“A Veteran’s Story” has covered a lot of territory over the years, including hundreds of narratives and interviews with American heroes I read about in books as a youngster. That being said, World War II was my dad’s war; Vietnam was mine. And nothing can ignite the memories of my war like the proverbial whump, whump, whump of a Huey’s rotor blades. That famous reverberation took our warriors into combat, provided covering firepower if needed, then brought these brave young men back to their home base, too many times in body bags.
The legendary Bell UH-1 Iroquois, nicknamed “Huey” due to the UH designation, was the mobile workhorse of the Vietnam War. Figures vary, as they always do, but approximately 7,000 Hueys were dispatched to Southeast Asia. Of the 7,000 Hueys, about 1,925 were lost in combat and 1,380 to operational accidents. The human cost is more profound: 1,151 Huey pilots and 1,232 crew members. Combat soldiers, civilians, reporters and non-essential personnel lost in downed Hueys added to the awful toll. But the reliable, endearing Huey was always there, doing what it was designed to do.
It could be said, however, that the Huey was never envisioned by Bell’s designers to be a wedding chapel. And this is that story.
The call came from Fred Edwards, Lt. Col., ret, US Army. Fred is just one of the many dedicated individuals keeping the Cobra gunships and Huey “slicks” flying at the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation based at Tara Field in Hampton.
“Pete,” Fred began, “I need you to do me a favor.”
“Of course, Fred,” I replied. “Anything for you guys.”
Fred cleared his throat, then said, “Well, I need you to cover a wedding.”
To which I replied in our typical Southern intellectual response of, “Do what?”
The “Do what” wedding chapel was Vietnam-era Huey chopper serial number 66-16624, a combat veteran. From July 1967-1970, she was assigned to the 61st Assault Helicopter Company. Twice damaged by mortar fire and once by ground fire, she was recovered and repaired. By October 1970, she had flown 1,655 combat hours. After Vietnam, Huey 66-16624 was assigned to Naval Research for the University of Michigan, served in Army combat units in Germany from 1971-1983, and three different Army aviation units stateside from 1983-2003. Acquired by the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation in 2004, she was given an Army facelift and restored back to her 61st Assault Helicopter Company combat scheme. As a wedding chapel, she was clean, tidy, gleaming from a fresh paint job, and proudly awaiting the bride and groom on the Tara Field tarmac.
The bride, Joyce Gibbs, and groom, Joe Prince, knew each other as kids in the early ’70s and experienced what is best described as “puppy love.” However, as often happens, life in general and the military got in the way. Four years ago, Joyce’s husband, a West Point graduate, unexpectedly passed away. Joe reached out to offer his condolences, the “puppy love” spark was once again ignited, and on Oct. 5, the couple took to the skies on Huey 66-16624 to take their vows. The Huey’s paint scheme included “shark’s teeth” nose art; apparently my eyes were playing tricks on me because I swear that chopper was smiling.
The groom, Joe Prince, grew up in a military family. His father retired as a command sergeant major; one brother, Jim, also retired from the Army and a second brother, John, is a former Army captain. Joe served his country for 24 years in the U.S. Army and saw combat with the 82nd Airborne Division during Operation Urgent Fury (Grenada, 1983). In 2012, the doctors diagnosed Joe with prostate cancer. The cancer was removed, but the disease had metastasized into his bones. On paper, he was given three to five years. A fighter and survivor, Joe has fought the good fight and continues to live life to the fullest seven years after the prognosis.
The minister, Danny McKnight, Col., US Army retired, served 28 years in uniform, including combat in Panama and Somalia. In 1993 during the Battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, Col. McKnight led the troops as the U.S. Army Ranger commander. His first book, “Streets of Mogadishu, Leadership at its Best, Political Correctness at its Worst,” is a tribute to the members of Task Force Ranger and especially the 17 Task Force Rangers lost in combat.
Except for members of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation, I presumed I’d be “odd man out,” not knowing the members of the wedding party, invited guests, nor the bride or groom. No way. Within minutes I felt like an old friend. I was among the brotherhood and sisterhood of veterans, meaning immediate acceptance. Veterans are never strangers.
The weather could not have been better. A picturesque near-cloudless indigo sky set the ambiance along with a crisp cool breeze, the first day in months you couldn’t fry an egg on your forehead. The atmosphere was jovial, as any wedding should be. War stories, family histories, aches and pains were topics for discussion. The reception area, naturally, was inside one of the hangars, with a Cobra gunship and Huey in the background, along with Fred Edwards’ restored 1970 Chevy Chevelle Super Sport. I coveted the Super Sport; thought about pilfering the darn thing, but thought the newspaper headlines wouldn’t do my writing career justice.
Then it was time to saddle-up. The pilots and crews headed for the tarmac, most of the wedding party followed, and the bride arrived beside the chopper in a fashionable shiny black sedan while the groom walked the few hundred yards to the waiting chopper. Why the groom had to walk instead of ride, I reckon, is a well-kept wedding mystery.
Smiles overflowed, excitement flourished, the formal wedding party hopped aboard and strapped-in. Then the whining and thump, thump, thump of the rotor blades gained momentum. The Huey was soon airborne. For a brief moment, as I stood on the tarmac and watched the chopper gain speed, then bank for the designated wedding coordinates, I had a flashback. It was Vietnam, all over again. No, not a PTSD moment, not even a bad memory moment, just the sound of a Huey with military flyers and veterans aboard 66-16624, civilians, too, departing on another mission. The workhorse of the Vietnam War had transformed from a combat machine into a wedding chapel. I shook my head, grinned and carried on.
The wedding party aboard the Huey was connected by the net for conversation and so the vows could be heard. Grounded, I had to wait on the tarmac. Ten, maybe 15 minutes later, whump, whump, whump…the wedding chapel was coming in for a landing. I didn’t think the wedding party could produce bigger smiles. Boy, was I wrong! The pilots, crew and wedding party were beyond jovial, it was more like uncontrolled hilarity. Crewmember, CW3 Freddie Briggs, retired, carried the bride across the threshold (?) of the Huey. A new twist on an old tradition. Except CW3 Briggs also carried the groom across the threshold (?). Again, I reckon, a well-kept wedding mystery.
Time for a chopper-hangar wedding reception. 66-16624 was rolled in to attend the festivities. No doubt, it wasn’t the first time 66-16624 had witnessed the celebration of life, including flowing beer, but no Carling Black Label, thank the good Lord, Nam revisited. Yeah, there was plenty of food, a big wedding cake, and an abundance of chitchat, and a special table set up for the newlyweds. As wedding receptions go, this is one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
I interviewed several folks in attendance, but the one with the groom (husband) was most poignant.
“I met Colonel McKnight at Fort Gillem right after Mogadishu. He became our deputy chief of staff and we became instant friends since we both came from an airborne background. He’s been one of my best friends ever since. You see, we’re both infantry soldiers so that …..” We were interrupted by departing well-wishers. Joe told them, “Y’all take some of that wedding cake home. There’s plenty left.” Apparently too full of food to oblige, the well-wishers departed and the interview continued.
“….. Well, anyway, I’ve been waiting on this day since 1973, Joyce was 12 and I was 13. Hey, I’m not kidding. Then I joined the military right out of high school….” Additional well-wishers. Joe told them, “Take some of that barbeque home. Oh, by the way, your stuff is still on my bed.” Another well-kept wedding mystery? I jest. Joe continued, “.... so, Colonel McKnight and I were together for five years, then we both retired. But we kept the relationship going. I also met Lt. Col. Edwards (Fred) about the same time. And that guy over there in the black shirt sitting with Colonel McKnight was our sergeant major, Mike Goodrich. We, too, hit it off, and we’ve been best friends ever since. I was in uniform for 24 years. And you?”
The Air Force and Vietnam were mentioned. Joe continued, “I respect the Vietnam veterans. My dad spent three tours over there in ‘Nam. Dad was 17 when he wanted to join the military, but his parents refused to sign since he was underage. So dad asked if they would agree to the National Guard. I guess they figured the National Guard was safe and it would keep him out of combat, so they agreed. Well, dad’s National Guard unit was the first one to be activated in Georgia, so at 17 years of age my dad was fighting in the Korean War. Then, like I mentioned, he later served three tours in Vietnam. Dad and the U.S. Army. I guess that’s where I found the military traditions that have been with me my entire life, and taking care of your brothers. That’s what it’s all about.”
And exchanging wedding vows aboard a Huey; to me, it seemed so appropriate.