Thunder: Stories from the First Tour by Jack Heslin

In Thunder: Stories from the First Tour (Outskirts Press, 284 pp. $19.95, paper), Jack Heslin presents a thoughtful, often hypnotic, account of his experiences as a UH-1 Huey assault helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in Kontum Province in 1967-68. With an engaging and nuanced style, Heslin conveys the practical and emotional—and even sometimes the metaphysical—aspects of his first tour of duty. He informs his readers—and puts them in the cockpit beside him. 

Heslin attended Providence College and then was commissioned in June 1965. After Airborne training at Fort Benning, he joined the 82nd Airborne Division. Then came Rotary Wing School at Fort Wolters, after which Heslin joined the 57th Assault Helicopter Company at Fort Bragg.

When he arrived in Vietnam, Heslin learned that the 119th Assault Helicopter Company at Camp Holloway in the Central Highlands needed an aviation platoon leader. He immediately volunteered and got the job. During the next twelve months he flew hundreds of missions, was promoted to captain, and then became the company operations officer.

The 119th made many long flights during the Battle of Dak To, bringing troops and supplies to remote areas and taking out the wounded. Heavy enemy fire at the landing zones destroyed several helicopters and damaged many more in the Central Highlands’ rugged terrain. 

Heslin instills his words with warmth and humor, yet he readily acknowledges the fear that went with the work. He accepted it as an immutable condition, and acknowledged that if the worst happened, it happened..

Of exceptional interest are Heslin’s recollections of one supply mission to troops on a ridge line south of Dak To. Reaching them required making a vertical descent through a “hover hole” in the jungle canopy, barely wide enough to accommodate the ship. Any contact between the rotor blades and the trees could mean death.

Jack Heslin

Heslin relied on his door gunner and crew chief for constant guidance, such as “down two feet, now slide left three feet and come down ten feet.”  As they approached the ground, the canopy closed above them, blocking out the sky and immersing them in a shadowy world of green. 

“It was the most intense flying I had ever done up to that point,” Heslin writes. “I’d graduated from flight school with top grades for my flying ability, but nothing had prepared me for this kind of combat flying. I was at the extreme edge of my abilities and the capability of the Huey aircraft we were flying.”

Thunder illustrates the launch of Heslin’s extraordinary career as a pilot, operations officer, flight instructor, and more. Readers seeking a thoughtful, personalized account of flying over unforgiving terrain at the height of the Vietnam War should have Jack Heslin’s memoir on their bookshelves.

–Mike McLaughlin

Hornet 33 by Ed Denny


We were flying south of Song Be in our C-130 the first time I heard a helicopter pilot in trouble. He came up on Guard and said, “I’m hit. Going down. Somebody come and get me,” with less emotion than I use to order breakfast.

Beginning with Bob Mason’s groundbreaking Chickenhawk in 1983, Vietnam War helicopter pilots have written memoirs that keep readers on the edges of their seats. Simply flying those cantankerous machines requires the best of anyone, but performing that feat in combat demands skills possessed only by pilots at a level higher than mere human beings. Of course, big balls help, too.

Memoirs by helicopter pilots who saw lots of combat such as Bill Collier, Robert Curtis, Tom Messenger, and Jim Weatherill rank as favorites. Ed Denny has grabbed equal billing with Hornet 33: Memoir of a Combat Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 296 pp.; $29.94, paper; $9.99, Kindle). This memoir tells the story of a draftee who volunteered for a helicopter training and went straight to Vietnam as a Warrant Officer.

Denny wastes no time with background. The book begins with his arrival in Cu Chi in March 1970. Assigned to fly the Huey UH-1H with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, known as the Hornets, he became a leader within the group.

Denny’s word pictures of battles—particularly a large-scale friendly fire fuck-up during the opening day of the May 1970 Cambodian invasion—should erase any vestige of “the glory of war” from the minds of sane readers. He did and saw things that far exceeded normal levels of fighting, suffering, and killing, and describes many gory scenes. In one case, his description of a shattered and dying woman that he rescued reaches a graphic pitch almost beyond belief. Similarly, his actions during Operation Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971 begin as a classic history lesson but evolve into another bloody and inhuman tale.

Denny’s imagination was his worst enemy. In daylight, because his commander taught him to “just take it” when the world exploded around his helicopter, Denny did not think past the moment. At night, however, he couldn’t ignore dreams flooded by gore. Predicated on the day’s latest horror, his imagination created nightmares that made Dante’s Inferno look like a Sunday school picnic. Despite therapy, imagination of his own painful death pursues him to this day.

Treatment for PTSD gave birth to Hornet 33. Denny wrote eighty-five true stories to expose the trauma of his war experiences for others to see. Guided by a desire to eliminate redundancy, he distilled those stories down to forty-five chapters, most of which concern combat and flying.

“How many times can a person say that the bastards tried to shoot me again and missed by a couple of inches one more time,” he rhetorically asks.


Ed Denny in front of the Denton, Texas, County All-War Memorial – photo by Jeff Woo, Denton Record-Chronicle

Along with telling combat stories, Denny deals with with drugs, fragging, prostitution, Donut Dollies, R&R, PTSD, returning home, and Americal Division tactics. The Hornets flew with both the 25th Infantry at Cu Chi and 101st Airmobile Division at Chu Lai, thereby seeing first hand the difference between good and bad leadership. Denny’s opinions are highly personalized and do not follow the logic usually associated with these subjects.

Ed Denny has a way with words, using fresh similes and metaphors, few clichés, and conveying a sense of awe and wonder. The book tightly held my attention from start to finish.

The author’s website is

—Henry Zeybel

The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot by Bill Collier

In trying to nail down former USMC Capt. Bill Collier’s intention behind writing The Adventures of a Helicopter Pilot: Flying the H-34 Helicopter in Vietnam for the United States Marine Corps (Keokee/Wandering Star Press, 234 pp, $19.00 paper), I decided his goals were to explain why he suffered from PTSD, what it felt like to fear for one’s life constantly for a year, how flying H-34 helicopters provided an adrenaline rush, and the way helicopters worked. He succeeded in every category

In 1966, as a “nugget, a brand new gold-bar second lieutenant” flying copilot on his first night Medevac mission, Collier was so traumatized that he psychologically suppressed the event until 1994. As if that experience weren’t enough, four weeks later his wing man got hit by a friendly artillery shell.

“What I saw was burned into my memory forever, and will never leave me,” he writes. “YR-3 had exploded and was burning up in an intense sun-bright fireball right there off my wing, not 200 feet away.” These incidents triggered the onset of his PTSD, which doctors finally diagnosed in 1993.

Fear was Collier’s constant sidekick. His imagination compounded what he saw during his tour in I Corps: For example, watching a SAM zoom across the DMZ and destroy a low-flying, fast-moving A-4 in “maybe 15 seconds.” Premonitions of doom led him to volunteer for a two-week stint as a forward air controller rather than fly support missions for a sea assault.

On the ground, he encountered more danger than he anticipated. That included shrapnel dropping from the sky and a “short round” mortar dud (again, friendly fire) that nearly landed in his lap. By then he was a captain and ended up in command of a patrol, a duty he was unprepared for.

Collier had gone directly to flight school as a MARCAD and now thought, “I had never been to boot camp. I never attended officer training school at Quantico.” He had “minimal knowledge about grunt things.” Near panic, he instantly learned the value of an XO’s advice.

Collier’s stories exemplify the adrenalin rush inherent in combat flying. In eight months as a copilot, he watched aircraft commanders take risks and perform aerial feats that filled him with excitement, fear, and admiration.

After checking out as an AC, he thought: “I could now live or die by my own bad decisions.” He knew he was hooked. “To do one of those hairy, high-speed, high danger approaches, and then come out of a hot LZ with bullets flying and both machine guns blazing was an extreme adrenaline rush,” he writes.

Fear sharpened Collier’s awareness, thinking, and feelings throughout his entire body. As he puts it: “I became addicted to this adrenaline rush, craving it, seeking it out time after time.” Collier calculated that he “personally carried approximately 375 Medevacs aboard [his] machine while in Vietnam.”

Bill Collier

Collier devotes several pages to explaining “How a Helicopter Flies,” “Autorotations,” “The Collective Control and Throttle,” and a “General Description of the H-34D Helicopter.” The science in these sections seems contradicted by what occurred in reality.

Overall, his book convinced me that helicopters are unforgiving of even the slightest mistake. All you have to do is consider the large number of Marine deaths by aircraft accidents—during and following the war—that Collier recounts. Additionally, if the H-34 caught fire, its magnesium-aluminum-alloy air frame consumed itself and its crew in fifteen seconds, as Collier repeatedly reminds the reader.

Regarding his personal behavior, Collier pulls no punches. He confesses to “falling asleep on final approach.” He admits that “our main form of recreation was drinking alcohol. We simply got drunk almost every night. We were a bunch of drunken hellions.”

Of course, the drinking didn’t begin until the night missions ended. And Collier graciously remembers to thank “an attractive, charming lady a bit older than I” for a “great send-off to the war” by seducing him the night before he departed for Vietnam.

Apparently written mainly from memory, the book is jumpy at times, skipping from topic to topic like conversation in a bar. Nevertheless, its many stories are highly readable.

The book’s one hundred-plus photographs—most from Collier’s files—add to the narrative. Collier says this book set the stage for at least two more. Following thirteen months in Vietnam, he flew combat missions for thirty months in Laos with Air America, a tour more exciting than Vietnam. He then flew helicopters commercially for twenty-seven years all around the world.

The author’s blog is

—Henry Zeybel


A Pink Mist by John A. Bercaw

John Bercaw went into the Marine Corps in 1960 as “an undisciplined and troubled high school dropout,” he writes in his memoir, A Pink Mist (CreateSpace, 296 pp., $14.95, paper; $2.99, Kindle). He served for four years in the Marines. In September 1967 Bercaw reinvented himself as an Army Warrant Officer trained to fly Hueys, which he did in Vietnam with great distinction.

After the war, Bercaw served as an instrument instructor at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia before he joined the Illinois Army National Guard. He retired in 1990 as CWO4 and a Master Army Aviator.

A short list of his medals includes: the Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf  Cluster, Purple Heart, and an Air Medal with “V” Device. He has a BA degree from Aurora University and spent nine years as a instructor at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois.

John Bercaw is a smart, literate, self-deprecating, and witty writer who has worked hard with his research to make his book as good as it can be. He wears his learning lightly, but it makes the book a delightful reading experience. He begins with a quote from the Italian poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days; we remember moments.”

                  John Bercaw

We get a brief and entertaining section on Bercaw’s time in the Marines, but the book is about his year in the Vietnam War flying Hueys, mostly for the 1st Squadron of the 4th Cavalry, known as the One Quarter Cav.

The “Pink Mist” of the title refers the time when Bercaw was flying his Huey and got shot in the leg by a machine gun and the cockpit of the helicopter filled with a pink mist of blood.

The book is arranged chronologically in short sections. These episodes or vignettes are often violent and exciting, but are sometimes funny or moving. Sometimes a section is all of these things and more.

I read this book pell-mell, transfixed by Bercaw’s narrative voice and by the wonderment that he survived so many medevacs, resupply, and rescue missions.

The book left me with a profound respect for the Huey as a versatile machine that could do much more than it was designed to when flown by the brave young men who took them up in all kinds of weather and conditions, often while being shot at.

A Pink Mist ranks near the top of this genre, along with the classic Chickenhawk by Robert Mason. I highly recommend it all who want to know what flying a Huey in the Vietnam War was all about.

Near the end of the book, Bercaw says, “I was leaving Vietnam. I did not yet understand that Vietnam would never leave me.” I’m certain that every Vietnam veteran knows what he is talking about.

I know that I do.

—David Willson