A sliding glass door is all that separates the men and their memories. On the other side, birds made of metal and glass stand guard over their pilots' stories, a primal partnership forged in the heat of war.
For men and women who have served their country, and particularly those who have fought and lost friends in combat, it is an experience that none of us who have not fought will ever truly understand. Those sometimes unspeakable experiences, are the dues paid to a sacred fraternity of sacrifice.
As we lose more of our WWII and Vietnam veterans, we also lose our opportunity to share their experiences and stories first-hand. Bridging that gap is essential to remembering their stories and learning from their sacrifice. Preserving history and providing education are two of the most enduring tools to insure future generations remember and learn the lessons of sacrifice.
To be close enough that you can touch the steel, feel the cracks in the glass, connect to those memories and remember those men and women is the mission of a new museum coming to the New Richmond Regional Airport.
American Military University teacher Ken Eward founded the nonprofit Helicopter Conservancy in 2014.
"I've always been very interested in the history of aviation in general and specifically military aviation and helicopter history hasn't really been touched on that much," said Eward.
The mission of the conservancy is to "engage in the recovery, historical documentation, restoration and preservation of historic rotary wing aircraft; to provide for their public display; to develop and carry out informal educational programs to teach the public about the history of these aircraft, their crews and any conflicts in which they served; and to also teach science, technology, engineering & math (STEM) skills to the public through aeronautics and aircraft preservation workshops."
Eward had been looking for a home for the conservancy for a number of years before discovering the airport in New Richmond and meeting Airport Director Mike Demulling.
"Anything aviation, we support. There's a lot of unique talents, unique individuals here. It's nice to bring this kind of thing here. Our big thing is, anything that gets people to the airport we're going to support," said Demulling.
On the afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 2, with considerable help from neighbors who volunteered their time and trucks, along with lift operator Bob MacDonald and a crane from LaVenture Crane & Rigging, the conservancy moved the six helicopters from Chetek to a hanger in New Richmond. Eward's dream now has a lease and houses six vintage Bell UH-1 Iroquois Helicopters (nicknamed "Huey") in Hangar 1-2.
The conservancy's intention is to restore the helicopters for public display, establishing the nucleus of a new museum dedicated to helicopter history.
Having the six Huey's will enable the Conservancy to focus on the decades of the 1950s-60s, when helicopter technology and application both came of age during the Vietnam War.
There is a sound as familiar to the veterans of Vietnam as to the students of Kent State and Woodstock. Once heard, it was never forgotten. For some, it meant rescue and reinforcement, for others it meant death and destruction. It's been called the heartbeat of the Vietnam War, unmistakable, rotors rhythmically punctuating the air, a palpable thumping, the advancing blade beating the air into submission.
The Huey saw combat in 1962 first as a troop transport and medevac helicopter assigned to the 1st Air Cavalry Division. It was the perfect tool to implement the Army's air mobility concept where troops could be delivered strategically and removed from the theater of combat by helicopter.
More than 7,000 Hueys flew in Vietnam. Nearly half of them were destroyed leading to the deaths of over 2,700 pilots, crewmembers, and passengers.
Operating on the premise that the wartime experiences of helicopter crews and passengers are equally as important as the hardware, Eward believes the museum can play an integral role in connecting veterans and their stories with the wider community.
"It's very easy to just set out a lot of aircraft without a lot of information which is great, especially if you know something about the aircraft. But it's much more meaningful if you understand something about the pilot. We're very interested in preserving those stories, those histories. The Vietnam generation today is like our WWII generation was 20 years ago. It's very important not to lose any of that. I'm very interested in the human element and the history behind the hardware," said Eward.
Eward is joined on the conservancy board by Dr. Thomas Goetz, an associate professor at American Military University where he specializes in 20th century military history; Dr. Paul Harris, a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst—the British West Point—where he has taught in the Department of War Studies for more than 30 years; and James Ottman, a US Army veteran who served as a helicopter pilot in the 1st Cavalry Division of the US Army in Vietnam.
Now that the helicopters have been relocated to the hanger in New Richmond, the primary focus of the conservancy will be to connect with more volunteers and raise money to fund the restoration efforts of the six helicopters.
"We're looking for a lot of good people with interest mostly, then also with mechanical skills, particularly helicopter knowledge, but also later on, people who are good at putting together exhibits and writers," said Eward.
An average cost to restore a Huey in reasonable condition to non-flight, exhibit quality runs $20,000 to $30,000 per bird not including labor, something Eward is hoping volunteers will be able to provide. He plans to recruit members of VFW Post 10818, American Legion Post 80, and from students in appropriate programs at local high schools and WITC.
"We're very open to ideas, suggestions and questions from people that have personal connections. It's not just about helicopter pilots and crews. We're also interested in hearing from infantry or artillery that rode in the helicopters and people who have been rescued. We'd like to hear from as many people as possible," said Eward.
Although plans for the museum are still being formulated, Eward and his staff are hoping to provide visitors to the museum with a personal pilot or passenger experience using a virtual reality flight simulator which could operate from inside one of the exhibit helicopters.
"On occasion, I did call my aircraft names, but you took it all back when it got you home safe. There's no atheists come out of a war zone. So you attached many different names to it and asked for help from both the helicopter and higher powers. If everything worked together, it brought you home and in my case, it got me back home every time but one," said Jim Ottman, US Army, 1st Cavalry Division, Huey pilot, Vietnam.