Marine Aircraft Group 36
1st Marine Aircraft Wing, FMF, Pacific
FPO, San Francisco, California 96602
25 March 1966
Our job here is as diverse as the number of different missions we are asked to perform each day. Some of the men now in the squadron have just joined and others who deployed with it in August have been transferred to other units. To write of all that has happened and about all of the men who have been in the squadron would be an impossible task; however, the following information may be of interest to you in visualizing what a typical day here at KY Ha is like.
It is 0430 and still dark when the Duty Officer goes through the living quarters and wakes the pilots for the morning launch. At the same time the section leaders are waking your husbands and sons. There are a few mumbled curses about the unreasonable hours of the war as the men dress and that first cup of coffee or grape juice to jar one awake.
An hour before the launch the morning crews muster in front of the line shack and then commence to get their birds ready for flight. This morning the launch will be down to Quang Ngai to support the ARVNs (Soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam) in a strike against the Viet Cong (VC). The pilots are briefed on the mission, the routes to be flown, radio frequencies, emergency procedures, and call signs for the fixed wing support aircraft. There are a few questions and a few wisecracks before they gather their flight gear and head out to the line shack to sign for the assigned aircraft.
In the line shack, the pilots sign off the yellow sheets, the form used to log the flight time and past operating discrepancies of the plane. The crew chiefs, gunners, mechanics and technicians are gathered for a last cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a few jokes before flight operations start.
Now, as a fighting team, their flashlights piercing the darkness, pilots and crews cross the mat to the birds and pre-flight their aircraft. Their inspection complete, they put on their flak vests and sometimes Mae Wests, look at the sky and say, "Well, let's go." The pilots climb into the cockpit and go through their checklist. The crew chief signals from the deck with a 'thumbs up' to show that he is standing by with a fire extinguisher as the pilots start the engines. After warming up the engines for a few minutes, the pilots get another 'thumbs up from the crew chief letting them know the area is clear to engage rotors. As the aircraft are being readied for flight reveille is being held for the rest of the squadron. The start of another day which always begins in the darkness just before dawn. Mumbles are heard, bodies start to move slowly and one by one or in pairs the men move out on their way to the mess hall. The whole squadron is now up and crews will go immediately after breakfast to the flight line and prepare for a 0800 flight while others will delay over breakfast a few more minutes. Another day's activities are under way.
Over the radio the pilots check with their crews below to make sure all is ready and then check in with the flight leader. When the last plane is ready to go, the flight leader calls the tower and gets clearance to taxi to the runway for takeoff. Slowly, one by one, the planes lift off the pad, pick up air speed, and climb out in a circling turn to rendezvous all the aircraft over Ky Ha.
It is 0630, the sky off the coast is showing the pink of dawn and twelve planes and 48 men are on their way to Quang Ngai. Flying at 2,000 feet with the South China Sea off to the left, the mountains off to the right, and the rice paddy quilted country below, they see the sun send its first fingers of morning light probing through the clouds. Mist lies low over the rice paddies and wisps of smoke float straight up from the cooking fires in the villages. From darkness to dawn, from dawn to early morning, the world comes alive below them, and at this time it's hard to believe there is a war going on below.
At Quang Ngai Airstrip there are 200 ARVNs waiting to be lifted out to the drop zone. Twelve birds from the squadron have landed and together they stretch for several hundred yards along the side of the runway in a mass of men and machines. The flight leaders are briefed by the ARVN advisor and are soon back to brief the other pilots. Maps are pulled out, coordinates plotted and the plan for the lift explained. With the brief finished, the pilots then brief individual crews as to the plans and whether the machine guns will be used, areas to be especially alert for, rescue procedures and details on the number of troops to carry each lift. Then the pilots climb back into their planes and the crew chiefs assist on crank-up again. The crew chief and gunners supervise the loading of the troops into the cabin section and when all is ready, call the pilot giving him an all ready below and the number of troops aboard.
In four plane divisions the flights lift off the Quang Ngai runway, circle the field while all join up, and head out for the briefed landing zone. En route the flight leader contacts the Forward Air Controller (FAC), who is flying a small observation plane, and reports that he is inbound an will commence his approach at the briefed L-Hour. The FAC continues to control the fixed wing aircraft preparing the landing zone with bombs, rockets, napalm, and cannon fire to suppress any fire that might be directed at the waves of choppers that are approaching. The FAC continues this up until the very last minute before the choppers commence their approach. The flight leader wags the tail of his aircraft, signaling the flight to go into a loose formation. He informs the FAC that he is starting his approach. Alongside the flight of troop carrying choppers, fly our deadly little friends, the armed Huey's, that go right into the zone with their rockets and machine guns to insure that we are protected throughout the time we are in the hostile area.
As each plane comes in on its approach, crews are tense, waiting for the unexpected rattle of gunfire or mortar rounds in the zone. They hope that the heavy preparation of the zone has left Charlie too groggy to fire at them, but they are ready to return any fire they see or hear. The flight comes into the zone in waves of four and are on the ground only a matter of seconds.
One by one, dodging the rice paddy dikes that can tear the landing gear off the aircraft the choppers land. The troops leap into the deep paddy water and spread out. They start their advance to a nearby village that is the target of the operation and suspected of harboring a large number of VC. Naval gunfire and the bombs and rockets have left a large amount of the area burning and pocked with craters. The crew chief and the gunner, with trigger fingers tense, eyes scanning continuously for enemy fire urge the troops out of the aircraft. All aircraft lift immediately as they are emptied, then climb back into the air faster than the designer thought their plane capable of. This morning they are lucky, none of the planes have been hit. They return to Quang Ngai, refuel, and then shut down and wait for the retrograde of the troops at the completion of their search through the village.
For the first time this morning everyone is able to unwind a little. The crew chiefs and gunners have been at their positions on either side of the aircraft manning M-60 machine guns, straining to see and ready to return fire coming from the ground. The pilots and copilots have been busy maintaining radio communication with the other aircraft as well as concentrating on getting the plane down to the zone and back without making it a target for the VC and without, as sometimes happens, damaging it in the rush to get in and out of a small rough landing zone. With the first launch over and knowing that it wasn't as bad as everyone had thought it might be, each man climbs out of his plane with a grin of accomplishment and relief. While waiting for the next launch they gathered, compare the events of the mission, change them according to what each thought happened until the ground work is laid for a story that will be retold many times. A team molded together and a mission accomplished.
Suddenly a jeep races out to the lead aircraft, pulls up to the flight leader, the driver says something, the flight leader turns around and yells, "Yankee Kilo twelve and sixteen turn up for an emergency medevac (medical evacuation)." The copilots and crew run to their planes while the two pilots run to the jeep for the brief. It takes only a moment for them to get the necessary information and by the time that they are able to get back to the planes the engines have been started, rotors engaged, and everything is set for takeoff. Four minutes after the call "Medevac" was heard, then two birds are airborne and headed back to the strike zone. Radio contact is established with the ground force when about three minutes out from the area and the pilot asks the ground unit to pop a smoke grenade to show him exactly where they want him to land. The lead medevac plane spots the smoke, notes the wind direction and heads down to the zone. The second aircraft remains aloft circling the zone, ready to go down if needed. When a few hundred yards out a tracer bullet flies past the aircraft from a grass hut. The gunner spotted the flash of the rifle and returns fire, simultaneously the crew chief drops a red smoke grenade out the hatch to mark the position while the pilot calls the two UH-1E (HUEY) helicopters that are along to provide air cover against the ground gun positions. The medevac plane lands and in a moment is off again with one or more wounded ARVNs. Taking care not to climb out in the path of the HUEYS which are now on a rocket run to knock out the ground fire, the medevac planes head to the Quang Ngai Hospital. An air strike and a rescue mission are completed and it is now 0930.
Late in the morning the ARVNs have completed their search through the village and the planes again launch for a troop retraction. Again they splash to landings in rice paddies and the troops wade out to the planes. A few blind-folded VC and VC suspects are lifted into the planes by the troops. Those planes with prisoners fly back to Quang Ngai while those with troops fly to a second zone for another sweep. This time the planes go in "hot" firing at anything that would provide cover for the VC. Each plane tears up a portion of a hedge or bush row with bullets on its way in. No fire is received and the VC in a clump of bushes that a crew chief thinks he shot, turns out to be a water buffalo.
On returning to Quang Ngai the planes do not shut down but instead are loaded with supplies for a routine run to a friendly outpost to the west. The zone is supposed to be secure and theoretically this means that the planes can go in without fear of being shot at. No one is willing to gamble on whether or not this is true and as the planes break off two at a time from the circling formation they di a fast, tight spiral down to the ridge line to avoid any fire that they might receive. In a zone that in the states would be considered too small for one plane they land two at a time, dump their loads, climb back to altitude and return to the base for more. Soon instead of a circling formation the flight is spread out from the airstrip to the drop zone and back again in a long "daisy chain." With the number of planes assigned to the lift the mission goes fast and after the second load per plane the zone has received several tons of supplies and ammunition and about half of the troops have been replaced by fresh troops.
Later in the afternoon word is received the ARVNs have completed their second search and clear operation and are ready to return to Quang Ngai. The lift goes smoothly and shortly, before dark, the last plane unloads its troops and the flight heads home.
In four plane sections the flight flies in formation over the north mat at Ky Ha, breaks to the left and lands. The planes taxi along the back of the mat to the refueling points, take on a load of gas and then follow the directions of the taxi director to their positions on the pad for the final shut down.
The pilots go to the line shack to sign off the yellow sheets, the crew chief checks the aircraft over and the gunner staggers back to the armory under the weight of two M-60s and several boxes of unused ammunition. Some of the planes developed engine trouble during the day and some had electrical problems. The pilots note this on the yellow sheets downing the plane until the discrepancies are fixed. The pilots, after hanging up their flight gear and filling out the "After Action Reports", and the crew , after securing the aircraft, head up the hill for late supper and a well deserved shower.
At 2000 the day flight operations are complete (except for night medevac aircraft and crews) but it is the start of operations for the night maintenance crews. By morning nearly all the aircraft that had been downed for mechanical troubles will be in an up status again. Radio men, mechanics, electricians and hydraulic technicians will work with the aid of floodlights and flashlights to fix the birds.
In the morning the night crews will have swatted over, and cursed at parts which defy all attempts to fix and yet, somehow all down gripes will be corrected and the aircraft ready to fly again.
While the night crew is working on the planes and the flight crews are finishing up those much needed showers, other men in the squadron are on duty as part of the perimeter guard. These same men have put in a full day's work on the flight line, in one of the offices, or any one of a number of other jobs. The man who spent the morning in a tent fighting the ever present paper war is spending the night in a foxhole guarding the mat area. The man who spent the afternoon with a pencil filling out forms ordering new parts or the auto mechanic and truck drivers are spending the night with his rifle walking a post as a sentry. At no time is everyone in the squadron off duty. A day off or time off ia almost an unknown quantity, for there is always some mission to fly which will keep the birds away from home.
There are complaints about the long days, the chow is never as good as home cooking and letters, which are private minutes of happiness, are at best a poor substitute for a wife, a family, parents or a sweetheart. However, the task of getting the helicopters and crews out on a mission is being done with pride and being done in an outstanding manner.
Our mission here is to get the helicopters ready for another flight to have the crews ready to man the birds, and to complete any mission given in the best way we can. The squadron is performing this mission in an outstanding manner. The combined efforts of all hands is necessary to make one rotor blade turn, to get one new part from supply, to get a report typed or orders written for the man that is returning to the States. No man is unimportant, no man is forgotten for each contributes to the overall effort to make his squadron the best in the Corps. There are others who put in long and hard hours also, the man who draws mess duty for thirty days at a time, or the man assigned to help with the trash details. These jobs are not the most glamorous but are necessary for everyone likes to eat and none of us like to walk around in litter up to our knees. Each man is an individual in our team effort to do our best here in Vietnam.
I sincerely wish that I had time to take pen in hand to tell each of you personally of the contribution your Marine is making. It ia a magnificent effort, in which each of you can take deep pride, as I do daily. I feel strongly that these remarkable accomplishments - the drudgery, the hard work, the bravery - are attributable in no small part to your unselfish and continued support.
/s/ W. R. Lucas
W. R. LUCAS
Letter provided by; Mrs. Theldon C. Horn
GySgt. Theldon C. Horn's History Index
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