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Huey Pilots, Crews Honored for Saving Thousands in Vietnam


David Curnock thought he would never be able to thank the crew of the UH-1 "Huey" helicopter that flew him out of the jungles of Vietnam after he sustained a life-threatening injury.

But it happened Saturday as he and the pilot of the helicopter met face to face in an unplanned, emotional reunion that brought both men to tears.

"This gentleman saved my life," said Curnock, who lives in Milford and served in Vietnam from 1970-72. "I never thought I would find the guy who saved me. These guys are heroes. They risked their own lives to save so many wounded soldiers. I will never forget him."

The soldier and pilot were in Dover being honored by the Kent County Chapter 850 Vietnam Veterans of America organization at a special ceremony for 43 pilots, crew members and medics who flew thousands of rescue missions in Vietnam.

The ceremony at Veterans Memorial Park was a part of the Vietnam Dustoff Association – a group that refers to themselves as “A flight of rusty eagles” – national convention held this weekend in Dover.

Richard Claywell, of Houston, was the pilot of the Huey helicopter that plucked Curnock and other wounded U.S. soldiers from the dangerous landing zone somewhere near the Cambodia-Laos border.

He said that just before Saturday's ceremony started, the two happened to be talking in a group and their stories sounded familiar. When they broke off from the group and talked further, both realized they were at the same place at the same time 48 years ago.

"I really didn't know where we were, but we were getting overwhelmed by enemy fire," Claywell said. "I know a lot of soldiers didn't make it, but I'm glad [Richard] made it home."

Stories like those told by Curnock and Claywell could be overheard over and over Saturday as Huey crews and Vietnam veterans alike remembered the horrors of so many years ago in a country thousands of miles from home. 

One of the members talked about how cool the helicopter pilots were under fire, while a wounded soldier talked about being lifted out and being taken "straight into the clouds" while at the same time hearing the pilot say "we are in the soup." 

Joe Startt Jr., president of Chapter 850 VVA, told how he was extracted from the jungle after being wounded by friendly fire.

He had taken shrapnel in his chest from a grenade and asked the medic to help him because he was having difficulty breathing. The medic told him he could only attend to him if he was unconscious. "Then knock me the hell out," he told the medic.

Startt made it home and said whenever he looks up at the Huey helicopter he was instrumental in bringing to Veterans Memorial Park, he gives a nod of thanks.

When addressing the 43 men being honored on Saturday, Startt said: "that little green bird up there means so much to me because you guys came in and saved me."

“I remember being told to hold on, help was on the way," said Startt, who was wounded in 1969. "The ‘whop, whop, whop’ of the rotor’s beat was like an angel’s voice telling me I’d survive. When I heard that sound, I knew my brothers were coming in to get me.

"I want to thank you guys for saving my life and bringing me home," he said, fighting back tears. "I wouldn't be here with my family today had it not been for you guys. I love every one of you."

The UH-1 Huey on display at the Kent County Veterans Memorial Park serves as an ongoing reminder of the heroism of the 43 men honored Saturday and others all across the United States who served in air ambulance companies.

Paul Davis, vice president of Chapter 850, worked for nearly two years to secure the helicopter from the federal government. The chapter drove to Florida to pick up the aircraft, which was locally rehabbed and dedicated in 2015. 

“That others may live,” was the slogan of the UH-1 Dustoff helicopter crews. They often landed under fire to pick up the critically wounded in Vietnam. Besides those lost under fire, their numbers are steadily decreasing due to age, exposure to Agent Orange, and injuries they received during their service. 

The UH-1 Dustoff helicopter crews flew a total of 496,573 missions and extracted 900,000 patients during the war, half of which were Americans.

"The greatest pinnacle of achievement comes from flying dustoff," said keynote speaker Lt. Col. (Ret) Steven D. Vermilion, president of the Vietnam Dustoff Association, who flew 1,450 combat missions and evacuated more than 2,200 patients. "It was truly an honor to fly the missions and save people like Joe."

But some still couldn't shake how they were treated when they returned from Vietnam.

Larry Kipp, who graduated from Brandywine High School and now lives in Lawrence, Kansas, was a medic in Vietnam who flew more than 2,100 combat missions. He said Saturday's welcome in Delaware was a far cry from his return to the United States in 1970, where he was called a baby killer. 

"The day I got home, I had lunch with a guy at the Seattle airport," he said. "As I was walking away, he said 'too bad you didn't die over there, too.' This (ceremony) is overwhelming, but I still don't think I've been welcomed back by all American citizens."