When Vietnam veteran and career banker Larry Freeland was conceiving his first novel, he followed the age-old adage “write what you know.”
Fresh out of college in 1968 with a finance degree from University of South Florida, Freeland was drafted into the Vietnam War and joined the Army as an infantry officer and CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot for one tour in 1971. The resulting book, Chariots in the Sky, tells the story of 101st Airborne Division helicopter pilot Capt. Taylor “TJ” St. James’ experiences during Operation Lam Son 719, same as Freeland’s. It was the most fatal period for helicopter pilots during the entirety of the war.
“It was horrific,” Freeland relates. “No matter where you flew in the war, you’d be shot at by small arms fire machine guns; they might throw some RPG or some mortar rounds at you. The second month, they had tanks.”
TJ, a short-tempered but sympathetic narrator and protagonist who’s coping with constant exposure to violence while missing his wife, Sandy, is based on Freeland’s experiences and those of his fellow infantrymen. He’s loyal, necessarily a little “crazy,” yet still holds compassion for the Vietnamese civilians who “just want to live as their ancestors have for centuries.” But Freeland’s personal connection runs even deeper.
Born to a military family in Ohio, Freeland grew up on Army bases; his grandfather served in World War I and his father, in World War II. Writing Chariots in the Sky, he says, has been a way to honor his fellow veterans, his “heroes,” while also opening up about the traumas they all experienced but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, talk about. Now decades removed, he admits that when he returned to civilian life in 1973, he did his best to tuck all those memories of humid jungles, RPG explosions, and dead bodies away.
“We didn’t call it PTSD back then,” he explains. “But depending on what your experiences were, you could have a rough time adjusting back into civilian life. The first couple years I used to, at night sometimes, wake up to loud noises, thinking we were under rocket attack, and I’d get up and get under the bed, thinking it was a bunker. I think most of the guys had some issues like that.”
The idea to put it all in writing came to him when Freeland went to see the 1986 movie Platoon, which moved him with its more realistic depiction of men at war than previous blockbusters like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now. He subsequently worked on a screenplay and shopped it around for a few years after receiving an encouraging letter from director Oliver Stone, but he eventually shelved it. Years later, after retiring and relocating with his wife to northern Georgia, the coronavirus pandemic shut the world down, and inspiration struck anew. This time, it would be a novel.
Why not a memoir? Simple: They are overdone. He wanted TJ to be a conduit for readers to feel immersed in the narrative and insert themselves into the war’s cloying climate (“Just another day in ’Nam. Uncomfortable as hell”), and that was something he didn’t feel he could do with a memoir.
Readers meet TJ on a particularly vulnerable day: a Huey chopper full of his friends and comrades explodes with no survivors during combat in the opening chapter. From there, things only get worse, as carnage-ridden battle scenes, bullets, and shrapnel that clog the sky, and bodies, begin to pile up.
The book is heavy on dialogue and action, frantically jumping from sweet moments of TJ listening to a tape recording from Sandy, who has already lost her first husband to the war, to surprise attacks by North Vietnamese forces, who eventually kill TJ’s commanding officer and the unit’s father figure, Pappy. But Pappy’s replacement, Maj. Parker Stewart, quickly shows TJ and the others that his priorities align more with personal success and decoration than preserving the lives of his soldiers. The tension rises.
Kirkus Reviews praises the book’s realism, calling it “impeccably faithful to historical events” and “a detailed look not only into combat operations, but also their political context as well as providing a moving depiction of the soldiers’ loneliness.” By the book’s midpoint, TJ has lost most of his friends, including his mentee and roommate, Scott, and has become disillusioned with the war, happy to renounce any honors or medals bestowed upon him if it means returning home faster.
Freeland attributes this loneliness to how the war was perceived by the American public. When TJ briefly returns to the U.S. for some R&R with Sandy in Hawaii, the apathy he feels from his country is palpable:
There are no parades, welcoming committees, or cheering crowds greeting them at airports or other ports of entry. Soldiers returning home from Vietnam are entering a country that is indifferent to them….There has been a discernible shift in public opinion from rejection of the war to a rejection of the men fighting the war. Now it was my turn to be demoralized and dejected.
While TJ is able to realize his future beyond war, most are not so lucky. Freeland hopes those who read about Vietnam, whether or not they have personal connections, come away understanding the people who put themselves through a 12-year “meat grinder” in the name of their country. The support he’s received for Chariots has buoyed him to start work on three additional books, a trilogy that chronicles multiple generations of a military family (not unlike his own) from World War I through Vietnam. It has also catalyzed important conversations about collective trauma and the need to speak healing into existence.
“[Once I left] Vietnam in December of 1971, I only ran into one guy I served with there a couple years later. It’s been 50 years now, [yet] since the book was published, I’ve had three guys I flew with reach out to me,” he says. “Before I wrote the book, I didn’t talk about all this stuff. I’ve talked a lot now, through interviews; I’ve done podcasts and a lot of speaking to different groups. But I think when you get older, it just kind of comes out whether you want it to or not.”
Amelia Williams is a Brooklyn-based writer whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Leafly.