The Typhoon Truce by Robert S. Curtis

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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

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