“Every morning when I get up I can take a deep breath and feel good about being alive … while thinking about how lucky I am just to be alive. Each new day is a gift.”
That quote comes from page 63 of Marine Corps veteran and Vietnam helicopter pilot Bruce R. Lake’s book, “1500 feet over Vietnam.” Lake, who remains grateful he made it through the horrors of conflict to spend the last 48 years with his wife Kay, is quick to say he wrote his book as a catharsis to clear his mind of the many memories nagging him and keeping him from moving on with his life as a civilian.
Lake recognizes that many passages in his book are difficult to read. Based on 13 months of daily letters mailed home, the book shares descriptions of medevac missions he flew to recover wounded and dead soldiers. Those missions were frequently flown while taking on heavy enemy fire.
While many war survivors find it impossible to share the atrocities they lived through, for Lake eventually writing about his experiences helped release his repressed emotions. He was able to share the comradery of the troops, the pranks, the living conditions that he said were admittedly better than those of the troops fighting in the field but still required dealing with the elements, pests and rodents, and the waves of sadness that followed the death of each fellow pilot or crewmember.
“His letters became a sort of diary—a form of history; an individual’s view of history,” Kay Lake said during a recent interview.
Moreover, Bruce Lake explained that the letters and his book are from his perspective of the war as seen primarily from the cockpit of an H-46 helicopter. His story progresses from a 20-year- old excited to train as a pilot and fight for his country as part of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 265 (HMM-265), to an individual wondering why America was in a war it did not seem to want to win.
An introduction also details how unprepared he was for the treatment Vietnam veterans received after returning home and attending college in what he called an often “hostile environment.” The hostility expressed against the war and the Americans who served in the military, caused him to hide his involvement in Vietnam for years. It took Lake nearly a decade filled with suppressed memories to transition to a less stressful way of living than the 840 combat missions flown from March 28, 1968, to April 21, 1969, had induced.
While writing and self-publishing the book in 1990 (with three additional printings afterward) was something he did for himself, what Lake did not realize initially was how much the book would mean to other veterans suffering, like him, with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and survivor’s guilt. So many, he said, “carry their scars inside” as he did.
The Murrells Inlet resident said he could never have imagined how the things he wrote would also bring comfort in so many ways to other Vietnam veterans and to the families of men returned home from the war in boxes and often in pieces. The birth of a book about war
For the first 30 days of his tour in Vietnam, Bruce Lake wrote down all his experiences until he was discouraged from keeping a diary. For the rest of his 390 days, he let his thoughts spill out in daily letters to his wife—his best friend since age 13.
While he avoided sending anything but scenery photos home, his letters described the many aspects of war and its effect on him. He detailed his enthusiasm and love of flying and provided Kay with details about daily routines and the beauty of the landscape. As time went on, his letters revealed his concern for the way the war was being fought and for the massive casualties.
To survive his life-saving missions, Lake had to steel himself early in his tour of duty against the carnage.
“I looked outside while sitting on the ground with the rotors still turning,” Lake recalled from his early days in Vietnam. “I saw ponchos with Marines being carried with missing limbs or more. I looked out, saw that, and thought how terrible war was. I looked back again and saw arms and legs with no bodies. It was just devastating. From then on, instead of looking out, I concentrated on the instruments and being ready to take off. I concentrated on that instead of what was being put in the aircraft.”
About seven years after Lake’s return from Vietnam, a Navy reservist who had flown for Air America and Air Vietnam who had lost a relative in early 1968 contacted him. “He said did you recover my nephew’s body?” Lake said.
Knowing he had included names of many of the men he had picked up on medevac missions in his daily letters, he and Kay set to work to put in chronological order 13 months of letters that she had lovingly kept. The admiral had provided a date of his nephew’s death, which would make it easier to find.
“As we arranged the letters in order, I made notes,” he said. While he did not find the nephew’s name listed, he discovered something else.
“As my wife and I looked at those letters, we decided there was a story there,” he said. Together, they decided writing the book might be a way to release repressed emotions he had kept inside for too long after returning home.
It was not until after a visit with a former squadron member in 1985, however, that the book truly began to evolve. Lake had tried to stay in touch with former pilots but as time dragged on, he gradually lost track. On a business trip to Fort Worth, Texas, however, he visited with J.J. “Jack” Wilson, a pilot with whom he had shared many narrow escapes. As the two men reminisced about the past, it sparked memories.
“He made it all seem like it just happened yesterday and he helped me remember some of the best of all that happened,” Lake said.
Bringing comfort to others
Over the course of time, Lake’s book has found its way into the homes of numerous veterans and families who lost loved ones in Vietnam. He is always ready to share a copy in hopes it will help others deal with the madness of the war.
In his book, Lake writes about sitting around sharing home movies, sometimes with a fellow Marine seeing for the first time a new baby on film. Those movies introduced the men to each other’s families and helped build a brotherhood as well as boosting morale. It also strengthened the feeling of loss when someone died.
“Every time we lost a pilot or crew member, we lost so much more than just a life. We lost a friend. We lost someone who had risked his life to save ours,” Lake wrote on page 260 from a letter dated Nov. 16.
Years after Lake’s book was published, he heard from the sister of a close friend and pilot named Don Lammers who died in the war Aug. 24, 1968. Although he changed the names in the book of the men he wrote about, families could recognize who the real people were based on the dates and facts listed.
“His sister said Don’s mom started dying the day he died. When she read parts of my book to her mom 20 years after his death and once her mom knew what her son had done and how the fellows felt about him, she died in peace,” Lake said.
Lake and the sister, who lives in Texas, continue to communicate. In a recent letter Lake said the sister wrote that, more than anything else her mother wanted people to remember Don. When she heard the passages in the book so many years later, she realized he was remembered and his memory would carry forward.
Don’s uniform and Lake’s book are on display in a museum in Forest City, Iowa.
There are numerous examples of how Lake’s book has provided emotional support to others. Ten years ago, a man from Massachusetts read the book and purchased several other copies to share.
He eventually wrote Lake that he never had closure about a relative’s service in Vietnam until he read the book.
“He was going to a nursing home and wanted to help other people find closure. He enclosed $200 in an envelope and encouraged me to do another printing and I told him I would,” Lake said.
Another incident involved a Korean War Army veteran who for more than a decade after his service refused to stand for the National Anthem. “He said he would not put his hand over his heart or remove his hat until he read my book,” Lake said. “It is things like that that makes me feel good about writing the book.”
On Feb. 11 of this year, Lake said he spent 30 minutes on the phone with a Marine from Virginia. As his books circulate from one person to another, they often prompt new contacts as people track Lake down to thank him for sharing his experiences—both good and bad-- and stories of heroism of his fellow Marines.
A military foundation
It seemed natural for Lake to join the Marines out of high school. Born at Camp Lejeune, N.C., his dad was a Marine and stories about the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion influenced his decision to serve. When he was 13, his family had moved to a farm in New Hampshire and that is where he met Kay at a church camp. With little money for college, Lake had hoped to enter a Navy ROTC program that paid for books and tuition but when no immediate acceptance came, he joined the Marine Corps.
“I said I would go into the Marine Corps and use the GI Bill and then, low and behold Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts said I was accepted but it was too late,” he said.
Had that acceptance arrived a little sooner, Lake might have avoided his Vietnam tour but his life would have been drastically different. He might never have gone to flight school and spent years doing something he loved.
Lake said he still remembers the recruiter saying, “You’re crazy. You know you are going to be carrying a rifle in Vietnam.”
The recruiter’s prediction was not quite accurate but with the high attrition rate of helicopter pilots, Lake knew he would be lucky to survive his tour. By serving as an officer and Naval aviator for three of his five years in the Marines he avoided ground combat but put himself in danger almost daily during recovery missions into combat zones. Additionally, Lake said the helicopter crews were under directives not to fire on the enemy without permission.
“How can you survive in a war like that,” he said. “I had been there about six weeks when I decided we were there to fight a war but were not there to win it. People ask me how I knew we weren’t there to win. I didn’t know. It was just a feeling I had. I think a lot of people feel that way now, after the fact.”
During his service, Lake earned a Silver Star, the third highest award for heroism, for a night flight where his helicopter took on massive fire while rescuing Marines with primarily head and chest wounds. Enemy fire came through the Plexiglas floor at Lake’s feet with a round coming up just between his legs and shattered Plexiglas hitting his flight suit. Over the course of his career, Lake earned 42 air medals (one air medal for every 20 missions flown).
While in Vietnam, he also saw his brother a few times, who was also on a tour of duty with the U.S. Marine Corps stationed in the Da Nang area. Fortunately, they both came home alive.
Lake said he feels good about what he accomplished. “I never had to fire a weapon. Every mission was a humanitarian effort,” he said.
Initially writing the manuscript for his own family, Lake said the book took on a life of its own.
“It filled a need,” Kay said, proven by the dozens of letters the couple has received from people who have come across a copy of “1500 Feet Over Vietnam.”
Lake said due to a recent surge of interest in his book, he paid for a small fourth printing but the books are not available for sale. He will use the copies to hand out during speaking engagements like the trip he made to Japan in 2010 as an invited speaker for the Marine Corps’ annual birthday celebration. And, because he primarily donates the books to veterans or their families, he said a quick alternative for anyone desiring a copy is to check online for good used books at reasonable prices.
Angela Nicholas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.