History

How the Huey Helicopter Became the Workhorse of the Vietnam War

December 16, 2022Matt Fratus
Huey helicopter

A Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopter or “Huey” takes off amidst an explosion during a reenactment of a Vietnam era combat search and rescue mission. The demonstration was performed by Cavanaugh Flight Museum at Joe Foss Field, South Dakota, August 18, 2019. Photo by US Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jorrie Har.

The Huey helicopter has been referred to as the workhorse of the Vietnam War. This is because the Huey — aka the Bell UH-1 Iroquois — performed a variety of roles during that conflict. It flew medical evacuation missions, transported troops into battle, and even served as an attack helicopter.

First introduced into service in the late 1950s, some 17,000 Hueys have been built for service over the years. The United States has used them in countless military operations throughout the latter decades of the 20th century. Marines piloting the UH-1N Hueys even flew gunship support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All of which is to say, the Huey has a long, rich history — and one worth revisiting now as it is being phased out of the US military’s fleet to make room for more sophisticated multipurpose helicopter platforms. Here are some interesting highlights.

Related: Death From Above: The Vietnam War-Era Huey

Where Did the Name ‘Huey’ Helicopter Come From?

Huey-Helicopter-Agent-Orange-Vietnam.jpg

A Huey helicopter spraying Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Wikimedia Commons photo.

According to the Army War College, the “Huey” nickname came from the phonetic pronunciation of HU-1, short for Helicopter Utility-1, as the craft was originally designated. Bell UH-1 Iroquois is the helicopter’s official full name.

Related: The Vietnam Huey Pilot Who Prevented a Helicopter Prison Escape

Was the Huey Helicopter Originally Developed as a Medical Evacuation Platform?

Huey-Helicopter-Medevac.jpg

A Huey helicopter on display in the Freedom Park in the Palm Desert in California pays tribute to Vietnam War veterans. Notice the red and white ambulance symbol marking the chopper at a medevac platform. Wikimedia Commons photo.

The short answer: yes.

During the Korean War, helicopters were a phenomenon on the battlefield. Early helicopter models, such as the OH-13 “Sioux” and the H-23 Raven, were only big enough to carry two people in addition to the pilot. While pilots used helicopters as medical evacuation (medevac) platforms to deliver wounded GIs to field hospitals, the lack of cargo space proved to be a serious problem during mass casualty events.

Phil Marshall, who flew Dustoff missions as a Huey pilot in the Vietnam War, says the US Army realized from its experiences in Korea that a larger and more robust medevac helicopter would be necessary in future conflicts.

“They wanted a helicopter with a turbine engine that can hold three litters or stretchers,” Marshall told Coffee or Die Magazine. “It would have a cabin that was big enough for a crew chief and the medic that could tend to them.”

Thus the Bell UH-1 Iroquois was born. The first six Hueys fielded in Vietnam were flown by medevac crews. But the job of flying into hot landing zones to rescue dead and wounded GIs was, of course, a hazardous one. In time, Huey pilots refined their techniques so that they could swoop in, extract casualties, and take off within seconds. These pilots, known by their call sign “Dustoff,” flew some of the most dangerous missions of the Vietnam War.

Related: Dustoff Crew Chief Dennis Fujii Will Receive Medal of Honor for Actions in Vietnam War

The Seawolves and the Sealords

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US Navy SEALs rappelling and using a fast rope from a Huey helicopter belonging to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HAL-3). The gunship Hueys were called Seawolves, while the troop transport Hueys were called Sealords. Wikimedia Commons photos. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.

The Huey’s exploits in Vietnam quickly earned it a reputation as the US military’s premier medevac helicopter. However, as the war progressed, and the Huey proved a highly versatile aircraft, it began to take on additional roles.

The first factory-built Huey gunships entered Vietnam in 1963. After their initial stint as strictly medevac birds, Hueys were modified with .30-caliber machine guns and rocket pods to serve as armed escorts, including for Navy river patrol boats in the Mekong Delta.

Eventually, the Navy recognized the need for its own attack helicopter unit. In 1967 it established Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HAL-3). The new unit — commonly referred to by the nickname “The Seawolves” — was the first and only rapid reaction armed helicopter squadron ever commissioned by the Navy. The Seawolves’ mission then expanded to provide fire support and reconnaissance for Navy SEALs.

Kirby-Horrell-Vietnam-Seawolves.jpg

Kirby Horrell, bottom left, completed a combat tour to Vietnam in 1970 with SEAL Team One. He credits the Seawolves for saving his life on numerous occasions. Photo courtesy of Kirby Horrell.

Former Navy SEAL Kirby Horrell remembers the heroism of the Seawolves during his tour in Vietnam in 1970. “They saved our lives 100s of times,” Horrell told Coffee or Die Magazine. “You would see them, the door gunners, using the M60s in their underwear because they didn’t have time to get dressed.”

In 1969, HH-1K and UH-1L Huey “Slicks” were added to the Seawolves team. Their crews were called Sealords. Their primary mission involved logistic resupply, but they also occasionally got tasked with inserting and exfiltrating SEALs on and off the battlefield.

By 1973, the Seawolves, piloting heavily armed UH-1B and UH-1M Hueys, flew 78,000 combat missions. The unit’s aviators were awarded more than 17,000 commendations, making the squadron the most decorated in US naval aviation history.

Related: This SEAL Served 47 Years, Including in Vietnam and the Phoenix Program

Were $10 Million Worth of Huey Helicopters Really Pushed Overboard the USS Midway in 1975?

Huey helicopters overboard Midway

At left, a South Vietnamese Huey helicopter is pushed overboard from the USS Midway to create more room on the flight deck during Operation Frequent Wind in April 1975. Right, Vietnamese refugees who evacuated during the fall of Saigon sit safely inside a South Vietnamese Huey helicopter on the USS Midway. Wikimedia Commons photos.

On April 30, 1975, the capital city of Saigon fell to North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. Thousands of Americans and South Vietnamese citizens were still in the city and in desperate need of being rescued. Days earlier, the US military had launched Operation Frequent Wind. The operation would become the largest mass helicopter evacuation ever attempted.

Helicopters brought Americans and Vietnamese evacuees to American destroyers and aircraft carriers anchored in the South China Sea. Eventually, the USS Midway aircraft carrier’s flight deck became so congested with people and military hardware there wasn’t enough room to bring anyone else aboard.

When a small plane piloted by a South Vietnamese soldier circled the Midway and dropped a note requesting to land on the packed ship, the Midway’s captain ordered Huey helicopters to be pushed overboard. Approximately $10 million worth of Hueys and one Chinook were dumped into the sea, and the Vietnamese pilot successfully landed his plane.

Read Next: This Vietnamese Pilot Stole a Plane and Landed on a US Aircraft Carrier With His Family

Matt Fratus
Matt Fratus

Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.

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