A place of honor for Huey Memorial: Vietnam veterans will gather today in Dundalk to dedicate a restored Huey helicopter they hope will become a permanent educational exhibit.

November 09, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Joe Scarda is coming from Los Angeles with a couple of jugs of prime tequila and his 23 air medals. Larry Tweedie, a former pilot, is expected from England. And a retired general will visit from Virginia to speak of brave young men he commanded in those flying machines nicknamed Huey.

From far and near, hundreds are expected to attend today's dedication in Dundalk of a noble old Huey helicopter -- a battered Vietnam veteran once destined for the scrap heap -- now handsomely restored and intended as a future educational exhibit of America's most unpopular war.

In its restoration, which many said was impossible, some see a healing of the human spirit for vets who rescued the helicopter from an artillery target practice range.

The Huey "was ubiquitous, the symbol of the war," said Gordon Livingston, a Columbia psychiatrist and combat surgeon in Vietnam. "The 'Dustoff' pilots were saints; if American casualties were on the ground, they found a way to land and get them.

"Hueys were often the measure between life and death. While we restore the Huey, we restore our souls."

The dedication at the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 451, linked to the observance of Veterans Day on Monday, stems from the special relationship between veterans and the helicopter that became the war's enduring shadow. The workhorse refined aerial medical evacuation, ferried troops in and out of combat, and delivered supplies to remote fire bases and patrols.

Judy Tarr, wife of restoration project director Jack Tarr, says the Huey make-over that began in February was "his love affair."

"He would get off work and go to that helicopter every day," she said of her husband, a Huey crew chief with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company, shot down seven times in Vietnam.

"I kept telling him the kitchen cabinets had to be put up, but that helicopter took hold of him. Nights, weekends. And sometimes he'd come home and just cry over it," she said.

Jack Tarr, who dropped out of Tulane University to join the Army, called the refurbished Huey, "like a son. My emotions have been locked up for 30 years. This has helped me work it out.

"The only thing it won't be able to do is fly. Later, we hope to equip it with audiovisual equipment, perhaps some virtual reality, for children who can learn about the war. No glorification, that will be the legacy of the old bird."

The 10 a.m. dedication, in front of Chapter 451 at 6401 Beckley St., will feature a flyover by three Huey helicopters from the Maryland National Guard. The pilots, co-pilots and crew chiefs -- are all Vietnam hands.

"I've flown Hueys most of my life," said Roger Weaver, a 1st National Bank of Maryland vice president and flyover commander for the dedication. "But I can be sitting on my porch, hear that blade flap, and stand up and have to find it in the sky. This dedication is a perpetuation of the sacrifices made by all veterans from all wars."

The Hueys will pass over the dedication site on Beckley Street, at what once was the Fort Holabird officer's club. The helicopters will land after smoke grenades are popped to mark the landing zone near the restored chopper.

"At that point," said Jim Henthorn, a veteran who found most of the surplus Huey parts on the Internet, from as far away as Jakarta, Indonesia, "I don't think you'll find a dry eye on the ground."

Scarda, a computer analyst who retired because of a war-related neck injury, said he will bring a small tail wing inscribed with the names of 54 members of the 116th Assault Helicopter Company killed in action. The part was donated by Fred Astaire's widow, Robyn, who supports a Vietnam veteran's group in Los Angeles.

"This is the parade we never got," Scarda said. "Vietnam was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, mentally, emotionally and physically. It affected my life more than anything else, and yet I wouldn't trade it for a million bucks."

Jack Tarr and other veterans from Chapter 451 spent thousands of hours piecing together the Huey, recovered from Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Last winter, wires cascaded from the cockpit, the tail rotor and windshield were missing, the engine was gone and paint was faded like the makeup of a washed-up vaudeville queen.

While working on the Huey, Henthorn discovered on the Internet that the ship had been used in the Mekong Delta.

Tarr and others also discovered 16 bullet holes that had been repaired and recorded in official Army logs. After repairs, the Huey returned to Vietnam for more action.

Retired Maj. Gen. Harold I. Small, who commanded the 116th in 1966-1967, will be the dedication's keynote speaker. A resident of Poquoson, Va., he said he remembers the Huey aviators as "kids who had more courage than you can imagine. Every one of them thought they were invincible.

"At that point, it was like being present during the invention of wheel. It saved lives by the thousands and it could deliver some of the most devastating firepower you could ever see. Anybody who flew in them respected the pilots, the door gunners. They were a special breed," Small said.

"For a lot of people who can't go to the wall [Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington], this dedication will perhaps help people remember and deal with their past. You can't dwell on it too much, but you have to stop and reflect, remember the guys we lost, the men and women who served."

Halfway around the world, in the country where the Huey earned its reputation, the helicopter has been remembered another way.

Last year, outside a museum in Ho Chi Minh City, a street peddler hawked model Huey helicopters crafted from Coca-Cola cans. The asking price: $2, but sometimes a buck would be enough.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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