View Mobile Site
 

Ask the Expert

Signal Photos

 

A man and his Huey

Military: A decorated local veteran remembers the helicopter that helped him saved lives

Posted: November 10, 2010 8:58 p.m.
Updated: November 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

The UH-1Y helicopter, or Huey, flown by Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Whitlock Jones sits in a Vietnamese field.

View More »
 

Chief Warrant Officer Thomas Whitlock Jones folds up a crease-battered map of Vietnam that drapes his kitchen table in Canyon Country.

He has to pick up his granddaughter from Rio Vista Elementary School.

When he steps out the door of his suburban home and walks down Lakemore Drive to the school, his neighbors will have no idea there are two pieces of shrapnel from a bullet-shattered helicopter windshield still in his neck.

Every day he’s reminded that the Vietnam War is still inside him — both figuratively and literally.

Last month, after close to 40 years of war memories held inside, Jones found the very same helicopter he flew in Vietnam.
The road to reunion has been a colorful one for both man and machine.

Pilot passion
Jones, now 62, was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, growing up on North Brand Boulevard wanting to fly helicopters.

An alumni of Sylmar High School, he enrolled in the United States Army aviation school after two years at Pierce College
.
In the lazy summer days on 1969, however, he had no indication he would find himself — before Christmas — in a life-or-death battle on the other side of the world, wounded, bloody and frantically struggling to save his fellow officers.

On July 15, 1969, he graduated from the aviation school at Ft. Hunter in California and was appointed a reserve warrant officer.

A month later, he arrived in Vietnam.

Within minutes of setting foot in the Southeast Asian country, the 21-year-old pilot was introduced to his helicopter and appointed aircraft commander of “his ship.”

The identity of the ship was etched into a plate between pedals on the floor of the chopper. Its identity reads 66-16741, indicating it was manufactured in 1966.

The chopper keeps a diary — a log that stays with the vehicle throughout its lifetime.

Rescue mission

On Nov. 7, 1969, on a medevac mission to airlift Vietnamese troops from a battle near Khanh Hai on the southwest side of the peninsula, Jones manned one of four helicopters assigned to transport 320 troops out of the area, many of them wounded, under intense fighting — four choppers carrying 10 troops, each making the trip eight times.

“We were moving out a whole Vietnam company, eight lifts out, and we had lifted six,” he said. “We were flying out and we had to go down a canal and bank left when two guys with AK-47s opened up on us.

“I took five rounds through the cockpit, three to the blades; one of the bullets went through my delta window, which is the little window at the front, and one hit the wiper blade and went up over my head. But when it hit the wiper blade, it shattered all kinds of metal and Plexiglas into my neck.

“When I got shot, it hit me so hard that it ripped my shoulder holster in half, and my head was leaning over and I was unable to lift it.

“Well, (the copilot) spun around and I saw him, and I thought he had been shot in the face, and he was looking at me thinking the same thing,” Jones said.

“So he called (on the radio) to say ‘Get a medevac,’ and I keyed on the mike, ‘We are the medevac,’ but the bullet shot the (microphone) cord out. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m shot through the throat and I can’t talk.’ You can’t hear yourself unless you have your (microphone) cord working too.”

Jones said that after the troops were dropped off, he and the copilot “talked a bit, and then he says, ‘I got to take care of you,’ and I went, ‘No.’ I said, ‘We got to go back or we’ll be leaving 10 guys on the ground. They’ll be killed because they’ll be overwhelmed with no way they could defend themselves.’”

Despite their urgent need for medical attention for their own injuries, Jones and his partner returned to the war zone to pick up the last group of wounded men.

Military surgeons removed more than half a dozen pieces of shrapnel from Jones’ body but were reluctant to try to remove two large shards, one of them deeply embedded in his neck.

“They said it’ll get bloody if they try to surgically remove it, and told me to just wait and see if it moves,” Jones said.
That was 40 years ago, and the shrapnel hasn’t moved.

Jones has two pieces of shrapnel he keeps in a tiny cardboard box that also contains military combat photos of the day he was injured.

On June 20, 1970, Jones was awarded the Purple Heart for wounds suffered in the course of combat that day.

Jones was also awarded the Air Medal with a “V” insignia for having pulled out troops who were being overrun by the Viet Cong in a Vietnamese forest.

For a separate rescue on April 4, 1970, Jones was awarded the South Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry and the Silver Star, the third highest U.S. military decoration for valor.

On that date, Jones and his chopper were hit with mortar and machine-gun fire while in a landing zone without gun-ship support.

Because Jones was able to “take out” the mortar, he was able to save a wounded officer.

But not all his time in the air with his Huey was devoted to gun battles.

Jones and his 66-16741 chopper were popular among many U.S. troops.

“I painted the ship twice,” he said. “We didn’t put any numbers on it, and that was good because I used to fly our guys into Saigon for R&R. That way, we could land right downtown and nobody could say anything except, ‘It was a Huey with no markings on it.’ That way nobody could take any numbers down.”

Thirty-nine years would go by before Jones confronted his past on the other side of the world. At that point, he went on a search to find his Huey.

Chopper life
The Huey’s official corporate name is UH-1Y.

It was made by Bell Helicopter to be a medical evacuation and utility helicopter in 1952, and it was pressed into extensive military action in the Vietnam War.

While Jones was settling back into life stateside in August 1970, his Huey saw more fighting in Vietnam.

A couple of months after arriving back in California, his Huey 66-16741 “got shot down and rolled up,” he said, reading a partial printout of the chopper’s log he tracked down online.

Military records confirmed the damaged chopper was shipped to Fort Worth, Texas, where it was rebuilt and sent right back to Vietnam.

“They were flying it hard,” Jones said, surveying the same log.

In April 1972, the chopper came back to Texas for the last time. That was the month Jones’ unit came back home. 

At the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Huey 66-16741 had logged 3,938 hours of military flight.

In December that year, Jones’ chopper — battered, repaired, battered again — was returned to the United States to begin the civilian chapter of its life.

The first postwar record of the Huey is a snow-covered one dated 1983. The place line: Alaska.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration borrowed Jones’ Huey from the military and used it over the frigid tundra above the Arctic Circle.

There it stayed until 1993, when the U.S. Department of Commerce in Florida took it over, flying it over the swampy Everglades.

On April 12, 1995, the Huey was pressed into service by the U.S. Forest Service in North Carolina.

For the next decade, Jones’ chopper was flying over the tops of cedars and pines in North Carolina.

On March 1, 2006, the Huey once flown by Jones approached its final landing.

That’s the day the Federal Aviation Administration sent the Forest Service a letter stating: “This aircraft is uneconomical to repair and has been cannibalized for usable parts.”

Jones said he was “a little crushed” when he tracked down a copy of the FAA report. The FAA declares an aircraft uneconomical to repair when it no longer wants to keep track of it.

“That’s the record you don’t want to find,” he said about his day-to-day search.

Out of the blue

Then, out of the blue, simply because he had left tracks online during his Internet search, a military man named Russ sent him an e-mail.

“He said he found that chopper assigned to the Savannah River Nuclear Site, where it was used to maintain security around the site.”

When Jones picked up the search in Georgia, he was able to trace the chopper back to North Carolina.

One lead indicated it might be at the bottom of a water-filled mine, where it and an abandoned Jeep were used for diving exercises.

But that proved not to be his Huey.

In September, a retired U.S. Army man who had alerted Jones about his chopper’s assignment to Georgia contacted him again to say a North Carolina man wanting to honor veterans by purchasing and preserving military vehicles mentioned a Huey.

That lead led Jones to Pink Hills, N.C.

The Huey in Pink Hills is a playhouse now for Boy Scouts and local kids who are invited to crawl around inside it by a proud owner intent on preserving the legacy of duty and commitment demonstrated by the military men and their machines.

“What are the numbers on its tail?” Jones asked of the man in a phone call last month.

“Six-six-one-six-seven-four-one,” the man said.

Jones said he had moment of silence on the phone hearing those numbers.

Are there bullet holes in the Huey?

Is there any evidence of the paint jobs Jones put there for all those “R&R” trips into Saigon?

Jones hopes to answer these and many more questions in the next couple of months when he treks across the country in pursuit of his Huey.

When he gets there, he can step inside his Huey again, check the identification plate by the pedals he once pushed, and touch a profoundly personal piece of his past.

Comments

Commenting not available.
Commenting is not available.

 
 

Powered By
Morris Technology
Please wait ...