Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Seawolves, Red Wolves, and Blue Hawks, Oh My!: Deadly Airborne Animals Born over Vietnam

In a 1967 painting by artist Larry Zabel entitled Rung Sunset, an UH-1B Iroquois of the Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 "Seawolves" banks over the Rung Sat Special Zone, a vast and treacherous mangrove swamp southeast of Saigon, after making a firing pass against Viet Cong guerrillas.  in the distance, another "Huey" gunship from the squadron is making its run. (Courtesy of the Navy Art Collection)
By Zachary Smyers
HRNM Educator

During the Vietnam War, the Navy devised Operation Game Warden. This was the Navy’s plan to deny Viet Cong forces, which were dedicated to overthrowing the U.S.-allied government in South Vietnam, the use of local waterways to move personnel and supplies throughout the region. Due to the considerable amount of rivers in the Mekong Delta, Operation Game Warden proved to be a challenging task for the Navy. The rivers and waterways typically had a tremendous amount of boat traffic and it wasn’t always easy to identify friend from foe. The Navy’s plan involved the use of river patrol boats, or PBRs, which would typically operate on the rivers in groups of two, boarding and searching local sampans and junks for enemy weapons and supplies. While this task could become tedious, often times it could also become quite deadly, resulting in intense firefights. The PBRs had the advantage though of being able to call in immediate air support from the Navy Seawolves. 
A HAL-3 gunship comes in for a landing aboard USS Garrett County (LST-786) anchored on the Co Chien River and serving as a patrol craft tender for the River Patrol Force.  Although the LST's flight deck could accommodate two choppers, only one could turn its main rotor at a time.  (Naval History and Heritage Command image) 
Using UH-1B “Hueys” acquired from the Army, the Navy formed Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 3, the Seawolves. The Seawolves were an all-volunteer squadron and the first pilots and aircrewmen deployed to Vietnam on July 1, 1966. Operating from a landing ship, tank (LST) which served as a “mother ship,” the Seawolves were always on call to provide support in their Hueys. 
Equipped with two 2.75-inch seven-tube rocket pods and four flex-mounted M-60C machine guns facing forward, not to mention door gunners capable of training their own swivel-mounted M-60s in virtually every other direction, this UH-1B Iroquois flying low over PBRs on the Cho Gao Canal in the Mekong Delta in April 1968 gave riverine units in South Vietnam an invaluable multi-dimensional defense against ambushes and other nastier surprises they might encounter. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)  
Between missions, a Seawolf crew member loads rockets aboard an unnamed LST. (National Archives and Records Administration)
The Seawolves’ Hueys were set up in the gunship configuration, carrying a variety of weapons which included 14 2.75-inch rockets, two M-60 machine guns (which were hand-held and operated by the aircrewman from the door area), four M-60 machine guns known as “flex guns,” M-2 .50 caliber machine guns (also operated by aircrewmen) and two 7.62 mm mini-guns. The most common load out for the UH-1B was carrying the rockets in pods with one mini-gun mounted on the left and one mounted on the right which were fired from the cockpit. Set up in this configuration, the UH-1B proved to be a vital air asset to the Navy forces working on the rivers which included Navy SEALs.
The co-pilot of a UH-1B keeps a close watch over a PBR traveling ahead. If a threat presents itself, at a moment's notice he can swing the XM-60 reflex sight mounted on the windshield frame ahead of him down to the right in order to aim the Huey's four M-60C machine guns, which are capable of turning 80 degrees horizontally, 10 degrees upward and 85 degrees downward, hurling over 500 7.62 mm rounds a minute. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)    
The Seawolves’ first major combat action in Vietnam took place on October 31, 1966. Two PBRs discovered a fleet of sampans (more than 80 vessels) that were trying to move a Viet Cong unit that was the size of a battalion from one riverbank to the other along the Thon river. The two PBRs came under intense fire from both sides of the riverbank. The PBRs retreated and called for immediate air support. The Seawolves arrived on station 15 minutes later, and with their first rocket and gun pass, completely destroyed a sampan. The second pass destroyed another sampan and the enemy forces began to retreat. By 2100 hours the battle was over and the Seawolves claimed the destruction of 16 junks and sampans as well as damaging 7 additional vessels. The Seawolves helped turn the tide of the battle and prevent the crossing of the Viet Cong battalion.
Assigned to the river patrol force and flying from USS Belle Grove (LSD 2), Seawolf 26 fires a 2.75 mm rocket dislodging a sampan from a river bank in the Rung Sat Special Zone during operation Jackstay. The blast stripped the sampan of its camouflage and it was sunk by subsequent rocket and machine gun runs in April 1966. (Naval History and Heritage Command image)
The Seawolves served in Vietnam from 1966 to 1972. They logged over 120,000 combat missions flying in Vietnam as well as Cambodia. Personnel within the unit were awarded the following: five Navy Crosses, 31 Silver Stars, two Legion of Merit Medals, 219 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 156 Purple Hearts, 101 Bronze Stars, 142 Vietnam Gallantry Crosses, 439 Navy Commendation Medals, 228 Navy Achievement Medals, six Presidential Unit Citations, and two Navy Meritorious Unit Commendations. During their time in Vietnam, 44 members of the Seawolves were killed in action.
A retired UH-1B with HA(L)-4 "Helwingres" markings at Ely Memorial Park near Gate Four of Naval Station Norfolk. (M.C. Farrington)   
HA(L)-3 was decommissioned in 1972. However, the success of the squadron in Vietnam lead to the creation of Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 4 at Naval Air Station Norfolk and Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 5 at Naval Air Station Point Mugu, California, in 1976. These two units would over time evolve into Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 (HSC-84) the “Red Wolves,” and Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 78, the “Blue Hawks.” Both squadrons would see combat during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The UH-1B static display helicopter at Ely Park represents those that flew with Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light) 4, those that flew with HA(L)-3 before it, those that followed in Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadron 4 (HCS-4) afterward, and, finally, Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 (HSC-84), which was disestablished on March 19, 2016.  (M.C. Farrington  

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