extensive .training of mechanics, crew chiefs, engineering, supply, operations, and ordnance personnel. "This additional duty," Lieutenant Colonel La Voy explained, "was a tremendous burden on all departments of my squadron, whose primary job was to keep aircraft in commission and to conduct combat operations." The language barrier understandably threatened the success of the overall training effort. In La Voy's opinion, however, "the eagerness of the students to learn and the wealth of practical experience and varied demonstrations" combined to help reduce problems imposed by the language difference.7
The progress of the program proved the concepts sound. The first small group of student pilots was graduated on 9 March despite numerous flight cancellations due to bad weather during the training period. Subsequent classes of VNAF pilots continued to train with the Marine helicopter task element throughout 1964. Eventually, a more advanced training program would have the Vietnamese pilots flying sections of two and four helicopters as integral elements of larger Marine helicopter operations.
Although heavy monsoon clouds lingered over I Corps throughout most of the month of March, brief periods of good weather sometimes allowed heliborne incursions into the mountainous areas. One such period began on the 5th and lasted long enough for Marine, Army, and VNAF helicopters to lift a 54-man ARVN patrol from An Diem to a landing zone near the Laotian border. During the operation one escorting U.S. Army UH-1B gunship accidentally struck a tree and was forced to land in a nearby jungle clearing. Two Marine helicopters quickly rescued the crew and weapons of the downed UH-1B, but drew automatic weapons fire in the process. That afternoon 15 Marine helicopters and two armed UH-lBs returned to the crash site with 64 ARVN troops who established a perimeter around the damaged helicopter after being landed. A maintenance team then landed and repaired the aircraft which subsequently was flown back to Da Nang.
Lieutenant' Colonel La Voy's crews undertook to correct several problems which they identified during these initial combat operations. One was the need for machine gun fire to protect the port (left) side of the transport helicopters as they approached contested landing zones. To fill this requirement the squadron's metalsmiths designed and fabricated a flexible mount for an additional M-60 machine gun. This new mount was designed to allow the machine gun to be swung out a port-side window from the cabin. Placed on each of HMM-364's 24 helicopters, this modification ultimately added a gunner to each crew and enabled the Marines to deliver fire to either or both sides of the aircraft during the critical landing phase ofhelilifts.8
La Voy personally instituted another change which made the coordination of trooplifts more effective. Prior to HMM-364's arrival in Vietnam, different Marines had served as loadmasters for each heliborne operation. While this system of rotating the loadmaster assignment had stood the test of numerous operations since its inception in late 1962, La Voy believed that it could be improved. Accordingly, he assigned one pilot and two crew chiefs permanent additional responsibilities as loadmasters. Thereafter, this three-man team was responsible for coordinating loading and unloading activities at pickup points and landing zones for all troop lifts. Thus, through a relatively minor adjustment, the Marines helped insure the closer coordination of their helicopter operations with ARVN ground forces.9
In early March hostile incidents around the Da Nang air base increased dramatically. The incidents usually took the form of sniper fire from the village situated just across the perimeter fence from the living compound. The primary target of the enemy snipers seemed to be the task element's electrical generators whose high noise level prevented sentries from determining the firing position. Tensions heightened on the night of the 15th when a terrorist hurled a gasoline-filled bottle into the doorway of the staff noncommissioned officers quarters. The crude bomb fortunately failed to ignite. Several days later, however, a Marine in the compound was wounded by sniper fire from beyond the perimeter wire.
These latest incidents led Colonel Merchant to request that the security platoon from the 3d Marine Division be redeployed to help protect the base camp and flight line. This request was approved by ComUSMACV and CGFMFPac without delay. On 24 March a 53-man platoon from the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines arrived at Da Nang on a Marine KC-130 and assumed responsibility for