With his first published novel, “Chariots in the Sky,” Larry Freeland drops readers right into the cockpit with a U.S. combat helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War.
The historical fiction book follows Capt. Taylor St. James as he flies missions through Laos and parts of Vietnam. The character ends up participating in Lam Son 719, which Freeland describes as the last major American offensive operation of the Vietnam War. He said the campaign took place over 60 days with Americans providing helicopter support in Laos.
“The whole thing was an absolute disaster for basically everybody,” Freeland said. “In 60 days there were more helicopters shot down and suffered severe damage than any other period in the entire war.”
He said over 650 helicopters were classified as battle-damaged and another 113 were shot down in Laos, never to be recovered.
When writing about Lam Son 719, Freeland said he didn’t hold back on the intensity of the mission. The author didn’t just know about the operation, he lived it.
Freeland served five years in the U.S. Army with one tour in Vietnam as an infantry officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot in the 101st Airborne Division. He has received the Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster, the Air Medal with 10 Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star and other military service medals.
During his time in Vietnam, the veteran kept a diary. When writing through the lens of his fictional protagonist, Freeland said he drew from his old entries and experiences, some of which he has kept to himself since the war.
“T.J. (Capt. James) is exposed to all kinds of situations,” he said. “Every one of these were based on some actual event that happened to somebody. I either saw it, heard about it or experienced it myself.”
Freeland said his book aims to recognize the men who flew helicopters during the Vietnam War and shine light on the challenges they faced.
“They don’t use helicopters today like we used them in ’Nam,” he said. “As a result of this, the Army had to stand back and rethink their whole approach to using helicopters of massive numbers going into hot combat zones. They were so susceptible to groundfire and being shot down.”
When creating the protagonist, Freeland said he wanted to portray a leader with a strong sense of justice, but not quite the perfect “John Wayne” cowboy type. The captain’s goal in the story is to not only do his job well, but survive and help his comrades live through the war as well. Freeland added that the character has human moments where he questions his purpose in Vietnam and whether he’s making the right choices. The novel also touches on the death that surrounds war, including losing close friends and comrades, something Freeland has experienced himself.
“I wasn’t forcing myself to do that, I wanted to make it real and personal, and grab the reader,” he said. “I thought I’d try to make it as real and as intense as I could. That was the harder part to capture and do justice.”
Over the years, Freeland said he has noticed many books written about U.S. helicopter pilots and crews. However, a majority of them are biographies, autobiographies or a collection of experiences. For someone who has no ties to the military or familiarity with the Vietnam War, he said making a connection to a nonfiction work could prove difficult.
With “Chariots in the Sky,” Freeland said he aimed to write a novel with little “military speak” that most ages and backgrounds could not only understand, but enjoy.
“It’s hard for readers to say, I’m Capt. Jim and living his story,” Freeland said. “You’re reading about it, but you’re not living it. So, I wanted to write a book where you as the reader can say ‘I’m this guy, and I'm going through this.’”
Before finishing his first manuscript of “Chariots in the Sky” in 2020, Freeland said he wrote a screenplay in the early ‘90s titled, “The Flying Pachyderms,” inspired by his unit in Vietnam. The work was entered into the Southeastern Screenwriting Competition in Atlanta and earned honorable mention, but unfortunately wasn’t picked up. Freeland said he then began sending the screenplay to productions in Hollywood, and unfortunately made no headway.
“I decided not to go forward,” he said. “I just was burned out, so I put it all in a box. Over the years, people would come up, and I’d let them read it. They’d say, ‘Larry, you’ve got to make this into a book.’”
After around 24 years of putting his dream to the side, Freeland, who lives in the Chestatee community on Lake Lanier with his wife, said he decided to dust it off at the end of 2019 and transform it into what is now, “Chariots in the Sky.”
He wrote the manuscript in five to six months during the pandemic and later signed a contract with Publish Authority, a publishing company in Roswell. His first published novel will be released on April 21 and available for $14.99 at Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com and other bookstores. People can pre-order the 343-page book on March 24.
“I hope that they (readers) find it a good read and that they learn things they might not have known before,” Freeland said. “I hope they get a better perspective for what it was like ( for helicopter pilots during the Vietnam War) and more respect for the military in general.”
For more information, visit larryfreeland.com/novel.