Fly to Fight, Fight to Win: Applying the Lessons Learned from Navy Helicopter Gunships in Vietnam to Expeditionary Rotary-wing Naval Aviation Today
Lieutenant Robert E. Swain III, USN
The memoirs of aviators assigned to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HA(L)-3) during the Vietnam War reveal a chapter in naval rotary-wing history defined by tenacity and courage. Sortieing from positions afloat and ashore into enemy gunfire, the HA(L)-3 “Seawolves” launched in terrible weather and on horizonless nights to provide fire support to beleaguered friendly units, assist Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams, or retrieve a wounded Sailor or Soldier from the battlefield. With no naval precedent for multi-mission attack, assault, and rescue rotary-wing operations, HA(L)-3 rapidly developed tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to assist coalition efforts. The all-volunteer squadron knew that the multi-mission support from their helicopters could mean the difference between life and death for Sailors plying the dangerous waters of the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam. As testimony to their bravery and skill, members of the unit received five Navy Crosses, 31 Silver Stars, 219 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 156 Purple Hearts, and 101 Bronze Stars during their operations between 1967 and 1972. The HA(L)-3 Presidential Unit Citation notes that the “decisiveness” of the Seawolves’ helicopter fire support represented a “classic example of the professional naval response to a dangerous enemy threat.”[i]
HA(L)-3 helped transform the Mekong Delta into one of the most pacified areas of South Vietnam when the U.S. withdrew in 1972. Nevertheless, the fog of time and expeditionary naval aviation’s departure from the fire and assault support missions, has shrouded the Seawolves’ legacy in the modern-day conversation. Up until 2011, rotary-wing naval aviators attached to Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Units (ARG/MEUs) performed fleet logistics support operations, Search and Rescue (SAR) alerts, and vertical replenishment, but were not expected to offensively engage hostile forces. Over the past seven years, however, ARG/MEU Navy helicopter doctrine has shifted from two-aircraft SAR detachments to three-aircraft Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) detachments flying the armed MH-60S “Knighthawk.” This increase in rotary-wing combat power offers a chance for expeditionary naval aviators to revive the Seawolves’ legacy. Today, expeditionary HSC personnel train to “non-traditional” Navy helicopter missions such as armed escort, rotary-wing close air support (RWCAS), maritime interdiction operations (MIO), surface warfare (SUW), and the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP). With the right coordination, HSC has the opportunity to exercise these capabilities alongside ARG/MEU air, ground, and surface forces.
As expeditionary HSC personnel refine their tactical employment, the community can look to the Seawolves for inspiration. HA(L)-3 displayed outstanding motivation as the only Navy helicopter attack, assault, and combat rescue squadron operating in South Vietnam, fulfilling every mission required of the aircrews. Their example challenges HSC squadrons today to widen understanding of the MH-60S multi-mission capabilities among ARG/MEU leadership, and to display an increased willingness to integrate their training with the embarked Marines. The Seawolves embraced the Navy’s fighting spirit, inculcating a warrior ethos despite their varied mission tasking. Today, actively instilling a warfighting spirit among expeditionary HSC personnel will help shift the community away from its deployed fleet support and logistics focus to a demonstrated confidence in multi-mission combat application. Fifty years ago, HA(L)-3’s key to success was their ability to build relationships with assets from other units and services in order to earn their trust. By adapting the same approach to ARG/MEU interoperability, today’s HSC detachments can elevate their participation in expeditionary operations and exemplify the qualities which directly contributed to the success of the most decorated squadron in U.S. Navy history.
A Call for Fire
In the early 1960s, the escalating Viet Cong (VC) communist insurgency in the Mekong Delta and Rung Sat swamp threatened the livelihood and freedom of the six million people sustained by the region’s 16,000 square miles of marsh, forest, and of vital significance─rice paddies. While this 3,000-nautical-mile labyrinth of navigable waterway posed a major security headache, the strategic value of the Mekong Delta remained indisputable. South Vietnam was one of the world’s largest rice exporters and “80% of its rice crop [was] harvested in the fertile Delta.”[ii] According to intelligence reports from 1968, when the Việt Cộng (VC) could not obtain rice “they resorted to extortion, theft, or confiscation” from the region’s civilian population.[iii] The Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ) contained the Long Tau shipping channel, South Vietnam’s primary supply line from the capital city of Saigon to the South China Sea, a prime target for VC improvised mining. The VC maneuvered unimpeded through the sparsely populated and periodically inundated RSSZ prior to U.S. interdiction. Concealed by the dense mangrove swamps, the VC erected arms factories, training camps, and medical facilities.[iv] By 1966, U.S. leadership recognized that whoever dominated the contested channels of the Mekong Delta and RSSZ “controlled the heart of South Vietnam.”[v]
The U.S. Navy established Operation Game Warden (Task Force 116) in December 1965 to patrol this unique alluvial environment and confront the growing communist presence in the region. Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (COMUSMACV) called for patrol craft, SEAL teams, minesweeping units, and helicopters to operate together and establish government control of the Long Tau shipping channel plus the main offshoots of the Mekong River to “reach the Viet Cong in areas where [they] had normally operated with impunity.”[vi] The 120 river patrol boat (PBR) crews assigned to TF-116 bore the brunt of this task, engaging in an average of 70 firefights a month while implementing the curfews of South Vietnam, interdicting VC movements, and reinforcing government presence in the area.[vii] Due to the limited mobility of ground reinforcements, it soon became apparent that “quick reaction close air support would be indispensable if such river operations were to continue.”[viii] The proposed aerial force would help survey the winding waterways, stave off ambush forward of the surface patrols, and provide fire support or casualty evacuation (CASEVAC).[ix]
Initially, Army aviation presented the only local option to support naval forces patrolling the South Vietnamese rivers. On March 11, 1966, two Army UH-1 Iroquois or “Huey” helicopters embarked on USS Belle Grove (LSD-2) to determine the viability of shipboard quick-reaction air support in South Vietnam.[x] Fifteen days later, Operation Jackstay marked the first major inshore amphibious assault of the Vietnam War and the Belle Grove Army helicopters “made a significant contribution . . . until darkness precluded further accurate fire.”[xi]
As Game Warden’s mission tasking expanded, it became evident that the “fair weather” pilots of the Army, sourced from the central bases of Long Binh, Dong Tam, and Can Tho, could not provide the dedicated coverage necessary for extended operations in remote areas of the Mekong Delta.[xii] Troops on the ground and crews on the rivers needed an air asset they could count on to arrive within minutes during the low light and degraded environmental conditions (such as monsoonal rains) in which the VC operated. These requirements primed U.S. Naval Headquarters Saigon Chief of Staff, Captain John T. Shepherd, to ask the Navy to source Operation Game Warden with pilots of the right disposition and instrument training.
Navy Helicopter Combat Support Squadron One (HC-1) supplied the first cohort of Navy pilots for TF-116. Historically, HC-1’s primary mission sets were search and rescue, fleet support operations, and vertical replenishment. Although HC-1 pilots could not rely on any previous exposure to armed helicopter tactics, these aviators had extensive instrument flying experience in low light and marginal weather. HC-1’s early success came not only from previous Navy training, but also from newly developed relationships with the other services operating in the Mekong Delta. Initially, Army UH-1B pilots would instruct HC-1 copilots during “on the job training” operational missions using “split crew” scheduling. Within the first weeks of assuming Game Warden tasking, monthly historical summaries from Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam (COMNAVFORV) reported HC-1’s “communication and coordination [with] waterborne units was outstanding.”[xiii] HC-1 even paid tribute to their Army predecessors by adopting (though slightly modifying) the two-word “Sea Wolves” call sign that the Army had coined for their own shipboard helicopter aircrews.[xiv]
In January 1967, a message released to all Navy squadrons requested volunteers to form a dedicated helicopter gunship unit based out of South Vietnam. On April 1, 1967, HC-1 combined with three new detachments and received the designation, HA(L)-3.[xv] This larger squadron footprint allowed HA(L)-3 to press deeper into the Mekong Delta. The Seawolves established forward-operating bases ashore at Vung Tau, Binh Thuy, Vinh Long, Dong Tham, Nha Be, and afloat on Tank Landing Ships (LSTs) or Repair, Berthing, Messing Barges (YRBMs) stationed at the mouths of and upstream of the Mekong’s major tributaries. With eight pilots, eight aircrewmen, and eight ground support personnel at each location, the detachments could maintain continuous, 24-hour coverage with two, four-person alert crews.[xvi]
Success in the Delta
In five years of operation, the members of HA(L)-3 flew 78,000 sorties, sank 8,700 enemy vessels, destroyed 9,500 structures, killed 8,200 combatants, and received 17,339 medals.[xvii] The Seawolves achieved such impressive summary statistics by enthusiastically approaching their nontraditional Navy helicopter missions. The majority of personnel assigned to HA(L)-3 were “in [their] first tour out of the training command” and the more senior members were all volunteers.[xviii] Though superior officers attempted to steer young pilots away from HA(L)-3, the squadron’s first executive officer, Commander Conrad J. “Con” Jaburg remarked, “The warrior blood in our Seawolves said ‘volunteer’ anyway.”[xix] Despite the career uncertainties surrounding HA(L)-3, the volunteer list filled up almost immediately and was forced to temporarily close.
Employing helicopters in support of expeditionary attack, assault, and rescue operations in the 1960s was not just unprecedented for naval aviation; riverine warfare represented a long-neglected mission for the entire Navy. Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, commander of U.S. naval forces in Vietnam, admitted, “Riverine warfare requires ingenuity and improvisation. There is no body of accepted doctrine on the subject.”[xx] HA(L)-3 aircrews capitalized on the lack of tactical manuals or procedures by flexibly adapting to the environment and tailoring their execution to the needs of the supported riverine patrols. In 1967, TF-116 Sailors boarded over 400,000 vessels while searching for enemy personnel and contraband.[xxi] Since South Vietnam had a sunrise-to-sunset curfew, Game Warden forces could treat all vessels encountered at night as hostile. Affirming the concept of employing Navy gunship pilots for their instrument and night flying experience, former Seawolf Tom Phillips commented, “It’s like hundreds of Army birds went home by dark and nine two-plane detachments of Seawolves would go out and replace them.” [xxii] This willingness to launch at night, when the Army “did not venture out,” proved invaluable to PBR crews vulnerable to VC ambush.[xxiii] For the Seawolves, alacrity and reliability to launch when the call for assistance came was “a matter of confidence building, and the Huey crews took on the challenge with startling vigor.”[xxiv]
HA(L)-3’s willingness to provide multi-mission air support in the Mekong Delta extended from the Navy to “any friendly force in trouble.”[xxv] For example, the Army would often conduct low-level patrols in the OH-6A “Cayuse” or the Air Force in O-1D “Birddogs.” The Seawolves accompanied these patrols, ready to assist with reconnaissance, on-call CASEVAC, or RWCAS.[xxvi] This professional and consistent support of all services operating in the Mekong Delta earned the squadron a reputation with higher headquarters of aggressive, sound decision-making. By 1969, the Seawolves could authorize fires without the supervision of forward air controllers, or command ships. They had earned the supported commanders’ “trust and most others had not.”[xxvii]
An eagerness to scramble for any distress call sometimes required HA(L)-3 aircrews to assume substantial risk during the course of the mission. In his memoir, Seawolf gunner Thurman Hicks describes encountering a beached PCF Swift boat damaged by enemy fire. Hicks explains, “We landed to MEDEVAC the wounded . . . the sailor who needed my space was shot in the stomach. I guess you can say I sort of volunteered to stay behind until they could come back for me.”[xxviii] Aircraft Commander Bill McCamy expanded on Hicks’s account of the flight: “The weather was real crappy─ceiling at a couple hundred feet. After a few runs back and forth and bringing a P-250 pump to the beached Swift, we remained in the vicinity while it pumped out the bilges, did some quick repairs, and got underway.”[xxix] Hicks’s crew’s decision to launch in highly adverse weather and assume the risk of leaving a crewmember behind to save a life is exemplary of the flexible capabilities of rotary-wing naval aviators and of the naval aviation warrior ethos.
The expeditionary nature of HA(L)-3 required each detachment to customize their TTPs to the unique conditions of their specific environment. What the Seawolves were able to standardize across every detachment, however, was a fighting spirit and mission focus. Former Seawolves remember upon arriving to HA(L)-3 headquarters at Vung Tauj, veteran aviators “drummed into [them] ‘fly to fight, fight to win.’ [They] knew nothing else.”[xxx] HA(L)-3 inculcated the Navy’s fighting spirit into every squadron member. This ethos steeled the aircrews to persevere through enemy fire, terrible weather, or the darkest night, whenever the call for assistance came. The Seawolves’ warrior spirit fostered a tradition of “wanting to be the best” and, though they flew non-traditional missions for the Navy, that ethos “gave [them] the drive and desire to do what had to be done despite sometimes overwhelming odds.”[xxxi]
One report of HA(L)-3’s exceptional courage highlights a routine patrol out of “Solid Anchor” firebase in Nam Can. In 1971, Seawolf Aircraft Commander John Gana and his two-aircraft “fire team” flew deliberately through the middle of an altitude block known as the “avoid zone” due to its susceptibility to enemy fire. The Seawolves would lure VC forces into engaging, then target the location of the enemy’s tracer rounds. Unbeknownst to Gana’s crew, VC troops had staged an antiaircraft machine gun trap. Gana recalls, “Our team quickly transitioned from a defensive move to an offensive attack directed squarely at the suspected enemy position. . . .We reached the treetops and turned to home base to ‘hot rearm,’ refuel, and jump back into the fight.”[xxxii] It appears the Seawolves did not avoid enemy fire, but rather confidently invited it to flush out positions threatening friendly units on the ground. They managed the risk by leaning on experience, relying on their training, and accepting their assigned missions with tenacity. Commenting on this disposition in an official capacity, the Center for Naval Analyses concluded, “The young U.S. Navy officers and enlisted men assigned to river patrols performed aggressively and responsibly on their own initiative. . . . Helicopters were essential to riverine operations in fire support, observation, and medical evacuation.”[xxxiii]
HA(L)-3’s operational success was enabled by a maintenance team equally motivated to prove the Seawolves’ dependability. Allocated only two aircraft to provide 24-hour alert coverage, Seawolf helicopter upkeep became an all-hands joint effort with enlisted Navy door gunners attending a week’s worth of maintenance education in each of the workshops. To ensure expeditious and reliable alert launches, the whole aircrew would assist in reloading, fueling, and servicing the aircraft or performing more involved repairs while “off duty.”[xxxiv] At Vung Tau, veteran aviators would fly with new copilots to test post-maintenance aircraft prior to certification for operational flight. These combat-tested Seawolves “all wanted to pass along what they had learned and all the tricks.”[xxxv] The application of lessons learned from peer group to peer group, maintainer to aircrewmen, and detachment veteran to new copilot allowed a continuity of multi-mission focus and warrior pride to develop.
The Seawolves’ willingness to adapt and their fighting spirit would have been inconsequential without the capacity to form cooperative relationships with friendly forces in South Vietnam. In response to the Seawolves’ first major operation of 1966, COMUSMACV recognized “the combination of imagination, initiative, careful planning, and close cooperation between services had overcome obstacles ranging from enemy fire to the improbable operating conditions” and allowed the Game Warden forces to achieve success.[xxxvi] Early Seawolf detachments did so by embedding themselves into the social and professional fabric of the shore facilities and afloat staging bases they shared with SEAL teams, minesweeping units, and surface craft squadrons. Phillips explained, “We could not have been closer to the SEALs . . . the term ‘integrating’ was unknown to us. We planned, schemed, created tactics, tried them, modified them, exchanged ideas, it was personal.”[xxxvii] In order to tailor tactics to the needs of the supported assets, new Seawolves “would go aboard the PBRs on missions to get a better understanding of the role and working environment of these smaller boats.”[xxxviii] On the ground, the Seawolves did not limit their relationship with SEALs, patrol craft crews, and other co-located forces to the professional sphere. In the off-duty periods, Seawolves would regularly rendezvous with these units both formally and informally. They used this time to debrief previous missions and exchange lessons learned while establishing the camaraderie unique to service members forward deployed.
Reviving the Seawolf Legacy
Fifty years after HA(L)-3’s inception, the Navy is again evaluating how to incorporate armed helicopters into expeditionary operations. During the confirmation brief for a 2018 ARG/MEU exercise, Brigadier General Francis Donovan, Commander Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade commented, “I have seen different ways ARG/MEUs utilize their HSC detachments.”[xxxix] This statement from higher headquarters highlights the lack of standardization across the HSC community when approaching forward-deployed ARG/MEU combat integration. This affirms the importance of all expeditionary HSC squadrons uniformly branding their historically nontraditional multi-mission capabilities. The attack, assault, and rescue missions that HC-1 adapted from Army use, and that HA(L)-3 continued to hone throughout the Vietnam War, mirror the tactical syllabi all modern-day HSC squadrons train with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely applied operationally on expeditionary deployments. By interfacing with ARG/MEU personnel at the appropriate level, HSC detachments can demonstrate the willingness and warfighting spirit to invite greater ARG/MEU integration and combat application.
Emulating HA(L)-3’s demonstrated interoperability with co-located joint forces in South Vietnam, HSC aircrews today should assimilate by learning the language of the embarked Marines and engaging with them personally and professionally. Attending staff planning conferences, exchanging and comparing tactical manuals and procedures, and encouraging social opportunities in informal settings promote the growth of Navy/Marine Corps trust. HSC detachments need to equip themselves with the Seawolves’ doctrinal flexibility and situational awareness of Marine TTPs to effectively engage as part of an ARG/MEU team. To create opportunities to hone this familiarity, HSC leadership should demonstrate the willingness and availability to plan with the operations and future operations officers of the major subordinate elements of the MEU prior to formalized staff planning or pre-deployment exercises.
To preserve lessons learned for future expeditionary HSC squadrons and assist in the transition from logistics to combat multi-mission, after action reports (AARs) should be emphasized to encourage skill refinement, highlight effective practices, and continue fostering a warrior ethos. Successful or unsuccessful integration, hurdled obstacles, unfunded requirements, and general shortfalls of the aircrew and maintenance personnel need to be articulated laterally across all squadrons and pushed to higher headquarters. This requires an increase in post-deployment AAR dissemination and face-to-face pass-down with future deploying units. Discussion of HSC ARG/MEU application, however, cannot stay internal to the helicopter community. Effective Navy rotary-wing employment also requires awareness and advocacy outside of the HSC chain of command. Producing storyboards and AARs for joint air and ground forces to push up their respective chains of command would increase Navy rotary-wing visibility in the forward-deployed areas of responsibility and improve supported commander trust. By increasing the dissemination of AARs to outside units, the HSC community can help prevent the need for each new ARG/MEU detachment to reintroduce Navy rotary-wing multi-mission tactical training so late in the deployment workup cycle that they cannot integrate effectively.
To capture the Seawolves’ focus on task force assimilation, modern-day HSC should look specifically to the MEU pre-deployment training plan (PTP) as a platform for capabilities integration. Structured participation in the MEU PTP affords HSC detachments an opportunity to utilize the face-to-face development of TTPs, the same ones which allowed HA(L)-3 to achieve success and earn the trust of co-located forces in South Vietnam. Active representation in the MEU PTP and standardized combat rehearsal participation could demonstrate to the amphibious squadron commander and MEU commander the combat interoperability of the MH-60S. This active involvement would also provide ARG/MEU leadership with the basis to validate to higher headquarters the proven benefits of MH-60S support in ARG/MEU combat operations around the world.
While charting the way forward, present-day expeditionary HSC squadrons should reflect on both the historical example of HA(L)-3 and the words of Vice Admiral Dewolfe H. Miller III, Commander, Naval Air Forces: “We are lethal military professionals. We are courageous, disciplined, and accountable.”[xl] By taking pride in the flexible capabilities of their multi-mission helicopter and advocating a willingness to employ these trained-to missions to ARG/MEU leadership, expeditionary HSC can establish the relationships required for sustained warfighting representation. The Navy Seawolves accomplished this 50 years ago; their successors need to do so again. An ever-increasing demand for multi-mission readiness will continue to test the helicopter community’s ability to balance currency with proficiency, but despite new requirements on the horizon, today’s rotary-wing naval aviators cannot forget the Seawolves’ adaptable approach to flying helicopters. HA(L)-3 aircrews understood that, regardless of the assignment, their actions brought the fight back to the enemy. We must continue to do the same.
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Lieutenant Robert “O.G.” Swain III is a 2012 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, and in 2014, earned his wings of gold at NAS Whiting Field in Milton, Fl. LT Swain completed training in the MH-60S “Knighthawk” at HSC-2 in August 2014, and departed for his first operational squadron, HSC-28, in August 2015. At HSC-28, he deployed on USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) in 2016, deployed with Defense Support of Civil Authorities detachments to the Florida Keys for Hurricane response in 2017, and served as Assistant Officer-in-Charge of the Sea Combat Detachment on USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) in 2018. Upon completion of his time at HSC-28, LT Swain will report to the Naval Aviation Warfare Development Center to complete the Seahawk Weapons and Tactics Instructor “Seawolf” Course in preparation for his orders to Helicopter Sea Combat Weapons School, U.S. Pacific Fleet (HSCWSP) in San Diego, CA.
[i] Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 130.
[ii] Rew, Sealords and Seawolves, 1.
[iii] History Branch, Office of the Secretary, MACV, “Command History 1968 Volume I,” 105.
[iv] Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 97.
[v] “Task Force 116: The Mobile Riverine Force,” 2.
[vi] U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966,” 3.
[vii] Sherwood, “Patrol Boat Rivers Lethality in Vietnam,” 2.
[viii] Nichols and Borgstrom, “The Seawolves: Past…Present…Future?,” 1.
[ix] Brazee, “The Mobile Riverine Force,” 11.
[x] Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 124.
[xi] U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, April 1966.”
[xii] Phillips, Scramble Seawolves, 3.
[xiii] U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966,” 28.
[xiv] Knott, Fire from the Sky, 20.
[xv] U.S. Navy, “HA(L)-3 Early History.”
[xvi] Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 126.
[xvii] Kelly, Seawolves: First Choice, Back Cover.
[xviii] Bill McCamy, email message to author, May 31, 2018.
[xix] Knott, Fire from the Sky, 55.
[xx] Zumwalt, On Watch: A Memoir, 38.
[xxi] Marolda, Combat at Close Quarters, 22.
[xxii] LCDR Tom Phillips (SEAWOLF 98), email message to author, May 1, 2018.
[xxiii] LCDR Tom Phillips (SEAWOLF 98), email message to author, May 31, 2018.
[xxiv] Knott, Fire from the Sky, 29.
[xxv] Ibid, 37.
[xxvi] Olby, “Sampan Insertion.”
[xxvii] Phillips, email, May 31, 2018.
[xxviii] Hicks, “Thurman L. Hicks.”
[xxix] Bill McCamy (SEAWOLF 12), email message to author, May 11, 2018.
[xxx] Bill McCamy (SEAWOLF 12), email message to author, May 31, 2018.
[xxxii] John Gana, “Firebase Solid Anchor.”
[xxxiii] Daniels and Erdheim, “Game Warden,” 6
[xxxiv] Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 127.
[xxxv] Phillips, email, May 31, 2018.
[xxxvi] U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966,” 12.
[xxxvii] Phillips, email, May 1, 2018.
[xxxviii] U.S. Navy, “HA(L)-3 Early History.”
[xxxix] Brigadier General Francis Donovan, Video Teleconference with author, April 9, 2018.
[xl] Nicole Bauke, “Navy Welcomes New Air Boss.”