As World War II was coming to an end, the little boys who lived in the apartment building at 3900 Greystone Avenue, across the street from Fieldston School and Brust Park, were fighting a war of their own.
In the woods on the other side of Manhattan College Parkway, they brandished toy pistols or sticks that they imagined into rifles to battle the Germans.
Two decades later, one of those boys found himself in a real war, flying a Marine helicopter in Vietnam. Now he’s written a book about it.
Arnold Reiner always wanted to fly. Even at PS 81, his classmates knew that what made him an indifferent student was not the absence of brain power but the absence of interest in mundane schoolwork. His head was in the sky.
By the time he was a teenager, as he recalls in “46 Driver: a Marines Corps Helicopter Pilot’s Vietnam Memoir,” he was flying Piper Cubs out of the little Stormville Airport on the Dutchess/Putnam County border.
After high school, still uninterested in academics, he drove a truck and worked the night shift at the Anaconda Copper factory in Hastings-on-Hudson until he realized that he was heading for a dead end. So he enrolled at the University of Bridgeport and enlisted in the Marine aviation officer program.
Gung ho he was not. He candidly told the recruiting officer that he hoped his wings would lead to what he really wanted to do—fly for a commercial airline. The recruiter wasn’t entirely happy, but he “had a quota to fill and I had a dream, so we satisfied each other’s needs,” Capt. Reiner writes.
To his enduring surprise, college provided more than the certificate he needed to become an officer. “Today, Shakespeare’s characters come alive by different names in newspaper headlines,” he writes, “and I’m grateful that I can stroll through the Metropolitan Museum of Art and better understand and appreciate what is there.”
By the time he graduated in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson had begun to pour troops into Vietnam. Instead of flying jet transports as he had hoped to, Capt. Reiner was shunted to helicopter school.
In 1966 he arrived in Da Nang where he would pilot the CH-46. The helicopter proved to be a balky and unreliable machine that needed to be re-engineered over and over again. Capt. Reiner flew the earliest version, which suffered so many crashes and fatalities unrelated to combat that even the generals and members of Congress grew concerned.
Much of “46 Driver” is devoted to the intricacies of flying this recalcitrant mount. But when the matter-of-fact recitation of rotor angle and pitch is interrupted by an equally matter-of-fact description of combat, the effect is startling, like a lightning flash disclosing the midnight landscape.
Sent to rescue four marines who had been ambushed while on a reconnaissance mission, Capt. Reiner’s ‘copter comes under fire. “In quick succession, a round came through the nose,” he writes. “Another came through the floor . . . . striking my left elbow and destroying my wrist watch.”
More gunfire knocks out the radio and cripples the electrical system. Resuming his log-book-like narrative, he continues, “I switched the hover aft rotor head control to forward flight,” and so managed to cripple in to a landing. Like so much about the Vietnam war, the mission was doomed from the get-go. The marines and their enemy were too close to one another for a helicopter to hover or for air support to distinguish between friend and foe.
Instead Capt. Reiner and his co-pilot were themselves evacuated by helicopter “back to the Phu Bai airstrip where a corpsman deadened the elbow area and picked out most of the shrapnel. Thirty-five years later, an x-ray revealed several specks of shrapnel still in my left arm.”
More danger follows. In what became known as the Hill Fights, a prelude to the siege of Khe San, Capt. Reiner is sent to evacuate wounded marines. In the most vivid account in the book, he tells of taking mortar fire on a denuded hill top, forcing him to take off not only with the wounded but with the men who were getting them aboard. Damaged and grossly overloaded, the helicopter barely clears the hills.
The war, Capt. Reiner writes in a postscript, “was a huge mistake.” But he believes history will make things right. “I am optimistic that one day, Ho Chi Minh’s early idealistic dream for a Vietnam in the spirit of American democracy will at some point occur. But Vietnam will have paid a horrendously large price to get there and the scars we left on the country will remain for generations.”
Capt. Reiner paid, too. He spent his years in Vietnam facing the prospect of his own death, not only from enemy fire but from the inadequate equipment he’d been given and the foolish orders he had to obey. Now retired after a long career flying for Pan Am and Delta, he could not have known when boarded the subway at 242nd Street to enlist in the Marines what the price of his dream would be.
A version of this article appeared in January 16, 2014 issue of The Riverdale Press.