Vietnam Huey (and Cobra) Rotor Chain Bracelet
Legend has it that Vietnam War helicopter crews who survived crashes in Bell UH-1 “Huey” helicopters made bracelets, sometimes called “hard luck bracelets,” from the wreckage’s rotor chain (also known as “silent chains”, or “shoot down chains) to wear as a badge of honor (read: “Vietnam Veteran Comforted by Surprise Huey Helicopter Chain Bracelet“). The bracelet signified that the crew had survived a crash from being shot down, or a tail rotor failure of some kind. Often, the crew chiefs would simply file and pull a pin in the chain, size it, replace the pin, then hammer it closed. We now know, after personally communicating with over 100 veterans, that the legend is real.
Northwest Helicopters‘ president, Brian Reynolds, knew about the legend (watch video) – saw the old black-and-white photos of soldiers wearing the self-fashioned bracelets – and searched years for the rare chain so he could make a few for himself and others.
The Huey, first used by the military in the 1960s, initially used a 15-inch length of specifically manufactured chain to control the tail rotor pitch.
“The chain is particular to the Bell UH-1 helicopter,” says Reynolds. “It’s only found on that model of helicopter and nowhere else.”
The chains, not well suited to the extreme challenges of combat that these helicopters faced, were eventually replaced by an updated, modernized version and were gone from service by the late 1960s. Today it’s extremely difficult to find the original design.
“People are hunting for these things. You just can’t find them,” Reynolds says of the original Vietnam-era bracelets. “And the ones you can find, the people have been wearing since the 1960s and they’re all worn out, basically.”
The chain, a series of a little plates and pins, moves in one motion.
“I’d been looking for a chain for 15 years, and then I found two by accident,” says Reynolds. “I was going through a box of other surplus helicopter parts and they happened to be at the bottom of it.”
Reynolds had finally uncovered the rare chain. Now he needed to find a local jeweler to help make his long-held dream a reality.
He opened his web browser and typed in “customer jeweler” and “Olympia.” He found three places to check out.
“Hartley Jewelers was the most responsive,” Reynolds says. “I basically went in and said, ‘This is off a 1960s helicopter. Can you make a bracelet out of it?’”
In fact, Reynolds had an example to share with Hartley Jewelers: an old, worn version of the bracelet given to him by a European Huey owner many years before.
“It was old and tired, but it was a good example,” says Reynolds. “It was more of a field modification than a jewelry store product.”
Longtime Hartley Jeweler goldsmith, designer, and heirloom restorer Margit Phillips looked at the bracelet and chain, listening carefully to what Reynolds wanted.
With 25 years of jewelry expertise behind her – the first 10 of them in her homeland of Germany – Phillips examined the sample and knew that it was a durable design that could be duplicated.
The design uses a modified watchband clasp fit to the chain. “I really thought it was very durable and the design made sense to me,” says Phillips.
Using the original bracelet as a pattern, Phillips was able to divide out the length of chain and make five bracelets. A few months later, Reynolds had her do the same with the second chain.
“The overall chain is surprisingly heavy,” says Phillips. “But as a bracelet, it’s quite wearable.”
Phillips admits she was surprised by how soft the chain’s metal was.
“When I had to re-rivet things to put the clasp on, I had to drill through some of the holes in the links, I realized it ground away faster than I expected.”
Reynolds laughs when describing the bracelet he now wears every day.
“You’ve got to be careful with them, because they have sharp edges,” he says. “Most people would see it as something a punk kid would wear, that could cut someone.”
But to everyone in his industry, the piece is instantly recognizable. “Everybody who sees it says, ‘Whoa! There’s one!’” he says.
Phillips, who has worked on so many unique custom pieces over the years, counts this project as one of the most distinctive.
“And that’s something that’s really fun about working with jewelry,” she says. “There are still pieces that really catch your eye. I’ve been doing this for 25 years and you never stop learning.”
Phillips is part of Hartley Jewelers talented team of jewelry artisans. “It is so much fun to work with a team where you don’t have to second-guess everything.”
Recently, a young man came into Hartley Jewelers with a bracelet, given to him by his grandfather that was also made from a Huey chain.
“He had no idea about the significance of that bracelet until he came here,” says Phillips, who of course immediately recognized the piece and was able to share the history of it with him.
Reynolds has held onto a few of the custom-made bracelets, giving others to friends and people that work for him.
After so many years searching for the elusive rotor chain, and having a vision in his head of the finished product, was Reynolds happy with the final bracelets?
“Absolutely. It came together perfectly and it was exactly what I was looking for,” he says.
See Reynolds’ bracelet and a glimpse of Phillips at work creating it in this Hartley Jeweler video. If you have any information to share regarding the history of these bracelets, or the stories behind them, you are encouraged to email travis, who is collecting as much information as possible from those who were there.
From those who have inquired about the bracelets:
“…Lucky for us we were inside the wire. The last thing we stripped from the wreck was the tail rotor chain. We all walked away. What a day. I can still see the rotor blades hitting the dirt in front of my face…”
“I have only seen one a few years ago at a Vietnam Dustoff Association reunion. I do know an authentic Huey tail rotor chain bracelet form my era, before the chains were updated, are rare and to get a bracelet made from one would mean the world to me.”
“The guys who wore them flew rescue missions along with me and it was a type of unofficial “insignia” of our dedication to our mission and the love and respect for the Huey.”
“Haven’t had one in 40 years years. would help with me dealing with my PTSD”
“The price to have a “real clasp” put on the chain, $150.00; being able to wear it confidently with the security of not losing the tail rotor chain from a helicopter I worked on while in Viet Nam, and was able to bring back to the “World”, priceless.”
“I flew OH-6 Loach’s in 1969-1970. The last time I was shot down I was burned over 70% and spent the next 16 months in Army hospitals. I served and flew with the best. I was awarded a purple heart. 17 Air Medals, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallentry and 2 Distinguished Flying Crosses. I have about 100 hours logged in a huey. I have never worn jewelry but I think this would feel right.”
“… I had been the Crewchief of the ship it came off of so they presented it to me. My experience with these bracelets is pretty much the same as many others state. Usually it is from a crashed aircraft when it was salvaged and others are from replacement when it failed or even wore out or there was a bulletin about them to be replaced. They were in big demand.”
“My boyfriend had a bracelet he made while in Vietnam as a teenager gunner and mechanic soldier. He has lost the bracelet and I would love to replace it for him. Any help would be greatly appreciated.”
“…enjoyed article and video on tail rotor chain very much. I have been looking for a replacement for my original bracelet which was stolen/lost when i was hospitalized at VA hospital–i had been wearing my original chain since 1968. I was a helicopter crewchief with the 1st cav div in vietnam from 1967-1968—my helicopter was a uh1d-tail #563-of the b co 229th avn bn assaualt helicopter unit.”
“I left basic training and went directly to Ft. Hood. As an E-1 Pvt., I was paired with a Spec 5 as his co-driver. He had recently returned from Vietnam. One of the first things I noticed was his bracelet. His was pinned on so it would be a real chore to remove it. I have wanted one of those bracelets ever since I first laid eyes on it.”
“My husband was a Crew Chief on a UH1D Huey Helicopter in Vietnam 1967-1968 and was there during the Tet Offensive. I would be very interested to know any information on this bracelet and would love to purchase one for him as a gift.”
“Flew UH-1 in VN and for many years in my civilian career and had a engine failure accident in 1995 that paralyzed me and put me in a wheel chair. Still loved flying the Huey.”
“I served my time in Vietnam in 1968 with the 1st Air Cav, during TET & the whole 9 yards. I lost my tail-rotor chain bracelet in 1994 & I have felt naked ever since.”
“The chain was an item that, when worn out, would be removed and replaced….but the supply folks kept the old one. You had to turn one in to get one. A few of the old timers had silent chain bracelets, but most of them were from Vietnam. They were difficult to get. At some point, the Army switched the chain design or manufacturer or something and for a short period of time, they were throwing the old chains out. I ended up with a discarded one and ground a couple of rivets off of it to make a short piece for a bracelet. I sized it to fit my 20-year old wrist. Over the years, I’ve worn it with just a bent piece of wire holding it together and then for a while with a small bolt/nut holding it together.”
“My dad was mine sweepstakes in 1967- 69 , he had a bracelet there and lost it on a road . He now has cancer due to agent orange … We were talking about bracelets and would love to have matching bracelets with a real meaning behind them .. we need 2 .”
“My father gave me one of these bracelets he made in Vietnam. His and my bracelet has been lost for a long time.”
Once the wings go on, they never come off whether they can be seen or not.
It fuses to the soul through adversity, fear and adrenaline and no one who has ever worn them with pride, integrity and guts can ever sleep through the “call of the wild” that wafts through the bedroom windows in the deep of the night.
When a good aircrewman leaves the “job” and retires, many are jealous, some are pleased and yet others, who may have already retired, wonder. We wonder if he knows what he is leaving behind, because we already know.
We know, for example, that after a lifetime of camaraderie that few experience, it will remain as a longing for those past times. We know in the world of flying, there is a fellowship which lasts long after the flight suits are hung up in the back of the closet. We know even if he throws them away, they will be on him with every step and breath that remains in his life.
We also know how the very bearing of a man speaks of what he was and in his
heart still is. Because we flew, we envy no man on earth.
Submitted by Travis Lind Thornton