Da Nang. The Commandant conducted an inspection of the compound and was briefed on operations by Colonel Gomez and his staff. After presenting combat decorations to several members of the task element, Greene departed for Hawaii where he was to visit the FMFPac headquarters. The Commandant summed up his impressions of the Marine helicopter task element in testimony before the House Committee on Armed Services several weeks after his return to Washington. "I was assured by General Harkins and his officers- and by the officers of the supported Vietnamese units-that this squadron has performed its supporting mission in an outstanding manner,'' related Grccne. "Everything that I observed," he added, "certainly attested to the high morale and effectiveness of this unit." 5*
Late January and early February saw the normal rotation of several of the task element's key personnel as well as its helicopter squadron. On 14 January, Colonel Robert A. Merchant, an officer with a diverse military background, assumed command of SHUFLY. Merchant had commanded an artillery battalion on Okinawa in World War II, a Marine attack squadron in Korea, and had served on the joint staff of the Specified Commander for the Middle East in Beirut during the 1958 Lebanon Operation. More recently he had graduated from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. Having flown with the task element's squadron while on temporary duty in Vietnam the previous October and since his arrival in early January, Merchant was thoroughly familiar with SHUFLY's operations.
Command of the MABS-16 sub unit changed hands two weeks later when Lieutenant Colonel Samuel G. Beal relieved Lieutenant Colonel Cassidy. Beal, also a veteran of World War II and Korea, came from the 4th Marines in Hawaii where he had served as that unit's air liaison officer. Lieutenant Colonel Ross' HMM-361 ended its tour at Da Nang on 1 February. The squadron's arrival in I Corps unfortunately had coincided with the arrival of the early monsoon rains. The unit's flight statistics had suffered also from the interruption caused by the political infighting which had deposed President Diem. As a result, its operations never reached the sustained tempo which had characterized the records of the Marine helicopter squadrons previously assigned to SHUFLY. Lieutenant Colonel Ross' UH-34Ds totalled 4,236 combat flight hours and just under 7,000 combat sorties-figures which, considering the conditions surrounding their accumulation, compared favorably with the number of combat flight hours (7,249) and sorties (11,900) averaged by the four previous UH-34D squadrons to serve in Vietnam.6 HMM-364, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John H. La Voy, a pilot who had flown his first combat helicopter missions during the Korean War, initiated support operations from Da Nang on 1 February. Under the existing plans to deactivate the Marine task element. La Voy's squadron was scheduled to be the last Marine helicopter unit to operate in South Vietnam. As such, HMM-364's pilots and maintenance crews were to launch the training program that would prepare the Vietnamese Air Force personnel to take over the Marine helicopters upon the task element's departure from Da Nang.
On 4 February the first class of eight Vietnamese pilots began a 50-hour package of flight instruction under the supervision of Lieutenant Colonel La Voy's pilots. Included in the course of instruction were operational missions, night and instrument flying, formation work, and landing practice. Each student was already a qualified copilot with at least 25 flight hours in VNAF UH-34s-a factor which allowed the training to be conducted concurrently with normal operations. This was accomplished by having the Vietnamese trainees fly as copilots with a Marine pilot on operational flights. In addition to being an effective training method this system had two other advantages. First, it enabled the Vietnamese students to acquire a first-hand knowledge of the helicopter tactics most commonly used in the northern provinces. Secondly, it allowed Lieutenant Colonel La Voy's squadron to concentrate on its primary mission of providing combat support for the ground forces in I Corps.
Another vital aspect of the training program involved preparing Vietnamese ground personnel to keep the squadron operational. This demanded
*A more frequent visitor to the Marine helicopter task element was Colonel Anderson, the MAAG Chief of Staff. An experienced aviator. Colonel Anderson had commanded a Marine bomber squadron (VMB-443) in the latter stages of World War II. While serving as the MAAG Chief of Staff during 1963 and 1964, Anderson participated in a number of combat missions as a pilot with the various squadrons assigned to SHUFLY.