Who was MajGen Bruno Hochmuth?

It has been my intention since first being approached about blogging for the Marine Corps Association, that this remain a very flexible medium. I didn’t want to plan weeks in advance…. I wanted to write on whatever aspect of USMC history had captured my interest on a given day. While wondering about what my next topic might be, I received a simple question from our webmaster: “What do you know about Bruno Hochmuth?”  My response was basic: He was killed in action in 1967 in Vietnam, while commanding the 3d Marine Division. The highest ranking Marine killed in the war, his helicopter had crashed into a flooded rice paddy. I had heard stories over the years that the crash was  the result of “friendly fire,”  but I knew no details….That simple question led me to wonder what the circumstances of his untimely death were.

A graduate of Texas A&M University, Hochmuth was commissioned in 1935. Originally attached to the 7th Defense Battalion, he later served as the Assistant Operations Officer for III Amphibious Corps, participating in the battles for Saipan and Tinian. In 1945, he commanded the 3d Battalion, 4th Marines during the Okinawa campaign. By 1967, he had risen to the rank of major general and on 19 March, assumed command of the 3d Marine Division, leading the division through heavy fighting south of the Demilitarized Zone.

But what of his death? What were the circumstances surrounding that fateful day?

As division commander, MajGen Hochmuth routinely travelled by helicopter throughout the division’s area of responsibility. On the morning of 14 November, on a dark and windy day, a UH-1E helicopter piloted by Captain Milton Kelsey lifted off from Phu Bai, enroute to pick up MajGen Hochmuth. Designated Scarface-1, the helicopter arrived in the ancient city of Hue and, after picking up the general and his party, lifted off the hospital pad at the Citadel at 1145. Five minutes later, flying northwest over Highway 1 toward Dong Ha, the helicopter yawed to the right and the aft/engine section exploded in a fireball. The fuselage separated from the rotor, and the aircraft fell to the ground in pieces.

Over the years I had heard a variety of stories about the death of Major General Hochmuth. One was that he was a victim of “friendly fire,” his aircraft brought down by American artillery. Another was that the helicopter crashed due to enemy small arms fire. At least one secondary source claims, “the UH-1E carrying General Hockmuth (sp) was shot out of the sky, seven kilometers northwest of Hue.” Radio Hanoi was quick to announce that Communist forces had brought the helicopter down.  A TIME magazine article of 24 November states, “Whether the Dong Ha bound Huey was destroyed by Communist gunfire, sabotage or a freak accident may never be known…”

I decided to dig a little deeper. In reading the report of the Board of Inquiry ordered to investigate the crash, I was surprised to learn that I was acquainted with the one eyewitness, the pilot of the chase helicopter assigned to fly with Hochmuth’s UH-1E. Major John A. “Al” Chancey, assigned to HMM-364, had arrived in Vietnam on 29 October. It was his first flight as a Helicopter Aircraft Commander (HAC).  His official statement, submitted to the Board clearly described the events of that fateful day:

We leveled off just underneath the overcast at approximately 1500 feet and about 90 knots airspeed.  About 5 minutes after take-off, at 1150, the UH-1E yawed slightly right and left and at the same instant exploded in mid air.  The explosion appeared to emanate from the center portion of the aircraft (engine and aft cabin area).  The whole aircraft was immediately engulfed in a large fire ball and dense black smoke.  The fuselage separated from the rotor, and fragments flew in all directions.  The rotor appeared to remain intact and the burning fuselage fell away in a near vertical descent.  Because of the dense smoke and my evasive action to fly clear of the falling debris, I was unable to observe the maneuvers of the fuselage on the way down or the impact.

I transmitted the crash position (300/12 miles from Phu Bai) and the circumstances on guard channel and then descended to see if I could detect any survivors or assist.  The fuselage was still burning although it was almost completely submerged in a flooded rice paddy.  We hovered around the wreckage for 5-10 minutes but found no evidence of survivors…I observed no weapons fire at the time of the explosion, nor did I receive any fire while hovering around the crash scene.

The bodies of those Marines killed in the crash were recovered later that day. The last to be recovered was MajGen Hochmuth. He was found in the rear seat of the helicopter, the spot where he customarily sat while in transit.
I called LtCol Chancey one evening this past week to discuss the events of 14 November 1967. He was kind enough to send me something he had written years later:

And among the things I learned this day was that there is nothing to prepare you for seeing an aircraft filled with Marines falling to earth in a ball of fire.  The first reaction is unimaginable shock at the sight of an aircraft exploding in mid air only a few yards away, but the shock is momentarily tempered by total disbelief and the urgent action to avoid the debris.  More lasting is the overpowering feeling of helplessness as the aircraft tumbles to earth and you realize you are witness to the last agonizing moments of life for the five Marines on board.  Only later does the profound sadness settle into the pit of your stomach along with the nausea it creates.  Even today, 38 years later, I often think of these few good Marines and what they might have done with their lives, and I pray that the loved ones they left behind have found peace.

The conclusion of the Board of Inquiry was that mechanical failure had brought down the UH-1E. LtCol Chancey remains adamant that there had been no ground fire, either “friendly” or enemy. Perhaps it was too difficult to believe that a Marine of Gen Hochmuth’s stature was felled by something he could neither see nor battle, but the chaos of war does not preclude horrible accidents.  In retrospect, I am reminded of something a dear friend, a Vietnam veteran, said to me a few years ago, “A Marine is not dead until he is forgotten….”  Rest in Peace, MajGen Hochmuth, and rest assured, you have not been forgotten.

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