Vietnam War Helicopter Art: U.S. Army Rotor Aircraft
Most modelers prefer that the camouflage and markings on their models be historically accurate, but we rely on someone else to do the grunt research work. Before I went to Vietnam, I was already a modeler and IPMS member. I had a WWII modeler friend and mentor, Joe Lynch, who advised me to take lots of photos of anything I might want to build a model of when I came home. He said there was no way I’d remember serial numbers and exact colors and so on, and he was right. Luckily, just before coming home, I remembered, bought a camera, and took photos from every angle of the helicopter I flew in the most. I didn’t get to take many other photos, as I got the camera too late into my tour. I don’t think it mattered as I didn’t really have many photo ops since my eye was supposed to be looking thru a gunsight, not a camera lens. At this point, I was “getting short” – I only had a couple months left to my tour.
I never would have guessed that years later I’d have the opportunity to ask Col. Francis ‘Gabby Gabreski’ what color was the underside of his last P-47? Was it left natural metal or painted neutral gray or another color? I told him there was a debate among modelers and who better to settle the question than the pilot himself? He looked me in the eye, smiled, and without hesitation answered, “I have no idea!! I pre-flighted her and flew her but I never paid any attention to that. I have no idea!!”
Lucky for me I had Joe Lynch. I was also lucky that Bruce Culver was a member of our IPMS Chapter, the Long Island Scale Model Society. (Bruce would move to Texas and join the Squadron Publishing team and go on to publish many articles and books regarding history and camouflage and markings.) I gave him my photos, and with his excellent artwork our chapter newsletter published an article illustrating the two UH-1H Hueys I flew in on most my missions as a 1st Air Cavalry Door Gunner (“Nevada Gambler” and “Dixie J”). At the time, IPMS published some articles under the theme “Planes Members Flew” or “…Flew On” and they ran our article as well. From that exposure, Monogram chose to release their huge 1/24 scale UH-1B/C Gunship with markings for “Nevada Gambler” with a large pair of dice on the left nose and all the other markings. To keep the record straight, I wrote Monogram and explained that I appreciated what they did, but that for historical accuracy my Huey was the later “H” troop carrying version, not the shorter B/C gunship. They changed the box art and markings soon after. But MicroScale saw the IPMS article, too, and included “Nevada Gambler” on 1/72 and 1/48 decal sheets for the Huey. A few years ago, Fireball models sought info for a new ‘Nam Huey decal sheet they were coming out with. They liked what I sent and included “Nevada Gambler” among the six Hueys on that sheet. See below for contact info.
A couple of years ago, Vietnam vet John Brennan, (former SP5, 114 AHC, 1970-71, Vinh Long AAF, Mekong Delta) sent out inquiries searching for info and photos of ‘Nam helicopter nose art for a book he was researching. This is actually his second book on the subject* and a third just might follow in a couple of years. This is the only book I’m aware of that is a full color photo history of Vietnam Helicopter nose art. It has almost 300 unique color nose art photos covering many types of helicopters from the CH-21 Shawnee to the CH-54 Flying Crane, with emphasis on the AH-1G Cobra, UH-1 Hueys, and CH-47 Chinooks. Like WWII B-17s, not all nose art was painted on the nose. Like nose art that came before the ‘Nam, these are “elaborate, colorful, and often comical nose art inspired by… pop culture, music, cartoons and comics, psychedelia, and politics, as well as sex and booze.” Mr. Brennan explains why he chose the photos he did and eliminated others. For example, perhaps the most colorful and most famous Hughes OH-6A “Loach” was Capt. Hugh L. Mills Jr.’s “Miss Clawd IV”. John left it out since it had received such (well deserved) major coverage already, whereas most of these have never been seen before. Yes, “Miss Clawd IV” will be in the next volume!
Most of the photos were taken by pilots, crewmembers, or maintenance men, and have stood up to the test of time. Vietnam was the first war where anybody could take good color photos. The original artwork varied in quality from very realistic and professionally done to the very amateurish. That, too, is no different than artwork from previous wars. Some units had an artist on staff. Some found a Vietnamese civilian artist. Some had to make do with someone like me** who had a good idea but wasn’t an artist! The “artwork captures a slice of the Vietnam experience…” which spanned the turbulent 1960s thru early 1970s. The photos all have captions that identify the unit, and often the circumstances behind the name. With no slight intended, the Vietnam G.I. had the most education of any Army we’d ever fielded up to that time. Many of the helicopter names or artwork were double-entendres that flew right over the heads of the officers, but we lowly enlisted men were able to share a knowing smile or a laugh even during times of duress.
There were “…4,642 helicopters lost in Vietnam, over half were to nonhostile causes such as accidents, mechanical failure, and weather. A total of 564 Army helicopter pilots were killed in action and 362 died in nonhostile incidents. Those figures are roughly doubled for other aircrewmen.” Next to grunts (infantry), helicopter pilots and crew were the second most dangerous occupations in Vietnam. Nose art reveals the many-faceted personalities of those men and the nature of the war that changed throughout its 12 year duration. Every Vietnam vet will describe a different war depending upon when and where he served. That, too, is not unlike WWII, as the Desert War was different than the mountains and rivers of Italy, which was different than the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy or jungle and volcanic ashen Pacific islands, and so on. Nose art could vary from early killer bravado to later rebellious drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.
I highly recommend this book to Vietnam veterans, aviation and history buffs, modelers, and model and decal manufacturers***. If you or someone you know has an interest in nose art or the Vietnam War, this book belongs on his or her bookshelf. Vietnam vets are in their 60s or older as I write this. Since we contributed the photos and information to the author, if for any reason you wanted more information on a helicopter or its crew, I will stick my neck out and say that John would help put you in touch. But don’t hesitate – between Agent Orange, forty years of PTSD, and “plain old cantankerous vets,” you better get to us while you can. You can order autographed copies direct from John Brennan at email@example.com. Contact him for more information.
Books are also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or the publisher, STACKPOLE BOOKS, 5067 Ritter Road, Mechanicsburg, PA 17055-6921; (717) 796-0411; FAX: (717) 796-0412 . You are welcome to preview the first 20 pages via the publisher's website.
I’d like to thank Steve Collins of IPMS/USA for allowing me the opportunity to present this review. I personally purchased this book because of my background and because I feel John Brennan has produced a valuable historical reference that can also be used by modelers and manufacturers to improve the accuracy of their models.
- * John Brennan’s previous book is U.S. Army Helicopter Names in Vietnam, published by Hellgate Press. It contains listings of 3,100 names of helicopters in ‘Nam, cross-referenced by units, with 40 black/white photos.
- ** I’m a New Yorker and was the door gunner on ”Nevada Gambler.” In my unit, the helicopter was assigned to the Crew Chief (CE) and Doorgunner. We were assigned a new pilot and copilot pretty much daily. The Army wanted to minimize fraternization between officers and crew and avoid strong friendships. Regardless, my CE was from Nevada. Our unit had “cool” unit insignia of a green circle (C Co) with a yellow lightning bolt on the nose and front doors (227 Assault Helicopter Bn.), and the 1st Cav. Patch on the tail. But having built many models before joining the Army (yep – joined! In spite of myths, stats support the fact that 80% of those who served in Vietnam joined the military. Yes, there were draftees as well. But most draftees went elsewhere.), I knew about nose art and wanted MY helicopter to be outstanding! Our company had one fellow who was an artist but he refused to get involved. At that time, the only personal nose art allowed in our company was a small, script nickname or a wife’s name. I assumed there was no way I’d get official permission to paint “loud” nose art. I had the attitude that if I got in trouble, what could they do? Send me to ‘Nam?! I got the CE to go along with my little insubordination by choosing the name. On our base, Phuoc Vinh, was an AH-1G Cobra with a large, beautiful Cobra snake painted on the nose with the name “Arizona Gambler.” He agreed to “Nevada Gambler” with a pair of dice showing 7 or 11 no matter how you looked at them.
So I gathered up the supplies I’d need, and started out slowly, going out to the flightline just before dusk for several nights. First, I painted the pilots’ steps at the forward end of the skids and the square plates that bolted the bottom skids to the vertical braces, yellow. Another evening, the grey cargo cabin floor got my attention. The rearmost floor was difficult to keep clean between the ever present red dirt and occasional spilled blood, so after a wash and dry I painted the floor black from in front of the rear passenger seats, in front of the transmission, to the rear wall. Nobody but my CE seemed to notice.
For the big evening, I had the crew chief tell the pilot to park the helicopter in the furthest revetment. Pretty much free handed, I went to work. Next morning, the copilot “noticed” the two large dice (die?) painted right in front of him and started expressing his distaste for the idea that I had painted a target in front of him. I explained that there was nothing personal; I didn’t even know who would be sitting there. This was 1969 and the enemy knew Hueys and who sat where by now. I tried to explain about the well-rooted Army aviation history of colorful “nose art” but was cut short by the pilot, aka the a/c commander, who stated, “I like it!” I don’t know what other conversation(s) took place among the NCOs and Officers afterwards, but to my surprise I wasn’t busted and the “nose art” remained. Word must have come down that no further unauthorized art was allowed because from then until I left for home, nobody else named their Huey in a big way.
- *** This book is overflowing with excellent noseart for most types of helicopters that served in Vietnam. John Brennan has done the hard work, unearthing hundreds of original color photos that model decal and kit manufacturers could take a step further and release as “new and improved” re-releases or brand-new state-of-the-art offerings. Modelers will have the rare privilege of seeing photo(s) of the exact helicopter they are building! Even today, there is no state-of-the-art Vietnam UH-1D (or H) in 1/72 or 1/48 with the single pintle-mounted M-60 machine gun on each side and removable doors. Nor is there a really good Vietnam AH-1G Cobra. The Hughes LOH-6 Loach is represented but could be improved, especially with removable doors. What do you say, manufacturers?
- https://fireballmodels.info UH-1 US Army Slicks in Vietnam decals available in 1/32, 1/35, 1/48 and 1/72 scales include “Nevada Gambler.”
- Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War, by James Dunnigan and Albert Nofi, St. Martin’s Griffin, Publishers.
- US Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam, by Gordon Rottman, published by Osprey.