After dropping out of university, and recently married, Robert Mason fulfils a childhood ambition and enrols in the Army in 1964 to learn how to fly helicopters. After scraping through flight school, in 1965 he’s sent to Vietnam to fly Hueys. During his time there he flies over 1,000 missions, dropping off infantry into the jungle and taking out wounded soldiers, often under heavy, sustained fire and/or from booby-trapped sites, and sometimes from barely accessible clearings. Mason spends his time in Nam making deep friendships, watching many of those friends die, dealing with Army inefficiencies, learning how to deal with near death experiences on a daily basis, trying to make do in temporary accommodations, and craving to return to his family.
I rarely read autobiographies, but Chickenhawk caught my eye when visiting the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. It is widely touted as one of the best accounts of the Vietnam War from the perspective of a soldier serving there. And for good reason. Mason’s narrative is well written, engaging, and often gripping, having the feel of an authentic account given its matter-of-fact, conversational, and unpretentious style that details both highs and lows, often portraying Mason in a poor or ambivalent light. He captures in detail the everyday training, missions, conversations, action, frivolity and mundanity of Army life. Over the course of the book, one comes to know Mason intimately, his buddies, and the drama and trauma experienced. One thing is clear, Mason and his ilk were performing a role not of their making or choosing, undertaking incredibly brave and foolhardy adventures, all the time blind to the politics playing out both in Nam and at home. And they paid the price in multiple ways – either through injury or death, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or social isolation or family break-up on their return. Chickenhawk is a powerful account of a soldier following his dreams to fly helicopters and finding himself on the front line. The only weakness is around the wider, contextual framing - I would have liked the account to have some further discussion of the conflict, the unfolding politics guiding what was happening, and an overarching sense of the battles and how Mason’s missions fitted into them. Other than that, Chickenhawk is a compelling read.