Vietnam War helicopter regains its markings

When the 190th assault helicopter company (AHC) handed its assets over to the South Vietnamese in December 1970, Steve Caliendo never imagined he’d see one of the company’s Huey helicopters again.

Forty-five years later, Caliendo was surprised to learn the fate of Huey 338 after doing some online research.

The helicopter, part of his company’s fleet, now sits perched above Veterans Memorial Park in Barnwell.

“Luckily, this ship, Huey 338, was transferred out of our Company before we turned everything over and was, fortunately for us, returned to the U.S.,” said Caliendo, who lives in Charlotte, N.C.

Because it has changed hands over the years, Huey 338 lost the colors and emblems that represented the 190th AHC. These markings are documented in a photograph taken while the helicopter was in Vietnam.

Caliendo wanted to change that, so he called Tim Moore with the Barnwell chapter of the Vietnam Veterans Association. Following months of planning, Caliendo organized a small group to come to Barnwell June 21 and repaint as many unit and platoon markings as they could.

While there were a few things the group could not repaint, “the intent was that any member of the 190th AHC could see this bird from any angle and immediately recognize it was from their unit,” said Ray Wilhite of Auburn, Alabama. His father Dewey served in the 190th with Caliendo.

Russell Dayton, also from Alabama, made the painting possible. Though he didn’t serve in Vietnam, he is an Army veteran and also worked on Huey helicopters.

The most distinctive marking is the Spartan painted in white on the nose. Caliendo said nose art has adorned military aircraft since World War I.

The sides also indicate the helicopter belongs to the 190th AHC. A white diamond signifies the 145th Combat Aviation Battalion while a smaller blue diamond represents the 190th Company in that battalion, according to Caliendo. Dayton also painted the skid step and cap on each side yellow to show it is a first platoon helicopter.

Coordinating this project was important to Caliendo. He said it’s a way to remember a time long gone where young men fought and died for one another and the ideal of helping another country maintain its independence from communism. “I am proud to have served back then in an unpopular war, and am especially proud to have seen this old war bird brought back to life with its warriors headdress, if you will, back on her. Painting the helicopter was a labor of love.”

For Wilhite, he was simply honored to be part of a project that recognized the history of the 190th AHC, and therefore that of his father. “I am so proud of my father’s service in Vietnam. Some kids get to meet their heroes; I was blessed to be raised by mine.”

He has spent years trying to find information on the 190th and its aircraft. What started as a desire to build a model of one of his father’s gunships took Wilhite all over the country seeking information, photos and museum collections about the UH-1 Huey.

“I began in 2006 with just my father’s photos, and now I have met dozens of members and collected thousands of photos. To finally identify an aircraft that my father may have actually flown in was too important to miss,” said Wilhite.

He called the Huey the “greatest rotorcraft ever built” because the Army’s fleet of UH-1 Huey helicopters flew 7,531,955 flight hours in the Vietnam War between October 1966 and the end of 1975. “The Army’s current transport helicopter, the Blackhawk, hasn’t even approached that amount of combat flight time and has been flying in two war zones for nearly 15 years,” said Wilhite.

Bobby Birt, a member of the local Vietnam Veterans Association which operates Veterans Memorial Park, spent the day with the group. Birt, who served a year in Vietnam with the Marines, said he envied the guys in finding a piece of their past. “I’d like to find my old helicopter.”