Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman

The Grotto: Book Two by Harold G. Walker

Like countless veterans, retired Marine Corps Lt. Col. Harold Walker began writing a war memoir for his family—in his case, to chronicle his service as a Marine helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War in 1969-70. The result is The Grotto, a three-volume series documenting his tour of duty, along with his thoughts and meditations and praise for his Marine brothers.

The Grotto: Book Two: Vietnam 1970, Marble Mountain (Dragonfly Publishing, 487 pp. $25, hardcover; $22, paper; $4.99, Kindle) begins in February 1970. Walker was three months into his tour and Vietnamization was underway. American troops were leaving the country as the South Vietnamese took control of combat operations.

In a single day, his squadron, HMM-262 (“The Flying Tigers”), of CH-46 transport helicopters left the Phu Bai Combat Base near the city of Huế. With their fellow squadrons of Marine Air Group Sixteen, they flew southeast to their new home at the Marble Mountain Air Facility outside Da Nang.

Walker’s accounts of time in Vietnam is so inspired that readers will feel that he is speaking to them personally. Each chapter begins with a date, the number of hours Walker had flown to that time in the war, and the total since he completed flight training. He also provides details about key events at home, including the rising protests against the war, and his thoughts about the future of South Vietnam—and the U.S.A.

The Flying Tigers’ job was to ferry Marines and supplies wherever they were needed. They also flew countless “red ink” missions, so named because those combat missions reports were written in red. These included medevac flights and recoveries of Marine recon teams when they were in grave danger. Many missions went satisfactorily. Others did not.

In one disturbing passage, Walker describes how a helicopter nearly crashed after a single bullet struck the aircraft, killing the pilot and badly wounding the co-pilot. The young crew chief, who had some experience flying helicopters, managed to help land the craft safely.

In another, a .30 caliber bullet hit a pilot in the center of his chest plate leaving him stunned but alive. He was able to land, take on supplies, and fly off again, only to crash from being overloaded. Only the men in the cockpit survived.

The author in the cockpit in Vietnam, 1970

Walker also presents a sobering dilemma from one mission when he realized that another pilot—an officer far senior to him—lacked the requisite experience to fly helicopters. The man had long flown A-4 Skyhawk jets, yet he lacked the skills and finesse for rotary-wing flight. Because aviation protocol decreed that a pilot’s word was law, what was a better-qualified co-pilot supposed to do?

After one such flight, a co-pilot formally declared the senior officer pilot unfit to fly. By doing so, the junior Marine risked his career and he knew it. Yet his superiors agreed with him, and the other pilot was removed from flight duties. It was a clear example of moral courage with a Marine putting the good of others far above his own.

The Grotto: Part Two is worth the time, and is ample reason to look forward to the third volume.

The author’s website is haroldgwalker.com

–Mike McLaughlin

Coming All the Way Home by Fred McCarthy

Fred McCarthy’s Coming All the Way Home: Memoir of an Assault Helicopter Aircraft Commander in Vietnam (McFarland, 207 pp. $29.95, paper; $17.99, Kindle) is a superb memoir written by a very solid, complex, and accomplished man. As he was growing up in Washington State, Fred McCarthy envisioned becoming a Catholic priest. He attended Seminary for a few years, but in 1967, his yearning for adventure and a desire to fly caused him to leave the Seminary and enlist in the U.S. Army.

By his own admission, he was not the most talented G.I. going through Army training. As McCarthy tells it, he wasn’t the most tenacious trainee. Through sheer grit, though, along with a strong belief in himself and a solid moral foundation, he always seemed to succeed. Following his discharge in 1970, McCarthy moved back home, and became very active in education, politics, civic activities, and raising a family.

In December 1967, Fred McCarthy was sent to Soc Trang in the Mekong Delta as a Warrant Officer and assigned to the Army’s 121st Assault Helicopter Company. For 6 months, he flew Huey slicks, delivering troops and supplies to troops in the field. But that was not enough excitement for him and he volunteered to fly a Viking D-model Huey gunship to be able to engage the enemy directly. He got his wish and piloted a gunship until the completion of his tour in December 1968.

As I opened the pages of Coming All the Way Home, I was expecting to find a lot about McCarthy’s tour of duty in the Vietnam War—and a lot of action. I learned quickly that McCarthy, while proving himself to be a bona fide warrior, is by nature a teacher, historian, and philosopher. He spent 30 years of his post-Vietnam War life as a kindergarten teacher, private school principal, public school superintendent, and college adjunct professor.

In Coming All the Way Home he recounts snippets of combat, but also includes letters, poetry, history, psychological analyses, charitable efforts, and other noncombat activities. I wasn’t disappointed, though, as I found all of those sections interesting, educational, and a joy to read.

Coming All the Way Home is very well written and designed. In a few of the final chapters McCarthy presents a history of the wars that have been fought in Vietnam and his analysis of the American war. His reasoning is well grounded and well explained.

I highly recommend this book.

–Bob Wartman

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

Bullets, Blades & Badges by D. L. Curtis

D.L. Curtis’ Bullets, Blades and Badges: Adventures of an Adrenaline Junkie (Chevalier Publishing, 130 pp. $7.99, paper; $3.99, Kindle) is a neat little book. Curtis brings us an upbeat series of stories and anecdotes tied together with an account of his multi-pronged careers: as an Army airborne paratrooper in the Dominican Republic and later in South Vietnam, then as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam, an off-shore helicopter pilot serving oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and lastly as a Dallas Police Department officer.

In an obvious labor of love, Curtis takes the reader along for a ride through reminiscences that start with his birth, literally, and end with his retirement as a decorated beat cop. It’s a true and interesting story of one man’s life experiences that doesn’t contain lots of blood and gore or a phalanx of curse words. Plus, you can easily finish reading it in an afternoon.

After his first Vietnam War tour as an infantryman, Donald Curtis mustered out of the Army. But he soon rejoined to pursue a career as a helicopter pilot. His accounts of his tours of duty in the war are light on battlefield specifics, but this broad-brush presentation carries the spirit of his exploits.

Curtis’s first literary effort is a well-edited and executed stream-of-consciousness book. It’s also truly enjoyable.

I strongly recommend it.

–Tom Werzyn

In That Time by Daniel H. Weiss

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Daniel H. Weiss’s In That Time: Michael O’Donnell and the Tragic Era of Vietnam (PublicAffairs, 192 pp., $26) is a stunning book. It contains only 176 pages of text, but is well written and presented.

Weiss, the president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is an accomplished researcher and writer. He has produced a nicely constructed offering that threads a historical narrative of the Vietnam War into the story of Army Capt. Michael D. O’Donnell, a helicopter pilot whose chopper was shot down by enemy fire in Cambodia while extracting a secret reconnaissance team on March 24, 1970. The crew and passengers went down in flames in dense jungle surrounded by the NVA.

Weiss follows O’Donnell and his family from birth to his loss. Then he shows how his parents, sister, and girlfriend dealt with the fact that he was officially missing in action. O’Donnell’s remains were not identified until 1995. He was buried in 2001 at Arlington National Cemetery in a common grave with the remains of the five men he tried to rescue and his 170th Attack Helicopter Co. co-pilot John Hosken,

His story is told in conjunction with a very compact presentation of the history of the  Vietnam War. Though not a member of the Vietnam War generation, Weiss, a former college president and author, is a proven researcher. His Vietnam War history is dispassionate and un-cynical—even clinical.

His telling of Mike O’Donnell’s short life story is special, mainly because of the fact that he was a poet. During O’Donnell’s teen-age years and his short foray at college, music and poetry were driving forces for him. He enlisted in the Army with the draft breathing down his neck. He made it through OCS and helicopter flight school and in Vietnam served a UH-1 Huey helicopter pilot with 170th ASC at Pleiku and Dak To.

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During his time in country O’Donnell wrote a good number of poems (and some song lyrics) that he wanted to assemble under the title “Letters from Pleiku.” One of his poems came to be known after his death by its first line, “if you are able.” It has been widely published, including on the home page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website run by the 4th Battalion/9th Infantry Association, and on the Fallen Warriors page on the Blue Star Mothers’ website.

I enjoyed this book. I recommend that it become a staple in high school curricula as a resource during the study of the Vietnam War.

–Tom Werzyn

Inside the President’s Helicopter by Gene T. Boyer

Retired Army LTC Gene T. Boyer’s Inside the President’s Helicopter: Reflections of a White House Senior Pilot (Cable Publishing, 416 pp., $24.95, hardcover; $17.95, paper) tells the story of a “dirt-poor” kid’s journey from a working-class Ohio home to the cockpit of Army One.

A veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, Boyer survived being shot down while flying in Vietnam during his 1966-67 tour, during which he put in more than 7,000 hours of flight time, including 376 combat hours in the air. After his Vietnam War tour of duty Boyer returned to the White House unit. In his book, written with Jackie Boor, Boyer provides readers a rare and unique behind-the-scenes perspective on the lives of five American presidents (Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Reagan), diplomats, and celebrities he flew around the world. Throughout this book, Boyer offers a wide range of compelling, humorous, historical, and insightful stories from his time as Army One’s senior pilot. From risky landings in the mountains of Peru, to flying President Nixon off the White House lawn on August 9, 1974, following his historic resignation, Boyer’s anecdotes present some of history’s best-known and little-known events through the lens of an insider few in Washington even knew.

The author’s website is http://www.genetboyer.com/

—Dale Sprusansky