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Campaign aims to bring Vietnam-era helicopter to Veterans Park in City of Tonawanda

A helicopter shot down in Vietnam could soon have a place of prominence in the City of Tonawanda, if a local veterans group reaches its goals.

Chapter 77, Vietnam Veterans of America, has launched a campaign to create a new monument at the entrance to Veterans Park featuring a Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter that was shot down in 1968.

The helicopter was recovered and repaired by the Army and it flew another 130 combat hours before ending up in storage in the former Bell Aircraft Plant in Wheatfield, said Dennis J. Smilinich, a Vietnam War Army veteran and chairman of the chapter’s monument committee.

“This is a real piece of history,” he said. “For the first time, we will now have a place where we can do services and we can do the proper honor and ceremonies that we have to do.”

The chapter acquired the helicopter on permanent loan from the Niagara Aerospace Museum and hopes to build a memorial with a brick walkway and the helicopter as its centerpiece. The chapter is using multiple avenues to raise funds for the project, which is expected to cost tens of thousands of dollars.

A campaign to sell engraved bricks for the walkway has raised about $10,000, with hopes to raise $30,000 more, Smilinich said. “It’s open to all veterans, and it’s open to the whole community to put a brick there,” he said.

Applications for bricks ranging from $100 to $250 are available at vva77.org/helobrick.htm or at the chapter, 47 Main St., Tonawanda.

The chapter has also set up a GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/2va2t4hg and is also holding a dance from 7 to 11 p.m. April 2 in Stephen Sikora Post 1322, American Legion, 950 Payne Ave., North Tonawanda. Tickets are $12 presale or $15 at door and available by calling 693-4479.

LaBella Associates donated architecture work and the Niagara County American Legion donated $1,000, Smilinich said. But they need the services of a mason to build the walkway, and a painter to put a fresh coat on the helicopter.

“It was a surprise issue,” Smilinich said. “But everyone that’s seen the helicopter agrees that it’s got a lot of oil and stuff like that on it. That’s one of our biggest things. We’re looking for someone to assist us in painting the thing.”

The two-seater AH-1 provided vital air support when soldiers came under attack, said Smilinich, who called the 65-foot-long AH-1 “one of the best ships the military has ever built.”

“They were always used for close air support,” he said. “When you’ve got to call them in, you’ve got a problem.”

This particular helicopter was taken to Fort Lewis in Washington State after the war, then to the New York Air National Guard in Rochester and finally to the former Bell Aircraft Plant, said Paul Pietrowski, the chapter’s treasurer. It’s fully intact, with propellers, engine, guns and rocket pods accounted for.

“We’ve got it in the back outside,” Pietrowski said. “We’ve got it covered up. We shrinkwrapped it and put some tarps on it for the winter.”

The chapter has set August as its goal for completing the monument. The site off Niagara Street in Veterans Park is on a hill, next to a monument for Tonawanda residents who served in the military.

“It’s been way overdue for a Vietnam monument strictly for the Vietnam veterans in our home area,” Smilinich said.

email: jpopiolkowski@buffnews.com