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initiated a "People-to-People-Program," the objective of which was to assist the Government of Vietnam in winning the allegiance of the Vietnamese people. Within a few days after occupying the Soc Trang airfield, Colonel Carey had ordered the task unit's medical facilities made available to Vietnamese civilians requiring emergency medical treatment. U:S. Navy doctors and corpsmen began visiting nearby villages to hold "sick call" for the local inhabitants. On an average visit these medical teams would examine around 60 Vietnamese of all ages. They would then dispense soap, vitamins, and aspirin-commodities which some rural Vietnamese had never seen. Gradually, the me'dical teams expanded their operations until by mid-June they were being flown by helicopter as far away as Ca Mau.

HMM-362's departure from Vietnam coincided roughly with the departure of most of the Marine task unit's senior officers-the men who had directed the efforts to win the "other war" for the allegiance of the Vietnamese people. On 30 July, Colonel Julius W. Ireland, another Marine aviator who had seen combat in two previous wars, relieved Colonel Carey as the task unit commander. The new commander was one of few Marines who had been in Vietnam previously. In April 1954 he had landed at Da Nang (then known by its French name, Tourane) as squadron commander of Marine Attack Squadron 324 (VMA-324) and delivered 25 F4U/FG Corsair fighter bombers to the French who were in desperate need of attack aircraft to support Dien Bien Phu. Five days after Ireland assumed command of Task Unit 79.3.5, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph R. Davis replaced Lieutenant Colonel Eldridge as commanding officer of the MABS-16 sub unit. On 13 August another change occurred when the executive officer of the Marine task unit, Lieutenant Colonel Harry C. Dees, was relieved by Lieutenant Colonel Alton W. McCully. Except that it left few original members of the task unit, the departure of these Marines for new duty stations in Okinawa, Japan, and the United States did not affect the operations at Soc Trang. Thoroughly briefed on their responsibilities, the new officers would continue to direct Marine support of the Vietnamese government on both the battlefield and the psychological front. HMM-163 participated in its first combat mission as a squadron on 1 August when it joined the Army's 57th Helicopter Company in a coordinated troop lift. Like their predecessors, "Rathbun's Ridge Runners" maintained a brisk pace of operations during the weeks following their initial assignment. Shortly after its first troop lift, the squadron participated in a 2,000-man South Vietnamese spoiling operation in An Xuyen, South Vietnam's southernmost province. Anticipating a major Viet Cong offensive in the four southern provinces, III Corps authorities moved their headquarters to Soc Trang and established a forward command post at Ca Mau. The Vietnamese Air Force then positioned a composite detachment of four AD-6 Skyraiders (single-engine, propeller-driven attack bombers built by Douglas), two T-28s, and a number of H-34 helicopters (the U.S. Army, Air Force, and VNAF version of the HUS) at Soc Trang to support the operation. Joined by the VNAF H-34s, the Marine squadron conducted numerous troop lifts during the week-long operation. At the end of the action the ARVN reported 84 Viet Cong killed, another 30 captured, and the confiscation of nearly 15,000 pounds of arms, ammunition, and explosives. The first Marine helicopter loss in Vietnam occurred during the operation when a VNAF fighter careened off the runway and damaged a parked HUS to the extent that it could not be repaired. Marine mechanics stripped undamaged parts from the helicopter for use as replacements.*

HMM-163 suffered its first aircraft damage as a result of combat a few day's later on 18 August during a mission led by Lieutenant Colonel Rathbun. Fourteen HUSs arrived at a prearranged pick-up point to rendezvous with an ARVN infantry force but the Marine pilots discovered that the unit had not appeared. One crewman then reported having seen some ARVN troops about a half mile away from the landing zone. At this juncture, a white smoke signal appeared at approximately the same location that the Marine had observed the South Vietnamese troops. Lieutenant Colonel Rathbun and his wingmate, assuming that the smoke marked the actual pick-up point, took off to investigate the area. While making a low pass over

*Marine helicopters lost in Vietnam during the 1962-1964 period were replaced by new ones airlifted from Okinawa by U.S. Air Force C-124 Globemaster transports. By replacing aircraft losses on a one-to-one basis the task unit was able to maintain a level of 24 helicopters except for brief periods.

 

Page 71 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)