HMM-263 Events Diary
Maintenance Department 1961 to 1966
by Captain Keith Scott, USMC Retired
HMM-263 was housed in the old hangar at New River Air Station in 1961. The old hanger was the only hangar at the Air Station at that time. It’s still there with the round roof and the control tower at one end. Some shops were located in the old hangar and other where located in temporary metal buildings next to the hangar. Our Squadron followed the fundamental concept of separating technical disciplines into individual spaces. Administration, Operations and the Ready Room were on the first and second decks of the old hangar. We shared the hangar with our sister squadrons flying HOK and H-37 aircraft and maybe two more squadrons flying the H-34. The HOK aircraft had wooden blades and needed inside storage overnight. The company that made the HOK also made guitars and later the Navy H-2. Because of there size, the H-37s and the H-34s came inside for major maintenance only. Components from the old H-37, nicknamed the Duce, are still flying today as the Sikorsky Sky Crane.
Our first deployment during this period of time was supporting a federal effort integrating the first black student at the University of Mississippi. Twelve aircraft making a long take off roll down the active runway was an impressive sight. They were heavy and needed the ground speed to get airborne. We moved into a new hangar a few months before the squadron departed for Mississippi. The new hangar had heat, air-conditioning, room for our shops and offices and inside maintenance space for our aircraft. We called the New River hangars old and new for years. The informal naming protocol disappeared after the next hangar was built several years later. Aircraft operations continued at a hot 2000 hours per month after the squadron returned from Mississippi.
Carrier qualifications were flown off Onslow Beach in preparation for our next Caribbean cruise. The naval ship used for carrier qualifications was on old jeep carrier with a flat deck and almost no superstructure. I can almost remember its name sometimes. Our major H-34 problem was hovering in ground effect over the flight deck and then transitioning to forward flight over the water with a heavy load. The fundamentals are the same today, but the margins were smaller back then. The H-34s were blade tracked with a pole and colored chalk. The secret was to touch the blade with a light tap. If you touched it too hard, you could break your arm or worse. An aircraft coming back from a hop with one main landing gear missing was more common than most people would think. The landing solution was wooden pallets with a mattress on top. If you going to land in rough area landing zones, you are going to lose a landing gear now and then.
The Squadron’s next major deployment was a 6-month Vieques Cruise aboard the USS Guadalcanal. Our Squadron was tasked with squadron and group level maintenance on this cruise. This required an avionics van and generator that could be air transportable. Group level power plants, hydraulics and the metal shop worked out of tents on the flight line. We did day and night flying and performed normal maintenance from the airstrip at Camp Garcia. Land crabs were a serious problem if you stepped on one on the way to the flight line at night. Your boots would be a mess until they were washed with soap and water. The maintenance tents next to the runway with the living area and heads at some distance would be the blueprint for our future deployment to Southeast Asia. This cruise was the first deployment for the UH1E, a new aircraft in our Marine Corps inventory. A UH1E detachment was performing shipboard suitability trials on this deployment. We lost one UH1E doing externals off the number one elevator. Everyone got out OK, but the aircraft was lost in 100 feet of water. After 30 days on the bottom, the aircraft was recovered and many almost new spare parts became available as replacements. We painted the outside case of one UHF radio and it was flying again the next day in an H-34. The old saying, “Imagination is the mother of invention” has always been an undocumented asset of Marine Corps aviation. UH1Es didn’t do externals off the flight deck after that. The ship’s Captain was a true sailor and keep his private sailboat on the hangar deck. After anchoring the Guadalcanal in the harbor at Kingston, Jamaica, the Captain launched his sailboat and sailed between the ship and Kingston for most of the afternoon. He docked his sailboat at a hotel on the beach in Kingston for the night. That was the same hotel that was hosting a squadron party that night. The Captain’s sailboat somehow sailed itself back to the Guadalcanal during the night and parked itself next to the Guadalcanal. The word was that two Marine pilots were involved in the sailboat’s relocation, but because they did such a neat job of getting it back to the ship, all was forgiven. The sailboat on the hangar deck fostered the idea of transporting a squadron maintenance motor bike on the hangar deck. When you park the big boat at a dock and fly the squadron aircraft to an adjoining airfield, maintenance needs land transportation between the two.
We were back at New River again and preparing for our next deployment. Flying 1800 to 2000 hours per month and doing it without accident was our normal training routine. We would have a chip detector or an engine that would be less than what it should be now and then, but that was about it. We once had a large crack in a main transmission case. The aircraft was coming back from Norfolk and the pilot didn’t like the aircraft’s unusual beat. He put the aircraft down at the New Bern Airport and did a good mechanical inspection. After the crack was discovered, the aircraft finished its flight to New River behind a truck being towed down highway 17. The H-34 takes up both lanes with the blades folded. The next deployment departed New River on board the USS Boxer. We were on our way to support a currently deployed Squadron in the Caribbean. That Squadron was afloat and on station off the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic was involved in a local revolution at that time and our job was to protect U.S. interest in the area. When our ship was within flying distance of the other squadron’s ship, we launched an aircraft with a technician on board to repair our sister squadron’s ARN-21s (TACAN). Our cross training with the H&MS-26 before our departure proved very useful. We repaired all of their equipment and the spare units that belonged to the ship. It’s great to have a TACAN when you want to find your way back to the ship. The local government had 12 P-51 Mustangs that flew in formation over the area for show. Formation takeoffs and landings were exciting. The local government also owned one aircraft of every type ever built. All were in pieces and none flyable. It appeared that the Mustangs and one helicopter were the only flyable aircraft at the airfield. The U.S. Army also had aircraft at the airfield in a supporting role. The other Marine Squadron lost one pilot to small arms fire.
On the way home we ran into a small hurricane with some good winds. As we were going through the Bermuda Triangle, the wind blew and seas were big and the Ship’s Captain wanted to make Norfolk for the weekend. Our aircraft were tied to hold-downs on the teak flight deck ready to be launched as the Boxer steamed pass Onslow Beach. With every wave, the deck would ripple and the aircraft would jump as the ripple moved down the deck. If you were standing next to an aircraft, you bounced when the aircraft bounced. Our gold was to fly every aircraft off the boat as the ship passed through our departure window. The first aircraft to launch would fly to the Air Station, pick up the parts required to repair our down aircraft and then returned to the ship with the required items. The maintenance department would repair our hangar queen and then perform the test hop on the way to the beach. Simple aircraft repair quickly. The ship didn’t slow down for the squadron launch. Our launch window of opportunity was about 5 hours. All of our aircraft flew off the boat without problems, at lease none that we were going to talk about.
After getting off the Boxer, we had to get back on the same ship seven days later for a training exercise in Spain. This was a major deployment with almost every aircraft that MAG-26 owned deployed aboard several ships going to Europe. The Boxer had over 50 aircraft onboard and sleeping space was critical. Since HMM-263 was the resident Marine Squadron on the previous cruise, we had the local knowledge that made a difference. Most of the squadron personnel had the same bunks and maintenance spaces that we had on the previous cruise. The other Squadrons lost two H-34s doing carrier qualifications in mid ocean. When the engine quit, they landed in the water. The aircraft didn’t float very long, but everyone got out OK. We were glad to be on the Boxer when the ocean was rough. She was an old CVA aircraft carrier from WWII and was a lot bigger than the new ships like the Guadalcanal and the Iwo Jima. She rode the ocean well while the smaller escort vessels were doing the big ups and downs in the rough seas. We had one major accident in Spain. An H-34 landed on top of another H-34 in the landing zone. We had liberty in France and everyone went to Paris. We anchored off Plymouth, England and visited the Royal Marine at their barracks. They wanted to play volleyball after having tea. I think the Royal Marines played a lot of volleyball. We lost every game. It was time to start home and we made it back in time for Christmas.
The Southeast Asia conflict had started and we where getting ready to do our part. The UH1Es were playing around with fixed machineguns mounted on the skids and they where doing pretty well with fixed guns. We knew that the H-34 needed a crew chief door gunner and maybe an additional gunner for the other side. Mounts were fabricated and M60s were mounted on pivot points for both crewmembers. That worked well, but we also considered using fixed guns on the landing gear. We tried both versions with mixed results. We found that door gunner shooting at a target and the pilot shooting at a different target at the same time put the door gunner on an angled floor pointing 45 degrees down. The pilot’s gun sight was grease pencil marks on his windshield. The test proved that a door gunner could put holes in his own rotor blades without to much trouble. The fixed mounts came off and they never made it to Vietnam on H-34s. Our dress code was also changing. We had flight suits that were tan and then international orange. Going to Vietnam with orange flight suits didn’t seem like a good idea. Everyone was outfitted with green flight suits and we became less of a target.
We were the first Marine Squadron deployed overseas as a squadron since WWII. All of the Squadron personnel were going over at the same time with every thing the Squadron owned except the aircraft. We would get the aircraft in country. After arriving in Vietnam, we were milling around the airport at Da Nang waiting for someone tell us what to do when a H-37 landed and taxied over and the crew chief said get in. All H-37s leak oil from the transmission and you learn to walk around the leak when you get in and out. We took off and flew around the south end of the runway and headed east towards the South China Sea. The trip only lasted 10 minutes and we where at Marine Corps Auxiliary Airfield, Marble Mountain, South Vietnam. Marble Mountain turned out to be on the beach with a runway constructed parallel with the water and about 200 yards inland. It looked like Camp Garcia without some of the nice stuff, like mess halls and showers. Sleeping on the beach under a tent in the summer isn’t that bad, but hot food and showers would have been nice. For the first week or two we ate c-rations and that’s all. A mess hall was being built and the promise of morning and evening meals were in the works. We never did have anything other than c-rations for lunch. You can gain weight on c-rations. The shops and offices were tents on the flight line. They were improved to hard-back tents as time went on. Marble Mountain was a construction site in progress and an operational airfield all at the same time. Beer arrived in country about 2 months after we arrived. We had a work party help off load the ship at the local dock. They reported a lot of breakage during the off load. I wonder why? I’m sure they all took samples to make sure it wasn’t spoiled. Life was better at Marble. If you liked clams and beer, we had both.
The picture below is an aerial view of the airfield at Marble Mountain. An American civilian magazine published this picture for public distribution before we were attacked. The mess hall is the buildings in the lower right between the tents and the parking ramp. Our squadron administration, operations and maintenance tents were along the upper edge of the aircraft parking area. We lived in a tent area off the picture to the right. The road going north and south across the picture is a public highway. The Army had a small helicopter detachment on the left side of the parking area and H&MS-16 was located on the right side. You can identify the H-37s on the left, the H-34s in the middle and the UH1Es on the right. The UH1Es were parked in a different direction to improve their hover departure. UH1Es were refueled with a refueling truck and the H-34s and H-37s taxied to the refueling station between the runway and the ramp. The south side of Da Nang was northwest of Marble and is visible at the upper right. Some of our landing zones were located in the foothills in the background. It was raining and Bob Hope’s USO troop was in town. Martha Ray came to Marble and entertained the troops in the rain. We all squeezed into a large Army maintenance tent at their end of the parking ramp. She did a great job and we all enjoyed her jokes. Bob moved from landing zone to landing zone entertaining the ground troops.
We did have a few shortages. Personnel armed with a 45 pistol had a pistol and bullets, but no magazine. The perimeter was guarded with machine gun positions every 50 yards and that’s all. As long as the Viet Cong were nice, every thing worked out pretty well. One black night they decided not to be nice. They slipped behind a machinegun position and killed the crew from the rear. They moved through that hole in our defenses and destroyed 50% of our aircraft on the parking ramp. The Marines with the 45s were trying to load single shot. It was really hard to do. The other machine gun positions were shooting at our Navy friends across the road. The bad guys were behind them. The sappers were putting hand grenades in the H-34 exhaust stacks and explosive charges in the cabins of the UH1Es and H-37s. The charges exploded over the fuel tanks burning the aircraft to the ground. The hand grenades destroyed the engines and the engine mounts on the H-34s. We didn’t know that the mounts were bad until we tried to install a new engine. We had replaced a fuel cell on one aircraft the day before the attack. After replacing the fuel cell and before refueling the aircraft, this same helicopter had a hand grenade explode in the cabin during the attack. Because it had a dry tank it didn’t burn, but we had to change the fuel cell again and most of the wiring. Our capabilities as a squadron were greatly reduced and the maintenance load really increased. We killed all 18 sappers. Within a very short period of time, we had magazines for the 45s and a big mine field and a double fence around the airfield. We were still nervous on moonless black nights and we still didn’t have hot water for the showers. We know that pictures like the one above can be a planning document for the enemy. If we are going to be this visible to the public, then our physical security must be complete and impenetrable.
Our missions continued to be insertions, extractions and general logistic support for our Marines and the South Vietnamese military. The South Vietnamese really liked fish oil on their rice. Aircraft that carried broken containers smelled so bad that they were difficult to fly. There was only one thing that smells worse than Vietnamese fish oil. Combat Marines know what that is. Marine A4 attack aircraft did an excellent job of close air support in hot zones. If we had red smoke in the zone, we normally had close air ground support from the A4s. We flew re-supply to Dong Ha before it became a prisoner of war camp for U.S. prisoners a few years later. Dong Ha was as far north as you could fly and still be in South Vietnam. We flew at 1000 plus feet to avoid small arms fire and to cool off. The air was cool up there and that was like air conditioning on a hot day. If you’re at 1000 feet and you smell eggs and bacon cooking, that means the sulfur in the engine oil is cooking and your engine is going to quit at any moment. Stand by to auto-rotate. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong received larger guns in early 1966 and 1000 feet didn’t work anymore. They imported large caliber anti-aircraft guns from up north. The South Vietnamese had some early model H-34s at the Citadel 50 miles north of Da Nang. They may have belonged to the French during the previous war. They never flew and I don’t think the South Vietnamese could make them fly. I’m sure they were destroyed when the North Vietnamese occupied the Walled City.
Some of HMM-263 personnel where transferred to other Squadrons a few months after arriving in country. The idea was to spread out the going home time for HMM-263 personnel. We needed to transfer some people to other units and then get new personnel as replacements. We didn’t like that plan, but that’s war. We lost our Avionics Officer who was flying with a different Squadron down south. He flew into a cloudbank and never came out. Our Corpsman was killed by ground fire from a large caliber weapon. We lost some aircraft when we landed in elephant grass with 40-ft trees hiding inside. We also had a lot of bullet holes that were fixed with blade tape and sometimes even with metal patches. HMM-263 participated in several gaggles. A gaggle is a major troop insertion using aircraft from different squadrons. The North Vietnamese were making a major move just south of Chu Lie and we were supporting MAG-36 at Chu Lie. Normally a gaggle is a little loose on command and control. Several times the last aircraft didn’t have landing room in the zone because the zone was full of other aircraft. Unfortunately, at those altitudes and loads, the last aircraft had to land somewhere. The U.S. Army H-47 could external an H-34 without the engine. They had to make two trips to recover both engine and aircraft.
We had some wounded, but just about everyone made it back home in one piece. A few months before it was time to go home, the first H-46 Squadron arrived at Marble. They started flying longer and faster missions with bigger loads than our little H-34s. Our flight schedule went down and the H-46 schedule went up and they were doing a real good job considering they were the new kids on the block. The first problem appeared about one week into their very heavy schedule. They were losing engines on every mission. There were 18 aircraft with 2 engines per aircraft in Southeast Asia period. We didn’t have any spare engines. After the second week, all of the H-46s were down with bad engines and our flight schedule went back to heavy flying again. Our little H-34s were needed after all. What happen to the H-46s? The sand was finer in Vietnam than the sand used for testing the H-46 in North Carolina. We knew the H-34 could go 200 hours between engine changes in country and 500 plus hours in North Carolina. We did have situations were H-34s couldn’t take off with a load. You keep kicking troops off and trying again. When you only have one Marine left and you still can’t take off; it’s time to get a new engine. The difference was the sand and dust in the landing zone. The T-58 had less tolerance for the Vietnam sand than the old engines in the H-34. They parked the H-46s until they fixed the engine problems with a re-design on the intake filters. And then the tail started to fall off, but that’s another squadron and another story.
In the summer of 1966, it was time for the original HMM-263 members to start home. A few squadron members stayed in country longer than the normal 12 months. CMC had forgotten where some of us were. We witnessed the transition from the old hands to the new squadron members at the 12 month point and where impressed with their performance. The transition was smooth and without problems. Was the war in Vietnam becoming routine or were these Marines just good? The war made our aviation Marines better Marines and our heavy flight schedule back home and in country made them better technicians.
Captain Keith Scott, USMC Retired