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  Page 113 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)    

 

before becoming a pilot, assumed command of Marine Task Element 79.3.3.6. In summary, the improvements made in the task element's compound during the course of 1963 helped insure the successful support of sustained combat helicopter operations. Although overshadowed by the publicity which the actual flight operations attracted, the continued improvement of the Da Nang base was vital to the overall effectiveness of the Marine combat support effort.

Combat Support Operations

Marine helicopter support for government forces in I Corps encountered a brief interruption shortly after the new year began when HMM-163 was replaced by a fresh UH-34D squadron. Marine KC-130s shuttled between Okinawa and Da Nang for several days during the second week of January bringing the officers and men of HMM-162 to Vietnam and returning with members of HMM-163. The change-over of units was completed on 11 January when Lieutenant Colonel Rathbun officially transferred his squadron's aircraft and maintenance equipment to the newly-arrived unit. In the five months and ten days since they initiated operations at Soc Trang, 'Rathbun's Ridge Runners' had amassed an enviable combat record. The squadron's crews had flown a total of 10,869 hours, 15,200 sorties, and had lifted over 25,216 combat assault troops and 59,024 other passengers. In one month alone (August) they .had established a Marine Corps record for medium helicopter squadrons by flying 2,543 helicopter hours. These records had not been set without risks, however. During the course of their operations in the Mekong Delta and in I Corps, helicopters operated by HMM-163's crews had been hit on 32 occasions by Communist small arms fire.2 Moreover, the squadron had become the first Marine unit to suffer combat casualties in the Vietnam conflict.

HMM-162, led by Lieutenant Colonel Rein-hardt Leu, the veteran Marine aviator who had commanded the squadron during the recent deployment to Thailand as part of the 3d MEU, began full-fledged combat support operations the same day that the last of Rathbun's squadron departed Da Nang. HMM-162's crews, many of whom had participated in similar operations around Udorn

the previous summer, limited their early flights to routine resupply missions and a few medical evacuations. Such missions enabled the squadron's personnel to become better acquainted with the terrain over which they would operate during the next six months.

The new squadron participated in its first major combat troop lift on January 19, when a break in the monsoon allowed the 2d ARVN Division to execute a heliborne operation into the mountains about 15 miles west of Da Nang. Eighteen Marine UH-34Ds lifted 300 ARVN troops into three separate landing zones near a suspected Communist base area. The squadron's pilots and crews encountered their first Vict Cong opposition during this troop lift. Upright bamboo stakes obstructed one of the landing zones while at another the enemy fired at the Marine aircraft with small arms. Although two UH-34Ds were hit, none were shot down and the mission was completed successfully.

A month later, on 18 February, the Marine pilots experienced another of the hazards associated with flight operations in Vietnam while attempting to land troops from the 1st ARVN Division in a clearing about 18 miles southwest of Hue. Five helicopters sustained punctures in the bottoms of their fuselages when they accidentally landed on tree stumps concealed by high grass in the landing zone. One stump caused extensive damage to an aircraft when it ripped into its forward fuel cell. The crew was forced to leave the UH-34D in the field under ARVN protection overnight. The next morning Marine mechanics were flown in from Da Nang to repair the helicopter.

Despite several troop lifts involving a dozen or more aircraft, heliborne assault missions did not dominate HMM-162's operations during the unit's first three months in South Vietnam. Poor weather conditions over the northern provinces continued to restrict flight operations generally to resupply and medical evacuation missions. Statistics for the first quarter of 1963, for example, indicated that Marine helicopters conducted 6,537 logistics sorties as opposed to 1,181 tactical support sorties.

The single most significant incident during HMM-162's initial three months in Vietnam took place in the second week of March when the squadron suffered its first aircraft losses and casu-

Page 113 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)