Blades of Thunder by W. Larry Dandridge

Blades of Thunder: The True Stories of Army Helicopter Pilots, Crew Chiefs, and Door Gunners in Vietnam, Book One (TVV Publishing, 428 pp. $17.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a work of love, admiration, and respect for men that author W. Larry Dandridge served with in the Vietnam War.

Initially published Blades of Thunder in 2015, Dandridge updated the book late in 2017 partly to earn money to support Fisher House in Charleston, South Carolina, which serves families of veterans undergoing treatment at the local VA Medical Center. He also voluntarily fills several advisory roles at the Center. For the retired Army lieutenant colonel, life has no dull moments.

Dandridge is an old-school raconteur who finds interest in personalities as well as events. His stories revolve around friends he made while learning to fly helicopters and then going to Vietnam together. During an assignment with the 121st Assault Helicopter Company at Soc Trang in 1968-69, Dandridge flew Hueys.

The book’s opening chapter describes his crash in a helicopter, his severe injuries, and his physical reconstruction. The chapter is a stunning opening for a long series of flying stories about chaotic situations and other adventures.

Amid the war scenes, Dandridge includes an award-winning leadership speech he presents that sets standards for any leader, military or civilian. This demanding kick-ass address puts everyone and everything in place. He counterbalances his authoritarianism with clever jokes.

The book’s many images include detailed captions that give the reader an on-the-scene feeling. Among the book’s eleven appendices, a collection of forty-four “Lessons Learned and Lessons Perhaps Not Learned” is the most noteworthy. In it, Dandridge evaluates warfare in thought-provoking lessons that cover issues from grand strategy to day-by-day tactics.

Larry Dandridge

On the higher level, he suggests an isolationist approach by America to military intervention overseas. He summarizes many lessons at this level by labeling them “only partially learned.”

Most lessons for everyday tactics, which constitute the bulk of the appendix, conclude with “learned but…” and require “today’s aviators [to] benefit from reviewing such lessons.” Others focus on people and projects deserving special recognition.

As a fan of helicopter crews, I look forward to Book Two, which Dandridge indicates will be published by the end of this year.

—Henry Zeybel

 

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

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