This comparatively rosy situation proved short-lived, and by autumn the Marine Corps suffered a severe shortage of naval aviators, particularly helicopter pilots. To alleviate this shortage, the Marine Corps resorted to a number of expedient personnel actions, including again involuntarily retaining aviation officers, using ground officers to fill aviation billets, and sharply reducing the number of naval aviators attending professional schools.*
Despite the Marine Corps' efforts, the pilot shortage of 1966 persisted into 1968, making it impossible to man squadrons in Vietnam at their wartime strength;
the Marine Corps could barely maintain the normal peacetime manning level.71" Helicopter pilots still constituted the most critical shortage. In addition to fighting a war at peacetime strength, the pilots of the 1st MAW found themselves tasked to support Army and allied units in I Corps. By January 1968, despite the fact that the Commandant was under the impression that the III MAF "had everything it rated," the 1st MAW found itself forced to standdown pilots, particularly helicopter pilots, to let them get some rest.7?
June of 1968 found the Marine Corps still short roughly 850 naval aviators, a shortage that spilled over to Vietnam.'^ In July 1968, the 1st MAW calculated that it needed 703 helicopter pilots to meet its requirements. The manning level authorized 644 pilots; 606 were actually on board. Of these, only 552 were available for flight duty. In December 1968, the number of pilots in the 1st MAW finally reached the manning level, but only after the manning level was reduced to 581 pilots. The number of helicopter pilots in the 1st MAW available for flight duty remained at less than 80 percent of requirements into 1969.74
The Naval Air Training Command, located at Pensacola, Florida, could not train enough Marine helicopter pilots to bring the units in Vietnam up to strength. In June of 1967, Marine officers destined to become fixed-wing pilots began reporting to Air Force bases for flight training. This freed Marine quotas at Pensacola which could be used to train helicopter pilots.75 The first 15 pilots graduated from this program in June 1968.
A similar program with the U.S. Army attacked the shortage of helicopter pilots directly. In January 1968, the first Marines arrived at Fort Rucker, Alabama, for rotary wing pilot training, with the first pilots graduating in October. Marine officers trained by the Army and the Air Force then reported to Marine training groups for further instruction, including shipboard landings, before qualifying as naval aviators.76 By June of 1969, 155 Marine officers had completed Air Force flight training and 150 had completed Army flight training.77*" Even with these programs, in early 1969 the Marine Corps had to order a number of fixed-wing pilots to transition to helicopters to fill the cockpits in Vietnam.78
In addition to the pilots, the Marine Corps had difficulty finding enough enlisted Marines to maintain and repair the aircraft in Vietnam. It took a long time to train a Marine in the skills needed to maintain aircraft, so the Marine Corps only assigned men on four-year enlistments to these specialties. This policy created a shortage of aviation maintenance Marines in the Western Pacific and an overage in the United States.
As with most other occupational fields, the Marine Corps needed to train large numbers of first-term Marines in aviation specialties to maintain the flow of replacements to Southeast Asia. Most of these men spent a year in training, and then a year in the Western Pacific. Unlike most other specialties, however, upon returning from overseas aviation Marines still had two years left on their enlistments. These Vietnam returnees created overages in the United States and counted against total strength, reducing the number of new recruits that could be enlisted and sent overseas.7?
Despite this problem, the Marine Corps managed to exceed the enlisted manning level for aviation units in Vietnam, although it still fell short of the adjusted table of organization (T/O). Unfortunately, aviation units had to detail many of their highly trained spe-
*For a discussion of the origins of the pilot shortage and the steps taken to correct this problem, see Shulimson, U.S. Marines in Vietnam 1966, p.262.
**Tables of Organization (T/O) laid out the exact composition of every unit, showing every billet, and the rank and military occupational specialty for that billet. Ideally, in combat, every unit should have been up to T/O strength. Since this was not possible, the Manpower Division of Headquarters, Marine Corps set "manning levels" for units based on unit type and location. A unit with a manning level of 94 percent would only receive enough replacements to keep it at 94 percent of its T/O strength. Manning levels were adjusted based on a unit's mission, the availability of Marines with the appropriate skills, and a unit's location. Units in Vietnam generally had a higher manning level than other units.
Although Headquarters, Marine Corps tried to send enough replacements to each major unit to keep its subordinates up to their manning level, the final distribution of replacements rested with the field commanders. For further explanation. See Appendix.
***For a complete discussion of helicopter pilot availability and training during the Vietnam war, see Fails, Marines and Helicopters 1962-1973, Chapters 4, 11, and 12.