Chickenhawk, Robert Mason

“The Cav raced up the valley, at least eighty ships, at low level, and fast. The gaggle flew over us and continued north to their assigned objective. Minutes later, the last of their formation disappeared, and the roar silenced….. I admit that I felt a sense of pride on seeing my old unit. They were – in this part of the world – the big time.”

The Air Cavalry, an aggressive division of the US Army with links back to General Custer and beyond. In modern times of course the mode of transport is the helicopter rather than the horse, and for the US Army it was the arrival of the Bell Huey that changed everything. It was presumed that the Americans’ vast air superiority in Vietnam would be enough to beat the communists into submission. That the ‘Cav’, with their complement of powerful, reliable and respected Hueys would form the major part of that supremacy in battles at ground level. History didn’t follow the script and things turned out differently, more often than not with horrific consequences for those involved.

In Chickenhawk the authors true story focuses on the three points mentioned above. The Bell Huey and how it flies, the part that it played in the Vietnam war, and the ridiculous destruction involved with such a war of attrition.

The opening pages contain a detailed diagram of the Bell Huey, this is a useful reference as the book is full of technical explanations about flight and the engineering involved with helicopters. The early chapters document Mason learning to fly, the process of which is described in fascinating detail. This is also the point at which he also starts flying the Huey, a piece of machinery that all the pilots seem to hold in the highest regard. Every page turn seems to tell another legend about the Huey’s ability to lift heavier loads, or manoeuvre out of impossible spots. Such is the praise heaped on these machines that halfway through I’d begun to feel the same appreciation myself. All the flying is described in intricate detail from the pilots point of view, and as the book progresses Mason becomes an expert pilot whose skills are admired by his colleagues and reader alike. At some points I couldn’t help but smile, especially when he managed to save lives with what are essentially stunts.

Like most books from the Vietnam war it describes the reality of day to day fighting in an honest and blatant manner. The author starts the book by admitting his non belief in the war and has contempt for the politicians who control it. So when he witnesses horrific mutilation of young men, some including his friends, his world spirals into apathy, anger and depression. The shear scale of destruction and waste is astounding to a point of disbelief, from the piles of dead American teenagers to bombing of Vietnamese villages. Also, he does a good job at making the reader realise that everyone who had anything to do with the war lost something. Hope lies in the moments of humour, compassion and bravery that somehow manage to salvage the senseless nature of the human race, and turn a story into an epic adventure.
Without any shadow of a doubt, this is an incredibly well constructed story that gives a macabre insight into one of Uncle Sam’s darkest moments, and probably the best account of the Vietnam war I’ve read yet. Another good book about Hueys in ‘Nam is Let a Soldier Die by William E. Holland, and for a foot soldiers point of view, If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien – both worth reading after Chickenhawk.

Check out his web site for some incredible pictures taken by the author. All the main characters and places are there to be seen including Preacher Flight, Resler, Reacher, Shaker, Leese, Connors and Lang the Cola Girl.

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