Share This Article

Gunbird Driver: A Marine Huey Pilot’s War in Vietnam

by David A. Ballentine, Naval Institute Press, 2008, $28.95

A retired Marine colonel who is now a college instructor in Kansas, in 1966-67 David Ballentine was a young lieutenant flying armed helicopters from a base at Ky Ha, Vietnam. Ballentine’s first book, Gunbird Driver, is a very well-written personal narrative that ranges from the serious and sad to humorous and irreverent. By including “indelicate” topics and language, Ballentine paints a more complete picture of how life was lived by Marines in Vietnam than would be possible in a memoir suitable for “mixed company.” His preface offers insight on accuracy and memory by acknowledging that although truth exists, different people with a common experience may reasonably have different “truths” because of their different capacities to remember. Gunbird Driver is Ballentine’s best recollection of the memorable experiences he had in a Marine Corps armed UH-1E (Huey) squadron, in this case VMO-6, MAG-36.

Although the author is a historian, this book is in no way a political or military history of the war. Ballentine is a keen observer. Beyond illuminating descriptions of the events he witnessed, he also offers interesting philosophical comments on the meanings of those events. For example, after making several rocket and machine gun attacks on a single fleeing Viet Cong with unknown results, Ballentine is ambivalent about this sort of overkill, noting “part of me hopes he survived.”

Opening the book with in-depth descriptions of the UH-1E helicopter, including specifications, armaments, capabilities and pilot training, Ballentine heaps praise on the aircraft and calls his time flying it the most rewarding of his life. His missions included armed escort for other helicopters, medevacs, troop insertions, gunfire spotting and supply. Ballentine re-creates dialogue as if it were transcribed from a tape recording.

It is not easy to categorize Ballentine’s varied experiences, or to understand his criteria for inclusion: After landing on one part of an aircraft carrier, he had to reposition his helo to another, a nerve-wracking process because he was low on fuel. While in Vietnam he grew a moustache, and later shaved it off. He escorted Miss World 1966 to various military installations as part of the 1966 Bob Hope Christmas show. When conventional medical treatment to remove a cyst on his wrist failed, he beat his hand against a wall until the cyst burst. His Huey was downed by small-arms fire while on a medevac mission.

Ballentine’s longest and most suspenseful account concerns the insertion of a large special operations force into an NVA-inhabited landing zone in the A Shau Valley. Although the operation was not productive overall, Ballentine did manage to successfully rescue three Nung mercenaries who had gotten separated from the main force.

Ballentine uses words evocatively. His description of a violent Huey crash, with main rotor blades spinning madly, begins simply, “The helo ate itself.” The title to one chapter is: “First Lt. Lyle Motley Gets His Sinus Cavity Crushed” (Motley was badly injured in a Huey crash).

When Ballentine came home in April, 1967, there wasn’t much of a reception as he and Marines landed in California. He is pleased that soldiers returning from the Middle East these days get “fussed over a bit more.” Given their service and sacrifice, fussed over is as it should be. In this first-rate memoir, Ballentine discusses not just Vietnam but also the notions of duty, pride and responsibility, including why life after war is less challenging and exciting, and why veterans like to be around one another.


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here