Originally created 08/11/01

Vietnam vet reunites with war helicopter



SAVANNAH - Vietnam veteran Joe Hawkins remembered his baby as dependable and something that kept him safe.

Last week, Mr. Hawkins saw it for the first time in 34 years.

As Mr. Hawkins strolled inside a hangar at Hunter Army Airfield, a smile spread across his face. He approached the CH-47 Chinook, paused, and then stroked his hand across the old helicopter's framework.

His baby, the helicopter, still serves the U.S. Army.

"Last I heard, she was being salvaged for parts and was no longer flyable," Mr. Hawkins said. "I figured she was lost, but she's not."

Mr. Hawkins flew as the first crew chief on the Chinook in Vietnam, from 1966 to 1967. He left the Army a year after leaving Vietnam, but the Chinook still flies secret Army missions.

"It shows she's a dependable lady," Mr. Hawkins said. "She'll be there. She'll get you there and get you back."

Mr. Hawkins' search for the Chinook started four years ago at a veterans' reunion at which he learned how to track down his old helicopter. His wife, Kandi, called Boeing, the manufacturer, with the serial numbers. At first, Boeing told the Hawkinses that Fort Campbell, Ky., owned the Chinook.

They traveled there only to learn Boeing made a mistake on the serial number. Instead, the Chinook belonged to the 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment at Hunter Army Airfield. When the couple realized Mr. Hawkins' old unit, the 178th Assault Support Helicopter Company, planned its 2001 reunion for Savannah, they called Hunter. The 160th SOAR agreed to show them the Chinook.

In one more twist of fate, another Vietnam veteran who flew on board the Chinook came to the reunion. Dean Nelson, who took over crew chief duties when Mr. Hawkins left, went to see the helicopter, too.

"It's giving me shivers," he said.

The Chinook was built in 1965. Since then, it has been overhauled from top to bottom. But its airframe remains the same. Even though the Chinook has been in service for 36 years, it's not unusual for the Army. Most of its Chinook fleet is that old.

When Mr. Hawkins and his crew christened the helicopter in Vietnam, they named it "Granny Twitchett" after a character in a Playboy cartoon. A door gunner, Bob Telford, painted the character by the door, and "Granny" became the helicopter's nickname.

In Vietnam, Mr. Hawkins flew the Chinook to drop off troops into combat zones and to pick up wounded soldiers.

Enemy bullets pounded its sides while he was inside.

Mr. Hawkins even flew top-secret missions in Laos to install radio repeaters on mountainsides. Those missions have since been declassified.

Mr. Hawkins, a police officer in his hometown of Beatrice, Neb., spent time Thursday visiting soldiers in the 160th and telling the stories behind "Granny's" military career.

"It's great to meet the war veterans," said 1st Sgt. Stanley Wojtowicz of the 160th. "These guys paved the way for us. Actually, I'd like to do this myself 20 years from now."

COMING SUNDAY:

Anne Marie Murray of Augusta looks at the stack of World War II letters and sees a book - it's a love story. "I didn't realize how it was until I found these letters," she said. Her story will be in Sunday's Augusta Chronicle.