In The Shadow Of The Blade: A Story Of
and Coming To Terms
BY JIM BELSHAW
Shadow of the Blade, a documentary film that follows the
flight of a restored
UH-1H Huey helicopter, leads to people and places stretching
across 10,000 miles of America. It leads to memories and loved
ones and the never-ending pain of great loss. It leads to Landing
Zones scheduled and Landing Zones found along the way, and
last-minute requests from people who ask: "Can you land here?"
The heart of the film is found in veterans who still look skyward
at the sound of a helicopter's
blades slapping the air; it leads to families imagining a loved
one dying alone in a faraway place. It leads to a reunion of a
door gunner and the man whose life he saved; a sister's flight
with her brother's commanding officer and his pilot as they
remember the last day of his life; a former POW who will climb
into a Huey for the first time since he was shot down in 1968; a
daughter's flight in the co-pilot's seat in memory of her father
who died in Vietnam; a Gold Star Mother who still grieves for a
son; a memorial built in a mountain valley by the father of a
It leads to Mary Padilla in Rio Rancho, N.M., when she says of her
grievously wounded husband coming home from Vietnam in a
wheelchair: "Love is not a burden."
In October 2002, Patrick and Cheryl Fries of Austin, Texas, lifted
off with their Arrowhead Film and Video Production crew in a
restored Huey to fly across America to record what would become a
remarkably moving film. The creator of scores of documentaries,
commercials, and corporate branding campaigns over a 20-year
career, Patrick Fries set out on a project like no other he'd seen
in his career, calling the people he ran into in the course of
making the film "some of the most inspiring people I have met."
He found he had made a movie that changed lives, including his.
"You'd think that after 33 years the wounds would be healed up,"
Patrick Fries said. "I had no idea that by scratching the surface
the wounds would be so fresh."
His wife, Cheryl, creative director and producer of the film,
underscores the impact of the stories they recorded.
"We knew the stories would be moving, but what we didn't know was
the power that would be unleashed," she said.
About four years ago, on a long helicopter flight across Texas,
Patrick Fries chatted up the pilot, a Vietnam veteran. Encouraged
by the conversation, the pilot recounted experiences from the
Vietnam War. He talked about the Hueys flying in and out all day.
It seemed as if the air was never empty. Always there was a Huey
up there somewhere.
Fries, a longtime documentary filmmaker with no connection to the
Vietnam War either through his own experience or with family
members, reflected on the films of the war. He had seen many
documentaries on Vietnam and thought it had all been done. There
was nothing to tell.
Then he asked the pilot a question: What if you could fly one of
those Hueys across America and take it back to the people who
depended on it every day?
"The thing that struck me was that every person, whether they were
administrative or a cook or a grunt or a pilot, they all had a
Huey story," Fries said. "The one common thing to all those people
was the Huey. What really fascinated me was what about all the
average guys who gave up their lives in Vietnam? Who's going to
tell their story? Who cares about them? That's what drove me."
The pilot thought it a grand idea to fly a Huey across America,
but told Fries that the filmmaker never would be able to pull it
off. Hueys were too hard to find. They were classified as
experimental aircraft and very few were in private ownership.
"It will be impossible to find one and get it to fly and land it
in these places you're talking
about," the pilot said. "It's impossible."
"He was almost right," Fries said.
Back home in Austin, Fries told Cheryl that he had a great idea
for a filmfly a Huey across
Cheryl Fries remembers her reaction well: "I said, ' What's a
She did an Internet search and found the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots
Association. She sent an
e-mail to the webmaster, Gary Roush. He would become the film's
mission historian, working long hours to verify the accuracy of
every story told in the documentary. It just so happened that the
association's annual reunion was the next week. The Fries attended
the reunion at Roush's suggestion, walking around with a camera,
talking with pilots, filming conversations. When they returned
home and reviewed the tape, they knew they had a powerful story.
"I figured out pretty quick that for veterans and people on the
perimeter of Vietnam that just
sitting in a static display of a Huey [at the reunion] had some
power," Patrick Fries said. "Then I thought, ' What's going to
happen if we allow a woman who lost her father in Vietnam to
actually fly, to take the controls of the same kind of helicopter
her father flew? What will happen to her? What will we learn and
what will she learn? ' I thought it would be pretty cool if we
could pull it off."
It took two more years to get it off the ground. One potentially
fatal setback came when
they thought they'd solved their most difficult problemfinding a
helicopter. A Huey belonging
to a sheriff's department in Florida had been confirmed for use in
the film but at the last minute was pulled.
Two years later, someone from the Texas Air Command Museum
accidentally found the Fries' websitewww.intheshadowoftheblade.com and called them.
"You looking for a Huey?" he asked. "We have one."
The Bell helicopter's official name is 65-10091, but goes by 091.
Shot up twice and
crashed in the Vietnam War, the helicopter itself is a Vietnam
veteran that went on to serve in the Army, Navy, Army Reserve,
National Guard, and NASA. During the war, more than 7,000 Hueys
flew in Vietnam. Nearly half were lost. The Hueys flew more combat
hours than any aircraft in history. More than 900,000 patients
were airlifted by the workhorse helicopters.
091 was flown by the 173rd Assault Helicopter Company, "The Robin
Hoods," in Vietnam.
Among the more than 50 Vietnam helicopter pilots to fly 091 during
the film was Ernie Bruce.
This time around, his daughters flew with him. In New Mexico, a
Native American blessed 091 with sage. In Georgia, an artist
painted a talisman on it. The helicopter carried veterans, sons
daughters, and wives, landing when and where it could and drawing
an appreciative audience at every LZ.
When the filming ended, the helicopter was donated to the
Smithsonian's National Museum of American History for inclusion in
a permanent exhibit scheduled to open on Veterans Day 2004.
The filmmakers made a point of assembling a crew of Vietnam
Retired Lt. Col. Bob Baird, co-pilot and mission logistics
coordinator, who served 20
years in the Army with two tours in Vietnam. Bill McDonald,
mission chaplain, a former crew chief for the 128th Assault
Helicopter Company. Gary Roush, mission historian, a former
helicopter pilot with the 242nd Assault Support Helicopter
Company. Mike Venable, mission co-pilot, who flew with the 129th
and 134th Helicopter Assault Companies.
The Fries conducted many interviews with veterans, logging more
than 200 hours of taped
interviews, reunions, and ceremonies.
"One of our philosophical principles was that we wanted to stay as
close as possible to the
history of the veterans at every opportunity," Cheryl Fries said.
"So we involved veterans at
every level. We always had a Vietnam veteran in the left seat of
the aircraft and we had veterans planning the LZs and doing a lot
of the crew work. Accuracy was non-negotiable. There was a great
deal of respect about this being sacred ground for the people
telling the stories. We were committed to being respectful of the
veterans and families we were interviewing. In the years of
pre-production, we interviewed hundreds of veterans. That's how we
formed the philosophical base for the film."
Patrick Fries believed that had they not been faithful to the
experience of the veterans, many of the stories would not have
"If you're not accurate, people don't want to talk to you," he
said. "They don't want to open up their stories and their photo
albums and their pain and suffering only to have it not told
Accompanied by three support vehicles and an aerial cinematography
helicopter, the Fries
estimate they flew 10,000 miles, a figure arrived at by Logistics
Coordinator Bob Baird, who
logged the miles on his SUV between Ft. Rucker, Alabama, and the
flight's final LZ, the Angel Fire National Vietnam Veterans
Memorial in the mountains of northern New Mexico.
They scheduled 25 Landing Zones and guess at a final tally of 42,
a number they are unable to nail down with any precision because
many LZs popped up at the last minute, and all followed Patrick
Fries' rule: Don't land on concrete unless absolutely necessary.
So they put down in front yards and back yards and farm yards and
pastures and open fields. Their Web page provides an LZ road map:
3 farmyards, 4 backyards, 1 elementary school, 1 church, 1 town
square, 1 hospital, 1 VFW hall, 2 high schools, 4 museums, 3
military bases, 5 parks, 5 universities, and the Ft. Gordon
They found a daughter who lost her father and a Vietnamese baby
saved by Americans. They visited pilots and crew members, triage
nurses, Red Cross "Donut Dollies," and USO
entertainers. They met family members who told heartbreaking
stories of loss. In some cases, people had carried the terrible
burden of imagining loved ones dying alone until they met the men
who had held their loved ones when they died.
"I had no idea that a mother or sister's darkest fear was that
their son or brother had died alone," Patrick Fries said. "You
think that when someone is killed, the biggest loss is the loss of
life. You can't celebrate birthdays and Christmases together. But
to hear them say the worst part of the whole thing is they were
told their loved one died alone somewhere in a jungle thousands of
miles from home was very difficult. I had no idea what they
grieved for. People die and many, many years later, the war is as
present in their children's hearts as the day they died. From the
family members to the hardcore veteran who hadn't shed a tear in
34 years, it was way more than we ever bargained for."
Cheryl Fries remembers a Gold Star Mother who came to a Huey LZ.
"She talked about her son," she said. "This was a woman who heard
the Huey was coming to her town and came out to see it. We'd never
met her before. She was clutching a photograph of him. She pointed
to her Gold Star and said, ' This is all I have left. ' That
family lives with that loss every day."
Fries spoke of a Georgia veteran who held a dying comrade in his
arms as the man asked the veteran to tell his wife that he loved
her. Thirty-four years later, through the hard detective work of
Gary Roush and what Cheryl Fries called a "series of miracles,"
the filmmakers were able to locate the man's widow and put her in
touch with the soldier who held her dying husband in his arms.
Each said the experience helped to heal wounds that had been
painful through all the years.
The film ends in Angel Fire, N.M., with the Huey settling in for a
landing in a cloud of swirling
snow behind the chapel at the Angel Fire Vietnam Veterans
Memorial. The memorial was built by the late Victor Westphall to
honor his son, David, a Marine officer killed in Vietnam, and all
other Vietnam veterans. Westphall peeked out from over the top of
the instrument panel as the helicopter landed. The hands of
veterans he loved reached into the helicopter to pull him out
gently and get him into his wheelchair.
"Angel Fire became the perfect ending spot," Cheryl said. "Here
you had so many incredible elementsthe father on the mountaintop,
the first memorial to honor fallen Vietnam veterans, the kinds of
things people do in the face of unimaginable grief, and then this
full-circle return to Native America, with a Native American
veteran blessing the helicopter. It was all there in one place. In
a way, Shadow became a story in itself. It became a story
of reconciliation, of coming to terms.''
The Fries are entering the film in film festivals, a course of
action taken by all independent film producers. They've been
notified that Shadow will receive an award at a Houston
Film Festival. They are considering an offer from a cable TV
company to air the film on Veterans Day. In Albuquerque last
February, it had its first theater showing at the Madstone
Theaters, a fundraising event for the Angel Fire Memorial. The
production company offers the film to Vietnam veteran groups for
reunions and meetings.
Major funding for the film came from Arrowhead Film & Video,
DynCorp, and US Helicopter.
Major in-kind support was provided by Southwest Airlines and Bell
Helicopter. A complete list of contributors may be found at the
Shadow Web page.
"It was very surprising to see how healing it was for the veterans
to tell their stories," Cheryl
Fries said. "I hope one of the lessons of In the Shadow of the
Blade is that when you
open up and reach out, you might find the peaceful link you need.
We were just the conduit. It was a life-changing experience for us
to be able to do this for people."