A Trip Back in Time: Vietnam

By J. T. “Birdie” Bertrand

Hai Van Pass

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.

Walled City

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.

In Retrospect:

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

The Few, The Proud, The Generous

October 1, 2012 – January 31, 2013

 General Fund Donations

Col J. Laurence Adkinson,

Robert A. Almquist,

Col Donald W. Anderson,

Col Sam Badiner,

BGen George L. Bartlett,

CAPT Thomas G. Bauer,

Mr. & Mrs Dmitriy Bekkeman,

LtCol & Mrs Jay N. Bibler,

Richard Blomgren,

BGen William A. Bloomer,

Robert S. Bolt,

William F. Brindell,

LtCol G. Larry Brown,

Mr. & Mrs Keith J. Cameron,

E.R. Ciampa,

Civil Aviation Medical Association,

Col Bart Connolly,

MajGen Louis J. Conti,

Alisa R. Cox,

MajGen John V. Cox,

H. Norman Davies,

Jr., Gen J.K. Davis,

Maj Joseph G. Dentz,

LtCol Charles W. Dollard,

BGen Walter J. Donovan,

Constance A. Drowne,

Don R. Duffer,

Jon Epsten,

Frank Faust,

Donald R. Fraser,

Gladys R. Gallivan,

Gen Alfred M. Gray,

James Grimes, MD,

Jeffrey Guss,

Mr. & Mrs David W. Hall,

Mr. & Mrs Robert Hanevik,

Col & Mrs Hardy Hay,

Gen Joseph P. Hoar,

Leonard M. Horner,

Col George W. Houck,

BGen R.H. Huckaby,

Maj John Hyneman,

Mr. & Mrs John Irwin,

Maj Herb R. Jellander,

MajGen Harry W. Jenkins,

LtCol Foster H. Jessup,

Mr. & Mrs Ward Johnson,

Frank B. Kennedy,

Maj Peter A. Krueger,

Col George F. Kubal,

GySgt Paul T. Kuras,

Joyce D. Lang,

Col Lee F. Lange,

Col Elmer M. Lewis,

Col Jack R. Lousma,

Rex C. McCoy,

June A. McLernan,

MSgt Robert A. Marshall, Sr.,

Stephen M. Mayian,

Q. R. Meland,

MSgt James H. Merriken,

Sgt Henry G. Merritt,

LtCol Henry G. Miller,

Col Jack P. Monroe, Jr.,

LtCol Robert D. Mulcahy,

Col Jacques Naviaux,

RADM Edward Nelson, Jr.,

Col Duane F. Newton,

LtCol Richard E. Novak,

Lou Oberman,

MajGen G. Richard Omrod,

Col & Mrs O.L. Owens,

Jason Pilalas,

LtCol Larry D. Rannals,

Col Alvin F. Ribbeck, Jr.,

Terril Richardson,

LtGen John E. Rhodes,

CWO Alfred Rome,

RPM Pizza, LLC,

LaDelle Schroeder,

Col John F. Shine,

BGen David V. Shutter,

Capt Charles W. Smith,

Wayne Stafford,

Leo J. Still, Jr.,

Donald B. Stoneking,

Dr. Mark D. Strauss,

CDR Charles Sweeney,

MSgt Oscar Teel,

MGySgt James R. Todd,

Col & Mrs Kenneth Tollefson,

Jerry Toppel,

Col Jay R. Vargas,

Mr. & Mrs Robert W. Wardlaw,

Donald S. Waunch,

James G. Weatherly,

Lewis M. Webb,

Col Kenneth H. Wilcox,

Capt Floyd C. Williams,

Wilson Construction Company,

Col Alexander Wilson,

Col Eleanor M. Wilson,

LtCol W.J. White,

Robert D. “Woody” Woodbury

Building Fund Donations

Col Jerome T. Bertrand, Mr. & Mrs Stuart Hendrix, Jason & Brittany Sparks

Restoration Fund Donations

Mr. & Mrs John Herrold (In memory of LtGen Thomas H. Miller)

VMFA-115/513 Squadron Reunion, SgtMaj Mike Zacker

Foundation Computer & Office Equipment Support

Maj Glenn Ferguson, John Ferguson

In Memory of Col Donald E. Marousek

Dr. & Mrs Stan Jones, Mr. & Mrs Tom Lampley, Naomi Lin,

Shirley Luth, Ludmila Marousek, Vivian Matiossian

In Memory of Lt. General A. W. O’Donnell

Patricia L. O’Donnell

In Memory of Dr. Judson Russel Grosvenor

J. Mark Grosvenor Foundation

In Honor of Lt. General Keith A. Smith

LtGen Norman H. Smith

In Memory of Patty Butcher

LtGen Robert Milligan

In Memory of Major General Jeremiah “Jed” Pearson

LtCol Thomas M. Vetter, Sr.

In Memory of Lt. Colonel Bill “Muddy” Waters

MajGen B.G. Butcher, MajGen Ross Plasterer

In Memory of Colonel Eugene R. “Pappa Fox” Brady

Hon Joseph P. Donovan

In Memory of Major General Frank C. Lang

Col Edward C. Kicklighter

In Memory of Colonel William L. Beach

Anita J. Beach

In Memory of Colonel Edwin J. McCue

Nancy McCue

In Memory of Colonel Frank N. Pippin

Mary Lou Pippin

In Memory of Gunnery Sergeant Glen H. Chapin

Sharon L. Chapin

In Memory of Colonel Chuck Sewell

Dr. Richard P. Hallon

In Memory of Lt. Colonel Barry Skinner

Jennifer Deweese, Mr. & Mrs Darrell A. Lowe, M. N. Phillips

In Memory of Lt. Colonel Art Anthony

Dennis Bowen

In Memory of Lt. Colonel Mike Mura

Dennis Bowen

In Memory of Sergeant Robert “Bob” O’Reilly

Col Christopher E. O’Connor

In Memory of Major General Donald “DEP” Miller

MajGen B.G. Butcher, LtCol & Mrs R.W. Kron, MajGen Ross Plasterer

In Memory of Lt. Colonel Guy O. Badger

Gina Adams, MajGen B.G. Butcher, Mr. & Mrs Kenneth H. Gilliland,

Mr. & Mrs Bertram Morgan, Mickey Muse, Sandra Sifuentes,

Edith Smith, Mr. & Mrs Jack W. Wagner

In Memory of Major General Leo LeBlanc

MajGen Richard Cooke

In Memory of Colonel Robert Todd Whitten

Kristian D. Whitten

In Memory of Major General W.R. Quinn

Margo Quinn

In Memory of Lt. Colonel H.A. “Hap” Langstaff

Ruth M. Langstaff

In Memory of John Thomas Garner

LtCol William M. Kull

In Memory of Colonel Richard Moeller

LtCol Jack W. Davis

In Memory of Colonel Frank Heins

LtCol John E. Carroll, Jr.

In Memory of Major Bob Captor

LtCol John E. Carroll, Jr

In Memory of Colonel Robert Ondrick

Donna M. Ondrick, Col Floyd Lewis

In Memory of Colonel Mike Yunck

MajGen Hal W. Vincent

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

Medal of Honor Recipient


The President of the United States takes pride in presenting the MEDAL OF HONOR to:


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.

McDonnell Douglas RF-4B Phantom II


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.

Tyrone Power

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.[1]

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.[2]  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.

[1] 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.

 [2] 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.

Building a Foundation for the Next 100 Years

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 media@flyingleathernecks.org.

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.

Semper Fi,

Kalen Arreola

Marketing & PR


The Visionaries

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.

Marine Helicopter Squadron 1

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired

Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 (HMX-1) is unique in the Marine Corps because it has several distinct missions and at least three different chains-of-command providing guidance and tasking.

HMX-1 was the first Marine rotary-wing squadron. It “stood up” at Marine Corps Airfield Quantico in Virginia on 1 December 1947 and has been located there ever since. Its activation was the first operational move that started a revolution in Marine aviation and tactical doctrine.

The squadron, initially manned by seven officers and three enlisted men, quickly grew and mustered 18 pilots and 81 enlisted men when the first helicopters, Sikorsky HO3S-1s, arrived. These first primitive machines carried only the pilot and up to three lightly armed troops, but they formed the basis for testing helicopter doctrine described in Marine Corps Schools operational manual Phib-31. Eventually, HMX-1 received a mix of early model helicopters with the addition of Piasecki HRP transports and Bell HTL trainers to test doctrine before the Korean War.

On 8 May 1948, HMX-1 pilots flew from Quantico to Norfolk, Virginia, to board the escort carrier Palau (CVE 122). The fly-on operation was described by HMX-1commanding officer Colonel Edward C. Dyer as a “complete shambles [with] sailors running all over the place in mortal danger of walking into tail rotors, and the Marines were totally disorganized as well. It was complete bedlam, there was no organization and no real system [in place].” By the next day, however, the Navy and Marine Corps were using the same basic ship-board flight operations procedures practiced today—circular lines delineated danger areas as well as personnel staging areas and approach lanes. Five days later, the HO3S-1s delivered 66 men and several tons of equipment to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina’s Onslow Beach during command post exercise Packard II.

The following year a similar exercise employed eight HRPs, three HO3Ss, and a single HTL. During Exercise Packard III, the HRP “Flying Banana” troop transports were carrier borne, the HTL was loaded on an LST for command and control, and the HO3Ss stayed ashore as rescue aircraft. The HRPs brought 230 troops and 14,000 pounds of cargo ashore even though choppy seas swamped several landing craft and seriously disrupted operational maneuvers. Many consider this superb performance to be the key factor in the acceptance of the helicopter as a viable ship-to-shore method, thus paving the way for the integration of rotary-wing aircraft into Marine aviation.

In 1957, HMX-1 acquired an unexpected mission— transporting the President of the United States. Helicopters were only considered for emergency situations until President Dwight D. Eisenhower used an HMX-1 Sikorsky HUS Sea Horse helicopter for transportation from his summer home on Narragansett Bay. After that, Marine helicopters were routinely used to move the President from the White House lawn to Andrews Air Force Base, the home of presidential plane “Air Force One.” That transport mission became a permanent tasking in 1976 and continues to this day.

Currently mustering more than 700 personnel, HMX-1 is the largest Marine Corps helicopter squadron. It is divided into two sections. The “White” side flies two unique helicopters—both specially configured Sikorsky executive transports, the VH-3D Sea King and the VH-60N Seahawk. The “Green” side provides basic helicopter indoctrination training for ground troops, tests new concepts and equipment, and assists the Marine air weapons and tactics squadron. Unlike any other Marine squadron, HMX-1 answers to three distinct chains-of-command: the Marine Corps deputy chief of staff for air at Headquarters Marine Corps; the White House military office; and the operational test and evaluation force commander at Norfolk. Marine Helicopter Squadron 1 was not only the first such Marine unit, it also currently holds a unique place in naval aviation.

Sikorsky HO3S-1

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired


The Sikorsky HO3S-1 was the first helicopter assigned to the U.S. Marine Corps. The HO3S was the naval variant of Sikorky’s model S-51 commercial helicopter. Despite its observation designation, the HO3S was actually a utility aircraft used for a variety of roles. Among the 46 conceptual uses initially listed by Marine Corps Schools were the ones most used in Korea: search and rescue; aerial reconnaissance; medical evacuation; and liaison. The U.S. Air Force flew the  same aircraft as a search and rescue helicopter designated H-5F.

The HO3S was the lineal descendent of earlier Sikorsky designs, the initial HNS trainer and the first designated military observation helicopter (alternately known as the HO2S in naval service and the R-5A to the Army). The HO3S featured a more powerful engine that gave it added lift and an increased payload. During the immediate pre-war period, the HO3S proved to be an outstanding rescue craft that often utilized its winch to pull downed pilots out of the water. Likewise, the HO3S was an excellent observation platform for artillery spotting.

In Korea, its primary uses were as a liaison aircraft and as an aerial ambulance. A first-rate liaison aircraft with good range, the HO3S had a dependable engine, and was rugged enough that it required relatively little maintenance when compared to other rotary-wing aircraft of the day.

Even though the HO3S performed yeoman service at the Pusan Perimeter, it had significant shortfalls as a combat aircraft. The tricycle landing gear and its high center of gravity made the HO3S unstable on all but flat solid terrain; the aircraft could not accommodate interior stretcher loads; its lack of back-lit instrumentation precluded extended night and bad weather operations; and the high engine location made aircraft maintenance difficult. Another major drawback was that it required a great deal of strength and endurance to handle such a heavy aircraft for an extended period without servo-controls. In addition, the single main rotor and long tail assembly combined with a centrally located engine mount often required field expedient ballast adjustments to maintain in-flight stability, so it was not unusual for pilots to keep several sandbags or a sea-bag filled with rocks in the cabin.


Aircraft Data

Manufacturer: Sikorsky Division of United Aircraft


Power Plant: Pratt and Whitney R-985 AN-7 Wasp Jr., 9

cylinder, 450 horsepower, radial engine

Dimensions: Length, 57’ 1/2”; height, 12’ 11”; rotor, 48’

composite construction blade

Performance: Cruising speed, 85 mph; range, 260 miles

Lift: Pilot plus two passengers or about 500 pounds of

cargo (excluding fuel)

Pitcarin OP-1 Autogiro

By Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown

U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, Retired


The first rotary-winged aircraft used by naval aviation was not a helicopter. It was an autogiro, an airplane propelled by a normal front-mounted aircraft engine but kept aloft by rotating overhead wings, a phenomenon known as “autorotation.” Although rather ungainly looking due their stubby upturned wings, large tails, and drooping rotors, autogiros took well to the air. Their ability to “land on a dime” made them favorites at air shows and an aggressive publicity campaign touted them as “flying autos, the transportation of the future.” Autogiros, however, turned out to be neither a military nor a commercial success.

The aircraft itself was an odd compilation of a normal front-mounted aircraft engine used to generate thrust and three overhead free-spinning blades attached to a center-mounted tripod to provide lift. The fuselage included a pair of stubby wings that supported the landing gear and had a semi-standard elongated tail assembly. Typical of the day, it had an open cockpit.

Although a rotary-winged aircraft, the OP-1 was not a helicopter. The engine was used to start the rotors moving but was then disengaged and connected to the propeller to deliver thrust. A speed of about 30 miles per hour was needed to generate lift and maintained for controlled flight. The OP-1 could not hover, it required conventional engine power to take off and move forward in the air; the plane could, however, make a vertical landing. This unique feature made the OP-1 attractive to the military.

The specific autogiro model first tested by the Marine Corps was the OP-1 built by Harold F. Pitcarin, who would later found Eastern Airways. His company was a licensed subsidiary of a Spanish firm. All American autogiros were based upon designs formulated by Spanish nobleman Juan de la Cierva. His first successful flight was made near Madrid in 1923. More than 500 autogiros flew worldwide during the next decade. Although his airplanes never lived up to his high expectations, de la Cierva did develop rotor technology and recorded aerodynamic data later applied by helicopter designers Igor Sikorsky and Frank Piasecki.

The Navy purchased three Pitcarin autogiros for extensive field-testing and evaluation in 1931. The only carrier tests were conducted on 23 September of that year, but the OP-1’s performance was virtually identical to that of carrier-borne biplanes then in use. The Marines took one OP-1 to Nicaragua to test it under combat conditions. Again, its performance was disappointing. The pilots of VJ-6M noted it lacked both payload and range. The only practical use they found was evaluation of potential landing areas. This was not enough reason to incorporate the OP-1 into the Marine inventory. Overall, the OP-1 was described as “an exasperating contraption,” not fit for military use. Further trials of a wingless autogiro in 1935 revealed no improvement, so director of aviation Major Roy S. Geiger recommended against adoption of that aircraft type.

In the barnstorming days between the World Wars, autogiros proved to be the ultimate novelty attraction. Aviator Charles A. Lindbergh often put on demonstrations, aviatrix Amelia Earhart set an altitude record in one, and Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams flew in an autogiro to join President Herbert C. Hoover at an isolated fishing camp in Virginia. The Royal Air Force actually used autogiros for convoy escort and observation during World War II, and the Soviet Union developed its own autogiro.

Although the OP-1 never became a mainstream Marine aircraft and was not a true helicopter, some aviation enthusiasts assert that the technology and data developed by de la Cierva was crucial for rotary-winged flight. They, therefore, make the case that the OP-1 should be considered the progenitor of today’s helicopters.