Vietnam- 25 Years Ago

By Tyler Bush

Reprinted from Leatherneck, August, 1987

    The deployment of a Marine helicopter squadron and supporting units to Soc Trang was an historic event. The Marine presence in Vietnam would eventually grow into the Third Marine Amphibious Force.

    Tension hung in the air as USS Princeton (LPH-5) sailed through the South China Sea. The Marines of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362), Marine Aircraft Group 16 could sense something was about to happen. The squadron commanding officer, LtCol Archie J. Clapp. had just called the men together for a briefing.

It was announced that before daybreak the following morning, April 15, 1962 the darkened ship would pull to within 20 miles of Vietnam. We would make a landing via helicopter. We were to establish a base camp at the village of Soc Trang, Ba Xuyen Province. Our unit was to be the first Marine operational organization committed to South Vietnam. Our mission was to provide air mobility for Vietnamese Civil Guard units and ARVN Ranger assault units. We would return fire only if fired upon. 

The following morning we awak­ened to the humming of the ship’s elevators lifting helicopters, blades folded back, topside. We left the stifling heat below deck, clutching rifles with sweaty palms. As soon as we stepped out topside we knew we were in a different world. Even at this early hour, the heat was so in­tense and muggy it felt like trying to breathe through a pillow.

“Archie’s Angels,” named after our CO, boarded HUS choppers and shuddered off toward the Mekong Delta, wondering if we were going to get shot in the next hour or two. Soon the choppers were hop scotching over lush green foliage and skipping over water-filled rice pad­dies. In a few minutes we slid into an old Japanese airstrip three miles from the tiny village of Soc Trang. ‘Operation Shufly had commenced!

The airstrip had an old hangar into which we could pull our aircraft to work on. There were a few rooms that became offices for operations, administration. etc. Tents were erect­ed for the troops in what was to be­come known as ‘Tent City.” Fresh water had to be trucked in from Soc Trang. Rubber tanks soon held chopper fuel, also trucked in. In less than 24 hours we were opera­tional. although the first combat troop lift was not requested for a week.  We had 24 HUS helicopters, three OE-l observation planes and even­tually 250 men available for duty.

A Vietnamese mortar battalion and infantry battalion provided perimeter security. Inner defense and internal security was provided by our own men.  Language was a major problem  both sides had to make decisions more than once whether a man would not obey a “halt” command because he could not understand, or if he was really an enemy. There was also a language barrier between our helo pilots and Vietnamese support pilots - very dangerous when you need “moment’s notice” help.

We received mail twice a week when the C-130F transport plane supplied us. Usually we also got enough warm soda pop on those flights to last a day or so. To many of us,. that warm pop was almost as re­warding as mail call.

Dust blew so thickly around the base area that at times it was hard to see 20 feet. One minute it would be dry; then thick sheets of rain would come down, and in a few minutes we would be up to our ankles in water and mud. Tents often were blown down, soaking everything and everyone. At night we slept, rifles at the ready, under mosquito nets that barely slowed down the swarm of bugs that left our skin sore and itching with red welts. Rats that seemed as big as cats had a fondness for crawling into the sack with us.

The operations provided us with additional on-the-job training and helped polish our expertise in helicopter support. We learned to never make the same approach to a target area, thus setting up a pattern. Viet Cong set up long, sharpened poles at some sites, trying to herd our helicopters into certain fields of fire when dropping off assault troops. We also had to make sure troops headed in the right direction after leaving the chopper. It was easy for them to become disoriented.

Dummy troop landings were made to drive enemy troops into ambush. At times it proved beneficial for the flight leader to stay “high in the sky.” giving directions to his helicopters swooping in at low level on a mission. Also the use of ‘Eagle flights.” (airborne troop reserves) were made. They stayed in the air until needed somewhere, then landed at a mo­ment’s notice.

Many supply runs were made to the village of Father Hoa (the “fighting priest”), located on the southern tip of the Vung Mao Peninsula. There were no supply roads leading to his village of Binh Hung. Once a much appreciated religious statue was helo-lifted in.  R&R flights were made to Saigon for a few hours, where one might have a terrific meal. such as cows’ brains and fine wine, or other exotic food. There was nothing better than their French bread.  Back at Soc Trang we did not lack good food, either. We had steak for many. many meals. The only thing missed at base was cold drinks! 

On the first of August 1962, HMM-362 was relieved by another Marine helicopter squadron which eventually transferred to Da Nang. in the northern part of South Viet­nam. Da Nang became “home” for most Marines throughout the remainder of the war.


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