The Price They Paid by Michael Putzel

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Michael Putzel is a journalist who covered the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for the Associated Press for two-and-a-half years. Putzel’s The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War (Trysail Publishing, 364 pp., $25.99, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the true story of Maj. James T. Newman, commanding officer of C Troop, 2/17 Air Cavalry.

Newman is the ostensible subject of this large and detailed book. But the true subjects are the helicopter pilots and crewmen who flew for Condor Six, Newman’s call sign.

Maj. Newman remains a mystery, even at the end of this long book. His men laud him as the finest leader they ever knew. His coolness under fire and bravery are supported again and again by descriptions of many, many helicopter actions he was party to. But it also is said of him that he was “an officer but never a gentleman.” He treated service people like scum, and is described as a scumbag in his treatment of women, including those to whom he was married.

After he left the Vietnam War, Newman was destined for great things in the Army, none of which transpired due to his own bad behavior. He was a barely educated ex-enlisted man from a backward town in Georgia, we are told.

The book is packed with helicopter action. All of the events are carefully documented and described. Those events alone are reason enough for me to understand why Maj. Newman did not do well with peacetime Army life.

The war is described by one participant as that “bag of shit.” Another veteran, bitter that he received an ungrateful reception when he returned home, said that “they could have won if the United States had devoted enough to this fight.”

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Michael Putzel

Maj. Newman was in terrible pain for the rest of his life from wounds received in Vietnam, but he refused to take any medication. He received $8,000 a month in various annuities, but he wrote most of his children out of his will. We are told that no one found a plausible explanation for the changes in Newman, but I see those explanations on virtually every page of this book.

Agent Orange, fragging, drugs, and PTSD are all dealt with in this book.  Also, this book has one of the most distressing covers I have ever seen. It was designed by Gwyn Kennedy Snider and is taken from an actual photo of a uniform of one of the Condors who came to a very bad end.

This is a hard book to read, not that it is badly written or told, but the subject matter is upsetting. I highly recommend it to anyone who believes that war is a good thing and that carpet bombing is an effective method of attaining world peace.

The author’s website is http://michaelputzel.com

—David Willson

Surprised at Being Alive by Robert F. Curtis

It takes Robert F. Curtis forty-two pages to get to Vietnam in his memoir, Surprised at Being Alive: An Accidental Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and Beyond (Casemate, 298 pp., $32.95 hardcover; $9.99 Kindle). But the wait was well worth the reading time.

Curtis’ eye for detail puts him in the top rank of my list of Vietnam War autobiographers. The precision of his style creates both the picture and the mood of acts as simple as crawling out of bed and shuffling to the flight line in the middle of the night.

Curtis repeatedly refreshed my Vietnam War memories. His highly personalized description of helicopter action during Lam Son 719 is the most straightforward account of that operation I have read. What’s more, Curtis injects historical references without breaking the narrative thread.

As a WO1, Curtis flew CH-47C Chinooks for the 101st Airborne Division in the 158th Aviation Battalion at Phu Bai. “For helicopter pilots at least, war stories don’t even require a war,” he writes. For war-time and peacetime missions, nights are just as dark, the weather just as bad, and loads just as heavy.

He describes helicopters as a “collection of thousands of parts flying in close formation” waiting for a “single-point” failure that, if it happens, brings the entire machine crashing down. Because helicopters do not have ejection seats and crews do not have parachutes, he says, “where the helicopter goes, also goes the crew.”

The book solidly supports Curtis’ claims and reinforces opinions held by other Vietnam helicopter pilots such as Bill Collier and Jim Weatherill in their recently published memoirs.

Robert F. Curtis

Curtis does not write about just the Vietnam War. His memoir covers a twenty-five-year, five-thousand-flight-hour career in helicopters. After leaving the Army, he flew with the Kentucky National Guard, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Royal Navy.

As a CW2 in the National Guard, Curtis’ tasks ranged from flying a governor on a tornado damage-assessment mission to helping state troopers spy on striking truckers from the air. Curtis flew an assortment of helicopters, and he details the peculiarities of each model.

The post-war section dispenses with the desperation in the earlier combat tales. The stories here are enlightening and funny. For example: “In the event of a complete loss of engine power at night, the pilot should turn on both the landing and searchlights. If he does not like what he sees, he should turn them off.”

After three years in the Guard, and with a new college degree and acceptance letters to two law schools, Curtis opted for a commission as a Marine aviator. Instructor duties, deployments, and exercises filled his years (1975-93) in the Marine Corps. He provides insights into helicopter operations from ships, mainly aboard the USS Guam, particularly at night. Without sparing the feelings of other services, he also highlights the Marine Corps’ distinctive approach to developing its Special Operations Capable units.

During two years of exchange duty with the Royal Navy, Curtis deployed from Africa to the Arctic. He mastered the difficulties of flying through brownouts from blowing sand and whiteouts from falling snow, on the ground and in the air. Operating from a ship in the notorious British fog further tested his airmanship. This section could have been titled “The Amazing Became Routine and the Routine Was Amazing.”

I found but one fault with Curtis’ thinking. He contends that success in flying results from “luck and superstition,” words that put final punctuation on most of his stories. Based on his stories and those of other pilots, I believe that success in flying helicopters results from the pilot’s skill and bravery that transcends fear—and, yes, perhaps with an occasional nod from Lady Luck.

On second thought, Curtis’ many references to “luck and superstition” that supposedly explain his surviving many narrow escapes from danger might simply be his way of downplaying his skill and bravery.

—Henry Zeybel