Restored Helicopter Churns Up Memories of Vietnam War

Former assault company bonds over project

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Wayne Terry as a young man in Vietnam with the 135th Assault Helicopter Company.

    The streets of downtown Antioch were lined with people waiting for a parade. Some waved flags. Children scattered along the curb, anxiously peering down the end of the street.

    Suddenly the air reverberated with the deep pulse of helicopter blades.

    An Army helicopter swooped down the length of Second Street, banked right above the cheering crowd and floated to a graceful stop in a cul de sac.

    As the blades churned to a stop, a group of men popped out, tying lines and readying the mechanical beast for the public.

    Dressed head to toe in Army green, a silver-haired Wayne Terry leaned against the chopper and made the introductions: “This is a 1965 UH-1H Huey “Slick” helicopter,” he said. “It was primarily used as a troop carrier.”

    Anyone who’s ever watched a Vietnam War movie has seen a Huey in action. They were the workhorses of the war, rumbling through the jungles delivering supplies, troops and ferrying the dead and wounded.

    Terry lived that scene. He was 20 years old when he was sent to Vietnam with the 135th Assault Helicopter Company.

    Some 40 years later, he and a group of his former unit members have restored a Vietnam-era Huey from the bolts up.

    “We searched for parts,” Terry said. “ We painted her the way we flew them in Vietnam – all the way down to the insignia.”

    The 135th was an experimental unit in the war. While most of its members were American, a third was made up of Royal Australian Navy.

    Fittingly, the unit’s insignia on the nose of the aircraft features the slogan: “Get the bloody job done.”

    The group, called Emu 309, restored the chopper over 15 months in a hangar in Hayward. The chopper they restored had done two tours of duty in Vietnam and was shot down twice.

    Terry said during the restoration, they found rice paddy mud in the belly of the craft – evidence of her unexpected landings.

    The chopper was later used for training at an Alabama military base before going to work for the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department.

    When the chopper went up for sale in 2003, the group of vets snatched her up.

    This journey into military past has churned up 40-year-old memories for the group of vets. Terry recalled his first ride in the helicopter after the restoration.

    “I truly could not speak about the experience for a month,” he said. “ It brought up a lot of stuff I had to process through – a lot of memories.”

    Helicopter pilot and mechanic Steve Ilmberger missed Vietnam because he was too young. But working on the restoration has taken him to the dark legacy of the Vietnam War.

    “I’ve met mothers and daughters and wives of servicemen who were killed in this aircraft,” Ilmberger said, sitting in the Huey’s pilot seat. “Tears come to eyes, it’s very heart wrenching when you meet these people.”

    The group relies on donations to buy fuel for its public outings.

    For Veterans Day, the helicopter flew over Veterans parades in Antioch and Petaluma before heading back to Hayward.

    Terry pulled up a picture on his phone. It showed a young man with a handlebar mustache leaning against a Huey in Vietnam.

    It was a picture of Terry as a 20-year old soldier.

    “It’s actually quite a healing and cathartic experience for a lot of veterans,” he said of the restored Huey. “That’s my interest – to keep this thing available and validate their service and let them know they’re not forgotten.”