Memoirs of a Rotor Head by Patrick Michael Ramsey

A justifiable bitterness pervades Patrick Michael Ramsey’s Memoirs of a Rotor Head (Mennonite Press, 152 pp. $31.01, paper; $3.99, Kindle). In 1970-72, Ramsey flew back-to-back Vietnam War tours as a UH-1 pilot. He survived everything the enemy threw at him, but also saw close friends get killed. Now he is dying from cancer caused by exposure to Agent Orange and other highly toxic defoliants. And he feels betrayed.

With the draft breathing down his neck, Ramsey enlisted in the Army late in 1967, and was inducted on January 8, 1968. “First and foremost,” he says, “I am an America serviceman” who has “flown in harm’s way to protect the freedom of Americans.”

The first half of his memoir shows how Ramsey prepared for, and then participated in, the Vietnam War.  Amid a climate of hyperactivity bordering on chaos, Pat Ramsey joined the 7th Air Cavalry at the beginning of the 1970 incursion into Cambodia.

With only thirty hours of combat flying, Ramsey was upgraded from copilot to pilot. Simultaneously, he took charge of crew assignments. Furthermore, because he went through infantry AIT, Ramsey was assigned command of a twenty-man platoon and helicoptered into the field as a grunt. To my disappointment, he provides few facts in his book about that responsibility beyond expressing his joy in hearing “that wop-wop-wop of the rotor blades” of helicopters en route to extract his unit.

His view of the war reflects nervous dedication to tasks that were questionable from their beginning. He admits to living for the excitement of facing danger, but an excitement tempered by near disasters. His stories gave me the impression that his unit operated with minimal leadership. The men seemed to do whatever they thought necessary at any moment. Losses were the consequence.

Ramsey complements stories about his experiences by giving history lessons about the war. In them, he summarizes Vietnamese history and America’s role in it.

Displeased with the paperwork mentality of a peacetime Army, Pat Ramsey ended his military career as a captain in 1973. From there, he sold insurance, married, divorced, raised a daughter as a single parent, and for five days a month flew CH-54 Sky Crane helicopters for the National Guard.

After twenty years, with pension money in his pocket and a daughter off to college, he resumed his search for adventure and became a medevac pilot for Life Star. Six years of “from fully asleep to fully alert in thirty seconds,” as he puts it, was enough, so Ramsey enrolled at Kansas State and earned a second bachelor’s degree in three semesters. He then joined the Peace Corps in Nicaragua. He later worked as a National Park Service Ranger in six parks in twelve years—all of which he describes in travelogue-like language in the book’s second half.

In 2007 doctors told Ramsey he had Parkinson’s Disease, “for which there is no cure, only death,” as he puts it. Three years later, the VA conceded that his problem was the result of exposure to Agent Orange. In his memoir, Ramsey calls for accountability by the manufacturers of defoliants that were used in Vietnam.

Five pages titled “Everything I Ever Needed to Know in Life, I Learned as a Helicopter Crewman in Vietnam” summarize his war experiences and close Memoirs of a Rotor Head on a note of gallows humor.

Ramsey is donating all profits from the book’s sale to a veterans service organization.

—Henry Zeybel

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The Grotto by Harold G. Walker

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Harold G. Walker learned to fly helicopters for the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam, but he did not know why until he arrived in country. As he puts it: “I didn’t become aware of any reason for the war until I was in it.”

Walker writes about his first three months of flying CH-46D Sea Knight missions in The Grotto Book One: Phu Bai, Vietnam 1969-1970 (Dragonfly, 463 pp. $19.99, paper, $3.99, Kindle). Book Two, which will cover his next nine months flying from the Marble Mountain Air Facility in Da Nang, will be published in September.

Walker calls his writing style “literary nonfiction” because “very few names have been changed.” He lists “current interviews, conversations recalled, reviews of declassified material, and reflections of document-able situations” as his sources. He adds credence to his stories by including photographs of most of his cohorts the first time he mentions them.

Walker’s view of war includes successes and failures. He tells nightmarish stories that made me rethink the entire theory of helicopter flight—let alone employing such machines in combat. He lauds the Marine Corps with brief combat history lessons and frequently pays tribute to the valor of Grunts (a word he always capitalizes).

He does not glorify his own accomplishments, but relishes telling of the heroics of men who flew alongside of him.

At Phu Bai, Walker joined HMM-262 as a first lieutenant copilot. “We did everything: combat troop assaults, medevac, resupply, reconnaissance inserts and extracts, routine administrative support, VIP, humanitarian assistance,” he says, “and any other type of flight imaginable.”

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1st Lt. Walker, Chu Lai, 1970

Amazingly, in his memoir Walker duplicates the temperament of the man he was fifty years ago at age twenty-four, as he reflects the awe he felt toward his duties and squadron mates. After his first Third Force insert, he writes, he felt “strangely at peace.”

During his first medevac, he “couldn’t help but think how exciting this was. It was surreal.” Afterward, he thought, “I had no further aspirations.”

Accounts of interpersonal relationships dominate parts of the book. Significant tension existed between men of different ranks, experience levels, and ages—primarily among the officers. Walker and his fellow young lieutenant FNGs occasionally misbehaved like college kids. Machismo dictated their behavior. After a couple of months, they christened their eight-man hooch “The El Mossy Grotto,” then, “The Grotto,” a gathering place for the young to distance themselves from higher-ups who frequented the Officers’ Club.

After serving in Vietnam, Walker became a Huey pilot in the Marine Corps Reserves. In 1991, his squadron was activated for the first Persian Gulf War. He retired in 1996 as a lieutenant colonel.

His website is haroldgwalker.com

—Henry Zeybel

 

Memories Unleashed by Carl Rudolph Small

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Carl Rudolph Small’s Memories Unleashed: Vietnam Legacy (Casemate, 192 pp. $29.95) is a strange hybrid. Though billed as a memoir, it’s told as a series of short stories written in third person with no names mentioned. Small refers to himself as “the marine” or “the sergeant,” while his girlfriend at the time, now his wife, is “Her” or “my Love.”

Divided into forty-three short chapters, running four or five pages each, this story starts in a small Vermont community in 1969 and drops the Marine into combat his first day in Vietnam. He receives a “flesh wound” and expresses no sense of fear throughout the incident. He’s nineteen years old. He also tells of two men he knew who were killed before they had been in-country for a full day.

Small chose not to talk about his wartime experiences for more than forty years before deciding to write them down to share with his family. The book is based, he says, on his “memories and nightmares” of thirteen months as a Marine in I Corps, during which he engaged in search-and-destroy operations, day patrols, and night actions. He received three battlefield promotions.

Individual chapters tell of him burying a Vietnamese man without letting anyone know; running into his girlfriend’s brother who was also serving; almost accidentally killing a buddy in a friendly-fire incident; secretly carrying a dog on operations; and watching a competition among several men who intentionally went into water to see who could get the greatest number of leeches to latch onto them.

In other chapters Small refuses an order to take his squad into action because he doesn’t trust the ARVN troops who would be going along. One time when his men were denied service because they hadn’t cleaned up after returning from action where they had made contact, he went into the beer hooch and threatened to use a grenade if they didn’t get served.

Other stories involve a Dear John letter, a tiger caught in concertina wire, and discontent among black Marines. In one chapter he mentions a morbid “death letter” that he carries, just in case, in which he tells his Love he’s sorry he didn’t make it home. He’s also involved in a bayonet fight to the death.

The combat action is well-described and all the stories are well told. That said, some of the stories seem clichéd. Others stretch any sense of credulity, and I didn’t know exactly what to make of them.

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The concept of writing a “memoir” in third person worked for me, as did the very short chapters. Complete stories can be told in a small number of pages if you do it right, and Small frequently does.

I like the idea of every Vietnam War veteran’s story being told and listened to. I just wouldn’t want readers to think the things in this book are typical of what most veterans experienced.

—Bill McCloud

The Healing by Richard Jellerson

Once upon a time, Pan American Airways sold a special ticket for something called Flight One. It was akin to a magic flying carpet ride. Good for a year, a Flight One ticket entitled its holder to circle the earth, stopping in major cities as often and for as long as desired.

Back in that long-ago time during the Vietnam War—contrary to good reasoning—Richard Jellerson flew back-to-back tours with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company at Cu Chi. After each tour he bought a Flight One ticket.

Jellerson’s first earth orbit lasted only a month, the duration of his leave time between tours. His second trip took time enough to stabilize his mind for re-entry into society—and the onset of adulthood.

Jellerson’s The Healing: Pan Am Flight 001 (Outskirts Press, 148 pp. $15.95, paper) is an account of those journeys. The book is exceptionally well written. For that, Jellerson thanks screenwriter Todd Mattox, a cousin who brainstormed with him about the book, and “then acted as muse, editor, [and] occasional re-writer.”

Jellerson writes about truths that are evident, but unrecognized, in military life. For example, combat demands obedience to the desire for self-preservation, but the need disappears once the shooting starts.

He explains these types of things with lucidity filled with innocence, as if he had heard such truths in the past but only much later began to understand them. Paradoxically, one’s heightened senses reduces concern for one’s self, he says. “Through the war I had become a different person and still didn’t know what I didn’t know,” he admits.

He had to overcome contradictory thoughts to return home and establish a workable relationship with America, a nation that had betrayed him, he believed. Traveling to sixteen countries, Jellerson encountered a variety of people with whom he discussed life—people who “pulled him back from the edge,” he says. That includes:

  • A young Thai woman selling soda and telling him her dreamy vision of America
  • A news correspondent eagerly seeking war
  • Men and women in Australia, Italy, England, and Greece accepting him at face value
  • Jellerson himself pondering atheism and the certainty of no afterlife, thereby placing the burden of living on here and now.

At times, I felt the people he met were simply Jellerson’s alter egos, and he was talking to himself, straining to evaluate horrors that the war had revealed to him. He frequently flashed back to combat experiences—particularly rescuing the wounded—to build a foundation for his rehabilitation needs.

He sums up a turning point in his life with an observation that occurred in 1969 on his “second or third day of flying a combat assault” as a nineteen-year-old copilot:

“The enemy below this day was a wonder to see. They ran at full speed through the jungle in those light brown uniforms and pith helmets carrying all their weapons. These North Vietnamese Army regulars were fully committed to get to our landing zone ahead of us. They ran through the humid, deep green, overheated jungle with only one thought: shoot down the helicopters.”

His conclusion: “Until then I had only intellectually embraced even the concept of enemy.”

In those moments, Jellerson discovered a foe and surrendered his individuality to American politicians. Flight One helped him find it again. People of the world taught him a major lesson—that “no one hated me, and I hated no one. I had friends everywhere I went. And only had enemies in one small beautiful country in Southeast Asia by political mandate.”

I rank The Healing alongside my favorite books written by the youngest of men at war: A G.I.’s Vietnam Diary: A Journey Through Myself by Dominick Yezzo and Calm Frenzy: One Man’s Vietnam War by Loring M. Bailey Jr.

The three books tell more about the Vietnam War than a roomful of generals or overflowing stacks of Pentagon documents.

—Henry Zeybel

 

Hard to Kill by Joe Ladensack and Joseph A. Reaves

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Born in 1946, Joe Ladensack has survived and won battles with three formidable foes: the North Vietnamese Army, the Catholic Church, and cancer. He recollects facing these enemies in Hard to Kill: A Hero’s Tale of Surviving Vietnam and the Catholic Church (Hellgate, 270 pp. $29.95, hardcover; $5.99, Kindle), a memoir written with the help of journalist and author Joseph A. Reaves.

Against the North Vietnamese in 1969-70 Ladensack led a platoon of M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers for 2/2 of the 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One.  About half the time, he and his men fought dismounted.

“Most Vietnam veterans were in three or four major firefights,” he says. “I was in more than fifty. The mechanized infantry was like the fire brigade or the ambulance corps. When anybody got in trouble, they called on us to come save them.”

His platoon’s most memorable battle action took place during an ill-conceived sweep up Black Virgin Mountain (Núi Bà Đen) that led the men into an ambush. A general’s direct order prompted the ill-fated maneuver after commanders at several levels challenged it.

Sixty-eight of the company’s seventy men were killed or wounded. During that encounter, Ladensack underwent a near-death experience that convinced him to leave the Army and serve God as a priest. His battlefield exploits earned him a Purple Heart, along with two Silver Stars and six Bronze Stars.

A few years ago, Bill Sly published No Place to HideA Company at Nui Ba Den, which provides a more detailed account of the attack on Black Virgin Mountain by 2/2. Ladensack helped Sly research and organize that book. Having read and reviewed No Place to Hide, I highly recommend it for its lessons in leadership—good and bad.

Hard to Kill is also a good read because its stories focus on the men involved in the action. Ladensack describes the behavior of the men he followed and the men he led in ways that bring the reader into the sphere of the moment. He confronts pertinent issues and wastes no time describing mundane things such as the contents of a can of C-rations. Despite his present age, his prose reflects the spirit of a young warrior.

Ladensack’s mentality did not change when he left the Army and spent 1970-86 as a seminarian and Catholic priest in Arizona. He quickly recognized that the church’s most significant problem was child molesters and serial sex offenders within the priesthood.

He identified these men to the police and provided details. His constant pursuit of them resulted in the Bishop of Phoenix, Thomas J. O’Brien, taking away his priestly privileges. As Ladensack shows, O’Brien condoned rampant child abuse among priests in his jurisdiction. What’s more, church members and their political allies threatened Ladensack’s life if he continued his crusade.

He went into hiding until near the turn of the century when investigator Mark Stribling under guidance from Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley initiated action against the Phoenix Diocese for decades of sexual abuse by priests. Ladensack aided their cause. Years of legal work produced success frequently limited by judges’ unwillingness to punish religious leaders to the maximum.

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Father Joe 

Ladensack summarizes his bout with cancer—his final enemy—as follows:

“In 2013, I entered hospice six years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Doctors gave me six weeks to live. Luckily, my life lingered past the doctor’s expiration date.

“I was thrown out of hospice after eighteen months. They told me I wasn’t dying fast enough. That was four year ago. I’m still around, still working to bring Bishop O’Brien and his legions to justice.

“The end may be coming, but I’m still hard to kill.”

Occasionally, Ladensack’s stoicism reaches transcendental heights. His ability to overlook slights and accept disappointment falls beyond my comprehension. His deference perhaps stems from the intensity of his time in the crucible. In other words, the magnitude of his exposure to the anguishes of life has diminished the scope of his ego.

Nevertheless, deep down inside he is damn proud of his survival and his medals.

All I can add is: You have to admire a guy who pursues meaningful causes.

Joe Ladensack’s website is hardtokillbook.com

—Henry Zeybel

Phantom in the Sky by Terry L. Thorsen

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Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) Terry Thorsen flew for the Marine Corps in the F-4J Phantom as a member of the VMFA-232 Red Devils. He chronicles that experience in his memoir, Phantom in the Sky: A Marine’s Back Seat View of the Vietnam War (University of North Texas Press, 400 pp. $34.95, hardcover).

Thorsen enlisted in the Marine Corps after graduating from college. He did not want to go to war, but recognized an obligation to serve his country. On the other hand, he did not want to be an infantryman, fully appreciating that grunts had the toughest—and most dangerous—job of all.

His wife, Jan, and his parents also did not want him to go to war. His wife detested the Marine Corps because of its all-encompassing control of Thorsen’s time and energy.

Thorsen had a love-hate relationship with flying, which he reflects in the book in telling of fascinating, yet occasionally repetitive, incidents that led him to find his niche as an officer and crew member. He does an excellent job capturing the uncertainty he felt at critical stages during his enlistment.

Thorsen flew 123 combat missions from Chu Lai in 1969. The Red Devils employed a large inventory of munitions on targets across I Corps and into Laos and Cambodia. Day and night, their tasks included close-air support, interdiction, flak suppression, rescue, reconnaissance escort, and B-52 escorting.

The book contains a virtually day-by-day account of Thorsen’s air and ground activities. Not unexpectedly, usually uneventful flying tasks often suddenly turned into moments of sheer terror. Night rocket attacks on Chu Lai complicated his negative attitude toward the war.

Flying five missions in twenty-two hours, though, boosted his self-esteem. Supporting or rescuing overwhelmed grunts elevated him to a self-actualizing level. Those flights allowed Thorsen to achieve his full potential as a warrior:

“I didn’t expect thanks or praise,” he says. “Gratification came from a job well done. Lessening the deaths of some of our military combatants satisfied me.”

RIO duty taught him an even more gratifying lesson: An F-4 RIO’s brainpower was a pilot’s best insurance policy. Unhampered by concentrating on flying the airplane (the back seat had no control stick), an RIO sees beyond conventional behavior and recommends actions that save airplanes and lives. Thorsen describes more than enough in-flight incidents to prove that point.

In 1968 when I served in the Vietnam War, our C-130 crew made stops at Chu Lai during the Tet Offensive. We marveled at the base’s continuous flow of fighter activity.  We watched fighters take off, make low-level bomb drops along the horizon, RTB, rearm, and relaunch within what seemed the same hour. We grinned in admiration for zealousness of the Marines in I Corps.

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The book’s title slightly deceives because—as is the case with most Vietnam War memoirs—this book includes the author’s account of his training that preceded combat. Thorsen, that is, writes about his squadron’s year-long preparation for a combat tour of duty. Straight from a rigorous Officer Candidates School that paralleled boot camp and Naval Flight Officer training, he had poor self-confidence because of continuous bouts of airsickness that had nearly kept him from winning his RIO wings. The illness became more frequent during his squadron’s rehearsal for the physically challenging aerial maneuvers it would employ in Vietnam. He had far less frequent airsickness once he got to the war zone.

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Phantom in the Sky rings with authenticity because Thorsen clearly explains his illness, conflicting attitudes, and relationship with a hard-to-please wife. He even recalls interactions that registered his own embarrassment. Furthermore, based on their situations as well as his own, he portrays and evaluates leaders and fellow fliers in clear and honest terms.

The book contains letters that Thorsen wrote home and photographs from his tour. Appendices record the history of Marine Corps units mentioned in the text.

Terry Thorsen came home from the war, took an early discharge, and opened a photography studio that failed during the 1980s recession. He then joined the active Reserves; enjoyed and retired from a crime scene investigator career; raised two sons; and, as he says, after many, many years, “Jan and I divorced.”

—Henry Zeybel

Highway Thirteen by Denis ‘Mac’ McDevitt

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Denis McDevitt dropped out of high school and that was the end of his formal education. He received his draft notice in February 1968 during the height of the Vietnam War, and went on to serve in the U.S. Army’s 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam from 1968-69.

McDevitt’s autobiographical Highway Thirteen (Lulu.com, 184 pp., $14.95, paper) is written so far from the standard rules of fiction-writing that it has the feel of an experimental novel such as Death on the Installment Plan by Louis-Ferdinand Celine. But this is not an experimental novel; it’s a book in which an inexperienced author is doing the best he can to produce a book about his time in an infantry unit in the Vietnam War.

Hat’s off to Mac McDevitt for how well he does with his skills and with his adventures in the war. Don’t expect fancy things such as apostrophes to demonstrate possession or not quite getting words like “trepidation” right. Still McDevitt does pretty well at telling an interesting story. He has good material, and his novel is better than many I have slogged through in the past ten years.

There’s a useful glossary at the back; the definitions are rough and ready, but adequate. For instance, McDevitt says “hooch” refers to a native hut, but defines it as any place you hung your hat.

Most of the usual stuff a reader encounters in an Vietnam War infantry novel can be found in these pages. Shit burning receives an especially good treatment and is deemed “the stinky science.” Half of a fifty-five gallon drum filled with shit and maggots is not what I had to deal with when I burned shit, but it gets the point across. Wyatt Earp gets a mention on the same page as shit burning is explained.

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The author in country

A riot at Long Binh Jail (LBJ) is discussed. as are Bob Hope, leeches, Miles Davis, Rome Plows, C-ration peaches and pound cake, Janis Joplin and Joe Cocker, Eldridge Cleaver, REMFs, PTSD, Canned Heat (the rock group, not the fuel), Sharon Tate, the concept that war is money a-go-go, and “chairborne” rangers.

I enjoyed this short book and suspect that it wouldn’t be much better if it had received a rigorous editing.

But you need to read with a forgiving and uncritical eye to get full pleasure from this narrative.

—David Willson