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Flying Windmills in Korea

 
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Operations Summit, Blackbird & Bumblebee, Sept. & Oct. 1951
By Lynn Montross


The Marines had been in Korea less than 24 hours when the helicopter got into action. On 2 August 1950, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade landed at Pusan. And early the next morning the commanding general, BrigGen Edward A. Craig, made a reconnaissance flight in an HO3S-1 of Marine Observation Squadron 6.

This flight marked the dawn of a new day in command relations. Thanks to the helicopter, a general and his staff could now maintain a direct physical contact with operations at the front such as had never been possible before. Not only was vertical flight an aid to reconnaissance, but it enabled a commander to keep in personal touch with his units, since the helicopter could land practically anywhere without asking favors from the terrain. Thus the brain of the military body was given a closer and more immediate degree of control over the muscles and sinews.

This was one of the results of the studies and tests begun in 1946, when the United States Marine Corps took the lead in the development of helicopter combat techniques. The Maine Corps Schools at Quantico served as the tactical laboratory. Again history had repeated itself, for it was in those red brick buildings at Quantico that Marine officers of the 1920s set themselves the task of creating a new system of amphibious warfare. And now, after a second World War, the sons of those officers had the problem of rejuvenating that system with new combat techniques made possible by vertical flight.

The two long-range projects had a good deal in common. Both were conceived in an hour of widespread pessimism as to the future of amphibious warfare. In the early 1920s the battleship sinkings and troop repulses of Gallipoli had convinced Europe’s admirals and generals that such an assault could never prevail against modern firepower. And in the late 1940s a new generation of skeptics insisted that the atomic bomb doomed the ship-to-shore attack to failure.

It is ironical that the renown of the Marine Corps for physical valor should sometimes outshine an equally well-earned reputation for cerebral daring. Certainly it took real intellectual courage in the 1920s for a little group of Marine and Navy officers to fly in the face of world-wide military opinion. At a time when Captain B.H. Liddell Hart and other critics were preaching the doctrine of the all-powerful defensive, these Fleet Marine Force pioneers believed that the most dangerous form of the offensive could be made to succeed.

Their faith was vindicated in World War II by the American invasions of Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy and the Japanese islands of the Pacific. Most of these victories were won either by Marines or Marine-trained Army and Navy units, using Fleet Marine Force techniques. Not a single major defeat could be charged against a system of amphibious assault which a British historian of World War II has called “in all probability…the most far-reaching tactical innovation of the war.” [Footnote #1 – MajGen J.F.C. Fuller: The Second World War, 1939-1945, (London, 1948)]

But the explosion that rocked Hiroshima in 1945 also shook the confidence of many Americans in the tactics which won some of our most brilliant victories. Again a little group of Marine officers had the intellectual courage to differ, even though several famous names were included among the pessimists. These Marine officers conceded that the atom bomb had probably rendered obsolete the great naval concentrations of past amphibious operations. Tactical dispersion, they maintained, was the answer to “the bomb”—a degree of dispersion which could be put into effect only by means of vertical envelopment and aerial supply. But such past methods of vertical envelopment as parachute or glider landings were not satisfactory. The ultimate solution, said these Marine officers, was to be found in the possibilities opened up by the helicopter as the “flying LST” of the new age of atomic warfare.

Any such brief summary must run the risk of over-simplification, for it was a complex new field of tactics that the Marine Corps set out to cultivate in accordance with its basic mission as America’s force-in-readiness. In fact, the entire pattern of amphibious assault had to be taken apart and rebuilt around the new concepts of dispersion and vertical envelopment. It took imagination as well as cerebral daring in 1946, moreover, to work out combat techniques for a type of aircraft so new that only a few had made an obscure appearance in the recent war.

Vertical flight, it is true, had already been realized to some extent in the autogiro of the past two decades—an aircraft which depended on a propeller as well as an overhead rotor revolving without mechanical aid during flight. In 1932 the Marine Corps purchased one of the early machines and put it through the first test flights to be given any rotary-winged aircraft in the field. [Footnote 2 – For a detailed account of the tests, see the article “The Marine Autogiro in Nicaragua” in the Gazette of February 1953.]

Those flights took place during the Marine intervention to restore order in Nicaragua. Marine fliers in Nicaragua and Haiti had already worked out such techniques as dive-bombing, which was popularly and erroneously credited in 1940 to Luftwaffe aviators. But the autogiro was found wanting by the Marines for combat purposes after exhaustive tests established that its payload was deficient.

The world had to wait until 1937 for a true helicopter depending entirely on power-driven rotary wings for both vertical lift and forward motion. This first practicable helicopter was a German product, but its military possibilities apparently did not appeal to the Luftwaffe generals. Altogether, rotary-winged aircraft played a very minor part in World War II, and not until 1942 did Igor Sikorsky’s experiments give the United States its first helicopter capable of sustained flight.

Four years later, when the Marine Corps began its studies, it would have been rank exaggeration to say that helicopter combat techniques were in their infancy. Most of them had not yet been conceived. World War II had left few precepts, even though several Sikorsky helicopters were flown by the U.S. army Air Corps in Burma and the Philippines during the last months of the war in the Pacific. But these machines, which seem to have been regarded as curiosities, made little impression on operations decided entirely by conventional aircraft.

The Maine Corps was starting from scratch, therefore, when it commissioned its first helicopter squadron late in 1947. Commanded by Colonel Edward C. Dyer, HMX-1 was assigned two general missions:

(1) “Develop techniques and tactics in connection with the movement of assault troops by helicopter in amphibious operations;
(2) “Evaluate a small helicopter as a replacement for the present OY-type aircraft to be used for gunfire spotting, observation and liaison missions in connection with amphibious operations.”

The original eight officers and one enlisted man had no helicopter experience whatever. Colonel Dyer took his flight training at the helicopter factory, and other HMX-1 pilots and mechanics were trained by the few qualified instructors of the Naval Air Schools at Lakehurst, New Jersey. Two months passed before this pioneer helicopter unit received its first aircraft—two four-place Sikorsky machines (HO3S-1) designed for utility work. The first mission, other than training, was a search for the route to be followed by a salvage party in removing a mired-down “Weasel” (amphibious jeep) from a creek near Quantico.

From this modest beginning, HMX-1 reached the stage six months later of participating with 16 officers, 40 enlisted me and five HO3Ss in Operation Packard II. This was an amphibious command post exercise held by the Marine Corps Schools from 10 to 26 May 1948 in the area of New River, North Carolina. As it concerned HMX-1, the exercise was an initial test to determine the value of the helicopter in the movement of troops for an amphibious assault. The squadron had two weeks of preliminary shipboard training on the carrier Palau, and the ensuing operation proved that the new amphibious team of carrier and helicopter had many advantages over the old system of transport and landing boat.

On the evidence of the New River tests, the Marine Corps Schools brought out in 1948 their first doctrinal publication on the tactical employment of helicopters. Theory and practice went hand in hand at Quantico as HMX-1 pilots conducted experiments in such diverse missions as traffic direction, rescue work, formation flying, fighter evasive tactics, high-speed wire laying and an airborne public address system. In August 1948, the squadron received its first HTL-3, a two-place Bell helicopter useful for artillery spotting, reconnaissance and aerial photography. Troop movement training was given a great impetus this same month with the arrival of the first HRP-1—a twin-rotored, 10-passenger Piasecki helicopter, then the world’s largest, which was soon to be dubbed the “Flying Banana.”

In November an HO3S-1 from the squadron participated in the exercises of the Second Task Fleet in the Newfoundland area. And on Christmas day three HRPs sailed from Norfolk on the Saipan for a rescue mission in Greenland which afforded good Arctic training even though it proved unnecessary. These cold weather operations were followed in the spring of 1949 by tests under tropical conditions when four HO3Ss and an HTL took part on board the Palau in the Atlantic Fleet Exercises (FLEX-49) off Puerto Rico.

Nine HRPs were employed by HMX-1, in conjunction with Marine air and ground forces, to demonstrate helicopter combat techniques at Quantico in May 1949 before members of Congress and high military officials. Shortly afterward the squadron left for New River to board the Palau and take part in Operation Packard III.

An instructive comparison was offered between old and new amphibious assault techniques when the landing boats hit the beaches as the “Flying Bananas” were lifting troops five miles inland for a simulated vertical envelopment. Many of the boats were swamped in the rough seas, and others were long delayed in tying up to the AKAs on their return. Yet, the effectiveness of the helicopters each carrying six fully equipped combat troops, was little impaired as they shuttled back and forth from the carrier to their inland objective. Cover was provided by fighter aircraft simulating smoke and by strafing attacks on defensive forces.

The first week of 1950 found HMX-1 with a strength of 26 officers (of whom 21 were fliers) and 83 enlisted men, including two pilots. The squadron was represented by a detachment in Operation Crossover, held by the 2d Marine Division at Camp Lejeune during the last three days in April. Here a helicopter lifted a 75mm pack howitzer with its crew and ammunition during the simulated amphibious assault.

Operation Packard IV took place late in May, and the aircraft of HMX-1 made round-trip flights between the carrier Mindoro and the North Carolina target area. Most of the helicopter techniques of these exercises were presented again at Quantico on 15 June when the Marine Corps gave a demonstration of an airborne amphibious assault for the President of the United States.

Only 10 days later a Communist aggression in Korea led to United Nations intervention. U.S. armed forces were ordered to active duty in the Asiatic peninsula. This meant that Marine helicopter theory would soon be put to the test of combat, for the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was activated on 7 July at Camp Pendleton under the command of BrigGen Edward A. Craig, and exactly a week later this reinforced RCT sailed from San Diego to the Far East.

The air component, commanded by BrigGen Thomas J. Cushman, consisted of three fighter squadrons and an observation squadron of MAG-33, 1st Marine Air Wing. Included in this air strength was the first helicopter unit in history to be trained and organized for combat duty—the seven officers, 30 enlisted men and four HO3S-1 aircraft of the rotary-wing group of VMO-6. Major Vincent J. Gottschalk was the CO of a squadron completed by a fixed-wing group of six officers, 43 enlisted men and six OY-2 planes.

VMO-6 sailed for Korea on 14 July under the operational control of the brigade and under the 1st Marine Air Wing in administrative and logistical respects. The helicopter contingent had been sent from Quantico to California by HMX-1, and during the voyage to Japan the “flying windmills” carried mail from one ship to another. After disembarkation at Kobe, the four helicopters were part of a VMO-6 flight echelon which continued by air to Pusan, arriving on 2 August. A surface echelon followed by LST two days later.

The mission of VMO squadrons had been stated in 1949 as the conduct of “tactical air reconnaissance, artillery spotting and other flight operations within the capabilities of assigned aircraft in support of ground units. [Footnote 3 – FMF Pac SOP #3-5, VMO Squadrons, dated 28 Nov 49.] This definition, of course, left plenty of room for the ‘copters to show what they could do under combat conditions. The first demonstration came on the very first morning in Korea, when General Craig and his aides utilized the rotary-wing aircraft not only for reconnaissance but also for locating assembly areas and directing troop movements.

The brigade commander’s initial flight took him from Pusan about 30 miles to the Changwon area. In route he landed to give instructions to the CO of the advance battalion. The pilot, 1stLt Gustave F. Lueddeke, set the HO3S-1 down in a yard between three native huts, and took off vertically a few minutes later. Next, General Craig selected the site for his forward CP and deposited his personal gear. Then he proceeded to Masan 10 miles away to confer with LtGen Walton W. Walker, CG 8th Army, and MajGen William B. Kean, CG 25th Inf Div. And on his return trip, General Craig landed three more times to issue orders to troop commanders.

Only the helicopter could have made this itinerary possible within a period of a few hours. A fixed-wing plane could not have landed at will, and a jeep could not have covered the same route before nightfall over narrow, twisting roads choked with Army and Marine vehicles.

Evacuation of casualties as a helicopter mission had an early test on 4 August with the bringing in of a wounded and a dead Marine. On the following day, three more casualties were taken to the rear, two of them from the steep slopes of ridges. For evacuation purposes, two ‘copters were modified by removing the window on the starboard side and installing straps in the cabin on the opposite side to hold a stretcher securely.

Actual combat experience tended to deflate the legend of helicopter vulnerability that had grown up in training exercises. Despite the limitations of rotary-wing aircraft as to speed and altitude, their mobility enabled them to fly low and take advantage of hills, valleys and other natural cover for protection. The OYs proved to be more vulnerable, though faster and offering less of a target. On 6 August a “grasshopper” was lost as a result of enemy action, but the pilot and observer swam ashore after ditching in the sea. Three weeks later the squadron had its first fatality when enemy fire brought down another OY, and 1st Lt. Harold J. Davis died of injuries.

Both types of VMO-6 aircraft remained on call from dawn to dusk during the first two weeks in Korea. Enemy fire soon became an old story for pilots on reconnaissance flights or searching the mountain areas for bands of infiltrating Communists. Shortly after dawn on 7 August, as the Marines jumped off at Chindong-ni, General Craig’s helicopter was the target of enemy mortars on the way to the advanced command post, making it necessary for him to land and continue on foot. Pilot Lueddeke managed to take off again without harm, though two shells exploded within a hundred yards.

The U.N. attack had the distinction of being the first sustained counter-offensive to be launched against the NK invaders who had advanced from Seoul to within 50 miles of Pusan. This vital supply port had to be held, and Chinju was the objective of Marine and U.S. Army assault troops under the operational control of CG 25th Infantry Division. The 40 flights of VMO-6 aircraft that day included reconnaissance missions, evacuation of casualties and drops of food and water.

On 8 August the helicopters set a new record when the first casualty evacuation after darkness was completed successfully by Captain Victor A. Armstrong, who brought out a wounded regimental surgeon. Here it may be noted that the sensational publicity stunts of stateside factory pilots had given the American public an exaggerated idea of the aeronautical progress of rotary-wing aircraft. Actually, the helicopters of 1950 were comparable to the fixed wing planes of World War I. Makeshifts often had to be devised by VMO-6 pilots who flew with their heads outside the window for vision in rainstorms, and who shifted rocks about the cabin to maintain the balance so essential to safety with this delicately-poised type of aircraft.

Rescue missions were added to their duties on 10 August when 1st Lt. Doyle Cole’s Corsair was hit by anti-aircraft fire while flying close support. As it glided into the sea not far offshore, General Craig looked on from Lieutenant Lueddeke’s helicopter. And it was the brigade commander who supplied the muscle to hoist Cole from his raft into the machine as it hovered a few feet over the water. Later that same afternoon Lueddeke rescued a second Corsair pilot, Captain Vivian Moses, who had crash-landed behind the enemy lines. Unfortunately, Captain Moses was shot down again three days later, and the unconscious flier drowned in a rice paddy before Captain Eugene J. Pope could rescue him in a VMO-6 helicopter.

Brilliant close air support was provided by the two Marine carrier-borne fighter squadrons, VMF-214 and VMF-323, as well as elements of Japan-based VMF (N)-513. Often their results owed to the reconnaissance of VMO-6 aircraft, and there was no better morale factor than the knowledge that the ‘copters would attempt a rescue if a fighter pilot crashed in enemy territory.

Heavy NK resistance in the Chindong-ni area held up the infantry attack from 7 to 9 August, and General Craig was directed by General Kean to assume operational control of all Army as well as Marine units. During this critical period the brigade commander relied upon VMO-6 helicopters for command and staff missions. And though he could not actually be in two places at once, General Craig gave that illusion with his frequent landings to confer at Army CPs or direct commanders of combat units.

Such occasions had a historical significance. For the helicopter promised to bring back a personal element to command relations that had largely been lost in modern times. Obviously it was no longer possible or even desirable for a general to lead the advance in person. But it could be argued that the pendulum had swung back too far when a division commander and his staff were sometimes remote figures to junior line officers. General Craig’s helicopter did a good deal to restore the balance, however, by bridging the time and space gap which usually separated a present-day commander from troops in combat. The Marine general became a familiar sight to company and even platoon commanders as he landed to give oral instructions, and his energetic leadership had much to do with the smashing of NK resistance.

Marine and Army units raced along parallel routes toward Chinju, driving the battered NK forces ahead of them. As the first United Nations victory of the war, it was heartening to the troops, who had been retreating since the initial Communist aggression. But with the objective in sight, the Marines were pulled back on the 13th in preparation for a new counter-attack in the Naktong Bulge area.

As a preliminary, General Craig received orders from General Kean at noon on the 12th to rush a reinforced battalion about 25 miles to the rear in the Chindong-ni area, where infiltrating Communists had overrun an Army artillery battalion and threatened to cut the MSR. Only the helicopter could have enabled the Marine general to execute in a single afternoon a maneuver calling for the 25-mile road lift of a reinforced battalion with its munitions, and an assault in the opposite direction. After taking off from his CP at Kosong, he made two landings to give orders to the regimental and battalion commanders. Next, he spotted columns of trucks from the air and landed twice more to direct them to dump their loads and provide transportation. His G-3 and the battalion commander had meanwhile been sent ahead by helicopter to reconnoiter the objective area and plan for the Marines to deploy and attack upon arrival. Owing to these preparations, the assault troops seized part of the enemy position before darkness and finished the job in the morning.

From his helicopter, General Craig saw the attack launched at sunset while flying to Masan for a conference with General Kean. There he was informed that all Marine and Army forces were to be pulled out at daybreak, and he returned to Kosong just before nightfall to plan a withdrawal that was carried out successfully in the morning.

Helicopters were used by the brigade command and staff to maintain positive control over the heavily engaged rear-guard battalion as it broke off contact with the enemy. One of the machines “dodged” enemy 20mm fire to drop panels to Marines on a 1,600-foot-ridgeline, and another helicopter had rifle grenades lobbed at it after landing at the battalion CP. VMO-6 flights that day totaled 45, adding up to 53.9 hours in the air.

The Marine ground-air team, as the “firemen” of the Pusan perimeter, launched two more counter-attacks before being relieved on 5 September. In both of these Naktong Bulge assaults, VMO-6 aircraft carried out their usual missions, though the HO3S-1s scored a new “first” on 3 September with a successful helicopter wire-laying mission in combat. A total of 898 flights and 805 hours was reported by the squadron for August, of which the helicopters made 580 flights totaling 348 hours and the OYs 318 flights for a total of 457 hours.

Throughout the brigade operations the helicopter had been, as General Craig put it, the “emergency weapon” of the command and staff. Early in August he sent a message to LtGen Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., CG FMFPac, another warm advocate of rotary-wing aircraft, requesting that machines of troop-carrying capacity be attached to the brigade. But such equipment was not available at the time, and helicopter troop lifts in Korea had to wait until the following year.

The helicopter had not made its excellent showing, however, at the expense of the OY plane. One of the primary missions of HMX-1, it may be recalled, was determining the relative value of the two types for the missions of an observation squadron. On a basis of training exercises, it was recommended at Quantico that OY planes be replaced by helicopters. But this decision was reversed, on the strength of combat experience with the brigade, by a recommendation of VMO-6: “A composite squadron composed of light OY-type liaison aircraft and liaison-type helicopters is considered both desirable and necessary.”

In preparation for the Inchon amphibious assault, VMO-6 passed under the operational control of the landing force, the 1st Mar Div commanded by MajGen Oliver P. Smith. The two echelons of the carrier-based squadron reached the target area with a strength expanded to 15 officers, 95 enlisted men, five OY-2 planes and six HO3S-1 aircraft.

No part was taken in the landings of 15 September, but on D+1 a helicopter flew the artillery observer conducting the first spot mission for the 11th Marines. And at 1000 on the 18th, only a few hours after the ground forces repulsed an enemy counter-attack, Captain Armstrong made the first landing at captured Kimpo Airfield, with General Shepherd as a passenger in his helicopter.

As the operation turned into a grinding assault on Seoul against mounting resistance, the Kimpo-based aircraft of VMO-6 had their job cut out for them. Operating over a large area, they were frequently exposed to intense small arms and automatic fire. Two OYs and a helicopter were destroyed during the three-week offensive with the loss of two pilots killed and a third missing as a probable POW.

It was a fairly typical day’s work on 23 September when VMO-6 flew 10 reconnaissance, five artillery spot, one utility, six evacuation and two rescue missions for a total of 30.2 hours. The results were five artillery registrations, four artillery fire missions and the rescue of a Marine fighter pilot in enemy territory north of the 38th parallel.

After the crossing of the Han, the river separated the division CP from the units attacking the approaches to Seoul. Traffic was so congested that jeeps taking the pontoon ferry were subject to long delays. Helicopters offered the solution, and both General Smith and General Craig made daily use of them to visit battalion CPs on the north bank of the Han.

Helicopters provided the answer again the following November when the 1st Mar Div was so extended in northeast Korea that units at Hagaru were about 50 miles from the division CP at Hungnam. Following an administrative landing at Wonsan, the Marines had unusual command and staff problems. As a result of personal reconnaissance flights in VMO-6 aircraft, General Smith ordered the Chosin Reservoir MSR to be strengthened for tanks, and a C-47 airstrip to be commenced at Hagaru. Thanks to such far-sighted command decisions, the 1st Mar Div was probably the best prepared major unit on the UN front when the first CCF counter-offensive exploded late in November.

VMO-6 began the operation with a strength of 15 officers and 87 enlisted men plus seven aerial observers attached from the division. Aircraft consisted of six HO3S-1s, three OY-2s and two L5-G types, flying from Yonpo Airfield along with fighter squadrons of the 1st MAW.

VMO-6 pilots tackled their greatest task so far when the CCF attacks of late November divided the 1st Mar Div into five self-contained perimeters along the MSR from Chinhung-ni to Yudam-ni. For a few days the only dependable physical contact was provided by helicopters, and VMO-6 operations were conducted from the half-finished Hagaru airstrip in order to save time. Rugged terrain, sub-zero cold and high altitudes added to the trials of fliers who often encountered CCF small arms and automatic fire. Two pilots were killed in action and the aircraft required frequent repairs. Many lives of ground Marines were saved, however, by emergency helicopter evacuation of casualties from isolated perimeters. Other VMO-6 missions contributed in tactical respects to the fighting breakout of the 1stMarDiv with most of its equipment. From 28 October to 15 December the squadron made 1,544 flights for a total of 1,624 hours. The chief missions were as follows:

  • Reconnaissance – OYs, 393; helicopters, 64;
  • Transportation – OYs 130; helicopters, 421;
  • Evacuation – OYs, 29; helicopters, 191;
  • Liaison – OYs, 35; helicopters, 90;
  • Artillery Spot – OYs, 39; helicopters, 0;
  • Utility – OYs, 26; helicopters, 60;
  • Rescue – OYs, 0; helicopters, 11

This was about the pattern that VMO-6 missions were to take in support of the 1stMarDiv as it participated in 8th Army attacks throughout the spring of 1951. The Pohang-Andong guerilla hunt was followed by Operations Killer and Ripper, then by the CCF counter-offensives of April and May. And when the 8th Army struck back in June, the Marines had their hardest fighting.

VMO-6 had grown by this time to a strength of 28 officers and 94 enlisted men with 31 aircraft—seven OY-2, four L-19, five HO3S-1 and five HTL-4 types. Infantry casualties were heavy during the first two weeks of the month, and in June the helicopters evacuated 198 wounded Marines from mountain terrain while making three rescues behind enemy lines.

On 15 July the division went into 8th Army reserve in the Yanggu-Inje area, but VMO-6 continued its reconnaissance flights during the ensuing training period. As the first year of Korean operations neared an end, it might have appeared that Marine helicopters had performed in combat nearly every mission except the one originally visioned—the mission of transporting troops and supplies for future amphibious assaults. A step had already been taken to remedy this lack, however, when Marine Transport Helicopter Squadron (HMR) 161 was commissioned on 15 January at El Toro as a unit in Aircraft FMFPac. After a seven-month training period under the command of LtCol George W. Herring, the squadron sailed for Korea in August with a strength of 43 officers and 244 men. Equipment consisted of 15 Sikorsky transport (HRS-1) helicopters capable of carrying five or six fully armed troops each.

HMR-161 landed at Pusan on 2 September under operational control of the 1stMarDiv, which had recently mounted an offensive in the Punchbowl area. It did not take the new outfit long to get into action. Only a few days after moving up to the front, HMR-161 indoctrinated troops of the 1st Shore Party on 12 September in loading and landing techniques. And at 1600 the following day the squadron initiated the first mass helicopter re-supply operation in history.

Operation Windmill I consisted of lifting a day’s supplies for the 2d Battalion, 1st Marines a distance of about seven miles. Shore party personnel accompanied the first four aircraft; they landed with picks and shovels to clear an area for the dumps, and 78 casualties were evacuated on return flights. Performance did not fall short of plan, and 14 helicopters were employed for 28 flights amounting in all to 14.1 hours. A total of 18,848 pounds was lifted to a landing point a hundred feet square at an altitude of 2,100 feet.

Windmill II a few days later added little to knowledge already gained, and meanwhile the squadron prepared for Operation Summit. This time the problem was tactical—the lift of Recon Co to a razor-back ridge, Hill 884, for the relief of a ROK unit. The helicopters few reconnaissance on the position and held practice flights in which the troops rehearsed their descent from 30-foot knotted ropes. And on 20 September, despite the fog, HMR-161 completed the first helicopter-borne landing of a combat unit in history by lifting 224 fully equipped troops to the objective and 17,772 pounds of cargo in addition to supplies carried by the men.

Two sites had been selected in advance just below the crest. Only about 50 feet square, owing to the rocky terrain, these landing points had sheer drops on two sides. An assault squad of Recon Co landed at the outset to cover the SP troops who followed to clear the first area.

Flying time from the loading point averaged eight minutes, and it took about 90 seconds for four men with full equipment to land by rope. A second landing point was opened 20 minutes after the first, and five men were carried in each ‘copter thereafter to exit to the ground in an average of 20 seconds. Thus the troops continued to pour in steadily until the completion of the operation in 65 flights amounting to 31.2 hours flying time and four hours over-all time. As a final touch, eight miles of wire were laid in 15 minutes to the CP of the 1st Marines.

On this same day, after the successful completion of the offensive begun in late August, the mission of the 1st Mar Div was changed to one of occupying and defending. The assigned frontage of 20,000 meters made it a problem to man the MSR and still keep up an adequate reserve. The left flank being weakest, a five-mile helicopter lift of a company from the division reserve bivouac area was contemplated in case of urgent need. And since an emergency would probably take place at night, it was decided that a full dress rehearsal should be held for a lift under cover of darkness.

This was the inception of Operation Blackbird. The rehearsal was carried out on the morning of 27 September, with night conditions being simulated as closely as possible. But darkness itself could not be simulated, and many difficulties remained to be overcome at H-hour of 1930 that evening.

A company of the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines had been selected, and each helicopter carried five fully equipped troops. It took 41 flights by six machines to transport the 233 men in the over-all time of two hours and 20 minutes, as compared to the nine hours required for a march over mountain trails. Still, it could not be said that Operation Blackbird was an unclouded success. The flare pots illuminating the embarkation area were frequently blown out by rotor wash, and meanwhile they blinded the pilots by creating a glare on plexiglass windshields. Battery-operated beach lanterns in the landing zone were hard to distinguish from other lights.

Artillery flashes added to the visibility troubles of pilots taking off from a river be and climbing through three mountain passes to reach the objective. Although care had been taken in rehearsal to memorize terrain features, difficulty was experienced in locating the Punchbowl landing area. The shuttle system was used, with intervals of three minutes between departures, and the round-trip covered 13 miles. Good communications were maintained between the aircraft base, embarkation point, landing zone and helicopters in flight by means of a VHF circuit.

But even though there had been confusion, Operation Blackbird left many encouraging precedents as well as a few object lesions. And two weeks later HMR-161 completed a helicopter lift that made headlines all over the world—the lift of an entire Marine battalion and its equipment.

The purpose was to acquire planning experience by determining time factors of such a tactical movement. An opportunity arose when the 3d Battalion of the 7th Marines, commanded by LtCol Harry W. Edwards, was directed to relieve a battalion of the 5th Marines. Oral warning orders were issued on 8 October, and members of the battalion TACP reconnoitered the assigned assembly area located directly behind the MLR and screened from enemy observation. Planning was conducted as if for an amphibious operation, with the assignment and loading table for the HRS-1s being modeled after that of a boat assignment table.

As preparations reached the final stage on the 10th, all officers of the battalion watched a loading and unloading demonstration by enlisted men of Item Co., assisted by SP personnel. Operation Bumblebee began at 1000 the next morning when the first helicopter team departed. The flight path of 15 miles, though longer than necessary, took advantage of the concealment offered by valleys and defiladed areas. Ten to 12 minutes were required to cover one leg of the journey, but six men with combat equipment could be loaded in less than 30 seconds. Dispatchers at Red and White loading zones checked off departing teams against the roster, and any shortage was filled immediately by a man from the casual pool.

As the helicopters landed at intervals of a minute, the troops were briskly assisted to the ground by the SP personnel who had cleared the two landing points. A six-man team could exit in 17 seconds, and new arrivals were hustled by guides to their own company assembly area. Following are the principal statistics of Operation Bumblebee, which alone tell a story:

  • Number of helicopters: 12
  • Number of flights: 156
  • Total flight time: 65.9 mins
  • Over-all time: 5.50 hrs
  • Number of troops lifted: 958
  • Average weight per man: 340 lbs
  • Total weight lifted: 229,920 lbs.

Newspaper correspondents in Korea were quick to sense that tactical history had been created, and wire stories of Operation Bumblebee made the front pages all over the world. Gratifying as this acclaim was, however, Marine planners considered the achievement a beginning rather than an end. A great deal more perspiration as well as inspiration would be needed if the Marine Corps was to maintain its leadership in developing helicopter combat techniques, and HMR-161 completed two more operations in October.

Battalion lifts by helicopter were to become routine events in the 1st Mar Div sector during the next few months, but Operation Bumblebee remained a landmark of the progress made in a little over a year of Marine combat experience. The concepts advanced in 1946 at Quantico had stood the test of war, and future ship-to-shore assaults would owe immeasurably to these pioneer helicopter operations in Korea.

 
 
 

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