Page 120

Page 120 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)

developed mechanical problems while carrying troops of a South Vietnamese assault force, was damaged beyond repair. Its crew members and passengers fortunately escaped injury. The aircraft was stripped of usable parts by a salvage team from Da Nang and burned.

Shortly after this incident, the first elements of a new squadron began arriving at Da Nang and HMM-261 turned to preparations for its departure. Since early June, when it had become the fourth Marine helicopter squadron assigned to SHUFLY, Lieutenant Colonel Shock's unit had accumulated 5,288 combat flying hours and 11,406 sorties in the UH-34Ds alone. The squadron's crews had helilifted over 6,000 troops, nearly 1,900,000 pounds of cargo, and had accomplished over 600 medical evacuation missions.8

The new squadron, HMM-361, assumed responsibility for helicopter support in I Corps on 2 October after a short period of orientation flying with the crews of the departing unit. HMM-361's commanding officer. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas J. Ross, was well qualified to direct a tactical aviation unit in a combat situation. Decorated with five Distinguished Flying Crosses during World War II and Korea, he was a recent graduate of the Air Force Command and Staff College.

Barely a week after Ross' squadron initiated combat support operations at Da Nang, it suffered its first aircraft and personnel losses. The incident occurred on 8 October when two UH-34Ds crashed almost simultaneously while on a search and rescue mission 38 miles southwest of Da Nang. Both helicopters burned, killing 10 men; the pilots, copilots, the squadron's flight surgeon, and five crewmen. A search of the area was initiated immediately for the downed aircraft, but darkness prevented their discovery until the next morning. By then the Viet Cong had surrounded both crash sites and were waiting to ambush the search and rescue helicopters which they knew would arrive. When the rescue aircraft attempted to land, they met determined enemy opposition. Colonel Gomez requested ARVN assistance and 254 South Vietnamese troops were lifted into nearby clearings with instructions to dislodge the enemy force from the area around the downed aircraft. While executing the landing, HMM-361 helicopters were hit nine times by small arms fire, but suffered only superficial damage. One ARVN soldier was killed.

The following day, as the South Vietnamese forces moved toward the downed UH-34Ds, three Marine helicopters escorted by three armed UH-IBs and two VNAF T-28s lifted an inspection team into the crash site to recover the bodies and investigate the wreckage. Enemy automatic weapons fire broke out while the UH-34Ds waited in the landing zone and forced the pilots to take off while the inspection team found cover on the ground. After the Communist fire had been suppressed, the helicopters returned for the stranded Marines. Their investigation of the aircraft hulks had been fruitful: the evidence of enemy small arms fire in the wreckage and the relative positions of the two helicopters led Lieutenant Colonel Ross to conclude that the aircraft had been shot down by the Viet Cong.9 But this was not a conclusive finding. There was room for speculation that the two helicopters had actually collided in midair while attempting to evade ground fire.

Ground action in the hills around the crash sites continued. On 11 October, another Marine helicopter was hit by Viet Cong fire while resupply-ing ARVN units in the area. In this incident the UH- 34D was struck twice in the engine and once in the wheel strut while in a landing zone about two miles from the point where the crashes had occurred. After assessing the damage, a maintenance team from Da Nang determined that the ivelicopter would require a new engine. Marines from the security platoon were utilized to provide security until 13 October when an additional 120 ARVN troops were helilifted into the area and established a perimeter around the aircraft. Other helicopters then delivered the new engine and a maintenance crew to the landing zone. After the engines were exchanged, a crew returned the UH-34D to Da Nang. By the time HMM- 361 had removed the last ARVN troops from the hills around the scene of the tragic accidents, monsoon weather had begun to restrict flight operations. The remaining two weeks of October were characterized by a reduced number of missions, most of which were either resupply or medical evacuations. By the end of October, despite numerous flight cancellations, Lieutenant Colonel Ross' crews had gained the unenviable distinction of having attracted more enemy fire during a one month period than any previous squadron to serve with SHUFLY.

Page 120 (The Advisory & Combat Assistance Era: 1954-1964)