboring resentment. Consequently, he displayed excellent leadership at critical times, especially in Vietnam.

In keeping with a privileged upbringing, Balasuriya’s thinking reflects puritanical standards. His observations on love, sex, war, prostitution, and other controversial topics reveal a righteous state of mind that led him to face physical danger to protect the women in his band and to stand up to bullies.

For Balasuriya, going to Vietnam resembled a leap to another planet. It was his first trip outside Sri Lanka and his first airplane ride. He had no knowledge about the war or its purpose. To him, everything in Vietnam portended danger.

Like the other members of Savages, Balasuriya delighted in entertaining enlisted men, NCOs, and officers with separate performances in a given day. Savages played some 750 concerts.

Similar to other Asian bands, Savages mimicked performers such as the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Balasuriya mentions nearly every song Savages played for the troops, which should trigger at least a few memories for Vietnam War veterans.

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The book contains about a hundred photographs he took. Many are small or dark. But they all provide evidence of an unusual year for a remarkable leader and his group.

Balasuriya migrated to the United States in 1973. For years, he operated a nationally renowned restaurant in Minneapolis. In 2005, he founded an organization that built houses for Sri Lanka tsunami victims.

The author’s website is morethanninelives.com

—Henry Zeybel

Through My Daughter’s Eyes by Julia Dye

Through My Daughter’s Eyes (Warriors Publishing Group, 190 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle) is a terrific, fast-moving young adult novel that deals with the impact of war and post-war issues on a military family. It’s set in the present day and told in the first person by a middle school girl named Abbie.

First-time novelist Julia Dye’s father served in World War II, and she writes with authority in the voice of young Abbie as she wrestles with serious growing-up issues—as well as the tribulations all families face before, during, and after a parent is deployed to a war zone.

When things get particularly tough, Abbie has a sit down with her grandfather, a Vietnam War veteran. He tells her of his own difficulties after coming home from the war.

“It was really hard on me,” he says. “I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t understand why I was hated. I lost friends over there, too. Wasn’t easy. I began drinking [and worse]…. It took me a long time to realize what I was doing. If it wasn’t for your grandmother ,I might not have ever gotten better.”

What comes next is believable and poignant—a good capsule description of this entire worthy YA novel.

Dye, the Vice President and CFO of Warriors, Inc., the top Hollywood military advising company, also wrote Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons from Marine Corps NCOs.

—Marc Leepson

 

Bringing Vincent Home by Madeleine Mysko

Reviewing a book this long after it was published (in 2007) is unusual. But Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press, 2007; 182 pp., $14.95, paper) is an unusually compelling novel, and letting readers know about it ten years late still seems a lot better than not letting them know at all.

Author Madeleine Mysko has written a Vietnam War story that is remarkably true to life— but just as remarkably different from the conventional fiction of that war. Mysko served as an Army nurse whose wartime service was not in Vietnam but at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas—specifically in the center’s burn ward, then and now the Army’s main facility for treating soldiers with severe burn injuries. The burn unit is the setting for her novel, which is narrated by the middle-aged mother of one of the casualties being treated there.

Both the setting and the narrative voice are not the familiar ones in Vietnam War novels. The story takes place in a Texas hospital, not on the battlefields of Vietnam. It’s not told from the viewpoint of the generation that fought the war (or avoided it or protested it— that is, the author’s generation), but by a member of the previous generation, a woman who reached adulthood in the very different wartime America of World War II. For both those reasons Bringing Vincent Home reflects a different angle of vision, putting a new and illuminating light on the Vietnam War for today’s readers.

In the novel’s opening sentences, the narrator, Kitty Duvall, answers the phone in her modest home in Baltimore one day in August 1969 and is told by an Army casualty officer her that her son Vincent, the youngest of her three children, was wounded in Vietnam and will be evacuated to Japan and then to Texas. Three short paragraphs later, Kitty is walking off a plane in San Antonio, hoping to stay as close to her son as she can during his treatment.

In the 170-plus pages that follow, through Kitty’s eyes we witness Vincent’s physical and emotional ups and downs and are introduced to nurses, doctors, and chaplains who care for him through those swings. We meet her older son and her daughter, who has become an antiwar activist and whose certainties about the war clash with Kitty’s deep confusion about it.

We see relatives and girlfriends visiting other patients and glimpse their anguished efforts to deal with their men’s pain and disfigurement. We share Kitty’s memories and feelings, too, including the comfort she gets from her deep Catholic faith and her conflicted feeling about the same faith because it will not let her end her marriage to the abusive, alcoholic husband who abandoned the family many years before.

All of this comes across with perfect-pitch authenticity. Details of time, place, perspective, and emotion are all completely plausible. Kitty Duvall is as real as any fictional character I remember.

Madeleine Mysko

If I hadn’t known that the author was not a burn patient’s mother or anywhere close to Kitty’s age, I would have been certain I was reading real-life memories, not fiction—a narrative that is all the more powerful when we remember that nearly half a century after this story takes place, wounded American troops are still arriving in the burn unit from distant and controversial wars.

Madeleine Mysko has crafted a novel that is as believable as it is moving. I hope it will continue bringing Vincent home to readers for a long time to come.

The author’s website is mmauthor.com/bringing-vincent-home

—Arnold R. Isaacs

Arnold R. Isaacs, a former Vietnam War correspondent, is the author of Without Honor: Defeat in Vietnam and Cambodia; Vietnam Shadows: The War, Its Ghosts, and 
Its Legacy; and, most recentlyFrom Troubled Lands: Listening to Pakistani Americans and Afghan Americans in Post-9/11 America.

Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers by p.a. delorenzi

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Peter DeLorenzi is a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, having served a 1968-69 tour of duty at Vandegrift Combat Base in Quang Tri Province in I Corps.  He lives, works, and writes on beautiful San Juan Island in the state of Washington.

DeLorenzi, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has a rare way with a turn of a phrase. He displays that to great advantage in Paper Airplanes and Serial Lovers: The Making of a Poet (Outskirts Press, 126 pp. $14.95, paper; $6.99, Kindle), a collection of fine poems.

Here is one from DeLorenzi’s prison years:

 

the bare concrete floor

meets my naked feet

time after silent time

as I traverse

my steel enclosure

and let my mind rappel down

the glass smooth face

of the distant cliffs

of freedom

This poem is called “Sleepwalk-1980.” That year, DeLorenzi writes, “found me on trial for my life for the killing of a man in Oregon that was assaulting a woman. It’s a long story.”

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Peter DeLorenzi

He goes on to tell the reader that there are not a lot of events about prison life he cares to share with us. He does say, it’s “a tough way to wake up each morning. Stay free.”

That’s good advice for those among us who can envision being in such a place. I can, and I thank Peter DeLorenzi for his vivid poems warning of what can happen faster than you can imagine.

Read this book of powerful poems and appreciate how DeLorenzi has turned his experiences into these verses. He tells us he’s been doing his best “to be a good human being.”

There’s no greater goal for any of us. His poetry inspires me to do the same.

—David Willson

Neighbors in Arms by Larry Pressler

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“The formulation of foreign policy is a complex and byzantine process in the United States.”  That’s how former U.S. Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) explains foreign poicy in general, and U.S./India/Pakistan relations in particular, in his new book, Neighbours in Arms An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent (Penguin Viking 288 pp. $29, hardcover; $25, Kindle).

In this book Pressler unravels the story of how the U.S. wound up weaponizing a new and unstable government in Pakistan while forcing the world’s second largest democracy, India, to seek weapons from the communist block. Pressler, a Vietnam War veteran and Rhodes Scholar from rural South Dakota, reminds the reader of the contrast between the technology of atomic warfare and agricultural simplicity.

He examines what once was known as the Military/Industrial Complex in this country and its spreading influence in foreign policy and the India/Pakistan nuclear situation with reasoned logic. He succinctly shows how the enterprise has grown since the Eisenhower years into what he calls the Octopus.

Pressler explains how its ever-growing tentacles reach into virtually every aspect of foreign policy, as well as the American economy. He sheds light on the growth of think tanks and intellectual-sounding non-profits staffed by former military and political figures financed by veiled contributions from special interests and advanced by highly paid lobbyists as they seek to change congressional and presidential checks on foreign policy that impede profits flowing to the Octopus.

Pressler, along with Sen. John Glenn, sought to add restrictions on the nuclear arms race. The Pressler Amendment, as it became known, was designed to prohibit sales to governments that seem to have other interests or are unstable. It was an attempt to curtail arms sales to governments that might support terrorism or were exploring becoming members of the nuclear club.

As terrorist groups using religion as justification began spreading in South Asia, some senators became concerned that an unchecked U.S. increase of arms sales would encourage governments to seek their own nuclear capabilities. The Pressler Amendment was Congress’s attempt to stifle such endeavors by requiring presidential certification that sales to foreign governments not be used to develop nuclear arms.

Pressler divulges the machinations of the Octopus as it worked to thwart efforts to curtail arms sales to Pakistan. He foresaw Pakistan becoming a nuclear nation that supported terrorism. Believing correctly that the Pakistan government was unreliable, Pressler feared that nation’s ability to protect its nuclear weapons would be suspect.

He points out that Osama Bin Laden was secreted in Pakistan for years, along with other terrorists. Pressler’s big fear is that Pakistani nuclear arms would get into the hands of well-financed terrorists, causing unimaginable consequences.

Pressler makes a lucid, carefully documented argument. He shows that the current Military/Industrial Complex is a powerful shadow overhanging our democracy. After serving in the Vietnam War, Pressler has dedicated his life to honorable service to our nation, only to be thwarted by the dark side of politics. That is, after serving twenty years in the Senate, he was defeated because of his opposition to the Octopus.

111111111111111111111111In the book, Pressler describes what he saw as a last opportunity to change the balance of the U.S. Senate by running as an independent. He believes that the current dysfunction in both parties has given an opening for a small number of independents to exercise control.

He admits he was angry and disappointed that there seems to be no room for a moderate, so he ran once for the Senate after being out of office for over a decade. Pressler ran the race he wanted: clean, no name calling, no hi-jinks, only to be overwhelmed by the Octopus at the last minute. Citibank, one of the state’s largest employers, insinuated that jobs in South Dakota would be lost if Pressler won.

This is an important book, a true story that sheds light on the bare knuckles and ugly sides of politics in America. It is a trumpet in the night.

My fear is that its story might be ignored or discounted.

—Bud Alley

Feet of the Messenger by H.C. Palmer

H.C. Palmer was drafted into the Army and served as a battalion surgeon in the the Vietnam War. He’s also been a cattle rancher. Palmer’s poetry makes the reader aware of the high cost in young male flesh of war in a new way—kind of like a kick in the guts. It’s on display in his first book of poetry,  Feet of the Messenger: Poems (BkMk Press, 80 pp., $13.95)

Here is one example:

December 14, 2010, VA Hospital

 

Kansas City, Missouri

Back from his tour of Afghanistan, the soldier says,

Half my foot is gone, Doc, but I’m still in the Guard—

a peacetime soldier now.  I take his foot, a stub

grafted at the arch, trace the spongy edges with my fingers.

No feeling. He laughs.  Beautiful

work, don’t you think? 

 

Thanks for this beautifully brutal poem, Dr. Palmer. And for seventy-five more pages of equally beautiful poems.

The book includes a wonderful quote from Karl Marlantes:  “It won’t hurt you. It’s just to kill plants.”

I thought of that quote last night when I awoke screaming from the pain in my right knee. Then I laughed. That’s the power of poetry.

The more than seventy-five pages of poetry in this beautiful book all have impact on the reader, and they also have messages that all of us need. That’s also the power of good poetry.

H.C. Palmer

I wish I could include more of Palmer’s poems in this review, but space prohibits that. The poem on page 41 is a poem everyone needs. It’s a lucid conversation with an infantryman who is “cradling a bullet in his brain.”

He thinks he’s going home to the Madison River Valley in Montana. He talks of the 24-inch rainbow. My heart was breaking as he was loaded into the dustoff for Ton San Nhut Hospital. He’s not going to make it back to the “most beautiful place in the world.”

Palmer has founded and leads a writing program for veterans in Kansas City. I wish I was in that class.

—David Willson