Dustoff by Arnold Hughbrook Sampson, Jr.

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. 

—Henry Zeybel

Good Bye, My Darling; Hello, Vietnam and ‘We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by Michael D. Lazares

We’re reviewing Michael D. Lazares’ Goodbye My Darling; Hello, Vietnam! (CreateSpace, 312pp., $15, paper; $3.99, Kindle) and “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” (CreateSpace, 282 pp., $15, paper; $3.99) together because they share author and editor—and because “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” contains some of the more exciting episodes that held this reader’s attention in Goodbye My Darling.  

Lazares served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He flew Loaches in his first tour and Chinooks in his second. Lazares then put in seven years in the Army as a flight instructor. He went into the Army Reserves, and retired after twenty-eight years of service. He then became an officer in the Tacoma Police Department. Because I enjoyed Good Bye so much, I will put his book Tacoma Blue at the top of my recreational reading list. 

When Lazares first arrived in Vietnam, he flew for E/82nd Artillery in the First Cavalry Division. One of the many things that makes his books fun to read is his rough-and-ready attitude toward authority figures. Lazares has a genius for rubbing them the wrong way, as well as a great gift for relating stories about these incidents and about the many hair-raising adventures he had while flying.

His “Snakes in the Lake” story appears in both books. I found this autobiography preferable to the catch-as-catch-can, multiple author book, “We Gotta Get out of this Place,” because I prefer Lazares’ writing style to that of most of the other contributors to We Gotta.

I hasten to add though, that there are stories in We Gotta by authors other than Lazares that make that book well worth the price. “Bird Dog’n” by Carl Buick is one of those stories.  “Cantelopes” by George Van Riper, a tale of overuse of Agent Orange, is another. For me to enjoy that tale, it had to be a good one, and it was. It even made me laugh more than once—aloud.

Both books contain many knuckle-chewing tales of flying with almost no fuel, darkness descending, clouds obscuring everything, and shots being fired from the ground by just about everybody and anyone.

Of these two books, the one I recommend as indispensable for those who search out helicopter books is Good Bye, My Darling because it is that rare book about a Vietnam War helicopter pilot that dares to give a back story, the boyhood origins of the author, and does it in a way that makes the book as interesting as the thrill-a-minute sections that take place during the author’s two Vietnam War tours.

These two books touch many of the same bases that earlier helicopter books touched, and that is a good thing. We witness defoliation missions. We meet Charlton Heston. We find out about ash and trash. We get to see again the VC barber of legend and history. There’s even a mention of my home town, Yakima, Washington.

The books are not all scary action episodes. Lazares is also capable of reflection, as when he flies over some French cemeteries and observes:  “I was too young to appreciate the fact that if the French couldn’t defeat this primitive V.C., what chance did I have.”  Good question.

Lazares is that rare Vietnam veteran who can produce a literate book about his tours of duty without being an English major or having any pretensions.

I have noticed that the books produced by Vietnam veteran fliers avoid most of the pitfalls of the grunt-written books. My theory is that fliers are smarter and their lives have turned out better.

It’s just a theory.

—David Willson

                               The author in Vietnam