The unknown helicopter

An unknown Huey, a forgotten Vietnam vet, sits at Riverside's @MFAM79, awaiting someone who can tell its story

Jeff Houlihan first noticed the helicopter in 1977, perched on top of a 40-foot steel tower at Rialto Municipal Airport. He could tell it was a Huey, used in Vietnam, but no one could explain how it got to the top of the tower. He could tell it had received enemy gunfire — it was spattered with bullet holes — but no one could find the flight records for its years of service.

"This is a forgotten Vietnam veteran," said Houlihan, curator of the March Field Air Museum. "This aircraft is as forgotten and deserving as a soldier. It has a story, like every other aircraft here, and we're waiting to find the story."

A military brat who grew up on bases in Libya and Europe, Houlihan served five years in the Air Force and then 22 with various government agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Homeland Security, before taking up his post at March Field.

Houlihan decided that he wanted the Huey for Firebase Romeo Charlie (so named for Riverside County), an exhibit that replicates the rough, dangerous conditions at a Vietnam firebase.

It took 12 men, volunteers and staff at March Field, to rescue the unknown soldier. Two men used a cutting torch to remove the bolt heads keeping the Huey in place. Another man used a crane to lift it off the tower and rest it gently on the ground. San Bernardino Vector Control removed the bees nesting in the tail boom. San Bernardino County Fire Department hosed away decades' worth of owl droppings — bone and feather and excrement more than a foot deep.

Last year, I watched men who served in Vietnam help refurbish the helicopter. Using thin metal patches, they covered over the bullet holes. They showed me the insignia they found after sanding off thick layers of white paint: crossed sabers, denoting the 1st Squadron, 4th Cavalry.

Rudy Lerma, the restoration manager at March Field, was a master sergeant in the Air Force. He served in Okinawa, the Philippines, Guam, Japan, Britain and Germany before he was stationed at March Air Force Base in 1985. The day I dropped by, he was making gun turrets, which he'd later weld onto the Huey.

Bob Rodrigues built an imitation grenade launcher — called a "thumper" or "blooper" for the sound it makes when grenades drop. He told me, laughing, that he'd fashioned it out of a metal trash can. An Air Force tech sergeant jet engine mechanic who served in Thailand during the Vietnam War, Rodrigues came to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino in 1968. He stayed in the area, ran his own body shop and now volunteers at March Field.

This Memorial Day, you can find the Huey at Firebase Romeo Charlie next to a Cobra, on loan from the Army, which served from Vietnam through the Persian Gulf War. Its crew nicknamed it Sweet Sixteen because, unlike the Huey, it was never hit by enemy gunfire.

Now that Rodrigues, Houlihan and the others have finished their restoration work, school kids and ordinary people like me can climb inside the Huey, sit in the cockpit and feel the tight space, the glass separating you from the sky, trees and gunfire.

You can try to understand how war works. You can look out at the world and see green oil drums topped with green-and-brown sandbags, which Houlihan spent long days painting and positioning so they resemble firebase walls.

The Firebase Romeo Charlie exhibit abuts March Air Reserve Base. Through a chain-link fence you can see the massive cargo transport planes that still deliver Marines to battle overseas, and bring home those who survive.

Houlihan knows that, eventually, a Vietnam veteran visiting the Firebase exhibit will recognize the Huey and tell its story.

One day a former soldier will sit in the cockpit, feel the tight space and know it was his aircraft. He will run his hands over the metal patches covering the bullet holes and touch the crossed saber insignia, and tell Houlihan what he did, flying this Huey, and where it was shot, and who came back with him.

Susan Straight has published 10 novels. She is finishing a book set on Prince Edward Island, and a story collection set around Golden State Freeway.

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