PLANT CITY — Jay Hays remembers the day he left Vietnam and paused to take a last look at the helicopter that had taken him into combat zones dozens of times.
“I thanked God and the helicopter that I’d survived my year and that I was going home in one piece,” he said. “I thought back about what I’d gone through and knew how lucky I was to have made it.”
Hays, 66, said he figured he’d seen the last of the UH-1 “Huey” that had the call sign Bandit 113, when he left Vietnam Nov. 7, 1968.
On Sunday, the former crew chief was reunited with the aging chopper at the Plant City home of Lance Ham, who served with Hays in Vietnam in the 281st Assault Helicopter Co. Hays, Ham and other veterans helped prepare the helicopter for its final mission: a trip to a military museum in Texas.
“It brings back a lot of memories,” said Ham, 68.
The helicopter had decades of service in the Army and Florida National Guard until the fall, when it was declared surplus. Ham stored the helicopter behind his home until Monday, when representatives of the H.E.A.R.T.S. Veterans Museum of Texas picked it up to truck it to Huntsville.
About a half a dozen members of the 281st from various times in Vietnam were on hand as a huge wrecker from Brewington Towing Service loaded it up on a trailer for its journey west.
Three of them, Hays, Ham and 67-year-old Jim Christiansen, who was a mechanic, saw Bandit 113 during its combat days.
Hays said he was emotional when he saw the helicopter for the first time.
“It had been more than 40 years and I didn’t think I’d ever see it again. I got a bit choked up,” he said.
Hays said he recalled two missions in particular: When the choppper was used to help rescue more than 200 Vietnamese civilians who had been held virtually enslaved by the enemy and a ferocious fight where 11 of 14 helicopters from the 281st and a fighter jet were shot down.
“We were in formation and the helicopter in front of us and behind of us got hit. We didn’t take a bullet. We were the only one still in flying condition when it was all over,” he said.
Ham, a 68-year-old retired Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officer and pilot, said he was surprised that Bandit 113 came through unscathed. “We took a lot of fire, every day,” he said.
The Huey was one of the workhorses of the Vietnam war, and its missions ranged from flying commandos into hostile territory to supporting American and South Vietnamese soldiers fighting on the ground.
Ed Duke, a Vietnam veteran with the 281st who works for the Texas museum, said Bandit 113 will be repainted and restored to look like its days of combat.
Plant City resident Bob Johnson, 71, who helped load up Bandit 113, said he was glad the aircraft was headed to the nonprofit museum for display and not a scrap heap.
“It’s going to live on forever now,” he said.