Early in 1961 General Maxwell Taylor, who was then Military Advisor to John F. Kennedy, went out to Southeast Asia to find out just what was happening there. During his visit to Vietnam, he noticed the lack of good roads inhibited the movement of government troops in fighting the Viet Cong. His reports to the president motivated Kennedy to help the South Vietnamese in their struggle against communism. Although he quickly decided to help out, the president knew that new army techniques and weapons would have to be administered to combat in the dense jungle terrain, still new to the United States Army. Kennedy proceeded to send in a newly improved military innovation to help American troops fight the rising Vietnamese War. This innovation was the Helicopter. On December 11, 1961, the U.S. aircraft carrier ?Card? carried the first Army H-21 helicopters to South Vietnam.(Gregory 12) During the Vietnam War, the helicopter proved to be a necessity in being able to combat the power of the Viet Cong.
The helicopter is a member of a very versatile group of airplanes known as vertical takeoff and landing craft. The main advantage in the jungles of Vietnam was the helicopters ability to takeoff and land in a small area without the use of a runway. In 1100 the Chinese were the first to invent the concept of the rotating blades with a helicopterlike top. In 1843, Sir George Cayley built a steam driven helicopter that rose a few feet, but was too heavy to be practical. In Spain, Juan de la Cievera built the first Autogiro in 1923. The autogiro was the father of the helicopter. Although the Autogiro is not at all fast, it requires no fuel and flies on the concept of autorotation. Autorotation was adapted to modern helicopters in case of power loss, where the helicopter could land safely without crashing. The first practical flight of a helicopter in the United States took place in 1939, when Igor Sikorsky flew his VS-300. (Comptons 1)
Helicopters played and overwhelmingly important part in the war in Vietnam. The Vietnam War is referred to by many historians as the ?helicopter war?, because of its primary use of helicopters. The dense jungle terrain made most parts of Vietnam inaccessible to most of the conventional war machines such as tanks and cargo vehicles, and pretty much anything that was big and rolled on tracks or tires. Although there were some roads, nearly all of them were country-type, two-track roads that flooded and turned muddy during the annual monsoon season. This poor maneuverability forced the involvement of a new type of locomotion. (Masaki 1) The helicopters proved necessary to move troops to one place to another, but had many advantages outside the primary function. They served as air raid attackers, troop deployment, evacuation, medical rescuers, and supply ships. Some helicopters even fought alongside troops in the battlefield hovering close to the ground, which proved effective because of its ability to move around and attack from various angles, and then could easily fly off to another battle and help there.(Gregory 19)
Along with the extensive uses of the many types of helicopters, one series of helicopter in particular stands out. The Heuy series of attack helicopters was without a question, one of the most versatile helicopters. Between 1961-65 the idea of heliborne assault infantry was ingenious new concept. The Heuy was the best suitable for assault landings because of its maneuverability and quickness. Hueys also flew escort for the Chinook helicopters that would carry artillery and other heavy equipment. The extensively wide range of uses extends to usage as medical transports, because the Hueys could fly in, load the injured soldier, and fly back out with much quickness, before they were shot down. Many of the Hueys were also airborne medical stations too. All together there were well over 5000 Hueys in service in the Vietnam War. (Unknown 1)
In addition to the Hueys, which could do almost anything, there were many other types of helicopters that were more specialized but more limited to the tasks they would perform. The Chinook dual-rotor helicopters were of a primary use as flying ambulances. Along with certain types of Hueys these Chinook helicopters could evacuate casualties or the wounded from the battle fields. The Chinook helicopters were more of an airship than helicopter because of their size. It could carry up to 35 men or 24 stretchers. With its hook suspended from its fuselage it could carry a load of 28,000 pounds at a steady pace.(Gregory 24) The medevac helicopters were stationed at temporary army hospitals known as MASH. The radio call sign for the medevac transports was ?Dust-Off?. The pilots of these helicopters had to be quick because it was not unlikely that these transports would be shot down or a death of a crew member. Most Vietnam veterans still say, ?You were flying on the seat of your pants,? and praying that they wouldn?t get shot while trying to evacuate the wounded soldiers to MASH units, or hospital ships. (Masaki 1) There were approximately 14,000 Army personnel which served as medevac pilots. Of these, about 88 were killed and 380 wounded as the result of hostile fire or crashes. At the peak of the war, there were 140 helicopter ambulances operating in the country. In February 1973 after the cease-fire three of the four remaining medevac helicopters departed. The remaining one flew the last dust-off mission in Vietnam for a case of appendicitis.(Chinnery 7)
Other types of helicopters were used as workhorses. Most helicopters could carry light loads, but the big loads had to be lifted with the help of helicopters like the Ch-54 Tarhe, another of the Chinook family. These helicopters were also called ?Flying Cranes?, which were unarmed but with a turboshaft engine and a crane hook fed out the flat skinny underside, the ?Flying Crane? could lift up to 20,000 pounds. It carried a farther distance than the Chinook dual-rotor helicopters but did not go as fast. It lifted anything from sections of a bridge to another helicopter . (Gregory 28)
The pilots of the helicopters had to be very skilled. They must be able to stay out of enemy fire, and in medevac situations, where they would normally have to land in the midst of a battle, had to be able to get in and get out smoothly and quickly. (Masaki 1) It is estimated that over 44,000 enlisted personnel served as helicopter crewmen in Vietnam Helicopter crews did everything that was ever asked of them, without regard to their personal safety. They were bold and aggressive to the point, at times, of being reckless. The crew of these helicopters, even though reckless at some times, could be depended on, and always, as the saying goes, ?arriving just in time?. During the war, a total of 58,000 United States soldiers lost their lives. Of these, 2,465 were helicopter enlisted crewmen serving as crewcheifs, gunners, medics, etc., and another 1,069 were helicopter pilots. (Unknown 1)
The end result of the war in Vietnam was that a total of 4642 United States helicopters were lost.( Gregory 60) Of these, over 450 of them were captured or abandoned and taken by North Vietnam.(Chinnery 9) The war had ended and the US had failed to defeat the communist Viet Cong. In the capital of South Vietnam during the war, Saigon, there was much haste in trying to evacuate troops and government officials. The few helicopters left played a big role in the evacuation of the city. With the evacuation many Huey helicopters that were left behind because of the overcrowded carriers, were actually dumped into the sea at the last moment so the North Vietnamese could not make use of them in the future.(Gregory 60) The helicopters proved to be a valuable asset in even being able to help the South Vietnamese. Even though the United States lost many, without putting up a good fight the communism may have spread, and the US could not have even thought about entering the war without helicopters.
Chinnery, Philip D. ?Vietnam-The Helicopter War?, http://www.inetport.com/~bubp/huey/history/workhis.htm 1997: pgs. 8-9
Gregory, Barry ?THE VIETNAM WAR: Helicopter War?, Copyright 1988: pgs. 1-61
Masaki, David A. ?Helicopters in Vietnam?, http://lama.kcc.hawaii.edu/ems/aeromed.htm April 1996: pg. 1
Unknown ?Helicopter History?, http://www.win.net/~alt_bbs/heli.html 1996: pg. 1