LOVINGSTON — A crowd of more than 50 people gathered at the Nelson Center on Sunday to hear about how helicopter crews and the Mennonites provided critical assistance after Hurricane Camille.
The program was the fourth and last in a series sponsored by the Nelson County Historical Society to mark the 50th anniversary of Hurricane Camille and its devastating impact on Nelson.
U.S. 29 at Lovingston became the command center after the storm and was the “obvious choice” to close off to allow for military helicopters to land.
“Lovingston International was born,” said Bar Delk, who moderated Sunday’s event and was a member of the search teams.
At the height of the search and rescue operations, 17 helicopters were flying over Lovingston, Delk said.
Retired Judge Michael Gamble, Kenneth Robertson and county attorney Phil Payne spoke about their experiences as members of the search crews sent out in the helicopters to find victims.
Gamble, who was 20 at the time, said he had been at ROTC training in Georgia for much of that summer.
“A lot of that training involved getting in and out of Huey helicopters,” he said. “I got home, I figured I was finished with Hueys for a while, and a week later, here I am getting in and out of Huey helicopters again.”
Robertson, who was 18 at the time, said he just did what he was told. He described it as “more search than rescue.”
“It was a very humbling experience,” he said.
Payne said he did everything from searching for victims to going on missions to deliver food and water, to distributing clothing and food.
“At one point, I think my father decided that the 15-year-old guy probably shouldn’t be digging up bodies,” he said. “Nevertheless, I ended up back over there doing the same thing.”
Payne said he cannot say enough about the level of talent of the pilots operating the helicopters, who frequently had no place to land.
“When we were let off, the helicopter would hover over a spot big enough for us to jump out and go about our work,” he said.
Doug Nelms, a Vietnam War veteran, spoke about the devastation he saw and how it reminded him of an “arclight,” or a B-52 strike, which would decimate the jungle in Vietnam.
“The only difference I saw was that arclights were limited in how far they went,” he said. “When we looked down there, it was … nothing but devastation forever.”
Video interviews with Nelms and another pilot who flew during search and rescue missions after Hurricane Camille were shown at Sunday’s event, as well as video interviews with Mennonite Disaster Service volunteers who helped Nelson residents clean and rebuild.
The Vietnam War and Foreign Conflicts Museum, which recently received its 501©(3) status, brought a Huey helicopter similar to those used during Hurricane Camille to the event.
A memorial event to recognize the lives lost on Aug. 19 to 20, 1969, due to Hurricane Camille is set for 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, at Nelson County High School.