RENO — The distinct sound of whirling blades pounded the thick, humid air over miles of thick vegetation where thousands of American soldiers fought an enemy bent on reunifying two Southeast Asian countries abandoned by the French more than a decade before United States’ involvement.
For many U.S. Army soldiers, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois or the “Huey” transported them where no other transportation was available or evacuated the wounded to medical facilities miles away from the fierce fighting.
A traveling multi-media project, “Take Me Home Huey,” made a stop in Reno for four days and capped its visit to Northern Nevada with a stop in Carson City on Sunday. The Light Horse Legacy with its traveling Huey helicopter, a colorful ambassador from the Vietnam War, focuses on veterans who have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or other afflictions and are looking for a way to reach out for information or help.
In addition to the static display, visitors also heard comments from the Carson City mayor and representatives from Sens. Dean Heller and Catherine Cortez Masto, saw a documentary on the “Take Me Home Huey” project and heard a song composed by singer Jeanie Cunningham about the helicopter.
The Northern Nevada All Veterans Honor Guard presented the colors.
Army veteran Richard “Rick” Arnold of Carson City spent three tours in Vietnam, the first one coming after he completed air assault training. His unit traveled extensively on Hueys over the densely forested and inaccessible Central Highlands region north of Ho Chi Ming City (formerly Saigon) during his first deployment in the mid-1960s. American soldiers and their allies not only fought the Viet Cong but they also faced the North Vietnamese army.
“We took ships over there from Savannah (Georgia) to Vietnam,” said Arnold, who was assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division. “We had everything on the ship, soldiers, helicopters, guns. Once we got to the Central Highlands, we started helicopter operations as an artillery battery.”
Arnold said the Hueys would transport soldiers since they didn’t stay in one location for more than two days.
“I flew on a lot of these things,” recalled Arnold, as he stood next to Huey 174 in the parking lot adjacent to the Carson City Community Center. “We were loaded with people and a gun (attached) underneath it. They were a heavy load, and we used them (the Hueys) as our only means of transportation. Our division had very few trucks, almost all helicopters.”
As Arnold reflected on his time in Vietnam, he remembered the distinct sound of the approaching Huey helicopter. He said when soldiers heard the sound, they either fell on the ground or prepared to throw a smoke grenade. He noted the skill of young pilots maneuvering the aircraft over mountainous terrain.
“It was a reliable aircraft, and the pilots were young warrant officers, 20 to 21 years old,” he said, explaining their adroitness in landing the Huey in unfavorable conditions.
“We landed in a landing zone that was the size of the helicopter,” he said. “The wind was blowing, and the pilots tried four times before thy put it on the ground.”
Records show 7,013 Hueys flew in Vietnam, most of them operated by the Army. Almost half were destroyed, and 2,709 pilots, crew and American passengers died as a result of hostile fire or mechanical problems. On his last tour in 1971, Arnold and another soldier retrieved the remains of a pilot and co-pilot after their helicopter crashed and then burned.
“If we did not retrieve the remains, they (the pilot and co-pilot) would be considered as MIA (missing in action),” said the Illinois native who moved to Carson City in the 1990s.
Like Arnold, Shelia Long remembers the importance of the Huey when she served in the Central Highlands as an Army nurse from 1966 to 1967.
“Without the Hueys, soldiers would be dead in the field,” said Long, who worked in intensive care recovery. “It was an around-the-clock operation that never stopped. We tended to 400 to 600 casualties.”
Long explained her MASH (Mobile Surgical Army Hospital) unit consisted of tents and Quonset huts, semicircular buildings made of lightweight prefabricated structure of corrugated galvanized steel. They had no hot water or toilets but had running water. A Quonset hut housed intensive care recovery. Long said the setup of the MASH unit identically resembled the one portrayed in the television series of the same name. Occasionally, nurses would go on flights to tend to the wounded on their return to the MASH unit..
“The nurses went out on helicopters to pick up the injured,” she said. “We weren’t supposed to, but we did. We went from Point A to Point B for a quick trip.”
After serving the last three years of her military service at Letterman Army Hospital at the Presidio of San Francisco, Long then spent 45 years as a nurse in the private sector before retiring.
Paula Barron, co-founder of Light Horse Legacy with her husband, David, said they started the project in 2012, but the Huey didn’t become part of the display until it was acquired and then restored in 2014. Once volunteers restored the Huey, an artist transformed the helicopter as described by the Light Horse website:
“Next, in Palm Springs, Steve Maloney transformed the ship’s exterior into a contemporary art piece depicting scenes of what a solider would miss while overseas. The cabin has a typeset scroll of units that flew in Viet Nam. Overlaid over that is a graffiti style selection of unit call signs. Inside is the artist’s presentation of the chaos of war with unsalvageable pieces of the ship.”
The project, which was co-sponsored by the Nevada Museum of Art and Nevada Arts Council member Ryrie Valdez, is dedicated to the 2,709,918 Americans who served in Vietnam and never received a Homecoming. It serves as a catalyst for all veterans to talk about their service and to promote healing and awareness to PTSD.
Barron said the Light Horse Legacy visits communities, veteran service events or air shows to disseminate the message that help is available for veterans who need services. A strong resurgence of interested and feelings has emerged for the Vietnam War and its veterans, she said, because of the recent 50th year commemoration of the war’s beginning to the recent PBS documentary series on Vietnam.
“We think it’s awesome,” she said of the anniversary and Ken Burns’ documentary. “It (Vietnam veterans) are an aging group, and it’s perfect for us to get to the people who really need help. We basically set up the aircraft and have information from veteran resource centers in the area.”
Bob Crowell, Carson City’s mayor and a Vietnam Navy veteran, said Huey 174 was shot down 48 years ago on Valentine’s Day, killing crew chief Gary Dubach and medic Stephen Shumacher.
“Huey 174 like the Vietnam Memorial Wall represents the sacrifice of those sent to harm’s way, fighting for democracy in a faraway country called Vietnam,” he said. “Somewhat different from the memorial wall, Huey 174 tells the story of that war from the perspective of the men and women who fought there in beautiful, colorful images.”
Crowell said Huey 174 reminds many veterans the war didn’t end when “the guns went silent.” He said PTSD manifests itself in a way that’s not good and leads to many veterans committing suicide.
“PTSD affects anyone who did the heavy lifting for our country,” Crowell pointed out. “It’s been reported each day 22 veterans take their own lives … we can do a lot to eliminate serve-related suicides.”
Crowell, who served two tours along the coast of Vietnam aboard the destroyers, the USS Wiltsie and the USS Waddell, said many veterans’ organizations such as the Veterans Resource Center at Western Nevada College, Veterans in Need project, the Veterans Administration and Nevada Department of Veterans Services are assisting veterans who need help. He also said Vietnam Veterans Association 338 has been at the forefront of these activities.
Ronald Coleman of Reno primary flew aboard CH-53s, heavy-lift helicopters used by Marine Squadron HMH-463 for transporting equipment and military personnel.
“We flew really high, carrying troops and cargo,” said Coleman, who served with the Marines in Vietnam in 1967-68.
Since his days of serving in Vietnam and also drilling at the U.S. Naval Reserve Center at Stead, Coleman assists veterans who still confront PTSD. The “Take Me Home Huey” project elicited strong emotions when he visited the display in Reno last week.
“A lot of guys looked up and started shaking, starting to cry,” he said. “One guy took 15 minutes to walk up to the Huey and look at it.”
Coleman, who belongs to VVA chapter 989, said he was relieved when men wanted to talk and mentioned to others what they did during the war.
“It brought a lot out of many people,” he said. “They started talking about their friends.”
From the project to the PBS series, Coleman sees many good results emerging. He said it’s been a good lesson in teaching and motivating younger people to become involved.
“I’ve worked with a lot of young people,” he added.
Tom Spencer, president of VVA 388 in Carson City, spent two tours in Vietnam as a soldier with the U.S. Army’s 359th Transportation Co., which hauled fuel in the Central Highlands and faced 13 ambushes conducted by the Viet Cong. His chapter assisted with bringing the display to the capital city.
When Spencer served in the Central Highlands, he said the Huey crews would help out company if it came under fire. Fighting was difficult for his company as soldiers constantly looked out for both the Viet Cong and NVA.
Spencer said he hopes the display and the recent Vietnam series on PBS will help bring some closure to veterans from that era.
“This is for a lot of veterans,” Spencer said, who said he never talked about his military service when his son was growing up. “There’s a lot of healing … a lot of people never had it.”