The Freedom Shield by John D. Falcon

Retired U.S. Army Maj. John D. Falcon’s The Freedom Shield: The 191st Assault Helicopter Company in Vietnam (Casemate, 343 pp. $34.95) is a well-written, vividly descriptive, colorful, and highly detailed account of Vietnam War helicopter combat operations. Falcon tells that story through the eyes of a UH-1 Huey pilot and fellow members of the 191st Assault Helicopter Company.

Readers will truly understand the nature of combat at the tactical level during intense engagements and ordinary missions that abruptly became life-and-death struggles. Those who have been in a chopper inserted into a hot landing zone will understand every word in this book. For those who haven’t, it will be an eye opener as Falcon puts the reader on board flying into combat while the side door gunner is firing his M-60 machine gun at North Vietnamese troops.

Not long into the book I realized writing it probably was probably a catharsis for Falcon, and for others with whom he flew. The releasing of so many memories, perhaps painfully at times, is what makes this book authentic in its telling. Every vignette reminds us how hazardous flying combat missions in the Vietnam War could be. The terrain, the jungle, and the weather, as well as the enemy’s lethal tactics, challenged even the best pilots.   

That includes a mission Falcon describes in which one of his unit’s’ gunships flew a night special operations mission into Cambodia through a canyon with sheer walls to destroy North Vietnamese supply sampans as they surreptitiously smuggled weapons across the border into Vietnam. It was as much luck as skill that kept them alive that night.  

Another of the book’s strengths is that it goes beyond being a memoir of one man’s tour of duty with the 191st. Falcon graciously collected the reminiscences of many former unit members and allowed them to find their voices and recount their combat experiences.

He also describes the big advances made in war-fighting with the application of the air mobility concept developed less than two years before his unit was sent to Vietnam. He describes the critical importance of helicopters during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in 1965. after which air mobile operations became a mainstay for Army units in combat.  

With helicopter support, Lt. Col. Hal Moore’s 1st/7th Cavalry was continually resupplied during that intense and prolonged battle, its wounded medevaced, and ultimately safely extracted by chopper. However, there was another aspect of the battle not mentioned in this book, which highlights what might happen when a unit is left exposed without access to air mobile assets. Moore’s sister 1st Cavalry Division battalion, the 2nd of the 7th, was decimated when they didn’t get helicopter support and went on a needless march to a distant extraction zone. 

In other words, the strength of being an air mobile battalion is lost when helicopters are not employed where and when they are needed. The unlucky battalion commander later summed up his unit’s painful experience as “the least air mobile operation in the entire war.”

This well-written and very interesting book is outstanding on three levels: It describes the rise of Army aviation and the strategy of air mobility as a game changer in contemporary warfare; it captures the Vietnam War at the combatant level; and it is a pitch-perfect unit history. Well done.

— John Cirafici