Posted on August 13, 2015
By Burl Burlingame | Burl.Burlingame@pacificaviationmuseum.org | Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum
Bob Broaddus folded his lanky frame into the UH-1H Huey and stuck his head up into the equivalent of the aircraft’s rafters. He began to poke around, occasionally consulting a dog-eared logbook. Then he jumped down and quietly said, “Here she is — Huey 411. The numbers match.”
And just like that, a mystery was solved.
Sometimes, mysteries aren’t where you expect to find them. This is the case with Pacific Aviation Museum’s Huey helicopter. The weather beaten aircraft had been sitting in Hangar 79 for years, a modest monument to the massive evolution in battlefield rotorcraft during the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I started to research the aircraft’s history that we discovered she wasn’t what we thought she was.
The serial number was bogus. Not only that, the same serial was painted on at least one other Huey, which is currently on display at Barbers Point. The folks there confirmed that their Huey actually matched the serial number. Since both helicopters were passed on from the Army Reserve squadron based at Wheeler Army Air Field, it was apparent they had cut one set of stencils and used them twice.
Every military aircraft has a manufacturer’s data plate that gives the particulars of that airframe. But when these Hueys were permanently grounded, the data plates were returned to Bell Helicopter. There are other serial numbers stamped on other parts of the airframe, however, and museum friend and Huey expert Pat Rodgers found such a number on our Huey’s drive train. He contacted Bell, who told him the parts belonged to UH-1H 68-16411.
Is that really our machine? It’s possible that internal parts were swapped with other Hueys. Maybe some veterans who knew the helicopter could shed a little light. Cross-matching serials with Vietnam-era squadrons revealed that Huey 411 — if she actually was Huey 411 — served with the 56th Transportation Company based at Long Thanh North. I found some Vietnam-vet chat groups online and began sending out blind requests for information. I knew I had to find just one guy in the know and then the word would get out.
And it did. Almost immediately, I received responses from 56th vets Jay Warshauer, Robert Cartwright, and — all the way from Finland — Dave Heikkila. Heikkila, as it turned out, had already been pursuing a lead on the helicopter, based on a 1994 photo of the bird in Hawaii Guard colors.
“WOW!!! I am really amazed to receive your e-mail! Still can’t believe it!” he wrote. “Great to hear that you seem to have the 56th ship. I’m STILL shocked! Our guys will LOVE to hear THIS news!”
And he began to spread the news to other 56th vets, courtesy of the Internet.
“Something so significant to me personally is still intact and on its way to being representative of the single-most iconic image of the war in Vietnam and in the Pacific Aviation Museum, no less!” wrote Bill Quillen. “Being a crew member on 411 for a brief period in her history is an emotional thing for me and even more so now.”
A piece of video footage was posted on YouTube featuring 56th helicopters, and they thanked the aviation museum in the video. Then, museum director Ken DeHoff received an email query from Christina Olds (daughter of legendary ace Robin Olds, who was born on Ford Island — small world!). He passed it on to me to answer her question: “I was wondering if you could steer me in the right direction for solving this mystery. One of our museum members, Bob Broaddus, was a Huey door gunner and crew chief during Vietnam. He is now Chief Inspector for REACH Air Medical Services here in Sonoma County, CA. For over 40 years he has been searching for hints about where ‘his’ Huey might be these days. All searches turned up empty until he happened to see a YouTube video posted in December showing that particular Huey (68-16411) flying during Vietnam missions …”
I wrote back, and within hours received an email from Broaddus, which said in part: “I was the door gunner/crew chief on 411 from December 1969 to August 1970. I would like to come to the islands this summer and see my old ship, would this be possible? This August it will 45 years the last time I flew in my ship.”
Both Quillen and Broaddus began forwarding pictures of Huey 411, and gave some insight into the bird’s wartime experience. Bell’s build number for the ship was 11070, delivered originally Nov. 3, 1969, to Fort Hood, Texas. The 56th Transportation Company, was located at Long Thanh North airfield, and provided direct and back-up support maintenance for more than 40 “customers.” The 56th had more than 427 aircraft; 273 rotary wing and 155 fixed-wing aircraft. They had a pair of recovery teams of Huey’s designated to dash into a crash zone, secure the area, and prepare the downed helicopter for transport. The other Huey — 68-15381 — was hit by a Viet Cong missile and destroyed, with four crew members killed.
So Huey 411 was the only surviving Huey from the 56th. But we still weren’t absolutely convinced the UH-1H in our hangar was actually Huey 411.
Broaddus stopped by the museum in early June, bearing logbooks, photographs, and a head full of memories. He hopped aboard and confirmed our bird really is Huey 411. Broaddus, once again checking his logs, discovered that 45 years ago exactly, he had been flying a mission in Huey 411. I had him sit in his usual station to get a picture. He pointed out where he had added a little shelf by his shoulder to hold his camera while flying, but an enemy machine gun round had ripped away the shelf and shattered his camera.
“When you fly in danger every day in a certain aircraft, you develop a relationship with it,” he mused. “I’ve always wondered what had happened to Huey 411.”
When we start to restore her in 2016, she’ll go back in time to 1970 and she’ll look right. It’s the honorable way to commemorate her service.