A group of area Vietnam veterans plan to bring a workhorse combat helicopter -one that was actually shot down in combat in Vietnam - to Tonawanda, with a groundbreaking and dedication ceremony Wednesday morning.
The AH-1 Cobra, manufactured by Bell Aerospace subsidiary Bell Helicopter, will take its place in Veterans Park on River Road in the City of Tonawanda. A veteran of Vietnam combat itself, the AH-1 being brought to town by local veterans was actually shot down in combat in Vietnam - only to be repaired and put back in service.
"This Cobra is an important symbol to a lot of us," said local veteran Bill Paton, an artillery forward observer who received the Air Medal in Vietnam, and is part of the group that secured the helicopter for Tonawanda. "It represents that resilience, the will to take hits and keep pressing on, that really came to represent our soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors during the Vietnam War. It's a survivor, like we are, and a reminder of our brothers who didn't come back."
Paton will be just one of several men who spent part of their military service airborne. Organizers of Wednesday's event plan to also welcome at least one pilot who flew the specific helicopter coming to Tonawanda.
The AH-1 helicopter developed at least one strong link to Western New York as well, being assigned to a Rochester-based aviation unit of the New York Army National Guard.
"This is a homecoming for that helicopter, and for the troops who flew Cobras, who counted on them for air support, who fought our wars while the AH-1 ruled the skies," said Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 President Mike Walker. "This helicopter is going to symbolically move from its former role as one of America's fiercest warriors to a new one, helping heal old wounds and teach about the past."
Under an agreement reached by the "Remembering Vietnam" memorial committee, on which Paton has served as a member, Bell Aerospace will lease the helicopter to local veterans for 99 years. The City of Tonawanda, meanwhile, is providing the site for its display, where it, along with a brick wall, will stand as a symbolic remembrance of Vietnam-era veterans' sacrifice.
Local organizers said the Cobra, which is not known to have ever been formally named, will now carry the name "Remembering Vietnam."