The Grotto by Harold G. Walker

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The Grotto is armchair time travel with all the elements you’d like to expect: history, nostalgia, thrills and hijinks. Harold G. Walker takes readers back …  a long time ago in a place far away… Well, it was a different century, a different millennium in fact, and it seems like it must have been a different galaxy: South Vietnam in 1970!

Walker, facing the draft in the late sixties, casts his fate with the Marine Corps and trains as a helicopter pilot. At the end of 1969, with the war entering that phase of “Vietnamization” and winding down for U.S. troops, he joins one of the last Marine helicopter squadrons in the north part of South Vietnam. He and his mates find themselves in “the Grotto”, their quarters at Phu Bai air base. They are the FNG’s (look it up). Getting right to work, they must accumulate flying hours as co-pilots on daily missions in their CH-46 helicopters.

The author employs a true gift for bringing his memories to life – the same journalistic style that colored his earlier Murder On the Floodways. Here the reader will skim over waves as the CH-46 races along the coast; hover precariously over a hillside Landing Zone to deploy rugged Montagnards into combat; touch down under fire to evacuate wounded Marines. With no less detail (and only a little less bravado) Walker describes alcohol-fueled raids on the Army Base Officers’ Club, sightseeing trips to Buddhist temples, and a Bob Hope Christmas Show at Camp Eagle.

Walker also remembers the monotonous days grounded by monsoon rains, and describes the tension and worries about his career after running afoul of a superior officer. He notes that the swagger of Marines with sidearms in Western holsters doesn’t dispel their feelings of homesickness and the uncertainty of their professions. They see often enough that some who fly off in the morning sometimes fail to return.

Walker describes the life in meticulous detail. His memory for small details is amazing, plus he had the foresight to take notes and keep every scrap of paper that documented his life in Vietnam. He also photographed the men and machines he spent his days with; the black-and-white snapshots bring those moments to life throughout the book. In addition, his research for this book included accessing military archives and interviewing veterans.

Could this young lieutenant and his U.S. Marine buddies have imagined a time when they could sign up for sight-seeing tours of the jungle? Cruise the Mekong in luxury ships? Troll Hanoi for fine dining and nightlife? Buy clothes marked “Made in Vietnam” at a retail store in Chicago?  Well, the insightful Walker might just have.  But in 1970, he weighed the dangers of Vietnam combat against his fear of missing out on the action. Those of us reading Walker’s story can also be thankful for his curiosity about life he chose, and his remarkable ability to tell the tale. Best yet,  this is only Part One of two  parts to Harold Walker’s Vietnam experience.

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