WASHINGTON -- Nearly 5,000 helicopter pilots and crewmembers lost their lives conducting aerial operations in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. On Wednesday, a monument to those service members was dedicated in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Vietnam War was "the helicopter war," said now-retired Maj. Gen. Carl H. McNair. "Over 12,000 helicopters -- Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps -- carried the fight to the enemy."
McNair was himself a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. He served in theater from June 1967 to May 1969, and retired in 1987, after having served as the chief of staff for U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command.
Of the more than 12,000 helicopters operating in Vietnam, more than 5,000 were destroyed by combat or accidents. Helicopters were used in more than 850,000 medical evacuation missions conducted during that war, and were responsible for boosting survival rates for the wounded to as high as 99 percent, according to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, which sponsored placement of the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and Crewmember Monument at the cemetery.
The granite monument bears an engraving that depicts the UH-1 Huey aircraft, which was used by all branches of the service in Vietnam.
"It was only fitting that our monument be dedicated today, bearing the iconic symbol of the UH-1, the Huey," McNair said. "Over 10,000 were built for that war, and over 7,000 saw service in theater, flying over 7.5 million flight hours -- more combat time than any other aircraft in the history of warfare. Over 3,000 of those aircraft did not return."
Lawrence Lanier, who retired from the Army as a chief warrant officer 4, flew the UH-1 in Vietnam. He said he's got about 4,000-plus hours in the air over the duration of his Army career, with about 800 combat hours in the Huey in Vietnam.
"Most of my time was spent flying command and control for the brigade commanders or the battalion commanders, whatever mission came up," he said.
Lanier, who was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, and who still lives there today, said it's about time there's a monument for those who lost their lives in Vietnam flying helicopters into and out of combat zones.
"It's well deserved and just a little late," he said. "But it happened."
Dave Hause, also in attendance, served as a UH-1 crew chief in Vietnam for most of 1971. "A crew chief was the only person assigned to an aircraft," he said. "I was supposed to keep the maintenance records. I would fly with that aircraft all the time. They'd change pilots, they'd change gunners -- but I was with it all the time."
Hause said he remembers early on during his time in Vietnam, his aircraft hadn't been hit with enemy fire. "Probably about three months in, everybody said you have to fly with Hause -- he's lucky, he never gets hit."
But as time went on, he said, and his aircraft still didn't get hit, Soldiers got worried he was tempting fate and that he was due for something bad.
"Near the end they were saying 'don't fly with Hause ... because he's bound to get hit,'" he said. "But I was fortunate. I was shot at, but the aircraft never got hit."
Hause may have been lucky, but for those who weren't, he said he's glad now that there's something to remember them in Arlington National Cemetery.
"This memorial is for those who didn't make it home, it's not really for us," he said. "It's for them. And we all know ones who didn't make it home and that's why we are here."
Larry Earles served back-to-back tours in Vietnam, from 1968 through 1970, where he flew the OH-6 Cayuse aircraft.
"It had a gunner in the back with an M60 machine gun," Earles said. "Our job was to go out and draw fire."
His aircraft was knocked out of the sky seven times, he said. But "only one of them burned and exploded ... but it was after we hit the ground, and we were able to get away."
Earles said he remembers coming back from Vietnam and the reception he got from Americans when he got off the plane.
"We didn't have the technology then that we do today, so I had no idea what I was coming back to," he said. "I didn't know the country was in chaos and protesting. I walked into Seattle-Tacoma airport, off the airplane, and I was cussed at and spit at. I saw lines of people and I thought gosh, what a welcome home. I wanted to turn around and go back."
More than 1,000 people gathered in the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery to participate in the dedication of the monument. That gathering of people and of goodwill, Earles said, was welcome.
"It feels like the thank you, the welcome home, the respect, that would have been appreciated 50 years ago," he said.
But Earles was quick to point out that while a thank you would have been nice, he didn't think it was required.
"We volunteered, we went in, we believed in what was going on, didn't know anything about the politics," Earles said. "And the government and the public don't owe us anything."
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and Crewmember Monument is carved in Barre granite, which was quarried in Vermont. It is located in Section 35 of Arlington National Cemetery, and is located near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The monument is 32 inches wide and stands 22 inches tall. It bears engravings of the seals of each military service, as well as a depiction of the UH-1 helicopter.
Additionally, the monument bears the words: "1961 - 1975 In honored memory of the helicopter pilots and crewmembers who gave the full measure of devotion to their nation in the Vietnam War."