Page 485

Page 485 (1968: The Defining Year)

the first "Super Gaggle" mission flown on 24 February, under cover
of suppressive fixed-wing and artillery support, each of eight CH-46s
successfully dropped off a 3,000-pound external load "covering less
than five minutes when they could have been taken under fire." One helicopter
took a hit, but landed safely at the Khe Sanh airstrip. All the rest
of the aircraft returned to base safely. General Anderson, the 1st Wing
commander, exulted "today, was a small victory." He then wrote, "the
only way to beat the enemy is to bludgeon the hell out of him. . . .
These coordinated resupply missions under marginal weather conditions
undoubtedly will be required again and again in the next few weeks."65*

In a typical "Super Gaggle" mission, a TA-4 would fly to Khe Sanh on weather reconnaissance. When the TA-4 reported favorable conditions, the A-4s launched from Chu Lai, enroute to Khe Sanh, and the helicopters took off from Quang Tri, enroute to Dong Ha where prestaged supplies waited. After picking up their loads and carrying them externally underneath in especially designed cargo slings, the helicopters began the short trip to Khe Sanh flying on instruments and then letting down through a hole in the cloud cover. Just before they arrived, four A-4s struck enemy positions with napalm and two others saturated antiaircraft positions with CS gas carried in spray tanks. About 30 seconds prior to the helicopters' final approach to the designated hills, two A-4s laid a smoke screen on both sides of the planned flight path. As the helicopters flew in behind the smoke, four more Skyhawks carrying bombs, rockets, and 20mm cannons suppressed known and suspected North Vietnamese gun positions. The Hueys followed closely to pick up any downed crews, and a Lockheed KC-130 Hercules orbited high overhead to refuel any A-4s in need. At times, the entire "gaggle" operated in the hills where some peaks reached 3,000 feet with less than 1,500 feet ceilings and occasionally the helicopters took off and landed at Dong Ha with less than 400 feet clearances.66

Using the "Super Gaggle" technique, groups of helicopters could resupply
the hills four times per day with little danger of losses. Indeed, only
two CH-46s fell to enemy fire during "Super Gaggle" missions, and in
both cases, the Hueys picked up the crews immediately. During the month
of March, the helicopters in "Super Gaggles" delivered about 80,000
pounds of cargo per day to the hill outposts. Brigadier General Henry
W. Hise,** one of two assistant wing commanders, observed, however,
that without the fixed-wing support, "the 46s could no longer have supplied
the hills." He noted that the Super Gaggle reduced the "hit rate" among
the helicopters from 10 per 1,000 sorties to 5 per 1,000 sorties. According
to Captain Dabney on Hill 881 South, with the suppression of the North
Vietnamese antiaircraft batteries by the fixed-wing aircraft, "you could
get in 10 helicopter loads on the hill in one minute and get the birds
the Hell out of there and into smoke where the NVA couldn't see to shoot."
With obvious Service pride, Dabney later praised the Super Gaggle: "It
was a massive, complex, well rehearsed, gutsy and magnificent performance
and only the Marines could have pulled it off."67***

On 31 March, with the coming of better weather and the beginning of the pullback of enemy forces from Khe Sanh, the allied command ended Operation Niagara. For the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing it had been an immense effort. In addition to the nearly 7,100 sorties contributed by Marine tactical air to Niagara, Marine helicopters flew over 9,000. Including the Super Gaggle flights, the Marine rotary aircraft carried more than 10,600 passengers and brought in over 3,300 tons of supplies to the Khe Sanh defenders. While the helicopters mostly delivered their cargo to the hill outposts, they also played a part in the resupply of the main base, especially after the enemy gunners curtailed the landings of the large transports. In support of the Niagara operations, 23 Marine fixed-wing aircraft and 123 helicopters sustained some combat damage.68

Little question remained that without air support, the entire defense of Khe Sanh would have been untenable. All the U.S. major aviation commands, including the Strategic Air Command, the Seventh Air Force, the

* General Carey observed that the coordination of the Super Gaggle
originated at the TADC. The procedure required A4s from Chu Lai and
"helos from Dong Ha/Quang Tri to take off at appropriate intervals so
as to arrive at Khe Sanh at the same time. When the delivery was successfully
completed and aircraft safely egressed [the area] the cycle [was] restarted
for subsequent delivery." He observed that Marine ground crews were
the unsung heroes: "Helos and strike fixed-wing aircraft were often
reloaded in as little as 30 minutes time and sent again on their way
to support their fellow Marines at Khe Sanh." Carey Comments.

** Because of the extended operations in the north, the 1st MAW in
January 1968 like the two Marine divisions was authorized two assistant

*** Lieutenant Colonel Walter H. Shauer, the commander of HMM-362,
expressed a minority view about the effectiveness of the Super Gaggle.
He wrote the "'Gaggle' turned out to be what its name connotates. Uncoordinated
event waiting to crash." He believed that the reduction of the hit rate
occurred because the NVA had begun to withdraw and just "weren't there."
Shauer Comments.

Page 485 (1968: The Defining Year)