It isn’t often that you pick up a book that takes you inside the mind of a helicopter pilot in the throes of war. Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir is that book—and so much more. When you begin the first chapter, you are captured by the understated play-by-play of the life of a young boy who grew up in Tullahoma and became a decorated pilot in one of the areas of heavy combat in Vietnam.
Bud Willis, author of Bluestocking and former resident of Clarksville, told the following story both in Marble Mountain and on his visit to the TODAY show:
The pilot of a Huey (UH1-E, the workhorse helicopter of the Vietnam War; it is a forerunner of the Cobra), Willis was sent to pick up an injured Marine.
“The young soldier, no more than 19 years old, was in critical condition. He was missing a leg, an arm, an ear and an eye. To ease the soldier’s pain, the corpsman shot morphine into his remaining leg. After dropping his passengers off at the local hospital, Willis saw the wounded Marine motion to the crew chief to lean forward so that he could tell him something over the deafening noise of the helicopters. The chief nodded, walked back over to Willis and took a minute to collect himself before relaying the message: ‘Captain Willis, do you know what he said to me? He said to tell the pilot, thanks for the ride.’”
On the way to their base, Willis said his men, touched by the gratitude, were “all bawling like babies” and praying for the full recovery of the wounded soldier. Willis vowed to thank someone every day for the rest of his life.
Marble Mountain is not a memoir that celebrates the heroism of the author. It is a picture of the good, the bad and the ugly of war. It reveals that necessity for men to find humor in anything and everything they can in order to face the horrors and stupidity that control their lives.
The reader sees not only the political chaos in Vietnam at the time but how these swirling and sometimes life-threatening grabs for power affect the ordinary Marine and the people he is trying to protect. Willis doesn’t pull any punches. He tells it like it is.
You see a pilot who figures out that to save men on the ground, you wait for the accompanying firepower of your accompanying helicopter to go in first. Then you swoop in as quickly as possible to rescue the injured in the thick of battle. Medals are unimportant in the scheme of things; only the lives you can save have real value.
As Willis describes it, “sometimes a person who appears to be a hero because he had to scramble out of a jam, may actually be just an idiot who didn’t make the right decision in the first place. Experienced pilots are extremely keen to these subtleties.”
You’ll need three things in order to read this book: a healthy supply of adrenalin, a great sense of humor, and a large box of tissues. The adrenalin is required because you are on a high from the minute you begin to read. Every page keeps you hungering for the next sentence. Willis’ style of writing keeps you right in the thick of battle. Your sense of humor will be required by the outrageous antics of Marines who deal with each other and their superiors with total irreverence. You’ll need the tissues because you’re going to cry at the pain, suffering and death that war bestows on the just and the unjust.
Marble Mountain describes the 125 degree heat, the lack of hot water, the filth of not being able to bathe for days at a time, the monsoons that provide unrelenting rain. The reader learns the need for R & R when exhaustion is so deep a man can’t process what’s going on around him. It shows how pilots need to look straight ahead to keep focus when flying a mutilated Marine out of a zone where heavy fire is threatening all ability to escape the area. It teaches you language like “hooch,” “rubber lady,” “slick,” and other slang that Marines have coined.
The contrast between life back at home and life in the battlefield is pictured when the wife of one of the pilots write to admonish him to stop sending thank you notes on the standard notebook paper available to the pilots. It didn’t occur to her that formal thank you note paper was not available in an area where red dirt covered everything and no ice was available to cool one’s drink.
When Robert Strange McNamara, a former accounting teacher at Harvard but then Secretary of Defense, comes to visit, Willis is scheduled to fly part of the VIP group with him. After McNamara decides to spend the night on an aircraft carrier instead of on land, Willis is one of those allowed to have dinner at the beach house of a Marine general. The next morning, however, he is bumped from flying the honchos and stands on the ground to watch the 20 helicopters full of people like General William Westmoreland and General Nicholas Katzenbach off the view the situation. Sadly, Willis was not able to show them his favorite view of the long line of “cheek-to-cheek squatters” leaving Danang each morning to relieve themselves simultaneously on the nearby beach.
Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir is one of the few books that should be required reading for every American over 15 and especially for all those born after the Vietnam War. No one will ever understand the reality of war by reading a history book that outlines the battles and looks at the situation from a distance. Only through the eyes of one who has been there and has recorded his feelings at the time can a person understand what feelings and fears engage the heart of the soldier.
Bud Willis is a writer, whose style has the crispness of Robert B. Parker, has created not only an entertaining read but one of significance to those of us who enjoy the freedoms bought with the blood and sacrifice of our Armed Forces.
Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir is a must read—and soon! Personally, I rarely choose to read about war, especially Vietnam, but once I started reading Marble Mountain, I could not put it down.
Bud Willis will be holding a Book Reading and Reception in the Franklin Room at F&M Bank (50 Franklin Street) on Friday from 3:00pm till 6:00pm. Come on out, buy a book, meet the author, and hear his story from his own lips.
I was both proud and scared the first day I saw my name on the flight schedule as the pilot of the medevac slick. As I said before, one becomes addicted to the feeling of excitement. The right seat (pilot’s side) of the ambulance is the ultimate test on a busy day. I would be responsible for landing and picking up the evacuees for the next 24 hours. We were called out four or five times that morning. The zones were not hot, and everything went fine. The afternoon was not eventful until about 1900. We received an emergency call to evacuate three wounded Marines just before dark. Anything coded as an emergency, we consider a life or death situation. When there are more than one or two, it usually means there is a live fire fight. The landing zone they chose for us was a bomb crater on the side of a hill, and the enemy, whoever they were, was shooting down on them. This made calling in an airstrike impossible because any bomb debris would be falling directly down on our Marines.
I wanted to secure the zone before I took the plane in, or possibly have them move to another location, so that we could neutralize the enemy fire and avoid hurting any good guys. Side-hill landings are difficult enough without gunfire. Alternate pickup areas were too far away, and wounded men don’t need the additional stress of being dragged around in the jungle. The best solution that I could come up with was to ask the gunship to have its door gunner shoot the M-60 over the top of the zone and in the direction of the well-concealed VC while I tried to sneak underneath his layer of machine gun fire. None of this was working, and the men were hunkered down in that zone still taking fire. The clock was ticking. I was circling and stalling, trying to think of something, all the while wishing this were just a bad dream.
There was an atmosphere of electricity in the cockpit. It had formed a thin wall that was pressing against my face. I could feel the tension of the three men in the plane with me. We all knew that sooner or later we were going to have to go down where all the shooting was, or somebody else would have to. We also knew that if I procrastinated any longer that it would be dark. The situation would only be more complicated. I knew my wingman was feeling all the same things for me because we had all been there. Nobody envies the manager of a shit sandwich. Only one man could make this decision.
Suddenly, I made the call. No words were spoken. Not a single thing changed except that I leaned forward in my seat. As soon as I committed, all the pressure was replaced by perfect clarity. The cockpit tension and indecision were gone. On the other side of that thin membrane, the world was in focus. My thoughts were clear. I had stepped through an imaginary wall of fear. Unconsciously, I had “split the needles” and separated the engine power from the rotor mast. We were dropping like a stone toward the landing zone. All my focus shifted to the crater and tiny openings between tree stumps on the side of that hill. It was a moment I will never forget and a defining one for me.
I asked the wingman to keep pressure on the high ground while the crew loaded the boys onto the stretchers. Half a dozen Marines swarmed the door to load the bleeding cargo. If we were taking fire, I didn’t know it. My mind was on flying that Huey and nothing else. I looked straight ahead to keep a reference point as I tried to hold a steady hover two feet above the uneven terrain. The rotor tips were inches away from a pile of rocks on the co-pilot’s side. My wingman had adjusted his strategy and was in a hover a couple of hundred feet above me. He distracted the enemy and poured lead into the side of the hill. His spent shells fell all around us, littering the landing zone. Our corpsman had the casualties racked in stretchers and hooked to plasma bags by the time the crew chief squeezed my arm to signal all-clear. I did a wingover down the hill away from high ground, and we were quickly out of there.
By the time we landed at the hospital pad, the sun was setting, and darkness, our other enemy, had stolen what was left of the day. The window had closed. I looked at the clock on the instrument panel. The entire mission took less than 25 minutes from the time the call came until we landed at Bravo Medical. The decision that seemed like an hour for me to make took only a few seconds, probably the most important few seconds of my adult life.
It took years of reflection for me to understand what happened to me on that flight. Fear was the real enemy. I had been swimming upstream against it until that very day. There came a time when no amount of swimming would overcome whatever force it was that pulled me into the powerful current that is the Marine Corps. I had read somewhere that fear exists only to the extent that we give sanction to it. I understood the bravery of some of those grunts on the ground and the corpsmen and crew chiefs. I wasn’t about to let them down. A year ago, some of those kids who were too lazy to make their beds back home were now humping 100 pounds of gear through the bush, cooking their own meals, and sleeping on the ground with a tree root for a pillow. I went down in that zone because I respected those young Marines. We came out of that zone because my wingman took extraordinary measures to make himself a target and to take care of us. We were a brotherhood. That was the day that I became a member of their club.
About Bud Willis
Named Tennessee’s Outstanding Young Man for service to his community, state and country, Bud Willis has been well recognized for his first book, Bluestocking, released in 2009, now in its second printing.
A native Tennessean, Willis grew up in Tullahoma, and graduated from Tennessee Tech University, Cookeville. There, Bud served as editor of the campus literary magazine. His professional career extended through 34 years in the securities industry as Partner with J.C. Bradford and Company. As a successful business man, public speaker,and humorist, his spirited Southern writing style engages readers quickly, with pathos, humor, and new knowledge regarding the lives and labor of young, Marine pilots serving in the mid-60’s in Vietnam. Currentlysemi-retired, Bud lives in Naples, FL with his wife and best friend, Lee. Bud can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 16719 Pistoia Way Naples. FL 34110.
Preview Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir
Author of Tennessee Literary Luminaries: From Cormac McCarthy to Robert Penn Warren (The History Press, 2013) Sue Freeman Culverhouse has been a freelance writer for the past 36 years. Beginning in 1976, she published magazines articles in Americana, Historic Preservation, American Horticulturist, Flower and Garden, The Albemarle Magazine, and many others. Sue is the winner of two Virginia Press Awards in writing.
She moved to Springfield, Tennessee in 2003 with her sculptor husband, Bill a retired attorney. Sue has one daughter, Susan Leigh Miller who teaches poetry and creative writing at Rutgers University.
Sue teaches music and writing at Watauga Elementary School in Ridgetop, Tennessee to approximately 500 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. She also publishes a literary magazine each year; all work in the magazine is written and illustrated by the students.
Sue writes “Uncommon Sense,” a column in the Robertson County Times, which also appears on Clarksville Online. She is the author of “Seven keys to a sucessful life”, which is available on amazon.com and pubishamerica.com; this is a self-help book for all ages.
SectionsArts and Leisure
TopicsBud Willis, Danang, Helicopter Pilots, Helicopters, Hueys, Lyndon B. Johnson, Marble Mountain, Marines, Nicholas Katzenbach, Robert S. McNamara, U. S. Marines, Vietnam Memoir, Vietnam War Memoirs, Vietnam War Veteran, William Westmoreland, Wounded Warriors
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