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Dog of War

Think of Yankee Lima Four Two as a time machine: Jump in and you're back in Vietnam.

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Its official name was the Sea Horse, but they called the big helo the Dog. Not because it flew like one but because you’ll never get a Marine to call any weapon by the name the Corps gives it. Marines use the phonetic alphabet in radio communication, replacing letters with words, and in the Korean War, well before today’s NATO-compatible alfa, bravo, charlie, delta for A, B, C, D, they used able, baker, charlie, dog. Because it was the D model of the Sikorsky H-34, the UH-34D came by its nickname honestly.

The Dog I met is one of two still flying in a coat of flat Marine green. Its owner is James Moriarty, a dogged, wealthy Houston lawyer. “I sue big companies that cheat people,” he says with in-your-face pride. “Erin Brockovich is my hero.”

Moriarty loves the Marine Corps enough to have spent an unspeakable amount of his own money restoring the 40-year-old UH-34D so that he can operate it as a living, breathing, shuddering, fluttering, flying Marine memorial. He takes his YL-42—in GI phonetics, “Yankee Lima 42,” the call sign of an actual helicopter that had a fatal crash—to airshows all over the country. It has been restored to the condition of one of the hard-working UH-34Ds that flew in Vietnam, just as it might have looked parked on the HMM-362 (HMM means Helicopters, Marine, Medium) “Ugly Angels” squadron ramp at Soc Trang, or “Marble Mountain,” the helicopter strip at Da Nang. The cabin is cluttered with toolboxes and spares, and the slightly askew clamshell nose doors are held together with a bungee cord just as they would have been during the war. There’s a small puddle of red hydraulic fluid on the cabin floor, and even an inert M-60 machine gun on a swivel mount in the main door.

Though Moriarty served three combat tours in Vietnam, he wasn’t an H-34 pilot—wasn’t a pilot at all, wasn’t even an officer. He was a Huey door gunner. A sergeant. “We used to occasionally see the UH-34s at Marble Mountain, but I thought those old radial engines were totally obsolete,” he says. “Hell, I was flying in turbines.”

He had a point. The H-34 family marked the end of the era of piston engine military helicopter design, an era that was coffin-nailed shut by humming, vibration-free turbine engines, sophisticated and durable rotor systems, and unimaginably light and reliable materials and devices. The H-34 (Sikorsky model number S-58) was derived from the H-19 (S-55), a late-1940s Sikorsky design that pioneered a unique engine configuration. The obvious place to put its big air-cooled radial engine would have been in the very center of the helicopter, right under the rotors and with the vertical driveshaft connected directly to them. But that would have pretty much filled the cabin.

Sikorsky’s solution was to stick the engine out in a big schnoz of a nose, with its crankshaft tilted back and the driveshaft angled up and aft, passing between the flight crew seats to the transmission and rotor hub at about a 45-degree angle. This left a boxy, unobstructed area for a cabin behind and below the cockpit.

Today, the turbine equivalent of the H-34’s 1,525-horsepower piston engine weighs about 25 percent of what the iron-mongered original did and fits nicely up above the cabin. Another example of the 34’s archaic complexity: The main rotorhead, about the size of a Stetson hatbox, has 84 grease nipples, every one of which has to be lubed before a flight. Today’s typical rotorheads—light composite sandwiches of elastomers and alloys that shrug off the torture of tons of centrifugal force from whirling rotor blades—have never seen a grease gun.

As hard as it is to fathom, the UH-34D was powered by the same Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine used in everything from the last Navy biplanes to the B-17s and DC-3s that entered service between the world wars. The Dog was never intended to do battle against ground troops, so UH-34Ds had no guns, no cannon, no rockets. No problem: The Marines welded up mounts for M-60 light machine guns, one on each side of the cabin, and installed them in the field. That was as much recoil as the airframe could take.

With the ascendancy of turbine engines, the Sea Horse was already obsolete by the time of its first flight in 1954, but a war spared it. Vietnam first began to heat up in the early 1960s, becoming a combat zone for lifers and professional warriors, many of them Marines. The Marines’ two dozen UH-34Ds were all that squadron HMM-362 had to work with when, on April 15, 1962, they landed at Soc Trang, a former World War II Japanese fighter strip on the Mekong River delta. The Ugly Angels, as they soon came to be known for their medevac missions, were eventually followed by nine more UH-34 squadrons.

By the time the media had swarmed into the war in the late 1960s, the chuttering rumble of the 34’s radial engine had largely been replaced by the raspy whine of the Bell UH-1B Huey. The nightly news resonated with the pounding beat of the Huey’s wide twin rotor blades, and most of us came to assume that Vietnam was the Huey’s war.

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