The Price They Paid by Michael Putzel

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Michael Putzel is a journalist who covered the war in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos for the Associated Press for two-and-a-half years. Putzel’s The Price They Paid: Enduring Wounds of War (Trysail Publishing, 364 pp., $25.99, hardcover; $14.99, paper; $7.99, Kindle) is the true story of Maj. James T. Newman, commanding officer of C Troop, 2/17 Air Cavalry.

Newman is the ostensible subject of this large and detailed book. But the true subjects are the helicopter pilots and crewmen who flew for Condor Six, Newman’s call sign.

Maj. Newman remains a mystery, even at the end of this long book. His men laud him as the finest leader they ever knew. His coolness under fire and bravery are supported again and again by descriptions of many, many helicopter actions he was party to. But it also is said of him that he was “an officer but never a gentleman.” He treated service people like scum, and is described as a scumbag in his treatment of women, including those to whom he was married.

After he left the Vietnam War, Newman was destined for great things in the Army, none of which transpired due to his own bad behavior. He was a barely educated ex-enlisted man from a backward town in Georgia, we are told.

The book is packed with helicopter action. All of the events are carefully documented and described. Those events alone are reason enough for me to understand why Maj. Newman did not do well with peacetime Army life.

The war is described by one participant as that “bag of shit.” Another veteran, bitter that he received an ungrateful reception when he returned home, said that “they could have won if the United States had devoted enough to this fight.”

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Michael Putzel

Maj. Newman was in terrible pain for the rest of his life from wounds received in Vietnam, but he refused to take any medication. He received $8,000 a month in various annuities, but he wrote most of his children out of his will. We are told that no one found a plausible explanation for the changes in Newman, but I see those explanations on virtually every page of this book.

Agent Orange, fragging, drugs, and PTSD are all dealt with in this book.  Also, this book has one of the most distressing covers I have ever seen. It was designed by Gwyn Kennedy Snider and is taken from an actual photo of a uniform of one of the Condors who came to a very bad end.

This is a hard book to read, not that it is badly written or told, but the subject matter is upsetting. I highly recommend it to anyone who believes that war is a good thing and that carpet bombing is an effective method of attaining world peace.

The author’s website is http://michaelputzel.com

—David Willson

Vietnam War U.S. Helicopter Names, Vol. 2 by John Brennan

Vietnam veteran and historian John Brennan, with the help of a query on The VVA Veteran‘s Arts of War on the web page—and with his own tenacious original research—put together two volumes of books featuring names and images on helicopters in the Vietnam War. Vietnam War U.S. Army Helicopter Names, Volume 2 (Memoir Books, 80 pp., $19.95, paper) is now out in a new paperback edition.

The custom of personalizing military aircraft started as soon as air warfare began during World War I. Among those early images was the toothy shark face, something still used a hundred years later.

My hope is that this project continues to flourish, possibly discovering more art on the noses, such as this poignant question: “My God, How’d We Get In This Mess?”

To read our review of the first edition of this book, go to  https://vvabooks.wordpress.com/2014/09/17/vietnam-war-helicopter-art-volume-ii-by-john-brennan/

—Curt Nelson

Looking for Flyboys by Tom Messenger

After saying he enlisted for three years in the Army, Tom Messenger takes only eighteen pages to reach Vietnam in Looking for Flyboys: One G.I.’s Journey: Vietnam 1970-1971 (Hellgate Press, 209 pp., $16.95 paper; $4.99, Kindle). Virtually every one of those pages contains touches of humor, revelations, and the author’s resignation to the inevitable. Fortunately, Messenger’s clever touches do not end there and run through the entire book. I read several passages aloud to my wife, and together we laughed or shook our heads in wonderment.

Messenger says he created this book as part of his treatment for PTSD. If so, then the task completely cured his malady: He now views his past with his eyes and mind wide open. His buoyant personality has a presence on every page and makes him as visible as his six-foot-seven-inch height.

Twenty and single, Messenger enlisted in the Army to avoid the life of a nine-to-five Chicago mortgage holder. Flying in helicopters was all he wanted to do. The only Basic Training classes he enjoyed were the grenade pits and the rifle range. He took a nonchalant approach to the rest of it.

Messenger’s next stop was the Fort Eustis School for Aviation. He worked conscientiously before going to Vietnam with the goal of earning a flight engineer rating in a CH-47 Chinook.

His first in-country flight convinced him that he had done the right thing. “The pilots started the engines,” he writes. “The blades were turning and we taxied down the runway, and I can honestly tell you it was the best high I ever had.” His helicopter took ground fire and, by returning it, Messenger warped the barrel of his M-60—a perfect way to bust his combat cherry.

After a short time as a gunner and crew chief, his dream came true. Messenger (above) upgraded to become a flight engineer of a “beautiful new ship,” a “reconditioned B model made into a Super C with new and more powerful Lycoming engines.” He picked his own crew chief and gunner, and lived for his machine, which Messenger describes as “the fastest and most powerful helicopter in the free world at the time.”

His year in the Vietnam War was crammed with action that provides one good story after another. Flying out of Camp Holloway and Phu Bai, Messenger took part in Dewey Canyon II; Lam Son 719 in Laos; an unnamed, large-scale emergency rescue of refugee women and children from Cambodia; the relocation of Montagnards in Vietnam; and many other missions.

Messenger also gives women—Vietnamese, Australian, and American—their due. Chapters such as “Old Girlfriends Are Just That” detail his youthful adventures in the world of romance.

This guy—Ex Spec5 Tom Messenger—can write. Sparkles of wisdom periodically flash out of the text. To wit:

—Some guys could take a lot of trauma, which is another name for combat.

—Your close friends kind of held you together. Everyone needs somebody to put things in perspective. We all need a mental twitch from time to time.

—You mask [cowardice] with self-medication, such as booze and drugs; mine was bourbon. But most of all you mask it with silence and denial…. Another weapon was anger, sort of like a controlled rage.

—Then it was my turn to say, “Are you fucking nuts, sir?” You can say almost anything to an officer if you put “sir” at the end of the sentence

Messenger, by the way, now lives near Chicago with wife, kids, mortgage, and lots of bills. But part of his heart is still in that Chinook.

—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

Vietnam War Helicopter Art, Volume II by John Brennan

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John Brennan’s Vietnam War Helicopter Art, Vol. II (Stackpole, 200 pp., $20.39, paper) is a masterpiece of photo-collecting artwork. Warning: If you don’t already own Volume I, you’ll rush to buy it as soon as you finish this new one.

By gathering photographs from more than 300 contributors, Brennan has put together a memorable collection of helicopter titles and nose art. This coffee-table sized book contains large and vividly clear pictures, along with short anecdotes from crew chiefs and crewmen that describe their aircraft and service records, as well as reminiscences about life in the field.

In a Forward, Michael Veronica eloquently sums up the book’s purpose when he writes: “Machines take on a personality of their own and gain names of endearment or names commemorating people, places, and actions relating to the war or to popular culture of the time. Through these names comes artwork, a way to make a visual and emotional connection with the craft that takes a crew into harm’s way—artwork like UH-1H Proud Mary for the Creedence Clearwater song; UH-1D Little Annie Fannie for the cartoon character in Playboy magazine…and Easy Rider for the Peter Fonda movie of the same name.

My favorite helicopter in the book is a UH-1C crewed by Jesus Mota with a painting of an open-mouth snake spitting out a missile. Written below is DIE BASTARDS, DIE COPPERHEADS, JESUS IS ABOARD AND WE IS SOME MEAN SUMBITCHES.

The delight generated by the book comes from the fact that, as often as not, the men fighting the war were guys drafted off the streets, children of the counterculture doing their duty. Brennan looks back in a way that makes everything exactly right—even though it wasn’t.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Freedom Is Your Destiny by Daniel T. Eismann

Physical warfare, spiritual warfare, and miraculously recovering from health challenges are the central issues in Freedom Is Your Destiny (Desert Sage Press, 318 pp., $14.99, paper) by VVA life member Daniel T. Eismann, a lawyer who serves as a Justice on the Idaho Supreme Court. 

This well-executed volume is a must read for anyone interested in Eismann’s topics. This decorated, two-tour Vietnam veteran Huey crew chief has written a detailed account of life aboard a UH-1, as well as pre-flight and post-mission maintenance.The organization of the chapters with transitions from riveting combat missions to biblical histories of Jesus and his apostles are generally well done. 

There are twenty-six chapters, many of which are worthwhile. The one disadvantage in this book, though, is the lack of an index. 

I recommend the chapter called “Blessed Are the Merciful,” featuring the OR Nurse Annie. It’s the one I enjoyed the most. Some chapters contain opinions that are open to discussion, but not this one. “God has anointed certain people with the Motivational gift of mercy,” Eismann writes. Annie embodied this biblical reference.

Idaho Supreme Court Justice Daniel T. Eismann

“Enjoying the Battle” is the title of the chapter devoted to the author’s health issues and those of his daughter and their “miracle” healing. This will resonate with all Vietnam veterans who have been exposed to Agent Orange, as well as with families who have experienced traumatic illness. 

The final.chapter, “Going Home,” focuses on.the Freedom Bird Vietnam veterans longed for. The author also.mentions the spiritual requirements for attaining the freedom flight to heaven. These requirements will likely be evaluated in various ways by readers.

 
—Curtis Nelson

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