Veterans Day 2020: Infinite Remembrance

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America, America may God thy gold refine
‘Til all success be nobleness
And every gain divined

–Katherine Lee Bates

All flying machines have their own unique sound signatures. If you were blindfolded, you probably couldn’t tell the difference between a 737 and an A320. But unique in the world of aviation is the sound of a Bell UH-1 Iroquois, an iconic helicopter that no one in my memory ever called by its assigned name. It was a Huey. Or it was a Slick.

The Huey’s signature is really three sounds. Depending on the wind and the temperature, those fat blades—the chord is not much less than that of a Cessna 150’s horizontal stabilizer—create an unmistakable wop-wop-wop beat no other helos have. If you listen closely, you’ll also hear a familiar turbine exhaust from the Lycoming T53, plus a side note from the engine’s two gearboxes, one for the rotor and one for the accessories. In short, the Huey set up a hell of a racket.

And for many a wounded Vietnam soldier or Marine, it was the sound of salvation. Thousands of veterans have stories of how comforting it was to hear a Dustoff approaching over the horizon. I served with an E-6 who had been triaged as “expectant” on a muddy hillside in the Central Highlands, only to be plucked from the field by a Huey, given immediate surgery and a second life that had him teaching a green recruit like me the finer points of military survival three years later.

He was the beneficiary of remarkable advances in battlefield survival in which the helicopter has played a pivotal role. In World War II, some 70 percent of wounded soldiers survived. In Vietnam, it rose to 76 percent and now, thanks to the survivability and advanced equipment found in a Blackhawk Medevac, 90 percent of wounded soldiers survive. Many find succor in the Air Force’s impressive medical evacuation network to advanced care within 24 hours of the wounding. From just about anywhere in the world.

Today, as we observe the 101st Veterans Day, the machines are worthy of mention but this day is about the veterans themselves. I have commented in this space before that I am loathe to use the word “heroes” and I’ve found that veterans, especially younger ones, aren’t always fond of the throwaway phrase, “thank you for your service.” I never use it myself because it unavoidably leaves the impression that the speaker has thought about the sentiment only as long as it took to say it and will forget it soon after. That’s probably unfair, but sometimes I’m too honest by half.

My staff sergeant mentor would have benefited from something else, too, which is the focus of today’s thoughts. Nearly 11,000 women served in Vietnam, most of them nurses and every one a volunteer. Eight of their names appear on Maya Lin’s powerful black monument on The Mall in Washington, D.C. They were at the bloody end of all those Huey Dustoffs and many bear psychological scars to this day.

I was aware of their presence during my own service, but unaware of the contribution. So emotional is this for me now that I have difficulty watching the rare news interview you might see with one of these women nor is writing about it any easier. The women have their own memorial not far from the main Vietnam memorial. It has been criticized for lack of accuracy in suggesting that nurses rendered aid in the field, which they did not. I would allow a certain stylistic license, however, for one thing stands out: One of the bronze nurses memorialized is looking sharply skyward. We know what she is looking at. She is looking at a Huey.

The quote I used as an opener is from a stanza in America the Beautiful that’s rarely sung, although Ray Charles used it in his version. I like it because it illuminates a strain of the American character sometimes not in view: nobleness. And not the kind applied to royalty but the kind that means characterized by respect, honor and selflessness and of generousness of spirit.  

On this, the 11th day of the 11th month, I would apply that to all veterans, living or deceased, to the 11 Bravos, the pilots, the wrench swingers, the spooks, the cooks and clerks of every age and every era. And as a forethought, I would open the umbrella wide enough to include the doctors, nurses and medical technicians who labor daily in COVID wards at no small risk to themselves. Their service is every bit as noble as anyone who served in the military.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Beautifully said, Paul. My porchlight is blue for the dedicated Covid workers and I’ll proudly hang the flag tomorrow in honor of my fellow veterans and their families who served to refine America’s gold as best they could.

  2. As a C-124 loadmaster back in the day, we as a crew flew many missions carrying new Huey’s from KGRK Fort Hood TX to Nha Trang, with a return trip carrying parts and pieces of battle damaged Huey’s back to KNGP NAS Corpus. Vivid are the memories of the sounds and smells of those missions. Thank you for the great article Paul.

  3. Damn Bertorelli – Vietnam? I had no idea you were that OLD ! I got transferred out of a unit flying OH-6s to unit flying Hueys. I hated the Huey – it was like going to pickup truck after having been in a sports car.

    Whenever people thank me for my service I tell them not to – I got paid to attend the finest rotary wing flight school in the world – my motivations were purely mercenary !

  4. Paul, good story well written. I happen to have a fair amount of off the record Huey time, I was AF and flew with the Army some in Europe, way back when. The Huey saved a lot of folks and had a very unique sound, as you well wrote. I would also offer that another bygone aircraft had a unique sound that also saved a lot of people and provided that USAF around the globe medivac capability, the C-141 A/B. I did have a bit over 6600 hours in the Starlifter and flew numerous normal (scheduled) airevacs and several emergency flights. In 1975, prior to the fall of Saigon, my crew an I were at Clark AB in the Philippines and had just done a Saigon turn-around. Short day, easy flying. Inbound to Clark the Command Post asked us to take the first leg of an emergency airevac to Guam. Of course we immediately said sure. To make a long story short, that airevac ended up in Andrews AFB MD with us still in the seats. Some where around a 40 hour crew day for our basic crew. Not legal by any standard but the word we got a couple of months later was that both patients lived. Definitely a worthwhile day for us. The rapid change capability and the long range of the -141 made such tales common place and is reflected today in the USAF medivac system that does so much good. The C-141 had a unique sound when those 4 TF-33’s (JT-3D) spooled up and hauled that wonderful girl off the ground. That sound was often referred to as the “Sound of Freedom” and it can still be heard today but only if you Google it.

  5. Parents, got to honor them as well. My mother was a school teacher, always insisting to do the right thing, follow rules. So, when I got my orders to Vietnam, I went home on leave and mentioned it. After a pause, my righteous mother looked at me and said, “well, there is always Mexico or Canada”. I was stunned, she could not be serious I thought. But she was. Thirtyseven years later, my son was in the USMC, with six months to go at the start of the Iraq war. I understood her then.

  6. Oh how I will forever recall that “whop-whop-whop” sound those many years ago in the Central Highlands of SVN! In the II Corps Mike Force, it sometimes meant a resupply of food and ammo, or a medivac for a fellow soldier, or perhaps close air support, or once a month – a ride back to base for a hot shower, fresh food and a cold beer! And after a year and a half, it meant a ride to our HQ with my duffle bag and a different ride home to the USA….

  7. Thank you Mr. Bertorelli. This is the best Veteran’s Day article I may ever read. Through tears. I was in Chu Lai during the rocket attack in which Army nurse Sharon Ann Lane was killed.

    After a couple thousand hours in the Huey, much of it in Vietnam, I have come to realize how fortunate I was to have done all that flying and served all those on the ground. Yes, many times I saw those upturned faces and trusted that Lycoming turbine. It was mostly flying ash and trash, with a few combat assaults a week. However my buddies and I often made many hasty medevacs in the field to get wounded out quickly. The Huey was no sports car, but made an outstanding air ambulance. That was its original design purpose, back in the fifties.

    Finally, go to you tube for the immortal sound of those blades and what it meant to all of us: “joe galloway god’s own lunatics”

  8. Paul
    Thanks for mentioning the nurses who may have had one of the toughest jobs–dealing with the results of war and taking care of many young men. In an evacuation hospital, most of the soldiers had wounds and some of which were very severe. I recall laying in one waiting for my turn to be shipped to Japan. The nurses provided constant care and worked hard to treat and console those with serious injuries. I cannot imagine the courage it took to go to work every day knowing that is what you would have to face on many days. It could also be dangerous if there was a rocket or mortar attack on the hospital; the nurses stayed and took care of the patients when this happened irrespective of the danger they faced.

  9. NOT to single out any ONE – but for the youngsters who don’t know – what it could be like at the sharp end getting them out and to the nurses:

    Rank and organization: Chief Warrant Officer, U.S. Army, 82d Medical Detachment, 45th Medical Company, 68th Medical Group.

    Place and date: Kien Tuong Province, Republic of Vietnam, October 2, 1969. Entered service at: Kenner, La. Born: September 3, 1922, Etna, Pa.

    Medal of Honor Citation:
    For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. CWO Novosel, 82d Medical Detachment, distinguished himself while serving as commander of a medical evacuation helicopter. He unhesitatingly maneuvered his helicopter into a heavily fortified and defended enemy training area where a group of wounded Vietnamese soldiers were pinned down by a large enemy force. Flying without gunship or other cover and exposed to intense machinegun fire, CWO Novosel was able to locate and rescue a wounded soldier. Since all communications with the beleaguered troops had been lost, he repeatedly circled the battle area, flying at low level under continuous heavy fire, to attract the attention of the scattered friendly troops. This display of courage visibly raised their morale, as they recognized this as a signal to assemble for evacuation. On 6 occasions he and his crew were forced out of the battle area by the intense enemy fire, only to circle and return from another direction to land and extract additional troops. Near the end of the mission, a wounded soldier was spotted close to an enemy bunker. Fully realizing that he would attract a hail of enemy fire, CWO Novosel nevertheless attempted the extraction by hovering the helicopter backward. As the man was pulled on aboard, enemy automatic weapons opened fire at close range, damaged the aircraft and wounded CWO Novosel. He momentarily lost control of the aircraft, but quickly recovered and departed under the withering enemy fire. In all, 15 extremely hazardous extractions were performed in order to remove wounded personnel. As a direct result of his selfless conduct, the lives of 29 soldiers were saved. The extraordinary heroism displayed by CWO Novosel was an inspiration to his comrades in arms and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.

  10. From one vet to another Paul, thank you for your thoughts on Veteran’s Day. I have received a few Happy Veteran’s Day greetings on FB. I don’t know that it is ” Happy” day but I accept the thought behind it.

    The percentage of population who are vets has been steadily dropping, now down to 7% of the US population. 93% of the US does not know the camaraderie, teamwork, and discipline that we have gained from our service through our service. In the coming years more, not less, of the US population will not have had those benefits nor experienced the risks that came from US military service. With those dynamics, I have concluded that trend is not good for our nation.

    I hate war, have kids who have also volunteered, and worried like all parents about the safety and preservation of our “veteran” kids. I’ve been lucky, both me and my kids who have also served did not give the ultimate sacrifice. Nonetheless, none of us are the same after our military service has ended. Your story validates that.

    I am thankful for your service, as well as, to all my veteran brethren, their service. Likewise, to those who serve in other battlegrounds such as Covid care, police/firefighters, and the millions of volunteers who serve local and rural communities as emergency first responders. A salute of respect to all who have earned the creds to be called veterans.

  11. Beguiled aviation buffs, bend your deaf ears.
    In Vietnam, the sound of a helicopter usually
    meant death—-swift, sinister, yet anything but
    silent. While over 58,000 American servicemen
    died fighting in Vietnam, more than 2.1 million
    Vietnamese died on native soil. That’s a ratio
    of 35:1. Proportional to respective populaces,
    1959-75, the difference is astronomical (171:1).
    If the war occurred here, we would have lost
    almost 10 million people (today, 16.4 million).
    Yet Americans rarely think about that, or face
    the fact that the war was not only immoral but
    genocidal—as were the “incursions” into Laos,
    Cambodia, and all of the undeclared wars fought
    since then, not for liberty but for pecuniary gain.
    You want helicopter music? Stockhausen is too
    cerebral, and wastes far too much precious fuel.
    Try Wagner–it worked for Francis Ford Coppola.
    Poetry? Forget “America the Beautiful.” Read
    Yusef Komunyakaa, “Dien Cai Dau” (Wesleyan U.
    Press, 1988), a first-person account in verse by
    a U.S. soldier who endured endless horrors in
    Southeast Asia, and lived to tell the cautionary
    tale, blades and all (pp. 26, 31, 47, 49, 51).
    The title means “crazy in the head,” which fits
    the mentality of armed conflict, and those who
    profit from it at the expense of those who risk
    their lives to make the world safe for oligarchy.
    The whir of a helicopter is more ominous than
    the screech of a Soviet missile striking a U-2
    spy plane, or so Francis Gary Powers must have
    felt taking a last breath amid the smog of death.
    The evil that genius does still haunts its shades.
    What would Leonardo make of Igor Sikorsky, or
    any of his successors? What started out as an
    egg beater with rotary blades (ornithopter sketch,
    1485) became a way to make omelets by breaking
    heads, only to send medevac units to gather the
    human shells and transport them to their graves.
    What’s next? Veterans Day should be a national
    rite of atonement, not of mutual back-slapping;
    a day devoted to remembrance of sins past, not
    bloated with sentiment and nostalgic worship of
    technological idols. Stop applauding America and
    start demystifying it, before it’s too late for tears.
    The false choppers you rescue may be your own.

    • Describing the failed military construct of American intervention in SEA then has nothing to do with the intended reflection on Veteran’s Day. Your anger bleeds through your words like the blood of any young fighter of that war and every war once did, denying you the capacity to understand their sacrifice.

      Veteran’s Day is not intended as a history lesson on power, control and dominance through misunderstanding or delusion, it strives to recognize and respect the higher states of nobility and courage within our unlimited consciousness in men of disparate character.

      Maybe it’s not ears that need some bending, but some hearts that need opening.