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Author, Vietnam veteran reflects on time as helicopter pilot in war
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Freeland as a soldier during the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended in 1975. Photo courtesy of Larry Freeland.

With a father in the U.S. Air Force, Larry Freeland traveled to many different military bases as a child and grew up around veterans from all different generations of war, particularly World War II.  

Freeland, a Dawson County resident, said he enjoyed learning about military history and hearing stories from veterans about their experiences. When he graduated from the University of South Florida in 1968, he was drafted into the Army the following month.  

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Freeland stands with a Boeing CH-47 Chinook during the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of Larry Freeland.

While Freeland was interested in military history, he said he had a fondness for movies and the film industry, and said he used to imagine himself finding a home amongst screenwriters and directors.  

“I thought in high school and college that I wouldn’t mind trying to bust in [the movie business] in some way,” Freeland said. “But, back in ’64 to ’68, when I was in college, we were right in the middle of a war and anybody that could walk and talk was gonna get drafted at some point…. But I never lost sight of the [movie business], and I always had a hankering for it.” 

Freeland served one tour in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division as an Infantry Officer and CH-47 helicopter pilot. He is the recipient of 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.  

Throughout his time in Vietnam, Freeland wrote letters home, had tapes and a diary that he used to document his thoughts and experiences, which helped him pull together a story with powerful emotions that readers could understand.  

Freeland said he hadn’t thought much about his experiences in Vietnam until the movie ‘Platoon’ was released in 1986.  

“The whole story [of ‘Platoon’] just captured two hours of [Oliver Stone’s] life, but when I walked out [of the theater] I was like, ‘Jeez, I just came back from Vietnam a second time.’ So many people felt that way [about the movie], and I kind of wanted to do that for the helicopter pilots,” Freeland said. “Every movie you’ve ever seen, there’s a helicopter in it, but it’s never really about them. And without [helicopter pilots] there wouldn’t have been that war, that’s just the way it was fought.” 

In the early ’90’s, Freeland compiled his thoughts and experiences into a screenplay in the historical fiction genre titled “The Flying Pachyderms,” named after his unit in Vietnam. Freeland entered his screenplay in the Southeastern Screenwriting Competition in Atlanta and won Honorable Mention. 

“After [the festival] I said, oh boy, I’m off. Somebody’s gonna pick me up and we’re off to the races,’” Freeland said. “That didn’t happen, so that’s when I decided to try and market it to some production companies.” 

He sent his screenplay to companies in Hollywood where he had three read it. He said that he spoke with Biltmore Pictures but was told the company wasn’t able to move forward with the screenplay because they were already in production of another film within of the same genre.  

“Everybody that read [my screenplay] said [I’ve] really gotta convert this into a book and see what happens,” Freeland said. “But then I was just kind of burned out, so I just put it away and had a couple copies of the screenplay lying around.” 

He sat on his screenplay for years until the shutdowns from COVID-19 provided him ample time to convert his work into a novel. 

“I said, well, let’s just sit down and try writing that book. I’m not going anywhere for a couple of months anyway,” Freeland said. “So, it started in February and I just dived in and wrote the manuscript over about five or six months.” 

Freeland’s novel, “Chariots in the Sky,” focuses on main character Captain Taylor St. James and his journey as a helicopter pilot flying in combat missions in the Vietnam War. Freeland said he pulled from personal experiences or things he heard during his time in Vietnam, though he used the occasional embellishment to keep readers engaged. 

“The characters are all fictional, but with one or two minor exceptions in the book, all the stuff – and there’s a lot in there – it actually happened to someone during the course of my time [in Vietnam],” Freeland said. “I got shot at, got hit a lot of times, went down more than once, so I speak from personal experience.” 

Freeland took a historical fiction approach to his novel because he said he wanted readers to have the experiences without actually being in Vietnam. Freeland also explained that in his opinion having fictional character made it easier for readers to identify themselves with their experiences and behavior.  

“This [historical fiction] approach … I can’t say there’s none out there like it, but there’s very few, and almost all the books written helicopter pilots and crews during [the Vietnam War] … they’re autobiographies or biographies or a compilation of certain stories of members who flew,” Freeland said. “And that’s all good – that’s great – but … as a reader, not being there and not having that experience ..., they really can’t identify with that.” 

Freeland also took inspiration from one of his childhood heroes, Audie Murphy, one of the most decorated American combat soldiers from World War II. After the war, Murphy wrote autobiographies and memoirs, and he made more than 40 feature films from 1948 to 1969.  

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Freeland and his wife, Linda, pose together. Photo courtesy of Larry Freeland.

Freeland detailed an unforgettable experience he had meeting Audie Murphy when he was in the fourth grade. Murphy had visited the military base that Freeland was living on, coming to speak about his memoir “To Hell and Back.” 

“[Murphy] was coming our way and … I’m just a little boy in the fourth grade, so I come to attention and give him a hand salute as best a little boy can do, thinking this is one of my heroes,” Freeland said. “So then [Murphy] is walking and he sees me. He stops, and he walks over, and he kneels down, and he talks to me … I have no idea what he said, I just remember the moment.” 

Freeland said that he could remember feeling small standing next to Murphy. The experience that he had that day inspired some of his writing today and of course, fueled his passion for military history and passions that were more creative including writing and film. 

“If anybody has read ‘We Were Soldiers Once,’ or ‘Band of Brothers,’ or ‘To Hell and Back,’ I think they would really like this book because it’s done really similar to those three,” Freeland said. 

Freeland took five or six months to write his first manuscript in 2020, sending it to publishing companies in the area. Publish Authority, a group located in Roswell, Atlanta and Newport Beach, California, reached out to him after reading his novel, and in August of 2020, Freeland signed a contract with Publish Authority. 

Freeland is currently waiting for his book to be released to a group of professional readers to give feedback and reviews to use for marketing purposes. According to Freeland and his editor at Publish Authority, the release date for “Chariots in the Sky” is April 21. Those who wish to pre-order the book will be able to do so on March 24. 

As far as the next steps, he said he’s getting ready to start another book, this one written in three parts. Freeland hinted that the book will follow a family of three generations of men in the military starting with World War I and going through lesser-known events like the Panama Invasion and the Gulf War.  

“I grew up around WWII veterans and always enjoyed military history …, so [writing this next book] would be kind of a natural extension for me,” Freeland said. 

Freeland’s hope for “Chariots in the Sky” is to educate, enlighten and help grow an understanding among readers for Vietnam Veterans.  

“In this book I wanted to bring out a lot of [emotions] to try and suck the reader in and get a better appreciation for what Vietnam veterans put up with,” Freeland said. “They all came back, put their stuff in a box, and said, ‘I’m getting on with my life.’” 

“Chariots in the Sky” will be available for pre-order on March 24 and released to bookstores and virtual platforms on April 21. Freeland’s novel can be purchased from Amazon or any of your favorite local bookstores. The price for “Chariots in the Sky” is $14.99.  

To learn more about Larry Freeland and his journey, visit www.larryfreeland.com. 

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Freeland's book, "Chariots in the Sky," highlights the experiences of helicopter pilots in the Vietnam War through a historical fiction lens. Photo courtesy of Larry Freeland.
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