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'She'll be all lit up': A Vietnam War helicopter is making its way to Tralee for restoration

Once restored, Pádraig Nolan plans to display the Huey in public and tour it around Ireland.

Image: Dave McBride

IF NEXT YEAR you see a large helicopter on display around Ireland bearing US military insignia and Vietnam war-era mechanics, there’s a reason. 

Listowel-based man Pádraig Nolan is currently preparing his workshop to restore a Vietnam combat Huey Helicopter in tribute to John O’Sullivan, an Irishman and the second most-decorated helicopter pilot of the Vietnam War. 

O’Sullivan, who died in 2013, did three tours of Vietnam and was shot down 19 times. “But he’s virtually unheard of here in Ireland,” Nolan told TheJournal.ie. 

Nolan hopes this restoration could help raise O’Sullivan’s profile in his native Ireland. “Over 2,000 Irish men served with the us army in Vietnam,” Nolan said. “The Irish have a long history of fighting in the US army”. 

Nolan’s Listowel restoration group located a disused Vietnam combat Huey – tail number 201 and which later saw action during the Gulf War in 1991 – in Tulsa, Oklahoma. From there it was towed to Ozark, Alabama.

Next month, the Huey will travel to Savannah, Georgia, for a transatlantic crossing by ship to Rotterdam and Cork.

Conflict

The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975.

By 1959, US involvement in the conflict between North and South Vietnam had increased. In 1965, nearly 200,000 US troops were stationed in Vietnam which – as the 1960s drew to a close – was increasingly opposed at home as large swathes of the American population were galvanised in direct opposition to a conflict that ultimately claimed the lives of over 50,000 US soldiers. 

The Huey helicopter, measuring 47 feet long, became a symbol of American military presence in Indochina during the 60s and 70s with an estimated 2,500 “choppers” deployed to Vietnam. 

Nolan, readying his restoration, is keen to stress that his Huey project is not celebrating the Vietnam conflict. 

“We are not glorifying war. We’re not glorifying what the US army did in certain areas of Vietnam,” said Nolan, who is fronting the Huey’s restoration along with donations. 

“We want to tell people in Ireland that Irish people – even though we’re a neutral country – when it comes to war we have fought way beyond our abilities”. 

‘On Display’

Former US Army Vietnam helicopter crew Chief Michael Carroll, who also restored a Huey from Vietnam, will meet Listowel’s restoration group to share his experience restoring a Huey that flew in Vietnam, says Nolan. 

Carroll, who did active service in Vietnam, later settled on a ranch in Loxahatchee, Florida. Ten year ago, he learned of the corroding remains of a Vietnam helicopter among artifacts used in exercises at the County Sheriff gun range.

After two years of restoration work, his own 425 Huey was brought back its to original wartime condition. Vietnam veterans have since brought it to events across Florida and the United States.

Carroll plans to travel to Ireland this winter while the restoration in Tralee takes place, according to Nolan. 

The Huey is set to arrive in Ireland next month from where it will be transported to Tralee for restoration this winter. 

“What we intend to do is get all the internal light working, the navigation lights working.  So when she’s on display she’ll be lit up,” Nolan said. 

Once restored, Nolan plans to display the Huey in public and tour it around the country. 

Soon, he adds, this 201 helicopter will become Dolphin 428, the chopper flown by John O’Sullivan in combat, which was shot down during the Vietnam War. 

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