GUNBIRD DRIVER: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam.
David Ballentine’s memoir is an inspiring account of a Huey pilot’s experiences in Vietnam during 1966-67. It also is a tribute to those who served with him in his squadron, Marine Observation Squadron 6, and to those of the squadron who were killed in action during the war. The names of his squadron Marines are included with 26 of 30 photographs, and the names of 38 squadron Marines killed in action are in an appendix.
Ballentine alternates accounts of his combat experience with details of his daily life and emotions that enable the reader to have a measure of the same experience. His description of cold-water shaves and the public heads (toilets) will bring either a smile or a grimace of remembrance. He creates a normal, colorful flow of conversation by including habitual cussing. Vignettes abound, making his story relevant to those who have been in a war zone and those who have not.
The memoir is organized in five chronological parts. In his early months, he is a green copilot who is patiently (sometimes impatiently) flipping switches and dialing radio frequencies for the pilot in command, while honing his map-reading skills and gaining combat-flying experience. At the end of his early months, Ballentine is a pilot in command and assigned to shipboard operations.
The segment that focuses on the middle and late months continues with more accounts of hot action. It is during this time that Ballentine has an experience that haunts him forever—one that is probably common to those who have been in command. He is confronted with two “mutually exclusive obligations.” Both involve the potential for saving and losing the lives of Marines; both are his job, but he cannot do both.
His decision to follow his squadron’s operating procedures and abort a medevac by pulling his badly damaged Huey out of a hot landing zone (LZ) leaves him with a lasting mental picture “of the look of surprise on the faces of the Marines bringing their wounded buddy.”
The fourth part of Ballentine’s memoir is actually part of his late months in country, but it involves a special mission with a detachment of the Studies and Observation Group (SOG).
Called upon to extract members of the SOG force, he is now a seasoned, combat pilot who can take his Huey into a landing zone with a slope too steep to land on, with 6 feet of clearance from trees for his rotor blades, and hold the aircraft in hover 5 feet above ground while SOG members climb aboard. He knows when his load has reached the limit of his aircraft’s power, and takes his helicopter and passengers out of the LZ—vertically—to safety. The transition from a green copilot to a veteran pilot in command is at its apex!
In the fifth part of his memoir, Ballentine discusses his life after Vietnam and the impact of his combat experience. There are some thought-provoking insights offered, making this part of his memoir the most interesting.
Periodically, Ballentine seems to apologize to his ground comrades for his bit of luxury as a pilot. When Ballentine says, “Teamwork in business is a joke compared to combat,” this ground officer can only reply, “Roger that!” This book is a fine contribution, and the reader will gain an appreciation for the aviation side of the Marine Corps in combat.