Vietnam War veterans gathered Tuesday to witness a 1964 Huey helicopter being trucked up the hill of the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans' Memorial Foundation's Museum & Educational Center in Holmdel. The drab Army green chopper, an icon of the war in Vietnam, was installed at a new plaza in front of the entrance, a place of honor.
The Huey helicopter was the workhorse of the war. The distinctive woop-woop of its single continuous blade meant to an American soldier on the ground that hope had arrived, in the way of supplies, reinforcements, medics, or a ticket out the jungle.
"It was a big, ugly, magnificent machine," said Roy Budd, 70, of Wyckoff, who spent 2,300 unforgettable hours in-country piloting "the bird" between 1970 and 1971 in and out of dangerous situations. "The sound, after a while, was like a heartbeat. And if that sound changed, you got real nervous."
The Huey aircraft served two tours in Vietnam, the first with the 116th Assault Helicopter Company in Cu Chi and the second with the 118th Assault Helicopter Company in Bien Hoa. After the War, the helicopter flew with the Army's 10th Mountain Division. The aircraft has been retired for the past 28 years with the New Jersey Army National Guard before members of the Guard transported it to a hangar at Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall for restoration last year. The Foundation's Executive Director Bill Linderman said he was grateful to NJ Adjutant General Michael Cunniff for the opportunity to display the Huey to enliven the Museum. "I think it will increase traffic, which we desperately want to do," he said. "Having it in the plaza allows us to tell a major part of the story here for the first time."
The Huey has no motor and is permanently grounded. But there are plans to create a full five-minute pilot simulation experience for visitors in a video game format, complete with a cockpit designed from spare parts with authentic dashboard, control panels and shell seats.
There are two mission scenarios under development by DeVry Institute, said Museum Curator & Educational Coordinator Sarah Hagarty. "Based on the experiences and stories of our veterans," she said. In one, you will be a pilot on a resupply mission that suddenly learns a Huey has been shot down, and you will rush to the scene to work with a Chinook to recover the soldiers and supplies. In the other mission, you will be on a medevac mission, under attack. Currently in the storyboard phase, the experience should be ready in about two years, Hagarty said.
Bill McClung, 68, of Little Silver recalls being on a Huey as a combat medic, for somewhere between 50 to 60 combat assaults between 1969-70 after he was drafted. He described how when he radioed for the Huey to pick up dead and wounded, he'd have to find a location about 40-50 meters away that would be clear of the triple canopy jungle. "The pilot would say, we'll call you when we are 2 minutes away, and then you'd have to have it all worked out," McClung said. The Huey could be sprightly up in the sky, but when lowering for a landing in a hot zone, it was low and slow, an easy target for small arms fire. "I can remember bullets pinging off the helicopter," he said.
John McMackin, 66, of Atlantic Highlands came to watch a crane lower the Huey onto its new perch. Between 1967-1968, McMackin was a door gunner, the man behind a high powered M60 machine gun. "We flew in and picked up guys," he said. Seeing the Huey would surely bring back some bad memories, he said. But he is already planning to bring his grandsons back to the museum for the May 7 dedication. "So they know what the Vietnam War was about. We lost 58,000 soldiers. History books give it three lines."
The New Jersey Vietnam Veterans Remembrance Day Ceremony will be held at the Vietnam Era Museum & Educational Center at 11:00 a.m. on Wednesday, May 7.
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