By Major Van Harl, USAF Ret.

In the poem "The Handcart Boys," which is about rescue-helicopter aircrews these two lines are found, "Every branch of the service has its modern version of the Handcart Boys who respond to the call - They go out for the wounded and dead, bring them back, get them all."

In this modern world of passenger jets and fighter aircraft, it is still the helicopter that we rely on the most for rescuing people. For the tsunamis rescue efforts in south-east Asia it is the helicopter that is master of the skies. With roads washed out and many of the endangered people living on small remote islands, a helicopter is the only way to get help to these survivors in need.

Early helicopter rescue efforts were picking up people adrift at sea. Distribution of safe drinking water was the first order of business after rescue efforts subsided. The waves had destroyed most of the coastal infrastructure and contaminated the local wells with salt water. Helicopters can fly to almost all areas that are in need of relief aid but that does not mean the helicopter can always land. Out of desperation and a need for emergency supplies, some of the survivors on the ground swarm the helicopters as the aircraft attempt to land.

Another hazard for the aircrews as they are trying to determine if a landing zone is safe is land mines. Sri Lanka has been in a civil war for years and both sides used land mines. The waves washed over the land in both directions. The force uncovered and then moved the ordnance without exploding it, creating an impromptu mine-field that even the people who originally positions the mines are unaware of.

And then there are the natives in remote villages who are firing arrows into the air, at the approaching helicopters. The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its task force was sent to the region to provide emergence support. The Lincoln has 17 helicopters that went in to round-the-clock flight operations.

The Navy also has dispatched the USS Bonhomme Richard which is an amphibious assault ship. This ship has 42, CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters that can each carry in 11,000 pounds of supplies and carry out 15 litter patients. It can also generate 30,000 gallons of fresh water daily, beyond the ships regular operational needs. Water that can be carried directly to the victims by the CH-46 helicopters without stopping on shore to take on the liquids, and provide the needed knowledge that the water is safe.

The "Richard" has Marines that are trained in helicopter landing operations who can fly in and provide man power at any location. Perform a short term rescue / support mission and then fly away to project help in some other needed hot-spot.

The Air Force has sent in their HH 60 Pave Hawk rescue helicopters to assist. They have in flight refueling capability, which enables them to fly long stretches of open-ocean to assist in operations.

In the old days military rescue from a battlefield was done by two wheel handcarts. You hauled needed supplies to the soldiers on the front lines with the handcarts and then the wounded and dead were remove by the handcarts going back to the safety of the rear area. The operators of the two wheel wooded carts were called "handcart boys."

Our modern military has a new type of handcart. It has a rotor blade on top that gets it off the ground and into action, instead of two wooden wheels. It has sliding doors and it makes a lot more noise. It has helicopter aircrew members who are the 21st century Handcart Boys and Handcart Girls. Supporting the military on the ground in time of war but also being there to support rescue missions for the disaster victims of the world.

Artillery is the King and Infantry is the Queen of the battlefield. But I would submit that the Handcart Boys and Girls are the prince and princess of the modern battlefield. We simple can not perform peace time or war time operations without helicopters. Every branch of the US military uses helicopters for search and rescue operations. Even civilian first-responder operations use helicopters.

Our Department of Defense will only need more helicopters in the future and magnificent vessels like the USS Bonhomme Richard that are the "Handcart mother-ships" to the rescue helicopter.

"In order to defend this Nation, we will continue to send the brave & young, our freedom they earn - And we will always have a need for the Handcarts, for our wounded and dead, they must return."


He's lying in the tree line, blood running down his arm.
Listening for the sound of the Handcart boys, to remove him from this harm.
He flew in on a modern jet that got shot down in this affray.
But he is no different than the wounded at Shiloh, trying to survive, till they safely take him away.

In the dark of the night she waits with so much pain to bear.
Injured in the crash of her aircraft and now this seemly endless nightmare.
Where is the chopper that will lift her from the smoke, the fire and the pain?
Where are the Handcart boys, hurry, her life is beginning to drain?

He was wounded when a round slammed onto the "cruiser's" deck.
Shards of metal are protruding from the right side his neck.
The corpsman has stopped the bleeding; he's been prepared, to be extracted in the night.
The Handcart boys are racing his way, and will be there by first light.

Get in, get them out, and hurry back, to the safety of our lines.
It has been this way since ancient wars, to the battles of modern times.
The two-wheel Handcart is the way the wounded were removed from battles in past wars.
Our modern Handcart has a rotor-blade and sliding doors.

Look at history, look at art work, or at movies if you will.
When it came to removing the wounded off of some war torn desolate hill.
It was a Handcart carrying the broken and the dying with their screams of pain.
It was a Handcart transporting at Normandy in the cold June rain.

Every branch of the service has its modern version of the Handcart boys who respond to the call.
They go out for the wounded and dead, bring them back, get them all.
Some times the Handcart boys are brought back in a Handcart not of their own.
Some times they become the wounded & the dying, and for their efforts, they never come home.

There are also women who work these, latter-day Handcarts and their lives too, are on the line.
It is a dangerous mission, but just as their predecessors they to make that recovery in time.
They move out over the desert, into the night as the sand blows and swirls.
These Handcart operators are our Handcart girls.

I have a two-wheeled wooden handcart with an old worn flag sitting out on my front lawn.
It is not a protest, it's a reminder of our injured, who returned by Handcart, lying there upon.
In order to defend this Nation, we will continue to send the brave & young, our freedom they earn.
And we will always have a need for the Handcarts, for our wounded and dead, they must return.

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Copyright 2006, 2016 by Major Van Harl USAF Ret. All rights reserved.