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Page 516 (A Question of Helicopters )


A Question of Helicopters

Another Debate-The Need/or
Lighter Aircraft-To Keep the Mediums and Heavies Flying-Another Look
at Helicopter Air-Ground Relations

Another Debate

As the debate with the Air Force and

MACV continued through the second half of 1968 over the control of Marine

fixed-wing aircraft, a second controversy festered in Marine Corps circles. This

question involved the employment and control of another indispensable, but

relatively short-supply Marine aircraft resource, helicopters. While ComUSMACV

and the Army were on the fringes to the dispute, the principals were III MAF

ground and aviation commanders. Ironically, the 1st MAW, which argued so

vehemently against central control from Saigon of its fixed-wing assets,

insisted on 'single management' of its rotary aircraft.

Again it was the arrival of the Army

divisions, especially the 1st Air Cavalry Division, into northern I Corps in

early 1968 that provided the impetus to this discussion. Major General Raymond

G. Davis, as Provisional Corps deputy commander in March and April 1968, was

tremendously impressed with the Cavalry's mobile helicopter-borne tactics in the

relief of Khe Sanh, Operation Pegasus, and later in the A Shau Valley in

Operation Delaware. When he took over the 3d Marine Division in mid-May, while

not abandoning the strongpoints along the DMZ, Davis wanted to break free of

them and strike at the battered North Vietnamese units in a series of

freewheeling operations throughout the division sector. From the aviation

perspective this created an insatiable demand on the wing's already overburdened

and limited number of helicopters and crewmen. According to Major General Norman

J. Anderson, the former wing commander, he just did not see how his successor,

Major General Charles J. Quilter, could meet the desires of General Davis and at

the same time 'still take care of the 1st Division and provide logistic support


The Army and Marine Corps organization

of their helicopters differed markedly. In one sense, the Marine Corps viewed

the rotary aircraft as a boat and a means to land troops from ship to shore to

exploit the situation beyond the beach in an amphibious landing.** On the other

hand, the Army looked at the helicopter as a horse, as cavalry, and a means

ofoutmaneuvering and outflanking an enemy. Because of the limitations of room on

board ship, the Marine Corps depended on fewer, but larger helicopters, the

UH-34 or CH-46, to carry the assault force ashore. With less concern about space

restrictions and more about maneuverability, the Army relied on an assortment of

helicopters, mostly smaller and more maneuverable than the Marine aircraft, to

carry the assault forces into the rugged forested hinterlands. With the

establishment of small artillery fire bases on key hills, the 1st Air Cavalry

could launch fast-paced, leap-frog airmobile operations far from its base areas

irrespective of terrain.2

Marine aviation officers were quick to

respond that there should be no comparison between Marine and Army helicopter

support, especially that available to the 1st Air Cavalry Division. In contrast

to the 1st Air Cavalry which had more than 400 helicopters under its control,

the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing owned slightly more than 300 to support two and a

third Marine divisions, ARVN units, and the Korean Marines in I Corps. Major

General Norman Anderson, the wing commander, observed that the wing had

inadequate numbers of helicopters because 'the demand was limitless and was

stimulated by the example of the

* See the discussion of the 3d Marine Division offensive
operations during this period in Chapters 15, 16, 18, 20 and 22.

** One should not carry the analogy of the boat too
far. As Major General John P. Condon, a veteran Marine aviator and commander
of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing in the early 1960s commented, 'The boat
could never envelop any unit in position on land. The Marine Corps pioneered
vertical envelopment, beginning 'from the sea,' but never stopping just
beyond the beach. The use of the helo in maneuver and envelopment, as
well as in movements of heavy equipment and logistic support of follow-on
actions was also visualized from the start.' MajGen John P. Condon,
Comments on draft, dtd 30Jan1993 (Vietnam Comment File), hereafter Condon


Page 516 (A Question of Helicopters )