Review by Sven Atkin.
This book tells the story of a US Navy helicopter pilot, Alan ‘Wes’ Weseleskey, one of the naval officers who helped shape Helicopter Attack (Light) 3, The Seawolves, during the Vietnam War and, more specifically, his actions running up to and during the Tet Offensive.
Firstly, a lot of research has gone into Triumphant Warrior and the author was one of the helicopter pilots who served with Wes in this specialised unit. What is striking is the amount of detail that tells the reader who the different men were and what their roles were within the unit, including their backgrounds and where they were from in the United States. It describes the uphill struggle and clashes that Wes had with his superior officers in helping to set up HA(L)3 and also getting it accepted as a fighting arm in support of Brown Water Operations in the Mekong Delta.
This volume is also about leadership and shows Wes to be an extremely capable and determined officer with a strong sense of justice and the ability to get the job done. This does not go down too well with the ‘powers that be’ on more than once occasion. It describes personality clashes with other officers of the same rank as well as his superiors. However, Wes was highly respected among the enlisted men and officers alike.
Being the only combat helicopter gunship unit in the US Navy at the time, the Seawolves were given UH-1B Huey helicopters, which were sub-standard and considered by some to be unflyable. Priority was given to the US Army helicopter units that flew the more capable UH-1C. It was up to Wes, his men and their ingenuity to obtain spares and replacement parts, a practice well known in Vietnam where the different branches of the US military vied for the best equipment to help with their mission.
The flying aspect of this account is not what I thought it would be. I was expecting more in-depth description of flying with the Seawolves from the pilots’ and aircrew perspective. Putting you in the seat in the thick of the action, so to speak. This book did not do enough of that for me. This is an observation, not a criticism. The flying described is generalised and really set the scene for where the acts of heroism took place rather than the feelings of what it is like to fly in a UH-1B at low level under persistent fire.
For example, two ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) units were being overwhelmed and Wes decided that he and his crew would go in and pick up as many survivors as they could despite taking constant fire from the Viet Cong. They were supposed to escort their stricken wingman back to base. Wes was reluctantly assured by the pilot that he was able to make it back. Wes continued and flew the helicopter so low below the treeline that the VC heavy machine gunners couldn’t see it while survivors were picked up. Once they returned to Vinh Long Army Airfield someone commented that the helicopter “looked like it had been used as a battering ram”. This was testament to the skill and dogged determination of Wes and his crew that, despite these odds, they still saved many lives. This is the sort of action I’d liked to have read more about.
There are descriptions of the ground actions during the Tet Offensive where Wes and others’ unshakeable decision-making came to the fore and saved lives, as well as their own, under what seemed insurmountable odds.
Without giving too much a way, the book goes on to describe Wes’ homecoming, life after the Vietnam War and his subsequent retirement. He played a very active role in getting reward and recognition for individuals who may have been passed over because of military politics and red tape. He was, himself, awarded the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, Distinguished Flying Crosses, and the Navy Cross during his service.
Triumphant Warrior is not specifically about Wes’ flying experiences as a pilot. It is more about the documentation of an extraordinarily brave and courageous leader who, in order to help shape an effective fighting arm against the odds, sometimes had to go against the doctrine and procedures that were deeply embedded within the US Navy’s structure. Putting his career in jeopardy on several occasions, Wes persisted, but ultimately did right by the men under his command and was instrumental in helping the Seawolves receive the recognition they rightly deserved.