Washington jeweler preserves Vietnam memory for Texas vet
OLYMPIA, Washington — At a small family jeweler in Olympia, Wash., an artist taps and files and brushes an old piece of narrow chain.
She’s turning it into a shiny new link between Vietnam veterans and the machine that came to symbolize their war: The Fort Worth-made Bell Huey helicopter.
Twenty-three-year-old Hans Nagaele was an Army Huey crew chief in 1969.
“Huey sound. You’ll never get it out of your mind forever,” he said with a slight German accent.
Nagaele loved the sound of Hueys; the distinctive chop of two rotating blades.
He especially liked the sounds of the ones that came to rescue him after his helicopter crashed in a rice paddy. He remembers,
“Come in on final for landing. Lost the tail rotor,” he said. “I screamed, ‘tail rotor failure!’”
Like a lot of helicopter crash survivors, Naegele made a bracelet from the broken tail rotor chain. It’s about two feet long and a half-inch wide with tiny, sharp teeth.
Then, like a lot of Vietnam veterans, he came home to a country trying to break all chains to the war he had been fighting.
“I had a bracelet. I don’t know what happened,” he shrugs. “I think I threw it away when I came back. Because we were baby killers and all.
“I didn’t want anything to do with Vietnam anymore.”
But now he realizes that bracelet also connected him to soldiers with whom he flew. To friends damaged or lost.
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As it turns out, a lot of Huey crews want that connection back.
But those tail rotor chains haven’t been made in decades.
“[It’s an] extremely rare chain,” explains Huey aficionado Brian Reynolds. “Only used in one part of the helicopter. And only used on this helicopter. So very noticeable to people who recognize the chain.”
Reynolds recognized it because he owns the world’s largest private collection of Hueys. About 80 sit in his warehouse in Olympia.
“There’s an amazing amount of history in all these aircraft you see in here,” he said, taking News 8 inside the warehouse. “Every one of them has a story of some kind.”
Young flight crews risking their lives to save lives.
Valor and futility, aged by spider webs and peeling insulation. The Huey bodies sit in rows, with rotted interiors. Red crosses still painted on few of the dull green noses.
Reynolds refurbishes and sells Hueys to customers all over the world. He said they’re still great machines for firefighting or law enforcement.
When he found an original tail rotor chain a couple years ago, he wanted a bracelet like the ones he’d heard about.
“I’ve only had one of these in my whole history,” he said. “And I’ve been dealing with these helicopters for 25 years.”
Several jewelers rejected his idea. But the Hartley store made a bracelet for Reynolds. And as word spread, Vietnam veterans from all over began asking for them.
“We’ve had approximately 300 applications. And we’ve made about 80 bracelets so far,” said Linda Hartley. “I feel obligated. [I] feel responsible. I feel like we need to be respectful of them.”
The problem is, there are only a few inches of chain left. Bell built thousands of Hueys, but it redesigned the rotor chain back in the 60’s, replacing the originals with something more like a bicycle chain.
Linda Hartley says the jeweler has enough for perhaps five more bracelets. She is touched by the stories of vets requesting them.
Some tell her the bracelets even help deal with post traumatic stress disorder.
But she said a source that sold the chain to Hartley’s seems to be out. And the price grew so high, the jeweler now charges about $700 per bracelet.
“I wish we could give them away,” Hartley says.
So Hans Naegele is lucky. Again. The bracelet we saw coming together in Olympia was going to him in Houston.
“I cried when I got it,” he told us a few days later.
Then tears came back again. Only those who lived it can truly understand it. Just an old chain, polished up with a new clasp.
Every link is a memory.
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