During his year as a Ch-47 Chinook crewman in the Vietnam War, Edward Corlew grew “distressed, depressed, and plagued by guilt.” He had joined the Army after his freshman year of college, and became a man and matured faster during his tour of duty than he had planned, he says.
Raised in a strong Christian family from a farming community, Corlew enlisted for an assignment in helicopter maintenance with the assurance that he would safely serve behind the battle lines. Instead, he ended up working as a crew chief/gunner and flight engineer on CH-47 Chinook helicopters during the entire 1968 Tet Offensive.
Corlew crewed with B Company of the 228th Assault Support Helicopter Battalion of the 1st Air Cavalry Division at Red Beach and LZ Sharon. B Company Chinooks flew every day in support of 1st Cav, 101st Airborne, ARVN, and Marine Corps units in I Corps.
The Chinook’s primary tasks were rescue and resupply, but its crews reconfigured the aircraft into weapon platforms by adding machine guns that gave them a 360-degree field of fire to counter the masses of North Vietnamese troops who attacked during Tet ‘68.
“For several months, I saw more destruction of life, equipment, beautiful cities, and innocent Vietnamese people than I can explain or expect anyone to understand,” Corlew says. He clearly describes those and his other experiences in Vietnam by Chinook: A CH-47 Crew Chief During the Tet Offensive (McFarland, 191 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle), a well-told memoir.
Corlew survived three shoot-downs. The semi-miraculous outcome of one defies imagination. Whatever the situation, though, he had his stuff together. His accounts of many missions he flew during the fighting at Hue, Khe Sanh, and in the A Shau Valley provide insights beyond the norm. Crew chiefs and flight engineers played vital roles in determining the capabilities of damaged but possibly flyable aircraft, and Corlew clearly explains the dynamics of their interactions with pilots. He vividly portrays the frantic, yet controlled, reactions of crewmen during crashes.
His story of action in the A Shau Valley amounts to one long description of losses and near disasters because the territory had been heavily fortified by the NVA, which had controlled the area for years. At one point, enemy antiaircraft weapons and Chinook mechanical failures depleted the company’s usable aircraft from sixteen to four in a matter of days.
B Company flew and got shot at every day. They also endured mortar attacks and infiltration by the NVA practically every night at LZ Sharon, a desolate, primitive landscape fifteen miles south of the DMV. Sandbagged tents were the only hint of civilization on the LZ. Crews provided the base’s defense and prolonged sleep was a rarity.
Paperwork was haphazard, but Corlew guesstimates that he put in a thousand hours of combat flying. His seventeen Air Medals indicate a helluva lot of time in the air. In two years of service, he attained the rank of Spec. 6.
Corlew writes about the necessity of killing people—armed, unarmed, or any possible threat. Doing so, a desire to survive took over his psyche and dominated his actions. “We had no choice but to fight in order to survive,” he says.
Occasionally, Corlew questions the purpose of war and a Christian’s role in it. He left the Army in 1969 and was emotionally troubled by what he had gone through for decades. Despite that, he earned a college degree and married. In 2005, with help from old friends and VA counselors, Corlew finally learned to put his emotional demons to rest. He closes the book by harshly criticizing antiwar activist Jane Fonda, Navy Lt. John Kerry, and Congress.
Vietnam by Chinook reconfirmed my belief that helicopter missions amounted to the most dangerous flying of the Vietnam War.