Restoration project brings war relic, memories back to life for veterans

Removing rivets
Tom Hunter removes rivets from a Bell UH-1 "Huey" helicopter panel at a warehouse building in St. Paul, Minn. April 27, 2011. Hunter is one of more than a dozen veterans volunteering to restore the Huey for the Minnesota History Center's upcoming "The 1968 Exhibit."
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

A 46-year-old war relic is being brought painstakingly back to life by a group of Minnesota military veterans. The veterans have volunteered hundreds of hours of their time for almost a year to restore an UH-1H helicopter flown in Vietnam.

Nicknamed the "Huey" -- an iconic symbol of the Vietnam War -- the helicopter will be featured in the "1968 Exhibit" opening this fall at the Minnesota History Center.

With its rounded nose, long body and lifted tail, the Huey looks like some oversized toy insect at a warehouse on the east side of St. Paul, where volunteers have been working on it like surgeons on a patient. Most of the men here are war veterans.

Instrument panel
A Bell UH-1 instrument panel awaits restoration in a workshop in St. Paul, Minn. April 27, 2011.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Jay Erickson, an exhibit development technician at the History Center, is leading the Huey project. He said the museum obtained the Huey from an out-of-state salvage yard and brought it to Minnesota in pieces.

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The veterans put it back together, then took it apart again and are now rebuilding a scaled-down version.

"This exhibit, '1968,' has to travel around the country and we don't know what we are going to run into at museums," Erickson said. "We are trying to think of the worst-case scenario -- what is the smallest door we'll have to go through."

To plan for travel, each section of this enormous medevac aircraft, which was made to transport troops, must fit easily through a 4 ft.-by-8 ft. door.

Curators chose the Huey because it flew in Vietnam in 1968. They plan to project a film inside the helicopter with sights and sounds from the front lines.

To rebuild the Huey so it looks authentic, Erickson relies on the combined expertise of the volunteers. They served in Vietnam, Korea and World War II.

Dismantling the Huey
The veteran volunteers dismantle the Bell UH-1 "Huey" in St. Paul, Minn. April 27, 2011. The helicopter must be able to be dismantled and the pieces reassembled for the traveling exhibit.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"Some of these veterans were pilots in Vietnam of Huey helicopters, some of them were mechanics," he said. "They were crew chiefs, they have all kinds of experience."

One of the Huey experts is Darryl LeMire of White Bear Lake, who was a helicopter mechanic with the 101st Airborne. Drafted in 1968, LeMire served in Vietnam until 1970. While he was over there he worked on the same model of Huey that's going into the History Center.

"I really knew them pretty well. There are a few things I have forgotten but I'm surprised by how much I do remember," LeMire said. "Obviously, this isn't going to be an airworthy aircraft, which makes it easier because we can do whatever we want, so that reduces some of the burden."

At lunchtime, the 20 or so volunteers gather around a long cafeteria table and share war stories. The veterans say they keep coming back every week to work on the Huey because of the camaraderie.

In the center of the table are some vintage artifacts that will go on display with the aircraft: Life Magazines, uniforms and other personal mementos from 1968.

Former aircraft mechanic and crew chief Richard Bakke brought in his Vietnam rations, starting with a C-Ration fruitcake, an often-mocked sweet treat, that Erickson requested.

Combat rations
With a scale model of the Bell UH-1 sitting nearby, the "Huey" restoration crew members examine combat rations in St. Paul, Minn. April 27, 2011. In addition to the helicopter, "The 1968 Exhibit" will also include period items and multimedia presentations.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

"He wanted this specifically because he felt a lot of guys could relate to it," Bakke said. "Nobody eats it. Poor fruitcake -- it gets a bad rap!"

While fruitcake was rare, Bakke had his fill of the other rations in Vietnam.

"You saw more with pound cake than any other ones," he said. "Pound cake, they had a cinnamon nut roll. This is my most favorite one here, beans with frankfurters."

Bakke's donated rations and other equipment soldiers would have used in Vietnam will be featured in the Huey.

Erickson hopes such personal touches will make the Huey more real -- and inspire veterans who view the exhibit to share their own experiences.

"I think that is the success of this artifact and the exhibit -- that somebody comes up and touches it, and they'll start telling their story and it'll evoke some memories," he said.

In mid-August a crew will move the Huey to the History Center and install it in the gallery. The veterans will then finish detailing the helicopter before the show opens in October.