By Bill France
Significant accomplishments in aviation and astronautics during the mid-1950s and early 1960s were regarded as major news events. This was certainly true on July 16, 1957 when Senator (then Marine Major) John Glenn became a national hero by setting a new transcontinental air speed record. On that day, Major Glenn flew an F8U-1P Crusader (BuNo 144608) from NAS Los Alamitos, California nonstop to NAS Floyd Bennett Field, New York at a record speed of 725.55 mph. The flight lasted just three hours, 23 minutes and 8.4 seconds, which beat the previous record holder (an F-100F Super Sabre) by 15 minutes. In total, four pilots would break the transcontinental air speed record in 1957.
John Glenn’s record setting flight was certainly not a publicity stunt. The purpose of the Project Bullet flight was to prove that the Pratt & Whitney J-57 engine could tolerate an extended period at combat power – full afterburner – without damage. After the flight, Pratt & Whitney engineers disassembled the J-57 and, based on their examination, determined that the engine could perform in extended combat situations. Accordingly, all power limitations on J-57s were lifted from that day forward.
On July 16, 1957, Major Glenn secured his place in aviation history and became an inspiration to thousands of young people in the United States. Project Bullet secured his reputation as one of the country’s top test pilots. He was awarded his fifth Distinguished Flying Cross and, shortly thereafter, was named to NASA’s first astronaut class.
Unlike John Glenn, few pilots have had an opportunity to break or set significant aviation records. Undoubtedly, these aviators have a “special spot in their heart” for the aircraft that helped them obtain their place in history.
Although John Glenn’s accomplishments as a Marine aviator are well documented, little is known about the subsequent history of the Crusader flown on that record setting flight in 1957.
Here is the rest of the story…
Glenn’s F8U-1P Crusader remained in active service but was re-designated as an RF-8G. At some point after the flight, a small brass commemorative plaque was affixed to the port side of the aircraft. Over the next several years, Glenn received notes from aviators who had flown it. As time went on, Glenn started hearing stories of the demise of the Crusader. One story had it that the aircraft was shot down over Vietnam. Another stated that it was damaged during a carrier landing in the Indian Ocean and went over the side.
The “damaged on landing” story comes the closest to the truth. Commander Tom Scott (USN, Retired) was the last pilot to fly Major John Glenn’s Crusader. Commander Scott provided the following account of the demise of this historic aircraft.
Commander Scott began his Naval aviation career in 1965 as a F-4B Phantom back seat RIO. In 1969, Scott received his pilot wings and flew A-4′s and F-8′s. In May 1972, Scott’s unit (Light Photographic Squadron VFP-63 Det-4) acquired Glenn’s Crusader from the aircraft bone yard at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. The Crusader was fitted out and returned to active duty in short order. Scott first flew it May 12, 1972 at NAS Miramar. On May 18th, he flew it to the USS Oriskany (CVA-34) during work ups for the pending West Pac cruise. The USS Oriskany arrived in the Gulf of Tonkin and air combat operations began in June.
On Friday December 13, 1972, then Lieutenant Scott launched on a flight over North Vietnam. In general, it was an uneventful flight. Scott conducted his mission as planned and then returned to the Oriskany for landing. Little did he realize that his day was about to get really exciting!
Due to poor weather and rough seas, Scott’s first attempt to land failed to catch the arresting wire on the flight deck. With the flight deck rising and falling in a fairly consistent cycle, Scott set up for a second approach to the ship. However, passing over the stern of the ship, the cycle unexpectedly reversed and Scott’s aircraft hit the flight deck’s round down belly first which tore off the right main landing gear. The plane then bounced up and came down on its nose before bouncing back into the air where Scott fought to keep it under control with one hand on the stick and the other ready to pull the secondary ejection handle between his legs.
With calls from the ship of “eject, eject, eject” exploding in his helmet, Scott pulled the ejection handle but initially could not over come the resistance of the handle. He tried again with all his strength to eject. Giving everything he had, Scott was finally successful ejecting out of the cockpit, as his aircraft passed the ship’s island.
The parachute opened and Scott thought with a little luck, he might land on the deck. However, common sense kicked in at that point. He said, “I realized that if I missed the deck, I could crash into other deck equipment or other jets on the flight deck. Neither of which seemed acceptable.” As Scott guided his parachute away from the carrier in preparation for landing in the Gulf of Tonkin, he inflated his flotation device. Scott hit the water hard ripping his hands from the parachute koch fittings. He was now being pulled face down in the water by the chute. With great effort, Scott managed to release himself from the chute as it pulled him closer to the Oriskany.
As soon as Scott felt he had everything somewhat in control, he looked up to the ships rescue helicopter coming for him. The helicopter hovered near and lowered a rescue crewman to within approximately 20 feet from where Scott was located. As luck would have it, this was the crewman’s first in-water rescue. Fortunately, the crewman was young and a good swimmer and soon made it to Scott. At this point, he realized that his rescuer forgot his personal flotation device. The inexperienced crewman became fatigued and was actually holding on to Scott to remain afloat. Unfortunately, a single flotation device was not sufficient to keep both men on the surface.
While Lieutenant Scott and the rescuer decided who was to rescue whom, the helicopter crew was dealing with their own problems. The intercom between the pilot and the hoist operator at the door was not working. The pilot had no idea where to go or even if the downed pilot was aboard. However, after considerable effort, the flight crews finally lowered the rescue harness and passed over Scott a few times until both men were able to grasp the harness and were hoisted aboard the chopper.
After any aviation accident, an investigation is conducted and an incident report completed. As a result, Scott learned that the secondary ejection handle should been normally be set to 20 about pounds of pull. However, Scott believed that the ejection handle in his Crusader may have been set at about 100 pounds of pull as was the case on several of the F-8′s aboard the Oriskany. He commented, “This was well out of the tolerance limits for that aircraft.”
Scott lamented the loss of this historic aircraft. However, he was grateful that he was able to overcome the ejection problems and did not do down with the aircraft. Certainly, this series of events was fortuitous for other aviators that flew the F-8s that may have had ejection handles incorrectly set to 100 pounds. Scott believed a loss of an aircraft could have positive result in that other aircraft and pilots could be saved by the corrective actions taken as a result of the loss. Unfortunately, in this case, it had to be John Glenn’s record breaking Crusader that was lost.
By Frank Lorey ©2012
Over seventy years ago, in 1938, the Navy came up with a specification for a new carrier-based fighter, with the Bell, Grumman, and Vought companies entering designs in the competition. The Vought prototype flew in May, 1940, and eventually the experimental version became the United States’ first 400 MPH single-engine fighter, winning the contract.
Around 15,000 Corsairs were built between 1940 and 1952, and the fighter saw American service in both World War II and Korea, being phased out of reserve service in 1957. In World War II, the Corsair achieved a 3-to-1 victory ratio over the Japanese. The long-lived plane continued in foreign service until the early 1980′s, with the result that many have been available for preservation and restoration by collectors.
General Bob Owen was a Marine Corsair pilot who started his career at Pensacola in 1939 flying VG-1′s, the Great Lakes biplane dive bomber. He transitioned into SBD Dauntless dive bombers, went to Hawaii, got married, and then the war started.
“I got married in October, 1940, and since the war started in December, I had a pretty short honeymoon,” he lamented. Since almost all the American aircraft in Hawaii were shot up, Owen was sent back to Santa Barbara, arriving the day after a Japanese submarine had shelled the oilfield at nearby Goleta.
“The locals thought we were the Marine reinforcements, and were very glad to see us,” Owen recalled. His job at Santa Barbara was to form the 240th Fighter Group, and eventually the 215th Fighter Squadron. They had to re-train on the SNJ Texan, old models of the F4F Wildcat, and then on to the new F4U Corsairs.
“We were flying the old ‘birdcage’ model Corsair, with a large cushion on back of the seat, and lots of torque when the engine started. I never thought it would be a good carrier plane–it bounced a lot,” Owen stated, adding that “if you bounced and missed the hook, you had lots of problems.”
Owen was sent back to Hawaii, based at a tiny rock in the ocean–French Frigate Shoals. The island only had enough room for the airstrip, and crewmen based there had to stay on an old ship that had been put around for that reason. He became the Executive Officer of the 215th Fighter Squadron for three combat tours in the Pacific. They were based in and around the Bouganville Island area. Most of the mission were ground-strafing attacks, hitting enemy airfields. The squadron also had a total of 137 1/2 aerial victories. Owen himself accounted for seven of the total, leading to a few interesting stories.
“One time I saw a ‘Tony’, and I was going about 100 knots faster than he was. I hit him, but then my wingman fired after I went by and damaged my plane,” Owen related, adding that he had to “land in the ocean, a beautiful landing between the waves in the troughs, and I was picked up about 30 minutes later.
“Another time I had taken a student pilot up, but ran into Zeros,” he recalled. “When Zeros were all around you push the throttle as fast as you can, which I did, but the student pilot passed me three times on the way down and back,” Owen stated.
General Owen went on to compare the two main Navy fighters of the time–the F6F Hellcat and the Corsair, saying that the Corsair was faster and better at diving, but the Hellcat was a better carrier plane, easier for inexperienced pilots to handle.
Second Lt. Roger Conant was General Bob Owen’s wing-man for three years, and had joined up with the squadron with only about 200 hours total flying time. He had been taken out to a Corsair, and in about fifteen minutes all the switches and controls were pointed out to him, then he was told that he was on his own.
“I went out a circled a brush fire for a while, came back and landed, and the next day I was sent overseas,” said Conant. He felt the Corsair was a tough plane to fly–”it had poor front visibility with the nose 13 feet in the air, and night take-offs were really hazardous, since until the tail wheel lifted off you couldn’t see where you were going.”
Conant did say that the Corsair “was a beautiful plane in flight–once it was airborne you could get it to do anything you wanted.” He recalled one particular mission where the Corsairs were escorting B-24 Liberators to Bouganville. The fighters job was to weave back and forth in the midst of the bombers, providing cover from enemy fighters.
“We saw 30 or 40 Zeros and Tonys hanging around in the distance, and once the B-24′s dropped their bombs they flew into the clouds,” adding that “we told them if they went into the clouds they would have no escort.”
“We took off after the Zeros and Tonys, and I saw a Tony on Bob’s tail,” Conant related. He thought that the Tony would get to his leader before he could get to the Tony, but Conant was able to close faster.
“I shot him up pretty good, hit the fuel tank, and he went straight down,” Conant remembered. At that point, another Zero took out after him, causing Conant to dive away from trouble.
“That night, Tokyo Rose said that Corsair pilots turned tail and went home when Zeros showed up, and I knew she was taking about me,” he related. The victory that day was just one of Conant’s total of six enemy kills.
Conant had also flew the F4F briefly before his time in the F4U Corsair, where he became an ace. He was flying the F7F Tigercat when the war ended, and flew F6F Hellcats after the war.
“I went to the airlines for about five years, and then was called back into the Marine Corps for Korea, flying the F9F,” Conant said. He went to work for Douglas Aircraft after Korea, and flew just about everything they had—the A3D, A4D, and ended up with what became his favorite aircraft—the DC-10.
About his experience with warbirds, Conant remarked that he “didn’t really like the Wildcat, it was a good airplane, but I didn’t fly it much. The Corsair gave us a pretty good advantage over the Zero, it was dependable.”
Two Corsair pilots had remarkable careers flying in the F4U. Both became quite famous for their exploits in the Marine fighter.
Archie Donahue made the transition to the F4U Corsair from the F4F Wildcat, and it made quite a difference to him—“I was flying the Corsair, and we had to get into engagements—we couldn’t get into them that often.” Donahue was one of the real rarities—he shot down five enemy aircraft in one day twice.
“I didn’t think it could happen [again], and it was on my last flight, off a carrier at Okinawa,” recalled Donahue. He added that they “ran into a flight of 16 [enemy aircraft], I got five, and we got all of them.”
Col. Jim Swett was awarded the Medal of Honor for destroying seven Japanese aircraft in one day while flying the Corsair. He recalled that action as happening so fast that he “didn’t know Zeros were in the air or where they were.” He was operating off Guadalcanal with Fighter Two, and was shot down to conclude his eventful day of action, just off Tulagi.
“I landed in a couple thousand feet of water, but it only took 15-20 minutes to get rescued as a Coast Guard picket boat saw me hit the water,” he recalled. Swett ended the war with 15 1/2 confirmed victories, and another four probables.
Major Bob Porter flew just about everything the Marines had–the F4F Wildcat, F4U Corsair, and F6F Hellcat. He only flew the Hellcat as a night fighter, however.
“My favorite was the Corsair, since I flew that right after the Wildcat. It had power, and its performance was incredible,” Porter remembered. He ended the war with five victories confirmed and another one as a probable.
Wally Thompson entered the service in October, 1941 as a Naval Cadet. He was given the opportunity to switch to the Marine Corps, becoming a 2nd Lieutenant in August, 1942, mainly because, as he put it–”I could put holes in the target sleeve, and no one else could.” After flying the F4F Wildcat, he transitioned to the Corsair in June 1943, training at Pearl Harbor, then going on to serve three combat tours with VMF-211 at places such as Espiritu Santo and the Solomon Islands.
“I was on the flight that Pappy Boyington was shot down,” Thompson recalled, relating that “there were lots of clouds that day.” Boyington decided to drop down through the clouds, flying along at sea level. Thompson said that they couldn’t see him after he dropped below the clouds, and “when we got back we were shocked that he was lost.”
Once, in the Solomon Islands, Thompson was assigned to test out a Corsair that had a replacement wing due to an accident. He started down the runway and got to around 60 knots when the wing came off.
“I saw I was headed into a group of P-40’s [Warhawks] that were at the other end of the runway. The plane fortunately veered off to the side and into a swamp,” Thompson remembered, saying that “I did complain about that one.”
Another close call came when he was flying an F4F at night, up at 10,000 feet. His engine quit cold, but Thompson managed to get back. Later in his career, while serving back in the States as a test pilot at Patuxent River, another incident came to mind.
“I was flying a F7F [Tigercat], shooting the 20-mm. cannons at a target 40 miles offshore. There was lots of smoke, too much smoke for the oxygen mask to help,” Thompson related. When he got back, everyone was looking at his aircraft. The guns had misfired and shot out the whole nose section.
Thompson did score victories over two Japanese Zeros at Rabaul. His group was on a “48-plane sweep at 25,000 feet, watching all five Jap bases, and we could see the dust clouds as they rose up.” The action started when they spotted two Zeros about 5,000 feet below their flight.
“I went into a steep dive into them, and the wingman broke back and forth, eventually even flying upside down,” Thompson recalled. The leader just kept flying straight and level, apparently not seeing either the motions of his wingman or the approaching Corsair. Thompson eventually shot both of them down.
Lt. Jack Callahan got right into the Corsair in training at Santa Barbara, where three or four squadrons were learning how to fly the new high-powered fighter. Callahan kept getting held back at the state-side base when the time came to go overseas, mainly because they wanted him to serve as ordinance officer, engineering test pilot, and accident investigator at various times.
He finally got to get into the action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa late in the war, serving alongside F6F Hellcat squadrons on the USS Bennington with VMF-112. He recalled the action as “fast and furious.” Callahan said “I was never really mad about going to war, but I was when I found out they were firing real bullets at us.” He also almost got shot down by his own wingman.
“Four of us Corsairs were in a dive over our carrier, my wingman was drunk and decided to charge his guns,” Callahan remembered. “I got hit in the windshield, got glass in my eyes, and the wind was tremendous,” he added. The other planes were allowed to land first and get out of the way.
“I came in and caught the #2 wire, but all the time I was circling I was throwing glass out of the cockpit,” Callahan recalled. Those on the deck of the carrier were not too happy with him, as several of the chunks hit the deck and scattered like shrapnel.
Callahan was strapped to a litter and carried to the sick bay, where a doctor added medicine and novocaine to his eyes. He was told to keep his goggles on so that he would not rub his eyes.
Callahan summed up his experiences saying that he “had a lot of wonderful times flying the Corsair.” He recalled flying many “gas calibration hops” in training, and saw many celebrities at the Santa Barbara base. “Joe Foss [Marine Ace] was at Santa Barbara also, and Lindbergh came through–lots of famous people,” Callahan said.
Some of his test work came firing rockets out of Inyokern, a remote base in the high desert. Callahan recalled the planes having “eight rockets each, and we went around firing at dry lakes like Muroc.
Mel Locke was also a late entry into the war, serving as a Marine Corsair pilot on an escort carrier out of Hawaii. They usually circled around and came back for a landing on their ship, but one day he did not get the message that their assignment was different.
“The first thing I knew, the leader’s message to us was ‘Which runway do you want to use?’, Locke recalled. Since he had not heard the part about landing on an island, he had no idea of what was going on. They obviously were not used to having a choice of runways on a carrier.
Locke had trained at El Toro with its long runways, and after the war he did occupation service in Japan. There they had runways as short as 2400 feet, which could go by very quickly.
“At Tokyo Bay, there was a runway that had a sea wall at the end,” he remembered. Locke came in too fast, and realized he was running out of room. The only thing he could think of was to lock the tailwheel. He wound up doing a ground loop.
Locke was brought back into the service for the Korean War in 1952. He was assigned again to El Toro for refresher training in the Corsair, and started F9F Panther simulator training. At that time, his wife gave birth, so he got out of further training to be with her. Since he did not finish with the Panther, the Marines sent him overseas as a Corsair replacement pilot. He was assigned to VMA 323, the “Death Rattlers.”
Locke had a memorable time in Korea, serving with former New York Yankee Jerry Coleman, who later went on to become a San Diego Padres broadcaster and manager. Coleman was a “hot-shot” jet pilot, and liked to pull a few pranks. One of his favorites was go into a dive right over the mess hall, causing a sonic boom that sounded like a 500-lb. bomb going off.
“One day he did it while a general was in the mess hall,” Locke remembered. Coleman got caught, and was about to be sent to Japan, which would mean an early return to the United States. Coleman pleaded with the general, and was asked what his secondary specialty was, which turned out to be forward air controller.
“He got the duty for our squadron–calling out targets, and assessing the damage afterward,” Locke said. Since Coleman was friends with Locke, he always gave them 100% marks on target, which “usually didn’t happen, but he gave it to us.”
The Corsairs were valued in Korea, even though they were well past their prime, because they could stay over a target for up to four hours. They could also be used for just about any mission. Locke remembered missions with the “daisy cutters,” a bomb that exploded into one-inch shrapnel that would cover about 100 yards.
Locke had some excitement while testing out a plane that had a replacement tail hook. He came in high and fast, lowered the nose, cut the throttle, and hit six wires with none catching. He hit the brakes, but still went over the side.
“Someone threw me a life raft, and an escort carrier came alongside,” he related. Locke was stripped of everything, and told that “you are ours–we saved your life.” They rigged a “breeches buoy” to send him back over to the carrier, but had a little fun while at it. While he was suspended between the two ships, the destroyer would move in close, dropping him into the water, then backing away to rocket him up into the air. Officers on the carrier told them to knock it off, and the experience was enough to convince Locke to never put a plane into the water again. He finished off his service as a flight instructor.
Phil De Groot served in both World War II and Korea, flying combat missions in the F4U Corsair fighter.
DeGroot had signed up in 1941, but wasn’t sent off for training until August 1942 as one of fifty recruits from the University of California billed as the “Golden Bears” after the school mascot. Training started at Oakland, then switched to Livermore for three months. He recalled Livermore as “an e-base, for elimination.”
From there it was on to Corpus Christie to fly Stearmans and other trainers including the AT-6/SNJ Texan, where he graduated in February 1943 and joined to Marines.
“We were sent to Opa Locka, Florida, and flew the Brewster Buffalo, which was just plain dangerous,” DeGroot remembered. They also flew the obsolete OS2U, an aircraft meant for launching from catapults and landing on a pontoon.
DeGroot said “from there we were sent to the Great Lakes in SNJ’s for carrier qualifications off the old Wolverine. We had to have a certain wind on the lake, about 30 knots, or we couldn’t take off. The SNJ had a tailhook rigged with clothesline to trip it.”
After the carrier quals were done, DeGroot had a brief leave and then reported to Miramar, California to join with his squadron, VMF-224, to El Toro. At first they had no planes to fly as they were waiting for Corsairs, so they went down to San Diego to fly F4F Wildcats.
“On the way back to El Toro, my engine quit just north of Oceanside,” DeGroot recalled, adding that “I bailed out over the sea, got out low–about 900 feet–and was heading toward a fire burning below.” It turned out to be his aircraft, and the wind from the fire fortunately blew him out of harm’s way.
After receiving the Corsair and training for about 10 hours of flight time at Mohave, they were finally sent overseas. They even got to hear one of the Lindbergh lectures on flying as part of the training.
DeGroot was based at Samoa, Tarawa, Funafuti in the Ellis Islands, and Kwajalien. Many times at night they were bombed by a single Japanese aircraft, which once got lucky and hit the ammo depot, leaving a crater 40 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep. It took out most of their food supply, also. Most of the missions were to hit the Japanese-held island that were by-passed by the invasion fleet.
After an accident, DeGroot was sent to a hospital in the U.S. and remained stateside for six months. He reported back to El Toro and was sent to Gillespie for the final year and a half of the war, serving as the base commander up until the base closed about three months after the war was over. He recalled the parachute training towers and a large swimming pool that were once part of the facility, but now long since vanished.
DeGroot remained in the civilian reserves and was called back to duty in 1950 for the Korean War. After three months of refresher training as a flight officer, he went over in January 1951 with VMF-223, but only remained in combat until being shot down in April of the same year.
“We were part of the campaign against the North Korean’s spring offensive that had a British regiment surrounded on a hill north of Seoul,” DeGroot stated. Eight Corsairs went on the mission, led by an air controller who directed the bombing at the base of the hill.
DeGroot remembered “the controller called out enemy activity, and I took my wingman down to take a look, but just as I said ‘I don’t see anything’ I got shot in the leg. I tried to fly back, but got faint. I jettisoned the belly tank and made a wheels-up landing.”
He was flown in an L-5 to a MASH outfit, only to find it had moved, so they went to Seoul to a field hospital. It was the end of DeGroot’s war and military career, being mustered out as a Captain.
By J. T. “Birdie” Bertrand
It is 12:45 PDT, April 14, 2012, in Los Angeles. Korean Airline’s A380 has just started its takeoff roll and soon we will be airborne on our way to Seoul Korea, a 1 hour 20 minute stopover and a connection to a Korean Airlines B-737 flight, non-stop to Da Nang Vietnam. Total time from LAX to DAD, 18 hours and 45 minutes. That is today.
But a long time ago, I saw the WWII movie 12 O’Clock High. It begins with the actor Dean Jagger walking down the centerline of an old abandoned runway in the English countryside. Weeds were growing through the asphalt. It could have been Alconberry, Upper Heyford, Mindenhall or any number of WWII military airfields before the cold war took its tight grip of the western world. That movie made a lasting impression.
So now my wife Loretta and I are off, not knowing what to expect, heading for Vietnam. I had little desire to see a lot of touristy stuff so the trip I planned was for 5 days in Vietnam. I want to see those things in “I Corps” like Hoi An, PhuBai, and Hue that I was slightly familiar with, but primarily I wanted to walk down the abandoned airfield from my war, the Vietnam War. I want to walk some of that Chu Lai ground where VMA 311, VMA 225, and some weeks later VMA 214 lived. In due course, other squadrons would come and call Chu Lai home.
I had arrived the first time in Chu Lai on June 14,1965 via A4 Skyhawk from Cubi Point to land on 3,500 feet of expeditionary runway made of M-2 Matting constructed by Navy Sea Bees. The landing was a Morest landing. Squadron aircraft arrivals were sequenced over a 14 day period starting on June 1, because the runway and ramp areas were a work in progress and couldn’t accommodate a full complement of squadron aircraft. By 15 June all of the aircraft from my squadron, VMA 311, and VMA 225 were in place at Chu Lai.
In the beginning, the 3,500 foot long runway, built on beach sand, was perhaps the pilot’s greatest enemy because of sub-surface stability. Arrested landings were the norm and JATO takeoffs were standard, day or night. And just when the Sea Bees got the runway built out to 8000 feet they would cut it in half again for complete subsurface repairs and then JATO departures and arrested landings started all over again. Like Dean Jagger in the movie wanted to remember and recall his experiences, I wanted to see what had become of that place called Chu Lai.
We arrived in Da Nang at 2145 on April 15, 2012. When I walked out the door of the B-737, I was hit with a blast of hot air that could have been caused by the shock wave of a MK-28 detonation. Damned near knocked me down. Temperature 87 Degrees F. and I was soon dripping wet. Welcome to Vietnam. Uniform guys – red stars on their caps were plentiful walking throughout the airport. We met Phan Van Vinh (our guide) and Nguyen Quang Minh (our driver), Vinh and Minh as we came to know them. The drive to the hotel was through downtown Da Nang. Some high rise buildings scattered throughout the city, neon lights, some wide 4 lane streets, motor bikes zig zagging, some cars, a few busses and trucks, less than a handful of traffic lights, white and yellow lines painted on the paved streets, and traffic circles. Lots of heavy construction vehicles were parked on sidewalks and in the streets waiting for dawn to start work. At 10:15 PM at night the city was slightly busy but going to sleep. About half way to the hotel, I observed that the traffic signals and lines on the roads surely must be “advisory only” because no one in any vehicle seemed to be paying much attention to any of them. Some kind of semi-controlled traffic chaos was at work…. but vehicle size was definitely a determining factor. Da Nang has all the appearances of an evolving modern city.
Driving south on the 4 lane China Beach road by the Marble Mountain complex the former Marine Helicopter Base on the right and the South China Sea on the left. On the seaward side of the road, there are several Palm Springs or Caribbean style luxury hotels. Some had casinos, some didn’t. And more hotels and condominiums were being built. The city has grown from a 1965 population estimated of between 100 to150 thousand to over 850,000 souls today.
We arrived at the Sandy Beach Hotel and Resort which would be our home base for the 5 days we were in Vietnam. The hotel, located on China Beach, had 2 large swimming pools and over a quarter mile of beautiful beachfront on its property. The grounds at the hotel are extensive and well kept. I noticed that there were 4 computers in the lobby for the guests that one could use to access the internet and pick up e-mail – for free. A Tiger beer was in order, and then to bed, the Tiger beer is much better than I remember. I love air conditioning!
Day 1 – April 16:
The first thing after breakfast was to exchange money. $10.00 = 208,000 Dong. I had a helluva time keeping track of all the zeros. I got a hundred dollars worth of Dong. I had money and stuffed it all in my pockets. Being a millionaire is easy in Vietnam. Loretta generally walked behind me picking up all the loot that randomly fell out of my pockets. One time I gave a baggage handler a 2000 Dong tip and he said “you gotta be joking.” I had to quickly re-calculate and re-evaluate!
Pickup by our guide and driver was at 0900 and soon we were on the road to Hoi An, some 20 miles south of Da Nang. Leaving Da Nang, the China Beach road soon turned in to a traditional one lane each way road with seemingly thousands of motorbikes. It took 50 minutes to get to Hoi An. We drove by two Greg Norman golf courses and one Colin Mountgomery course (more on this later). Hoi An is a much different place than Da Nang. Da Nang is on the move, money is flowing, and the modernization of the city is obvious. Hoi An on the other hand, and except for large numbers of motor bikes, is stuck in an ancient past, somewhere in the early 18th century. The paradox is that everyone old enough to talk has a cell phone and if one is over 15 years of age they have a motorbike. Cotton facemasks cover each rider, probably to keep the bugs off one’s face and guard against pollution. I didn’t notice much pollution, only haze.
Hoi An is actually a city within a city. They say that the inner city of Hoi An is a historical, cultural, and artistic center. I donated some Dong to a small museum we visited. Buildings are rarely more than 2-3 stories and all look like they are about to collapse. The city floods every year usually covering the first floor of every dwelling and building in the city. When the floods hit, the people just move up a story for a couple of days. The Japanese, as part of a trade agreement, volunteered to build a dam to control the waters of the Thu Bon River but the Vietnamese declined. Hard to Figure! Hoi An is an ancient sea port (over 500 years old) and during the USA Vietnam war it was part of a Viet Cong supply route. During that war some kind of “rules of engagement” agreement was made between the South Vietnamese Army, the Viet Cong, and the Americans to isolate the city of Hoi An from the war with the understanding that there would be no fighting within Hoi An. I don’t know of anyone who was ever actually in Hoi An during the war. And if there was such a person they would never have heard a shot fired. Today everyone seems to believe that the Viet Cong was the dominate force within and close to Hoi An in those days. Surely it was a traffic point for arms for the Viet Cong. No wonder we lost.
There are very few actual stores per se in Hoi An, only open markets that have everything from meats, fish, vegetables, clothes, etc., all in the stifling heat of the day. As we walked around the town it didn’t take long to be soaking wet. There are silk manufacturing shops that start with the basic silkworm and manual labor develops and manufactures silk products for sale in the open market. Their products are surely beautiful. It truly is an ancient town in every sense of the word. Although barely 20 miles apart, the contrast in physical modernity between Da Nang and Hoi An is truly remarkable.
It is getting late in the day and so back to the hotel. We stop off at the The Colin Montgomery golf course and the two Greg Norman Courses which are close to the beach and only minutes from our hotel. There are 5 such courses in the area. I felt like I had just left the 18th century and stepped into a golfers fantasyland of 2012. The courses are world class and pristine in every sense of the word. They could be located anywhere in the US where there are palm trees. Hand cared manicure. Nice clubhouses. Pretty, young Vietnamese girls for caddies or golf carts…. take your pick. Real tough choices! The Japanese and Koreans fly in on the weekends and cram the courses on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. If you need golf clubs there are rentals, all new top line clubs. During the week there are very few players. You can play Monday through Thursday for $42 or about a million dong. Weekends the price is $75 or some incredible and equivalent amount of Dong with lots of zeros. We are back at the hotel at 1630 for a beer and dinner.
Day 2 – April 17:
Breakfast was a combination of Vietnamese food, American food, and some strange stuff. We had some of each and it was all pretty good. I had to pick up some more Dong. I think I lost at least a half million out of my pockets in Hoi An.
Pickup is at 0900 and we are on our way to Route 1 and on to Chu Lai. The small town of An Tan is 85 km away and is adjacent to the Chu Lai Complex. It will take about 2.5 hours to get there. Our Guide tells us that Route 1 in this area, for the most part, has been completely rebuilt by raising the roadbed some 8-10 feet to preclude being flooded during the rainy season in some low laying areas. Nonetheless, it is still a narrow two lane paved road. The paving is adequate but not in the best of shape. The traffic is impossible, busses, trucks and a plethora of motor bikes all competing for the road that is sometimes marked with center lines that, in the end, truly mean nothing in terms of rules of the road. It was good to have a driver. Rice fields were on both sides of the road. We hardly saw any of the old “black pajamas.” Today they are multi colored but the hats were still typical and straw colored. Fashion and style, it seems, has taken over. If we were going to Saigon on this road with the traffic we are experiencing, I imagine that it would take two weeks to get there. So far, 30-40 km per hour is max. Train service to Saigon, on the other hand, takes a couple of days. Two check points were positioned along the way where we have to pay a fee to continue. I would not attempt to drive on my own in Vietnam without a cocktail or two to bolster my courage and a third to blur my vision so I couldn’t see what was really happening around me.
As we arrived in the small town of An Tan I looked at my watch … it said 1965 – and I don’t mean the time … I mean the year. Having only been in the town once 45 years ago it seems that little has changed. In 1965, when Mag 12 CO Col. John Noble found out that some of his Marines had been in the town, he restricted everyone from going there. I don’t know of anyone who ever went there again. We are on our way now to a very large monument on a hill a bit northwest of the Chu Lai complex, which is described as a memorial to the war. We were told that occasionally ceremonies are held here. Arriving at the monument, there are about 200 – 250 steps to climb to get to the base of the monument. It overlooks the entire Chu Lai complex and the view is excellent. The obelisk style memorial is approximately 120 feet tall. One can see the “new” Chu Lai runway and a new airline terminal building. As we stood there, an Air Vietnam airplane had just landed. To the west of the monument about a half a mile away we are told there was a big battle at some point. Looking out in that direction – it looks like a jungle. Our guide said there is a rumor that several American airline companies are interested in development of a new joint aircraft overhaul and maintenance facility at Chu Lai. Having seen a fairly good portion of the area and population by now, it makes one wonder where they would get qualified workers to work on transport category airplanes…. and then most important, where would they find adequate housing for those technicians and families.
Climbing down the stairs we are soon on the way back to the north for about one half mile to a paved access road that will take us to what I remember as Chu Lai. To where, in 1965, the M-2 matted runway was located and that particular area that I want to see up close. But first, we turn right on another access road. The road is 4 lanes wide with a center lighted island and takes us to the new terminal building that sits in between the ends of the concrete runway. I believe that an American construction company (Morrison Knudsen) built the runway. That runway was still in the planning and clearing stages while I was in Chu Lai. The terminal is a rather modern building with no jetways. Some concrete covered revetments and bunkers still exist at the north end of the airline and ramp.
Back to the primary access road and turn right toward the beach. At the end of the road, we turn right to the south and a couple of small buildings and a compound with a flagpole and a flag with a red star came into view. A Vietnamese Army area that evidently guards the entire old Chu Lai complex. I can’t figure out just what the Vietnamese Army is guarding. A 6-7 foot high brick and rock wall with broken glass imbedded on top is on the right and extends a couple of miles to the south. This particular road as I remember the terrain, is probably close to the same location where the dirt road that traversed through the living areas where the squadron members lived. We traveled south about 2-3 miles and made a right turn down a dirt road a quarter of a mile to where we could see to the north where the old M-2 runway was probably located. I’m guessing our actual position was real close to the old bomb dump and fuel farm area. There were some concrete revetments like those by the new airport terminal building, but other than that, there was nothing there – not a trace, except for shacks and some workers doing “something” who paid us no attention.
I wasn’t satisfied with what I saw and we turned around headed back to the north to retrace where we had been. That damn wall obviously built to keep people out, was a barrier to where I really wanted to be. There were some holes in the wall and I had not come 8000 miles to be denied access to what I really wanted to see. Inside the wall was a large extended sand dune that, in my time at Chu Lai, separated living areas from working areas and overlooked the old Chu Lai runway complex. I told the guide and driver to stop at one of the breaks in the wall and told them I was going through to the top of the long extended sand dune to get my bearings and get a better look. The sand dune was probably 25-35 feet higher than the road. With the Vietnamese Army outpost in mind, the guide said to me, “I going with you,” and said, “If we are caught, we would probably both end up in some kind of prison or I would be held and you would be put on an airplane in Da Nang for the USA.” With that warning I told the guide, “I may look old but I can run faster than you think.” We then went through the opening. We did that four times, through 4 different holes in the wall. Loretta and the driver stayed in the van, chickens that they were. I suspect that some others who came there before us, who also wanted to see the other side of the dune, took a sledgehammer and beat holes in the wall. Whoever they were … “you all did good work and thank you.” It saved me from buying a sledgehammer.
Once through the wall in several of our breaches I could make out what I believed to be some of the terrain where the living areas were located. But 45 years changes things. The Vietnamese had also rearranged some of the terrain and planted lots of those scrubby trees that occupy the beach area. The guide told me that the weather was not what it used to be and much of the trees and vegetation had died out and they were replanting in hopes that the trees would once again flourish.
On top of the dune one could approximate where the runway was once located, because the terrain expressed itself to the eye as a rather long flat line. But there really was nothing to see except sand. The old working spaces access road (dirt road) that ran the length of the runway was now visible slightly below and in front of us. It was partially paved, and blowing sand had covered up much of it. Throughout this process of climbing through the holes in the walls and trekking to the top of the dune I never saw anything that would lead anyone to believe that anything was ever there, let alone a runway and airport complex…it was all back to nature. On two of those occasions I could see a guy walking in the distance out beyond where the runway used to be located. I don’t think he ever saw us. The guide said that there was some mining going on in the area but I suspect something else but wasn’t sure just what. I think it was a contamination clean up. At any rate, after climbing up, down and all over the dune several times, my shoes were full of sand, I was soaking wet, and could have been used as a mop.
On the South China Sea side of the dune the beach is still beautiful and inviting. There are two medium sized resort hotels and a museum. Except for those concrete revetments Chu Lai has been physically removed from the landscape. I would hope that some of what once was there has been remembered in the museum but unhappily I didn’t get to see it because it was closed. The two resorts were also closed because, according to the guide, it was “getting into the hot season.” Hell, my body told me that the hot season had already arrived. The sea breeze I remember was still softly blowing making the temperature milder and less humid.
Driving to the north end of the area where the Vietnamese Army post was located, another smaller hotel is located on the west side of the road. It was also closed. On the right side of the road (street) on the beach there were what I call two or three very different, primitive beach side restaurants. We stopped and our driver and guide had lunch. Loretta and I had two Tiger beers. I was kind of dehydrated (that is my excuse and I’m sticking to it). It was Loretta’s first experience with Vietnamese natural rural bathroom. It was an apparent hole in the ground and the flushing mechanism was a small bucket that you filled with water and threw down the hole. She had a sheepish grin on her face when she returned and wondered if she did it right. I said, “if you didn’t get any on yourself, you did just fine.” She also said, “it was real dark in there and I couldn’t see and I was afraid of falling in.” Falling in would not be good!
From the beach restaurant and looking back (7-9 miles) toward the south as the bay curves around to the point there were lots of very large buildings which our guide told us was an oil refining and industrial area. After lunch, and continuing north we arrived into the Ky Ha area. From the cliffs at Ky Ha, one could barely see the island Cu Lao Re quite a distance off shore and looking back was Chu Lai. I remember that during “Operation Starlight” one of our pre-flight intelligence briefers said that the island was a suspected VC stronghold and arms trafficking port. Our guide confirmed that intel, briefing some 45 years later. I also remember one time, flying very — very low over the island at real close to Warp 9 speed. The Ky Ha area, where the helicopters were based, is completely grown over although you can tell where land was flattened and the helo parking pads were once located. Continuing on the road around the small peninsula there was the small fishing village of Ky Ha. Today, the little village and has some good-sized cranes. Fishing boats occupy the small docks. It looks to be abandoned but the guide said the cranes worked and the fishermen were still active providing fish for the local population. No one would ever know that there were 4 to 5 thousand or more US Marines based or located at Chu Lai and Ky Ha.
It was time to leave. We were in the Chu Lai area for about 4 hours and I got to see most of what I came to see. I would have really liked to have walked out to where the runway was once located but our guide advised against it. Besides, I’m not sure of how far or how fast I could run in the heat of the day if I needed to make a quick getaway. In the end it was OK.
Our guide wanted to get back to Da Nang by 5:30 PM. The trip back was pretty much the same except we saw 2 accidents. I’m surprised there were only 2. In one case a tracked backhoe had slipped off the road and was upside down in a rice field. Five or six guys in red star clad uniforms were standing around scratching their heads as were lots of people in those typical straw hats. Luckily, we made it through the crash scene area with a minimum delay and arrived back at the hotel around 6:00 pm.
Day 3 – April 18:
While at breakfast at the hotel, 8 Mig 21’s took off from Da Nang and flew right by our hotel. Those guys must get up real early.
Pickup by our guide was at 0815. We are heading for the Phubai – Hue areas. We drive through Da Nang and the streets are very busy mostly with motor scooter traffic. At the north end of the city is new modern industrial area with new, rather large buildings and it looks like a typical big city multi-national industry. We are going to take the 2 lane mountain road over the Hai Van pass into Phubai area. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the top of the pass. Traffic was rather mild as we started the climb. Reaching the top there are some old bunkers and gun emplacements still in place, which were obviously built to control the mountain road during the war.
Adjacent to the bunkers were souvenir shops and refreshment stands. I had forgotten how high the mountains were in this area and if one looked to the west they were even higher. Looking back and I’m remembering some of the work we did at night under flares over toward the Laotian border some 30 miles away. The trip down the mountain also takes about 45 minutes. Once down the mountain, the countryside is not unlike the trip to Chu Lai, rice fields and all, but there seemed to be more heavy trucks on the move in both directions.
As we enter the Phubai area the road expands to what I call a two lane road on each side – but who really knows, the traffic lines on the roads are deceiving. Phubai does not seem to be developed very much and in my opinion probably seems much like it was in 1965 just as An Tan at Chu Lai also was. The airport at Phubai still has 10,000 feet of runway and is in fairly good condition. The area around the airport is slightly overgrown with vegetation and controlled by fences but you can still tell where things were probably located. Because of Phubai’s proximity to Hue and the heavy tourist trade, our guide Vinh tells us that there are plans to rehabilitate the runway complex and put in a new airport terminal. This was confirmed by an American (former Army) we met at our hotel who was been to Vietnam 5-6 times and was very familiar with the Phubai area. He knew that it was in the planning stages but the weakened world economy had set those plans back a year or two. He also told us that Phubai had expanded quite a bit in terms of population since 1975 but that very little modernization had taken place there. I’m thinking he was right.
Pressing on up the road to the highrise buildings of Hue, came into view. The improvements, in the roads are obvious, the architectural changes are many in the city and the traffic is crowded. Hue has, by no means, been developed as much as Da Nang but still, the city takes on a more modern profile.
Hue is historical and was the ancient Capitol of all of Vietnam, largely because it was located almost exactly half way between the southern border and the northern border of Vietnam. There is a real pride within the people about the city. The walled city or Emperor’s residence as you may know is really 3 cities in one, all protected by high stonewalls and by a moat supplied by the Perfume River. The walled city is roughly 8 tenths of a mile square and is much larger than I expected. There is a rather large Vietnamese Army barracks just across the street from the walled city that has a giant flag flying on a 200 foot flag pole. There is selected restoration going on within the walled city and tourists of all nationalities visit it every day. During the Vietnam war it was also once a fierce battle field for control of the area and the battle scars are evident everywhere. The battle is much discussed by the many tour guides traversing the grounds with their flocks of people.
While visiting the gift shop in the walled city, I saw a pictorial in a book that used a bar graph depiction to illustrate time lines which shows the time that Vietnam had been at war with various neighboring and imperial countries. The Chinese line naturally was the longest covering many different dates through many centuries. For comparison let us say the cumulative Chinese line was 24 inches long. The colonial French line was 2 inches long and the USA Vietnam war, a half an inch. On that scale, our Vietnam War in history will almost be an afterthought to the Vietnamese.
We had lunch just outside the walled city and we could tell the influence of the French in the food. It was much better than in some of the other localities. After lunch, we started the trip back to Da Nang over the same route except instead of retracing our ride over the mountain pass, as we approached the city we were going to go through a 6 mile long tunnel directly into the city of Da Nang. The tunnel built by the Japanese, eliminates at least one hour and 30 minutes, or more, of travel time.
It was a long day but we finally got back to the hotel in Da Nang at 6:45 pm, had dinner and off to bed.
Day 4 – April 19:
Today we will tour Marble Mountain, China Beach area, Monkey Mountain area, the port of Da Nang, the beach where the 5th Marines landed in 1965 and then Da Nang. Driving from our hotel it was a short distance to a Pagoda located on and inside one of the five Marble Mountains. There is an elevator that takes you to the top of the pagoda. The pagoda inside the mountain was fascinating! At the base of the Pagoda there are literally dozens of manual labor marble carving factories and the view from the pagoda of a China Beach area is spectacular.
Some areas of the beach are nicely landscaped and finished. Driving a bit further down the beach is the Marble Mountain helicopter base. The only things that remain are some concrete bunkers and a few watchtowers. Those bunkers are slowly being torn down. Most of it is gone and cleared, awaiting investment money to build hotels, condominiums, or apartments. It seems to me that just like the Chu Lai area, the war is being erased.
The entire length of the China Beach area from our hotel toward Monkey Mountain was remarkable. It is some 8-10 miles long. The beach is beautiful, and is of course, the attraction. One can readily see that it won’t be long before it will all look like Miami Beach. Some of it already looks that way and I imagine eventually it will be a jewel in the orient and a masterpiece for Vietnam. The road for the most part and noted before in this writing is 2 sometimes 3 lanes wide on each side. I suspect this road overlays the location of the small runway at the Marble Mountain Marine helicopter base. There are already many world-class hotels and condominiums spread out along the beach, some owned by the Chinese and other investors. Land is being cleared about 4-5 hundred feet to the west of the China Beach road awaiting new condos and hotels.
At the north end of China Beach the road transitions to a new 2 lane road that traverses the south eastern side of Monkey Mountain and connects to the old northern road at the top. On the south side, facing the South China Sea, there is a statue that can be seen from 6-7 miles or more away. It is bright white marble statue of a Lady Buddha. It stands 180 feet tall. Reminds one of the statue of Christ in Rio de Janiero. A very large Buddhist Pagoda is also constructed on the grounds. After visiting this statue and pagoda we continue on the road but can’t complete the circle of the mountain because of a dirt slide and the road was being repaired. So we did not get to see the tunnels in Monkey Mountain where the VC reportedly had a hospital and supply area.
Retracing our route and now heading north we cross a large suspension bridge which crosses the harbor. To the right, the harbor for the Vietnamese Navy and very large ships. About a month before we arrived, the US Navy was in port with a carrier (name unknown) and an LSD (also unknown). They were there for 6 days and according to our guide were well received. Supposedly, there were some joint naval exercises held before their arrival. To the left there is an extension of the harbor for smaller vessels that can sail under the bridge. There are now 5 modern bridges across the harbor connecting the city with the beach areas and two more under construction. We are told that either the Koreans or the Japanese are building them. Entering the down town area of Da Nang, traffic is heavy with motorbikes, a few cars and many trucks. In downtown Da Nang there is a display of Vietnamese airplanes that were used during the war. Construction is going on everywhere. Our guide tells us that some of the construction has been stopped or delayed because of the world economy. Sounds familiar. We are asked if we would like to go shopping but we decline. We head back to the hotel now to prepare for an evening flight back to Seoul Korea and then on to the USA. As we ate dinner in preparation to depart, we met an active duty US Marine. He told us he would be in Vietnam for 4 weeks. He had been to language school and was doing “some stuff” for the Marine Corps. He did not elaborate nor did I ask.
Vinh and Minh picked us up for the ride to the airport. We bid them goodbye with a nice tip. They did everything we asked and were just super. They made the trip educational and fun.
The airport in Seoul (Inchon) is something to see. They are World Class in every way. We planned to spend the day in Seoul at the airport, go to the airport hotel which is part of the airport, and sleep for 6-7 hours then board the airplane for LAX to make the homeward portion of the trip easier on the body. And that is what we did arriving back in LAX at 10:00 am in the morning of April 20, the same day we left Korea. Both of us were in bed that evening by 1900 and were almost thoroughly rested the next day.
Knowing what I now know, I would have taken 2 more days for the trip. I would have liked to have played a couple rounds of golf on those signature courses and I would have planned the trip for mid-March instead of late April because the weather would have been milder.
It is forty miles from Hue to Dong Ha. Dong Ha is at the southern approaches to the former demilitarized zone. It is also where highway Route 9 and Route 1 intersect. Route 9 will take you to Khe San, and the Ashau Valley. The extension of Route 9 into Laos will also take you to Tchepone and on to Savannakhet Laos. Route 9 is an important highway. As I’m sure most of you know, this particular area was the heart of the Ho Chi Minh trail. On the trip back to Da Nang, Vinh told us that the Route 9 road was in good shape and could be traveled quite easily. Khe San is about 25 miles from Dong Ha and the Ashau Valley is 3-5 miles further. He also said that the Vietnam/Laos border is now open. Tchepone is 65 miles from Dong Ha. If I had known, I would have spent another day or so and gone to see these areas. In a previous paragraph I remarked that I didn’t remember the mountains being as high as I thought they were. I would have liked to have seen those mountains up close from the ground, the Ashau Valley, possibly Khe San, and the Tchepone area. That would have been really fun and interesting
I think if I had to eliminate a day it would be the day we went to Hoi An. It was fun but I think I would have enjoyed the trip up Route 9 much more. Loretta, might see it differently.
I always said, that from the sky Vietnam was a beautiful country. Except for some of the poverty in the countryside, it is also a very pretty place to see from the ground. I didn’t get to walk down that runway like Dean Jagger did, but I came real close. The Vietnamese with their walls kept that experience from me. Hopefully in the future someone will be able to walk the ground where the runway did exist. But I saw where it was and I knew I had been there before. I had not forgotten, I had remembered, I had come back and saw what had become of the place called Chu Lai and for me that had to be good enough.
Was the trip worth it? Absolutely! But I am also aware that there are those who have no desire or inclination revisit Vietnam. That said, I had hoped that some others in my squadron, VMA 311, who had expressed a desire to go, would have gone with us which would have made the trip a more fun and better experience. Just seeing the Chu Lai would have sparked many stories and those stories would have given me solace that would last the rest of my life. But sadly, in the end, it was not to be. However, for Loretta and I, it was a great trip. JTB
October 1, 2012 – January 31, 2013
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In Memory of Major General Marion Carl
MajGen Hal W. Vincent
In Memory of Captain Hal Hellbach
LtCol Robert A. Gillon, Sr.
In Memory of Captain Warren Keneipp
LtCol Robert A. Gillon, Sr.
In Memory of Major Charlie Cronkrite
LtCol Robert A. Gillon, Sr.
In Support of 2012 Mike Philbin Memorial Golf Tournament
Col Bart Connolly
The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to:
MAJOR STEPHEN WESLEY PLESS
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
for service as set forth in the following CITATION:
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pleasure in presenting the Medal of Honor to Major Stephen Wesley Pless (MCSN: 0-79156), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on 19 August 1967, while serving as a helicopter gunship pilot attached to Marine Observation Squadron SIX (VMO-6), Marine Aircraft Group THIRTY-SIX, First Marine Aircraft Wing, in action against enemy forces near Quang Nai, Republic of Vietnam. During an escort mission Major Pless monitored an emergency call that four American soldiers stranded on a nearby beach were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force. Major Pless flew to the scene and found 30 to 50 enemy soldiers in the open. Some of the enemy were bayoneting and beating the downed Americans. Major Pless displayed exceptional airmanship as he launched a devastating attack against the enemy force, killing or wounding many of the enemy and driving the remainder back into a tree line. His rocket and machinegun attacks were made at such low levels that the aircraft flew through debris created by explosions from its rockets. Seeing one of the wounded soldiers gesture for assistance, he maneuvered his helicopter into a position between the wounded men and the enemy, providing a shield, which permitted his crew to retrieve the wounded. During the rescue the enemy directed intense fire at the helicopter and rushed the aircraft again and again, closing to within a few feet before being beaten back. When the wounded men were aboard, Major Pless maneuvered the helicopter out to sea. Before it became safely airborne, the overloaded aircraft settled four times into the water. Displaying superb airmanship, he finally got the helicopter aloft. Major Pless’ extraordinary heroism coupled with his outstanding flying skill prevented the annihilation of the tiny force. His courageous actions reflect great credit upon himself and uphold the highest traditions of the Marine Corps and the United States Naval Service.
RF – Type (Reconnaissance Fighter); 4 – (Numerical Designation); B – (Version or Variant)
The McDonnell Douglas RF-4B was the photo reconnaissance version of the versatile F-4 Phantom II. It first flew on March 12, 1965 with the first delivery going to Marine Composite Utility Squadron Three (VMCJ-3), based at MCAS El Toro, in May of 1965. The RF-4B also served with Marine Composite Squadrons VMCJ-1 and VMCJ-2, and entered combat in October 1966, equipping VMCJ-1 at Da Nang, Republic of Vietnam.
All 46 RF-4Bs produced by the McDonnell Aircraft Company went to the Marine Corps with the last RF-4B delivered on December 24, 1970. The last twelve of these RF-4Bs were built on RF-4C frames with larger tires, wheel wells and reinforced wings. Differing from the fighter version of the F-4, the RF-4B had a longer nose that housed forward and side oblique cameras, and featured photoflash cartridges for night photography. Film could also be developed in flight and film cassettes could be ejected at low altitude so that ground commanders could get aerial intelligence as rapidly as possible. The large AN/APQ-72 radar was also replaced with the much smaller AN/APQ-99 forward-looking J-band monopulse radar which was optimized for terrain avoidance and terrain-following, and could be used for ground mapping.
Initially each active duty Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) had operational squadrons that supplied separate photo reconnaissance and electronic countermeasure aircraft. In 1975, the entire photo reconnaissance mission of the Marine Corps was assigned to VMCJ-3 of Third Marine Aircraft Wing (3rd MAW) and the squadron was soon redesignated as Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three (VMFP-3). The squadron then supplied detachments to the users, both Navy and Marine. The last RF-4B in Marine Corps service was retired in 1990, prior to Desert Storm.
The RF-4B Phantom II on display was initially accepted on 15 October 1965 and delivered to VMCJ-3 at MCAS El Toro, spending its entire service with that squadron and its predecessor, VMFP-3. It was retired on April 25, 1990 with 5,364 airframe hours and presented to the Command Museum. It is painted in the colors of Marine Photo Reconnaissance Squadron Three, (VMFP-3), while based at MCAS El Toro. This aircraft is on loan from the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Legendary film and stage actor Tyrone Power was widely known as a “matinee idol” during a career that spanned more than 25 years. He starred in numerous films including The Long Grey Line, The Mark Of Zorro, The Sun Also Rises and A Yank In The RAF. Power’s performance as an accused murderer in the motion picture, Witness for the Prosecution, is considered by many cinema historians to be his finest.
Most people are familiar with Tyrone Power the movie star, but did you know that he was also an accomplished pilot? Power learned to fly in 1938 during the filming of the classic western Jesse James. He was also a Marine Corps aviator and served our country during and after World War II. Indeed, flying was a major part of Power’s life.
Power, like many of his Hollywood contemporaries, was caught up in the post Pearl Harbor patriotic fever sweeping the nation by early 1942. When the call to arms came, he promptly enlisted in the Marine Corps. Power’s initial goal was to become a Marine Corps glider pilot. However, because of his age (28 at the time) and lack of a college education, he did not qualify for the Naval aviator training program as a cadet. As such, Power enlisted as a private and attended boot camp at MCRD San Diego.
After completing boot camp, Power went through Officer Candidate at Quantico, and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in June 1943. Because he was a seasoned pilot already, Power was assigned to an accelerated flight training program at MCAS Corpus Christi, Texas and trained as a multiengine transport pilot. He earned his Naval Aviator wings and was promoted to First Lieutenant April 1944.
After some additional training at the Flight Instructor Instrument School, Power was assigned to VMR-352 (“Raiders”), based at Cherry Point, North Carolina. In this assignment, Lieutenant Power flew the Curtiss R5C-Commando. He remained with VMR-352 from October 1944 until mid-January 1945.
In January 1945, Lieutenant Power was assigned to VMR-353, and was shipped out to combat zones in the Pacific. The VMR-353 squadron was briefly based at Kwajalein before moving on to Saipan in March 1945. Power flew numerous missions while assigned to VMR-353. He took part in the air supply and evacuation of wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and did see some combat, especially on Okinawa. Power remained with VMR-353 until hostilities with Japan ended in September 1945.
Lieutenant Power was ordered off deployment in late November 1945, and returned stateside. He was released from active duty by the Marine Corps in January 1946. Power returned to his film career and made 22 more movies after World War II ended.
Power’s personal decorations for his service during World War II include the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two bronze stars and the World War II Victory Medal.
Although he was released from active duty and resumed his film career, Tyrone Power remained in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was promoted to Captain in May 1951. However, he was not called back to active service during the Korean War. Power remained in the Marine Corps Reserve until his death in November 1958. At the time of his passing, Tyrone Power was a Major. He was buried with full military honors, including a full Marine Corps honor guard from MCAS El Toro.
 At the request of 20th Century Fox, Power was allowed to finish production on the film Crash Dive before reporting for active duty. This movie was fairly typical of early World War II films that were generally geared to promoting support for the war effort on the home front.
 The R5C Commando is more commonly known as the Curtiss-Wright C-46. This aircraft was used extensively in the Pacific Theatre by both Naval and Marine Corps squadrons. It was also used, to a much lesser extent, by US Army Air Forces is final days of the war in Europe.
This is my first year with the Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation, and it has already been a whirlwind of events, great people, and dedicated volunteers. Thanks to everyone for your support and advice as I ramp up our public relations and community outreach efforts.
As you well know, this year marks the Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation; all of our events this year celebrate our story from the last century, while focusing on the next 100 years of preservation and study.
Steve “Smitty” Smith, our adventurous curator and his crew, manned displays at the San Diego County Fair, the Gillespie Air Show and the Oceanside Armed Forces Day Operation Appreciation. He said during the San Diego County Fair alone, he averaged 100 to 150 visitors per day.
We had a film crew, led by a new volunteer named Herb Proske, who conducted a series of oral histories, and more will be filmed in the future. Our goal is to catalogue as many of our Marine Aviators as we can so that their stories are not lost. Airplanes are wonderful pieces of machinery, but those who fly them are the most important asset a museum can have, and we hope to record more and more of these aviator’s stories as we move into the next century.
While our museum crew was up at the San Diego Fair, the foundation hosted two very important events, the third annual Semper Fi Ride and the annual Black Tie Gala. The gala is one of the year’s most highly anticipated events, and nearly 200 guests gathered at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego to celebrate the 100-year milestone. This year, the foundation was honored to host our longtime supporters, Mr. and Mrs. T. Boone Pickens, as well as Marine Corps heroes from every conflict since World War II. We had a great turnout, and many of our guests commented that the evening was one of the best foundation events they have attended in years. The gala committee worked tirelessly to ensure the event was perfect, and it was a memorable evening of laughs and camaraderie.
During the gala, we presented the 2012 Irene Ferguson Marine Wife Recognition Award recipient, Mrs. Sasha Lightfoot. She was noted for having pulled together the families of the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469, who lost six Marines in a horrific crash in February. The unit was in Yuma, Ariz. training for an upcoming deployment. Her husband, LtCol Stephen Lightfoot, is the commanding officer and is currently in Afghanistan. The annual award is presented at the gala, and selected from a pool of applicants.
On June 16, nearly 100 riders came out to support the third annual Semper Fi Ride and post-ride “poker walk.” Both of our generous donors – the Fun Bike Center and Bangin’ Burgers – support this event, and really do all of the hard work! When the foundation staff arrived on Saturday, most of the work had already been finished, riders were out on the course, and we had a record amount of donations for the day. Many of the riders didn’t know about it, but said they planned on returning next year.
We’ve launched our new website, which is still being worked on each month to bring visitors to the site all of the events coming up during the year. We encourage blogs, articles, photos and any other material we can use to post to our blog page. If you are interested in becoming a blogger, contact me at email@example.com or 858-525-2498.
So far, visitor numbers have remained about the same for the first half of the year, but donations have increased. Our mission is clear – build a world-class museum that is the only one dedicated to Marine Corps Aviation History – and with the dedication of our volunteers and staff, we can make it a reality.
By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired
The wake of the World War II, with its ominous specter of nuclear weapons, forced the Marine Corps to rethink existing amphibious doctrine. The conclusion was that previous methods of ship-to-shore movement were no longer sufficient to ensure a successful landing so alternative methods had to be developed. Several options looked promising, but the only one that stood the test of time and combat was vertical envelopment—the use of helicopters to move troops and supplies.
In 1946, Commandant Alexander A. Vandegrift—at the urging of Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, the “Gray Eagle” of Marine aviation who had just witnessed post-war nuclear tests—formed a special board culled from Marine Corps headquarters to study existing tactics and equipment then make recommendations for restructuring the Fleet Marine Force. Assistant Commandant Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., a graduate of Virginia Military Institute, who was arguably the Marines’ most innovative division commander in the Pacific, headed the board. Shepherd was an excellent choice because he was both a traditionalist and a visionary who would later become Commandant. Other members of the board included Major General Field Harris, the director of Marine aviation, and Brigadier General Oliver P. Smith, the head of plans and operations division. All three men would be reunited in Korea in 1950 where they would put into practice the revolutionary doctrines they set in motion; Shepherd as the commanding general of Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, Harris as commanding general of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, and Smith as commanding general of the 1st Marine Division. Two colonels assigned to the board secretariat were particularly influential, Edward C. Dyer and Merrill B. Twining. Dyer, a Naval Academy graduate and decorated combat pilot, was master of all things aeronautical while Merrill Twining, a highly regarded staff officer, handled operational theory. Neither a formal member of the board nor its secretariat but keeping close tabs on what transpired was Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas, Vandegrift’s trusted chief of staff. Dyer eventually commanded the first Marine helicopter squadron and Thomas replaced Smith as 1st Marine Division commander in Korea.
Doctrinal development for vertical assault was done at Marine Corps Schools located at Quantico, Virginia. First, a board headed by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Hogaboom laid out what was needed in a document titled “Military Requirements for Ship-to-Shore Movement of Troops and Cargo.” Even though no suitable aircraft were yet available, the thinkers at Quantico came up with new doctrine published as Amphibious Training Manual 31, “Amphibious Operations—-Employment of Helicopters (Tentative).” One of the drivers of this project was Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak, a tough former paratrooper who had been wounded in the Pacific but was also known for his high intellect and an unsurpassed ability to get things done. He was a prolific writer and a demanding taskmaster who kept his finger on the pulse of several vital projects including helicopter development.
Despite the nearly unlimited future potential of helicopters for assault and support of landing forces, there was ingrained resistance to such a revolutionary concept. Most young pilots wanted to fly sleek jets and dogfight enemy aces, not manhandle temperamental aircraft to deliver troops and supplies; experienced fliers were comfortable with aircraft they already knew well and were reluctant to give up their trusted planes; and critics claimed helicopters were too slow and vulnerable. Twining took the lead in addressing these problems when he pointed out the Marine Corps had far more pilots than planes and noted that the wishes of the individual were always subservient to the needs of the Marine Corps. He also asserted that the speed and vulnerability of helicopters should not be properly compared to fixed-wing aircraft but to surface landing craft (helicopters were both faster and more agile than boats or amphibious tractors).
All early helicopter advocates were highly motivated and dedicated men. Their achievements and foresight kept the Marine Corps’ reputation for innovation alive despite severe budgetary constraints and concurrent inter-Service unification battles. In fact, many of the men also played key roles in the “Chowder Society,” whose behind-the-scenes work successfully protected Marine Corps interests during the bitter “unification battles” after the World War II.