By Maj. Thomas W. Mehl
National Guard Bureau
Amid the tangle of scrub brush, ravines and sun-baked termite hills near the Chu Pong Massif in Vietnam’s Ia Drang Valley, the then Capt. John Ghere maneuvered his UH-1 Helicopter close to the deck in search of a landing zone.
On that hot November day in 1965, Ghere, a Huey Helicopter pilot with B Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry, was conducting a reconnaissance mission in search of a clearing to land troops. The clearing he located would become known as LZ X-Ray, the first major battle of the Vietnam War and depicted in the 2002 motion picture, “We Were Soldiers.”
“[LZ X-Ray] is where you can land troops close to the Chu Pong Mountains,” said Ghere, 74, who retired as a colonel in the Michigan Army National Guard following 36 years of service, including eight (1959-67) in the active Army.
The battle at LZ X-Ray is significant because it involved the air transport of more than 14 miles of the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry by UH-1 Huey Helicopters.
The Huey proved its mettle in Vietnam, not just as a troop transporter, but also as a gun platform, for command and control and medical evacuation.
Today, nearly 50 years after it was first fielded by the U.S. Army, the last Hueys are scheduled to be completely phased out of the Army National Guard by Sept. 30.
According to Del Hardiman, UH-1 Systems Manager, Aviation and Safety Division, Army National Guard, there are currently 64 Hueys still serving in the Army Guard that are scheduled to be replaced by the more modern UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-72A Lakota by the end of FY-09.
“The UH-1 is quite possibly the best known helicopter in the world today,” Hardiman said. “Images of Vietnam air assaults, supply runs and medical evacuations register indelibly in the minds of Americans. The Huey endured years beyond its projected mission life because it was so doggone dependable.
“Veteran UH-1 pilots for years have made the statement that when the last UH-60 is flown to the boneyard, a UH-1 will be there to bring the crew home,” Hardiman added.
“In my opinion the Huey was an engineering marvel; it was such a durable helicopter,” said Ghere, who was shot down three times in Vietnam and received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service there. “Most of the hits we took were in the tail boom, which wasn’t nearly as hazardous as taking a hit in the engine compartment. The safest way to fly in Vietnam was at treetop level because unless you flew right over the top of the enemy, they couldn’t see you 50 meters to your left or right,” he said.
Hardiman said the first Hueys to see service in the Army National Guard were delivered to the Texas Guard in October 1970 for use by the 71st Airborne Brigade and 72nd Infantry Brigade (Mech.).
In a ceremony marking the occasion, Maj. Gen. Winston P. Wilson, then chief of the National Guard Bureau, said that he welcomed the challenge to produce combat-ready aviation units and guaranteed that the Army Guard would, if properly supported, produce units equally as ready as their active Army counterparts.
Following his discharge from the active Army in 1967, like so many veteran Huey pilots who served in Vietnam, Ghere joined the Army National Guard. He returned to his native Michigan where he joined the Michigan Army Guard in 1968 following a one-year break in service. He served 28 years in the Michigan Guard where he was once again reunited with an old friend, the Huey.
“When I was in the Michigan Guard we flew Hueys constantly,” said Ghere, who now lives in Onondaga, Mich. “I like to refer to it as the rotary wing version of the DC-3 because it was so durable.”
The last days of the Huey are on the horizon as Army Guard aviation continues its drive toward modernization.
“Army National Guard aviation has advanced in recent years to become an almost equal partner with its active Army counterpart,” Hardiman said. “No longer does Army Guard aviation take a back seat. It performs and it does so in the war fight and homeland security at the highest levels.”
Hardiman said Army Guard units are now fielding the new UH-72A Lakota, which replaces the OH-58 Kiowa; the CH-47F, the newest version of the Chinook Heavy Lift aircraft is now coming on line, joining its CH-47D older brother. The Black Hawk, now the mainstay of Army Guard aviation, is represented by multiple versions, including assault, Medevac, command and control and the Fire Hawks, designed specifically to fight forest fires.
In a sense though, Army Guard aviation owes much of its history to the Huey, a U.S. Army aviation icon.
“When one can no longer hear that familiar sound, and that familiar image crossing the horizon, when those images are no more and all that’s left are the stories of this magnificent piece of aviation history, then that will be a sad day,” Hardiman said. “That day will be soon.”