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Persistence pays off as tribe’s Veterans Building lands Army helicopter from Vietnam War

A helicopter that served in the Vietnam War has a new home in front of the Florida Seminole Veterans Building on the Brighton Reservation. (Courtesy photo)

BRIGHTON — A U.S. Army helicopter whose service ranged from missions in the Vietnam War to a role in “The Walking Dead” TV series, is now stationed on the Brighton Reservation.”

The retired Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopter – more commonly known as a “Huey” – has a new home in front of the Florida Seminole Veterans Building. The helicopter, which was placed near the entrance in the fall, serves as a lasting legacy of Seminole veteran Stephen Bowers, a patriot who served his tribe and his country in the war and then worked tirelessly for veterans’ causes right up until his passing on June 1, 2020, at age 71.

In May 1969, Bowers joined the U.S. Army’s 503rd Infantry 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam. After a stint stateside, he was discharged in 1971. But his tour of duty in Vietnam stayed with him throughout the remainder of his life. In 2010, he began a campaign to have a statue placed at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. to commemorate Native Americans’ service in the military. Although his specific plan didn’t quite pan out, his efforts led to the creation of the Native American Veterans Memorial, which opened on Veterans Day this year at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

The idea to add a helicopter on the campus of the Brighton veterans building started about 10 years ago. Seminole veterans decided to search for a suitable piece of military equipment to display outside the newly completed building. Since Huey helicopters played such a large role in the war, Bowers started looking for a non-working one to display. The search lasted years.

The single-engine Huey was a workhorse in Vietnam. It was first developed in 1952 as a medical evacuation and utility helicopter, but Vietnam was the first time it was used in combat roles; about 7,000 were deployed.

“Hueys were a lifesaver for soldiers who served as boots on the ground,” said Elizabeth Bowers, Stephen’s widow. “They heard the sound of the ‘woo woo woo’ and knew someone was coming to rescue them. The whoosh of the blades is what I heard about most from Stephen and others in combat. It’s a sound they never forget.”

The interior of the helicopter on the Brighton Reservation. (Courtesy photo)

Attendees at a 2018 Veterans Day event in Brighton heard first-hand about the important role Hueys played in Vietnam. Guest speaker John Glenn, a friend of Stephen Bowers, spoke about his experience as a medic on a Huey medevac helicopter from 1969-71. Also known as “Dustoffs” for the amount of dust they blew around on landing and takeoff, they were unarmed per Geneva Convention rules. They flew in any weather and at any time of day or night to retrieve wounded troops.

The communist-led Viet Cong army in South Vietnam placed a high priority on all helicopters and used the iconic red cross painted on the nose as a target.

“This was the most rewarding service I ever did,” Glenn said. “We picked up troops and took them right to surgery usually within 30 minutes. About 97 percent of those on the Dustoffs lived because we got them to the hospital fast. That gave the troops on the ground a lot of moral encouragement because they knew we would be there to pick them up if they were wounded.”

Finding a Huey to display without an engine and other working parts proved to be a challenge for Bowers, as was finding one that fit the budget.

A crane was used to lower the helicopter’s rotor into place in October. (Courtesy photo)

“He was looking for just the shell, rotor and tail rotor,” said Cydney Reynolds, the Seminole Tribe’s Veterans Affairs administrative assistant, who worked with Bowers for about seven years. “They are hard to find because they are popular for static display.”

The search finally found success with an assist from Charles Herlihy, manager of the tribe’s radio station, which is operated from the veterans building. Herlihy found a Huey on eBay, and on Feb. 27, 2017, Bowers put a deposit to hold the helicopter sight unseen. He and Elizabeth flew to Atlanta to see it the next day. They purchased it right away for the tribe, and just in time.

“A few seconds after we hit buy on eBay, we found out there was someone else who wanted it,” Elizabeth Bowers said. “So we were happy. He worked on it a long time.”

The piece of history that was purchased contains quite a bit of history.

David B. Vance, of the 101st Airborne division of the U.S. Army, was a young man full of courage and energy while he was in Vietnam. He would fly for up to 10 hours at a time when someone needed fire support. He was also the last combat pilot of the helicopter.

Vance crash-landed it in Phu Bai, Vietnam, on Jan. 19, 1969, with three fellow soldiers aboard. The helicopter was armed with two door-mounted machine guns and 38 rockets, 19 on each side.

“It was a gunship; we didn’t save people, we shot them,” recalled Vance, a retiree who lives in Colorado. “We were on our way to enemy territory when the engine malfunctioned. We were called to help some soldiers in trouble, but when I took off I could barely keep it in the air. I flew for about an hour to burn off some gasoline. I tried to land it like an airplane on a runway, but it didn’t have enough power and I crashed it hard. No one was hurt, but the helicopter was a total wreck.”

Vance was first introduced to the helicopter in Atlanta, where his unit picked it up and took it to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, for eight months of training. Then it was shipped to California and Vietnam, where the unit was assigned to the helicopter again. The crash took place just one month later.

After the crash, Vance walked away and never saw it again. It was the Huey’s last flight in Vietnam. It was shipped back to the U.S. and rebuilt, where it was used for the National Guard and the Reserves.

Sometime around 2007 the helicopter wound up at Cole Motorsports (CMI) in Atlanta. Owners Dianna and Harold Cole acquired it from the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Alabama. CMI’s core business is trucking– it hauls a lot of equipment for the military—so it was a natural for the company to start collecting tanks, trucks and helicopters which they rented to the film industry as props.

“Movies started getting real big in Georgia and we could do both jobs,” Dianna Cole said. “The helicopter was in several movies and TV shows.”

In fact, the Brighton Huey had a featured role in the first episode of the TV series “The Walking Dead” in 2010, Cole said. For those familiar with the series, when Sheriff’s Deputy Rick Grimes hobbled out of a hospital amid the ruins of lives and property caused by the zombie apocalypse, he came upon an abandoned Huey helicopter at the top of a hill. The helicopter was filmed from various angles and had a good amount of screen time for a non-actor.

Cole, who met Stephen and Elizabeth Bowers when they came to Atlanta, said the purchase was an ideal fit.

“He was very excited to find one in the condition it was in,” Cole said. “I think it’s great that it is on an Indian reservation. It’s a wonderful piece of history. That it will be displayed and preserved is awesome.”

CMI held the aircraft until the tribe was ready to receive it. It was delivered to the aviation hanger in Big Cypress in August 2017, where it was stored until late 2019 when the forestry department delivered it to a paint shop in Okeechobee.

Like everything else in 2020, the paint job was impacted by the pandemic. After a delay, the job was finally completed in July and delivered in parts to the Brighton veterans building, where the bottom portion of the aircraft was bolted to the pad.

On Oct. 28, a large crane delivered a 48-foot long rotor blade, the last piece of the chopper, the final piece to the 57-foot long Huey. The installation came a few months after Bowers’ passing, but Elizabeth knew it made a big impression on Stephen the first time he saw it on the trip to Atlanta.

“When (Stephen) saw the helicopter for the first time, it was an emotional experience just walking around it,” Elizabeth Bowers said. “He was just quiet, but I knew something was happening.”

A ceremony for the helicopter’s installation will be held at a future date.

The helicopter from the Vietnam War sits in front of the Florida Seminole Veterans Building. (Courtesy photo)

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Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at beverlybidney@semtribe.com.
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