Still more lazy thoughts from this one…

Guest Post – Communicating Strength Through Sound: Helicopters in Vietnam


Greetings, all and sundry!

I would like to thank Michael for the opportunity to broach and examine a topic that may seem odd to some. Though for those who were old enough to sit through the nightly evening reports from the monopoly of news during the 1960s. And later in films about a faraway place called Vietnam; may strike a familiar note.

For anyone born in the early 1960s and beyond. There are many sounds borne of childhood that will bring heads up to look in all directions. The first and most cherished is the familiar sound of silver bells announcing the approach of the iconic Good Humor Man behind the wheel of his white truck. Another is the sharp sound of a traffic cop or lifeguard’s whistle at a community pool. The third is a sound heard for so long it’s instantly identifiable as to not raise an eyebrow. The age old “Whop! Whop! Whop!” of any variation of the immortal Hughes helicopter. In either early Army Olive Drab or Dirt Brown. Quickly adapted by the armed forces to replace the Jeep. Deuce and a half trucks, close air support aircraft and armored personnel carriers. In a war nearly forgotten with the passage of time.

Often seen in dramatic insertions of infantry troops into the valleys and rice paddies throughout the DMZ and points west and south. The ubiquitous ‘Huey’ helicopter and its relations close and extended, always seemed to be on hand. En masse, or singularly hugging the treeline in search of prey. To that end, I have assembled four films where the director’s take on preferred mode of transportation of troops, supplies and letters from home is more than duly noted.

Communicating Strength Through Sound: Helicopters in Vietnam

Huey in Vietnam

My first choice is going to be rather obvious. Both in selection of sounds and the proper and often devastating use of helicopters as an updated airborne Blitzkrieg of armor, infantry and artillery. Apocalypse Now and its iconic airborne assault speaks volumes.

Not only in its projection of overall firepower with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, but also in the wide variety of mechanized mayhem. From the Air Cavalry’s troops and their assembled M-16s. To the pintle mounted M-60s, pylon mounted quad M-2 Heavy Barreled .50 caliber Browning Machine Guns and pod mounted High Velocity Artillery (HIVAR) Rockets. The soundtrack fits the montage like a custom fitted suit. Scratchy voice overs and all. Culminating in a piece of film that is powerful, random and deadly.

The second slot goes to Stanley Kubrick’s brief ode to helicopter resupply and medical evacuation performed by the Marine’s distant, larger and piston powered cousin of the Huey. The Sikorsky CH-34 “Chocktaw” depicted in the initial assault across the Perfume River into the NVA help city of Hue and its fortress like Citadel.

The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” depicts the insanity of the moment. Soldiers on both sides more attuned to humping the bush and fighting in the jungle. Suddenly presented with the conundrum of Urban Warfare, Which means fire and maneuver. Pray to God you don’t get hit. While also following the tenets of US military scripture. Armor precedes and enforces infantry. Clearing a path for infantry to proceed. Even if armor is specifically an open terrain weapon. The city of Hue would have to  be taken one street. Then block at a time. Backed up by tanks with General Purpose and Beehive artillery rounds. Which highlights the significance of the “Birds”. Grunt jargon for helicopters delivering the sinews of combat and quickly evacuating the wounded.

High marks go to Mr. Kubrick for selecting the United Kingdom’s gas turbine powered “Weyland” variant of its US cousin, “Choctaw” helicopters. Air power was very scarce during the siege of Hue. Due to close quarters, buildings. low ceiling, fog and overall crappy, rainy weather. And the smaller “Huey” helicopters did Army Dust-Off, Med-Evac missions when not strafing the Citadel itself. The “Chocktaw” seems much more in line with the Marine’s  tradition of getting the most from older, near obsolete, hand-me-down weapons systems. And making them work.

Even higher marks and kudos for the defunct Beckton Gasworks outside London. And have it fill in so well for shelled, pock marked and ravaged sections of the city of Hue. Also for the Bassingbourn Barracks in Cambridgeshire and its doubling for Joker’s barracks at Parris Island, SC.

Third place goes to Randall Wallace, Hal Moore and Joe Galloway’s collaboration, We Were Soldiers of 2002 and its final combined assault in the Ia Drang Valley. The song, “Sgt.MacKenzie” is just short of a Scots dirge that covers all the bases of the Air Cav’s unenviable position of attacking uphill to take on the well dug in, encamped and tunneled NVA stronghold.

A can opener of major proportions will be required. In the form of several fully decked out Hueys. With rocket pods and quad mounted M-60s to come up behind Col. Moore’s troops with fixed bayonets. Then swoop in for some serious softening of slowly retreating NVA and their sandbagged Heavy Machine Gun emplacements. So the infantry can move in, mop up and hold what they got.

The slow motion. Often cinema verite cinematography heightens the carnage of the first Airborne/Air Mobile Cavalry operation of the Vietnam war. By inserting troops into a few map grids and acres of land where US troops at first glance, should not have been. Very much like the French at Dien Bien Phu a decade earlier. Though quickly accessible to re-supply and reinforcement. Even through attempts at being overrun. And pushed back by calling in danger close airstrikes.

Big props to Mr. Wallace for sticking to rifles, uniforms, load bearing gear and steel pots of that time. The first generation M-16s with their three prong flash supressors are what were issued. And the troopers’ stripes, name tags are where they are supposed to be. Even the California location is correct for it being more dry wash and forest than jungle.

John Irvin’s Hamburger Hill from 1987 sews up fourth place. With its downbeat, almost dour, hammer and anvil, heavy bass back beat of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals. Prefacing the delivery yet another platoon of B Company, 3rd Battalion, 187th Regiment, 101st Airborne to the base of Hill 937 in the Au Shau Valley in May of 1969.

The song is really more focused upon the soldiers. Who have a feeling of bad deja vu in another attempt to take a hill whose crest is controlled by the enemy. And may very well be surrendered weeks after its capture. By those calling the shots in the White House and not The Pentagon. In film about bravery and dedication to duty in a long, drawn out live fire exercise in the face of strategic futility.

Mr. Irvin score high for casting a solid group of then unknowns. Led by Dylan McDermott as Sgt. Frantz. Who struggles with his shortened chain of command (Other NCOs and Specialists) to give the new enlistees and draftees he’s responsible for. A half way decent chance of survival. Fighting uphill in what one day may be loamy dirt. Then deep, sucking mud after a brief, torrential Monsoon. Slowed to a standstill as rifle and mortar fire rained down. Calling for artillery support from distant fire bases. Only to have the friendly incoming rounds fall short due to humidity clumping the shells’ propellant charges. In another well developed and executed, fairly well faithful to the facts stories of fortitude in the vace of Pyrrhic victory.

Note: the clean and artful ‘post by’ banner found at the top of this article is care of the generous and artful Ruth of Flixchatter.

27 Responses to “Guest Post – Communicating Strength Through Sound: Helicopters in Vietnam”

  1. le0pard13

    Thank you so much for this, Kevin! Excellent piece, my friend. I do plan on coming back with a more in-depth comment, but wanted to express my thanks for the first guest post of the year here on the blog with this fine contribution.


    • jackdeth72

      It was my pleasure, Michael.

      The idea kind of popped in my head after commenting on your “Same song. Different Performer” post. “Ride of the Valkyries in ‘Apocalypse Now’ got me thinking of other films. Then things started falling into place.

      I’d thought of adding the “Pipeline” sequence from ‘More American Graffiti’, but couldn’t find any clips of it on You Tube.

      Glad you like it, my friend.


  2. ruth

    Yay, nice to see Kevin aka Jack Deth spreading his incredible cinematic knowledge to my favorite blog! 🙂 What an intriguing topic that I don’t see ever being covered elsewhere. Well done Kevin.


    • jackdeth72

      Hi, Ruth:

      Great to have you drop in and comment.

      Thanks very much!

      My ideas don’t usually follow the beaten path. And when something starts to gel and show promise. I run with it. If it sparks someone’s interest, I’ve done my task well.
      And this one is turning out quite nicely.


    • le0pard13

      Oh, yes. And he hit it out of the ballpark with this. Thanks so much, Ruth (for the comment and sharing your wonderful graphic) :D.


    • jackdeth72

      Welcome, Arlee:

      Great catch!

      The first twenty minutes of ‘Apocalypse Now’ always struck me as coming down from a bad dream and into a massive hangover while getting his mission brief. Spinning ceiling fan, G.D. Spradlin, Harrison Ford and all. An intriguing, sometimes surreal piece of cinema. With just enough back story to make what follows nearly iconic.


  3. le0pard13

    I have to say, you blew me away with the detail and context of your piece, Kevin. Wonderful points for the technical and historical, my friend. I’m very much of that generation and those sounds (music included) you written about still resonate. And everyone of the films here really it marks with me because of many aspects you note.

    So glad you mentioned the song “Sgt.MacKenzie” and its use in ‘We Were Soldiers’ (a really underrated film and adaptation of a stellar book by Moore and Galloway). ‘End of Watch’ made obvious use of it last year, too. I’m also a big fan of Irvin’s ‘Hamburger Hill’, a film that got short-shrift when it initially arrived (like a number of early Vietnam War movies did back then) and is better valued today.

    The songs Coppola, Kubrick, Wallace, and Irvin deployed really added to each of their films. Some really are nothing short of powerful and haunting given their context and story. You’ve made a great case for all of them, Kevin. Well done, my friend.


    • jackdeth72

      Hi, Michael:

      Great points, my friend.

      It seems that after Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’ and Stone’s ‘Platoon’, Hollywood declared Vietnam off-limits. Which is a shame. Many are better that the protected few that Hollywood enshrines.

      ‘Hamburger Hill’ and ‘We Were Soldiers’ excel a story well and believably against actual events. Where ‘Apocalypse Now’ is more of a pastiche of caricatures. Duvall’s Patton-like, Col. Kilgore, who is loved by his men for his ruthlessly execution of a good plan today. And knowing that it will work better than a perfect plan next week.

      Brando’s oddball take on then Captain David Hackworth. Who understood that the best way to fight a well trained, motivated and mobile army is with an equal or better equipped army.

      With Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard basically on a trip to Hell in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.

      I still prefer Australia’s ‘The Odd, Angry Shot’ and ‘The Siege of Fire Base Gloria’ to Stone’s ‘Platoon’.


      • le0pard13

        I definitely need to see ‘The Odd, Angry Shot’, then. I’m well aware of Brian Trenchard-Smith’s fine effort with ‘The Siege of Fire Base Gloria’. Been a fan of that film for a long time and recently picked up Warner Archive’s MOD of it. I’ve enjoyed the comments immensely. Thanks, Kevin.


  4. Eric

    Great piece, Jack! Very appropriate timing, too, as I just revisited Apocalypse Now earlier this week. It’s impossible to hear “Ride of the Valkyries” without thinking of that film. I’m happy to see the underrated Hamburger Hill mentioned as well, love that Animals song.


    • jackdeth72

      Hi, Eric:

      Great point on ‘Ride of the Valkyries’. One of the best and most distinct pieces of music to become a lyric definitive monologue in film.

      All four songs work well and hold their own as either a tribute or Greek chorus. And I wanted to give some love to the birds, slicks, Dust-Offs and Hogs that were an integral part of that war.

      Hearing the introduction of the Animal’s “We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place” in the trailer for ‘Hamburger Hill’ ages ago locked the film in for later viewing. An under rated gem that put a lot of talent on the map.



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