Bill Norris is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. The cover of his book, Flying Into the Storm (Nekko Books, 272 pp., $24, hardcover; $12.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle), makes it look as though it is about a helicopter pilot, but Bill Norris was not a pilot during the war. That came later, after Norris returned home and became a private pilot.
This novel is centered on Jared Christopher, a young man who leaves college during his first semester and volunteers for the draft. A year later, in January 1968, he finds himself in South Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province “following orders and taking lives.” The enemy, Jared says, “proved to be a crafty, evasive and determined.”
Jared is in the Americal Division and often patrols in an area known as Pinkville, which later was made infamous as the scene of the My Lai Massacre. Jared is not involved in that event, but he comments that he easily could have been.
Norris does a particularly good job evoking the everyday activities of an infantryman. “It was part of the Viet Cong master plan to hit us and disappear, ambush us and merge into the landscape and booby trap us relentlessly, ” he writes. “We seldom saw the enemy, no matter how thoroughly we searched.” This is the war that we see Jared and his platoon fighting.
The whole Quang Ngai Province is enemy infested. It is hard to take a step without fear of encountering a booby traps such as punji pits or bamboo spear racks hung in trees. “This was definitely Viet Cong territory, ” Jared says. “We decided that our job to ‘fight communism’ was a farce.”
He encounters a desolate land, done in by what he calls “orange death”; that is, the widespread spraying of the extremely toxic herbicide Argent Orange.
“I had a bad feeling just walking through the area, ” Jared says. “Even the air smelled musty and tainted.”
He prophetically wonders how these chemicals might affect him and the Vietnamese people who lived in the area.
Jared becomes close friends with a few of the locals. He befriends an orphan, Quang, and determines to adopt him and take him home. His comrades call him “gook lover” because of this. Jared’s request is approved by the U.S. Army, but turned down by the South Vietnamese who didn’t want to lose potential manpower for the war.
Jared returns to America and encounters demonstrators with signs at SeaTac Airport. Long-haired hippie-looking people scream obscenities at him and call him a baby killer. “We returned but the parades forgot to show, ” Jared says.
Bill Norris, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, has created a character in Jared Christopher who is a compassionate man, who is gentle with children, and who understands how the Vietnamese people were caught between forces they couldn’t possibly contend with.
Jared also is a fine leader of men in combat. He always does what he can to help his men stay alive and in one piece. He is a realistic character—despite all his good qualities. I enjoyed reading about him.