In stacks of yellow and white legal pads, edges crinkled with age, visible rust left where paperclips have sat for nearly half a century, sat the scribbled memories of a 24-year-old Bud Willis.
Willis was a fresh-from-flight-school Huey helicopter pilot bound for Vietnam, and this ragtag collection of note pads was the written legacy of a young man recognizing his own mortality.
“I started this in case I didn’t come home … so that I could leave behind something other than my dog tags,” Willis says matter-of-factly. “I never wrote much detail in what I sent home, preferring instead to not worry them about the reality of war. Why keep them on edge?”
So while the letters his family received contained mostly anecdotal things like weather reports, dinner reviews and funny things that happened, his journals kept the real records.
When Willis did come home, the stack of yellow and white pages were all but forgotten. Like many Vietnam War veterans did figuratively with their disturbing memories, Willis literally locked his journals away, deep inside a trunk in the attic.
Years later, these faded notebooks have become “Marble Mountain: A Vietnam Memoir.”
The project started as the simple undertaking of retyping his journals as a record for his children. But as he began digging through the yellowed-with-age, faded and bug gnawed pages, Willis realized that the pages contained stories that needed to be told. For the families of those who went and never came back, for those who never went but wondered what it was like, and for a new generation facing their own overseas wars, these stories deserved a voice.
Luckily, Willis was no stranger to authorship. In 2009 he published his first book, “Bluestocking,” about growing up in rural Tennessee.
Though his journals, letters home and saved photos and newspaper clippings provided plenty of details for this book, “Marble Mountain” had its own unique set of hurdles.
“My greatest writing challenge, apart from conflicting emotions, was the obvious disconnect between the 24-year-old pilot in the stories and the 68-year-old writer trying to craft them into perspective,” Willis said.
Plus, some of his entries seemed almost too crazy to be true. To validate his records, Willis wanted to reconnect with some of the men who were there alongside him. This meant not only trying to find them, but convincing them to open up and recount what, for many, was a painful past. Not everyone he reached out to was interested in reopening that chapter of their lives, but five were, and their memories confirmed Willis’ wild accounts.
These men, plus Willis, form the central group of characters in “Marble Mountain.” While his journals name many other people, Willis decided to focus on these five, stating “you can’t write about everything, so I crafted my tale of survival around a few good men.”
A few good men with a very dangerous job. The VMO 2 unit was tasked with flying into combat zones, extracting injured soldiers and getting them to medical help. As a result, the unit was often in the thick of it, and the soldiers they rescued were, more often than not, in very bad shape.
Even Willis’ own son Kevin Willis hadn’t realized the danger his father faced during the war.
“We’d heard some of the stories before, but the book made me really appreciate him more. I really realized he was right in the middle of it, flying missions right where everything was happening,” he said.
Under the shadow of five limestone outcroppings that surround Marble Mountain Air Facility, for which the book is named, the stories unfold, each more amazing than the next. Each chapter springs to life through the photos, flight schedules and newspaper clippings that Willis painstakingly saved and included.
Willis stresses that the book is not intended to be a military thriller. “This is a coming of age story of a small group of Marine Huey pilots who were caught between our compassion for the troops on the ground and the complicated drama of global politics.”
Which is evident when Willis was asked about the book’s cover.
“The cover of the book I designed to look like a comic book, which this war often seemed to resemble. In fact, some of the young men we medevaced out of those jungles still had their favorite comic books packed in their gear. That’s how young they were,” Willis said.
And his book delivers quite profoundly on its mission. The first person narrative speaks poignantly of a young man digesting the horrors of war, testing the strength of his own resolve, and coming to terms with being asked to make the ultimate sacrifice in the name of his country.
Since its release, the book has garnered some national media attention, due to the current situation in Afghanistan. In the introduction, Willis draws comparisons between the two wars and adds: “Our government should be required to explain exactly why it sends its young people into strange lands to fight and die. Their families and loved ones deserve this explanation.”
But it’s also gained attention because of Willis’ generosity. All of the proceeds from “Marble Mountain” benefit the Wounded Warrior Project, a charity that helps soldiers returning from war transition back to stateside life.
And while the Naples resident is currently trotting across the country on a multi-city book tour, he looks forward to returning to Naples to write his next book — a decidedly lighter satire of retirement life.