If you drove through downtown Wilkesboro Saturday, you undoubtedly noticed the Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopter parked on the front lawn of the Wilkes Heritage Museum.
The helicopter was trucked into Wilkes for display by the N.C. Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association (NCVHPA) at the request of Roger Smithey, who served both in the infantry and as a door gunner on a Cobra helicopter during the Vietnam War.
“With the heritage museum, we’re trying to honor the ones we lost on the helicopters, and all those who lost their lives in Vietnam,” said Smithey. “The rest of us made it back.
“We had a lot of veterans and their families here for the display. There were several door gunners, as long as infantry members and ‘tunnel rats.’”
Smithey added, “I’m trying to start something with Old Wilkes for veterans and for young people, allowing the museum to tell our story. We want to continue with this initiative so that our story, and the sacrifices won’t be forgotten.”
Jennifer Furr, the museum director, said that the helicopter, along with a display on the Vietnam War on the second floor Saturday “was an excellent event for us… probably one of the best events we’ve ever had. We had 300 people, and everyone who toured the helicopter also toured the museum, gave donations, and spent money in the gift shops.
“Overall it was a great day. We had people here who had never been to the museum, and others who hadn’t been in a long time. They made some nice comments about the museum, so we were pleased.”
‘It wouldn’t be complete’
A light rain began to fall, just as Pat McNeil walked onto the museum lawn. He’s a Vietnam veteran and the commander of the North Wilkesboro VFW Post 1142.
“It needs to rain before this day can end,” he said. “It rained every day in Vietnam, so it wouldn’t be complete without it here.”
Jerry R. Seago of Hillsborough, an Army veteran and member of the NCVHPA who transported the helicopter here, said that the members of his organization had to be one of the 18,000 veterans who flew in Vietnam. He flew for 12 months in 1968-69. The group now has six helicopters on “permanent loan” from the Department of defense.
The helicopters have been in two presidential inaugural parades, three Fourth of July parades in Washington, and Veterans Day parades. The helicopter has been toured by 100,000 school children.