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Vietnam-era ‘Huey’ helicopters coming to Memorial Day observances at Fort Niagara

YOUNGSTOWN – Vietnam veterans might get a catch in their throat when they hear the familiar and distinct “whoop, whoop” of the rotor blades as the Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, dubbed the “Huey,” swoops overhead at Fort Niagara State Park next weekend.

The Huey (or Hueys – they’re hoping to get two) will visit the area from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and next Sunday as part of a Memorial Day weekend tribute to Vietnam veterans. It is sponsored by the Lake Ontario VFW Post 313, in partnership with the American Huey 369 organization based in Peru, Ind., and Old Fort Niagara.

Admission to the state park and parking is free, but there is an admission fee to Old Fort Niagara, which will present its “Soldiers Through the Ages” program from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days, adding a Vietnam War component this year. A free shuttle will transport visitors from the makeshift helipad to the fort throughout the day.

The public is invited to become a member of the American Huey 369 organization and join in an open-door flight on this historic helicopter during its Youngstown visit. Membership is $100. With a crew of four, the helicopter can take six passengers at a time and no reservations are required. The helicopters will be stationed on the soccer fields in front of the Officers Club in the state park for free viewing, as well.

“I’m a Vietnam veteran and this is great to be able to do this,” said Ed Jackson, of the Lake Ontario VFW Post 313. “There’s something special about these helicopters. This will be kind of emotional.”

Jackson served with the U.S. Army First Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

“The Hueys had three main uses in Vietnam,” Jackson recalled. “First, they were used for medical evacuation. Second, they were used to resupply ammunition or water or even to deliver mail. And third, they were used for troop transport. So for us, most times these helicopters brought good news – either you were being moved out for medical help, you were getting supplies, or you were being transported out.”

For these very reasons, these particular helicopters “represented the sound of hope,” according to Ray O’Keefe, former executive director of the Niagara Aerospace Museum. He also played a vital role in creating this special event to honor veterans.

And this visit will be even more poignant because it will serve as a homecoming for the Huey 803 – so named for its tail number – when it flies in next weekend.

O’Keefe explained that the Huey 803 had been given to the Burgard Vocational High School in Buffalo for its aviation program, following the helicopter’s extensive service in Vietnam. Students used the helicopter as a hands-on teaching tool and when the aviation program was dropped, the helicopter was donated to the Niagara Aerospace Museum, he said.

“It was pretty beat up and had been sitting outside,” O’Keefe recalled. “We stored it at the Buffalo Airfield. It was full of bees and we thought it was beyond repair.”

A few years later, in 2004, two Indiana brothers were passing through Niagara Falls, hauling a trailer with a Huey 369 they had just purchased in Bangor, Maine, and looked O’Keefe up. They formed a fast and enduring friendship and the decision was later made to donate the Niagara Aerospace Museum’s Huey 803 to John and Alan Walker. The brothers, who have military backgrounds, were starting the American Huey 369 organization in Peru, Ind., with an eye toward restoration and preservation and one day creating the National American Huey Historical Museum near the Grissom Air Force Base.

O’Keefe attended an event in Indiana, less than a year later and saw the Huey 803 his group had donated.

“I had tears in my eyes,” he recalled. “It looked like it had just come off the assembly line. We were floored.”

It turns out someone had learned of the brothers’ restoration project and donated an engine, while an engine shop in Nebraska lent its expertise.

And this is the same helicopter that will take the nearly 5-hour flight from Peru, Ind., to Youngstown for next weekend’s event.

“This event is about the helicopters and it’s about this great story, but the bottom line is that this is about honoring our veterans,” O’Keefe said.

O’Keefe said a number of local organizations and individuals made donations to make this event a reality and they will be recognized at the event. Jackson estimated the event will end up costing about $40,000 and he said the group is still accepting help.

Donations may be made to: www. gofundme.com/americanhuey369.

“We’d like to be able to do this again next year,” said Jackson.

Next weekend’s event also coincides with Old Fort Niagara’s popular “Soldiers Through the Ages” program, which showcases the soldiers, uniforms, weapons and vehicles of the fort’s military history across four centuries. Re-enactors representing French, Native, British and American soldiers will participate. The program kicks off with a military parade and colors ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday and Sunday across the fort’s lawn.

Admission to Old Fort Niagara is $12 for adults, $8 for children age 6-12, and free for kids 5 and under, as well as Old Fort Niagara members. The full schedule of events for the weekend may be found at: www.oldfortniagara.com.

In addition, the VFW Post 313 will hold a special Memorial Day service at 11 a.m. Monday in the historic Fort Niagara Cemetery in the state park. The public is invited.

For more information on the historic Huey event at Fort Niagara, call O’Keefe at 417-7056 or visit his Facebook page. And to learn more about the Huey 369 organization, visit: www.AmericanHuey369.com.

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