Release Date: April 12, 2021
In this episode, we hear two personal stories related to the use of helicopters in Vietnam. Rich Kuhblank was a helicopter pilot during the war, and later became responsible for teaching other pilots how to investigate crash sites. Julie Kink lost her brother, David, whose helicopter was shot down when she was only eight years old. Decades later, she found an entire community of new “big brothers” when she set out to learn more about David’s life in the army.
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(HUEY HELICOPTER SOUND CLIP)
[00:00:04] (HOST) That sound you hear. That’s the sound of a Bell UH-1 helicopter nicknamed “Huey.” And it’s one of the most iconic sounds of the Vietnam War. The Huey wasn’t the only helicopter in Vietnam – there were others with names like Chinook, Mohawk, Cayuse, and Cobra – but the Huey is the most famous. As tactical fighting machines, helicopters really came of age during the Vietnam War. In fact, Vietnam is often referred to as “the helicopter war.” And that sound – for so many soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines – was the sound of hope.
(HOST) From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, this is Echoes of the Vietnam War. I’m your host, Michael Croan, bringing you stories of service and sacrifice from people who, nearly 50 years later, still feel the impact of that conflict. This is Episode Two, the Sound of Hope.
(HOST) Thank you so much for checking out our podcast today. If you like it, we hope you’ll share it with a friend who might like it as well. Either way, let us know what you think by leaving a comment on our webpage, VVMF.org/echoes, or by emailing [email protected]. Not everyone can travel to Washington, D.C. to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And that’s why we created The Wall That Heals is an exact replica of The Wall, at three quarter scale, that travels to communities all across America. The Wall That Heals and the Mobile Education Center that travels with it will be in Ocean Pines, Maryland on April 22. For more 2021 tour dates and locations, visit VVMF.org. And now, here’s today’s show.
(HOST) One of the many fascinating artifacts you’ll find in our mobile Education Center is a flight helmet worn by a helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War. That pilot is Rich Kuhblank. And he donated it while visiting The Wall That Heals in Ocean View, Delaware in 2019. Rich grew up in Washington State. And while he was attending the University of Washington in Seattle, he joined the ROTC.
[00:02:38] (RICH) While I was there, I was an ROTC guy because I figured out I could make I think it was 30 bucks a month extra by doing that. So, when I completed college, I owed the army two years of absolute duty on active duty.
(HOST) What year was that?
(RICH) That was 62. So, they sent me off to Germany. I was in the Corps of Engineers. So, I was assigned in Mannheim, to a float bridge company, the 5/52 engineer company and served two years there eventually became the company commander. We had a flight detachment in my engineer group that had the little bell bubble helicopters. And I would take those to get an aerial view of possible river crossing sites on the Rhine. I loved it when I was up in the air with these guys flying around. So, I decided after speaking with the pilots, they told me well, shucks, if you’re going to do your two years and go back, Rich. I tell you what we’ll line you up with flight tests and a written test and make sure you don’t crash and burn and you have a chance to pass all these tests and I passed them and I passed aviation flight physical and I submitted it to D.C. to go to flight school.
(HOST) Any vivid memories from that period?
(RICH) We had the older helicopters there still we had Hiller’s. So, we learned the basic flight things and followed for the very first time. I, my solo flight was from Mineral Wells to Abilene, Texas and back and all alone at about 8000 feet. It was fun. From there, hat was only the first part of flight school we went from there to Fort Rucker, Alabama. And transition into bigger aircraft. Hueys. And we learned much more about instruments and flying and crews and even gunnery at that time. Before we graduated, and had a low leave time, and then we were on our way to Vietnam.
[00:05:36] (HOST) And what do you remember most vividly about arriving in Vietnam for the first time in May of 66.
[00:05:42] (RICH) Not, not all people went as a unit, we went as individuals. So, I was on a charter flight. And the very first thing I remember at landing at Tanzini, and the doors open, and we went down the stairs. We’re hit in the face with the smells, and the heat. I can still, I can still close my eyes and remember the smells and we were involved with that.
[00:06:19] (HOST) You were with the three thirty fifth assault helicopter company at that, at that time, and what, what rank were you?
(RICH) I started out as a first lieutenant. And of course, most of the guys that came with me were Warrant Officer pilots. But because I had served a tour in Germany, I was already an officer. So that made me an old, older guy at 26, because most Warrant Officers were anywhere from 19 to 22. And I spent that full year with the three thirty fifth. And we were in third core just now not too many clicks north of Saigon now, Ho Chi Minh City, at Bien Hoa near the Bien Hoa Air Base.
[00:07:17] (HOST) What kinds of missions or duties primarily do were you fulfilling in that first tour?
[00:07:23] (RICH) Well, I, I pretty much did the gauntlet. I started out driving or flying. We used to say driving, but flying slicks, which were the primary troop carrying mission. You know, helicopters gave everything a new dimension. The primary reason for was moving trips, rather troops around rapidly, great flexibility on the battlefield then. And you had small groups to large groups, one helicopter to 20 or more helicopters for bigger lifts. And so, you had troop movements in helicopters. We did that. We did reconnaissance of areas for future assaults. And then you had to pick out landing zones, and we would locate areas for fire support basis. We, of course, assisted when necessary for medivac. And the other thing we did a lot of was resupplied of troops that were already engaged in the field. We were their lifeline. We provided new ammunition, food, took people out of there had to be extracted. We inserted LRRPs – Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols. We did all that and we provided command and control from the skies to and then I, in my first two or three months of flying slicks. I got shot at a lot like everybody did. And I was thinking, man, I really liked to be able to shoot back. So, I auditioned, more or less with and put in my feelings to join the gunship platoon and our callsign were Falcons. They gave me a couple of test, test runs at it. They took me out with them and they did aerials, close combat support, they provide a cover for troop insertions, they did reconnaissance by fire. But more than anything, they gave close their support to people. After a couple of trips with them, they decided that well, okay, he is a pretty good shot. So, I transferred from flying slicks to become a full time, gunship pilot. And I spent the rest of my year with them doing just wide range of all kinds of interesting things from nighttime river patrols to convoy escorting to day and night operations, we got farmed out to other units for special purpose. In helicopters, the crews became not intimate, but very trusting with each other. You had to depend on these people, if you tried to resupply through holes, little holes in a triple canopy jungle that were just big enough for the helicopters to fit into. And you have to go down maybe 50-60 feet and depend on a door gunner and a crew chief, telling you stop, because you have to move over left 20 feet to go down another 40 feet. So, you were very independent, or not independent, but dependent on these people telling you and working together as, as a family, a real crew.
[00:11:57] (RICH) I recall one day that we were moving troops to combat insertion with about 10 or 12 helicopters. And I was light fire team providing cover for their insertion. And they were in trail formation. And when we inserted troops, they get a number for the troops to understand easily to climb on board. We gave them chalk numbers, and they actually had a chalk number on the side of the aircraft, so they’d recognize where they were supposed to go. And it was chalk 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 however many were in the flight. Well, I’m going along with my little light fire team. one of four fire teams I scored in this bunch. And on the radio, I heard sound you don’t want to hear, chalk four is going down. That was a bad thing to hear. And I looked up and sure enough chalk four, the fourth helicopter started tumbling out of the sky. At that time, we didn’t know if it was brown fire. We didn’t see any ground fire around. But you can never tell because you didn’t always see it. But chalk four went down. And I told my wing man to stay with the slicks. And I would go down and follow chalk four I was losing altitude fast to keep up with the helicopters descent but chalk four at about, I don’t know 50-60 feet above three tops. We had troops jumping out. And I mean seconds after that the helicopter crashed. And there was no, no burn. That was good. And we went down and circled for, I don’t know, 15-20 minutes. Trying to contact the look for survivors, which was really difficult because they crashed in a real heavy jungle. And finally, just couldn’t do it. Well, because we’ve done that loitering around we didn’t realize that monsoon rain and storm common in that area that time of year had come up and monsoons could be deadly. They just came up fast. So, I knew we had to get back because we’ve spent enough time there now that the fuel was low. So, I set a course to go back to our little camp and it’s a good thing I did because no sooner than we were about five minutes away from the crash site that the monsoon closed in, it was so bad, so windy, and so rainy, that we literally had a white out. There’s no nav aids in that area to speak of that would, would have helped us out on instruments. So, I remember then flight school, they taught us something that said, if everything’s not good, he says, contact your radio operator, at your base camp, and on FM, tell him to key his mic about every 20 or 30 seconds, if you get close enough to your ADF needle will home on it. So, that’s exactly what we did. As we got closer and closer to the camp, we were following the needle. After a while the operator our little radio operator in the field location says I can hear you guys. But I can’t see. Well, visibility was only two or three feet all around aircraft. He says but I can hear you now you’re so dog-gone loud. So, I came to a hover, set us down towards the ground, hoping there was no trees between us and the ground. Sure enough, we sat down on the ground. Thank God, 20 seconds later, the aircraft quit. The engine shut down. We were out of fuel. It was amazing that we made it back one piece ourself.
[00:16:54] (HOST)So you had a second tour in September ‘68 to September ‘69.
(HOST) What are the, what are the key differences that we need to know about what you were doing in that second tour.
[00:17:07] (RICH) It was quite different for me. Because my year out I had been sent to the Army Aviation Safety course at the University of Southern California, Edwards Air Force Base. So, when I returned to the first infantry division for my second tour, I became the division Aviation Safety Officer. So, I was in charge of setting up investigations for all crashes. Whether they were hostile or were mechanical or pilot air, those things were would be determined by accident investigation. As the guy in the Division I was often the first guy in to a crash site to see if there was any obvious things that can be identified immediately. I have memories of oh so many bad things. I remember taking a warrant officer with me once to crash site where we have to ride on a CH-47, tandem rotor big helicopter to take us to the crash site because it was in the trees and no landing place around it close by. So, we went out the tailgate of the CH-47 on a 60 foot rope ladder. We were still about 20 feet above the ground when an RPG – rocket propelled grenade – hit the CH-47 between the tandem rotors. We jumped and hit the ground from about 20 feet up into this crash site. The CH-47 was in real trouble. It made about 300 yards to the web and crashed. And then we had two crash scenes within close range of each other. We spent maybe, I don’t know two or three days on the ground un-snarling that one. It was not a good climate in Vietnam for helicopters, but yet they became the lifeline for most people there. Our hats are off and especially second tour, I became more aware of the work that the medivac guys did, the dust off people. They were truly life savers of all kinds of people that helicopters made possible to rescue and save that would have never made it otherwise.
[00:20:25] (HOST) Yeah, most of the people I talked to, they describe that sound as the sound of hope. It almost always means something good.
[00:20:33] (RICH) Yeah, I’ve, I’ve talked to a couple guys. Everyone so well I run across to people that say, Oh, you, you flew helicopters. That ol’ whap, whap, whap sound is golden to me. It saved my butt many times.
(HELICOPTER SOUND CLIP)
[00:21:05] (HOST) When Julie Kink hears the sound of helicopter, her thoughts run immediately to her brother. David Robert Kink was a helicopter pilot killed in action in August of 1969. When Julie was just eight years old. David was 19 when he died. He had been in Vietnam for one month.
[00:21:24] (JULIE) We grew up in a small town called Middleton, Wisconsin outside of Madison. He graduated from high school in 1967 in Middleton and wasn’t really sure what he wanted to do with his life. He was working in a men’s clothing store after graduating and I think he joined the Army in the high school to flight school program, because he wanted to learn how to fly.
(HOST) So you volunteered.
(JULIE) Yes, he did.
[00:21:50] (HOST) Yes. How is it that David came to be killed a month into his tour?
[00:21:55] (JULIE) Well, he had been flying Huey helicopters when he first reached Vietnam. And the day that the crash occurred, July 21 1969, was David’s second day in a Loach – a light observation helicopter. They were doing bomb damage assessment or recon by fire looking for areas that had been disturbed and came on an area that the Heiberg Cobra aircraft above them fired upon. And there was a ground explosion that brought the Loach down. It turned out to be an unexploded 250 pound or 500 pound us bomb that the enemy had camouflaged, hoping that the Americans would do as, as they did. The ground explosion brought the aircraft down. And because my brother was flying as observer, on that side of the aircraft, he was the only one to survive the crash of the three-man crew, he crawled out away from the helicopter and was evacuated and died of his injuries 12 days later on August 3 1969. None of that did I know at the time, and nor did my family know any of that information until many years later in 1996, when I stumbled upon the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, and learned that they keep the records of all of the helicopters and the pilots who flew during the Vietnam War. And so, I learned a lot of information about what actually happened during the crash 25, 26 years after the fact.
[00:23:37] (HOST) What was the biggest surprise for you?
[00:23:40] (JULIE) Well, Michael, I thought I was a last person in the door on this. I mean, I thought certainly, by 25 years, 30 years after the Vietnam War, everyone in my position who really had, who had a loved one who was killed, who was looking for information would have already done it. I thought I was a late comer. And I was very surprised that in all my growing up, I never knew another single other person who had lost someone in the Vietnam War until 1996. And I was not alone. It was very common for families of the time to not be given a lot of information about what happened. I didn’t know exactly where it happened or what type of aircraft it was. I didn’t know about the course of my brother’s treatment during the 12 days that he was in the hospital. Until seeking those things out for myself 20, 25, 26 years later.
[00:24:38] (HOST) You didn’t just use the Pilots Association and crew members Association as resources. You became kind of a kid sister to a lot of those guys.
[00:24:48] (JULIE) I have many hundreds of new big brothers. I affectionately call them that. And many, many years ago when I first started searching for people who knew my brother. One of the pilots wrote to me, your brother was our brother. And that was a new concept to me. I thought, wow, this is a group that is welcoming my questions and my hunger to know information about what they did.
(HOST) And that was surprising?
(JULIE) It was totally surprising to me because I grew up thinking nobody wants to talk about Vietnam. I learned just the opposite. Those of us who, who lost someone whose name is on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, will be connected with the living veterans who came home in a way that I don’t know any other life connection, that is that type of a bond, sometimes stronger than family.
[00:25:47] (HOST) So what did you learn from your new adopted Big Brother’s about David, and how he lived?
[00:25:53] (JULIE) I learned that he had a droll, dry sense of humor, I learned that he probably would have made a good pilot had he had he flown more and survived the war, that he was a friend to people and well liked that that he couldn’t always hold his liquor. I know him now more than I knew him before, through people who I had never met before in my life who gave my past back to me.
[00:26:29] (HOST) I wonder, were you able to share any of that with your parents.
[00:26:34] (JULIE) I was able to share some of this with both of my parents. I’m the tail end of a family of four. So, they were both practically fossils when I was born. And so my, my mother actually met one of my new big brothers, and I shared letters with her. My dad had the beginning of Alzheimer’s when my first, my search first started. And so I was able to share some of the information with him. Parents grieve differently. And my mother’s grief at the time was red and raw and out there. And my dad grieved more quietly. When I was a young adult, I went to visit my dad. And we went to the cemetery where David was buried, and dad knew right away where his grave was. And he hung his head down. And he just said something about David being all boy, and just really missing him. And I knew at that moment that that my dad’s loss was just as great as my mother’s.
[00:27:36] (HOST) It hadn’t even occurred to me to ask about other siblings. How do they relate to you and David in age and what has your search meant to them?
[00:27:45] (JULIE) I have an older brother, Paul, who is 20 years older than I am. And my brother David was 11 years older than I am. And my sister Susan, who is nine years older than myself. And then there’s me. I think that Paul and Susan had more memories of David certainly because of their ages being closer to his. And I think that when he was killed, they sort of lost their past. I mean, they knew a little bit more what they had lost. And I in being seven at the time that he went to Vietnam, I feel like I lost more my future. I really didn’t know what I had lost. But I’ve shared what I’ve learned with them. And I think it’s really helped them to and in knowing that it’s okay now to talk about these things. It’s okay to talk about the Vietnam War, and that there were veterans who survived the war, who came back and are wonderful people and are okay with talking about things and sharing with family members, because I think that was a revelation to them, too.
[00:28:47] (HOST) So let’s talk a little bit about your, your, your many trips to Vietnam. Tell me about the first one. Why did you go and what did you learn there that kept you coming back?
[00:28:58] (JULIE) Well, in, on Christmas time, 1996, I trudged out to the mailbox and in the mailbox was a card from someone who had read my letter in the VHPA (Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association) newsletter. And he wrote to be that the bonds formed in combat are sometimes stronger than family, and that he had been flying the Cobra aircraft above my brother on that last mission when my brother’s aircraft had crashed. His name was John Powell. He has since become a dear friend. And he’s also since become the person who, for military historical tours, takes tours back to many different battlefield sites, including Vietnam. So in 2006, I decided to go I was privileged to be with, with John on that trip to Vietnam knowing that he was was directly involved with my brother and a couple of other veterans who served in Charlie troop first to the ninth cab with my brother at the time and their wives. And my roommate on that first trip to Vietnam was the birth daughter of John Anderson, the other pilot who was killed in my brother’s Loach crash. It was a wonderful tour, south, north, all over the place, including somewhat close to where the crash had occurred, outside of Saigon, I didn’t have a strong feeling that I wanted to be in the place where my brother had crashed. And that’s just my own personal preference, I think my brother would rather have me see where he lived, and where he flew. And so I did, and made some, some great, lifelong friendships with the other people who were on the tour. And after, after coming home, went back again three years later on, on another tour, and have, have been to Vietnam many times since. and develop friendships with our tour guide and his family who are there who are, are very dear, I have made friendships with some other Gold Star family members who have gone back and experienced some real healing that comes from that.
[00:31:14] (HOST) You mentioned your relationship with John Powell, who was who was on the scene when your brother’s helicopter crashed. And it made me think, you know, your brother was the only survivor of that crash at the time. And you said he crawled away from the aircraft? Did you ever meet the people who got him out of there? Were you able to find out who evacuated him?
[00:31:39] (JULIE) I was able to meet and to thank, very importantly, to thank the pilot, who from the same unit was the first one to the scene of the crash and helped put my brother on a meidvac helicopter. His name was Luther Russell. And he’s since passed away. But we became very close. And for me to be able to stand in front of him and put my arms around him he was a huge guy. And to say thank you, to him for doing that was a highlight of my life. I loved Russell. I really loved him as a brother and, and as I love John Powell, these are people who are part of my heart. They’re part of my, my, my family truly.
[00:32:31] (HOST) Have you been able to connect with family members of the other two men who died in that crash?
[00:32:36] (JULIE) Yes. The, the birth daughter of the other pilot, who was the aircraft commander is a friend and she has a young family. And it’s been great to be able to connect with her. In 1996, I wrote a letter to the family of the gunner who was killed on the crash. I sent a letter saying I was going to The Wall. And if they would like to have me get a name rubbing of their son’s name for them, I’d be happy to do that. When I got home from Washington, D.C. that first Veterans Day The first time I had a letter waiting for me from the family of the gunner thanking me What a relief it was for me to get that and to know that it was okay for me to connect with them and that they weren’t thinking, oh, you know, this is a horrible, unwanted thing. I don’t use the word closure. I don’t mind when other people use it. But to me, the word that more accurately describes my journey is closer. I feel that I have become closer to my brother through this whole thing. Meeting pilots, crew members, going to Vietnam, going to reunions meeting other family members, and you really can become closer to someone after they’re gone. Who would have known that?
[00:34:02] (HOST) These interviews with Rich and Julie were pretty heavily edited for time in order to fit them into this podcast format. If you’d like to hear my entire conversation with either of them or both, you’ll find them on our YouTube channel. Today’s show was produced by me, Michael Croan, with truckloads of help from Heidi Zimmerman, Latosha Adams, and Adam Arbogast. Our executive producer is Jim Knotts CEO of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. You know, The Wall is not publicly funded. It wasn’t a gift from a grateful nation. It was founded by this nonprofit organization and our continuing efforts to honor those who served are fueled by donations from people like you. So, please consider making a [email protected]. I’ll see you in two weeks for Episode Three, Answering the Call.
Full Interview with Julie Kink
Full Interview with Rich Kuhblank
- VVMF Topic Page on Helicopters – https://www.vvmf.org/topics/Helicopters/
- Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association – https://www.vhpa.org/
- The Wall of Faces: John Ernest Anderson, co-pilot of David’s – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/1032/JOHN-E-ANDERSON/
- The Wall of Faces: Edward Michael Dennull, gunner in David’s helicopter – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/12979/EDWARD-M-DENNULL/
- The Wall of Faces: David Robert Kink, Julie’s brother – https://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/28091/DAVID-R-KINK/
- Luther Russel – https://www.vhpa.org/DAT/datR/D06405.HTM
- The Wall That Heals – https://www.vvmf.org/The-Wall-That-Heals/
- Full Interview with Rich Kuhblank – https://youtu.be/Tr_cCfIl5b4
- Full Interview with Julie Klink – https://youtu.be/3DIS3N8KuDE
- YouTube Echoes of the Vietnam War Interview playlist – https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLK63b6Cn53unMMj-yZYEch0RuYy1YN1zl