CHICKENHAWK by Robert Mason

(Bell AH-1 Cobra)

One of the most iconic sounds that people relate to the Vietnam War is the “womp, woosh” of American Huey helicopters.  Whether watching a film like Apocalypse Now or reading a book on the war those sounds will reverberate in the reader’s mind.  During the war about 12,000 helicopters were deployed by the United States military.  Of that number 7,013 were Hueys, almost all of which were US Army.  The total number of helicopter pilots killed in Vietnam was 2202, and total non-pilot crew members who died were 2704.  The most accurate estimate of the number of helicopter pilots who served in the war was roughly 40,000. (www.vhpa.org/heliloss.pdf)  As we think about these statistics we can only admire the bravery and fortitude of the men called upon to undertake the many diverse missions these pilots engaged in.  One of the pilots, Robert Mason has written one of the most important accounts of the war available in his memoir, CHICKENHAWK.  Mason’s account is probably one of the most accurate and realistic accounts we have about the American serviceman’s experience in Vietnam.  From the vantage point of a helicopter pilot, Mason explores his daily life during his tour of duty.  Mason’s approach to his memoir is simple, clear, and honest.  As he completes basic training, advanced individual training, and two attempts at passing preflight training, he comments that he never “suspected that the army taught people how to fly helicopters the same way they taught them to march and shoot.  But they did.” (23)  He realized early on that if you washed out of the flight program you would wind up as a PFC in the infantry.  Mason’s journey begins in 1964 and carries him through 1968, a time when the United States, under President Lyndon B. Johnson was ramping up the American commitment to save South Vietnam from communism.  Mason’s insights echo those of historians that were written years later.  Mason’s memoir was first published in 1983, and was reissued in 2005 with a new afterword describing how the war affected his life for decades following his service.

06 Returning Fire

(American “slick” with a machine gun mount)

Mason’s experience in Vietnam was much diversified. Even as a warrant officer he engaged in the activities of a typical grunt rooting out tree stumps, digging fox holes, filling sand bags, and building a perimeter for his assault division.  Mason’s primary activity was flying a Huey helicopter that involved him in support of troops in the Bon Song Valley and Ia Drang Valley where in November, 1965 the United States won its first large scale encounter with the North Vietnamese.  Though it appeared to be a victory, Mason questions what American strategy was as we killed the enemy at an increasing rate, but we would withdraw and not hold the land taken.  Mason points out repeatedly, that later American troops would fight to retake the same territory as it had won earlier, but at an increasing cost for the United States.  Mason’s buddy, Connors summed it up well, “Why the fuck don’t they keep some troops out there.  This is like trying to plug fifty leaks with one finger.” (351)  This is not the only thing that Mason questions.  He did some reading before he went to Vietnam, Bernard Fall’s Street without Victory having had the most impact on him as it describes the political situation in South Vietnam, the corruption of the Saigon regime, and the lack of commitment on the part of the South Vietnamese peasants who just wanted to till their own soil.  The poor training and refusal to fight on the part of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army), the fear in the eyes of South Vietnamese he came in contact with bothered Mason a great deal.  The resentment between ARVN and American officers was readily apparent.   At times when ferrying ARVN troops to a landing zone Mason had to be careful that once on the ground they would not turn and fire on his Huey.  For Mason, there were many times that he questioned why he was in Vietnam.

14 My Chair

(the author in Dak To during his tour)

In exploring the Vietnam War from the lens of a Huey pilot the reader will experience with Mason a myriad of situations. Mason provides an excellent description of how he learned how to fly helicopters.  He also provides a useful amount of technical information about the problems that pilots faced and how they could maneuver their Hueys out of many tough situations.   He engaged in spraying defoliants to eliminate ground cover for the VC (Viet Cong, South Vietnamese communists), not knowing what havoc these chemicals would reap in the future.  Mason’s primary activities centered on transporting troops, wounded, and bodies to and from the battlefield, but he was also involved with relocating refuges, to training missions, as a mail courier, to picking up and delivering supplies to combat areas and rear compounds.  But there were other missions of importance, the pickup and delivery of tons of ice so the officer’s club would be stocked and if any was not needed it would be traded for appliances from other units.  Further, the transport of small groups of officers on their own “secret” missions, as well as using the Hueys to visit friends a hundred miles away.  Some of these tasks were obviously would not be considered “militarily relevant,” but to maintain the sanity of people who have flown over 1000 missions they were none the less very important.

18 Preacher Camp

(the author walking along a trench by his, as he calls it, “spiffy digs”)

Throughout the narrative Mason supplies the reader the historical context of what was occurring on the ground in Vietnam.  The intensity of Mason’s descriptions of his flights and what he observed provides the reader the feel and the smell of war.  Supply shortages were constant in his unit, particularly chest armor that was a necessity for Huey pilots.  Mason highlights it further after he transfers to another unit that is overflowing in chest armor.  A recurrent them is the weakness of American intelligence, provoking Connors to comment after a fire fight that “the intelligence branch must have read their maps upside down, [and was] getting its information from smuggled Chinese fortune cookies.” (146)  Early on Mason was led to believe the reason the French had been forced out of Vietnam was because they weren’t “air mobile.”  Once the American Air Cavalry arrived it was supposed to change the course of the war.  For Mason at times he believed the United States was winning, then doubts would creep in based on his experiences in combat.  It led to a discussion with  his co-pilot, Gary Resler as they tried to determine their attitude toward the war; where they afraid or “chicken,” or after seeing the constant pile of dead American bodies they wanted revenge, making them “hawks.” Their conclusion was a combination of the two, hence, they were “chickenhawks.”

17 Washing Out the Blood

(Cleaning the chopper from the blood and other aspects of war)

Mason provides the reader insights to his thinking about his personal feelings.  He left his wife, Patience, and young son, Jack in the United States, and he integrates his personal letters to his family throughout the narrative.  His feelings of guilt are present as he is honest about his activities during R & R in Saigon, Taipei, and Hong Kong.  It should be obvious that Mason suffered from PTSD before he left Vietnam.  Constant nightmares, anxiety, and fear centered on the murder of VC prisoners, the use of napalm and the damage it caused, and the casualties he witnessed drove him to use medication after his missions in order to complete his tour of duty.  In addition, he pours his heart out about what he witnesses and cannot cope with.  Chickenhawk, though written over twenty years ago provides lessons for future soldiers, and it is an exceptional Vietnam memoir that has stood the test of time.

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