That “Whup Whup” Sound

My son and I were out in the yard yesterday when I stopped dead in my tracks.  I cocked my head to one side to listen.  Patrick asked, “What is it?”  I said, “Can’t you hear it?”  “No, I don’t hear anything.” he replied.  “There is a Huey coming this way,” I said.  I then held up my hand indicating that he should be silent and listen.  In a minute or so the whine of a jet engine came to us.  Shortly after that a UH1 Huey helicopter came into sight.

“How could you hear the engine that far off,” my son said.  I told him that it wasn’t the engine that I heard.  It was the noise the rotor blades made.  They make a peculiar “whup whup” sound that is unique to Hueys.  For some reason I could hear that sound long before other people could.  There are no military bases close by and we don’t see many helos, or planes for that matter, around here.  My being able to identify the sound of a Huey goes back many, many years.

1968 found me many miles up the Mekong River in Vietnam.  I was assigned to a barracks ship that was the flagship of a Mobile Riverine Base.  I was a new naval officer and it was my first ship.

The ship had a helo pad in the middle of the ship, way up on the top deck.  As the flagship we were used to getting a lot of helicopter traffic.  There was one large H34 Sikorsky helicopter that came once a day with the mail.  It had a huge piston engine whose roar blotted out all other sounds.  Then there was a two seat Hiller helicopter with a smaller piston engine.  The most frequently used helicopter was the Army’s UH1 Huey.  It had a jet engine that had a whine to it.  It also had a distinctive “whup whup” rotor noise. There were four of us junior officers who had to take turns being  “LSO”, (landing signal officer).  Whenever a helo wanted to land we had to guide it down to that small flight deck with hand signals. A public address system announcement of “Flight quarters, flight quarters.  All hands man your flight quarters station,” meant me, along with two enlisted men with wheel chocks for those helos with wheels.  There was also a man dressed in a silvered fire fighting suit.  He manned the foam station on the flight deck in case of a crash and a fire.

Ship’s bridge, looking forward.  White area is beginning of the flight deck.  Major Sun is on the far right on the flight deck.
Hueys, Hillers, and the later Hughes scout helos, were easy to guide onto the deck.  It was that huge mail carrying H34 that caused us the most problems.  It would barely fit on that helo pad.  In fact, if you stood directly in front of that helo while it was landing you would wind up going over the side.  That is forty feet above the water.  There is a safety net to keep you from falling.  You had to stand off to one side and let the pilot know when his wheels were over the flight deck.  Only then could he set down.  Worse yet, his wheels that had to be chocked by the safety crew to keep it from rolling over the side.  We’re talking about three six feet or so clearance here.  I was glad that only one of these showed up each day.  They never showed up at night, thank goodness.

Helo landings at night were interesting because we could only show red lights at night on deck.  Any type of white light was liable to cause us to draw enemy fire from the riverbank.  It was also hazardous.  One night I was officer of the deck on the bridge, and a Huey called in for a landing.  I called out the duty flight quarters crew.  We waited and waited, but the helo didn’t show.  About half hour later we were informed that he pilot had flown his helo into the river.  He must have become disorientated because it didn’t even happen near us.

Sideboys for a VIP.  I’m the one in white to the left of the double line of sailors.  I have a telescope under my left arm.  Huey helo on deck.
Whenever we had Very Important Persons (VIPs) show up, they always came by helo.  When that happened we turned out “sideboys.”  That is two rows of sailors in dress white uniforms.  The visitor walks between the two rows while a bosun “pipes” him aboard with a whistle.  As a junior officer I often had to stand there in short sleeved dress whites.  I had a telescope under my left arm.  I would be in charge of the detail.

When the ship was underway in the Mekong River we were always at general quarters (battle stations).  All officers changed from khakis to green battle dress uniforms.  That was so we wouldn’t stand out against the dark green of the ship’s paint scheme.  We were painted dark green so we wouldn’t show up against the dark river bank at night and draw enemy fire.  Often, when we steamed up or down the river, we were under fire from hidden, fortified positions.  They would be back away from the river banks.
Once in a while we would have VIPs arrive by helo while we were steaming up or down the river.  Many of these times we had been fired upon from the river banks.  We would change from our dark green uniforms into the dress whites for the sideboy detail.  We would be standing out on the flight deck as perfect targets waiting for the VIP to arrive.  This was while the entire crew that was on deck, most of them manning the guns.  They would be dressed in their greens.  They would also be wearing helmets and body armor.  What we called “flack jackets.”  What was the VIP wearing when he stepped off the helo.... why combat greens, of course.  So much for those dress whites we wore.

Junior officers ate at the first of two seatings in the wardroom for lunch because of the limited size of the wardroom.   One day was different from all the rest.  There was an hour and a half allocated for lunch.  Most of us in our stateroom were lying down taking a short nap.... a “nooner.”  We heard a loud bang.  Someone said, “Sounds like they dropped that new diesel generator we loaded aboard this morning.”  I said, “Either that or else........”   I never got a chance to say, “.... or we are under attack.”  All of a sudden the general quarters alarm sounded.  It is a loud klaxon horn followed by, “General quarters, general quarters.  All hands man your battle stations.”

Since we went to general quarters almost every night, for real, we wasted no time in getting to our battle stations.  My station was in the Combat Information Center (CIC).  It has very little to do in this type of ship.  Reports came in that we had been hit about five times on the starboard side and that we had casualties.

I could hear every gun on deck firing.  The noise was deafening.  Then, to my surprise came the announcement for flight quarters.  I was the LSO that day.  The commander of the 2nd Brigade, 9th Infantry Division was returning to the ship.  I couldn’t believe his helo would try to land while we were under fire.  I also couldn’t believe they would want me standing out there on that flight deck. 

The door to the flight deck was right next to CIC.  I put on a helmet and yellow vest and stepped out onto the flight deck.  The first thing I saw when I went on deck was signalman McGuire.  He picked up a 50 caliber machine gun from the port side rail and carry it to the other rail where all the action was.  There wasn’t a place to mount the machine gun so he laid it on the rail.  He then began firing it from his hip, sort of John Wayne style. 

The next thing I saw was smoke and a fire.  There was a landing craft loaded with a fuel bladder in the cargo area tied up to the LST (Landing Ship Tank) that was acting as our ammunition ship.  It had been hit and the entire landing craft was blazing.  I saw a crewman jump aboard the craft and get it underway away from the ammo ship.  He then jump into the river to get away from the blaze.  A gunboat picked him up.

With all that firing going on I walked to the side of the ship where we were being fired upon, turned around with my back to that riverbank.  I then began signaling to the colonel’s Huey, indicating for it to land.  Every second I was expecting to be hit in the back.  I wasn’t hit, but I had other problems.

As soon as the colonel’s helo landed on the deck he jumped out and headed for the bridge.  That’s  where the ship’s captain was.

The colonel’s helo arriving

H34 Sikorsky helo that brought the mail each day.

I walked towards the pilot’s side of the helo to tell him he had better swing around.  I wanted him to leave the way he came even if it meant taking off with the wind instead of into the wind.  It was too dangerous to attempt to fly off in the direction he was headed.  Every gun we had was blazing away on that side of the ship.  Before I could reach the pilot’s window he lifted off.  He headed towards the side of the ship where I just knew he would be blasted out of the air.

As the Huey went past the edge of the flight deck, forty feet above the water, he no longer had the ground effect of the deck.  He  swooped down towards the water and made a tight left in front of our guns.  There were 50 caliber machines guns firing from two decks and the four, 40mm cannons, that were going, “ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom-boom-boom,” in rapid succession.

In all the excitement it is a miracle that the colonel’s Huey didn’t get shot down by our guns.  Imagine the gunner’s surprise to see the Huey swoop around the side and front of the ship about 80 feet in front of them and 20 feet above the water.  They could have probably read the pilot’s name on his helmet from that distance.

I know I raced to the edge of the flight deck and looked down expecting to see the Huey explode in flames.  It never happened.

Me on the flight deck as a helo takes off.  There is an LST supply ship alongside.  This is to show you how high the flight deck is above the water

Tom Sparkman  September 1, 2002

It was after this incident that Major Sun tried to convince me again to transfer to the Army.  This had been an on-going discussion for months.  This time the major pointed out that had I been an Army officer I would have gotten a Bronze Star for walking out on that flight deck and exposing myself to enemy fire.  I still wasn’t going give up my Navy commission.  It was the only time in my year aboard ship when we were attacked during the day while at anchor.

There is a web site today for the Mobile Riverine Force.  In it there is an article about the ship celebrating its 10 thousandth helo landing.  I had to laugh.  The last week I was on board the ship, while I was standing one of my last watches as officer of the deck, I got out the helo log.  I went through it, page by page, and counted the times I had been Landing Signal Officer.  I had been LSO for just over 800 helo landings.  Approximately 95% of those had been Hueys.  In that time I got exactly two rides in a Huey.  Here it is 34 years later and I can still identify that “whup, whup” sound of a Huey long before most people even hear anything at all.