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Vietnam's Helicopter Valley: Graveyard of Marine CH-46'sFeature Report by Tim King Salem-News.com
Five Marine helicopters downed in 'Operation Hastings' were an unforgettable loss.
(SALEM) - In Vietnam, a particular place known as 'Helicopter Valley', will always be synonymous with loss and sacrifice of Marines who fill some of the riskiest occupations ever imagined.
It is a place of skeletal remains, where the wreckage of five Marine CH-46 'Sea Knight' helicopters carrying the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines (3/4), who had lifted off the ground at Dong Ha, crashed down in a close proximity in Vietnam's Song Ngan Valley in 1966.
Lieutenant General Summer Vale, battalion commander, remembers the grisly sight of several panicked Marines being sliced to death "by the helicopter blades as they were getting out of the helicopters".
It was a tragic event that claimed many lives and it was a reminder of the intense challenges facing the US military as it became increasingly engaged in this SE Asia war. In A Chronology Of Marine Helicopters In Vietnam 1962-1975, USMC Helicopter Association writes of Operation Hastings:
It began when two of the birds in a third wave of helicopters delivering combat Marines, had their rear blades contact while offloading their Marines on uneven ground. Not expecting the tangling pair of doomed aircraft, a third CH-46 veered too close to trees in this thick jungle area; its blades caught and it crashed. Shortly after that, a fourth similar CH-46 was downed by sniper fire.
The full caption for the photo of the stricken aircraft above, courtesy of usmcpress.com, describes the loss of one of the fifth aircraft that day:
Marines flying the CH-46 helicopter in combat scenarios, are among of the boldest and most precise pilots and aviation crews in existence. I speak from experience when I say that catching a flight with these Marines in even semi-hairy situations in Iraq, can be one of the most hair-raising things most journalists will ever do.
Crossing Paths with the CH-46
I came to know these somewhat awkward but mostly awesome aircraft as a young Marine in Southern California, back in the early 80's, stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Tustin (LTA) which used to be the Marines' helicopter base in the area for the birds with wheels. They kept the skid types; UH-1 Hueys and AH-1 Cobras, at Camp Pendleton.
What I find personal about this story, is that I worked directly with one of the squadrons that made those unscheduled sacrifices that day: HMMT-164. The other squadron that paid dues that day was HMM-265; both were with Marine Aircraft Group-16 (MAG-16). The 'H' incidentally, represents helicopter, the other letters represent 'Marine Medium' and the 'T' which was later added to 164, stands for 'Transport'.
HMM-164 was sent to Santa Ana, California, the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, in 1969, after three long years in Vietnam. Many of the pilots and crews, were veterans of the Vietnam War, and some were likely flying the day carnage came to Helicopter Valley.
We were told the same went for many of the aircraft; that many had been in Vietnam, however the model of CH-46 being flown in 1966 was replaced long ago, and the old versions were never brought back to the United States. If CH-46's at Tustin were indeed Vietnam War vets, they were the more recent versions.
Some view the CH-46 and a death trap as it carries a great deal of fuel and can turn into an incinerator box very quickly for the crew with a serious malfunction, or as happens too often in war, from a rocket or small arms fire. In the two photos at the top of the story, of the 5th CH-46 lost that day, 13 Marines died.
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association posted the following information on flyarmy.org in an article titled: 'how 'Helicopter Valley' got its name':
The 24 CH-46As were divided into six divisions of four aircraft each since LZ Crow appeared large enough to accommodate four aircraft landing together. Each CH-46 carried 14 troops plus a crew of four. Since numerous automatic weapon positions were located to the northeast, the final approach heading was generally southeast, which caused the terrain to slope downhill to the zone. There was a tailwind of about 5 knots.
The first two divisions landed in Crow without incident. HMM-265's EP-155, in the third division, overshot the landing point and hit a tree line, causing strike damage plus minor injuries to the crew and passengers. It came to rest to the right, outside and the zone and was smoking. HMM-164's YT-15, flown by MAJ Tom Reap, was the fifth division leader.
The second ship in the fifth division was HMM-164's YT-18, flown by CPT W.J. Sellers. HMM-265's EP-160, flown by CPT R.O. Harper, was the third ship and CPT L. Farrell in EP-174 was the last ship in the fifth division which approached the zone in a free-trail formation.
In the report of aircraft mishap, MAJ Reap stated he believed he was slightly high and fast on final. Rather than flare and place his wingman in an awkward position, he picked a clear area about 75 feet east of the LZ. He came to a hover and the crew helped him avoid a small ridge already occupied by Marines.
He started losing rotor RPM as he pulled power to move over the ridge. The CH-46 dropped the last 8-10 feet to the ground and landed hard. Sellers was about four rotor diameters behind Reap and a little higher.
He flared to about 20 degrees nose up to get rid of this airspeed and moved abeam of the leader as he came to a high hover. Some trees near the stream, a stand of 20 foot bamboo, and troops already on the ground limited his touchdown choices. He started losing RPM in the hover and set down to the left of Reap.
Both CH-46s were on uneven ground. YT-18 was only on the ground about four seconds before it meshed aft rotors with YT-15, which had already lowered its ramp and troops were leaving. Both aircraft began to shake and vibrate violently; then broke at the splice just forward of the aft pylon.
The pylon dropped, injuring some men inside. YT-15's blades killed two Marines who had just left the aircraft.
At 1815, while inserting a reaction company to guard the three CH-46s in LZ Crow, HMM-265's EP-171, flown by CPT T.C. McAllister with SGT R.R. Telfer as crew chief, was hit at 1,500 feet by 12.7mm fire.
Photos taken from the ground show smoke coming from the cockpit windows and flames from the rear of the aircraft. When they tried landing on Crow, smoke filled the cockpit so no one could see. They overshot the LZ and crashed on the edge of the battalion's CP and 81 mortars.
Thirteen Marines died and three were injured in this incident. Thereafter, the Marines referred to the Ngan River Valley as "Helicopter Valley."
The pictures of the flaming CH-46A at the top of this article, (one of the most famous images of the war) is the subject CH-46A after it caught fire and was trying to get to the ground. It was filled with 12 USMCR troops and its crew of four. Other crew members of the aircraft were Sgt Gary Alan Lucas, gunner (second and third degree burns-face and arms), Capt Thomas C. (TC) McAllister, pilot, and 1stLt George Richey Jr., copilot.
A Personal Narrative
Ronald Cutlers and Jim Reid who were members of Company B, 3rd Engineer Battalion that was attached to H&S/2/1, killed on EP-171.
A Comment on the Incident
The USMC Helicopter Association wrote about different aspects of the event. They related how on the next day, 16 Jul, a platoon from 1st Force Recon Company rappelled from a MAG-16 helicopter onto the summit of the Rockpile, a few miles away from Helicopter Valley, to establish an OP for the first time. NVA units were located in large caves throughout the adjacent Razorback, which made for much contact during the coming month. The operation would prove to be tragic and costly.
Another excellent Website with information about the Marine crashes and Operation Hastings in the summer of 1966, is OperationHastings.com. Their pages include a great deal more about what happened and what resulted from this gutsy attempt to climb right into Charlie's back yard. They also feature gritty first-hand accounts from Marines who lived to tell the story.
As much as this operation is about lost helicopters, it is also about the Marine Infantrymen who went into what turned out to be, in some cases, impossible odds against the North Vietnamese 324B Division. These were prepared, hardened fighters, all of whom knew the terrain better than the Marines flown in and dropped off by the birds.
On the worst day, 24 July 1966, 18 Marines from 3/5 India Company were lost, with one officer among them.
Mission of the CH-46
The Marines are still flying this aircraft after so many years, and they will be around for a bit longer. The real replacement for this aging 'Vertol' as they are nicknamed, is the OV-23 Osprey, a combination between a standard helicopter and a fixed wing plane, it has two tilt rotors and I was fortunate to catch a ride in one of these when I was covering the Iraq war also, which was an interesting experience to say the least. They are super fast and very efficient for the Marines.
However the CH-46 is the staple, something that hasn't changed too much, for a long long time. According to Wikipedia, the United States Marine Corps CH-46E, also referred to as the "Phrog", is still regularly flown by the Marine Corps, its longevity as a reliable airframe has led to such mantras as "phrogs phorever" and "never trust a helicopter under 30".
CH-46E Sea Knights were used by the Marines in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I observed the aircraft in strong use in 2008. However the United States Navy retired the airframe on 24 September 2004, replacing it with the MH-60S Knighthawk. Of the remaining CH-46's, the Marine Corps plans to maintain its fleet until the MV-22 is fully fielded.
As a Photojournalist for the NBC station in Yuma, Arizona, back in 1996, I was tipped off one day that a CH-46 caught fire on takeoff. I jumped in my truck and raced a few blocks to the base, and the Marines actually let me inside the gate to record that particular aircraft burning intensely.
Fortunately, no Marines were seriously injured. The clip ended up becoming part of the coolest news program open I'd ever seen. It isn't a sight I would soon forget.
I covered at least two other CH-46 crashes in this time, and also those of several other planes including F/A-18's and A/V-8B Harriers, though none that were fatal as I recall, until the very last one I covered out of Yuma; an EA-6B Prowler that went in at high speed killing all four Marine officers aboard. The CH-46 Sea Knight has its own dark history, but is is not unlike other Marine aircraft in that respect.
It seems fair to conclude that the helicopter, however outdated, really has a remarkably successful record in the bigger picture, and they have without question, carried countless Marines back to safety.
The story of the Marines who took part in Operation Hastings is one of immense courage, tragic loss, and hard lessons learned. It is both harrowing and extremely historic, I hope any who read this will take a moment and leave a comment, or drop me an email, this article is a tribute to all of you.
Please note: Comments on this story need to be respectful or they will not be approved, thanks.
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