The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

51qdi1z2o2l-_sx331_bo1204203200_

Robert F. Curtis’s The Typhoon Truce, 1970: Three Days in Vietnam when Nature Intervened in the War (Casemate, 264 pp., $35.95, hardcover; $9.99, Kindle) is a most unusual story of humanity in the middle of war. It is a story about heroism, skill, and soldiers’ abilities to put their missions first despite any personal dangers they encountered. This book is a report of the kind of activities that seldom happen in war, but when they do, history deems it important to remember them for posterity.

In October 1970 in the area between Da Nang and the DMZ , the names “Joan” and “Kate” took on a sinister meaning. Joan proved to be the name of a ferocious typhoon that flooded northeast Vietnam. Less than a week later came Kate, another devastating typhoon. Due to the unceasing, torrential rain that accompanied the storms, untold numbers of Vietnamese were left stranded in the valleys surrounded by rising floods.

The heart of this book is the story of how American Chinook pilots risked their lives to airlift endangered Vietnamese citizens to higher ground. While the flying was extremely difficult and dangerous, the pilots and crews—as in much of the Vietnam War—were never quite sure who the enemy was.

This book is not a rush-to-the-climax kind of read. The author takes the reader into the middle of the activities almost to the point where you can feel the rain and tension. The gradual movement from the beginning of the rain to the actual rescue missions seems to take quite a while. At first, this can be rather disconcerting, but waiting is also the name of the game in awaiting the approach of a typhoon.

Several chapters describe daily life in a helicopter unit. Readers who have had similar experiences in Vietnam will have an easy time relating to the author’s vivid descriptions of the men and their equipment. Great detail is given to the capabilities of the pilots. Many former pilots might recall that helicopters are sometimes called “a collection of various loose parts flying in close formation.”

The men of C Company, 159th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division were given the call sign “Playtex” prior to leaving the United States. Curtis explains that while most of the men involved did not know the origin of this name, it was because they gave such good support.

The Typhoon Truce was unspoken and unplanned. It came about because people were in trouble and other people saw a way to help. The author does a great job explaining the mindset of the flying crews who never knew if they would face appreciation or gunfire from the people they were trying to rescue.

2015125669cec98b33dCurtis—the author of Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond—has a unique way of moving sideways as well as forward in telling his story. Many times he interrupts the action to fill in personal details of the men involved to bring a greater depth of understanding.

I believe this story will stimulate much conversation among former Vietnam War helicopter pilots and crews. I would be surprised if it did not elicit similar examples of kindness from other veterans in the midst of a devastating war. Reading this book is a mission strongly recommended.

—Joseph Reitz

Advertisements

Vietnam War U.S. Helicopter Names, Vol. 2 by John Brennan

Vietnam veteran and historian John Brennan, with the help of a query on The VVA Veteran‘s Arts of War on the web page—and with his own tenacious original research—put together two volumes of books featuring names and images on helicopters in the Vietnam War. Vietnam War U.S. Army Helicopter Names, Volume 2 (Memoir Books, 80 pp., $19.95, paper) is now out in a new paperback edition.

The custom of personalizing military aircraft started as soon as air warfare began during World War I. Among those early images was the toothy shark face, something still used a hundred years later.

My hope is that this project continues to flourish, possibly discovering more art on the noses, such as this poignant question: “My God, How’d We Get In This Mess?”

To read our review of the first edition of this book, go to  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/vietnam-war-helicopter-art-volume-ii-by-john-brennan/

—Curt Nelson

Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—Henry Zeybel

Black Cat 2-1 by Bob Ford

It’s refreshing to read a memoir by a Vietnam veteran who underwent an action-heavy tour of duty and came home to live a full, successful life. That’s what happened to Bob Ford, who flew Hueys with the 282nd Assault Helicopter Company out of Da Nang. Ford, in fact, also had a happy upbringing before the war.

As Ford tells us in his memoir, Black Cat 2-1: The True Story of a Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and His Crew (Brown Books, 288 pp., $24,95), growing up in Shawnee, Oklahoma, he had “stern but loving parents,” liked “all of [his] teachers,” and “was blessed with a high school sweetheart.”

He took ROTC at the University of Oklahoma and proudly wore his Class-A uniform to his June 1966 graduation ceremonies—the only graduated to wear a military uniform at the event. During OCS, Ford’s weekends were “filled with athletics and all-around fun.” He excelled in helicopter training (“I had a knack for flying”), becoming one of the first in his class to solo at flight school. After flight school, Ford married his girlfriend Diane (“I couldn’t have been happier”), and then volunteered for Vietnam.

After he came home from the war, Ford put in a stint as an instructor pilot at Fort Wolters, an experience that was “the best year of [his] life.” When he got out of the Army in 1969 Ford, his wife, and new-born daughter moved back to Oklahoma and he began working for his father’s company, the Shawnee Milling Company. Today he runs the company’s flour mill in Okeene, Oklahoma. “It’s rewarding work,” he says.

In the four decades since Ford came home from Vietnam, he writes, “I’ve been able to enjoy school, community, and church activities,” and “have filled a leadership role in each.” An active athlete (“I played every sport available”), Ford has participated in hundreds of races, including marathons and triathlons, where he has excelled, winning state championships in his age group in “ten separate years.” Ford also enjoys “hunting, fishing, and raising cattle, as well as growing wheat and canola.”

Bob Ford today

In between growing up and coming home came an eventful 1967-68 tour of duty in the Vietnam War, which Bob Ford describes well and in detail in his memoir. He arrived in country in July of 1967 and took part in much combat, including the 1968 Tet Offensive and the Siege at Khe Sanh.

His book offers often many evocative descriptions of combat flying, replete with a good deal of reconstructed dialogue.

For Bob Ford, the Vietnam War was a positive experience, “flying at its most satisfying and thrilling,” as he puts it, and serving “with honor and dedication to our country as an army helicopter pilot with America’s best.”

The author’s web site is http://blackcat2-1.com

—Marc Leepson

The Blades Carry Me by James V. Weatherill and Anne Weatherill

A footlocker filled with letters and tapes served as the impetus for Jim and Annie Weatherill to recreate 1968 as they lived it in The Blades Carry Me: Inside the Helicopter War in Vietnam (WxillWords Press, 267 pp., $11.84, paper; $9.99, Kindle).

From November 1967 to November 1968, Army Warrant Officer Jim Weatherill piloted CH-47 Chinook helicopters out of Phu Hiep in Vietnam. Annie Weatherill attended the University of California at Riverside as a senior. She was pregnant. They had been married for a year before Jim went to war.

Their book reads like a novel—a good novel. Jim and Annie are the protagonists, but as Jim explains: “People are composites. Conversations are re-created and represented the way we spoke. Names and identifying characteristics are changed to protect each person’s privacy and right to tell his own story.”

Written forty-fives years after the events took place, the book’s tone has a maturity beyond Jim’s age. He was twenty-two back in the day. Yet the tone retains the spirit of spontaneity, confidence, competitiveness, and humor inherent in youth.

Jim’s ability to blend the two moods is enviable. The scenes in Vietnam present a tight and convincing package of what it was like to fly the Chinook in combat. Jim Weatherill best describes that role when he writes, “War for Chinook pilots is mostly resupply and waiting to get shot.”

The book is loaded with emotion-provoking and breath-taking events. That includes the tension and even insubordination during briefings before missions such as a tactical emergency with a fifty percent survival estimate. Then there is the enmity between old-timers and new guys. On Jim’s first in-country flight as a co-pilot, the pilot climbed in next to him, said, “Don’t touch anything,” and then ignored him.

After the pilot nearly destroyed their helicopter, he wanted to forget it. Jim, however, refused to cooperate and got tagged with an “authority problem.” By the way, the vivid description of the problem gave me goosebumps.

Jim and Annie Weatherill

Jim eventually became the only WO1 Chinook instructor pilot in Vietnam.

The book follows Jim and his best friends—two of whom bordered on sex-crazed—through many life-threatening as well as humorous encounters. During the Tet Offensive in the Central Highlands where Jim’s squadron operated, the entire landscape became a hot fire zone shrouded in ugly weather. Jim’s life evolved into a constant test of skill and daring delivering support and rescuing people in jeopardy.

As a result, his crew repeatedly performed feats far above the call of duty. At one point, after flying more than thirty-three hours in three days, he said, “We feel nothing, remember nothing. My youth is drowning in the flood of bloody missions. I can’t be so ancient at twenty-two.”

Annie’s life at home is equally well described, particularly her giving birth to their daughter. “I’m a walking blues song,” she writes. “Thanks to post-pregnancy hormones, I’m euphoric and terrified and despondent—sometimes all at once.”

Yet Annie persevered in meeting every obligation of infant care and schoolwork. Her devotion to her tasks and to a future with her husband exemplifies the dependability of the many of the women whose men were at war a half century ago.

After leaving the Army, Jim continued piloting as a career, eventually retiring as a Boeing 737 captain for a commercial airline.

Each book I read about the Vietnam War offers something new. In this one it was the Worry Line: “The Worry Line—the crossing point into battle—draws itself across a person’s path,” Jim Weatherill writes. “Sometimes it’s at the hooch door, sometimes at the operation briefing and sometimes its attached to bullets coming up from the jungle. It’s a soldier’s early warning system.”

Based on this, I figure that my own Worry Line began at an April 1968 briefing when our crew was designated as the first C-130 to drop CDS bundles in the A Shau Valley. The previous afternoon a C-130 had been shot down there with the loss of an entire crew from our squadron. Sad to say, in our haste to get in and out, we dropped short of the DZ.

Thanks for the memory, Jim.

The authors’ website is www.jamesweatherill.com

—Henry Zeybel

Missions of Fire and Mercy and Chopper Warriors by William E. Peterson

.

William E. Peterson enlisted in the Army at eighteen, signed up to be a Huey helicopter crew chief, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. College bored him, and left-wing professors irritated him. He wanted to leave behind Carney, Michigan, apple orchard country. He wanted to fly at breakneck speed at treetop level above the jungles. He wanted adventure. Peterson’s served in Vietnam with the 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion in the 1st Air Cav, AKA The Ghost Riders.

Peterson did everything in his tour that involved the Huey, and it is all in his memoir, Missions of Fire and Mercy: Until Death Do Us Part (CreateSpace, 302 pp., $21.99, paper) in exciting and exacting technological detail. If you hunger to read accounts of choppers in action in Vietnam, these books are for you.

The main body of Missions of Fire and Mercy consists of letters Peterson wrote home to his parents, friends, and his girlfriend Cindi. I give them credit for saving these great letters and for thereby helping Bill Peterson write graphic descriptions of the horror he dealt with in Vietnam on a daily basis.

When Peterson, a Swedish-American boy, arrives in country, he gets more than he bargained for. He even drinks some coffee, which he had never liked. He does not yearn for the lutefisk, but he states that his “faith in God has never been stronger. Even while stitching the area with machine gun fire, I find myself praying silently or maybe even audibly to Him for His protection. I firmly believe God has a timetable for all of us.”

As many Vietnam veterans have before him, Peterson notes how beautiful the country was, then says: “It’s a shame we are ruining it with bomb craters, Agent Orange, and burned out villages.”

Peterson expresses often how he feels about the fighting, calling it an “ugly, nonsensical war.”

“When I volunteered for this duty, I truly believed in this war—thought it was necessary to help stamp out communism, protect our freedoms—all that stuff,” he says. “Anymore, I think America has made a big mistake by coming here in the first place.”

But he then goes on to say: “We have the firepower available to put an end to this war in short order. If the politics could be put aside, we could win this war…”  That is a big if. Plus, when has politics ever been put aside?

Peterson comments that he had the utmost respect for his enemy, that “they were fantastic and determined warriors.” He goes on to say that the guerrilla war they engaged in was a hard one for Americans to fight.  “Sure, we killed a lot of them with massive firepower,” he says, “but the next day those who had not been killed were back at it again.”

The 1968 Tet Offensive is at the center of Missions of Fire. We encounter Clint Eastwood in his movie, Hang ‘em High, Raquel Welch in Bob Hope’s Christmas Show, and John Wayne westerns. Peterson also tells us the “guys in the rear really have it made.”

We once again hear that the AK-47 is much more reliable than the M-16, which jams when it gets sandy, and that Agent Orange was used without any thought that it might have harmful effects on humans. We meet Chris Noel in a mini-skirt and she is just as sweaty as the “rest of us.”  We also encounter shit-burning, and are told that Peterson is in a “God-forsaken war,” even though he has total faith that God is watching out for him.

Peterson’s Chopper Warriors: Kicking the Hornet’s Nest (CreateSpace, 154 pp., $17.95, paper) is mostly more of the same, although it also includes the work of other writers. All of them are pretty good, although Peterson is the best of the lot, and he is excellent. He is a gifted storyteller who mostly avoids the usual clichés of recent Vietnam War memoirs.

We find one in this book, however, in Larry Troxel’s “Double Security.”  After a big firefight, one of the VC bodies is “that of the barber who has been working on base and cutting our hair.” I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that one. 

I enjoyed James De Bose’s “Four Killer Agents.” It is an excellent entry on spraying defoliants from C-130s in Operation Ranch Hand. His recollections of the nasty, oily stuff blowing back into the airplane and saturating his clothes, hair, and skin is chilling.

 

The author in Vietnam

Those who want more chopper adventures should read both of these books and spend an afternoon living the life of a Huey crew chief, but without the life-long nightmares and PTSD that are the likely benefits of the actual experience.

 

 

I’m going to order the books by Stephen Menendez, who has a fine piece in the Chopper Warrior book. I’m eager to read of the exploits of a man who was under five feet tall and who weighed less than 100 pounds and spent his tour as a tunnel rat. I hope to have reviews of his books—Into the Darkness and Battle at Straight Edge Woods—in this space one of these days.

Peterson’s website is http://missionsoffireandmercy.com

—David Willson

Aeroscouts in Vietnam by Wayne Mutza

Wayne Mutza served as a Huey crew chief, among other helicopter duties, during his tour of duty in Vietnam. His book, Aeroscouts in Vietnam: Combat Chronicles (Squadron Signal Publications, 136 pp., $34.95, hardcover; $24.95, paper), is a large-format, lavishly illustrated compilation of first-person reports by thirty-two men, most of whom flew the OH-6A helicopter—commonly known as the Loach—in Vietnam.

The book contains detailed accounts of the men’s tours of duty, along with lots of war-time photos, mainly of Loaches and their crew members. There also are present-day photos of the former pilots and crew members.

The small, well-armed Loach was used, as the book’s title implies, as an armed reconnaissance vehicle. “At the very least,” the Loaches “yielded intelligence that pinpointed, temporarily at best, the locations of a clever and elusive enemy,” Bill Staffa, who flew a Loach for the 123rd Aviation Battalion in Vietnam, notes.

The Loach crews, Staffa says, “were usually the most heavily armed two or three people you’d ever want to meet. The variety of weapons on board these aircraft and the ingenuity with which they were employed is the stuff of legend.”

Very “little real training prepared these young soldiers,” he says. “Many died or were injured before they ever had the opportunity to reach their potential. The ones that survived did things most people have not dreamed of doing, and probably wouldn’t believe.”

Author Wayne Mutza (fourth from right) in Vietnam in 1971

—Marc Leepson