The Grotto by Harold G. Walker


Harold G. Walker learned to fly helicopters for the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, but he did not know why until he arrived in country. As he puts it: “I didn’t become aware of any reason for the war until I was in it.”

Walker writes about his first three months of flying CH-46D Sea Knight missions in The Grotto Book One: Phu Bai, Vietnam 1969-1970 (Dragonfly, 463 pp. $19.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle). Book Two, which will cover his next nine months flying from the Marble Mountain Air Facility in Da Nang, will be published in September.

Walker calls his writing style “literary nonfiction” because “very few names have been changed.” He lists “current interviews, conversations recalled, reviews of declassified material, and reflections of document-able situations” as his sources. He adds credence to his stories by including photographs of most of his cohorts the first time he mentions them.

Walker’s view of war includes successes and failures. He tells nightmarish stories that made me rethink the entire theory of helicopter flight—let alone employing such machines in combat. He lauds the Marine Corps with brief combat history lessons and frequently pays tribute to the valor of Grunts (a word he always capitalizes).

He does not glorify his own accomplishments, but relishes telling of the heroics of men who flew alongside of him.

At Phu Bai, Walker joined HMM-262 as a first lieutenant copilot. “We did everything: combat troop assaults, medevac, resupply, reconnaissance inserts and extracts, routine administrative support, VIP, humanitarian assistance,” he says, “and any other type of flight imaginable.”


1st Lt. Walker, Chu Lai, 1970

Amazingly, in his memoir Walker duplicates the temperament of the man he was fifty years ago at age twenty-four, as he reflects the awe he felt toward his duties and squadron mates. After his first Third Force insert, he writes, he felt “strangely at peace.”

During his first medevac, he “couldn’t help but think how exciting this was. It was surreal.” Afterward, he thought, “I had no further aspirations.”

Accounts of interpersonal relationships dominate parts of the book. Significant tension existed between men of different ranks, experience levels, and ages—primarily among the officers. Walker and his fellow young lieutenant FNGs occasionally misbehaved like college kids. Machismo dictated their behavior. After a couple of months, they christened their eight-man hooch “The El Mossy Grotto,” then, “The Grotto,” a gathering place for the young to distance themselves from higher-ups who frequented the Officers’ Club.

After serving in Vietnam, Walker became a Huey pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. In 1991, his squadron was activated for the first Persian Gulf War. He retired in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

His website is

—Henry Zeybel