Vietnam War-era copter restored on LI goes to museum

Vietnam veterans from the Marine Helicopter Squadron 361 Vietnam veterans from the Marine Helicopter Squadron 361 Veterans Association are restoring a Sikorsky UH-34D helicopter, used in Vietnam. Photo Credit: Daniel Goodrich

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QUANTICO, Va. -- They stood smiling together at the National Museum of the Marine Corps -- graying men who came of age during the Vietnam War -- posing before one of the green-hulled birds of their youth.

The moment in history for the UH-34D combat helicopter they were so emotionally attached to had arrived. During the war, it had rescued American soldiers and taken the wounded to hospitals. And over the past few years that the men helped rebuild it, the helicopter helped rescue them from the anguish of war that had followed them home.

For the veterans renovating the helicopter, their efforts began in an eastern Long Island barn. They spent more than a decade on the project before taking the helicopter icon on its final flight Friday, donating it to the museum's permanent collection.

It was a reluctant goodbye. With expenses soaring and donations to pay for the rebuilding running short, the men decided they could no longer keep the storied war craft.

"In a way, it will be a relief, but in another way, it will be very sad," Al Weiss of Cutchogue said shortly after presenting the helicopter to museum director Lin Ezel. "This has been 12 years of my life."

Weiss and about two dozen other men, most from Long Island, had poured more than 20,000 hours of renovation work into the UH-34D, also known as the Sikorsky Seahorse, returning it to flying condition from a rusting hulk. A charity Weiss formed in 2000 had purchased the helicopter's war-battered hull from an Arizona boneyard for $2,500.

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Since then, the group collected donations of cash and equipment totaling more than $300,000 to get the helicopter flying again. It was to have served as a Long Island-based memorial to Marine Helicopter Squadron 361, the "Flying Tigers" in Vietnam from 1963 to 1969.

But the number of volunteers dwindled and donations dried up in recent years. Instead, the donated helicopter will be placed on display in the soaring entry rotunda of the Marine Corps museum south of Washington, D.C., along I-95.

Museum officials jumped at the chance to acquire the helicopter because of its historical significance, said aviation curator Ben Kristy. The helicopter Weiss' group resurrected had served in "Operation Starlite," the first major Vietnam battle fought by the Marines.

Several of the men who helped restore the helicopter said the time spent working together -- sometimes garrulously, sometimes in contemplative silence -- had helped soothe anxieties kept bottled up since the Vietnam War ended.

"It was like you were back 'in country' together again," said retired Marine Capt. Ben Casio, who would drive to the barn in Jamesport from his Oakland, N.J., home and spend hours working with fellow volunteers. "For your psyche, you need that tight connection with guys who've been through what you have."

Military experts and war veterans say those who manage to keep war-related anxieties at bay during young adulthood often experience a resurgence of those feelings as they reach retirement age. No longer distracted by the routine of going to work or raising children, retiring veterans often find themselves reliving unpleasant war memories.

Working closely on a project with others who have experienced war can be soothing for people who are grappling with the scars of war, veterans said.

"It's the best therapy for what I have -- chronic PTSD," said Dane Brown, 67, of Oak Hill, Ohio, an early donor to the project, referring to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Brown was a flamethrower-carrying Marine corporal when his platoon was mortared on April 17, 1968. At least four men died around him that day.

"My therapy was writing music about Vietnam and hanging out with other veterans," Brown said.

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Phil Berler, 60, a volunteer from Holbrook, said although he had been relieved that a draft deferment kept him out of the war, he later "felt guilty that other guys went and I didn't. This project was my way of making amends."

Weiss, a Vietnam veteran, said his memories have troubled him for decades and he considered them too horrific to talk about with family or friends. One of the worst was of relaxing with fellow helicopter mechanics on Sept. 1, 1969, at China Beach, a wartime safe haven.

An arriving UH-34D bearing several of his squadron mates wheeled overhead that day, then exploded right in front of him. He said restoring the helicopter was his way of finding peace, by honoring the spirit of troops who had given their final full measure.

"Escobedo was a friend of mine, Hutcheson was a friend of mine . . . " he mused, just days before delivering the helicopter to the museum, recalling slain aviators he knew. "Nicholson . . . "

He paused.

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"This whole thing was started because of those nine people," he said.

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