Phoenix 13 by Darryl James

Phoenix 13: Americal Division Artillery Air Section Helicopters in Vietnam (Pen & Sword Books, 192 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $11.49, Kindle) is an informative and colorful memoir about the role that observation helicopters played during the Vietnam War. A native of Sayreville, New Jersey, author Darryl James graduated from Rutgers University with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Geology, and then became an Army reserve lieutenant through the school’s ROTC program. After his initial training at Fort Devens, James started Army flight school at Fort Wolters in Texas, then took advanced flight training at Fort Rucker in Alabama. 

Arriving in Vietnam in September 1968, James was assigned to the helicopter base in Chu Lai that was part of the Americal Division. The division’s area of operations stretched from Da Nang south to the coastal town of Duc Pho, and west to the Cambodian border. Like most new pilots, James expected to fly a UH-1 Huey helicopter as a co-pilot. To his surprise, he was assigned as a solo pilot in the lighter and smaller OH-23G Raven and OH-6A Loach series helicopters. 

Disappointed at first, James soon realized the importance of these lesser-appreciated machines. For the next year he flew observation missions, delivered personnel and supplies to mountain outposts, and helped rescue crews from downed aircraft. These missions were especially challenging given the conditions of the terrain and the weather. He often had to take off and land in areas so constricted that the slightest error could mean death. 

More than once James recounts the measures helicopter pilots must take if their engine fails so that they will be able to land safely. Likewise, he also describes the catastrophic consequences of helicopters damaged by enemy fire and unable to reach safety.

Unlike most memoirs, James recounts his experiences in the third person, as if he were writing a novel. He writes in an easygoing, even breezy style with a singular blend of humor and cold facts. That’s how he describes courage overcoming fear and the sheer professionalism instilled in every Army aviator—and how these elements make automatic the techniques every new pilot struggles to master. 

For those seeking a thought-provoking look into the broader world of Army helicopters in the Vietnam War, Phoenix 13 delivers.       

–Mike McLaughlin