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1500 feet over Vietnam : a marine helicopter pilot's diary

by Bruce R Lake

  Print book : Biography

"An Oral Catharsis Into The Heart And Soul of a Warrior"   (2013-01-30)


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by BERNIE2260

Review Written by Bernie Weisz, Historia, Vietnam War. Pembroke Pines, Florida USA Contact: July 26, 2009 Title of Review: "An Oral Catharsis Into The Heart And Soul of a Warrior in an Unpopular War"

In reviewing Bruce Lake's Book, "1500 Feet Over Vietnam," it is rare that an author can be so nonchalant and modest to the fact that he had earned the "Silver Star" and 42 air medals as a young Marine helicopter pilot. However, when Mr. Lake wrote this book, it was never intended for publication. This entire memoir is based on letters that started on April 1, 1968 and concluded on April 20th, 1969, all to his wife in an attempt to describe his missions and what everyday life was like in his Vietnam "chariot" i.e. the helicopter. Self published, and without the distortion of time (writing a memoir 40 years later from memory), Lake recounts the pain of close friends dying way before their time in combat and crashes, braving enemy fire for troop insertions, extractions and medical dust offs.

Mr. Lake goes farther then that. After leaving the service after 5 years, he would feel embarrassed to tell people at his college campus (often five years younger then him and experiencing their first freedom from home) that he had been to Vietnam. Vietnam had done strange things to "his head." After seeing hundreds of dead and dying people in Vietnam, not to mention flying 840 combat missions in 11 months and surviving helicopter crashes and countless near misses, Lake began to both "think" he was immortal and "knew" he was addicted to the adrenalin the previously mentioned would generate. The reader will understand why Lake grew his hair long, bought a high powered motorcycle and drove it at reckless speeds and while working at a factory he would go to the 5th floor and stand with his toes over the edge of the roof and stare at the ground; all in a fruitless attempt to unsuccessfully recreate the surge of excitement that could only come from bringing a chopper into a hot landing zone while surrounding N.V.A. muzzle flashes were aimed right at him spewing forth hot lead.

The letters that made up this book were put away for 8 years, and Vietnam receded in the author's mind. Then, after a Navy Reservist and ex "Air America" pilot who lost a relative in 1968 asked Lake if he had been involved in the medical evacuation of his nephew's unit, Lake collected his feelings and with encouragement from friends and family started to chronologically arrange and read them. The result of that effort comprises this wonderful book. Bruce Lake does a fantastic job of explaining his part of flying in a new military concept introduced in Vietnam that was called "Heliborne Warfare". Depending on weather conditions, Lake's primary job was to transport supplies, cargo, or most importantly 20 fully armed U.S. troops into battle flying his "A" model CH-46 helicopter as part of "Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265" (HMM-265)

Lake was also quick to point out that even though between missions he went to the beach, slept in comfortable quarters, went to the air conditioned Officer's Club, he faced constant issues such as; "Why did a certain pilot get hit? Whose turn would it be next time? How soon will we lose another pilot? When will it be my turn to die?" Lake includes stories in this memoir that are rare, informing, and will never reach any history text. When delivering $30,000 in cash as a payroll officer, Lake tells the reader the security of a cartridge belt and pistol would bring him. Another interesting anecdote was when Lake recalled learning in grade school how people during the U.S. Civil War would pack lunches and bring their family in wagons to watch battles in fields in valleys. Lake wondered how different it was to fly into and out of pitched battles for seven hours and then return to the base, go to the beach and check out a sailboat and sail up and down the coast watching other people fight.

Ruminating on the course of the war, Lake reflected; "I had been in Vietnam less than 2 weeks and already I was beginning to think we weren't really over here to win a war. We were there for economic reasons more than democratic reasons." Lake also pointed out that despite the heavy attrition and heavy "body counts" of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, where the enemy was getting killed more than 100 to 1, superior U.S. weaponry (the awesome fire power of "Puff the Magic Dragon" (a transport plane, usually a "C-47" armed with "Gattling Guns" that could rain down a covering fire for U.S. ground troops of 15,000 rounds per minute!) and the devastation of a B-52 air strike, the U.S. was still not winning the war, with (to use the famous cliche) "no light at the end of the tunnel." Lake shamefully admitted that he worked with pilots who were too cowardly or scared to fly into "hot" landing zones. Similar to the problem with American ground troops fragging their overzealous superior officers, these sneaky pilots would pull circuit breakers to simulate mechanical failure to get out of dangerous missions.

Also mentioned was the scarcity of territory the U.S. truly "controlled" in Vietnam, the problem of enemy tunnels all over the South (particularly in and around "Cu Chi")and how units of the South Vietnamese Army (A.R.V.N.) were composed of soldiers that in some cases were 12 years old or younger! The hardest letter Lake wrote to his wife was the story of his aversion to "Wrigley's Juicy Fruit Gum," which he still has today. There were missions Lake flew where he had to bring back many badly decomposed bodies of Marines killed in action. To mask the horrible stench of death, Lake would keep a pack of gum in the sleeve of his flight suit. To mask the odor, he would chew a few pieces and stick the moist gum to his upper lip just below his nose to mask the odor! How many 18 year old's that Lake later went to college with after Vietnam had to deal with this? Lake ends this incredible memoir with his experiences in Japan at the end of his tour and the anti-war sentiment he ran into upon his return to the States. There are so many more anecdotes about the intricacies of this sad chapter in American history, that the serious student of the Vietnam War simply MUST READ this book!

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