Larry Freeland’s Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam (Publish Authority, 342 pp. $16.95, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is a riveting novel of air combat action during Lam Son 719, one of the last big American combat operations of the Vietnam War, which took place in February and March 1971. Freeland served a tour during the war with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot.
The story begins with a bang as Capt. Taylor St. James is piloting a Huey helicopter inserting ARVN troops into a new base camp just across the border in Laos. They soon run into enemy fire from the ground. Someone later remarks, “You have to have balls of steel to do that kind of flying.”
The purpose of Lam Son 719 was to stop the flow of NVA troops and supplies coming down the Ho Chi Minh Trail from North Vietnam, through Laos, and into South Vietnam. The job of the U.S. military was to provide air support for the ARVN forces. It would be the first real test of the President Nixon’s Vietnamization program.
St. James has left behind his wife, Sandy, a high school teacher whose first husband was killed in the war. They exchange letters in the form of recorded tapes. He sugar coats his, but makes daily entries in a journal that detail what’s really going on.
Aside from enemy attacks, we learn that the main categories of helicopter mishaps are bad weather, mechanical trouble, and human error. The story contains examples of at least three of these.
St. James’ company is located at Phu Bai and he’s frequently given the task of breaking in new pilots. As the missions begin going deeper into Laos, the losses of men and aircraft increase. The story also mentions Operation Ranch Hand, the use of the highly toxic Agent Orange defoliant. St. James also witnesses a few Arc Light missions involving concentrated bombing.
Helicopters are constantly being hit by ground fire and men inside wounded or killed. Bullets rip through his helicopter so often that St. James say it’s a “familiar sound.” Helicopters also keep crashing and making crash landings. He calls struggling with the controls to keep from losing his ship “like riding a mechanical bull at a Texas Roadhouse.”
On the ground there are dangers from rocket attacks, a typhoon, enemy sappers breaking through the wire, and the NVA moving south of the DMZ.
St. James writes to his wife, “You fight everything. The heat. The humidity. The bugs. The filth. The boredom. And the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Hell, some of us even fight each other. And for what? Why? I can’t figure it out. I may never understand it.”
In Chariots in the Sky Larry Freeland has written a great book about men who control their fears and fly into action knowing they need to be prepared to handle whatever happens.
Freeland’s website is larryfreeland.com