OCOEE — After years of telling his stories from his tours with the U.S. military in the Vietnam War, Robert Hartley, a retired aviator and Ocoee resident, heard from many listeners that he should write a book.
As a legacy for his children and a tribute to two friends killed in action, Hartley published that book Feb. 24: “Gunship Pilot: An Attack Helicopter Warrior Remembers Vietnam.”
“I’ve been in touch with their sisters over the years, and they want something for their loved ones, their brothers,” Hartley said of those two friends. “Each has a chapter in my book. One is Tommie, and the other one we called Mac.”
The timing was good in his retirement to pen the book, which took two years to write and eight or nine months for publication, Hartley said.
“It’s about my first tour of duty, 1968 to ’69, and I got there in April ’68 right after the Tet Offensive,” he said. “My unit was heavily involved in Tet. The 1st Cavalry Division had a lot of big things to do with the Battle of Que Son.”
The book starts with a mission along the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Que Son Valley with 200 helicopters on the first day, Hartley said.
“They were waiting with battalions,” he said. “We took heavy losses that day. A lot of significant stories happened for me after that. Many people have been coming up to me and saying they are blown away by that.”
Hartley recounted a time in Vietnam he was almost blown away. To make instant landing zones, troops would load 20,000-pound bombs on a flying crane, but Hartley and some of his fellow pilots on the mission received no word as to what that flying crane was doing.
“When he counted down, he said, ‘Bombs away,’ and we looked at each other and said, ‘What do you mean?’” Hartley said. “The bomb torpedoed to the ground, and we were in a position we shouldn’t have been in and almost got blown up. It was very interesting. We were lucky to survive that blast. It was like a nuclear explosion going off.”
The blast caught up with Hartley’s aircraft, like being caught in an ocean wave, and blew out windows and the exciter box, he said. This meant the aircraft would not have been able to start again. The crater the bomb left was so deep that troops flown into it could not get out of it, Hartley said, leaving the objective unachieved after perilous risks.
ELECTING A SECOND TOUR
After his first tour in Vietnam, Hartley became a Cobra instructor pilot for 18 months in Savannah, Georgia.
“As I was coming up on my last year, I had to make a decision whether to stay in,” he said. “I knew if I stayed I’d go back, because it was a matter of fact then. My wife and I decided to get out. I was hired by a startup, Flight 50 International. They had several airplanes and were ready to have me help them get a couple from Florida to Long Island.”
But a storm destroyed the planes just before Hartley officially started, so the job fell through, which ultimately led to a return to the military and a refresher course in Cobra school. One of Hartley’s friends who had left at the same time also returned.
“Because the war was winding down, they were letting pilots out left and right,” Hartley said. “As a result, it was very difficult to get back in for myself and a guy named Mike Galloway. Mike and I had a gentleman’s bet for a six-pack as to who would come on top in scores in the school.”
During their six-week course, Hartley and Galloway had perfect scores entering the final day, when they had test flights, Hartley said. Galloway got a perfect score for his, but Hartley had a terrible check pilot.
“I made 100% on the ride with one of the worst check pilots there ever was,” Hartley said. “Unfortunately, my instructor pilot put me up with a 99%. (Galloway’s result) was the first time anyone had ever maxed the course. I missed by half a point.”
Hartley’s second tour began in October 1971 and ended in August 1972, one month before it was scheduled to, because the war was ending, he said. He flew one of the last nine Cobras, which were expected to handle the entire opposition, he said, a tall order.
Hartley also worked with the USS New Jersey, which launched 200-pound rounds with spectacular accuracy, he said.
Hartley captures the events he witnessed with terrific accuracy, according to fellow veterans, although Hartley believes every eyewitness will see any event differently.
“I guess it’s been doing quite well,” he said. “I haven’t heard actual numbers, because they don’t post them until 90 days. I’ve had some indications of a lot of people buying the book, especially around here. A lot of people I know in Ocoee have rushed out to get it and have me sign it. I had a book-signing at my house two weeks ago and another at my friend’s house.”
Friends in the different places Hartley had been in 22 years with the military have bought copies and told their friends, leading to lots of sales and impressive results, he said.
As for those years with the military, Hartley holds no regrets and has always felt supported, unlike workers who dedicate themselves to corporations and sometimes get poor treatment, he said.
Hartley’s outlook on the Vietnam War also has not changed, at least since his first month there, he said.
“After only about four weeks in the country, I had already come to the conclusion there was no way we were winning that war,” Hartley said. “Joe Average in South Vietnam did not care who was in charge in Saigon. It became readily apparent. As a result, my vision turned from helping people in Southeast Asia to making sure as many American lives would be saved as possible. I did a good job as far as I’m concerned.”
Hartley compared his mentality to that of American sniper Chris Kyle.
“It’s not the people I killed that I worry about,” he said. “It’s the lives I saved. That’s what his job was, and that’s what my job was. That’s what I’d like to know, the number of veterans greeted by children today who would never have been born had I not been doing my job.”
From there, Hartley became a pilot for dignitaries, once flying all 10 four-star generals of the U.S. Army in a year, he said. He also flew Jesse Jackson, Ted Kennedy and other dignitaries, and he was on standby to fly President Ronald Reagan in case of emergency during a D-Day event in 1984 in France, he said.
After his retirement from government work, Hartley flew for Pan Am World Airways and Northwest Airlines.
Contact Zak Kerr at [email protected].