JOHN STEINBECK’S TRIBUTE TO U.S. ARMY HELICOPTER PILOTS IN VIETNAM
Military matters have been a deep interest of mine for most of my life.
The reasons are several: I was a WW II baby, born in 1944 and grew up surrounded by people who had served; there was a military tradition in the family; I received military training at school; and like most boys I was fascinated by the numerous war stories I read and war movies I saw. Finally, I was in awe of the people—almost all citizen warriors—who had endured so much to free Europe from Hitler’s truly evil regime. A number had been relations of mine. One, John Lentaigne M.C., was killed at the Battle of El Alamein. Another, Joe Lentaigne, made general and ended up commanding the Chindits in Burma. It was, indeed, a world war.
Incidentally, M.C. stands for Military Cross. It’s roughly the equivalent of a a Silver Star.
For much of my youth I expected to go into the Army – there was National Service (conscription) in those days, but then National Service was abolished, and I realized that I had no particular desire to live my life within the constraints of military discipline. Boarding school was enough as far as I was concerned. I had the temperament of a maverick, was prone to question everything, and I craved a life that allowed greater freedom. Such a difficult human being was clearly destined to become a writer.
I still retained a keen interest in the military, but my compromise was to observe as a writer – and that is exactly what I have done for all my adult life. Further, I have incorporated aspects of what I have learned in all my fiction books and in one memoir, GETTING TO KNOW THE WARFIGHTERS.
The highpoint of my military experience as a writer was the time I spent researching various military units in the Nineties. These included the 82nd Airborne, the 101st Airborne (Air Assault) and the 3rd Infantry Division (Mechanized) where I had more fun than any human being has a right to experience—even though I got injured in the Mojave Desert. All I can say is that the pain of the latter was worth it. Furthermore, I made many good friends during that period and am in touch with most of them to this day. All, being human, are flawed—and all are magnificent people.
The most special time of all was the brief period I spent with some of the Apache helicopter pilots of the 101st Airborne – which culminated in my flying in an Apache AH-64 helicopter gunship both by day and by night, and in making one of my closest friends, CW4 Tim Roderick. I was much blessed that day and since. Funnily enough my pilot was not Tim, but the awesome CW4 Ron Thompson—a truly superb aviator.
It is in the spirit of such warriors that I am including John Steinbeck’s tribute to helicopter pilots in Vietnam. His sentiments are mine.
On January 7, 1967, Steinbeck was in Pleiku, flying with Shamrock Flight, D Troop, 10th Cavalry and wrote the following home:
I wish I could tell you about these pilots. They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows to clear trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts in the evening. I watch their hands and feet on the controls, the delicacy of the coordination reminds me of the sure and seeming slow hands of (Pablo) Casals on the cello. They are truly musicians hands and they play their controls like music and they dance them like ballerinas and they make me jealous because I want so much to do it. Remember your child night dream of perfect flight free and wonderful? It's like that, and sadly I know I never can. My hands are too old and forgetful to take orders from the command center, which speaks of updrafts and side winds, of drift and shift, or ground fire indicated by a tiny puff or flash, or a hit and all these commands must be obeyed by the musicians hands instantly and automatically. I must take my longing out in admiration and the joy of seeing it.
Sorry about that leak of ecstasy, Alicia, but I had to get it out or burst.”