Marine fixed-wing and rotary aircraft as well as with supporting artillery
Helicopter flights to the hills were at least as dangerous as the C-130 runs to the combat base. The helicopters were exposed to small arms fire from hundreds of North Vietnamese positions in proximity to the Marines' lines as well as to mortar fire while in the landing zone or hovering above it. The enemy quickly learned that the Marines ignited smoke grenades to mark their landing zones when helicopters were inbound. As a result, mortar fire almost always greeted the resupply aircraft and harassed the Marines detailed to recover the supplies from the landing zone. Weather also was a factor. Using visual approach and landing techniques, helicopters were subject to the vagaries of the fog and of low-lying clouds which sometimes dipped down to enshroud the peaks of the higher hills, even when the combat base remained clear.**
The Marines on the outposts attempted to alleviate somewhat the problems for the aviators of resupplying the hills. On Hill 881 South, Captain William H. Dabney always tried to obtain needed fire support from external sources, rather than from the mortars and howitzers on his own hill. In this manner, he conserved his ammunition, thereby reducing the number of resupply helicopters. To confuse NVA mortar crews, Dabney would set off numerous smoke grenades of different colors when expecting helicopters, then he would tell the pilot by radio which color smoke marked the correct landing zone.62
The Marine helicopters brought supplies to the hill positions directly from Dong Ha, rather than from the combat base at Khe Sanh, itself. This reduced the number of times cargo handlers had to package and stage the supplies, as well as the amount of time the aircraft had to remain airborne in the hazardous environment around Khe Sanh. This system was not without problems of its own. One battalion commander complained that priority requests required up to five days for delivery, while routine resupply took 10 days. Further, carefully assembled loads, packaged to fulfill specific requests, sometimes arrived at the wrong position.63
By mid-February, with the enemy shooting down on a single day three
helicopters attempting to reach the Khe Sanh hill outposts, Marine commanders
realized that they had to take steps to remedy the situation. According
to Major General Norman Anderson, Lieutenant Colonel William J. White,
the commander of VMO-6, came to him and stated that the wing needed
to work up a plan to keep the outposts resupplied. Anderson agreed and
had White sit down with his operations staff to iron out the details.
On 23 February, with the assistance of the assistant wing commander,
Brigadier General Robert P. Keller, the small planning group, within
a day drew up an operational resupply concept, later dubbed the "Super
The idea was to establish a small task force consisting of 8 to 16
resupply CH-46 helicopters, about a dozen A-4 Skyhawks and four Huey
gunships to fly cover, a Marine KC-130 to refuel the aircraft, and a
TA-4F with a TAC (A) in the backseat to orchestrate the entire affair.
The Khe Sanh DASC and FSCC insured the coordination of the air and ground
* Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Shauer, who as a major commanded HMM-362,
a UH-34 squadron assigned to MAG-36, recalled that he kept several helicopters
at Khe Sanh for three- or four-day periods during January and February,
and would relieve them with replacement crews and aircraft: "During
the siege there was of course no air-crafr maintenance support, only
fuel. The . . . [aircraft] were parked in Khe Sanh's revetments, and
the crews bunkered underground in the 26th Marines CP. We primarily
engaged in emergency medevac, and emergency resupply of ammo and water,
to the various adjacent Marine hilltop positions." LtCol Walter H. Shauer,
Commenrs on draft, dtd 1Nov94 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Shauer
** Lieurenant General Carey, then serving on the 1st MAW G-3 staff,
observed that helicopters were nor always able to use a "visual approach."
According to Carey, the "skies were overcast more often than not." The
helicopters flew on instrumenrs to Khe Sanh and then "let down through
the overcast under conrrol of a TPQ or on a self-devised instrument
approach on rhe Khe Sanh beacon. Once underneath they would pick up
their fixed-wing escort. This operation required a great deal of coordinarion,
generally conducted by an airborne TAC(A) in a TA4." Carey Comments.
*** Gen Cushman, the III MAF commander, claimed to have conceived
the idea for the "Super Gaggle." LtGen Robert E. Cushman, Comments on
"The Battle for Khe Sanh," dtd 23Mar69 (Vietnam Comment File). MajGen
Keith B. McCutcheon, however, credited Colonel Joel E. Bonner, Lieutenant
Colonel William J. White, and LtCol Richard E. Carey, with the further
commenr rhat Carey named rhe procedure. MajGen Keith B. McCurcheon,
Comments on "The Battle for Khe Sanh," n.d. (Vietnam Comment File).
This latter version appears to be in conformity with MajGen Anderson's
recollections. MajGen Norman Anderson intvw, 3d Session, 17Mar81, pp.
225-6. Lieutenanr General William J. White noted in his comments that
the MAG-36 group commander, Colonel Frank E. Wilson, was the one who
decided that White should see the wing commander and accompanied him
ro the meeting with General Anderson. LtGen William J, White, Comments
on draft, dtd 1Oct94 (Vietnam Comment File). In his comments, General
Carey wrore; "it became apparenr that we had to do something fast. In
discussion with Col Bonner and Gen Keller, Bill Whire and I suggested
that we could come up with an answer. I was the considered authority
on the fixed-wing participation and Bill provided the helicopter expertise.
When all the details were sorted out I suggested the name super gaggle
as that is a favorite fighter pilot term meaning, 'perceived confusion
of the first order.'" Carey Comments.