Memoir of a Combat Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam
McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2016, 296 pages
Book Review published on: December 15, 2017
Hornet 33 chronicles the raw experience of a combat helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. Ed Denny, whose call sign was Hornet 33, candidly recounts the good (family), the bad (mission), and the ugly (insanity) of war. Just out of flight school, the young pilot was abruptly plunged into the imminent danger of the war, and he struggled to comprehend the conflict. This war shaped his growth from citizen to soldier. He is passionate, detailed, and intense in describing his unit’s sacrifice for the United States, and his unit—the good—became his family, allied and brought together in war.
Denny’s own family and his newly acquired Army family were the pillars that kept him grounded, as the war challenged his resolve day to day. He periodically recounts how it was his wife, boyhood experiences, and other people who shaped his ethics and helped him maintain humanity in the hostile environment. Fond memories of his wife back in the United States gave him a goal of returning home to revitalize their young romance. Her safety in the United States gave him a calm sense of security, knowing she was far removed the war. His Army family—the leaders, peers, and subordinates in his unit—were not as lucky. Unlike his wife, they were exposed to the war, and some paid the ultimate price. His beliefs about the war were frequently put on trial, as he developed bonds with fellow soldiers, only to lose them in combat. The hurt was just as bad as if an immediate family member was killed. Processing each loss tormented Denny, as he tried to evaluate how his intervention may have prevented the losses. Each loss weighed heavy on his conscience, plagued his memory, and chipped away at his humanity. Every loss refocused him on the bad—the mission.
The U.S. mission to restrict communist control in Vietnam did not resonant at the unit level with Denny. His immediate leadership and his progression into a leadership role in the unit centered on taking care of each other. The mission for him and his unit was combat air assault and transport in support of the divisional ground soldiers. Successful mission accomplishment meant that every member of the unit made it back safely to their home station. No mission could substantiate the cost of losing members of his Army family. Poor weather, dense jungle, and a looming enemy threat challenged Denny on every quest to accomplish each mission. He aggressively surged forward at personal risk to accomplish his mission—support and rescue fellow soldiers. His altered vision of the mission chipped away at his conscience as the insanity—the ugly—of the war chased Denny throughout his tour.
The war exposed Denny to the worst side of humanity, generating a level of insanity that hounded him throughout his combat tour. To manage the stress, he adopted a vain prospective on life while maturing from new guy to leader. Denny accepted the notion that he would be killed in Vietnam, and death was just toying with his life’s timeline. Seeing friends and enemies perish, experiencing unjust acts, and dodging his own death forced him to appropriate an altered reality. He adopted the crazy motto, “just take it,” in the face of danger and death as his rule to counter the combat stress. Within months of arriving in country, he took up the unit’s locally established progression of war—fear, doubt, and acceptance of ill fate. Living uneasily, he challenged death on every mission. Even in this impractical state of sanity, the war still knocked him off balance. One mission forced him to helplessly watch a woman die while begging to have her life ended. The incident was eclipsed when he almost lost his life on his last mission.
The war continued to plague him when he returned home to an unforgiving public. It tested his principles and left him with flashbacks of the harshness of war that continued to haunt his memories. His family, his focus of what needs to be accomplished, and his quest to seek understanding in counseling now help him cope with the aftermath of the war. This book is part of his therapy to better comprehend the experience and cope with the emotions. Hornet 33 is an honest look at war and its consequences.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Ray Williams, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas