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Book: “Vietnam to Western Airlines — An Oral History of the Air War”
Edited by: Bruce Cowee
Publisher: Alive Book Publishing, Nov. 11, 2013, hardcover, 536 pages, collector’s deluxe full color first edition and black and white editions
Three pilots are involved in a rescue mission: one has been shot down and parachuted out of his F-100 into the jungle of Vietnam, one is his wingman who helped protect him during a daring rescue and the third is the C130P pilot who flew the rescued pilot to safety.
While the rescued pilot and his wingman knew each other, they didn’t know the C130P pilot until they all began working for Western Airlines after the Vietnam War and found they had been linked by this harrowing experience.
Stories like this, told to Bruce Cowee, by more than 30 men who all served honorably in Southeast Asia and later became pilots for Western Airlines, tell more than individual experiences.
These oral histories tell the story of the air war in Vietnam from the men who lived it every day. Rescue operations, bombing raids, mid-air collisions, secret wars, dodging surface to air missiles, helicopters, B-52s, Shrikes, MiGs, and all manner of planes are between the pages of the book along with the emotions of the men who dealt with them.
“Movies and television often portray the men who served in Vietnam as half-crazy or on drugs,” said Cowee, himself a combat pilot in Vietnam and later a commercial pilot for Western Airlines and Delta. “Maybe this book will help dispel those negative stereotypes.”
Cowee experienced first-hand the anger against the war in Vietnam and the troops who served.
In 1966, the Air Force bus carrying Cowee and his fellow ROTC students for their flight physicals in Marin County was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by protestors.
In 1969, when Cowee returned from Vietnam, he found a nation in turmoil.
“Twenty-four hours out of Vietnam, I was in a car with my family coming back to my hometown of Berkeley and facing roadblocks,” said Cowee.
Cowee spent 20 years collecting the histories presented in “Vietnam to Western Airlines.”
“At Western Airlines, I flew with these amazing guys who had incredible stories to tell and during lay-overs, we would talk,” he said.
Cowee found that many of them were reluctant to share their stories with family members or non-pilots.
“I thought there needed to be some vehicle to allow them to tell their stories and let people know what really happened in Vietnam,” he said.
The book, complete with vintage photographs from the private collections of the pilots whose stories are featured, gives a picture of a war that is rapidly being forgotten and given scant mention in text books.
It covers nine years of history, 1964-1973, from the perspective of combat pilots, Search and Rescue pilots, trash haulers and even a few non-pilots.
Chapter 10 features Placerville resident, retired Lt. Col. USMC Bill Wilson and is a collection of some of the experiences Wilson had in Vietnam as a combat pilot flying A-4s.
“It took 10 years for me to get Bill to tell his story. He had never even told his family,” said Cowee. “He told me later that talking about his experiences had changed his life. He even found two shoeboxes of photographs he hadn’t seen for 40 years and we included some of them in this book.
“One thing I didn’t expect from writing the book, was the healing that seemed to happen for guys who had never told their stories,” said Cowee. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from pilot family members who really appreciate knowing what they did. It’s been very gratifying.”
Cowee, who now lives in Reno, said he isn’t currently working on another book.
“But I received feedback from some of the guys who were too reluctant to tell their stories and now wish they had. That could be a second book,” he said.
The collector’s deluxe first edition of “Vietnam to Western Airlines” with color photographs can be purchased for $49.95 from vietnamtowesternairlines.com. The version with black and white photographs can be found at Barnes & Noble for $36.95.
Contact Wendy Schultz at 530 344-5069 or [email protected] Follow @wschultzMtDemo on Twitter.