For Vietnam War Veteran John Wolf, grenades and canteens weren’t the only equipment he carried into combat. He also brought an 8mm camera, an object that would change his life.
With the camera in one hand and an M16 rifle in the other, the former infantryman chronicled the American soldiers based in 1971 Chu Lai. Between montages of fellow servicemen and combat equipment, the footage centered on anhistoric icon: the Huey helicopter.
Dubbed as a “taxi service to the bush,” the aircraft delivered aerial mobility, sustenance and combat orders to the soldiers. Today, a similar one rests in Holmdel, N.J.—and it delivers much more.
This helicopter, a 1964 Bell UH-1D Huey, was restored by a group of New Jersey Veterans, many of whom were Vietnam War pilots and maintenance technicians. The aircraft served tours in Vietnam with the 116th and 118th Assault Helicopter Companies; the 116th supported Wolf’s unit. Approximately 30 volunteers began the project last February, collecting parts and refurbishing the exterior. Soon the Huey will “land” at its new home, the Vietnam Era Museum and Educational Center in Holmdel, where a dedication ceremony is slated for May 7.
But the Huey wasn’t the only thing that was restored. With every sanded panel and tightened screw, the Veterans felt that a part of themselves was healed. And for many of them, that process took place decades after the war.
“To a certain extent, most of us Veterans blocked the war out,” Wolf said.
This behavior was not solely attributed to the experiences in Vietnam; it resulted from the treatment that Vietnam Veterans received upon their return home. When a 20-year-old Wolf arrived in the United States after his tour, the first thing a passerby did was take a look at his uniform—and spit on him.
For Wolf, the message was undeniable.
“You didn’t talk about it,” he said. “If you said you were in Vietnam—especially if you were in combat—you got strange looks or sometimes worse.”
It wasn’t until 2007 that Wolf faced his past. Despite thriving in the technology sector for 25 years, he had never searched online for anything about the Vietnam War. But when he did, everything began to change.
“I found my unit and got reconnected with guys I served with,” he said.
As he reunited with his fellow infantrymen, Wolf knew he had to share their stories. So he uploaded his Vietnam footage to YouTube—and the world responded.
“My YouTube videos have nearly 2.5 million views,” he said.
But the attention didn’t stop there. The History Channel and PBS both reached out to Wolf and have used his footage for documentaries. The History Channel’s six-hour, three-part documentary titled “Vietnam in HD” was first broadcast more than a year ago, and a three-part documentary titled “Vietnam: Service, Sacrifice and Courage” has also aired on PBS for the past three years.
No matter what the medium, Wolf said that his mission is to honor those who served in the war. He shares this initiative with the men and women who brought the Huey back to life.
“I hope this Huey project will lead people to reach out to Vietnam vets and welcome them home,” he said.
Editor’s note: read more about “Operation Huey” here.
Visit these links to watch “Vietnam: Service, Sacrifice and Courage,” which aired on PBS. Other than the interview footage, most of the background footage in this documentary was provided by Wolf.
Jennifer Smiga is Founder of inBLOOM Communications. She lives in Long Branch, NJ with her family and is the marketing consultant for the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation in Holmdel, NJ.