The Ugly Angels
Julie Jackson, American History, November 10, 1999
It was 1985 and a man named Gerald Hail searches through a metal graveyard in Tucson, Arizona for an aircraft he could use only for its valued parts. Mr. Hail already owned several UH-34Ds, which is a very rare machine, so when he came upon an old, frail, and beaten helicopter of the same make, he bought and had her shipped home -only to await the use of her once young limbs. It wasn’t until years later while looking her over that he and some of his buddies discovered something once written on her tattered body, now covered with worn paint and age, the word- MARINES. Mr. Hail knew immediately that this was no ordinary aircraft. Yes, she had rotors and an engine, but she also had a story. A story she had kept locked away for nearly 30 years. See, she was YL (Yankee Lima) 37 and a treasured member of the Ugly Angels Squadron HMM-362.
The UH-34D was responsive, well powered, agile, and very forgiving; (she could sustain a lot of damage and still fly home). She was known for her reliability and performance, but most of all for bringing her boys back from the pits of Hell! She provided many lifesaving services for her Marines, even when the zones were hot. This helicopter was more than a machine; she was an angel, an Ugly Angel to be exact.
Many stories have been told through the years of how the squadron received the name Ugly Angels, but only a few have proven to be true. It is said that the helicopter herself was so ugly, yet she was called an angel because she descended from the heavens to save the souls of her war weary men. It has also been told that a Marine while being rescued made the statement: ” You are the ugliest angel I have ever seen”, and from there the name was adopted the “Ugly Angels”. Before the squadron gained their well-known name they were referred to as Archie’s Angels, after their first commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Archie Clapp. They arrived in Vietnam in April of 1962 and answered the prayers of many wounded Marines until August of 1969. The Ugly Angels were the longest serving squadron in Vietnam and during a seven-year service, 33 brave crewmen gave the ultimate sacrifice for their fellow Marines. For every one of the 33 men who lost their lives, a great number were saved. It is at this moment that we as a nation should realize that freedom is never free!
Discovering her unsung fame, Mr. Hail knew she was worth more than just scrap metal- she deserved to soar like the angel she once was. After a year of restoring, a call went out to all Ugly Angels to gather for her dedication as the first and only mobile memorial. As the doors to the hanger opened you could only hear the faint sound of beating wings- a sound that remained forever in the minds of those who knew her best. As YL 37 descended, the eyes of some of the world’s strongest men started to water, and with the shifting of glasses and the wiping of noses they said hello to their long lost Angel. These Marines all have the ability to cry simply because they are human, but in an instant a manufactured helicopter became a living being- for she possessed gracefulness and beauty. From the eyes of a spectator she seemed to be saying more to her once young Marines, than they possibly could to her. Emotions were overtaking words and the prayers of the Ugly Angels had been answered!
It had been 30 years since her boys had stepped foot inside her. Only this time instead of young, energetic, muscular Marines jumping on board, these aged, gray headed men were having help climbing into the world they were never allowed to forget. As the rotors started to turn, so did the memories, for that particular sound made their palms sweat and the blood rush through their veins. By simply closing their eyes, the pictures they had tried so hard to shove to the back of their very being, were starting to rush to the surface. Seeing the long blades of grass beat against the ground as the choppers were coming in for a landing and hearing the bullets ricochet against the metal, some allowing light to penetrate into the dark belly. Realizing that with each hole was the entrance of death, in which someone barely missed. In fighting back these thoughts, the Marines open their eyes only to be embraced by the wings of a beautiful angel, which helped to bring them home.
Many stood around in amazement as some of her pilots had the opportunity to sit behind the controls and fly her into the blue realms of the universe once more. One particular helmsman took her where no man had taken her in nearly 30 years, on a mission to show what she was made of. She performed with such dignity, honor, and grace, that as we stood there under her spell, someone stated that “she looked like a pretty girl showing off’, and that was exactly what she was. For she had returned from the lifeless somber in which she was laid– as all true ANGELS do!
As the hours faded away, so did the laughter. For everyone began to realize that the time to say goodbye was fast approaching. These once rugged Marines were now hugging one another as tears of both joy and sorrow fell upon their wrinkled cheeks. Many unable to say a word, only embracing their brothers of war and their memories of those left behind. As YL 37 sat resting in the hanger, you could almost sense the sadness she bore, for these men brought her back to life. Upon leaving, a number of Ugly Angels gently and loving caressed what they thought to be the prettiest angel of all!
I want to thank Mr. Hail for allowing everyone the opportunity to fly on YL-37. That weekend was one I will treasure forever and I know my father will! For two days I was given one of the greatest gifts I could ever ask for- the chance to see it from my father’s eyes and to meet the men I had only heard about growing up. These men were heroes to me and to be able to sit and hear their stories touched me deeply. I also want to thank the Ugly Angels for allowing me to share your memories. I want to say “THANK YOU”! Not only for the stories, but for risking your lives to give us what we take for granted everyday.