Shipmates

It was late in the afternoon at Marine Aviation Training Support Group-33 when a female Petty Officer First Class entered through the front hatch. She looked confused and somewhat distraught. Only a few seconds passed before the Marine Noncommissioned Officer approached the sailor and asked, “May I help you ma’am?”

The nametag on her blouse read “Stewart.”

Petty Officer Stewart remained silent and stationary; she stared blankly at the deck. The Marine asked her, “Is everything okay, Petty Officer?”

The woman’s hands began shaking and her bottom lip started to quiver; tears began streaming down her face. She simply stood there; clutching her uniform hat in both hands and cried silently for about half a minute. The Marine NCO was feeling helpless at this point, but he waited patiently for the woman to say something —to let him know what the matter was.

USS Cole DDG-67Finally, through choked back tears, Petty Officer First Class Stewart explained why she went to MATSG-33 that day. The previous October, she was on duty aboard her ship talking with friends. One moment they were talking as usual —the next moment, all four of her friends were lying beside her. She was the only sailor left alive. Her ship: USS Cole (DDG 67). The date, 12 October 2000.

Petty Officer First Class Stewart said the real terror came seconds later when she realized that at any moment, another explosion might take the lives of even more of her shipmates. She was terrified that whoever attacked her ship were not finished yet … and then she saw the Marines. The Marines arrived at her location “on the double,” they secured the area, began treating survivors, they protected those who remained alive —including Petty Officer Stewart. Stewart knew that day, and everyone on the USS Cole knew that day, that terrorists got in their one and only shot —but no more lives would be lost that day because the Marines were there.

The NCO knew about the fleet security teams: Fleet Anti-Terrorism Security Teams (FAST). The Petty Officer’s story stunned the NCO. He was at a loss for words. “I came by,” she said, “because I am getting ready to retire from active duty.” Looking up into the face of the NCO with tears continuing to stream down her face, she continued, “I needed to look into the face of a United States Marine and say ‘thank you’. I needed to have this closure.”

The Marine leaned over, gave her a hug, and said, “You’re welcome, shipmate.” It was a day when a Marine NCO was extremely proud to own the title, United States Marine.

The Marine told Petty Officer First Class Stewart that he would somehow communicate her appreciation to all Marines with every hope that the word would one day get passed to the FAST Marines aboard USS Cole. I am helping that Marine keep his promise.

Navy — Marine Corps

Shipmates since 1775

Pushing Against the Tide

Continental 001In the early fall of 1777, the two American frigates Effingham and Washington found themselves trapped by the British, who had blockaded the Delaware River above Philadelphia. To prevent the British from capturing these vessels, the Navy Board ordered them scuttled —accomplished in November. Subsequently, several attempts to refloat the ships failed.

By the beginning of 1778, a number of Marines began to chafe at their inactivity, but it seems as though there were two camps: those without the experience of combat wanted to get into battle as soon as possible; those who had already had their fight were happy for the inactivity. Nevertheless, plans were afoot to avenge the defeat of the frigates. On January 29th, Captain John Berry received orders to organize a boat expedition down the river for the purpose of annoying the enemy, capturing or destroying their transports, and cutting off their supplies and/or diverting them for the use of the Continental army, which was suffering at a place called Valley Forge.

The Marines procured two flat-bottomed vessels and armed them with four-pounders; manning these two barges was a bit more difficult. After numerous attempts, 40 men signed on. In the first week of February, Marines Captain Berry and Lieutenant James Coakley took command of one barge, and Navy Lieutenant Luke Matthewman commanded the second.

Remaining close in to the Jersey shore, with oars muffled, the two boats slipped silently past Philadelphia. Below, five additional boats joined them —most of these half manned with Pennsylvania seamen and privateers. Meanwhile, General Anthony Wayne’s tattered brigade pushed in toward Wilmington in search of cattle and hay for Washington’s army. Barry’s small flotilla ferried Wayne’s force across the Delaware to Salem. Within a few days, Wayne had secured about 100 head of cattle —but now the question was how to transport these animals and the soldiers to Pennsylvania?

The plan was to drive the cattle through central New Jersey and across the Delaware north of Philadelphia, and while this was going on, Captain Barry’s men would set the hay afire, creating a diversion for the British forces. Following the successful hay burning expedition, Barry and his men successfully captured two ships and a schooner off Port Penn. Captured were crewmen numbering close to 70, their holds containing supplies intended for the British forces at Philadelphia.

Unfortunately, when the British heard about the capture of these vessels, they sent two ships of war upriver to interdict the Americans, forcing Barry to burn the transports and run the schooner aground near New Castle. With renewed interest in activity on the Delaware, Captain Barry maintained a low profile but the danger to him and his small crews had not yet passed. A British punitive expedition of some 700 men landed at Whitehall and began setting afire to moored and half-sunk ships; all in all, the British destroyed more than 40 vessels and, if that weren’t enough, seized control of Bordertown. It was a staggering loss for the Continentals but the misfortunes of our infant Navy and Marine Corps were not over just yet. The British remained aggressive through the early summer of 1778, which demoralized members of the Navy and Marine Corps committees. From their official report:

Continental ship Randolph“The Enemies ships do indeed swarm in the Seas of America and Europe; but hitherto, only one of our Frigates hath been captured on the Ocean. Two have been burned in North River, two sunk in Delaware, one captured there, and one in Chesapeake. The Alfred we are just informed was taken on her passage home by two frigates in sight of the Rawleigh. The particulars of this capture and why she was not supported by the Raleigh we are ignorant of. I hope Capt. Thompson is not culpable. I entertain a high opinion of him. The Columbus is a trifling Loss, and I should not much lament the loss of the Alfred if her brave Captain, Officers and men were not in the hands of a cruel enemy. Our little fleet is very much thinned. We must contrive some plan for catching some of the enemy’s Frigates to supply our losses; but we must take care not to catch tartars. It is reported that Capt. Biddle of the Randolph, in an engagement with a sixty-gun ship, was blown up. We have been so unfortunate that I am apt to believe almost any bad news; but this report I cannot believe.”

A massive explosion sunk the Randolph on 7 March 1778; only four of the 315 crew survived. The question of whether ships captains were culpable for these losses resulted in several “courts of inquiry.”

About Helicopters

“The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly.

“A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls, working in opposition to each other; and if there is any disturbance in the delicate balance, the helicopter stops flying immediately and disastrously. There is no such thing as a gliding helicopter.

“This is why being a helicopter pilot is so different from being an airplane pilot; and why, in generality, airplane pilots are open, clear-eyed, buoyant extroverts and helicopter pilots are brooders, introspective anticipators of trouble.

“They know if anything bad has not happened, it is about to.”

—Harry Reasoner, ABC Evening News, 16 February 1971

Hot LZ 001What Mr. Reasoner said is absolutely true. Piloting a helicopter takes a skill set few on this earth are capable of, but it takes even more than that to pilot it under harsh conditions. Equally difficult was the entire process of adapting this ungainly aircraft to sophisticated military operations, but the military’s success in achieving this seems apparent by the number of our warrior’s lives saved by skillfully flown helicopters, from resupplying them with much needed munitions in order to continue the fight, to evacuating our wounded to field hospitals. No matter what mission our helicopter pilots undertake, it is exceedingly dangerous work.

The process has always been evolutionary, beginning with the question, “How might we use these machines to enhance our combat capabilities?”

HO3S 002The Marines took possession of its first two helicopters on 9 February 1948. The Sikorsky HO3S was a fragile airframe with significantly limited performance parameters, but it was a start. When the Korean War broke out, Marines were scrambling to put together a provisional brigade to help shore up Army units in Korea pushed all the way south to the end of the peninsula —the Pusan Perimeter. Until the arrival of the Marines, led by Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, the Korean issue was in doubt. General Craig took with him a seriously understrength regiment, but also a Marine Air Group consisting of three fighter squadrons and one observation squadron, VMO-6. The observation squadron operated eight fixed-wing light aircraft and four HOS3-1 helicopters.

General Craig could not have been happier with these new airframes. As he later reported, “Marine Helicopters have proven invaluable. They have been used for every conceivable type of mission. The Brigade utilized helicopters for liaison, reconnaissance, evacuation of wounded, rescue of Marine flyers downed in enemy territory, observation, messenger service, guard mail at sea, posting and supplying out-guards on dominating terrain, and the resupply of small units by air.”

Nevertheless, the early helicopters were somewhat limited in their lift capability, an important lesson for Marines because of the battle of the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir. In the frigid conditions of North Korea, early helicopters barely achieved 5,000 feet in altitude in an area where mountains reached from between 4,600 and 6,000 feet in above sea level.

Sikorsky HOS4 001In 1948, the Marines hoped to activate two assault/transport helicopter squadrons by 1954, but the Korean War accelerated this timetable by a wide margin. The Marines settled on the HOS4, an airframe severally designated for service with the Navy-Marine Corps-Coast Guard, and the Army-Air Force. Used by both the Army and Marine Corps in the Korean War, the Marines called their version of this helicopter the HRS-1.

With the Korean War now in full swing, the Marine Corps expanded its requirements from two helicopter squadrons to four; each of these would receive the HRS-1 helicopter pictured immediately above. When HMR-161 went to Korea, it had two primary missions: combat operations, and testing and evaluation of the concept for employing of vertical lift aircraft. By late 1953, the Marine Corps had more experience in helicopter operations, possessed more helicopters, more trained pilots and crewmen, than any other military organization in the world. There is a reason for this: the National Security Act of 1947 made the Marine Corps responsible for developing phases of amphibious operations that pertained to tactics, techniques, and equipment used by the landing forces. Their acquired expertise is what led Marine helicopter squadrons to Vietnam

Over the next ten years, US politicians shifted their attentions from Korea to a place hardly anyone had ever heard of: Vietnam. What was evolving there was quite complex. The French, badly defeated by the North Vietnamese forces in 1954, were going home—a fact that left the Republic of South Vietnam with a weak military posture. To help shore up the South Vietnamese defense establishment, the United States began to send mentors to help train, organize, and advise the South Vietnamese military leadership. A small number of Marines participated in joint staff, communications, and advisory roles—particularly those advising the emerging Vietnamese Marines (RVMC).

Piasecki_h-21As part of the military assistance mission to South Vietnam, the United States provided Army aviation companies (helicopter). In late 1961, the Army operated two companies equipped with the Piasecki[1] H-21 tandem rotor aircraft. While capable of transporting ten fully equipped assault troops and crew, the H-21 proved only marginally suited to service in a high humidity environment, and only slightly suitable for night operations.

By the end of 1961, General Paul D. Harkins (Commanding MAAG, Vietnam) realized that he needed additional helicopter assets; he requested two additional aviation companies. While the JCS approved a third aviation company, for Vietnam, the JCS indicated some reservations about continued use of the H-21. They directed the Commander in Chief, Pacific to review total requirements for helicopter operations in Vietnam. Admiral Felt made two recommendations: first, that the JCS approve a fourth aviation company for Vietnam, and second, the assignment of Marine helicopter pilots to augment Army aviation companies.

The problem with Admiral Felt’s recommendation was that Marine Corps pilots were not familiar with the operation of the H-21 tandem rotor helicopter, nor were Marine pilots sufficiently familiar with the Army’s aviation standardization procedures. In the meantime, an additional aviation company in Oklahoma received a warning order to begin preparing for deployment to South Vietnam.

General Harkins, having assigned the 93rd Aviation Company to Da Nang, requested cancellation of the fourth aviation company and instead asked for a Marine Corps helicopter squadron for operations within the Mekong Delta. “When the tempo of operations permit, the Marine Corps squadron will be relocated to I Corps and the 93rd Company to III Corps,” Harkins said.

Sikorsky UH-34D 001Rapid deployment is what Marines do for a living, so it was no surprise to learn that there were two squadrons available to General Harkins within a very short time. The first was HMM 362[2] (Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362). HMM-362 had been part of the Special Landing Force (SLF) aboard the USS Princeton (LPH-5) patrolling the South China Sea. HMM-261 was also available, but ordered to an emergency deployment in Thailand.

HMM-362 became the lead element of OPERATION SHUFLY, arriving at Soc Trang, south of the city of Saigon, for operations in the Mekong Delta on 15 April 1962. The squadron lifted their first troops into battle on 22 April 1962 —the first Marine Corps combat unit to serve in Vietnam. Before their re-designation in 1969, HMM-362 participated in operations at Ky Ha, Marble Mountain, Hue, and Phu Bai. They also supported operations from the sea while serving aboard the USS Iwo Jima (LPH-2), USS Okinawa (LPH-3), and USS Princeton (CV-37/LPH-5).

V22-OspreyIf Mr. Reasoner thought helicopters were different sixty-six years ago, then they have become more so since 2005 when the Marine Corps accepted their first V-22 Osprey. The first two squadrons of this type of aircraft were designated Marine Medium Tilt-rotor Squadron (VMM)-263 and VMM-266.

 

 

Notes:

[1] Frank Piasecki (1918-2008) was an aeronautical engineer and the man that pioneered tandem rotor helicopter designs and developed the concept of vectored thrust through the use of a ducted propeller.

[2] HMM-362 would later receive the CH 53 helicopter and the new designation HMH. They called themselves the Ugly Angels.

Hard Days, Hard Nights

An excerpt: Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam by Marion F. Sturkey [1]

HMM-265 0011966

“When the Marines charged into Helicopter Valley, their world changed forever. For the helicopter crews, days became a nonstop ballet of troop lifts, strikes and assaults, Recon inserts, resupply missions, and medevac flights to recover the dead and wounded. Nights were a time to regroup, rest, service the helicopters, and prepare for the next day of combat flying. For the Marines who battled the NVA, the world ceased to exist beyond the confines of northern One Corps, the northernmost military region of Vietnam …

“Near the DMZ on July 24, the Grunts began a two-day assault on Hill 362. The NVA and the Marine Grunts fought savagely and brutally on the steep promontory on the northeastern slop of Don Ha Mountain about five miles west of Cam Lo. During the struggle, a young Lance Corporal, Richard A. Pittman[2], earned his place in Marine Corps history books. After being driven off the hill, the NVA pulled back to regroup. The larger NVA units melted away toward the DMZ to the north or into wild and inaccessible jungle to the west.

“Now the Marine Command concentrated on locating and eliminating the smaller enemy units left behind. For the helicopter crews the daily routine changed little. Our H-46 was a flying truck, and we used it to keep the Grunts supplied with the necessities of warfare. The days rolled by and the only things that changed were the LZ coordinates. On paper, Operation Hastings officially ended on August 3, 1966. The North Vietnamese 324-B Division had been bloodied and thwarted by the surprise Marine offensive.

“However, ominous intelligence revealed that two more NVA divisions, the 304th and the 341st were massing on the edge of the DMZ. So as Operation Hastings ended, Task Force Delta set into motion a new plan that very day: Operation Prairie. In fact, nothing had changed except the name.

“I started keeping a diary in a hardbound Federal Supply Service ledger-book. This practice was officially forbidden, since any diaries that might fall into NVA hands could provide the enemy with valuable intelligence. Still, the prohibition was unofficially overlooked, so I took pen in hand and made my first rambling diary entry:

“5 August 1966, Friday: Very little activity today; most of our few hops were test hops. I got Huey Walsh to sign for all of the tools in the metal & Hydraulics shops. Captain Dooley took custody of the TBA gear …

“From somewhere in my schoolboy background, I had always remembered the infamous retort of Adolf Hitler: “Who says I am not under the special protection of God?” As for myself, I had never believed that I enjoyed Divine Protection. Still, I naively considered myself to be immune to the perils of warfare. Youth and ignorance usually walk hand-in-hand. However, perhaps I simply placed innocent faith in the spiritual assurance found in the Book of Psalms, Chapter 91, verses 5 through 7:

“(5) Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; (6) Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor the destruction that wasteth at noonday. (7) A thousand shall fall at thy side, and then thousand at they right hand; but it shall not come nigh to thee.

CH-46 001“Not having clairvoyant power, I had no way to know that I would only get to make one more handwritten entry in my new diary. The Odds, every civil or military pilot’s nemesis, were about to catch up with me. My good luck was about to run out. I had no way to know it in advance, but I would draw a frag for an emergency night medevac into Razorback Valley on August 8. It would prove to be the longest night in my life.”

Bonnie-Sue: A Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron in Vietnam is an exciting chronicle of the Vietnam War, and one I highly recommend to anyone interested in the history of America’s engagement in the Vietnam War. You can order this book through a reputable bookseller.

 

Notes:

[1] Marion Sturkey enlisted in the U. S. Marine Corps in 1961, receiving his boot training at Parris Island, South Carolina. Three years later, the Marine Corps selected Corporal Sturkey for flight training and subsequently was designated a Naval Aviator in April 1965. His first assignment led him to HMM-265, the first Marine Corps squadron to fly the new Boeing H-46 helicopters. In May 1966, the Bonnie Sue Squadron arrived in Vietnam.

[2] (Then) Lance Corporal Richard A. Pittman received the MEDAL OF HONOR for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with Company I, Third Battalion, 5th Marines.