Vietnam vet flies again

Pictured is John Sinclair sitting in the door gunner position of the UH-1 Huey.

A local veteran recently flew in the helicopter he called home during his tour of Vietnam, providing him with memories of his military service as well as the welcome home he never truly received.

John Sinclair was born and raised in St. Louis, specifically Lemay in south St. Louis County. He attended Hancock High School, quickly joined the military in December 1968, married his high school sweetheart Mary Ann in 1969 and left for Vietnam in 1970.

As Sinclair recalled, his experience in Vietnam – from 1970-71 – was spent as crew chief on a helicopter, specifically the UH-1 Huey, a symbol of the Vietnam War.

“I was in assault helicopter company,” Sinclair said. “116 Assault Helicopter Company. In Vietnam, we did the Cambodian invasion that year. That was an experience. A lot of flying.”

Sinclair spoke about various memories of the war. As crew chief, he served in a gunning position as well as doing light maintenance, though he noted the helicopter was always sent away for any especially substantial repair jobs.

He recalled the many times he and his crew were sent out to pick up infantry, including plenty of wounded soldiers.

Sinclair further spoke about the dangers small arms posed to the helicopter and his crew, how they would often fly as low above the trees as they could to avoid enemy missiles and sit on their flak vests instead of wearing them to better protect themselves.

There was also, of course, plenty of monotony during the war, with pre- and post-flight inspections bookending each day.

“Normal Vietnam routine,” Sinclair said. “Get up in the morning and check the helicopter over, fly, come back, stay the night and try to get some sleep after you work on the helicopter, checked it out. That’s what my life in Vietnam was.”

Given the tremendous amount of time spent in a Huey helicopter – be it the D or B models – Sinclair was bound to develop plenty of memories with the machine.

It was with that in mind that Scott Kohler, Sinclair’s longtime friend from his time working at the Dave Sinclair car dealership following the war, decided to organize a flight alongside Sinclair’s wife.

“I just thought it’d be a really good idea to get him on a Huey, and that was actually one that was in Vietnam,” Kohler said. “It’s one of the few that’s left flying.”

The flight, which took place Aug. 21, involved the Gateway Chapter of Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum, an organization which often participates in air shows in the area but has also been known to do fly-bys for military funerals and more private events like what was recently done for Sinclair.

Kohler said he saw a Huey helicopter flying around Sackman Field and Columbia Aero Club airport some time ago, though he and Sinclair unfortunately weren’t able to get a proper look at it.

“We actually saw a Huey about a year ago,” Kohler said. “It was flying down from the Columbia airport. We missed it. We didn’t get to see it. A guy called us and said ‘Hey, there’s a Huey down there,’ and we caught it just flying over toward the river.”

That missed opportunity nevertheless prompted to begin organizing a proper tribute experience for his friend.

The flight, as Sinclair recalled it, set out from Sackman Field off Bluff Road, traveling over South County before moving back across the river, giving him an excellent view of his house before returning to Sackman.

Aircraft Commander Gilmore Stone, who helped put the event together, said private events and flights like this don’t typically happen – though they’re certainly impactful when they do.

As Stone said, an experience like this can help provide a proper welcome home for those veterans who didn’t get after leaving Vietnam.

“The impact I see is those guys did not get a nice welcome when they came home from Vietnam,” Stone said. “They pretty much changed out of their uniforms at the airport and never really talked about their experiences or shared their experiences, even with their own family… It triggers memories, that sound and that experience.”

Kohler offered a similar sentiment. Along with simply organizing something for his good friend, he wanted to provide Sinclair with the sort of honor he feels he deserves.

“It’s no hidden secret that a lot of these guys that came from Vietnam did not get the proper welcome,” Kohler said. “They were just not honored like they should’ve been. They didn’t ask to go over there… I just thought it’d be a great tribute.”

Sinclair himself spoke quite positively about the experience, saying the surprise flight was good and the pilots were excellent.

Given the opportunity to check out a plane much like the one he flew in during the war, Sinclair found a familiar spot toward the back which served as a gunner position, though he joked it was a somewhat tight squeeze as he’s a bit larger than he was after graduating from high school.

Generally, Sinclair expressed a fondness for the flight experience, offering thanks to Kohler, his wife and everyone else involved in its organization.

“It was a lot of stuff to remember, I’ll tell you,” Sinclair said. “It was a good experience. It was the smell and the feel of the aircraft, the vibration when it lifts off. I remember how it all just happened, how it all came about. 

“It brought back memories. Not no bad ones, really.”

Pictured is John Sinclair speaking with aircraft commander Gilmore Stone of the Gateway Chapter of the Army Aviation Heritage Foundation and Flying Museum.
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Andrew Unverferth

HTC web