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Oakland County Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Oakland County Vietnam Veterans Memorial (from vva133.com)

The Oakland County Veterans Memorial is a monument in Oakland Country, Michigan honoring those who served in the Armed Forces during the Vietnam era. The focal point of the memorial is the decommissioned Bell UH-1 Iroquois, a model of helicopter that saw heavy use during the Vietnam War, which has become a symbol of said war.

This memorial is part of the Vietnam Veterans Association, or VVA. The VVA is a nationwide group dedicated to honoring and helping veterans that not only served in the Vietnam War, but also the Armed Forces from 1961-1975. The VVA, in conjunction with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, constructed the monument and the VFW Post 1008, located in Waterford, Michigan.

The memorial features a Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, nicknamed “Huey” due to the original designation being HU-1. The Huey is surrounded by and sits upon bricked donated by the families of veterans who served during the Vietnam era. Each brick was donated by a different family and is dedicated to a different individual who served. [3] The memorial is visible from the road, and is publically available to anyone who wishes to stop by. The helicopter is refurbished and painted in the typical army-green, representing what a typical Iroquois helicopter would look like in the Vietnam Era. It no longer runs, as it was decommissioned. Its final flight was flown in 1995, likely as part of an air show or a touring flight.

The Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter, was first manufactured by Bell Helicopter Textron in 1956.[7] By 1959, the Huey was in full use by the army. The large cabin and readily available cargo space made the Huey a staple of troop and supply transportation.[6] However, during the Vietnam Conflict, the Huey saw most of its use as a medical helicopter, transporting wounded soldiers from the battlefield back to safety.[4] The Bell UH-1 soon became a symbol of hope and safety for soldiers, as it often meant that medevac was on the way. As stated by Brigadier General Alberto Jimenez, “[The Huey] was not just a machine, it became part of us. It was our lives. It was our friend. It was the aircraft….that saved many countless lives as we rushed the wounded and the sick out of the battlefield.” [5]

The Unpopular War

The Vietnam conflict, lasting for nearly two decades, saw millions of soldiers serving in the armed forces, deployed to Southeast Asia to combat the forces of communism. In order to meet the demand for soldiers, the United States Selective Services System Issued a draft, ordering all able bodied men not in college over the age of 18 and below the age of 26 to enlist in the military. This was a unique situation in the United States, as it had never seen a domestic fighting force consisting of so many young soldiers.[1] The average age of the combat solider in Vietnam was 19. In World War II, it was approximately 26. The thought of an entire generation of young Americans going off to fight in the canopy jungles of Vietnam did not sit too well with the American populous. This, along with many other reasons, made the Vietnam War extremely unpopular at home. Many thought it was unfair and unjust that the government could force men and women to join the military, only to be shipped off to fight an unwinnable battle, as it was in the eyes of many.[1]

The Vietnam Conflict produced many other firsts for American history. The wars unpopularity was only emphasized by the fact that it was the first war that saw a heavy increase in government intervention in wartime operations. The main purpose of the war, halting the spread of communism, was hindered by the fact that neighboring countries, such as Laos and Cambodia, were not at war with the United States. This meant that military action in these countries was not favored in the slightest by the U.S. government. However, military officers and generals saw that in order to have a chance of winning the war, operations such as bombing supply lines had to be pursued in these countries.[1] The fact that the government hindered the fighting and tactics, along with a slew of other complications, made the Vietnam War practically unwinnable. With countless soldiers being sent off to what very well could be their deaths, the American people looked upon the war in Vietnam with great distaste and aversion.

One of the most unique and arguably disheartening firsts of the Vietnam War was the treatment and view of veterans returning home from the fighting. Due to the unpopularity of the war amongst the population, veterans, having just returned home, were often looked down upon and treated poorly. Many people took to alienating Vietnam veterans as a way of subconsciously, or perhaps consciously, protesting the war and what it stood for. On top of the tragedies of war and coupled with traumas such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, veterans had to deal with extreme bouts of guilt and mistreatment from their fellow American citizens. For centuries prior, soldiers returning from battle would be hailed as heroes in the eyes of the masses. Brave warriors who were willing to risk their lives to fight for their country would return home to glory and comfort. However, the Vietnam Conflict churned out an entirely different attitude. Although the sacrifices of a soldier can never be downplayed, the Vietnam War created a generation of veterans who for the most part felt alienated and distraught upon returning home, a feeling that was unique to the United States of America up until then.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States Association was and is an extremely important part of Vietnam veterans living in the U.S. The association helped people get accustomed to day to day living in United States, as well as promote job growth among veterans. Perhaps most importantly, it provided a place for the men and women who fought for their country to feel safe and secure. A place where one could know they were surrounded by those who shared a similar experience, or at least were compassionate about it. VFW halls represented a place where veterans of the Vietnam War could be to feel like normal citizens again, and not isolated or different than their fellow Americans. The Vietnam Veterans of America, an association dedicated to helping veterans of the war, was founded in 1978 on the idea that all veterans and their families deserved someone who was on their side and willing to lend them a hand in their greatest hour of need. These clubs and associations were the first step toward granting Vietnam-era veterans the acknowledgement and respect they had been deprived of and very much so deserved.

Michigan’s Remembrance

As the American population began coming to terms with what the Vietnam War meant for America, attitude began to change. The events and feeling of the war began to move into the past, and the U.S. pushed forward. It soon became clear that the Veterans of the Vietnam War deserved recognition and praise for their actions, and that America should not forget the events of the war. Many monuments were constructed in their honor, most famously the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. As time passed, more and more memorials and messages of tribute began springing up all over the United States. Testaments to the brave soldiers that served became a welcome part of any community. As the United States of America steamed into the twenty-first century, popular opinion toward veterans of the Vietnam War had generally swung back into good favor, with every veteran who served receiving the respect they earned, whether it be through a granite statue or a Veterans Day parade.

The Monument

On a bright, sunny April morning in 2009, the sound of birds chirping in Waterford, Michigan is broken by the rev of the diesel engine of a flatbed truck, accompanied soon by the screeching of crane hydraulics. On this day, April 17th, a Vietnam-era Bell UH-1D Iroquois helicopter made its way to the VFW Post 1008 on Airport road. However, it was not making this journey under its own power. The decommissioned helicopter made its last flight in 1994, and was issued to the Vietnam Veterans of America for display by the Department of Defense. However, with the VVA’s selling of their building to the local police department, the helicopter had to be moved. Its new location would be a collaboration of the VFW Post and VVA Chapter, with a monument being constructed on site.[2] The memorial would be dedicated to the men and women that served in the military during the Vietnam era, and the helicopter would be part of it.

The Bell UH-1D Iroquois, commonly referred to as a “Huey,” is a helicopter that saw most of its popularity during the Vietnam Conflict, and became somewhat of a symbol of the war. The seven-ton behemoth served as both troop and supply transport during the war, and was a staple of infantry logistics.  The helicopters, including the one featured in the monument, were manufactured and assembled by Bell Helicopter Corporation in Fort Worth, Texas.[6] The wide usage and iconic nature of the helicopter, mostly due to television broadcast of the war, made it the first vehicle anyone pictured in their mind when the Vietnam War was mentioned. Due to this fact, many helicopters, once deemed not airworthy, were seized by the Department of Defense to be specially donated to veteran groups looking to bring the iconic nature and remembrance into light in America.

This is most definitely the case for the Oakland County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which prominently displays the helicopter. Despite being in remarkably good shape, the Huey was refurbished and repainted when it was moved to VFW Post 1008. The entire monument features the main attraction, the helicopter, sitting atop a small but wide pedestal made of bricks. Each brick was purchased by a veteran and their families in remembrance of loved ones who served during Vietnam War.[3] There is a marble stone with the name of the monument, as well as some short annotations and dedications, engraved on the front. The monument was dedicated by a Color Guard ceremony, in which the colors were posted.  The monument is very moving, as it is well presented and fits well alongside the VFW post. The helicopter is visible from the road, and it looks as if it is meant to be there, as there is an airport located directly across from it.

The memorial stands not only as a symbol of those who served in the military during the Vietnam era, but also as a message to all; a message that can be interpreted differently. The memorial tells a story, and the story is heard differently by each and every person. To civilians, the monument tells a story of the brave soldiers who have fought and still fight for freedom to this very day. However, to veterans, it means something totally different. During the Vietnam War, the Huey helicopter served as a means of medical evacuation and transport for vital supplies, both things desperately desired by soldiers. The thumping of the chopper blades and the sight of the birds hovering through the sky meant that help was on the way, and that safety was soon to be arriving. The Huey quickly became a symbol of hope and relief from the hard fighting and grueling conditions, carrying tens of, perhaps even hundreds of thousands of soldiers to safety. The sight of the helicopter sitting on the property of that VFW Post symbolizes the safety and relief that could be experienced by Vietnam Veterans at that very building. The camaraderie and understanding of the veterans association provided and still provides a sanctuary for those who served, displaying understanding and comfort for the unique problems experienced by Vietnam Veterans. The Huey on the lawn stands for more than just a helicopter used in the war, it stands for the people used in the war. It stands for the millions of soldiers that fought bravely and returned home to find alienation and isolation. It stands for the hope that each soldier had while fighting and still has today. It stands for the understanding that the VFW provides, and it stands for the respect and gratitude that each American possesses for the brave warriors that fought under the flag of the United States of America.

Huey on its Final Flight in 1995 (from vva133.com)

Primary Sources

1) Ortiz, Melquiades. “Nightmares and Thoughts of a Vietnam Vet.” Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006. Print.

2) Hopkins, Carol. “Helicopter from Vietnam Gets New Waterford Home.” Oakland Press News 18 April. 2009. Web.

3) Longman, Sharon. “VETERANS AFFAIRS: Patriot Day Ceremony to Honor Service People, First Responders.” Oakland Press News 9 June. 2009. Web.

Secondary Sources

4) Elver, J. R. (2003, 01). Huey. Aviation History, 13, 26.

5) Venerable huey officially retired. (2009). Helicopter News, 35(21)

6) Rotorcraft report. (2009, 11). Rotor & Wing, 

7) THOMIS, W. (1960, Oct 30). Rotor planes make rapid gain. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963)

Further Reading