It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Nowhere in the annals of American aviation has this been more true than during the United States’ direct participation in the defense of the Republic of Vietnam. Pitted against an adversary who went to great lengths to conceal his movements and identity and who, at the same time, roamed a land of very diverse topography, the American forces in South Vietnam found themselves utilizing tactics and equipment unknown in previous conflicts. Air power has played a vital role in America’s strategic and tactical military doctrine since the Second World War, but in Vietnam it was to be of special significance. Here the airplane and helicopter were the GI’s lifeline, providing him with fire support, food, mail, ammunition, medical assistance and virtually instant transportation across the varied and inhospitable terrain of Indo-China.
The southern quarter of what was once the Republic of Vietnam is known as the Mekong Delta. It is here that the meandering tributaries of the Mekong River empty into the South China Sea after the long journey from the Tibetan highlands. The region is characterized by broad, exceptionally fertile grasslands, marshes, mangrove swamps and rain forests punctuated by occasional mountian peaks along the Cambodian border and southwestern coast. The Mekong drains all of Indo-China and upon entering Vietnam it’s waters spread, fanlike, into the Mekong River Delta. During the summer monsoons, the region is completely inundated by water. What few roads that exist in the area connect only the major towns and most of the native populace must rely on the more than 2,500 miles of canals, rivers and streams for their transportation. During it’s existance as a sovereign country, nearly half of South Vietnam’s total population resided within the Mekong Delta turning out the country’s main cash crop, rice. It was estimated by some sources that this productive region has the potential to supply the rice needs for all of Southeast Asia.
The military, political and economic importance of the region was long recognized by both sides in the Vietnam conflict. Joint allied naval operations had begun in the Mekong Delta in March 1965 when American destroyers, augmented by SP-5 and later SP-2H and P-3A aircraft, took up patrol stations around Vietnam’s southern coast to detect and track Viet Cong resupply vessels. In the fall of that same year the Navy initiated limited river patrols in the Delta on an experimental basis using armed LCPL-4 landing craft. Despite the fact that these vessels were slow and rather cumbersome in the tight confines of the Delta’s waterways, the concept proved itself valuable in disrupting the Viet Cong’s lines of communications, locating supply caches and eliminating tax collecting stations. Consequently, a commitment was made to continue river operations on a full scale basis across the breadth of the Mekong Delta.
To impliment this broad scheme, the LCPL-4s were abandoned in favor of an off the shelf pleasure boat converted for the purpose. Christened PBR, for Patrol Boat River, these 32 foot long craft were faster and more maneuverable than the LCPL-4s they replaced. Tradeoffs made for the sake of speed and agility also meant the PBRs were lighty armored and heavily armed. Carrying as their heaviest punch three .50 caliber machine guns and later a single 40mm grenade launcher, the waterways of the delta would be treacherous and life difficult for the PBR crews, particularly when pitted against the VC arsenal of recoilless rifles, rocket propelled grenades and command detonated mines.
Early on it had been recognized air support would be vital to the success and survival of the partol boats. At first army aviation units were tasked with the mission. On 11 March 1966 an element of the Army’s 145th Combat Aviation Battalion, with some 20 support personnel, began training exercises from the USS Belle Grove (LSD-2) preparatory to their participation in operation Jackstay, which commenced on 26 March. During this large scale operation, which was the first allied attempt to penetrate the Viet Cong stronghold southeast of Saigon known as the Rung Sat Special Zone, two US Army helicopters operated from the Belle Grove providing close air support to the Navy patrol boats and landing craft navigating the zone’s swampy terrain.
When the first 10 PBRs arrived in Vietnam on 21 March, the Belle Grove assumed the duty of mother ship for the new arrivals. After Operation Jackstay terminated on 4 April, the Army gunships remained aboard the Belle Grove to continue development of PBR gunship tactics preparatory to the PBRs first operational mission the next week. Assigned to the Navy’s newly activated Task Force 116, or operation Gamewarden, the first patrol was mounted on 10 April 1966 as 2 PBRs of River Squadron Five began operations along the Long Tau River. The Belle Grove was relieved of it’s duties to TF-116 on 19 April by the USS Tortuga (LSD-26).
This arrangement of Army air crews flying in support of naval operations from Navy ships caused difficulties which both services were quick to discover. Even though the Army pioneered the armed helicopter concept and developed much of it’s tactics, they did not have experience in supporting naval riverine operations. While that experience could undoubtedly have been gained over a period of time, it was felt naval aviators trained in gunship operations would more quickly and readily adapt to the mission requirements.
Part of this was the necessity to operate at night in bad weather from the deck of a ship. The PBRs worked around the clock in all weather conditions so it was highly desirable their air support would be available then as well. At this point in time, Army gunships were not equipped for and their pilots not skilled in all weather helicopter flying, particularly from a floating deck. In many cases, the Army would not accept missions in marginal weather, especially at night. Flying in the dark of night in bad weather or without good horizontal definition is a sticky proposition and more than one Army helicopter was lost under these conditions. It was believed that Navy helicopter pilots, skilled at antisubmarine warfare and search and rescue operations which required a similar all weather capability, would be better able to cope with this environment than their Army counterparts.
Also, a dedicated Navy air unit committed directly to the Gamewarden mission could provide a relatively stable source of air support that would not require careful inter-service coordination to assure availability. Direct Naval air support for the PBRs was viewed as the solution for existing and anticipated problems of command, control and availability.
The previous experience with Army helicopter gunships had shown this type of aircraft could provide a flexible response and was adaptable to the delta environment. Armed helicopters operating from remote and relatively unprepared locations offered at least twice the reaction time of fixed wing fighter bombers. Logistically, US Army and South Vietnamese fueling and arming points, already established across the region, would provide ready support and the very nature of the aircraft itself would alleviate the construction of large, hard surface airfields, always a problem in the water soaked delta. Captain John T. Shepherd, who in 1966 was th assistant chief of staff at the US Navy headquarters in Saigon, is generally credited with formulating the concept of using Navy armed helicopters in support of TF-116.
The Bell UH-1B helicopter had been in Vietnam since 1962, performing it’s duties as a troop transport and gunship. In the latter role, the helicopter had formed the backbone of the Army’s helicopter fleet for three years and had proven itself over all of Vietnam’s varied terrain. It was the locical choice for this mission. But in 1966 there was a shortage of UH-1 types available for use by the Navy. Long range Army requirements for the UH-1 series kept the Bell Helicopter assembly line busy and even though the UH-1E was in production for the Marines, it was committed to modernization of Marine helicopter squadrons by replacing the UH-34. Fortunately for the Navy, the Army had recently implemented plans to supplant the UH1B gunship with the reengined and restructured UH-1C. These surplus B Models would make a ready source of aircraft for the Navy’s use.
So it was that eight UH-1B helicopters were borrowed from the Army’s 197th Armed Helicopter Company in the summer of 1966 to form the nucleus of a Navy armed helicopter unit. Pilots and crewmen for the new venture were initially drawn from Helicopter Combat Support Squadron One based at NAS Ream Field, Imperial Beach, California. The first eight pilots and enlisted crewmen of HC-1, Detachment (Det) 29, were deployed to Vietnam on 1 July 1966. This was followed on the 17th and 29th of July by Dets 27 and 25, respectively. Det 21, last of the origional HC-1 detachments, was not deployed to Vietnam until several months later, arriving during the last week of November.
Because HC-1’s modus operandi was primarily search and rescue, logistical transport and supply, and vertical replentishment, the first crews were faced with a short training period provided by the Army. Under the terms of the initial agreement between the two services, Navy crews were to man the aircraft and provide maintenance at the unit level, but the Army was responsible for providing training, aircraft, spare parts, and higher echelon repair. On 30 August 1966, after completion of their familiarization training, Det 29 relieved the US Army helicopter fire team operating from thr Tortuga, anchored off the mouth of the Long Tau River, and, in doing so, opened a new chapter in Naval Aviation.
Under the operational control of Commander Task Force (CTF) 116, the gunships initially would support the PBR operations with fire support, recon, and medevac services. But in fact the unit soon found itself called upon to assist the PCFs of TF-115 as well as the Vietnamese Navy units operating in the delta.
This early period was characterized by unit familiarization with their new aircraft, tactics and areas of operation. It was also a time of literal hand to mouth existance for these Navy flyers. Dependent on the Army supply system for their aviation assets and associated equipment, they often found their needs could be met only by imaginative begging or “borrowing” from other military units, most often Army. Attached to their parent squadron only for administrative purposes, the HC-1 Gamewarden dets enjoyed great autonomy in their operations and this was partially responsible for instilling in the crews a strong spirit of mission accomplishment which dictated an attitude of get the job done no matter what the cost or method required. A lot of official heads looked the other way during these early months. A special rapport that would last throughout the Vietnam Conflict was quickly established with the PBR sailors, who knew they could rely on the Navy gunships when a firefight started.
As has been seen, some initial operations were staged from LSD’s, which also did double duty as PBR bases. But late inn 1966, the USS Jennings County (LSD-846), modified with helicopter landing platforms and equipped to support gunship operations, arrived in country. This was the first of several converted LST’s which would replace the smaller LSD as support ships for Navy air and surface operations in the Delta.
The first major action for the Seawolves, as the unit had nicknamed itself, occurred during the waning daylight hours of 31 October 1966. Earlier, on routine patrol in the vicinity of My Tho City, two Navy PBRs had encountered a superior fleet of sampans and junks numbering well over 80 vessels, intent on transferring a battalion sized Viet Cong unit from one riverbank to the other. Attempting to follow a small sampan up the Nam Thon River, the two patrol boats came under intense fire from both sides of the riverbank and a group of 10 boats hiding in a small inlet. Retreating back down the river with dusk closing in, a call for air support went out. HC-1 Det 25 was scrambled and arrived over the scene some 15 minutes later. When asked by the flight leader where he wanted the air strike, the PBR commander replied simply, “I want y’all to go in there and hold field day on them guys.”
With the PBRs acting as decoys to pinpoint the enemy positions, Det 25 did just that. On their first pass, one junk disappeared in a secondary explosion as the munitions it carried detonated. On the second run they were greeted by yet another secondary explosion. The enemy troops quickly turned heel through the open rice paddies. Additional PBRs and other support craft were soon on the scene and by nine o’clock that evening, the battle was over with the PBRs claiming 35 vessels sunk and the capture of six others. Det 25 claimed 16 additional junks and sampans destroyed, seven more damaged and neutralization of numerous shore positions. The combined operation stopped the river crossing and the VC were routed leaving indications of substantial casualities. Unfortunately, not all the Seawolves early operations were as successful as the one on 31 October. At least two aircraft were lost in operational accidents during 1966. One on 2 November involved a Det 29 UH-1B which ditched in water when it lost power shortly after take off from My Tho on a strike mission. The second occurred 27 days later and resulted from an extremely unusual set of circumstances.
Det 25’s two UB-1Bs were assigned to escort three Navy Patrol Air Cushion Vehicles (PACV) on a move from An Long to Moc Hoa. As an additional part of their mission that day, one aircraft was carrying a photographer to cover the PACV’s in action. Shortly after getting airborne from An Long, the gunship with the photographer aboard maneuvered over the line of PACV’s at an altitude of 60 feet to get close overhead photos. As the lead air cushion vehicle passed under, the UB-1B lost lift when it apparently encountered turbulence created by the PACV’s lift fan and propeller. The Det 25 pilot was unable to make a power recovery and the helicopter settled into about four feet of water where the crew egressed safely.
It was evident from the outset that the origional four detachments, no matter how strategically located, could not provide adequate coverage to the entire Mekong Delta. Additional detachments would be needed to fill the expanding operational demends. As necessary as this expansion was for mission accomplishment, it would create ever larger problems for command and control of the detachments involved. While HC-1 had performed well as a caretaker of these units, it’s normal mission was so radically different from that of the Game Warden detachments that the Navy felt a more integrated and localized command structure was necessary to assure continuity in all aspects of the TF-116 mission.
So, late in 1966, a message was sent out to all Navy helicopter squadrons requesting volunteers to form a Vietnam based helicopter attack squadron. Approximately 80 pilots were chosen from this first group, and after a brief training period provided by the Army, they began reporting for duty in Vietnam during April 1967, where they would be used to help fill the slots of three new dets then in the formulating stages, and provide relief for existing crews who would soon reach the end of their one year tour. As additional UH-1B helicopters became available, and as the crews completed their transition training, these new dets would be put into service. The men of HC-1’s four Vietnam based detachments became the Seawolves of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three, HA(L)-3, on 1 April 1967, when the squadron was officially commissioned at Vung Tau under the command of LCDR Joseph B. Howard. HC-1 Dets 29, 27, 25 and 21 became HA(L)-3 Dets 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively.
As previously mentioned, the origional group of pilots from HC-1 underwent their initial training only upon arrival in Vietnam. Here they obtained approximately 10 hours of familiarization in the UH-1B, and then another 60 hours or more as copilots aboard Army gunships under actual combat conditions. From this they graduated to flying combat missions on their own in the Navy UH-1Bs. A few of the early pilots recieved a limited amount of their transition at the Bell Helicopter plant in Texas prior to reporting aboard in Vietnam, and later, some training was done at NAS Imperial Beach. Eventually, a special training program was established in 1967 by the Army at Ft. Benning, Georgia to handle the increasing requirement for Navy UH-1B pilots. By September 1968, this program had been transferred to Ft Rucker, Alabama. Here the training syllabus for the prospective Seawolves included two weeks of UH-1B transition, one and one half weeks of active gunnery training, and classroom instruction on the weapons systems as well as armed helicopter tactics and employment. In addition, they were given practical field problems in the different phases of riverine support operations in which they would have to become proficient. Such subjects as low level navigation, river convoy escort and river reconnaissance would later stand them in good stead.
Even after completion of this specialized program, some of the more inexperienced pilots would often get their first taste of combat as copilots on Army helicopters, thus enabling them to gain more flight time and experience prior to beginning their Navy missions. All pilots underwent three weeks of survival training at either Little Creek, Virginia, or Coronado, California, before assignment to Vietnam.
Once their initial requirements were fulfilled, the new pilots would begin their Navy operations as copilots. After several months they could be elevated to Attack Helicopter Aircraft Commander (AHAC), which meant they moved across the cockpit to the pilot seat. Still later, they could be classified as Fire Team Leader (FTL), responsible for the conduct and success of their det’s two helicopter element (fire team) during missions.
Training was not totally confined to flying. Several of the early HA(L)-3 pilots would also go aboard the PBRs on missions to get a better understanding of the role and working environment of these small boats. Also, a few pilots were known to have accompanied SEAL Teams on some of their operations.
Enlisted crew members could recieve their training either prior to departing the States, after arrival in Vietnam, or a combination of both. Generally, all would recieve schooling in their occupational specialty before arriving in Vietnam. Like the officers, all would undergo survival school before departing.
But as the flying jobs in the squadron were voluntary, training in these areas varied. If enlisted personnel volunteered for flying duties prior to departure for Vietnam, door gunner training was sometimes provided by the Army at Ft Rucker. Here was taught the basics of UH-1B Maintenance, fundamentals of helicopter armamant systems, aerial gunnery, and visual search and target detection. If, however, crewmen elected to volunteer for flying after arrival in Vietnam, or had not gone to the Army school, HA(L)-3 provided gunnery training at it’s headquarters facility. By 1969, the enlisted crewmen training program was well established. All enlisted air crewmen took the HA(L)-3 Plane Captain (Crew Chief) course prior to assignment to a det. This allowed all gunners to become qualified Plane Captains and vice versa.