|The Pieces of Vietnam War History We Lost in Smoke
Photo courtesy of www.118ahc.org
Practicing History: The Pieces of Vietnam War History We Lost in Smoke
The Vietnam War didn’t happen that long ago. One would think that the history is still fresh in our minds. But there is one piece of history that, strangely, has been lost: the Huey UH-1C smokeships that were “a Godsend for the grunts and air crews1”. Why do we not know about these ships if they were so critical to the survival of the troops they protected? The simple answer to this question is that despite their significance, smokeships were very rare during the war. There are many reasons for this. First, and probably most important, is that there were not many of the Huey models that could support a smoke generator system to begin with. In addition to this, the smokeship was introduced to combat at a relatively late time during the war. They were flown by all volunteer crews2 in a situation when there was a high turnover of troop members.
To fully understand the history and the historiography of the smokeship, it is important to know what they were and how they were used in battle. The smokeship was a Huey UH-1C helicopter that had been converted to carry a smoke generator. Original UH-1C helicopters were designed to be gunships that would escort troop carrying UH-1H helicopters and provide air support for missions3. According to the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association, 696 Huey UH-1C helicopters served in Vietnam, 415 of which were destroyed4. I assume this source to be relatively accurate and free of bias as it is an organization filed under Section 501(c)(19) of the Internal Revenue Service. In a personal communication with Roger Connor, museum curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s vertical flight collection5, Mr. Connor estimated that only about two or three dozen of these Hueys were equipped to operate a smoke generator. Again, I am assuming that as a source of information, Mr. Connor is reliable given the prestige of the institution he works for. However, like all individuals, he may have presented biases in his communication with me. With such low numbers, the smokeship can easily be forgotten about and overshadowed by other, more popular ships
It is difficult to achieve an exact count of the smokeships used during the war, partially because of their names. Smokeships were often given names like Smokey, Smoky or Smokie. And due to the high risk of being shot down, these ships went through many perpetuations. Therefore a battalion (or multiple battalions) could have had a Smokie I, Smokie II and Smokie III. If more than one battalion had a Smokie II, it can look like a single ship was used by both when it was actually two ships with the same name. In certain instances, generations were skipped. In the case of Pollution IV, there was no I, II or III. The ship got its name because it was originally Blue IV before being converted to carry a smokeship generator6. This makes the helicopters difficult to track down and very confusing to obtain an exact number on.
The 145th CAB (Combat Aviation Battalion) was the first unit to employ a smokeship in their flight missions7,8. However, in my research I found a discrepancy to the exact year this happened. According to the website of the 118th Assault Helicopter Company (a division of the 145th CAB) the first smokeship appeared around 1964-19657. The website of the 145th CAB claims that it was October of 1966 when the smokeship was introduced;8 just seven short years before the United States began withdrawing its forces. Neither of these sources are run by the government, but rather by veterans, or a collection of veterans who fought in the war. This means the sources may contain false information and most likely have biases. Since the UH-1C was not introduced to combat in Vietnam until 19669, it is more likely that the 145th CAB’s account is more accurate. I could not find any mention of smokeships before 1966, and most accounts of them are from 1968. If smokeships had been used earlier in the war, it would have been the UH-1B, which is the predecessor of the 1C. Because of the short time of involvement in the war, it is possible that many companies did not have the resources or the time to acquire such a rare ship.
The design and function of a smokeship was a relatively simple concept. The converted UH-1C was equipped with 50 gallons of fire-retardant oil, connected to a jet-spray ring that surrounded the exhaust. When the pilot chose to “lay smoke”, this oil would be pumped through the ring into the hot exhaust and create a thick cloud that would billow out behind the helicopter. This cloud was vital to incoming airborne troops, as it hide their exact landing location from the enemy10. However, this meant the smokeship would have to fly into a dangerous enemy zone, at a slow speed and low to the ground. If the ship flew too fast, the cloud would be too thin, and if it flew too high, the cloud would not be effective11. Due to these facts, smokeships were considered “beyond the call of duty” and therefore could only be crewed by volunteers12.
There was a slight problem with having a crew of volunteers. A book by two veterans (Detra and Johnson) called 188th Black Widow Aviation gives some insight on this matter. This source, like any other may reflect the views of its authors, and information that they may have recalled in it may not be an ideal representation of the past. However, the men who wrote it did a great deal of research and the book came with a recommendation from Roger Connor. In the section about the company detachment deployment roster, the authors mention infusions. An infusion was a change in the make-up of a unit. The commander or top sergeant would choose men to move to another unit, and in turn receive new members. The goal of this was to avoid a unit losing more than 15% of its men at any given time by splitting up cohorts of men who trained at the same time and would be leaving the country at the same time.13 This caused a high turnover of people, and constant change in flight crews. It bears keeping in mind that smokeships also had a high turnover of crew members who had been wounded or killed in action. Although there did not seem to be a shortage of people to fly, it took a special kind of person to volunteer for such an assignment, which could be another reason the army wanted to keep the number of ships to a minimum.
There is no doubt that smokeships saved lived and were an integral part of the United States Army in Vietnam. Unfortunately, because of the low numbers of the Huey UH-1C, even smaller numbers of smokeships were made. This means they are not remembered as well as other Hueys used in the war. This was combined with the fact that they were introduced to the war effort a short time before troops began to pull out. There is also the fact they were so dangerous the crewmen had to volunteer, coupled with the high rate of turn over for personnel that helped to keep the ship’s numbers low. The odds have always been stacked against smokeships, but when we remember the Vietnam War we should remember these live-saving ships too.
Bodkin, Jim. Battalion History. March 28, 2013. http://www.145thcab.com/History/BattalionHistory.htm (accessed April 8, 2014).
David Tyler (Commander, U.S, Navy Reserve). "The Leverage of Technology: The Evolution of Armed Helicopters in Vietnam." Military Review, July-August 2003: 32-37.
Detra, Dick and Jack O. Johnson. 188th Black Widow Aviation. Lawton, OK: T&S Printing Inc., 2002.
Payne, Thomas. 118th Assault Helicopter Company. April 1, 2000-2010. http://www.118ahc.org/118thAHC.htm (accessed April 8, 2014).
Roush, Gary. Helicopter Losses During the Vietnam War. February 23, 2014. www.vhpa.org/heliloss.pdf (accessed April 8, 2014).
Wizard, Brian. Smokeships: Always Leading the Way. Wallowa: Brian Wizard, 1969-2012.
Jim Bodkin, Battalion History, http://www.145thcab.com/History/BattalionHistory.htm
David Tyler (Commander, U.S. Navy Reserve), "The Leverage of Technology: The Evolution of Armed Helicopters in Vietnam." Military Review, July-August 2003.
Dick Detra and Jack O. Johnson,188th Black Widow Aviation (Lawton: T&S Printing, 2002),
Thomas Payne, 118th Assult Helicopter Company, http://www.118ahc.org/118thAHC.htm
Gary Roush, Helicopter Losses During the Vietnam War, www.vhpa.org/heliloss.pdf
Brian Wizard, Smokeships, Always Leading the Way, (Wallowa: Brian Wizard, 1969-2012 )