Skyball 19-8-2012 - submitted by Ed Kufeldt

VMO-6 Legacy 

The United States Marine Corps celebrated its aviation centennial earlier this year. On May 22, 1912, First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham became the first Marine to fly and pilot an aircraft. From a handful of daring men and primitive aircraft, Marine aviation grew to a force that met the test of combat in all subsequent major and small wars and expeditions.  

Since that first fateful day, Marine fliers developed techniques for supporting Marine infantry in combat operations such as close air support, aerial resupply, helicopter troop insertions, reconnaissance, medical evacuations, as well as many other support roles.  

During the past 100 years, the Corps developed new aircraft and formed aircraft squadrons that met its needs with always the first objective to support the fighting Marines on the ground. Throughout the history of the U. S. Marine Corps aviation, many squadrons achieved notoriety and have distinguished war records. One such squadron is Marine Observation Squadron Six (VMO-6).

VMO-6 will be remembered for its exemplary accomplishments in peace and wartime, and for its outstanding leaders and air and ground crew members. Within the Marine Corps' aviation community, the squadron has one of the longest histories of combat operations and the unit was awarded the highest wartime aviation decorations.

In executing the squadron's primary “observation” mission, VMO-6 had 14 different fixed wing and 6 various types of helicopters during its operational history. The squadron was always in the forefront in combat operations and utilizing new aircraft, testing ideas and technology, and developing new missions in support of ground Marines. Many “firsts” occurred throughout the history of the squadron.  

Like most flying units in the early years of Marine Corps aviation, VMO-6 was assigned to Aircraft Squadrons, East Coast Expeditionary Force, Quantico, Virginia, and activated as Flight E, 3d Air Squadron in 1920. Squadron lineage shows the name was changed to VO-6M in 1927 and to VMO-6 in 1944.

In January 1928 and for nine months, the unit deployed for combat operations in support of Marine ground forces in Nicaragua. Pilots flew three Curtis F8C-1 “Falcon” biplanes and completed reconnaissance, aerial photography, and light attack. In addition and using its four assigned tri-motor transports, the squadron developed and conducted the first Marine aerial resupply in combat conditions.

At Quantico in October 1930, the squadron received the Curtis F8C-5 “Helldiver” built for observation and dive-bombing. With this aircraft, a six and nine plane flight demonstration team called the “Helldrivers” were formed and performed at major public events representing the U.S. and the Marine Corps, and also performed in air races. Although it received highly favorable public and media support, limited resources caused the Marine Corps to deactivate the squadron on June 30, 1933.

With the need for more aerial observation and artillery capabilities in the Pacific WWII Operations, the squadron was reactivated on November 20, 1944. In conjunction with this decision, all observation squadrons were attached to artillery units for tactical control but remained administratively assigned to the Marine Aircraft Wing.  

From April 1 to July 6, 1945, VMO-6 supported the Battle of Okinawa. In June the squadron began making medical evacuation flights. During one two-day period, the unit had only three aircraft flying but managed to evacuate 94 wounded and many occurred during hours of darkness. During the Okinawa campaign, VMO-6 flew 460 combat missions, evacuated 195 seriously wounded men, and completed 904 flight hours. The three month accomplishments were completed in the OY-1 “Sentinel,” a two seat, single engine, observation aircraft. For its distinguished record, the squadron was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Shortly after the end of WWII and for the 15 months beginning on October 11, 1945, VMO-6 was based at Tsingtao and Tientsin, China. The squadron supported the allied forces with a mission of reporting troop movement of the Chinese Communists. Additionally, they performed rescue and medical evacuation missions. In a major operation using the OY-1 aircraft, the squadron rescued an Army Communications Group Team by making 17 lifts over a seven hour period and using a small athletic field as the evacuation site.

On August 2, 1950, VMO-6 arrived in Korea for combat support with 8 OY-2s and 6 Sikorsky HO3S-1 helicopters. The next day, the squadron starting flying the HO3S in support of the Marine 1st Brigade and the flights became the first time the Marine Corps used helicopters in combat operations.

They immediately proved to be combat worthy for medical evacuations, search and rescue, reconnaissance, and command and control. Another historic event occurred on August 4 when the squadron completed the first helicopter medical evacuation. Four days later another first occurred when VMO-6 completed the first helicopter night MEDEVAC. This was noteworthy since the aircraft did not have proper instrumentation for night operations. During night flights, the pilot had to use a flashlight to monitor the aircraft instruments while maneuvering the helicopter.

On September 23, Captain Victor A. Armstrong flew the longest search and rescue mission when he flew almost 100 miles behind enemy lines to rescue a downed Navy pilot. On his return flight, he ran out of gas over friendly territory and had to land. Shortly thereafter, he was refueled and landed at a friendly controlled base at night using a flashlight to illuminate the helicopter control panel.

Two days later, a squadron helicopter effected a rescue in record-breaking time of a Marine fighter pilot and radar operator who were shot down. From time of notification until completion, the rescue operation took six minutes. Later that night, a more significant rescue took place after a VMO-6 helicopter suffered battle damage and had to land in enemy territory. Captain Armstrong launched in another squadron helicopter to recover the down crew members. In a HO3S-1 with no landing light, he was able to spot the downed aircraft as a result of illumination from the burning of the city of Seoul. Because he was unable to use his hoist, he landed on a sandbar close to the damaged aircraft. The two downed crewmen swam to the rescuing helicopter and were safely returned to base.

One of the veteran VMO-6 helicopter pilots in Korea was Captain Gene Morrison who logged 186 missions during his tour. Today, Captain Morrison is in his 90s living in Beaufort, NC.

Captain Morrison still has a sharp mind and he recalls:

“My first flight in Korea was on October 12, 1950. That one as a test flight, but nine days later it began to get serious when I took a helicopter all the way up to Yonpo Airfield which was Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. This was after the Inchon Landings which had broken the back of the North Korean Army. On October 20, the 187th Regimental Combat Team's paratroopers made a mass drop north of the retreating enemy and dealt a serious blow to them. But in the meantime, the 187th suffered some heavy casualties. They called for helicopters to get their wounded out, and we responded with everything we had. At the time, C119s were landing and taking off from Yonpo, stirring up so much dust it was hard to tell where to land the 'copter. We were using a lot of fuel and since we didn't have any of our guys up there to help, we were directed to a pile of 55 gallon drums filled with gasoline. My crewchief and I had to pour the gas into 5 gallon containers, and carry them over to where I had set down. With our tanks having a 100 gallon capacity, you can imagine our efforts. On that day, I hauled eight casualties out, one at a time. The next day, we hit a snag in that our helicopter had one magneto that wouldn't check out; but we went ahead and carried more troops out with only one mag.”

The few VMO-6 helicopters that were available that far north, were urgently needed to evacuate 1st Marine wounded from Kojo where there had been a fierce firefight. Captain Morrison never shut his HO3S down, as he pushed his chopper to the limit while evacuating several litter cases to safety. With the walking wounded, the chopper could carry three; but with stretcher cases, a window on the right side had to be removed, with the litter sticking out about two feet. The victim's head was inside while his feet were outside—wrapped heavily with blankets and communication wire to protect from the bitter cold.

On April 23, 1951, a sudden offensive cased all squadron HTL-4 helicopters to fly at 6:00 am to assist in evacuation of wounded Marines in the operational war zone. During day light operations, 50 critically wounded Marines were flown from the front lines to a predetermined medevac area in the rear. First Lieutenant George A. Eaton completed 16 evacuations and Captain Dwain L. Redalen accounted for 18 evacuations. Captain Redalen logged nearly 10 aircraft flying hours and had to complete the mission at night using ground lighting.

VMO-6 was the only Marine squadron flying helicopters in the Korean war until over a year after the squadron's arrival when HMR-161 was off-loaded on September 2, 1951, with 15 HRS troop carrying helicopters.

In the 35 months of combat operations in Korea, the squadron helicopters (HO3S-1, HO5S-1 and Bell HTLs) flew 22,367 missions including 7,067 medical evacuations of which over 1,000 occurred at night. On 14 May 1954, VMO-6 helicopters completed 55,000 flight hours in Korea. As the lead squadron in flying helicopters in a combat environment, VMO-6 proved that the aircraft was more resilient and less vulnerable to enemy fire than thought possible. The squadron also supported ground forces using fixed wing aircraft, the TBM “Avenger” and Cessna OE-1 “Bird Dog,” and completed aerial observation and artillery spotting missions.

In recognition of its distinguished combat record in Korea, VMO-6 was awarded three Presidential Unit Citations, a Navy Unit Commendation, an Army Distinguished Unit Citation, and three Korean Presidential Unit Citations.

On July 27, 1964, the squadron received its first Bell UH-1E “Iroquois” know as the “Huey,” the first turbine-powered helicopter in the Marine Corps. A year later, on September 10, VMO-6 along with other units of Marine Aircraft Group 36 boarded the USS Princeton (LPH 5) for Vietnam.

Beginning September 1965 and through October 1967, VMO-6 was based at Ky Ha, Vietnam in combat support of Marine Forces in I Corps. In the combat environment, the squadron had two basic aircraft configurations. The “slick” or unarmed UH-1E was used for medevac and administrative missions while the “Huey Gunships” were armed with 2.75 inch rockets and four externally fixed mounted and two internal rotating M-60 machine guns. In the armed configuration, the squadron escorted transport helicopters and provided close air support of ground forces, forward air controller, (airborne) (FAC(A)) of armed fixed wing aircraft, artillery spotting, Naval gunfire control and reconnaissance.  

The squadron call sign “Klondike” and “Klondike Playboy” for controlling fixed wing flights was revered by all because VMO-6's support was considered the best by ground units and fixed wing pilots. Squadron pilots with over 100 monthly flight hours and over 1,000 combat flying hours during a 13 month tour was common. 

Initially, VMO-6 provided a 24-hour medevac alert. In this role, an unarmed helicopter with a crew of four including a Navy Corpsman was escorted by an armed UH-1E helicopter.

Weather conditions and enemy activities in the combat area were continually a problem for finding the location of the wounded and then safely completing a medevac mission, and many were completed using aircraft instruments and marginal navigational aids.

A typical medical evacuation occurred one month after arriving in country when Captain Robert G. Whaley encounter instrument flying conditions and a Marine air control unit was contacted for radar service. An instrument climb was initiated to 8,500 feet, and vectors were made unit the flight was out of two-way radio communications with the controlling unit. Flying the last assigned heading, Whaley eventually made contact with a flare plane which guided the medevac helicopter to the pickup area using flares dropped from the fixed wing aircraft. After finding a small hole in the clouds over the sea, Whaley spiraled down and flew in the general direction of the medevac pickup. The Marine unit requesting the medevac pickup made contact with the helicopter after seeing the aircraft landing light in the ground fog and the injured Marine was recovered.

While at Ky Ha, VMO-6 had a high aircraft availability rate and completed an array of missions. On January 28, 1967 the squadron set a VMO-6 record for hours flown and for number of fixed-wing flights controlled in a 24 hour period. On that day, the squadron logged nearly 130 flight hours and controlled 27 flights of fixed-wing aircraft. A typical day involved gunship escort, fixed-wing control, medical evacuations, and reconnaissance flights.

During March and April 1967, VMO-6 flew 3,134 flight hours, 7,218 sorties, and 2,016 missions while supporting seven major operations. During this two month period, the squadron carried 896 passengers, completed 1,027 medical evacuations, controlled 166 fixed-wing flights and credited with 40 enemy killed.

Unfortunately and due to enemy actions, the squadron lost aircraft and aircrews. One such incident, a medevac pickup, occurred on April 5, 1967. Captain John Boden, pilot of the armed escort H-1 tells this story:

“I was the pilot of the second aircraft, an armed escort UH-1E with the lead being a “slick Huey” to pick up the medevacs. The pickup was on a large flat hilltop for two wounded Marines. We were directed to the northeast area of the hill, where the wounded had been brought to avoid the area to the south of the hill, from which the Marines were receiving sporadic fire from the enemy. The pilots of the medevac aircraft made a spiraling approach to the landing zone, where the wounded waited with the four men carrying them. As the bird flared into a hover in preparation for landing, the four Marines began to run towards it with the wounded on litters. Just before they set down from their hover, a huge explosion occurred and everyone and everything seemed to disappear. Completely gone, a black mark left where men and machine had existed. It didn't seem possible, but it was true. The crew in my plane and I were stunned, shocked into silence. First we saw them and then we didn't.”

As a result, the pilot Captain Brooke M. Shadurne, copilot Captain Alan J. Dean, crew member Corporal Joseph A. Scruggs, and a Navy Corpsmen HM1 Thomas A. Parker in the aircraft were instantly killed and the helicopter was destroyed. The investigation found that the enemy had positioned and buried a large bomb that was under the aircraft and remotely detonated from a nearby cave using a wire hookup.

Many squadron aircrew members performed heroic actions in Vietnam. On such feat was completed by four on August 19, 1967 as written in A History of Marine Observation Squadron Six and published by the History Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps:

“Captain Stephen W. Pless piloting a Huey gunship, answered an emersgency call for help; four American soldiers were stranded on a nearby beach and were being overwhelmed by a large Viet Cong force. Captain Pless and his crew, Captain Rupert E. Fairfield, Jr., Gunnery Sergeant Leroy N. Poulson, and Lance Corporal John G. Phelps, flew to the scene and found 30 to 50 enemy soldiers in the open. Using the H-1's guns and rockets, Captain Pless attached the enemy, killing and wounding many, and driving the remainder back into a treeline. Captain Pless then maneuvered his helicopter between the wounded men and the enemy, providing a shield whidh permitted his crew to retrieve the wounded soldiers. The enemy continued to rush the helicopter, again and again closing to within a few feet of Pless and his crew before being driven back by fire from the Huey's guns. After the wounded had been loaded on board, Captain Pless maneuvered his helicopter out to sea, but before it became safely airborne, the overloaded aircraft skimmed the water several times. Jettisoning his rocket pods and excess gear, Captain Pless as finally able to get the aircraft aloft and return the wounded to safety and medical care. Captain Pless received the Medal of Honor, and his crew members the Navy Cross for their actions.”  

These four awards combined were the highest given to a Marine Corps aircrew from one aircraft. 

In October 1967, the Army began taking control of the southern area of I Corps and VMO-6 relocated to Phu Bai and then to Quang Tri near the DMZ between South and North Vietnam a month later. At the same time, the North Vietnamese Army began large build-ups in Northern I Corps and the Tet Offensive began in January 1968.  

As a result, the squadron was inflected with almost daily rocket attacks at Quang Tri, but yet had an overwhelming requirement to provide support at Hue, the DMZ, Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, and throughout the area. Consequently, the squadron continued to loose aircrews and aircraft.

“On February 16, 1968, two Huey gunships were launched to assist in the emergency extraction of reconnaissance team “Box Score.” The transport helicopter landed in the zone and picked up the team, but as it was lifting out, two team members jumped out to help another member who had failed to get on board. The transport helicopter continued out of the zone because of extensive battle damage. One of the VMO-6 escorting H-1 gunships went into the landing zone to pick up the remaining three members. Killed immediately were the pilot, First Lieutenant Bobby F. Gilbreath, the copilot, First Lieutenant Paul A. Jensen, and the gunner, Staff Sergeant Jimmy E. Tolliver. The crew chief Corporal Harry W. Schneider, died of injuries en-route to a medical facility.”

In response to the loss of squadron aircraft, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing responded by assigning O-1Cs “Bird Dog” in July 1968. Four moths later, VMO-6 converted to the new OV-10A “Bronco.” With these needed and new aircraft, the squadron went full circle in its history—fixed wing to helicopters to fixed wing.

For its distinguished record in Vietnam, VMO-6 was awarded two Presidential Unit Citations, two Navy Unit Commendations and the Vietnam Service Award with ten Citations.

In October 1969 and with the draw-down of the military commitment in Vietnam, the squadron relocated from Quang Tri to Futema, Okinawa. On January 1, 1976, the squadron was deactivated. The last command chronology stated that....“31 December, last day in the history of VMO-6. VMO-6 is no longer on the active Marine Corps rolls. Its many accomplishments and the men who served it faithfully through nearly five decades will not be forgotten. Its proud traditions lie waiting to inspire a new generation of Marines should the need arise to uncase the colors.” 

During the 46 years VMO-6 was an active unit, 66 squadron members died in combat operations. In memory and honor of these lost squadron members, VMO-6 former members and squadron family and friends raised funds and erected a monument in the Semper Fidelis Memorial Park, National Marine Corps Museum, near the entrance to Marine Corps Base in Quantico, VA. The memorial was dedicated on May 17, 2012, and in conjunction with the 100th Anniversary of Marine Corps Aviation.

The names of the 3 squadron members killed in Nicargua, 5 in WWII, 23 in Korea, and 35 in Vietnam are engraved on a six foot high black granite shaped airfoil along with etchings of 7 aircraft that were primarily flown in the squadron's combat operations. 

As envisioned by the memorial designer, “The sculptural shape of the monument is derived from the airfoil of an aircraft wing. The shape is essential to flight and it represents both the core and the vitality of the squadron. The wing as been severed at its tip and rests on edge, rising from the ground. This is meant to depict the disruption of flight; the loss of life and our eventual fall to a place of rest back on earth. While the base of the wing is earthbound, its tip projects skyward, suggesting the desire to rise again to the heavens. And so, through this structure we honor those squadron members who have fallen to rest on earth, but in memory and spirit still soar above.”

 Individual names include those who died in support of a VMO-6 mission – pilots, copilots, crew chiefs, aerial gunners, Navy corpsmen, aerial observers, and including squadron members on the ground killed by enemy hostile action. Also, commemorative bricks are placed around the base and in the walkway to the monument for squadron members to memorialize their participation in the one of the finest and distinguished units in the Marine Corps. 

As a result of excess funds in the memorial fund account after the memorial was built, erected, and dedicated, the VMO-6 Memorial Fund Board of Directors gave over $9,300 to the Captain Stephen W. Pless Scholarship Fund that is managed by the U.S. Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.