It was today, 43 years ago, at the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, in Irvine, California that 24 CH-46 Super D helicopters appeared in the sky to the south, flying in a formation that wrote 161 in the air, ending a journey that began on April 20, more than 3,000 miles to the east.
Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 161, commanded by Lt. Col. Paul W. Niesen, was putting the icing on a history making flight, that itself was just the beginning of a history making journey.
HMM-161 landing at El Toro, April 23, 1968.
You won't know about this if you haven't read the official Marine Corps history of 161, or my unofficial history, but it happened. We started off at the Marine Corps Air Facility in New River, N.C., which was and still is part of the sprawling Camp Lejeune complex in flights of four on April 20. Each section flew a pre-planned route with refueling stops and overnight stays at military bases along the way.
We took one day off in Tuscon, Arizona so the squadron could regroup, and then flew into California as one unit.
The main gate at New River Air Facility, circa 1967
We flew a southern route from North Carolina to California and, as a crew member on YR (Yankee Romeo)-39, I saw the Mississippi River, the Great American Desert and even the lower reaches of the Rocky Mountains from the open cabin door of a CH-46.
A CH-46 from HMM-161 over the desert during the squadron's cross-country flight in April, 1968.
I don't know why this year is more special than any other years, but thanks to the Internet, many of the survivors of that flight and the subsequent tour in Vietnam are talking about it - a lot. For the past three days I have been receiving emails from friends who served in 161 back then, starting with a pilot, Chuck Songer, who noted in the first message that it was 43 years ago that we were making that historic flight.
One person responded, then another, then another, then the floodgates opened. We all have our memories.
We spent five days at El Toro then boarded the USS Princeton LPH-5 for a 17-day trip across the Pacific that included an exploding boiler and a very intense trip right through the center of a Pacific Ocean typhoon.
Two CH-46s from HMM-161, one piloted by Lt. Col. Niesen, making a dramatic mid-ocean rescue of a sailor who had fallen overboard from the USS Princeton, LPH-5.
HMM-161 writing its squadron numbers in the air over a US Navy vessel in 1967 during a NATO operation.
Then we were off the coast of Quang Tri, South Vietnam, then on land in our new home and within 48 hours were flying combat missions along the DMZ, the Laotian border area, and of course the Marine Combat Base at Khe Sanh.
The air strip at Quang Tri. Hot burning sand and helicopters.
In the next several months 161 set records for virtually all of the things that someone keeps track of, but along the way we lost aircraft, pilots and crews too. Chuck Songer made it about three months in country before he was wounded in both legs from communist gunfire and medevaced out of country and eventually home.
Southeast approach to Khe Sanh
Col. Niesen was wounded that day too. HMM-161's tour in Vietnam that started with the April 20 liftoff from the flight line at New River eventually saw 20 crew members, corpsmen and pilots killed in action.
Those deaths represented far more than statistics to most of us. We had joined together in New River beginning in the late summer of 1966, a point when we didn't even have a squadron designation, and many of us lived together, worked together, and fought together for more than two years. Those deaths hurt, and still do.
HMM-161 was designated The First because it was the first Marine helicopter unit to carry troops into battle in the Korean War. The squadron had many other tasks in the intervening years, but we were the first of the various units that carried the 161 colors to fly CH-46s. The squadron continued flying the 46s right up until last year when it received the first tilt-rotor Ospreys and was renamed VMM-161 - the "H" designation no longer applies since Ospreys are not technically helicopters.
I don't think about Vietnam as much as I used to. I was 18 when I joined the Marines, just turning 19 when I joined 161, and 20 years old when we left for Vietnam. I turned 21 during that tour, as did my friends John Allison and Norm "Frenchy" LaFountaine - all of us shared the same birthday.
Two views of yours truly way back when. Top, aboard the USS Princeton, LPH-5 en route to Vietnam. Lower, grabbing a cigar and a few quick winks outside the 161 Avionics hooch, summer 1968.
But I am older, 43 years older in fact, and I have been fortunate in that I have 43 years of other memories that often shoulder the past aside. Time has been taking its toll and many of the people who made that cross-country flight and survived our tour in Vietnam are no longer with us. Some have died of diseases, old age, heart attacks, strokes, even at their own hand.
But once in a while, an email will arrive from an address that I recognize as one of my former squadron mates and I'll stop what I am doing for bit to think back. We were an incredibly talented group of people, starting with our pilots. We had some of the best officers and NCOs that younger Marines could ask for, and we did everything that was required and asked of us, to a far greater degree than many inhabitants of the civilian world could imagine.
In mid-1969, at about the time most of us had completed our tours and were ready to come back to the states, the entire Viet Cong guerrilla force had been wiped out, and the North Vietnamese regulars who had borne the brunt of the fighting in the south since 1965 were decimated.
The US had been working with the South Vietnamese Army for several years to help build their capabilities and if left to its own designs, the war would have become more of a South Vietnam vs. North Vietnam affair in a matter of years. In fact it did and I'll address that in a minute.
But just about the time our tour was winding down, and at the time the US finally had numerical parity on the battlefield, with nearly 550,000 troops serving "in country," President Richard Nixon, at the instigation of National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger announced that he was going to start troop withdrawals.
It was an abysmally stupid announcement on Nixon's part because as we later learned, the communist military commanders already were putting pressure on the political bosses in Hanoi to surrender. They had been beaten to a pulp, even though the pro-communist American media never reported it - and were afraid the US would just cross the DMZ and roll right over them - which we should have.
But the political bosses in Hanoi prevailed after Nixon's blunder, saying the US had weak leaders - they were right - and no backbone - they were right - and no political willpower - they were right, and even if they couldn't beat us militarily the communist politicians would eventually defeat our politicians. They were right about that too, but not as soon nor as easily as they expected.
In late 1969 Nixon announced his Vietnamization program, to shift more of the military burden to the South Vietnamese army, an approach which had worked wonders nearly two decades earlier in South Korea. By 1972 nearly all US combat troops were gone and the northern communists invaded the democratic south with some 250,000 combat troops backed by massive artillery and armored divisions.
But the south held, and aided by US air power inflicted an unprecedented defeat on the north. For years the US intelligence community said that 75,000 communists were killed that spring, but after the Soviet Union fell and the KGB archives were opened for foreign researchers, that number was upped to 150,000, with half of all the communist armor and artillery destroyed too.
Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the top communist military leader who had defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1953, was fired and placed under house arrest.
Nonetheless Kissinger strongly urged Nixon to continue the Paris peace talks, even as Jane Fonda was urging the communists not to surrender - apparently using the argument that even though they had just suffered a military defeat that dwarfed their losses in the Tet Offensive of 1968, America's political will was virtually nonexistent.
The peace talks continued until late 1972 but when the communists kept dragging their feet Nixon began another bombing campaign against North Vietnam. Unfortunately, according to reports from the communists long after the war was over, Nixon, again at Kissinger's urging, stopped bombing two days too early. The communists were on the verge of full surrender, but again, American political "strategy" and willpower were insufficient.
Over South Vietnam's rigorous objections the Paris Peace Accords were signed in March 1973, literally giving South Vietnam away. To put the final nail in the coffin, the US Congress passed the Case-Church Resolution in mid-1973 which ended all economic, humanitarian and military aid to South Vietnam, in what has to be the most shameful incident in the history of US foreign relations. (News reports from the time state that the US government accused the South Vietnamese government of corruption. Talk about hypocrisy.)
The South was left to fend for itself, Nixon resigned, Gerald Ford became president but still relied on Kissinger for foreign relations "expertise," and in April 1975, seven years after HMM-161 and hundreds of thousands of other American, South Korean, Australian, New Zealand and Thai servicemen went to help South Vietnam stay free, it fell to the communist onslaught, alone and abandoned.
In the next few years the communist rampage consumed Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos with nearly 3 million people butchered by the communists. A million South Vietnamese boat people fled on the South China Sea, with an estimated 300,000 perishing due to storms, sharks or pirates. Hundreds of thousands were imprisoned in communist concentration camps that the American pro-communist media labeled "re-education" camps, and more than 60,000 are reported to have been murdered by the communists.
When Kissinger and company signed off on the Paris Peace Accords they knew that more than 300 American fliers were still being held captive in Laos, but in the following years they too were written off and abandoned. In 1991 Sens. John Kerry and John McCain as co-chairs of the Senate Select Committee on POWs and MIAs slammed the door on all further inquiries into their fate, and ordered all information on those brave Americans to be "Classified" until long after we all are gone.
By now you must be asking yourself if I would do it all over again?
I'll tell you. I wish I could bring back all who were killed, and heal all who were grievously wounded. If there truly was magic in this world, that is how I would use it.
As I write this, it is a gray and rainy day in Southern New England. The trees are just starting to show a bit of green, but the clouds and fog descended on us earlier and with the starkness of the forest just beyond my office window, it is easy to conjure up images from the war, especially the monsoon months after Agent Orange had done its work.
Oddly enough, I remember the good things most. How so many of my fellow aircraft electronic technicians volunteered to fly as gunners. How many Air Medals we were awarded, individually as well as unit awards, along with many other decorations. How close we were, even if the stress of war and death rubbed us terribly raw at times. And there is no doubt that I also remember how many were killed, and the others who were wounded.
But even knowing what I know - How our ally was abandoned by our government; how we were betrayed by traitors like Kerry, and Fonda, and yes, Kissinger; even knowing what happened I would never in a million years have missed the opportunity to serve with the people I knew in HMM-161 who 43 years ago began a journey that in many ways still has not ended.
Maybe it would have been more politically correct to write about Easter today. But I'd rather leave you with the words from the original version of an Irish folk song now known as The Parting Glass.
What I have done through lack of wit,
I never, never can recall;
I hope you're all my friends as yet;
Good night. And joy be with you all
In fact, how about if I just leave you the entire song, as it was performed on one of my favorite movies, The Waking of Ned Devine.
It was 43 years ago today, but I remember much of it as if it all just happened. And I will never forget those who also served in HMM-161.
Saturday, April 23, 2011