By Paris Wolfe
Our most recent trip to Florida started because Gary wanted to revisit the helicopter he worked on as an Army soldier in Vietnam. Not THE exact bird, but the model machine that kept him busy most days — the OH-6 Cayuse.
In 1966, the Army started using this single-engine helicopter to flush out the enemy and provide fire support for ground troops. It’s small, quiet and its egg-shape makes it hardy. Gary worked on the OH-6 as a mechanic and a soldier flying at tree level to flush Vietcong from the forests. During his tour of duty, 1972-73 — the ground war was mostly over, but aviation support remained in some areas.
Fast forward to July 2015. We spent hours examining some legendary and some run-of-the-mill aircraft in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museums in Washington, D.C. and Chantilly, Va. While we were there, Gary kept an eye out for an OH-6. It seemed logical that this well-regarded, commonly used aircraft would be on display. But, it wasn’t.
A few days later we stopped at the small U.S. Army Transportation Museum at Fort Eustis in Newport News, VA. There, too, we gathered history on war, technology and aircraft. The only Cayuse was a picture boasting of its utility.
And, the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, may be enormous, but it doesn’t have the agile Cayuse. But, that makes sense because it’s an Air Force base and the OH-6 is an Army helicopter.
Eventually, casual observation led to feelings of dismissal. Gary found an important part of history missing at key war aviation museums. You can easily find “Hueys” and their successors on display, but not the chopper to which he was assigned. And, with more than 2,000 produced and 842 shot down in the Vietnam War, they had a significant role in history.
Gary was mostly quiet about his observations at this point. So, I didn’t yet realize we were on a quest. It wasn’t complicated, if you were willing to travel. Gary deduced that an Army base where helicopter pilots are trained would be the logical place for a Cayuse siting. So, he googled Fort Rucker, Alabama, and found the Army post has one on display in its U.S. Army Aviation Museum.
And, that’s why, for Thanksgiving week 2016, we headed south. We stayed in Pensacola, Fla., because it’s busier than rural southeastern Alabama. And, we traveled backroads from the Navy town through rural Alabama by Harley-Davidson.
Getting into the Army aviation museum presented a challenge. Those aiming to see the collection of 160 aircraft – including largest display of military helicopters in the world – must first get onto the post. Vehicle operators must have a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of insurance to enter the gates at Fort Rucker. All visitors must be U.S. citizens and, those over 16 years old must have photo identification. And, the country must not be on high security alert. Calling ahead for status is prudent.
We made the unwitting mistake of visiting on Family Day which meant a 70-minute wait to have credentials checked and be issued a temporary ID card. We learned most waits are closer to 15 minutes.
Finally, we made it. We were there. Inside the hangar, to the left we found the OH-6 hanging on an angle with a GI mannequin leaning out the door scout style. The helicopter was set in a vignette, as if on reconnaissance mission. Below it was a part of Huey with broken rotors and partially submerged in fake swamp muck.
Gary was disappointed. The single display tucked away lacked impact compared to other displays. It seemed too simple for a dangerous treetop flyer. It’s hard to say what display might convey an emotional impact worthy of the lives sacrificed. But, this wasn’t it for Gary.
Next to the display was a Vietnam War Memorial exhibit, a dark wall inscribed with the 4,347 names of pilots, co-pilots, crew chiefs, crew members, door gunners and medics who died of aviation-related injuries. There Gary touched and was touched by the names of four men in his troop who lost their lives on missions in fall 1972.
On October 26, while Dexter B. Florence and Keven Z. Goodno were attempting to capture an NVA flag in Quang Nam province, a Claymore mine detonated leaving them with fatal injuries. Less than two weeks later on November 5, a command-detonated mine killed Joseph F. Denardo and Steven L. Taylor in Quai Nang Province.
The static display took on new meaning as Gary shared his stories of a drinking rum and Coke with Goodno on the Saturday before the young man died in his low-flying OH-6. Today, some of the young men would have been too young to buy beer. It all seems so distant and official, but some of these guys were just kids, the age of my oldest son, flying helicopters and offering their lives for a mission.
My perspective shifted. I understood why Gary wants to see the OH-6 occupy visual space that pushes it into emotional space. Thinking about a 19-year-old Gary or my teenage sons being in those choppers made me shiver. I hurried back into the Alabama sunshine.