Thousands of American troops in faraway places have thanked the Almighty when they heard that familiar sound. It meant help was on the way, and as it grew louder and came closer, even when the chopper tilted down and blew dust or rain or razor grass into their faces, they welcomed it. And then, 40 years ago this week, it faded away with the last Americans departing Saigon at the end of the long Vietnam War.
That whup-whup-whup is the unmistakable signature of the military helicopter known as the Huey.
First in Vietnam and for decades wherever U.S. forces were committed, the Huey lifted them into and out of combat, brought desperately needed supplies, rushed the wounded to hospitals, filling more roles than any other aircraft of the era. Its proper name is the Bell UH-1 Iroquois, but that mouthful was seldom uttered by soldiers in the field, who like nicknames that snap, even sometimes express affection—see "Jeep," to identify the "Truck, 1/4 Ton 4x4" that went anywhere and did everything beginning in World War II. It's not stretching much to say that the Huey became the Jeep of another, different kind of war a generation later.
Even now, to hear it, or just to remember its silhouette, brings back faces and places that I encountered as a correspondent covering that war half a century ago. . . .
Sgt. Sylvester Bryant of the 173rd Airborne, grim and grimy at Bien Hoa, telling how enemy fighters in the jungle snatched away a machine gun from a wounded gunner in his platoon, and he sent a squad to bring it back. They did, he said, but "I think the only thing that brought us out was individual soldiers fighting like dogs"—that, and the Hueys. . . .
Lt. Col. Joshua Worthington Dorsey, standing in the fog and rain and mud, looking first at his map and then up the Que Son Valley. He had to send his Marine battalion to clear out that enemy stronghold, but first he ordered troops onto an abrupt hill to protect their flank. Within minutes, helicopters appeared and lifted Golf Company out of the fog. Amid the bomb-shattered rocks atop the hill, the troops could see back east to the sunlit sea, back toward home. . . .
Dickey Chapelle, a photographer and writer who had seen more war than most of the senior officers she met, bunking in a broad foxhole with half a dozen Marines and correspondents in an operation named Black Ferret. Just after dawn, she joined the first troops moving out of the tight perimeter where they had spent the night. Someone tripped a booby trap and it exploded; a voice called for medical help. After a moment, a chaplain appeared and knelt beside Dickey. They lifted her body gently into a Huey for the trip back to Chu Lai. . . .
CWO Dave Gehling, the day after he and his Huey gunship got shot up by crossfire from machine guns barely 50 feet below while attacking enemy forces in the notorious Zone D. Bullets knocked out his radio, severed his control wires, cut his power by half and slammed pieces of the door frame into his leg. But he made it back to base. For all that, Dave got his second Purple Heart, and kept laughing as he and his Huey kept going back for more.
So many more, in so many places—these are just random memories from a correspondent, a spectator, a privileged class because we could come and go from the field at will. We snagged rides with Hueys as if they were taxis, zipping all over the country, back and forth from action in Quang Tri or Binh Dinh to ease in Saigon or Da Nang. Indeed, the ubiquity of helicopters gave journalists so much independence in Vietnam that it caused Pentagon brass to restrict their access to combat forces in later wars.
We came and went, but the troops stayed behind. Soldiers in deep jungle, unsure of their exact location, would pop a smoke grenade to be seen by a chopper above, which would radio down their map coordinates. Sometimes those troops had to clear a space in the forest for the crew aboard a Huey to drop a line to reel them out of danger. Some of those soldiers lay wounded, looking up and listening, hoping to hear that whup-whup-whup, and some were in body bags when Hueys lifted them away. Landing and leaving, and particularly hovering motionless, choppers made fat targets for enemy gunners, and tales abound of fantastic bravery by air crews determined to help their ground-bound comrades.
The Huey had wide doors, so troops could get in and out fast, and pilots could lift away quickly. Approaching and leaving a "hot" landing zone under fire, they might hover a few feet above the ground as soldiers leaped off into action. Crewmen wearing body armor manned machine guns at each door, secured by what they called a "monkey strap" as the craft angled and tilted. Yet in transit, passengers sometimes sat casually with their feet dangling out as the Huey skimmed the jungle to stay below enemy sights.
U.S. Army 65-10126, the particular Huey that is displayed at the National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia, epitomizes the aircraft's toughness and versatility. In three and a half years, it went through four separate combat tours in Vietnam, with the 229th and 11th Battalions of the 1st Air Cavalry Division, and then the 128th and 118th Assault Helicopter companies. After that, in one version or another, it served the National Guard for 23 more years. During one of its combat tours, it worked as a "Smokey," assigned to the low, slow and dicey mission of laying smoke screens to protect choppers descending into danger. And between hazardous outings, it did the routine jobs that helicopters do, as taxi, scout, gunship, ambulance, truck, carrying everything from beer to artillery, from bestarred generals to displaced farmers cuddling precious geese.
Vietnam was a helicopter war. There were all kinds, Hueys, Cobras, Seahorses, Workhorses, Sea Stallions, Flying Bananas, Chinooks, Skycranes, big and little, getting sleeker and faster as the long slog went on. They seemed everywhere in the sky, and their courageous crews all seemed eager to go back and back again, symbols together of American strength and determination. Yet those were not enough in the end, on that Saigon morning 40 years ago when the last choppers lifted our ambassador and a detail of Marines, and became dots disappearing above the South China Sea.