Larry Freeland stands in front of his CH-47 Chinook during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the author.

“I’m Lucky to Be Alive Tonight”–Journals of War and Peace From Two Sides of the World

For Christmas in 1970, before I shipped out for Vietnam, I purchased two journal books, one for myself and one for my wife, Linda. We agreed to record our thoughts and activities daily. We planned to exchange the completed journals as Christmas gifts after I returned at the end of 1971.

Beyond feeling a sense of doing something together while we were far apart, “journalizing” provides some other benefits: It relieves stress, allows self-reflection, creates a record of daily actions and activities, and inspires creativity.

A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries a sling load beyond the tactical operations center at Fire Support Base Bandit II near Saigon in Vietnam. Courtesy of the U.S. Army.

A U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter carries a sling load beyond the tactical operations center at Fire Support Base Bandit II near Saigon in Vietnam. Courtesy of the U.S. Army.

Nine days after Christmas, I arrived in Vietnam, where I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division, A Company of the 159th Aviation Assault Support Battalion. Three CH-47 companies with 16 Chinooks each made up the 159th. Each company had between 30 and 35 pilots—including me.

During my tour with the 101st, I recorded journal entries almost every evening after a long day of flying and performing my other duties as an infantry officer. The following four journal entries offer a glimpse into those days more than 50 years ago.

 

February 18, 1971

I flew today for nine and a half hours at Khe Sanh and into Laos all day. It was quite an experience. We had gunship coverage every time we rolled into the LZ’s we were working, LZ 30 and 31. We took mostly light machine-gun and some ground fire. Not a lot of fun. While we were refueling one time at Khe Sanh, a medevac helicopter made an emergency landing on the field. It was all shot up and one of the pilots had been killed. The two medics on the ship had been hit, and the other pilot was hurt. We could hear all the conversations over our radio. The pilot kept his cool the whole time.

A CH-53 Sea Stallion Marine helicopter was shot down near the river by the border with Laos. We were told later that all the crew members were killed. We flew over the scene shortly after it happened. This Laos operation is getting very costly for everyone involved, especially helicopter pilots, and we are only in the third week of the operation.

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We had a memorial service late tonight for the five crewmen we lost earlier in the week when their helicopter went down. I didn’t know them well; maybe that was a good thing. Flight boots were lined up on the edge of the stage and flight helmets placed behind the boots. It was quite an emotional service. I don’t know who said men aren’t supposed to cry, but apparently most of the men present for the service didn’t receive that message.

 

March 1, 1971

I flew 10 hours today, into Laos and around Khe Sanh. We flew into LZ 30 once and received heavy fire; after that, we made several trips into a new firebase just south of LZ 30. I don’t think they named it yet. They are using it as a temporary LZ to bring in supplies and then carry the supplies up to LZ 30. LZ 30 is getting too hot to send helicopters into right now.

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Unfortunately, it did not take long for the NVA [People’s Army of Vietnam] to figure that one out, and we started receiving fire every time we went into the new LZ. The last time in there we got hit several times by ground shrapnel from mortars and artillery rounds. The aircraft was banged up, and we were very slow to regain some altitude.  We continued to draw a lot of ground fire because we were so low. Our company commander dropped down from his safe altitude to fly next to us, followed by two more Chinooks from our company. This probably helped save our lives as some of what we were getting was redirected their way. We finally gained enough altitude to get out of the line of fire and limped back to Khe Sanh, where we crash-landed on a dirt road near one of the helicopter staging areas. No one was hurt, just shaken up. It is getting progressively worse inside Laos, and harder to relax or unwind.

 

March 11, 1971

I flew today for about two and a half hours, and it was another bad day over Laos. I flew into Firebase Lolo, which is deep inside Laos and was under attack again. Coming into the firebase on short final, we were hit by heavy machine-gun fire down the left side of our Chinook. We took several rounds, and a tracer round hit the cockpit on the copilot’s side. He was hit with shrapnel in the legs and neck, and severely wounded. The left-door gunner was hit in the head and had no chance. Our crew chief pulled the copilot out of the seat and took his place. The ship was shuddering badly, and we lost several instruments and AC control of the rotor system. Our crew chief did a terrific job helping me keep us in the air. We managed to fly back to Khe Sanh, where I made a crash landing on the airstrip.

Larry Freeland stands in front of his CH-47 Chinook during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the author.

Larry Freeland stands in front of his CH-47 Chinook during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the author.

Everything happened so fast, yet when we first got hit, it seemed to go in slow motion and seemed surreal. I was scared as hell but was too busy trying to get back to the airstrip alive. I’m lucky to be alive tonight and hope that doesn’t happen again. I still have 10 months to go over here.

 

December 21, 1971

I am home tonight, what a day. My whole family was there at the airport waiting on me.

I only had my khakis on with my flight jacket, as it was cold. When I came down the ramp and greeted my family, we went inside the terminal to warm up. I unzipped my fight jacket, and my father, who was standing near me, glimpsed the ribbons on my chest. Being a retired Air Force colonel, he recognized many of the ribbons and became emotional. I never told anyone in my family about my experiences while in-country. I am sure he knew I had seen some action, but this apparently caught him off-guard.

When I left home, there was just Linda. When I returned, we had a three-month-old daughter, Jennifer. When Linda gave her to me to hold for the first time, I could not give her up. It wasn’t until we arrived at our apartment later in the day that Linda took her from me and put her in her crib. I just stood there looking down at her—it is great to be home.”

Larry Freeland at his desk during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the author.

Larry Freeland at his desk during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the author.

It’s up to the reader to determine which of the reasons for journalizing that I listed earlier apply, but in my opinion and being the one who journalized, I can say they all apply. The first three reasons were specific to being in Vietnam. For you see, I did not share anything with my wife or family about the horrors of war I experienced while there. We communicated with cassette tapes and letters, all of which, from me, contained, for lack of a better term, “happy thoughts.”

I didn’t wish to unduly burden or give them any more cause for concern than they already had with me being in Vietnam. By journalizing late into my evenings, I did find it helped me to occasionally relax and release some stress.

I did not envision I would ever write a book about my experiences during the time I served in Vietnam. On the contrary, I just wanted to forget about the whole experience and keep it buried. It wasn’t until I saw Oliver Stone’s movie Platoon late in 1986 that I began thinking about writing a screenplay or book about my experiences. By keeping a journal, I found it helped to inspire some creativity and aided the process of turning my writings into a well-received historical fiction: Chariots in the Sky, a story about U.S. assault helicopters at war in Vietnam.

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When I returned on Dec. 21, 1971, Linda and I exchanged our journals and read them together with our first daughter, Jennifer, resting between us. I found the entries fascinating at times to see what Linda was doing on the days I was in combat. One side of the world was peaceful and quiet as my family went on undeterred with their daily lives, while on the other side, a horrific war was waged.

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Larry Freeland

Larry Freeland is the author of Chariots in the Sky: A Story About U.S. Assault Helicopter Pilots at War in Vietnam. A veteran of the war in Southeast Asia, he served with the 101st Airborne Division as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot. He has been a banker, financial consultant, and college instructor. He is retired and lives in Georgia. He is working on a historical fiction trilogy about one family’s three generations of men who serve in the military starting with WWI to the present. For more information, visit his website.

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