The first Marine Corps helicopters to serve in Vietnam arrived just four months after the first American helicopters were deployed in-country.
On 15 April 1962, a Sikorsky HUS-1 (later redesignated the UH-34D) crew from LtCol Archie Clapp’s HMM-362 touched down on a World War II Japanese fighter strip 3 miles from Soc Trang, southwest of Saigon, in the Mekong Delta. They were first in. Thirteen years and fifteen days later, on 30 April 1975, an HMM-164 CH-46D crew lifted the last Americans out of Vietnam, the Marine combined security force for Operation FREQUENT WIND. They were last out.
WHAT HAPPENED TO ALL OF US IN BETWEEN IS WHAT FOLLOWS —-.
OPERATION SHUFLY was initiated with the deployment of HMM-362 into Soc Trang. HMM-362 (reinf), assisted by HMM-261, both from the amphibious assault ship USS PRINCETON (LPH-5), was ashore by mid-afternoon and ready to accept missions the following day. HMM-261 returned to the USS PRINCETON as the SLF squadron. HMM-362 (reinf) included 24 recently overhauled HUS-1 helicopters, a detachment of 3 OE-1s from VMO-2, one R4D, and 50 additional maintenance personnel. The first helicopter-borne assault with ARVN troops was conducted 6 days later. Two days following that, HMM-362 suffered the first combat damage to an HUS-1 during OPERATION NIGHTINGALE when a bullet pierced an oil line in its engine compartment.
During May, HMM-362 flew its first night medevac. The EAGLE FLIGHT tactic, developed by HMM-362, was first employed on 18 Jun. An Eagle Flight employed 4 troop-loaded HUS-1s orbiting a tactical area to engage escaping VC. The first joint USMC, US Army, VNAF assault mission took place in July.
The policy of rotating squadrons into Vietnam every four months commenced 1 Aug when HMM-163 relieved HMM-362. The first mounting of 30 cal. M-60 machine guns on a helicopter occurred in August, inside the cargo hatch of an HUS-1. HMM-163 suffered their first battle damage 18 days later. In September, three HUS-1s were hit by small arms fire, and a crew chief was wounded, becoming the first Marine helicopter aircrew casualty of the war.
In response to a MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) request for more capable aircraft and instrument-qualified pilots in mountainous I Corps, SHUFLY and HMM-163 moved north to Da Nang on 15 Sep , thus setting the stage for the Marine buildup to follow in the next 3 years. This squadron provided the majority of the helicopter support in I Corps. The first fatalities in Marine helicopters occurred 6 Oct 62 , when a HUS-1 crashed due to mechanical failure, killing 7 of the 8 aboard.
The Dept. of Defense changed the official designations of all military aircraft in November. The HUS-1 became the UH-34D, the OE-1 the O-1B, the R4D the C-117, the HR2S-1 (deuce) the CH-37C and the GV-1 became the KC-130.
On 12 Jan, HMM-162 relieved HMM-163. With squadron rotations continuing three times a year for the next two years, half of the Marine Corps’ squadrons received invaluable combat experience prior to the large-scale deployments that started in 1965. HMM-162 conducted a major lift of 300 ARVN into three LZs 15 miles west of Da Nang. The area would be revisited many times in the next 10 years.
On 13 Mar, three H-34s from HMM-162 delivered suppressive fire on the enemy during an ARVN troop lift. This was the first recorded instance of a Marine helicopter providing close air support in actual combat.
April 1963 saw the tempo of operations pick up with the advent of clear weather. This also caused the loss rate to climb, with many instances of aircraft being hit and crewmembers wounded. Army UH-1B gunships from the US Army 68th Aviation Co. in Da Nang regularly escorted the Marine H-34s. On 27 Apr, a year after the arrival of Marine helicopters into Vietnam, the first loss occurred of an aircraft that was not recovered, and directly attributed to enemy action.
HMM-261 relieved HMM-162 on 8 Jun , continuing the building of combat experience in the helicopter community. During August, HMM-261 conducted a major retrograde operation lifting 1300 ARVN from LZs near the Laotian border to Thuong Duc, SW of Da Nang.
On 2 Oct 63 , HMM-361 relieved HMM-261. Soon afterwards, the squadron lost 2 aircraft while on a SAR mission and 10 aircrew were killed. The ensuing recovery operation lasted 3 days and required the insertion of Marine and ARVN security forces numbering over 150 men. These and other actions caused the Marines to develop procedures to perform quick engine changes, “QECs,” in the field.
President Diem’s overthrow and assassination at the beginning of November caused a temporary halt to SHUFLY operations. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on 22 Nov 63 resulted in President Lyndon B. Johnson taking over the reigns of the American government.
MACV announced, in January, that all Marines would be withdrawn from RVN during the first half of 1964 as part of a plan to end direct US participation in the war. Wonder what happened? In the meantime, the missions continued. HMM-361 conducted a critical retrograde of a 200 man CIDG unit under heavy VC pressure.
During February, HMM-361 was relieved by HMM-364, who were informed that they would be the last squadron in country and to assume the mission of training VNAF helicopter pilots in the H-34. Their other missions continued. The action started to pick up and many of HMM-364s H-34s and their escorting Army gunships were hit.
By April, the VC were using many new tactics to lure helicopters into ambushes, such as popping smoke near LZs and waiting until after the gunships had made their runs, to fire on transport helos. The most costly and bitterly opposed helicopter operation to date, Sure Wind 202 took place on 27 Apr. One VNAF and two Marine H-34s were lost, and 17 of the 21 committed were hit.
MACV directed that HMM-364 transfer their H-34s to the VNAF 217th Squadron in May, and prepare to depart Vietnam by 30 Jun. Another fully equipped squadron would be ordered in. So much for the withdrawal ordered 6 months earlier. HMM-162 arrived back in country on 17 Jun with additional H-34s. HMM-364 personnel departed, their H-34s now flown by the VNAF.
HMM-162’s operations were expanded to continuously maintain a two aircraft section at Quang Tri or Khe Sanh to perform SAR NORTH in support of operations in Laos and North Vietnam. During July, HMM-162’s H-34s, working out of Khe Sanh, first reinforced the besieged Special Forces camp at Nam Dong, then 2 weeks later, helped evacuate the camp, as it became untenable once more. On 2 Aug, US ships and North Vietnamese patrol boats clashed in the Gulf of Tonkin, resulting in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on 11 Aug. HMM-162 conducted a major lift of the 2nd ARVN Div. from Kham Duc to an LZ 24 miles NW in September.
On 28 Sep, HMM-365 relieved HMM-162, and soon suffered its first battle casualties, two WIA, during a medevac 10 miles SW of Tam Ky. SHUFLY was redesignated Marine Unit Vietnam (MUV) in December.
Some of the 365’s missions were evidence of the wide range of unusual and sometimes humorous events in the daily schedule of helo aircrews. On 10 Nov, pilots and aircrew were just starting to get on with serious Birthday Ball business when emergency flood relief flights caused by monsoon rains in the Da Nang area were launched. Shortly after launch, YM15 was hovering over a house floating down a swollen river. The crew chief, Cpl. G.C. Mayne, went down the hoist to check it out for survivors. He quickly cut a hole in the thatched roof and looked in. Inside were many armed and equally surprised VC. The VC bailed out into the water and Mayne went back up the hoist, end of mission. Later that same day, Capt John Eilertson, 1/LT Ron Pettis, Sgt Nathanial Tucker, and LCpl Francis Mayher evacuated 40 Vietnamese refugees in one flight, setting a payload record for H-34s that may still stand.
Ingenuity has always been a Marine trademark. Sgt Will Reeves and LCpl Gary Garner, crew chief and gunner on a resupply flight had to rapidly unload twenty three 105MM artillery rounds into an ARVN LZ. Enroute, they fashioned a quick cargo delivery system of two crossed cargo straps and a third center strap on the helo deck. The 23 rounds were stacked on these straps parallel to the diir. The 34 spiraled into the tight LZ; flared; came to a hover, Reeves and Garner released the center strap and pulled up the crossed straps; the rounds tumbled to the ground: and they were out of there, all in about 30 seconds.
The year began with HMM-365 (UH-34Ds) in country as the helicopter element of Marine Unit Vietnam (MUV) (previously SHUFLY). The USS Princeton (LPH 5) was the designated amphibious assault ship at the beginning of the year. HMM-163 (UH-34Ds) relieved HMM-365 on 18 Feb. HMM-365’s aircraft, on board the USS Princeton were transferred to HMM-162 on 9 Mar. The pilots of HMM-365 returned to Okinawa aboard the USS Princeton to take on replacement aircraft. HMM-162 joined HMM-163 in Da Nang in response to increasing helicopter requirements in-country.
On 8 Mar, the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade (9th MEB), including Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 3/9 and BLT 1/3 were landed across the beaches and via Da.Nang harbor. On 9.Mar the MUV was re-designated MAG-16, under operational control of the 9th MEB.
By mid-March the 9th MEB consisted of MAG-16 (-), H&MS-16 (-), MABS-16 (-), HMM-162 and HMM-163. Sadly, HMM-163 made the cover of Life Magazine (16 Apr 65) when it showed YP-13’s copilot hit by gunfire. Crewmen worked feverishly and futily in an attempt to save his life over the Que Son Valley. VMO-2 arrived in country with the first Marine UH-1E gunships on 3 May. Additional VMO-2 O-1Bs arrived; Birddogs had already been in-country with SHUFLY and the 9th MEB.
On 14 Apr, BLT 3/4 began its amphibious landing in DaNang and was flown to Hue/Phu Bai Airfield (Phu Bai), approximately 8 miles south of the ancient capital of Hue. 10 H-34s from HMM-162 arrived at Phu Bai in support of BLT 3/4.
The Third Marine Expeditionary Brigade (3rd MEB), under BrigGen Marion Carl, landed at Chu Lai on 7 May, coming under the command of the 9th MEB after the landing. The 3rd MEB was supported by HMM-161 flying off of the USS Princeton until 7 May, when the squadron transferred to the USS Iwo Jima (LPH 2), remaining off the coast of Chu Lai until 12 Jun. The USS Iwo Jima then moved off the coast of Phu Bai, where HMM-161 offloaded to Phu Bai to support the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines. On 10 May, HMM-365 returned to DaNang from Okinawa.
The Third Marine Expeditionary Force, later re-designated Third Marine Amphibious Force (III MAF) was formed 6 May from the 9th MEB units, including all elements of MAG-16. HMM-162 left Vietnam 15 May for Okinawa. HMM-261 (UH-34Ds) arrived on 22 Jun in Da Nang, assigned to MAG-16.
The SLF embarked on the USS Iwo Jima 24 Jun from Okinawa with BLT 3/7 and HMM-163 as the SLF squadron. The USS Iwo Jima replaced the USS Princeton on 7 May. On 11 Oct, HMM-261 replaced HMM-163 as the SLF squadron and the USS Valley Forge (LPH 8) replaced the USS Iwo Jima.
In July, a detachment of 10 UH-34Ds from HMM-161 moved from Phu Bai to Qui Nhon in II Corps to support the SLF BLT, which came ashore with HMM-163 to secure the port area during the arrival of the 1st Cavalry Division.
MAG-16 moved from Da Nang to the Marble Mountain Air Facility (MMAF) on 7 Aug. All MAG-16 aircraft were operating out of MMAF by the beginning of September. The first all-Marine night helicopter assault took place with BLT 2/3 and HMM-361, HMM-261 and VMO-2 in Elephant Valley on 12 Aug. In September, a detachment of 6 CH-37Cs from HMH-462 was attached to H&MS-16 at MMAF. On 12 Sep, all O-1B pilots from VMO-2 were sent to Okinawa, and the O-1B was “parked” at the Da Nang airstrip. VMO-2 lost their “V”, becoming an all-helicopter squadron for the first time.
Between 18 and 24 Aug, Operation Starlight was conducted on the Van Tuong Peninsula 15 miles south of Chu Lai by the 7th Marines and the SLF (HMM-163), and supported by MAG-16 (HMM-261, HMM-361 and VMO-2). This was the first significant contact with major VC units (1st Viet Cong Regiment). The tactical success there led many to believe that US forces would achieve a quick victory and hence, we would all soon be home.
MAG-36 arrived off Chu Lai on 1 Sep to join III MAF, consisting of H&MS-36, MABS-36, HMM-362 (UH-34Ds), HMM-363 (UH-34Ds), HMM-364 (UH-34Ds) and VMO-6 (UH-1Es). The rumor among MAG-36 Marines onboard the USS Princeton enroute from CONUS had been that they would turn around and head back because of the great success of Operations Starlight, the war would soon be over. By the end of September, MAG-36 was established at Ky Ha. HMM-363 was located at Da Nang. The squadron lifted the first Marines into Hill 55 south of Da Nang, which remained a Marine Command Post (CP) for many years to come.
In September, the VMO-squadrons were assigned a priority mission of a 24-hour “medevac standby” with a UH-1E medevac slick, a UH-1E gunship and crew of four pilots, two crewchiefs, a door-gunner and a corpsman.
HMM-363 deployed to Qui Nhon in October in direct support of the Army’s 101st Airborne, which relieved the Marine BLT securing the port. Shortly after HMM-363’s arrival in Qui Nhon, LtCol George Kew, CO, brought back a “one-legged” H-34 having left the other landing gear strut in an Army LZ. His co-pilot, 1st Lt Stan Zenda, remembered this as a truly fascinating event. Later that night in the club, LtCol Kew made the following statement: “You all know that the 1820 engines are a critical supply item. Main Landing Gear Assemblies are not. I made the decision NOT to overboost that engine, even if I bent the gear. Any questions?”
On 27 Oct, shortly after midnight, explosions hit MMAF and the Chu Lai SATS field. An estimated force of 90 men from mainforce VC units, in four teams, launched a well-planned, coordinated attack on MMAF. They attacked the H&MS-16 hangar area; the MAG-16 bunker area; the flight line, and the maintenance and administrative tents of the squadrons. Afterwards they began a methodical attack on each helicopter. “VMO-2 was practically wiped out.” The sappers destroyed 19 helicopters and damaged another 35 that evening, killing three Marines; two from VMO-2, and a Navy corpsman on medevac standby.
During November, the district headquarters at Hiep Duc, in western Quang Tin Province, a place we would come to know well, was overrun. MAG-16 and MAG-36 helos lifted in the ARVN counterattack force, taking hits in 20 of the 30 UH-34s involved. Hiep Duc was retaken, but abandoned later by the ARVN, as undefendable.
Operation Harvest Moon was launched in the Phouc Valley west of Highway One between Da Nang and Chu Lai in December. Both MAG-16 and MAG-36 plus HMM-363 from Qui Nhon and HMM-261 from the SLF supported Task Force Delta and the 5th ARVN Regiment as they swept this familiar ground in search of VC and NVA units.
Six squadrons (HMMs 161, 263, 361, 362, 363, 364) were now in- country, plus HMM-261 aboard ship, all with UH-34Ds. These squadrons, plus a detachment of CH-37Cs (H&MS-16) and two VMO-squadrons (VMO-2, VMO-6) with UH-1Es made up Marine helicopter assets in Vietnam. III MAF had 39,092 personnel in-country by the end of the year.
The Special Landing Force (SLF) of the 7th Fleet at the beginning of the year consisted of BLT 2/3 and HMM-261 aboard the USS Valley Forge. HMM-362 replaced HMM-261 on 5 Jan.
The 9th Marines devised a tactical arrangement termed “Sparrow Hawk” at the beginning of the year with units from MAG-16. Each regiment maintained a squad sized reaction force at a special LZ. The squads were used as additional maneuver elements rather than reinforcements. They were helilifted by “Sparrow Hawk” helicopters on strip alert at MMAF, a combination of HMM helicopters and gunships from VMO-2.
Operation Double Eagle I began 28 Jan with a two-battalion amphibious operation south of Quang Ngai supported by MAG-36 and a heliborne assault by the SLF BLT and HMM-362. A similar US Army operation south of the Marines in Binh Dinh province was carried out at the same time. HMM-363 moved further south to Tuy Hoa, again in support of the 101st Airborne, which was opening another airfield at Phu Cat. In February, HMM-363 rejoined MAG-36 at Chu Lai, after five months in support of US Army and Korean operations at Qui Nhon, Tuy Hoa, and Phu Cat in II Corps.
Capt. John Van Nortwick of HMM-363 was wearing an XXL infantry flak vest because his regular vest was “borrowed” while he was away from the squadron. He had to wear the big XXL vest with the right and left flaps overlapped because it was too large. He took a round square in the middle of his chest. The round penetrated the outer flap and bounced off the inner one. XXL flak jackets suddenly became a high fashion item.
On 4 Mar, 14 helicopters from HMM-261, HMM-364 and VMO-6 were heavily damaged during a troop lift of the 1st ARVN Airborne and 2/7 in support of Operation UTAH by intense anti-aircraft fire (numerous 12.7 mm anti-aircraft machine guns). This was the first major contact with the 21st NVA Regiment. The ARVNS and Marines were then reinforced by HMM-363, while MAG-36 helicopters provided overnight resupply and medevacs. HMM-261 helos were again heavily damaged when inserting 2/4 the next day as a blocking force. A section of H-34s from HMM-364 provided an emergency resupply of ammunition to “B” company of 1/7 as “two helos came across the zone a few feet off the ground while the crewmen kicked the ammo boxes out the doors” under extremely heavy fire. This was to be a common sight for the next six years.
The USS Princeton replaced the USS Valley Forge on 5 Mar, along with BLT 1/5. On 8 Mar, HMM-164 flew to MMAF with the first delivery of 24 Boeing Vertol CH-46A Sea Knight helicopters to join MAG-16. During the next months it was followed by HMM-265 (MAG-16, MMAF), HMM-165 (MAG-36, KyHa) and HMM-262 (MAG-36, KyHa), all in CH-46As.
On 9 Mar the 95th NVA Regiment overran the A Shau Special Forces Camp near the Laotian border. HMM-163 and VMO-2 assisted in the evacuation of the camp, with the loss of three UH-34s. From 26 Mar to 6 Apr the SLF and HMM-362 participated in OPERATION JACKSTAY with two South Vietnamese Marine battalions in the Rung Sat Special Zone south of Saigon.
On 9 Apr HMM-364 replaced HMM-362 on the SLF. BLT 3/5 replaced BLT 1/5 on 7 May. On 16May, MajGen Louis B. Robertshaw assumed command of the 1st MAW from MajGen. Keith B. McCutcheon.
The last half of May was punctuated by extreme political unrest in I Corps, resulting in Prime Minister Ky sending ARVN units into DaNang to reestablish his authority. MAG-16 “observed” the situation closely from MMAF. Ha Air Facility was opened to the III MAF on 30May as LtCol P.X. Kelley’s 2/4 moved to a forward position in the northern I Corps, supported by detachments from MAG-16.
On 18-21 Jun, the amphibious operation DECKHOUSE I was carried out with an attack on the VietCong 12 miles northwest of Tuy Hoa. HMM-363 replaced HMM-364 on the SLF on 4 Jul.
OPERATION HASTINGS began as a search and destroy mission 55 miles NW of Hue to counter the NVA 324B Division across the DMZ. Task Force Delta, initially consisting of three Marine battalions, grew to six battalions, and five Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) battalions. Some MAG-16 units, including a detachment of eight UH-1Es from VMO-2, moved to Dong Ha Airfield to support Hastings. The initial helicopter assault occurred on15 Jul with a troop lift to LZ Crow, 5 miles northeast of the Rockpile, near the DMZ. Helicopters from HMM-164 and HMM-265 participated in the initial lift. Three CH-46As collided with each other and the surrounding vegetation in the LZ, providing the new name “Helicopter Valley” to the Ngan Valley.
On 16 Jul, a platoon from 1st Force Recon Company rappelled from a MAG-16 helicopter onto the summit of the Rockpile to establish an OP for the first time. NVA units were located in large caves throughout the adjacent Razorback, which made for much contact during the coming month.
DECKHOUSE II began on 16 Jul with the SLF near the DMZ as an amphibious assault in support of OPERATION HASTINGS with BLT 3/5 and HMM-363. On 21 Jul, all CH-46As were grounded for application of air and fuel filters because of excessive sand ingestion. The 1st Battalion, 2nd Korean Marine Brigade arrived 3 miles south of Chu Lai on 1 Aug. The 2nd Battalion arrived in September. On 4 Aug BLT 1/26 replaced BLT 3/5 aboard the SLF. The USS Iwo Jima became the amphibious assault ship.
On 3 Aug OPERATION PRAIRIE I commenced to determine the extent of NVA forces in the DMZ, primarily the NVA 324B and 341st Divisions. The 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, the 1st Force Recon Co. and a detachment of MAG-16 helicopters occupied Ha Airfield. Two battalions were on alert at Phu Bai.
“Stingray” teams from 1st Force Recon were inserted by UH-1Es from VMO-2 along suspected enemy avenues of approach. On 6 Aug, team “Groucho Marx” was inserted north of the Rockpile. After many sightings, and in an attempt to capture NVA prisoners, HMM-265 helilifted reinforcements to the position. HMM-161 attempted a retraction of the reinforcing unit, but was waved off by the ground commander due to intense enemy fire after picking up 20 of the 45 troops. Capt. Howard V. Lee of 2/4 attempted to reinforce the beleaguered unit, but eventually was seriously wounded by a grenade. A UH-1E flown by Major V. Wayne Hazelbaker of VMO-2 was shot down at the defensive position by an RPG during an ammo resupply. With all of the troops wounded, Maj. Hazelbaker assumed command from Capt. Lee and controlled close air support all night from VMO-2 and fixed wing, aided by the additional ammo and armament from the disabled UH-1E. Maj. Hazelbaker was awarded the Navy Cross for his actions.
On 16 Aug, the SLF conducted DECKHOUSE III on the Vung Tau Peninsula 60 miles south of Saigon with HMM-363. On 15-18 Sep, the SLF participated in DECKHOUSE IV near the DMZ, eight miles northeast of Dong Ha, again with HMM-363. This was a search and destroy operation in conjunction with OPERATION PRAIRIE I. On 24 Sep HMM-362 relieved HMM-363 as the SLF squadron. The 3rd Marine Division moved north to Quang Tri and Thua Thien provinces on 10 Oct. BLT 3/26 relieved BLT 1/26. A temporary SLF was organized from 2 Oct – 8 Nov as a reserve with BLT 3/3 and HMM-163 during primary SLF maneuvers in the Philippines. BLT 1/9 relieved BLT 3/26 on the SLF at the end of the year.
The line up of squadrons at the end of the year included HMM’s 164, 165, 262, and 265 (H-46s); HMM’s 263, 362 (SLF), 363, and 364 (H-34s); Det HMH-463 (4 H-53As, afloat) VMO-2, VMO-6, and VMO-3 (who arrived 29 Dec) (UH-1Es), H&MS-11 (3 UH-34Ds), H&MS-16 (4 UH-34Ds)(6 CH-37s)(9 O-1Cs), H&MS-17 (4 UH-34Ds) and H&MS-36 (3 UH-34Ds). III MAF strength at the end of the year included 65,789 men.
Operation PRAIRIE I, II and III continued in northern I Corps in support of the 3rd Marine Division (3rd MarDiv) until 20 Apr in Quang Tri Province and the southern DMZ. Operation STONE was completed during the month of February in Quang Nam Province. The operation commenced 12 miles south of Da Nang, in an area that was and would be cleared many times with support from MAG-16. The Khe Sanh combat base now had a permanent detachment of 2 H-46s, 2 H-34s and 2 UH-1Es from MAG-16. The medevac team was now a single H-34 or H-46 with a UH-1E gunship chase on 24 hour standby. Hanoi at this time was following its long-term strategy of “protracted war”.
On 8 Jan, four CH-53As arrived in RVN, attached to MAG-16. This was the beginning of the planned replacement of H&MS-16’s CH-37Cs. Regardless of its eccentricities, the “Deuce” was the Marines’ “Heavy Lifter” since its introduction to the Corps, 10 years earlier. Few helicopters ever looked so “formidable.” Nevertheless, the arrival of the H-53s ushered in a new era of turbine-powered heavy-lift capability. The remainder of HMH-463 arrived on 23 May.
The SLF squadron at the beginning of the year aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH- 2) was HMM-362 until 18 Jan, when it was replaced by HMM-363. In April, two SLFs were formed, each with an HMM. HMM-363 (H-34s) and BLT 1/3 were aboard the USS Iwo Jima for a practice amphibious assault on Mindanao and a landing at Duc Pho in southern I Corps. They then transferred to the USS Princeton in Subic Bay and returned to Dong Ha in April. HMM-164 boarded the USS Princeton in March, transferred to the USS Tripoli (LPH-10) in Subic Bay, and returned to RVN with BLT 2/3 from Okinawa as SLF “B” in time for the Hill Fights at Khe Sanh. The original SLF had been redesignated SLF “B”. HMMs 362, 363, 164, 265, and 262 rotated through SLF “B”. HMMs 263, 362, 163 and 361 rotated through SLF “A” during the year.
Typical of HMM squadrons’ operations conducted during an SLF tour were those of HMM 263 during the period Feb – Nov 1967. Embarked aboard the USS Okinawa, 263 conducted assualt landings in Operation Beaver Cage 25 miles south of Da Nang; Operations Bear Bite 4 miles northeast of Hue/Phu Bai; and Operations Colgate 1 mile east of Hue/Phu Bai. Following these, 263’s most significant operation was Beau Charger which was the first official incursion by US Forces into the DMZ. As noted in a later paragraph, 263 suffered heavy casualties and damage during this strongly opposed landing.
The M-16A1 rifle was introduced to all Marines in Vietnam during mid-March. By December, they had a 67% failure rate, primarily due to its failure to extract spent cartridge cases from fouled chambers, requiring the procurement of chromed chambers and barrels during 1968.
On 24 Apr the first battle of Khe Sanh (the Khe Sanh Hill Fights) was fought over Hills 881N, 881S and 861 above the combat base. A Marine FO unit stumbled onto a large NVA contingent, uncovering an enemy intent to attack in force. MAG-16 helos lifted in a reinforcing Marine regiment and intense fighting continued well into May. This was to have been the build-up to the NVA main force attack on Khe Sanh while other diversions and coordinated attacks were planned at other Marine positions in I Corps, presumably on 8 May, the 13th anniversary of the fall of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
The NVA executed its plan to overrun Con Thien on 8 May. It had already overrun Lang Vei on 4 May. Con Thien became a major focus for the NVA attacks for the remainder of the year. Marine helos, including HMM-164, provided massive support to Marines dug in throughout “Leatherneck Square” in northeast I Corps. On 10 May, a Marine A-4 Skyhawk was downed during a bombing mission south of the DMZ by a surface to air missile (SAM) fired from a position north of the Ben Hai River in the DMZ. On 18 May, HMM-263 sustained significant loss and combat damage in Operation Beau Charger during an insertion in the DMZ. The NVA 324B Division eventually moved back into the DMZ, where U. S. policy provided a safe haven for the NVA troops.
On 3 Jul, NVA artillery did significant damage to the supply dump at Ha airfield. “Dye Marker” became the official name of the Strong Point Obstacle System (known by Marines as the McNamara Line) on 14 Jul. The DMZ was to be “fortified”, much to the dismay of the III MAF leadership.
Capt. Steve Pless of VMO-6, flying gunship escort out of Ky Ha for a medevac on 19 Aug, was enroute back into Ky Ha when he heard an Army Chinook (CH-47) pilot on the “guard channel” indicating that he had landed in an unsecured LZ with mechanical problems. He then came under VC attack and lifted off, leaving some of his passengers in the LZ whom immediately came under heavy VC fire. Pless was overhead and saw the VC capture the six Americans who were stranded there. He rolled in with rockets and machine guns, which caused the VC to scatter. Pless then landed, and together with his copilot and crew, left the helicopter to assist the survivors aboard his UH-1E. As they scrambled aboard, the VC resumed their attack on the helo crew and its new passengers. Overloaded, Pless jettisoned his rocket pods, and nursed his helicopter out of the LZ. Pless was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, while his remaining crewmembers received Navy Crosses for their actions that day.
During August the 1st Marine Division again went into the Tam Ky-Hiep Duc-Thang Binh triangle south of Da Nang. MAG-36 went in as well, together with SLF “A” and HMM-362. On 31 Aug, during a medevac, a CH-46A from HMM-262 disintegrated in-flight while enroute to the USS Tripoli. The next day another H-46 experienced a similar failure at MMAF. H-46 missions were restricted to “emergency” only. The USS Tripoli withdrew from SLF duties temporarily to ferry H-46s to Okinawa for structural modifications. HMM-262 assisted Boeing Vertol in the modification program, which lasted until February 1968.
On 3 Sep NVA artillery destroyed the large Dong Ha ammo dump. Dong Ha was abandoned as a permanent helicopter base due to NVA artillery and rocket damage and the base moved to Quang Tri. The 3rd MarDiv moved north from Da Nang to Hue; the First Marine Division moved up from Chu Lai to Da Nang, and the operating areas of Marine helos moved similarly. Changes to the helicopter order of battle took place as MAG-36 moved from Ky Ha to Phu Bai / Quang Tri on 4 Oct to be nearer the 3rd MarDiv. HMMs 164, 362 and VMO-3 transferred to MAG-36. HMM-265 moved to MAG-16 at MMAF.
MajGen Bruno Hochmuth, Commanding General, 3rd MarDiv died when his UH-1E from VMO-3 exploded and crashed 5 miles NW of Hue on 14 Nov killing Capts Kelsey and Carter, and Cpl Ron Phelps. By the end of 1967, Hanoi had changed its strategy to “maximum effort” to win the war quickly. MACV anticipated this NVA change for the coming year.
On 1 January, USMC personnel in the RVN totaled 76,616 men. MAG-16 at MMAF included H&MS-16 (O-1s and H-34s), HMM-265 (H-46As), HMM-363 (H-34s), HMH-463 (H-53s) and VMO-2 (UH-1Es). MAG-16 supported the 1st Mar Div, the Republic of Korea Marines, and occasionally the 3rd Mar Div. MAG-36 at Phu Bai included HMM-164 (H-46As), HMM-362 (H-34s), HMM-364 (H-46Ds) and VMO-3 (UH-1Es). MAG-36 units at Quang Tri airfield were HMM-163 (H-34s), HMM-262 (H-46As) (from SLF) and VMO-6 (UH-1Es). MAG-36 supported 3rd Mar Div and Task Force Xray of the 1st Mar Div. Other airfields in use in I Corps were Dong Ha, Khe Sanh, An Hoa and Tam Ky.
These years of the war saw an increased rate of casualties to both aircraft and aircrew. The subject of armor for both became more important. In the early years, armor for H-34s, other than self-sealing fuel cells, and their crews did not formally exist. Soon the need became apparent and both formal and “informal” programs took place. By 1964, all H-34s that were in country were equipped with oil tank armor plate under the engine compartment. Crews were issued vests and diapers of spun fiberglass that were only marginally effective in stopping light shrapnel. Soon, the diapers were not being worn, but were folded double and sat upon. Personal initiative soon took over and crews were “acquiring” other more effective items such as the solid fiberglass vests worn by infantry units.
By the late 60s, all new production UH-1Es, CH-46s and CH-53s were equipped with pilot’s armored seats, and CH-46s also had engine armor. Older aircraft were similarly retrofitted during the overhaul cycle. This armor was constructed of a steel-kevlar sandwich and performed well. Crews were issued “bullet bouncers, a garment worn bib-wise designed to stop a .50 cal round. In 1969, CH-46 losses caused by hits in the “broom closet” area that housed the flight system hydraulics behind the co-pilot’s seat dictated another armor kit installation protecting this area. During the final years of the war, all aircraft were also equipped with missile launch warning receivers, flare dispensers, and engine exhaust signature suppressors to defeat the increased NVA AAA threat from hand-launched heat seeking surface to air missiles.
At the beginning of the year, HMM-361 was aboard the USS Iwo Jima with SLF “A”, followed by HMMs 363, 362, 363, and 362 during the year, transitioning to the helicopter carrier USS Princeton during the year. HMM-262 (Det “A,” the Poor Devils) was aboard the USS Valley Forge as the helicopter squadron with SLF “B”, replaced by HMMs 165, 164, 265, 165, and 164 throughout the year. The USS Tripoli replaced the USS Valley Forge in July.
With the arrival of US Army units in southern I Corps, Marine ground forces were now deployed primarily around Da Nang and near the DMZ in the north. Marine helicopters also operated primarily in those areas. During January and February, the much publicized Tet offensive took place and Marine helo squadrons were fully involved in many actions including the battle for Hue City, the defense of Khe Sanh, and many other operations throughout I Corps.
The 77 day Siege of Khe Sanh began on 21 Jan when a Marine patrol made contact on Hill 881 with a heavy concentration of NVA troops. During the bombardment of the base and the required resupply, losses of helicopters had been high. Crew losses were equally high. The battle continued into February and March with much of the logistic support provided by “Super Gaggles” of CH-46s hauling 3000# external loads under IFR/VFR conditions from Dong Ha into the battalion LZs in the hills north of the combat base, supported by Marine jets and gunships. The Super Gaggle enabled eight or more H-46s to drop their entire resupply in approximately five minutes, thus reducing the individual exposure to NVA firepower. The Siege of Khe Sanh was over with the taking of Hill 881N by 3rd Division Marines on 14 Apr. The Khe Sanh base was abandoned in July as no longer required for strategic purposes as a “static defense base.”
In March, HQMC restructured all VMO squadrons in the USMC to begin receiving the North American OV-10A Broncos. One half of the UH-1E inventory would be transferred from the VMOs to new Marine Light Helicopter Squadrons (HMLs) for the duration of the war. On 1 Mar, VMO-3 at Phu Bai was redesignated HML-367 with a transfer of all aircraft and personnel. On 15 Mar, HML-167 was established at MMAF with 13 UH-1Es from VMO-2. VMO-6 remained all UH-1E through the year, based at Quang Tri. The squadrons were tremendously overworked throughout the year, waiting for relief in the form of more Broncos, and the Bell AH-1G Cobra gunship in 1969.
Because of the increasing demand for fixed wing and helicopter pilots in RVN, the US Air Force and the US Army began training pilots for the USMC. The first of 155 graduates of the USAF fixed wing program appeared in June. The first of 150 graduates of the US Army helicopter program appeared in October. The 1st MAW was being asked to support all of the aviation needs of two reinforced Marine divisions.
In order to provide improved response to 3rd Marine Division units along the DMZ, PROVMAG-39 was established from the existing units at Quang Tri on 14 Apr. The attached units were HMM-163 (H-34s), HMM-262 (H-46As) and VMO-6 (UH-1Es). Phu Bai retained the remainder of the squadrons of MAG-36. On 17 May, HMM-161 replaced HMM-163 at Quang Tri with a full strength squadron of CH-46Ds. HMM-361 departed for CONUS on 18 May. HMM-163 returned to MMAF and then to CONUS on 31 Aug. HMH-462 arrived at MAG-36 on 21 Aug with additional H-53As.
The first fixed-wing OV-10A arrived in-country in May, and was assigned to VMO-2 at MMAF. By the end of the year, VMO-2 had 13 Broncos. The OV-10s were a remarkable addition to the observation role. With their capability to carry rockets and machine guns, they also served in a “light attack” role, although that role was not the OV-10s’ “MOS.” On 9 Oct Maj. Michael Leahy accompanied Capt. Gene Kimmel of VMO-2 in an OV-10 on a mission to support a Marine rifle company SW of Da Nang on a sweep of a paddy/village area. The remarkable aircraft lazed just a few hundred feet overhead until called upon by the company commander to attack tree lines and other entrenchments in the company’s path. “If it weren’t war, it could have been a symphony.” Capt. Kimmel and his Airborne Observer (AO) were killed two weeks later.
August and September were surprisingly quiet in the Marine Tactical Areas of Responsibility (TAORs), although many Marine search and destroy, cordon and patrol operations required helo support from MAG-16, MAG-36, PROVMAG-39 and the SLF squadrons.
During mid-September, 24 H-46s, primarily from MAG-39 at Quang Tri landed 1700 troops along the south side of Ben Hai River, in the middle of the DMZ, in a pincer movement. The LZ was honeycombed with well-used trails leading from North Vietnam to the south.
The battleship USS New Jersey (BB62) arrived off the coast of the DMZ on 29 Sep. In October, the Thuong Duc Special Forces camp, which controlled the route from the A Shau Valley into Quang Nam Province, southwest of Da Nang came under heavy NVA pressure. A classic relief operation, Operation Maui Peak, took place with a ground column fixing the NVA in place while MAG-16 helos lifted in one Marine and two ARVN battalions behind them to inflict heavy NVA casualties and relieve the camp.
President Johnson announced a complete halt to bombing and naval bombardment of North Vietnam on 31 Oct. On 1 Nov, North Vietnam announced they would meet in Paris with the United States, South Vietnam and the communist National Liberation Front.
Operation Meade River continued into December in the familiar “Dodge City” triangle, south of Da Nang, supported by MAG-16. Camp Carroll artillery base near the DMZ was abandoned by the end of December.
By the end of the year, the active squadrons in I Corps included VMO-2 (UH-1Es and OV10s – MMAF), VMO-6 (UH-1Es- Quang Tri), HML-167 (UH-1Es – MMAF) and HML-367 (UH-1Es-Phu Bai). Also included were HMM-161 (H-46Ds-Quang Tri), HMM-165 (H-46As-MMAF), HMM-262 (H-46As-Quang Tri), HMM-265 (H-46As-Phu Bai), HMM-363 (H-34s-Phu Bai), and HMM-364 (H-46Ds-MMAF). Additional squadrons included HMH-462 (H-53s-Phu Bai) and HMH-463 (H-53s-MMAF). HMM-362 (H-34s) was assigned to SLF “A” aboard the USS Okinawa. HMM-164 (H-46As) was assigned to SLF “B” aboard the USS Tripoli. The year ended with 80,932 Marines in RVN.
MAG-16 was comprised of HML-167, HMM-165, HMM-263, HMM-364, HMH-463, and VMO-2. Operations kicked off with Operation Taylor Common in the “Arizona territory,” northwest of An Hoa, supported by MAG-16. Both SLFs participated in Operation Bold Mariner on the Batangan Peninsula, last visited during Operation Starlight in 1965. HMMs 362 and 165 flew in support. To the north, MAG-36 and PROVMAG-39 provided helicopter-borne logistic support to Operation Dewey Canyon, which took place in the northwestern-most I Corps. On 8 Jan the OV-10s in 1st MAW increased to 24, divided between VMO-2 and 6. HMM-363 departed MAG-36 for CONUS on 21 Jan.
President Richard M. Nixon was inaugurated on 20 Jan. The Nixon Administration adopted a policy seeking to end U.S. involvement in RVN either through negotiations or by turning the combat role over to the Vietnamese. South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu had suggested, at the beginning of the year, that ARVN forces were “ready to replace part of the allied forces.” The Marine effort in 1969 was aimed at destroying the NVA staging and assembly areas and lines of communication near the population centers of Dong Ha, Quang Tri, Da Nang and Quang Tri. “The destruction of the enemy’s command, control and logistic facilities will contribute to his eventual defeat.”
MajGen Raymond G. Davis, CG, 3rd MarDiv, believed in a “more mobile posture” regarding the usage of helicopter assets to insert troops. He also believed in creating LZs where they were required, rather than picking a naturally existing LZ near the insertion point. Chain saws and axes became a part of the individual Marine’s equipment. The 1stMAW provided BrigGen Homer Hill, Asst. Wing Commander, to 3rd MarDiv “to coordinate air operations on the spot,” eliminating the lengthy process through normal 1st MAW channels.
On 16 Mar the USS New Jersey departed the coast of Vietnam. The Bell AH-1G Cobra arrived at MMAF with VMO-2 on 10 Apr. Additional H-46Ds arrived in April. Major operations took place along the DMZ, in the Da Krong Valley, and on Charlie Ridge southwest of Da Nang. These ops continued into June, and all were supported by the three helicopter groups. The CH-53D Sea Stallion assault helicopter was delivered to the USMC with a lift capacity of 8000 pounds and 38 troops, which increased the payload over the H-53A by two tons.
The following account of an HMM-165 night medevac turned recon extract tells how both extraordinary courage on the part of the crew and spontaneous inter-service coordination resulted in a successful life saving mission. On 15 Apr. the MAG-16 medevac package was assigned to HMM-165’s Major Al Macauley, together with his co-pilot 1/Lt Seth Boyum and crew chief LCpl Mike Everett plus an unidentified gunner and corpsman. The rest of the package consisted of a second Ch-46 as wingman and two UH-1E gunships from HML-167. After a busy night with 6.2 hours already logged, the medevac package was alerted to an emergency evac of 3 WIA southwest of An Hoa in an area known as Antenna Valley, well outside the friendly AO. As the situation clarified and it became obvious that this was a recon team in contact, Major Macauley, now able to talk to the Marines on the ground, knew that a fast reaction was needed and headed to the position without waiting to muster a full recon extract package. As luck would have it, Macauley made contact with a US Air Force AC-47 gunship “Puff, The Magic Dragon” in the area and requested their fire support for the extract. Arriving overhead, Macauley heard that the recon team now had seven of eight wounded or dead and quickly directed Puff’s awesome firepower in a circle 200 to 300 feet out from the team’s position as soon as he had spiraled into the LZ. Puff’s 20 MM gatling guns hosed down the VC and the terrain around the CH-46 and the recon team. Without hesitation, LCpl Everett and the corpsman left the aircraft and searched the dark area for 30 minutes, locating and loading all of the casualties. Still covered by Puff and the Marine UH-1E’s, Macauley then spiraled up out of the zone and headed for Da Nang. It was a spectacular finale to a long night. LCpl Everett was awarded the Silver Star for his corageous actions.
Soon after this on another black night, an HMM-263 medevac effort brought out 27 WIA from a hot LZ just SW of Thuong Duc following the ambush of a 7th Marines patrol. The medevac crews were cautioned not to bring out a deceased Marine with a live RPG round in his chest. VMO-2’s newly arrived Cobras provided very effective close-in fire support. The III MAF Logistic Support facility was destroyed by a grass fire on 27 Apr southwest of Da Nang. Forty percent of the total USMC munitions on hand in I Corps was destroyed. During May, Operation Pipestone Canyon cleared the Go Noi island area south of Da Nang.
By mid-1969, wing helicopters were flying at 150 percent of their authorized utilization. Crews were working near the 200 percent level. The lineup of helicopter groups and squadrons in July, just prior to the beginning of troop withdrawals: ProvMag-39 at Quang Tri with HMM-161, HMM-262, and VMO-6; MAG-36 at Phu Bai with HML-367, HMM-265, HMM-362, and HMH-462; and MAG-16 at Marble Mountain with HML-167, HMM-165, HMM-263, HMM-364, HMH-463, and VMO-2. HMM-164 was the sole SLF squadron when SLF Bravo was deactivated.
Maj. John Van Nortwick, HMM-263 XO, tells of a poignant reward following a night medevac. After launch on a routine flight, he landed to load a WIA Marine, who was a booby trap victim. He then took off for Da Nang to land at the NSA hospital. The Marine was offloaded and carried under the nose bubble of the CH-46. As he passed under the nose, he looked up, grinned, gave a big thumbs up and could be heard to say: “Thanks for coming down and saving my life!” Only after that did John see that the Marines’ right leg was missing from the knee down. To this day he cannot tell this story without some tears.
Nixon’s troop withdrawal plan began on 14 Jul with BLT 1/9 leaving for Okinawa. HMM-165 was the first 1stMAW unit to leave on 14 Aug. The last UH-34D squadron, HMM-362, departed RVN on 21 Aug for FMFLant to be redesignated HMH-362 with H-53s. They were the first unit of the 1st MAW in Vietnam in 1962. The H-34 had proven “to be the most dependable aircraft in the Wing’s helicopter inventory”.
On 27 Aug the USS New Orleans (LPH-11) offloaded 18 CH-53As from HMH-361 to join MAG-36 at Phu Bai. North Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh died on 3 Sep. Operation Durham Peak brought many aircrews back into the Que Son Mountains and the Que Son valley, which was first entered during Operation Harvest Moon in 1965. Marine helos supported a major joint US Army-US Marine operation in Hiep Duc once again. The final SLF landing was conducted by HMM-265 on 7 Sep in Operation Defiant Stand, a joint operation with the Korean Marines. On 7 Nov, the SLF was composed of redeployed units, including HMM-165 and HMM-164, and could no longer be introduced into Vietnam without the approval of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
VMO-6 stood down on 2 Oct and had departed for Okinawa by 20 Oct. HMM-161 and HMM-262 were assigned to MAG-16 on 16 Oct, but remained at Phu Bai due to space limitations at MMAF. HMH-462 departed RVN with MAG-36 on 20 Oct. HMH-463 stayed at MMAF with H-53Ds. HMM-361 had arrived in August at MAG-36 in Phu Bai, and transferred to MMAF on 26 Sep. HML-367 departed Phu Bai for MMAF on 16 Oct. HML-367 re-equipped with the AH-1Gs of VMO-2. ProvMag 39 was deactivated 31 Oct. On 7 Nov, the MAG 36 command group left Phu Bai for Okinawa.
Support of the First Reconnaissance Battalion was a continuing mission for the HMM-squadrons of MAG-16. An excerpt from STARS AND STRIPES described one mission for an H-46 crew from HMM-263. “… a recon team, operating in the Que Sons made contact with the NVA, and in the fire fight that followed, suffered two WIA while killing three NVA. The team requested an emergency evac. Upon arrival over the area, the helo crew saw that the recon team was located approximately 200 yards from the only LZ. A hoist extraction was ruled out because of the wounded. Covered by smoke laid down by VMO-2 Cobras, the H-46 spiraled in and backed up to a narrow ridge with just the rear main gear on the ground. As the pilot held this precarious position, Sgt. Lemuel Cook, gunner, and LCpl David Penn, crew chief, left the aircraft to help evacuate the two wounded Marines. Advancing under enemy fire, they were halfway to the recon team’s position when they met the team running down the trail. “We told them we would bring down their wounded,” said Penn. They found the two wounded Marines with the recon team leader and a Navy corpsman. Cook and the recon team leader carried one of the wounded down the trail to the aircraft while Penn and the corpsman followed with the other. The corpsman soon became exhausted and Penn attempted to carry the man by himself. Soon Cook returned and helped Penn get this last wounded aboard the 46. With heavy fire support from four Cobras and two OV-10s, the H-46 was able to spiral safely upward from the LZ under heavy ground fire. There were no further casualties. The extraction had taken 20 minutes.
During December, a most unusual and heroic medevac took place. While on alert at LZ Baldy, two H-46s and two Cobras were launched to pick up a critically wounded Marine located on Hill 845 in zero/zero weather. After many unsuccessful attempts to locate the LZ, the 46s climbed out of the weather to wait for a break in the overcast. The HML-367 Cobra flight leader, Capt. Roger Henry requested permission to attempt an approach up the mountainside to the LZ. The request was granted and Capt. Henry and his co-pilot, 1st Lt. Dave Cummings, proceeded upward through the ravines, just above the canopy, much of the time at low airspeeds. The Marines in the LZ who were listening for the sound of the Cobra’s engine guided them. Three hours later, after five attempts, they found the LZ, and landed on the edge of a bomb crater. Without hesitation, Cummings climbed out of his seat; got the wounded Marine strapped in; then straddled himself atop the starboard rocket pod facing backward, and gave Henry a thumbs up to launch. After a seemingly endless climb and then descent out of the weather, a safe landing was made at a nearby aid station LZ, with Cummings still clinging to the rocket pod, a little messed up by the elements, but otherwise OK. This was incredible airmanship and true heroism. The wounded Marine survived.
SLF “A” began the year with HMM-362 aboard the USS Okinawa, replaced later by HMM-265 (in Jun) and HMM-165 (in Aug). HMM-164 was aboard SLF “B” on the USS Tripoli, followed by the USS Valley Forge. When not aboard ship, the SLF helicopter squadrons HMMs 164 and 362 were rotated alternately to Phu Bai in support of the 3rd MarDiv.
MAG-16 ended the year as the only helicopter group in RVN. By the end of December, the 1st MAW had 21 AH-1G Cobras and 79 H-53Ds. HML-367 had been activated as an all-Cobra squadron, receiving the Cobra inventory from VMO-2. Marine strength at the end of the year stood at 54,559 personnel.
At the beginning of the year, MAG-16 at MMAF had HML-167 (UH-1Es), HML-367 (AH-1Gs), HMMs 263 and 364 (CH-46Ds), HMH-361 (H-53As) and 463 (H-53Ds) and VMO-2 (OV-10As). HMMs 161 and 262 (CH-46Ds) were located at Phu Bai under MAG-16.
HMH-361 (H-53As and some Ds) redeployed to CONUS as part of the third redeployment of US forces on 28 Jan. VMO-2 moved from MAG-16 (helicopter MAG) at MMAF to MAG-11 (fixed wing MAG) at Da Nang on 1 Feb. With the space created by the removal of HMH-361 and VMO-2 from MMAF, HMMs 161 and 262 moved from Phu Bai to MMAF.
The Marine TAOR shrank to essentially Quang Nam province. Full employment of Marine helicopters didn’t lessen up, though. ARVN units moving into old USMC areas still required Marine helo support from MAG-16.
On 31 January, PFC Mike Clausen, an HMM-263 crew chief, was the embodiment of the highest ideals of Marine helicopter aircrews when he participated in a rescue mission to extract elements of a platoon that had inadvertently entered a minefield while attacking enemy positions. Clausen skillfully guided the pilot, LtCol Walt Ledbetter, the squadron CO, to a landing in an area cleared by one of several mine explosions. With 11 Marines wounded, 1 dead, and the remaining 8 holding their positions for fear of detonating other mines, Clausen quickly leaped from the helicopter and, in the face of enemy fire, moved across the extremely dangerous, mine-laden area to assist in carrying casualties to the waiting helicopter. Despite the ever-present threat of additional mine explosions, he continued his valiant efforts, leaving the comparatively safe area of the helicopter on six separate occasions to carry out his rescue efforts. At one point, the pilot gave him a direct order to remain in the helicopter. Clausen had removed his helmet and was unable to hear the order. He continued to bring wounded aboard. On one occasion, a mine detonated near him, killing the Navy corpsman, and wounding three more Marines. Clausen did not falter. PFC Clausen was presented the Medal of Honor. LtCol Ledbetter was awarded the Navy Cross.
In March, a few formalized operations, Imperial Lake and Catawba Falls were initiated in familiar areas such as the Que Sons and on Charlie Ridge. However, increased emphasis was placed on quick reaction packages (QRP’s), variously known as Pacifier, Kingfisher and Sparrowhawk. These packages consisted of four to six CH-46Ds, two to four AH-1Gs and one UH-1E on standby to be used against targets of opportunity in the last months of the war.
Now that the wing was supporting only one Marine division, helicopter resources were more available. The wing departed from the traditional helicopter package by placing particular packages (two H-46s) under the operational control of the infantry regimental commanders. MajGen William Thrash (CG,1st MAW) introduced this innovation after recommendation by the Youngdale Board. The regimental commander used this for admin, resupply and recon. For troop insertions, he had to go back to the Wing for a total package, including gunships.
In June, the CH-53D assumed an attack role. A “Thrashlite” consisted of a 12-helicopter flight of H-53Ds from HMH-463 loaded with 8000 pounds (twenty 55 gallon drums) of mogas/diesel in a cargo net. Using a primitive bomb sight (black tape on the chin bubble) developed by a bright young Lieutenant with an engineering degree, the loads were released over a target area from 1500-2000 feet, allowed to penetrate the jungle canopy or target area, and ignited by rockets from VMO-2 broncos or HML-367 cobras. HMH-463 flew 99 attack sorties on 7 Jun, dropping 400 tons on a ridgeline southwest of DaNang with spectacular results. Ground troops who then entered the area reported having to only walk down the ridge counting the casualties.
HMM-161 redeployed on 15 Aug from MMAF to MCAS Tustin. Marine support was then focused on the ARVN Operation Hoang Dieu, a final systematic search of every hamlet in Quang Nam province.
MajGen Alan Armstrong (CG, 1st MAW) went further in October by assigning a full package to the 5th Marines, including six H-46s, four cobras, one command and control UH-1E and occasionally an H-53, completely under the control of the ground commander. The wing provided a helicopter commander airborne (HC(A) that was in consultation with the ground commander. This was very successful.
The year started with significantly reduced operations for both Marine ground and aviation units. Although ARVN operations continued to increase, the overall need for helicopter support steadily decreased. There were, however, exceptions. Operation Upshur Stream was one last sweep of that old nemesis, Charlie Ridge.
On 30 Jan, the ARVN kicked off their massive multi-division incursion 40 miles into Laos from a point west of Khe Sanh, known as Lam Son 719. Included in this support was the daily use of from two to eight CH-53Ds of HMH-463 to lift heavy equipment and artillery, along with units of the US Army.s 101st Airborne. The H-53s, escorted by the AH-1Gs (and later AH-1Js) of HML-367, moved massive amounts of tonnage of material in and out of Laos. One CH-53 was lost in a hot LZ near Tchepone on 23 Feb. The crew chief and gunners were picked up immediately by the wingman. The copilot, LtCol Chuck Pitman, had been wounded, and he and the pilot, Maj Mike Wasco, spent a few anxious hours in a water-filled bomb crater until an Army UH-1 arrived to get them out. LtGen Chuck Pitman later retired as Deputy Chief of Staff, Aviation for the USMC. The operation into Laos ended for the Marines on 27 Mar. HMM-364 redeployed on 12 Mar. The VMO-2 broncos, also used during Lam Son 719 to plant electronic sensor strings near approach routes, flew out of country on 31 Mar.
On 16 Feb a detachment of Marines under Col Paul Niesen and four new Bell AH-1J twin-engine Sea Cobras arrived in RVN for combat evaluation, attached to HML-367. They were armed with a three-barrel 20mm cannon, machine guns and rockets, and had a rotor brake.
The III MAF relocated to Okinawa on 14 April. The Third Marine Amphibious Brigade (3rd MAB) was officially established in its place. The 3rd MAB included Det VMO-2, MAG-16, HML-167, HML-367, HMM-262, HMM 263 and HMH-463. The last Marine operation, Scott Orchard, was conducted west of An Hoa with minimal contact. On 7 May, 3rd MAB ceased all ground combat and fixed-wing air operations by Marines in Vietnam. HMM-262 redeployed on 7 May to MCAS Kaneohe Bay. HMM-263 redeployed on 15 May to MCAS Quantico while assigned to MAG-26 at MCAS New River. On 26 May, helicopter operations ceased. MAG-16 with HMH-463 and HML-167 were gone by the end of May and HML-367 was gone by 15 Jun. HMH-463 deployed to MCAS Kaneohe Bay. By 22 Jun, all formal Marine aviation units were out of Vietnam.
A detachment of two YOV-10Ds had arrived on 26 May for combat evaluation. Because the 1st MAW had ceased combat operations, the detachment was assigned to the Navy’s Light Attack Squadron 4 (VAL-4) in southern Vietnam for evaluation of its Night Observation Gunship System (NOGS) and a 20mm turret cannon coupled with an infrared targeting device. The OV-10Ds had the prototype gun turrets from the AH1-J program and prototype laser target designators. The FLIRs (forward looking infrared) systems were from B-52 aircraft. The unit fired almost 2 million rounds of 20mm. The wing stations carried 19 shot 2.75 in rockets, flares, CBU-55 (FAE) weapons or 150 gal. drop tanks. The YOV-10Ds remained until late August. As a result of the evaluation, LtGen William Jones recommended adoption of the OV-10D by the Marine Corps.
During early 1972, the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit (MAU) with ARG “A” and HMM-164 stayed within 4 days travel of Military Region One (MR1), the former I Corps. ARG “B” stayed within 7 days travel of MR1. The 33rd MAU with HMM-165 joined the 9th MAB on 28 Apr.
On 30 March, the North Vietnamese launched the Easter offensive focused on the two northern provinces of Quang Tri and Thua Thien. The NVA marched south, overrunning Dong Ha and Quang Tri and advancing toward the My Chanh River north of Hue. RVN losses were significant. The South Vietnamese Marine Division (VNMC) held the advancing NVA at the My Chanh in April.
By the beginning of May, Marine amphibious units were in position offshore. Two composite squadrons, HMM-165 (reinf) on the USS Tripoli, and HMM-164 (reinf) off of the USS Okinawa from the 9th MEB had arrived to support the Vietnamese Marines. Each of the two Amphibious Ready Groups (ARG) consisted of a composite squadron of four H-53s, fourteen H-46s and four UH-1Es.
Marine helicopters and crews on the ARGs stood by with a 300-man reaction force on a 48-hour standby to rescue downed crews or escaping American Prisoners of War (POWs).
On 13 May, VNMC units were heli-lifted by HMM-164 of the ARG north behind NVA lines in two waves. One H-53 was downed in the operation, and destroyed by its crew. Several H-46s were damaged. The 9th MAB naval gunfire element flew with Det “B” of HML-367 from the USS Denver (LPD-9). The 66th NVA Regiment had been completely surprised by the assault. On 24 May, HMM-164 again inserted VNMC assault troops near Quang Tri City. May was costly for the NVA with significant personnel and equipment losses.
On 16 June DET, HMA-369 arrived at the 9th MAB with AH-1J Sea Cobra gunships to commence Marine Hunter-killer operations (MarHuk) against small boat traffic ferrying cargo from merchant ships to landing sites off the North Vietnamese coast. Other targets were truck traffic and anti-aircraft guns in North Vietnam. The Area of Operation (AO) was from 80 miles south of Hanoi to Tiger Island. The MarHuk cobras were armed with 20mm cannon and 5″ Zuni rockets. They arrived aboard the USS Denver, then transferred to the USS Cleveland (LPD-7) and then the USS Dubuque (LPD-8).
Prior to the battle for Quang Tri City, on 27 Jun, HMM-165 conducted an amphibious demonstration (feint) off of Quang Tri. On 29 Jun, HMM-165 and HMM-164 conducted a helicopter assault along the coast with the VNMC. The operation was a complete success with the NVA on retreat north into Quang Tri Province. On 11 Jul, 9th MAB helicopters again landed VNMC troops north of Quang Tri City. 28 of 34 helicopters were hit. One H-53 loaded with VNMC troops was hit by an SA-7 missile 100 feet above the LZ and destroyed on impact. Most on board were killed.
The NVA determined to hold Quang Tri City at all costs. On 22 July, HMM-164 again heli-lifted VNMC troops into Quang Tri. Quang Tri was defended by the main-force NVA 325th Division, reinforced. The 9th MAB carried out an amphibious demonstration off of the DMZ on 9 Sep, which pulled major NVA units north from Quang Tri. On 15 Sep, VNMC troops took the Citadel and Quang Tri City.
Vietnamese Marines retook Quang Tri and the NVA invasion stalled as the monsoons arrived in September. HMA-369 continued their LPD-launched hunter killer ops off the North Vietnamese coast. Richard M. Nixon was re-elected President of the United States, defeating Senator George McGovern on 7 November.
On 26 January, HMA-369s very unique and successful hunter-killer operations were terminated to prepare for the upcoming Operation ENDSWEEP. On 28 January, at 0800, the final cease-fire was observed. The USS Turner Joy (DD-951) fired the last U.S. Naval gunfire mission in the Vietnam War in support of the 3rd, 4th and 5th VNMC Battalion Marines.
HMH-463 (CH-53Ds), with Dets from HMM-164 (CH-46Ds) and HML-167 (UH-1Es) attached; and HMM-165 (a composite squadron with a mix of CH-53Ds, CH-46Ds and UH-1Es) joined TF 78, together with the Navy’s HM-12 (RH-53As). Operation ENDSWEEP was tasked with the clearance of US-laid sea mines from Haiphong Harbor and its approaches in accordance with the then on going Paris Peace Accords. The operation was unique in many ways and required the Marines assigned to utilize high levels of ingenuity, flexibility, and political awareness. The key words were “High Theater”, as the operation was based on the statistical theory that a given number of mine sweeps in a given geographical area would produce a 99.9% assurance that no more live mines were present. The detonation of actual mines was minimal, but when that occured, it was most impressive.
The hazards to the aircraft and aircrews lay in the flight envelope required to accomplish the mission. This envelope, summarized as 35 knots airspeed, 35 feet AGL, ball way out, high gross weights, and downwind in many cases required very high power settings and caused unusual stress on airframes and flight control systems. The loss of 3 A/C (2 Marine, 1 Navy) during ENDSWEEP was attributed to material failure in each case. Fortunately, no lives were lost. Initially, activities were limited to the installation of minesweeping kits (a streaming winch, a tow kit, flight control system modifications, a precise navigation system based on Loran, rearview mirrors, and 2 internal fuel cells) and AMCM aircrew training with the Magnetic Orange Pipe (MOP) at NAS Cubi Point.
On 28 Feb, 1973, after modifying all 15 of their H-53s, conducting AMCM training for all of their own crews plus those of HMM-165 and HMH-462, who were being held in reserve; and enduring numerous green side/brown side out drills caused by the political environment, HMH-463 and HMM-165 deployed to the Grand Norway Island area outside of Haiphong Harbor with the rest of TF 78.
Political considerations at higher levels delayed the start of ENDSWEEP until 12 March. At that time, Det “D” of HMH-463, now aboard USS Cleveland commenced operations in the Lach Huyen area of Haiphong Harbor. In order to maintain one A/C continuously sweeping, it was necessary to launch 6 three-hour sorties per day. The Det provided three of these sorties while the squadron aboard USS Inchon provided the remainder.
At the same time, CH-53Ds of HMM-165 provided support to HM-12 using the Mark 105 Seabome Equipment Platform, a hydrafoil sled. A typical minesweep sortie consisted of towing the MOP or Mark 105 from the stern gate of the LPD to the assigned minefield, sweeping under the control of a nearby Navy minesweeper (MSO) for two hours, with a thirty minute return to the LPD. By July, when Operation Endsweep was concluded, the squadrons had logged 2000 hours of “tow time”.
Many of the Marines in these squadrons had served multiple tours in-country fighting the North Vietnamese and questioned that they would now in effect be working in cooperation with their former enemies. However, two factors overrode. One, the success of Operation ENDSWEEP was directly linked to the release of U.S. POWs held in North Vietnam, and two, Marines obey the orders given them. However, the operation was unusual, as it seemed that the daily flight schedule was based on the progress of the Paris peace talks.
One rainy night, the HMM-164 SAR crew become firemen as they made many IFR trips into Lach Huyen carrying fire fighting gear to the crew of one of the Navy’s wooden MSOs which was on fire. Despite their efforts, the ship burned to the waterline. The crew was rescued safely.
The following day, bad luck dogged Operation ENDSWEEP as HMH-463’s XO, Maj. Bill Smith, took his CH-53 “submarine” YH-11, to the bottom of Haiphong Harbor. Bill and the crew got out with minor injuries and swam to the surface. Bill said that he was down there “looking for a missing tail rotor pitch link.”
On 30 July, after completion of Operation ENDSWEEP, the 31st MAU was reconstituted aboard the USS Tripoli with 13 H-53s, 4 H-46s, 2 hueys and 4 cobras. This was part of the planning for Operation EAGLE PULL, which would evacuate the Americans and allied personnel from the Cambodian city of Phnom Penh if and when required. It would not be needed until April of 1975.
Congress declared the cessation of all U.S.-funded military operations in Southeast Asia on 14 August.
No Marine helicopter activity was recorded
In January, the NVA commenced probing attacks on many major South Vietnamese cities. NVA attacks multiplied as main-force units over-ran the ARVN during March. The continuing defeat of ARVN units throughout the country caused planning for the humanitarian evacuation of Americans, foreign nationals and Vietnamese citizens and officials from Saigon to accelerate.
19 March – Quang Tri City and Quang Tri Province abandoned by South Vietnamese Forces
24 March – Quang Ngai and Tam Ky fall to the NVA
25 March – Hue and Hoi An fall to communist forces
26 March – Chu Lai and Ky Ha facilities fall to the NVA
30 March – Da Nang, MMAF and Da Nang Airfield fall to NVA forces
It had become obvious that a plan was needed immediately. During April the 9th MAB with PROVMAG-39 consisting of HMM-164 and HMM-165 (27 H-46s), HMH-462 (16 H-53s-USS Okinawa), HMH-463 (16 H-53s-USS Hancock), HML-367, and HMA-369, was activated for the evacuation. The USS Midway (CVA-41) had an additional contingent of 6 USAF CH-53s (special ops) and 4 USAF HH-53s (rescue). With non-folding blades, ten was the maximum contingent. On 10 Apr, the 9th MAB arrived off of Saigon. A visit was made to the U.S. Embassy and the Defense Attach Office (DAO) in Saigon on 12 Apr for evacuation site and LZ selection. BrigGen Richard E. Carey (9th MAB CG) and Col Alfred M. Gray (33rd MAU Commander) made a personal visit on 13 April to further assess the situation, with a frigid reception by Ambassador Graham A. Martin.
On 12 April Operation EAGLE PULL, consisting of H-53s from HMH-462 and HMH-463, commenced the evacuation of Phnom Penh before the fall to the communist Khmer Rouge.
The NVA attack on Saigon then stalled, as they had outrun their supply lines. Allied forces interpreted this as a check on the enemy’s advance by the ARVN. With the NVA acceleration of the attacks again, Nguyen Van Thieu resigned on 21 April as President of South Vietnam. At 1420 on 29 April, Operation FREQUENT WIND commenced.
A total of thirty four CH-53s, twenty seven CH-46s, six UH-1Es and eight AH-1Js were committed and flew 682 sorties between first light on 29 April and 0753 on 30 April. At 0458, Capt Gerry Berry of HMM-165 in “Lady Ace 9” lifted the U.S. Ambassador to safety. The last personnel evacuated, Marines of the combined security force, were lifted out at 0753 on 30 April aboard “Swift 2-2”, an H-46 from HMM-164. A total of 6,968 persons had been evacuated. Flight crews averaged 13 hours in the air, and Capt Berry was high timer with 18.3 hours.
During the latter stages of the evacuation, when the USMC security forces were the only ones left on the ground, Admiral Whitmire (Commander, CTF 76) halted all “retraction” operations for “crew rest and maintenance”. Once BrigGen Carey had discovered the fact, he convinced Admiral Whitmire to rescind his order, assuming that the communists would be in control by morning. Helicopter operations were resumed for the remainder of the night.
At the same time, LtGen Louis H. Wilson (FMFPAC-Hawaii) “learned from the 7th Fleet Commander that the Marines had flown their maximum number of hours and therefore [the Admiral] was stopping flight operations.” Gen Wilson went into orbit – “he would prefer charges against any officer who ordered his Marine pilots to stop flying so long as there were Marines on the ground in Saigon. There is no such thing as Marines not evacuating Marines. We do not understand that.”
On 30 April 1975, the President of South Vietnam, General Duong Van Minh, told his soldiers to lay down their arms. The Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist.
AND WE WERE FINALLY ALL THE WAY OUT …