Huey: Ghost of Vietnam Unlikely hero: A Huey helicopter, perhaps the most enduring symbol of Vietnam combat, is being refurbished by a group of veterans in Dundalk.

February 28, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Behind a rusting fence in Dundalk, an ungainly yet enduring symbol of the Vietnam War awaits its coming-out party.

When springtime arrives, the olive-drab shell of a Huey helicopter -- which once faced the ignominy of being used for target practice -- will be restored by members of Chapter 451 of the Vietnam Veterans of America and placed on an elevated base in front of the chapter home in southeastern Baltimore County. "We're putting the helicopter on public display because we're proclaiming we're Vietnam veterans, and for some of us that has taken a very long time," said Dennis Noah, who served as a Marine Corps medical corpsman in heavy combat and now is an international banker in Baltimore.

To some, Hueys represent metallic angels of mercy -- piloted by brave aviators under fire -- that swooped out of a swirling sky and carried their wounded bodies to a hospital and renewed life.

To others, the distinctive blade flap of the Huey remains a chilling sound so evocative that decades after the war it still stops them in their tracks.

"The Huey was the omnipresent machine of Vietnam," said Eugene Schwartz, a social worker at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Baltimore who has counseled hundreds of veterans from that war.

"That helicopter is wired into every brain of those who were in the war," he said. "They will always respond to it, no matter how much time passes. It had a profound effect on them. One veteran who knows about the helicopter restoration project said it was too bad he couldn't be restored."

No matter how well a veteran adapted to life after Vietnam, certain sights, smells and sounds serve as instant triggers to memories.

"When that last Huey disappeared after depositing you in the A Shau Valley, it was such a stark feeling of isolation," said Thomas Boyce, a reconnaissance scout with the 101st Airborne Division in 1970, now an insurance broker in Baltimore.

"My first time that happened, I realized I was all alone in the world with the enemy, that I could be killed and nobody would find me," he said. "The bird also took you out of those crazy places, so you loved it and hated it. I can be anywhere, hear it, and I will look up."

Added Morton Dean, an ABC news anchorman who covered the war for another network CBS, "Hearing a Huey today, something happens in your gut.

"I'll never forget young riflemen, kids really, getting on a Huey for a mission. They would be yakking, laughing. As soon as the helicopter's skids lifted up just a few inches, they would fall deathly silent. It was a strange, strange world."

The Huey, which resembles a giant tadpole in flight, was thrust into the dawn of the war in Southeast Asia, serving as the workhorse for soldiers in remote fire bases, jungle clearings and rice paddies.

They were gunships, armed with a vast array of weaponry. Other Hueys carried troops into battle and extracted them, the wounded and the dead. They delivered ammunition, hot meals, beer and mail. They toted Jeeps or artillery pieces; ferried generals and VIPs; and sprayed Agent Orange and other toxic defoliants on enemy jungle sanctuaries.

They could be peppered with enemy small arms fire and continue flying because of their protected fuel cells; the honeycombed main rotor could sustain numerous bullet and shrapnel hits. Door gunners and crew chiefs often sat on their flak vests, wary of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong who often fired at the bottom of the airborne choppers while lying on their backs.

"The Hueys did anything we asked them," says Jack Tarr, almost lovingly. He was a door gunner and crew chief on Hueys in 1967 and 1968, was shot down seven times, and now is the senior technician of a Baltimore County trucking firm. He will direct the restoration.

"The medevac system that was developed with the Hueys in Vietnam is practiced all around our nation today, and that's such a wonderful legacy," Mr. Tarr said. "Those ships could save lives or deliver to your fire base that stale chocolate cake mom sent two months previous."

A team of vets from Chapter 451, whose more than 630 members make it one of the largest chapters in the nation, has networked to scrounge parts. The Huey was rescued from Aberdeen Proving Ground's scrap heap, where it was used to supply parts for others still flying and, before its rescue, for artillery target practice.

Mr. Tarr, who dropped out of Temple University to join the Army, said his research shows the chapter's Huey was manufactured in 1966, serial number 66-15238, but never left the United States.

It was used to train Vietnam-bound pilots at Fort Rucker, Ala., saw duty at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., moved to an Army Reserve unit in Mississippi, a government storage yard and then was left on the junk pile at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

The resurrection of the Huey will be undertaken by Mr. Tarr, Mike Smith, a Huey crew chief with the 1st Cavalry Division in 1967-1968, and other members with working knowledge of the aircraft.

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