|Download PDF of this full issue: v51n1.pdf (21.1 MB)|
By Tom Gery (reviewer)
Taking Fire!: Memoir of an Aerial Scout in Vietnam
by David L. Porter
(McFarland & Company, Inc, 2020)
Taking Fire captures a part of the Vietnam War saga little known outside of a small circle of US Army combatants who fought from the air. Colonel David L. Porter, retired, has changed that with his recently published memoir. The writing is crisp, giving the reader a complete context and plenty of detail. Referring at the start to his great-granddad's American Civil War experience he lets the reader know part of his purpose is to share his memories with family. By doing so the writer has laid down some valuable historical information for anyone who is a student of the nation's military history or interested in the war fighting that took place in Southeast Asia. The Colonel has also opened a portal into the past for those who put boots on the ground.
Porter was an Army aviator. The narrative begins in earnest with flight training. Any helicopter aficionado will enjoy the technical details. It is here the OH-6, a light observation helicopter (LOH), is introduced. The new army pilot with orders for Vietnam and the $19,800 (1969 dollars) machine would become part of a new tactic for fighting the enemy. The young Lieutenant would go on to log 375 combat hours in what reminded him "of a large green Easter egg with a rotor blade, tail rotor and skids attached".
The narrative develops with a foundation of details orienting the reader to Porter's tour of duty. He was assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry, an 8000 man unit, known as the Blackhorse Regiment. Within the Regiment was Air Cavalry Troop Thunderhorse. It consisted of Cobra gunships, Huey transport helicopters and the Scout platoon of "loachs", officially named OH-6 Cayuse. Porter's year began with flying a Huey before becoming an aerial scout. His time in the scout platoon is the setting for the danger, courage and heartbreak forming the story's core.
The reader is pulled deeper into the personal story of this aviation-soldier with his Scout platoon orientation and on the job training. As a commissioned officer the Lieutenant is assigned one of two scout platoon sections. With increased experience in the OH-6 Porter begins flying Visual Reconnaissance (VR) missions as part of a Hunter-Killer team. It is at this point where one can envision the action literally feeling what is happening. The pilot's accounts of action in various Areas of Operations (AO) range from uneventful days to tracking, seeing and shooting enemy soldiers. The title of his book takes on meaning. Lives are taken, lives are lost. From October '69 to February '70 a description of what the Thunderhorse troop and Lieutenant Porter did around Quan Loi, Loc Ninh and the nearby Cambodian border is griping.
The story line dramatically builds to a peak of terror met with courage in the last month of flying with the scouts. The Regiment tangles with a North Vietnamese Army (NVA) division. The writer is literally the very tip of the spear spotting and taking fire three different times in order to fulfill the mission of a scout; identify the location of the enemy. Porter is awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroics.
A memoir has a subjective voice. Colonel Porter's effort is on the mark. He reveals his thoughts and feelings about the soldiers and situations in the war zone that is his world.
You get his reactions and reflections on the events, the good times and tragedy. Something is learned about life in a time and place of danger and uncertainty from these pages depicting Porter's life for 364 days. His fear is palpable during the final pass over the NVA division when AK-47 tracers come up from the trees a few feet below his skids. Steel-like resolve comes through as he recalls the 23rd Psalm during the same NVA engagement. Tenderness, joy and love too, are a part of his saga as he describes R & R for five days in Hawaii with his wife, Susie. Respect and admiration for the young enlisted men, the scout observers in the left seat of the LOH, is evident. Their skills at picking up enemy signs, old camp fires, or fresh footprints, are recognized as well as the hazards of fighting from the air. During his time with the unit three were killed in separate combat actions. Sorrow is shared with the unabashed description of "crying like a baby" when a pilot friend in the Cobra platoon was shot down and killed.
Colonel Porter tells the reader about his friend Brev, a 2 tour Special Forces sergeant turned warrant officer (WO) aviator, exemplifying another feature of the memoir, relationships. Brev is described as having "a bearing that exuded confidence and professionalism". After the narrator came to Brev's assistance during a racial incident the two bonded. The more experienced WO offered advice. They talked about many things. The big man was deeply religious. One evening with several pilots talking about home and visiting each other Brev spontaneously and very explicitly told Porter, ". . . you will never come . . . White people do not come to that part of South Carolina". Porter took offense, he didn't understand, he wanted to smooth things over. The next day Brev, who had 6 days remaining in-country volunteered for a mission with the short handed Huey platoon. He took a round in the throat, the helicopter crashed, the crew incinerated.
Back at the Thunderhorse pad the recovered bodies, in body bags, were awaiting transport to Bien Hoa and graves registration processing. Inexplicably Porter unzipped his friend's body bag, looked at a horror of war, zipped it back up, ". . . and cried unashamedly until there were no more tears left". Had the writer through this experience in the closing hours of his friend's life been given a hint of what institutional racism resembles as seen from a Black man's perspective?
The author set out to record his memories which he has in great detail and in so doing has written an insightful, riveting story. Moreover, his work has provided a unique view of a very specialized part of the war, although the Hunter-Killer team tactics are probably obsolete in the era of drones, satellites and hand held heat seeking munitions. Finally the Colonel also gave anyone who is a Vietnam veteran a look back in time as if the reader spent time in the left seat of the OH-6 Cayuse holding a red smoke grenade while concentrating on the earth a few feet below. Taking Fire is not only an interesting story, it is one that will fill in some of the memories eroded by time.
Tom Gery US Army; Vietnam 1968-69; retired social worker; married, 2 children, 2 grandchildren; volunteer with local Veterans Treatment Court.