Page 082

  Page 82 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)    

Air Force, and U.S. Marine officers, the ASOC processed mission requests from the various field commands, passing them on to the Joint Operations Center at JGS headquarters for final approval. Once approved, the ASOC assigned specific missions to the American and Vietnamese units which supported I CTZ. This arrangement enabled the corps headquarters to plan and coordinate all combat support missions flown within the five northern provinces.

The Vietnamese commanders in I Corps, who had learned to value helicopter support as a result of the Army aviation company's eight-month presence at Da Nang, lost no time in employing the newly arrived Marine squadron. HMM-163 flew its first combat operation from Da Nang on 18 September, the day after the last flight of helicopters arrived from Soc Trang. Fourteen HUSs lifted troops of the 2d ARVN Division into two landing zones in the rugged hills about 35 miles south of Da Nang and 25 miles inland from the coast. The scarcity of suitable landing zones in the steep hill country and the fact that the enemy could deliver fire on those that did exist from nearby high ground and the surrounding jungle prompted the Marine pilots to adjust their tactics in preparation for this mission. After VNAF fighters bombed and strafed the objective area, the helicopters made an unopposed landing.

The tactic of preparing helicopter landing zones with air strikes was continued and refined in the ensuing weeks. The Marines began using artillery fire in conjunction with air strikes to neutralize enemy troops in the vicinity of the objective. The OE-1 was well suited for assisting in the employment of the artillery fire support. Having familiarized themselves with the landing site during a prior reconnaissance mission, the pilot and observer of the OE-1 would arrive over the designated area prior to the operation and adjust artillery fire until the helicopters appeared. During the landing the crew of the observation aircraft often coordinated between the helicopters and the escorting aircraft and were available to assist the ground units with artillery fire missions.

The task unit's staff borrowed another idea from their experience in the Mekong Delta which allowed HMM-163 to provide more efficient helicopter support in the northern provinces. In this case the concept of temporarily positioning the TAFDS to support specific operations was refined somewhat by placing the portable refueling bladders at secure, permanent locations throughout I Corps. Several days after arriving in I Corps, the Marines emplaced a 10,000-gallon section of the TAFDS at Quang Ngai, about 65 miles south of Da Nang, to serve as a permanent refueling point for aircraft operating in southern I Corps. Within the month, another fuel bladder was positioned at Hue and a third was emplaced at Tarn Ky, the capital of Quang Tin Province, which was situated on Route 1 about half way between Da Nang and Quang Ngai. These well-chosen refueling points greatly enhanced the squadron's operational potential. Used to support daily operations, they enabled the helicopters to operate deep into the adjacent mountain areas on resupply and medical evacuation missions.

On 19 September, the day after their initial combat support assignment in I Corps, the Marine helicopter crews were called upon to conduct an operation which they would repeat often in the coming months. They were ordered to evacuate a threatened government outpost from the mountains 18 miles west of Da Nang. That day the HMM-163 pilots lifted an odd cargo of troops, dependents, personal belongings and an assortment of pigs, cows, chickens, and ducks to a secure area on the coastal plain.

Unfortunately, helicopter evacuations of encircled or endangered South Vietnamese outposts would become almost routine for Marine helicopter squadrons assigned to Vietnam during the period between 1962 and 1965. As the North Vietnamese stepped up their support for the Viet Cong, the isolated government outposts along the infiltration routes became particularly vulnerable. The increased number of helicopter evacuation missions during the next three years would be grim testimony of the trend of warfare which was unfolding in the South. Reinforced with more and more North Vietnamese and growing amounts of Communist bloc and captured U.S. equipment, the Viet Cong would press the initiative even in South Vietnam's most isolated areas.

The Communists operating in I Corps lost little time in challenging the newly arrived Marine unit. HMM-163 suffered its first battle damage while lifting elements of the 2d ARVN Division into a landing zone southwest of Tarn Ky on 26 September.


Page 82 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)