Restored helicopter honors Delaware’s Vietnam Veterans

 This Huey helicopter will soon be in place high above the Kent County Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Dover.(Charlie O'Neill/WHYY)

This Huey helicopter will soon be in place high above the Kent County Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Dover.(Charlie O'Neill/WHYY)

A two-year effort to acquire and restore a UH-1 Huey helicopter will be complete this Memorial Day.
A large crowd is expected in Dover on Memorial Day, as Vietnam War veterans gather to dedicate a Huey helicopter that will become a permanent part of the Kent County Vietnam Veterans Memorial. 

“In Vietnam, this was our workhorse, our limousine,” said Joe Startt, one of several veterans who worked to restore the helicopter.

Startt’s connection to the Huey is personal: He said it save his life after he was hit during a friendly-fire incident while on patrol near a rubber plantation in 1970.

“They came up to check the kill zone and found that they wounded five of us and we killed two of them,” he recalled.

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It wasn’t until after the fight was over that Startt realized he’d been hit in the hand and side, creating a large wound in his back and causing a lung to collapse. A Huey was called in to transport him to safety.

“This is what saved my life,” Startt said, tapping the helicopter as it sat in a hangar in Leipsic.

“I’ve always referred to them as a flying angel,” said Paul Davis, president of Delaware’s chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. “Those pilots were very courageous and dedicated to their job, they saved so many lives.”

Davis has coordinated the effort to get the chopper at the memorial in Dover, a memorial that both honors the veterans and preserves a fragment of history.

“Our legacy, if you will, so that future generations will know about the Vietnam War,” Davis said. “They will know what the Huey helicopter did.”

Honoring Vietnam veterans

In a way, this memorial and others like it honor soldiers who were poorly treated when they returned home from Vietnam.

“The American public was really against the war, but that was no fault of the American soldier,” Davis said. “A lot of things happened; soldiers got spit on, got called names.”

Over time, attitudes have changed about the way soldiers returning from war are treated. And that idea has changed the way soldiers are welcomed home today.

“I think over the years, people have come to realize, you know, even though we didn’t agree with the war, perhaps we were unjust in treating them the way we did,” Davis said. “There’s been a tremendous turnaround, and the veterans of today in Afghanistan, and Iraq and the gulf war, the public really appreciates those people.”

That practice honoring of returning soldiers is now transferring to soldiers who once returned to a poor reception, or perhaps no reception at all.

“Not only are they supporting the ones coming back now, but when I’m wearing my Vietnam hat, there’s always somebody thanking me for my service,” said Vietnam veteran James Cooper. “I’ve even been stopped at Dunkin Donuts and coffee shops, and people have actually paid for my whatever I got … people are doing it now for Vietnam vets.”

Cooper didn’t get spit on or called names when he got back from Vietnam. But there was no recognition of his service either.

“When I came back, there was no reception,” he recalled. “There was talk about a parade, but it never happened. Things like that didn’t happen back then.” 

While the soldiers that made it back from Vietnam may finally receive recognition, the ones who didn’t return are still being remembered as well. Startt said he hopes to honor them when the Huey is dedicated next Monday.

“There’s 28 guys that died in Vietnam in Kent County,” Startt said, “and we’re hoping to close the chapter when we get her up in the air.”

A dedication ceremony will be held on Memorial Day, May 26 at 2 p.m. at the Kent County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, adjacent to the Kent County Levy Court building.

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