Spring and Summer Fighting
The Monsoons-The Weather Breaks-Sure Wind 202-Operations Elsewhere in I Corps-Changing the Watch
Commanded by Colonel Andre D. Gomez, the strength of the Marine task element at Da Nang stood at 450 officers and men as 1964 opened. Lieutenant Colonel Ross' HMM-361 continued its assignment as the task element's helicopter squadron while Lieutenant Colonel Cassidy's 204-man MABS-16 sub unit retained responsibility for maintaining and operating the support facilities. Shortly after New Year's Day, ComUSMACV advised Colonel Gomez that the entire Marine task element would be withdrawn from the Republic of Vietnam during the first half of 1964. This decision was one of CinCPac's continuing responses to the Defense Department plans for reducing the level of direct American military involvement in Vietnam. Additionally, Gomez was informed that the task element would be called upon to initiate a training program designed to prepare Vietnamese Air Force pilots and mechanics to operate and maintain the UH-34Ds. This program was scheduled to culminate with the takeover of the 24 Marine helicopters by a new VNAF squadron on 30 June, and the subsequent departure of the entire task element for Okinawa where it would rejoin MAG-16, its parent organization.1
The new year broke with Marine flight operations at Da Nang still proceeding at a reduced rate due to the heavy monsoon weather. As had been the case at the close of 1963, medical evacuation and resupply missions continued to constitute the major source of work for HMM-361's crews. The first Marine helicopter 'oss during 1964 occurred during one such mission on 3 January when an aircraft was shot down while attempting to perform a medical evacuation about 30 miles due west of Da Nang. Hit at least six times on its descent toward the landing zone, the UH-34D crashed into the jungle. Its crew miraculously escaped injury and was rescued by another Marine helicopter. The aircraft, damaged beyond repair, was intentionally destroyed by U.S. Special Forces personnel. This was only the second Marine helicopter loss definitely attributed to Communist fire since SHUFLY's arrival at Soc Trang nearly two years earlier.
In the second week of January the weather over the mountains west to Da Nang broke long enough for Lieutenant Colonel Ross' squadron to accomplish a critical trooplift. On short notice the Marines were ordered to remove a 200-man CIDG force from the hills about 30 miles west-southwest of Da Nang. Accompanied by a U.S. Army advisor, the South Vietnamese unit had been conducting a reconnaissance in force about eight miles west of its camp at An Diem.* Under cover of the monsoon clouds, which limited effective U.S. or VNAF air support, Viet Cong elements of undetermined strength had closed in on the government force, threatening to isolate and destroy it before the weather lifted.
The immediate nature of this particular mission left little time for detailed planning and briefing. I Corps headquarters could only advise the Marines of such vital information as the unit's radio call sign, radio frequency, size, and location. To familiarize himself with the terrain in the vicinity of the pickup site, Lieutenant Colonel Ross first made a reconnaissance flight to the area in an 0-1B. His reconnaissance revealed the landing zone to be 'a precarious hill top knob exposed to a 360 field of fire,' Ross later recalled.2
*See map of outposts in I CTZ, page 81.
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