October 01, 2023

A flying memorial

Vietnam-era helicopter met by large crowd at Iowa Aviation Museum

Laurie Sackett of rural Greenfield remembers hearing stories when she was growing up about her dad, William “Bill” Woodring, being rescued by what was called an Ugly Angel in December 1963 during the Vietnam War. She always thought the story was make believe, but now she knows it’s not.

Sackett was at work recently when she saw a flier advertising a Vietnam-era helicopter that would be coming Saturday, July 30 to the Greenfield Airport and Iowa Aviation Museum.

Sackett saw that on the side of that aircraft, the YL-37, which is a Sikorsky UH-34D, was the term “Ugly Angels.”

Upon going to the event, Sackett was able to see the helicopter arrive, darting through the sky past a large crowd of people and eventually landing near the fuel tanks.

She was able to walk onto the aircraft to see a bucket that was near to where her father, who was in layman’s terms a medic, likely would have sat on the aircraft.

There were at least two men present who have flown this helicopter, Nick Turner and his father Larry Turner. They will both be Iowa Aviation Hall of Fame members when Nick is inducted into the Hall of Fame later this month.

Larry saw combat in the war flying this helicopter.

Nick explained to the crowd that this restored helicopter served the Marine Corps from roughly 1965 to 1969.

“They were the Ugly Angels because the helicopter is ugly, but they were angels because they saved a lot of men,” Nick said.

This helicopter is currently based in Inola, Oklahoma. It was flown to an air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin and made its stop in Greenfield on the return flight home.

The helicopter arrived at about 1:30 p.m. Saturday and lifted off again Sunday morning to continue its flight home. It made a flight over the Freedom Rock while it was in Adair County. There are the ashes of many Vietnam War veterans woven into the paint there.

The helicopter has 54 patches covering bullet holes and shrapnel damage that is from a rocket attack. It is the only Marine UH-34D Sikorsky that has documented combat history to have survived the battle and returned home.

On the side of the helicopter is a bronze plaque bearing the names of 33 members of the squadron the Ugly Angels, who flew these helicopters and never made it home.

“I’ve flown this with my dad and it’s like balancing on a beach ball in a swimming pool during a thunderstorm. It’s also like flying a Harley-Davidson, because it’s a beast,” Nick said. “It’s got an engine that’s 1,820 cubic inches and has 1,545 horsepower.”

The helicopter has a rotor diameter of 56 feet with the rotor system sitting about 13 feet high. The UH-34D is unique because the engine sits at a 45-degree angle and has a gear box behind the cockpit that transfers power to the rotor system. A secondary set of drive shafts go to an intermediate gear box that help run the tail rotor, which can dictate the direction of the aircraft.

Phil Marnin was a crew chief on a helicopter like this in Vietnam. He remembers many missions looking out the right side window of the aircraft.

Marnin remembers missions that primarily consisted of moving troops and moving supplies of various kinds, many times in dangerous situations. The helicopters would land and rescue wounded soldiers, then lift off and take them out of harm’s way.

An Anita resident now, Marnin especially remembered flying on the helicopters like this when it arrived at the airport because of the hard turn the helicopter made to make its final pass over the crowd before landing.

“When you’d do that, as crew chief you’d be looking out that window almost straight down,” Marnin said. These helicopters would haul seven or eight troops at a time. Among many other things, Marnin’s job was to make sure they were ready to go so the helicopter wasn’t on the ground any longer than it needed to be.

“It was quite an adventure for somebody 20 years old,” Marnin said.

The eldest Turner also has vivid memories of flying this aircraft in the war. The last time he flew it was in 2005 at a reunion of the Ugly Angels.

“This is just a memory, and what do you want to do about it?,” said Larry, now 83. “It’s good to see it fly again, coming around like this. Just to see it fly again is something.”

It’s very important to keep the stories of all veterans alive by holding events like these, the younger Turner told the Free Press. “As we go on, a lot of the Marines’ Vietnam-era pilots and air crew are going away, and this is a way to connect and establish some of that historical information that gets lost. There are a lot of stories that will be told today that you might not ever hear again.”

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson

Caleb Nelson has served as News Editor of the Adair County Free Press and Fontanelle Observer since Oct. 2017. He and his wife Kilee live in Greenfield. In Greenfield and the greater Adair County area, he values the opportunity to tell peoples' stories, enjoys playing guitar, following all levels of sports, and being a part of his local church.