Arnold Sampson, Jr., takes an exploratory journey into the past in Dustoff: More than Met the Eye, Reflections of a Vietnam Medevac Pilot (BookBaby, 200 pp. $19.69, paper). This war memoir is exceptional because, in examining his role as a UH1-H medevac (Dustoff) helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War, Sampson admits to not remembering significant portions of what he did.
As he puts it: “Time has sopped up and blotted out some of the observations I thought I would never forget.” The events Sampson does remember add up to an in-depth appraisal of the ups and downs (pun intended) of a Vietnam War Dustoff pilot.
Sampson, a life member of Vietnam Veterans of America, joined the 68th Medical Detachment (Helicopter Ambulance) in 1969, six months after the unit deployed to Chu Lai. As a newbie lieutenant and one of only a few commissioned officers in the unit, all of the non-combat administrative duties were dumped on him. He still flew missions, but it took seven months for him to reach an aircraft commander’s seat.
Flying in the Vietnam War proved to be both exceptionally rewarding and extremely dangerous, Sampson says. He tells stories about situations for which he had no training or inadequate information. He learned from mistakes that often began as creative ideas but failed in practicality, and continually calls himself to task for them.
His conflicted feelings about extreme situations such as rescuing a fellow pilot who accidentally shot himself did not finally resolve themselves until decades later. His acts of kindness such as doctoring a badly injured Vietnamese child who died practically in his arms took a heavy emotional toll. That child’s death still haunts his dreams.
Sampson creates a nightmare of terror with his accounts of days of flying through rain, clouds, and zero visibility during the monsoon season. For a time, all aircraft were grounded except for Dustoff choppers. In the midst of that chaos, an extraordinary close call caused his crewmen to face him down with a mini-mutiny; Sampson merely walked away from them and the war continued. During that period, his crew saved lives on every mission.
A loner who did not drink or hang out at the club, Sampson was not particularly sociable. His overall view of the 68th is a group of skillful but self-centered warrant officers who did nothing but fly. Sampson’s piloting skill and willingness to help others improve their abilities earned him respect.
He challenges the necessity for the war and criticizes its execution. In closing, he honors the dead and recognizes the post-war suffering of survivors.
Arnold Sampson writes in an enjoyable, conversational style. Although many of his stories emphasize his shortcomings, the fact is that he flew 878 combat missions that evacuated 2,200 people, saving the lives of hundreds of them.