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  Page 73 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)    

took place later in the day when Rathbun learned that he had been selected for promotion to colonel. The timing of the notification prompted one squadron wit to quip: "Lost a bird, gained a bird." 21

"Rathbun's Ridge Runners" continued intensive support operations in III Corps Tactical Zone throughout the month of August. Their daily missions normally included both scheduled troop lifts and unscheduled medical evacuations. During the week of 19-25 August HMM-163 helicopters logged slightly over 800 combat flying hours. A squadron record for a single day was established on 24 August when 197.6 helicopter hours were flown. Flight time for the helicopters during the entire month totalled 2,543 hours-a new Marine Corps record for an HUS squadron. The OE-1 aircraft added 63 missions and 212 hours to this total. Another statistic revealed that 21 of the squadron's pilots logged over 100 hours of combat flying time during August.22 This record was even more impressive considering that flight operations were hampered by the monsoon season which reached its peak during August in the Mekong Delta.

In August Lieutenant Colonel Rathbun's men made a significant modification to their helicopters when they began mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. So as not to obstruct the hatch during loading and unloading phases, the squadron's metalsmiths designed a flexible mount which allowed the crew chiefs to swing the belt-fed, 7.62mm automatic weapon back into the cabin when necessary. The addition of the machine gun enabled the crew chief to protect the otherwise defenseless helicopter during critical landing and take off phases. Still, the Marine gunners were restricted in their action by MACV's "rules of engagement" which at this time stipulated that American servicemen could fire only after being fired upon and then only at clearly identified enemy. Intended to prevent offensive combat action by U.S. military personnel operating in Vietnam, these regulations prevented Americans from returning fire except when the enemy was clearly identified.* Primarily because of these restrictions the Marines seldom employed their M-60s in the heavily populated Mekong Delta.

*The rules of engagement applied to U.S. advisors as well as aviation crews. Although they underwent several modifications during the course of the war, the above definition was virtually unaltered during the period between 1962 and 1964.

 

Preparations and Redeployment

In early September General Harkins directed that Colonel Ireland begin planning for the redeployment of his helicopter task unit northward to Da Nang. The shift to I Corps, which had been the subject of much debate prior to SHUFLY's assignment at Soc Trang, came as no surprise. Shortly after the task unit's arrival in the Mekong Delta, Colonel Carey accompanied General Condon on a visit to the Army's 93d Helicopter Company at Da Nang. There they discussed details of the relocation with Army officers. In early July General Harkins set 1 August as the date on which the Marine task unit and the 93d Helicopter Company would switch locations. But personal appeals by General Nghiem, the III Corps commander and his senior U.S. advisor. Colonel Porter, that the Marine helicopters be retained at Soc Trang caused Harkins to postpone the date for the exchange until 15 September.

In that the airlift was executed in phases, the Marines' movement to Da Nang was accomplished in much the same manner as had been the task unit's initial move into Soc Trang. On 4 September Colonel Ireland dispatched the task unit's assistant communications officer and an advance party to Da Nang to assess the communications requirements there and to prepare for the arrival of the remainder of the Marines and their equipment. Four days later Marine wircmen, message center personnel, and radio operators began preparing a communications center at their new home. The next day the advance party established radio contact with SHUFLY headquarters in order to help coordinate the move. By 9 September MABS-16 technicians had assembled a TAFDS at the Da Nang airfield. This facility would enable the GV-1 transports participating in the airlift to refuel for the 460-mile return flight to Soc Trang after unloading their cargoes at Da Nang.

While the advance party readied the facilities at Da Nang for its unit's arrival, combat support operations and preparations for the move northward continued simultaneously at Soc Trang. During an operation on 5 September, three of HMM-163's helicopters were hit by several rounds of enemy small arms fire. Although all three aircraft returned safely to base, the Marines suffered their first casualty to Vict Cong fire when Corporal

 

 

Page 73 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)