The Huey as Medical Transport
In 1963, the UH-1 was being produced at approximately 20 per month. By the end of 1967, that figure had risen to 160, giving ample proof of its combat effectiveness. One of the immediate virtues of the aircraft was its durability. As Freddie Clark described it, “I rode on Hueys that looked liked someone had beaten all over it with a big hammer. Some were full of bullet holes and when we were in the air, you could see sparks flying out.”
While serving in the Army as a part of a mechanized infantry unit, Private Nathaniel Walker was wounded when his armored personnel carrier hit a mine during a Viet Cong ambush. He was later evacuated on a Huey. “When you heard the rotors of the Huey coming you knew that you were alright,” he said. “To see it was a sigh of relief. Hell was over, you were going home.” Walker, who is now a sergeant first class in the Alabama Army National Guard with over 30 years of service, would receive the Purple Heart and Bronze Star for his actions. By war’s end, he would be one of the many thousands of American wounded who were extracted by the helicopter.
In previous wars, many combat wounded died because of they could not get life-saving medical attention in time. The Huey as an ambulance drastically reduced combat deaths during Vietnam. “There’s no doubt that the Huey changed the tide of the war,” says retired Captain Alan Barbour. According to the former Huey pilot, the revolutionary aircraft provided immediate close air support for the troops on the ground and it brought in reinforcement troops much faster. “As a result, troop insertion was expedited. Troop extraction was expedited and then you had the medevac. You could get the troops out of bad situations really fast.”
Four months in-country, Barbour went into a landing zone to conduct an emergency medevac. “We all had to go in because things had gotten so critical,” he recalled. A company of Marines had been surrounded and caught in a fierce firefight. Barbour and his fellow pilots went into what survivors would later call “Death Valley.”
Barbour recalls seeing Marines under intense fire charging the hill while carrying their wounded brothers to be evacuated. Maintaining discipline, Barbour never flinched as rounds pierced his helicopter. It was not until all the Marines were loaded that Barbour took off. Moments after liftoff, Barbour’s tail rotor was shot off—death seemed inevitable. “Luckily, because I had enough speed, I was able to keep it from spinning and kept it in the air for the next seven miles until I reached the hospital and got our boys to safety,” he recalled. Barbour’s heroic efforts and skill that day were captured in the painting, Emergency Medevac, by artist Leahy.
2,591 Hueys Lost
In modern warfare, fixed-winged jet pilots are somewhat removed from direct ground engagement. In Vietnam, a helicopter pilot actually saw, sometimes face-to-face, who was shooting at him. As Christenson observes admiringly, “It took a certain breed of individuals to do what those pilots did.” Master Sergeant Lester Reasor, who served multiple tours in Vietnam as a part of the 1st Air Cavalry, describes how the Huey engrained a deep sense of fear and loathing in the enemy. “The Huey was invaluable in Vietnam,” he says. “When Charlie heard us coming, he knew that it was the end of the big ball game for him. All he could do was shoot and scoot because he knew that we were coming to put the hammer down and clean his clock.”
Eventually, enemy forces learned effective means to shoot down the helicopters. During the height of the war, the enemy paid cash rewards to NVA and VC troops who shot them down and issued even greater bounties for capturing a live pilot who flew them. A total of 4,869 helicopters fell from the skies over Vietnam. The Huey UH-1 bore the brunt of these losses, some 2,591 in all.
The Huey Legacy: “A Quantum Leap in Rotorcraft”
According to Steve Maxham, director of the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker, Alabama, “With the creation of the UH-1 Huey, there was a quantum leap in rotorcraft. After the invention of the turbine engine, it changed rotary wing aircraft forever and it allowed the helicopter to go higher, farther, and faster.” Maxham concludes that Vietnam was “the helicopter war.” Without the advent of the Huey, he says, the war would have been impossible to fight. “It changed how we conducted the war,” Maxham observes. “It was used as a troop carrier, medevac platform, gunship, command and control, and the first TOW missile platform.”
Since that time, the Huey has gone on to become a symbol of the American fighting spirit and technological development. The UH-1 gave birth to the AH-1 Cobra, which in turn birthed the AH-64. The H-60 and CH-53 are also based on the UH-1 concept. The oldest rotary-wing aircraft still in use by the United States is currently in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Utilized by over 100 foreign militaries around the globe, it is also used by law enforcement, hospitals, media outlets, and civil search and rescue.
From the skies of Vietnam to Grenada, Operation Desert Storm, Bosnia, and now the global war on terrorism, the Huey has been relied upon to protect the United States from enemies both foreign and domestic. When troops needed crucial supplies and ammunition during the Vietnam War, it was the Huey they saw. When Marines needed to be evacuated in the aftermath of the Beirut bombing in Lebanon, it was the Huey that transported them. When troops went into the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, the Huey was the last thing some insurgents saw. And when stranded residents of New Orleans needed rescuing after the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, it was the Huey that plucked them from their rooftops. Not bad for a 50-year-old.
This article originally appeared in 2016 on the Warfare History Network. Image: Reuters