I attended the school in the 1980s, from Kindergarten all the way into a few months of fourth grade, when my parents got divorced and we moved out of the Helena Valley and into town. After that I attended Jefferson Elementary School…before it was that terrible green color.
Anyways, I was always interested in who Jim Darcy was. Most schools are named after dead presidents, but this one was named after a dead soldier, one who lost his life in Vietnam.
I remember during one school assembly in the gym, Jim Darcy’s mom came. She was really old, and a few words were said about her son. Other than that, however, I know little…but I’ve always wondered.
Today we’ll stop wondering and get to the truth of who Jim Darcy was and why a Helena school was named for him.
Montana’s Jim Darcy
In 2013 a library extension was added and in 2014 some 5th grade exterior classrooms were added. The whole school now takes up 28,000 square feet and rests on just over 8 acres of land. The school served the Helena valley until 1985 when it was annexed into the Helena School District.
James Leo Darcy was born in Helena twenty years before the school bearing his name was built, on February 28, 1945. The family “lived on a dairy farm about a mile and a half east of the school,” Bill Darcy remembered of the times he and his brother grew up in.
“Back then the school was called the Lincoln Road School,” he said in a 2010 Independent Record story, “and only three or four dozen family farms were in the area.”
In 1963 Jim Darcy graduated from Helena High School. After kicking around for two years, Darcy joined the US Army in November, 1965.
It was close enough to Christmas at that point that Darcy was allowed to go back home to Montana before shipping out. It’d be the last time he saw his family.
Jim Darcy’s tour of duty began on January 11, 1967. He was 21-years-old at the time and celebrated his 22nd birthday in Vietnam on February 28. Right away he started flying with the 128th Assault Helicopter Company.
On April 6, Darcy was tasked with a “hash and trash” mission, which consisted of “taking out food and ammo to troops in the field” and some “runs to some special forces camps.” It was a run of the mill, simple mission – nothing should have gone wrong. It’s war, however, and that’s what things do.
Darcy flew on Helicopter 744. There’s a very interesting story by fellow soldier Bill McDonald, who had a premonition that Helicopter 744 would crash. He’d even gone so far as to warn the men after doing a maintenance inspection on it. Here is what he says:
“I had an immediate sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I felt fearful as I approached the helicopter. When I reached out and touched the skin of the aircraft, I had an instant inner picture of something that I knew was going to happen the next day. I could somehow feel and see in my mind, this helicopter crashed in the jungles and broken apart in pieces. I could see bodies of soldiers laying out in the wreckage, all on fire and burning. The whole scene was of fire and death. I could feel the searing heat mentally some how. I pulled my hand away from the helicopter. But the inner vision was still there of death, destruction and fire. I knew for sure, without any doubts what was going to happen.”
The other mechanic “checked the entire aircraft any way and found it in perfect order.” Helicopter 744 was deemed fit to fly, though McDonald, who was scheduled to fly on it, refused. The penalty for this, he later learned, could be up to 25 years in prison.
McDonald told of his feelings to others, and some laughed him off while others nodded, knowing how war tended to defy conventional logic. The next day, McDonald was assigned to a different helicopter, and went out on a 12-hour mission.
While flying away from the Phu Loi Base Camp, he could see that Helicopter 744 was still there. He felt good, thinking that someone had finally believed him, and kept the craft grounded.
Coming back at the end of the day, however, he saw that the chopper was gone. What’s more, it’d been due back two hours earlier. There’d been no word “since it picked up some soldiers from some isolated LZ and was taking them to another area,” McDonald later said. “No one arrived at that other area. Now 744 was presumed missing and down.”
McDonald and several others boarded a helicopter and headed out to the general area that 744 had gone. They had hundreds of square miles of jungle to fly over, but “as luck would have it,” McDonald writes, “for some reason we traveled like we were honing in on a beacon of light.”
“As we approached this light, it became evident that it was a fire. The jungle was on fire. We flew over the top of the main burnt area. We looked down and saw below us, broken twisted metal and bodies thrown at random, all over the jungle floor. We hovered over the tree tops, just out of reach of the flames trying to see if there was any movement at all. There was none. I volunteered to go down a rope to the ground and personally check out the site for any survivors, but the pilot did not want to risk the ship or me. It was just too shaky and we did not know if there were any VC waiting for us below. We circled around the crash site several times, hoping that we would see something move.
The scene below us was horrible. All the bodies were burnt and charred. You could see shapes but that was the only clue that these were in fact where once human beings. These were the same images I had already seen in my mind the night before. I felt sick about it all. I was mad because no one had done anything to stop or prevent this from happening. The trip back from the crash site was deathly quiet. No one spoke a word about my predications or what they saw.”
On Thursday, April 6, Darcy’s parents in Helena were notified that their son had been “returning from a fire support mission” when his helicopter “crashed for unknown reasons” at 5:30 PM.
For the next three days they waited anxiously for news. Finally on Sunday word was delivered that Darcy’s body had been found. It was determined that he’d “died as the result of injuries received in the crash.” He’d been in the war for just less than three months. The news hit Helena on Monday, April 10 on the front page of the Independent Record.
Alan Shields was one of the men that was on the helicopter that went out looking. Jim Darcy was a good friend of his and he named his daughter Darcy “in honor of my best friend who was lost that night.”
Jim Darcy was just the second man from Helena to die in Vietnam, the first being Marine Corporal Bruce Backenberg, who’d been 19 when he’d died in September 1966. Darcy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Colors.
Altogether 267 Montana men would die in Vietnam. No legitimate reason has ever been given for their loss, and the country has never fully moved beyond that war. It’s a stain on our history, and sadly, one that we’ve never learned from.
Helena Valley kids learn it, however, each year around Veteran’s Day. “When my brother got killed,” Bill Darcy said in 2010, “all those families” that had lived around them growing up “got together to change the name.”
And each February 28, “Bill and his family bring cake to the school on Jim’s birthday for the entire school.”
“James Leo Darcy.” Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. Web. Retrieved 24 May 2015. http://www.vvmf.org/Wall-of-Faces/11941/JAMES-L-DARCY
Listoe, Alana. “Jim Darcy students honor service.” Independent Record. 12 November 2010. Web. Retrieved 24 May 2015. http://helenair.com/news/jim-darcy-students-honor-service/article_b653c9b4-ee25-11df-b25a-001cc4c03286.html
McDonald, Bill. “Stories/Memories/Comments.” The Vietnam Experience. 1999. Web. Retrieved 24 May 2015. http://www.vietnamexp.com/Tomahawk/messages/messages12.htm
McDonald, Bill. “Visions of Fire and Death.” The Vietnam Experience. 1999. Web. Retrieved 24 May 2015. http://www.vietnamexp.com/stories/story6.htm
“Montana and Vietnam War: April 1967 – June 1967.” Faces from the Wall. 2003. Web. Retrieved 24 May 2015. http://www.facesfromthewall.com/mtvn/MT1967apr.html
There are two plaques near the front door of Jim Darcy Elementary School. One has been there since April 28, 1989, which was Arbor Day. On May 18, 1989, another was added below it when the school put in a time capsule. The Jim Darcy time capsule was opened in May 2014.