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  Page 69 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)    

larger ARVN units by fleeing the operations area in small groups. Even the smallest breach between ARVN units seemed to allow large numbers of guerrillas to escape into covered or heavily populated areas where they became impossible to find. Colonel Carey and Lieutenant Colonel Clapp devised a plan to prevent escapes of this nature. Their idea was to have a flight of four Marine helicopters loaded with about 50 ARVN soldiers circle above the contested area. This so-called "Eagle Flight" would be on the alert for any Viet Cong attempting to evade the ground forces. Once the enemy was located, often by the OE-1 observation aircraft, the helicopters would land the Vietnamese soldiers at a position where they could block his escape. The Marine commanders felt that the adoption of such a tactic would increase the effectiveness of the ARVN's helicopter assault operations.

After several weeks of planning by HMM-362 and the affected III Corps commands, the concept was put into practice. The Eagle Flight was first tested in a large operation on 18 June when HMM-362 helilifted ARVN troops into 16 different landing zones. Heavy monsoon rains made the enemy particularly difficult to pin down, but the Marine pilots managed to sight 10 Viet Cong near the main landing zone. After landing near the enemy, the ARVN troops captured 10 Communist soldiers and wounded one other. Shortly after this incident another Eagle Flight made two eventful contacts with the enemy. The Marine helicopters landed their small force and the ARVN promptly killed four Viet Cong and captured another. Twenty minutes later, after reboarding the helicopters, the South Vietnamese swept down upon a new prey, this time capturing four prisoners.

The novel concept was employed successfully again on 10 July. While HMM-362 aircraft lifted 968 ARVN troops into the Ca Mau area, an Eagle Flight spotted a sampan moving northward from the operations area. The flight leader landed the troops nearby and the ARVN intercepted the craft. Later that day the Marines and ARVN of the Eagle Flight clashed twice with an estimated platoon of Viet Cong. In the first encounter seven enemy were killed and several weapons were captured. In the second skirmish, the enemy suffered six dead and lost more weapons. All four Marine helicopters, however, were hit by small arms fire during the two brief fights.

By the middle of July, the Eagle Flight had become a proven combat tactic. By reducing the enemy's opportunity to escape when the government forces possessed the advantage on the battlefield, it had favorably influenced the tactical situation when used in the Mekong Delta. Equally important, SHUFLY's commanders had demonstrated their ability to adapt their technological resources to the Viet Cong's methods of operations. Variants of the Eagle Flight tactic, under different names such as Tiger Flight, Sparrow Hawk, Pacifier, and Quick Reaction Force, would be used by the Marines throughout the Vietnam war.

The Marines were quick to apply their technological knowhow to other problems which were to confront them during their early operations in the III Corps Tactical Zone. One example was their adaptation of the TAFDS to the problem which arose when the helicopters where called upon to operate far beyond their normal fuel range. HMM-362 helicopters would airlift a TAFDS unit, complete with a 10,000 gallon fuel bladder, pumps, and MABS-16 personnel, to the site where the ARVN troops were to be loaded. The fuel bladders were filled by gasoline trucks which travelled from the nearest source of fuel. The Marine helicopters could then use the TAFDS as a temporary base of operations, refueling between troop pick-ups when necessary. Thus employed, the TAFDS allowed the operating radius of the helicopters to be extended to support even the most distant South Vietnamese operation.

While the Marines were learning to adapt their technology to the guerrilla war environment, the enemy was applying his ingenuity in attempts to frustrate the American and South Vietnamese helicopter operations. The Viet Cong quickly learned to capitalize on the presence of large crowds of civilians who sometimes gathered near helicopter landing zones to watch the strange aircraft. One such incident occurred in June when Communist soldiers mingled with a crowd and delivered fire on helicopters which were lifting elements of the 21st ARVN Division. Two aircraft were hit by enemy fire although the damage was not extensive enough to force them to land. The Marines, who refused to return fire with their individual weapons unless the Viet Cong could be

 

 

Page 69 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)