The ones who found Robert Mason’s ‘Chickenhawk’ interesting, shall surely appreciate Tom A. Johnson’s ‘To the limit’. Johnsons describes his mission as helicopter pilot to Vietnam in 1968, the year of the battles for Hue and Khe San.
If you always wondered how it would be to land a difficult to navigate, fragile and overloaded Huey on a rough turnip-field, whilst, from unexpected direction you are shot at with all possible means at hand, then you have with this book a safe substitute for the real experience. In 22 chronological ordered chapters, which you often can read in one night, Johnson describes as many fighting missions. That doesn’t meant that it is only tension and action that rules. Johnsons also sets out the context of these fighting missions, mostly by means of a map of the operation area. That outline is usually factual and without any knowledge afterwards. The strength of that is, is that you can understand why a pilot and the by him transported foot-soldiers in 1968 put their lives at risk for something of which we now – just because of the outcome of the war – mean to know that it has been pointless.
Johnson is a talented writer, but to be able to follow the story some knowledge of army abbreviations, call signs and also the navigation of a helicopter is necessary. Dialogues are sometimes one big tango of Alfa’s and Bravo’s. That gives the story directness and speed, but can also be an obstacle for the unprepared reader.
True enough, in an appendix the navigation of an helicopter is explained, but I suspect that not every ready is up to first plough through that. A good remedy, to my opinion, is to read first Mason’s ‘Chickenhawk’ and then ‘To the limit’ as a kind of part two. For Mason’s book the same knowledge is necessary, but in his book this is partly integrated in the story.
Were in ‘Chickenhawk’ as a red line runs Mason’s diminishing mental health, Johnson’s steps as fresh out of his helicopter after each nerve-racking mission as that he stepped in. Each chapter describes a specific operation and can be, in principle, be read on its own. ‘To the limit’ is because of that not really a complete story. It is more a collection of adventures, which as well could have been presented in a different order. That doesn’t mean that the book is superficial. Simply, there is another personality telling, from someone that didn’t get disillusioned, but who tells as gripping and intelligent.