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Column: With a Vietnam-era helicopter, they made history

In 2000, former U.S. Marine Alan Weiss of Cutchogue had an idea that sounded impossible to pull off but, if successful, would help honor the men he served with in Vietnam.

His idea was to locate a Sikorsky UH-34 helicopter — the model that served in Vietnam prior to his arrival as a chopper crew chief — restore it completely and then fly it with a crew of like-minded people to air shows and museums around the country.

“The original idea was for a memorial — for the people I served with and the people I knew, close friends I had, who were lost,” Mr. Weiss said. “We would fully restore it, make it fly again and take it around to honor these men.”

After a great deal of work, the carcass of a long-defunct helicopter that had seen action in Vietnam in the mid-1960s was found in a salvage yard in Cochise, Ariz. It was just the shell of what it once had been and nothing more. 

But in that shell was the collective story of lives lost and lives saved, and Mr. Weiss and the crew of volunteers who came together to restore it wanted to save those stories.

Mr. Weiss arranged to have it trucked to a barn in Laurel where, over the next five years, a team of very dedicated people — some Vietnam veterans, some not — worked together and slowly, methodically, carefully rebuilt it, using parts found all around the country. And in completing their project, they brought honor to themselves and to everyone they served with. 

Interviews with Mr. Weiss and some of the volunteers who worked on the restoration show that even today they are amazed by their remarkable achievement. What began as a shell ended up as something fully capable of being flown around the country for shows, where fellow Vietnam vets were awed to be in its presence — men who were grateful that their service was being remembered and honored. 

Today, this restored beauty sits proudly in the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va., prominently displayed just inside the main entrance. Hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum have stood in front of it, read about it and been reminded of the service of young Marines who flew on it, were rescued by it, were evacuated to hospitals by its pilots or died on board.

“I can say dozens of Vietnam vets broke down and wept when it was flown to air shows around the country,” said volunteer John Griffin, who served in the Marines from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s. “They saw in it their own service, their own experiences.

“It became a flying memorial for all who served and for those who continue to serve,” Mr. Griffin said. “All the volunteers, we were a dedicated group who magnificently restored this artifact of American history. I think the highest honor the helicopter could get is to be in that museum.”

As America celebrates Veterans Day on Nov. 11, which began as Armistice Day to celebrate the end of World War I, it is right to put this day in human terms, and to see in the stories of men and women who served the sacrifices they made and the traumas many of them continue to struggle with.

The story of a restored Vietnam-era helicopter is also the story of a group of volunteers who came together on weekends for five years in an old potato barn to fully rebuild a helicopter, as both a memorial and a reminder of what their service speaks to us today. 

“I joined up with the group in 2003,” said another volunteer, George DeBarge, who like Mr. Weiss, served as a Marine in Vietnam as a crew chief. “I worked with them and we flew to Wisconsin in it when we did an air show whose purpose was to welcome home the Vietnam vets who didn’t get that before.

“When I got out of the Marines in ’64 it was different,” he added. “Later when the guys came back they were called baby killers. When we flew to different air shows around the country the vets would come up and they’d start crying as they were either rescued or evacuated in one of these. It was very emotional.”

The Vietnam-era helicopter rebuilt in a Laurel barn lands at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle, Va. (Courtesy photo)

Phil Berler was riding his motorcycle one day and stopped as he passed the barn to see what was going on. “I went in the barn and one of the volunteers told me what they were doing. I told him, ‘I did not serve; I am not a vet.’ He said, ‘We don’t care, we just need help.’

“I got hooked right away,” Mr. Berler said. “I got close to the guys. It felt so worthwhile. The backstory for me is, I got out of the draft on a technicality. I felt guilty about that. This became a kind of closure for me, an alternative service.

“I worked in health care my whole life,” he continued. “This was easily the most meaningful and fulfilling thing I ever did in my entire life. It became for me a form of redemption, and I think for all the volunteers it was very personal.”

Mr. Weiss poured his heart and soul into this project. He graduated from Riverhead High School in 1966 and enlisted in the U.S. Marines six months later. His goal was to work in aviation, and he became a helicopter mechanic and crew chief. 

He served in Vietnam for seven months, in 1969 and 1970. Nine very close friends were killed in combat. When he returned to the U.S. aboard a ship that landed in California, he and his fellow Marines were greeted by anti-war protesters who bombarded them with tomatoes. 

Along with what they had experienced at war, the insults that greeted returning service members only added to the trauma they would deal with for years to come. The restoration of the helicopter, and the stories it could tell, the lives it remembered, was in many ways a means of dealing with that trauma.

“I wanted to find a UH-34 that had been in Vietnam and had a logbook so we could understand what it had done and, by restoring it fully, to honor those friends we lost,” Mr. Weiss said. “I lived with these men. I flew with them. I worked with them.”

Among the many small miracles it took to complete the task was the day the volunteers found a date scratched on a metal wall inside the hull.

It read: RTD Dec. 17, 1968. Someone who was scheduled to return to the U.S. on that date had scratched it on the chopper, perhaps hoping that doing so would ensure he would survive to get home.

“I walked into the barn one day,” said Mr. Weiss. “There was a man, John Connor, inside working on it and he was crying like a baby. I was so surprised. I said, ‘What is wrong?’ He said, ‘Out of the million helicopters you had to pick this one? I scratched that date on there when I was due to leave. That was me.’ ”

Sitting with Mr. Weiss on a cool fall morning in a Cutchogue deli as he told the story of finding the shell, hunting for thousands of parts, rebuilding it fully and then flying it around the country, made it sound even more impossible an achievement.

While the chopper was a piece of equipment, it also held the stories of every soldier or Marine who flew on it, who was rescued on it, and who died on it. In its own way, the chopper — and the volunteers who brought it back to life — is now a national symbol meant to honor men and women who put others’ interests ahead of their own.

There are names on war memorials across the North Fork and across America — names carved onto stone obelisks like the one on Main Road in front of the Southold American Legion post. Restoring a helicopter that carried human beings in wartime is another kind of memorial, another way to remember the meaning of personal sacrifice.

“We succeeded because of the volunteers,” said Mr. Weiss, who gives all the credit to his project crew. “They made this happen.”

Steve Wick is executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].