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