Not widely known is the fact that in 1966-67, a year before his death, he went to Vietnam at the request of his friend Harry F. Guggenheim, publisher of Newsday to do a series of reports on the war. The reports took the form of letters to his dear friend Alicia Patterson, Newsday's first editor and publisher. Those letters have been published in a book by Thomas E. Barden, Vietnam veteran and professor of English at the University of Toledo. The book is entitled, “Steinbeck on Vietnam: Dispatches From The War.”
I found the following passages relevant to our experience in Vietnam. His ability to weave a vision is just magical. On January 7, 1967, Steinbeck was in Pleiku, flying with Shamrock Flight, D Troop, 10th Cavalry, and wrote the following home:
I wish I could tell you about these pilots. They make me sick with envy. They ride their vehicles the way a man controls a fine, well-trained quarter horse. They weave along stream beds, rise like swallows to clear trees, they turn and twist and dip like swifts in the evening. I watch their hands and feet on the controls, the delicacy of the coordination reminds me of the sure and seeming slow hands of (Pablo) Casals on the cello. They are truly musicians hands and they play their controls like music and they dance them like ballerinas and they make me jealous because I want so much to do it. Remember your child night dream of perfect flight free and wonderful? It's like that, and sadly I know I never can. My hands are too old and forgetful to take orders from the command center, which speaks of updrafts and side winds, of drift and shift, or ground fire indicated by a tiny puff or flash, or a hit and all these commands must be obeyed by the musicians hands instantly and automatically. I must take my longing out in admiration and the joy of seeing it.
Sorry about that leak of ecstasy, Alicia, but I had to get it out or burst.