Walking with Giants- The Tigers of HMM-262
“If they ever tell my story let them say that I walked with giants. Men rise and fall like the winter wheat, but these names will never die.”
One of the things I love most about my work in Marine Corps history is the opportunity to interact with both active duty Marines, and with veterans. Over the course of the years, I have spent time with many veterans groups, and I have cherished every one of those experiences. This past weekend, however, I experienced something extraordinary. I was a guest at a reunion, held on Marine Corps Base Quantico, of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 262. The gathering was much like that of any other unit held aboard Quantico. It was marked by a great trip to HMX-1, the Evening Parade at Marine Barracks, 8th and I, and a trip to the museum. Friendships were renewed, meals were shared, great stories told.
And what, you may ask, was so extraordinary about this? HMM-262 is not one of the more recognizable squadrons. Their history is not spoken in the reverential tones sometimes given to other aviation units. While someone with an in-depth knowledge of Marine Corps helicopters in Vietnam might be aware they operated out of Ky Ha, Marble Mountain, off the USS Tripoli, and in Quang Tri, the importance of their mission in Vietnam remains largely unknown. They are, in so many ways, the forgotten squadron, and that is almost criminal. Their accomplishments, their sacrifices, their devotion to duty should be legendary in the annals of Marine Corps history.
HMM-262, under the command of LtCol Ural W. Shadric, arrived in Vietnam on 4 December 1966. Shortly after their arrival the command moved to Ky Ha, in Quang Tin Province. By February 1967, HMM-262 established a record for CH-46 squadrons in Vietnam by flying some 2198.2 hours in support of combat operations. (A large number of missions were flown in support of Operation Desoto.) Major General Louis B. Robertshaw sent the following message:
“Your monthly record of 2198 hours during February impressive. All time high for CH-46 in combat. Achievement made more impressive by lack of any operational aircraft accident while operating strenuous hours during inclement weather. Record provides sound evidence that operational effectiveness and flying safety are mutually supporting. My congratulations for inspiring squadron performance.”
In April, HMM-262 moved from Ky Ha to Marble Mountain Air facility. Throughout the month, the squadron flew 1,425.7 hours, transported 6,602 troops and 737 tons of cargo in support of several operations, prompting General Westmoreland to send a message to all hands which read, “Your achievements mark you as the finest men our nation has ever sent into battle; you deserve the honor, respect, and the support of all the American people…” LtCol Shadrick simply said, “each of you passed through the “valley”, and have proven yourselves to be the toughest “Mothah” there…” But it was at this time that the squadron began to be plagued by a shortage a pilots, a problem that would continue throughout the war.
By July 1967, Major David Althoff, a Marine who would come to be described as “the finest CH-46 pilot in the Marine Corps.” arrived for his second tour in Vietnam, serving as Operations Officer with HMM-262. It was also during the month of July that the squadron began receiving missions titled “Khe Sanh Augmentation” and “Dong Ha Augmentation” as the war in Northern I Corps heated up.
It should be noted by the summer of 1967, the Marine Corps had ten squadrons of CH-46 helicopters. Of these, approximately half were being equipped with the new “D” model, while the rest were still flying the “A” model. Three of those squadrons were in Vietnam and one was on board the assault ships of the Special Landing Force operating in the South China Sea.
During that same year, there were several catastrophic incidents involving CH-46s. On 3 May, a CH-46D crashed at Santa Ana. Subsequent findings led to the grounding of all CH-46 helicopters. Ten days later all helicopters were released for flight by the Navy. That same day, a CH-46A crashed off the coast of Vietnam when the tail pylon broke off in flight. Over the course of the next few months, other crashes resulted in a comprehensive study of CH-46 problems by order of General Keith McCutcheon. Yet another crash on 3 July resulted in a “CH-46 Reliability Review Conference,” scheduled to convene in August. On 31 August a CH-46A of HMM -262 “yawed at 3000 feet and lost the tail pylon.” Major General Norman J Anderson, commanding the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, ordered all CH-46s be “restricted to emergency combat requirements which could not be met by other aircraft.”
Technicians from Vertol, Naval Systems Command and several other agencies converged on Vietnam in an effort to pinpoint the cause of the failures. They concluded, “although the specific causes of the CH-46 accidents were varied, the ultimate structural failures occurred in the area of the aft pylon.” Several structural and system modifications were suggested. The entire modification program was to be performed by personal of the Boeing/Vertol Company, but Marines were required to assemble and disassemble the aircraft.
In Vietnam, rather than undertaking such modifications on airfields under sporadic enemy attack, General McCutcheon established a plan under which all repairs take place at MCAF Futema, Okinawa. The Marines of HMM-262 were selected to move from the Special Landing Force to Futema to prepare all of the aircraft.
On the twelfth of October, a detachment from HMM-262, consisting of 9 aircraft, 19 officers and 25 enlisted Marines embarked aboard the USS Tripoli to provide emergency medium lift capabilities to the Special Landing Force. This detachment came to be known as “The Poor Devils.” In late November, Major Althoff took command of the detachment, now equipped with modified aircraft.
The modification program was completed in December 1967. On 10 January, the Poor Devils detachment was dissolved and joined her parent unit at HMM-262’s new location at Quang Tri Air Facility Once relocated to Quang Tri, the average helicopter pilot was flying 100 hours per week.
Command chronologies for the period covering the siege of Khe Sanh and surrounding hill outposts clearly show that HMM-262 flew almost constantly in support. An entry of 23 January, 1968 clearly states, “HMM-262 continued to put forth an all out effort to Support Operation Scotland and the besieged Khe Sanh.” The command chronology for February further states, “The squadron’s mission during Operation Scotland was to provide aircraft for resupply and medevac to the Marine outposts on Hills 881, 861, 861A, 558 and 950 as well as the Khe Sanh Airfield.” It also notes that near the end of February a strike system was evolved to resupply the outpost near Khe Sanh. ( This would be the advent of the SuperGaggle. While many have taken credit for the genesis of the SuperGaggle tactics, there is compelling evidence that it evolved during a conversation between Major David Althoff and two other officers of HMM-262.) The narrative summary of events in March, 1968, notes, “HMM-262 flew in support of Operation Scotland, Napoleon, Kentucky and Lancaster II, with the majority of operations being in support of Operation Scotland….Generally, three factors were involved in limiting total flight time. From approximately 1 March- 15 March, 1968 numerous hits in support of operation Scotland created a shortage of aircraft.” There was also an issue with a shortage of Helicopter Aircraft Commanders. The April command chronology reads, “The squadron’s mission, concerning Operations Scotland and Scotland II, was to provide aircraft as necessary, for resupply and medevac to the Marine outposts on Hills 881, 861, 861A, 558, 950, 689 and Khe Sanh Airfield.
All of that said, what made this gathering so extraordinary? The veterans, themselves. These are extraordinary men…I will say again, that their accomplishments, their sacrifices, their devotion to duty should be legendary in the annals of Marine Corps history, but that is not the case. One would expect such giants of the Corps to continually pat themselves on the back. They do not. They are an incredibly humble group of men, who believe that they were simply doing their job.
Among them, are a number of crew chiefs who did a remarkable job of keeping their birds in the air despite an incredibly grueling flight schedule and severe damage due to enemy fire: Corporal Joseph “Jake” Jacobs, Corporal Kreig “Hip” Loftin, and Corporal Robert “Lead-Ass” Harrison, so named because he was shot down or crashed so often. Said Harrison, matter-of-factly,
“Shot down/crashed... several times….I crashed into 950 and rolled down the mountain once, I was shot down a few times, but got the plane out each time. I was shot down (up) the first 30 seconds of my first combat flight, with Althoff, at Finger Lakes.”
Another exceptional Marine served as crew chief with HMM-262. Lance Corporal Ernesto “Gooie” Gomez, received a Navy Cross for his actions during a medevac on Hill 881S, a Marine outpost situated between Khe Sanh Combat Base and the Laotian border, manned by India and Mike Companies, 3d Battalion, 26th Marines:
On 25 January 1968, LtCol Melvin J. Steinberg, commanding officer of HMM-262, flying the medevac mission, told Gomez, “We’re going to get bloodied on this one.” Gomez later wrote, “The clouds were very low and it was very cold and it was drizzling…On the way there I listened on the radios for any information that would help me complete my mission. I was told that two Marines would load the wounded.”
As the aircraft touched down, they began taking enemy fire. Said Gomez:
“There was a lot of action on the hill. Tracers coming in and going out….There were shells hitting the zone we were going to land in. The smell of powder hurt your lungs. Through the smoke I saw two men running towards my bird with the wounded Marine between them….He had bandages over his eyes. I could see the blood on the bandages…. He couldn’t see. We were taking .50 cal fire. They started shooting RPGs and mortars. They were trying to get the bird, and they were using the wounded Marine.”
Steinberg asked, “What’s going on, Gomez?” He replied, “I have to disconnect, I have to go get him.” Cpl. Gomez, without hesitation, ran out of the helicopter and rushed across the fire swept terrain to the side of the wounded Marine. Enemy fire followed him. He reached the wounded man and tackled him, shielding him with his body from the hostile fire. Lifting the wounded man to his shoulder, Gomez ran back towards the chopper. “The small arms fire was very, very accurate…it hit him in the leg and spun him around….I covered him and told him, ‘We’re almost there, I’m gonna get you to the bird.” He motioned for the left gunner to help, and together they carried the blinded Marine to the helicopter.
Reconnecting to the intercom system, Col Steinberg said, “Something big has hit us, Gomez…I’m going to try to make it to Khe Sanh. We’ve gotta get out of here.” It wasn’t until the next day that Gomez discovered two zippers on his flight suit and part of the heel of his boot had been shot off.
Nominated for the Medal of Honor, Gomez learned in early 1969 that he had been awarded a Navy Cross. Part of the citation reads,
“Corporal Gomez’s heroic actions were instrumental in saving his companion’s life and inspired all who observed him. By his courage, selfless concern for the safety of his fellow Marine, and unswerving devotion to duty at great personal risk, he upheld the highest traditions of the Marine Corps.”
Gomez later wrote;
“I’d grown old in this country….It was getting worse around Quang Tri. Not only was there Khe Sanh, but there was Hill 881S, Carol and the Rockpile. You could die at any one of those place. Some of the extracts were so hard to perform, with wounded Marines and hard to land places….Being awakened and told ‘you got another mission.’ I thought I had just laid down two minutes ago. ….HMM-262 lost twenty crew members in the month of February alone. We had been serving the Khe Sanh area alone….One squadron couldn’t possibly do the job. We were ragged and tired beyond words….”
And then there is LtCol David Althoff, an extraordinary Marine, and an extraordinary pilot:
Major Althoff arrived in Vietnam to join HMM-262 in June, 1967, and t wasn’t long before he became known as “Balls to the Wall Althoff.” First Lieutenant Michael Mullen, a young pilot assigned to HMM-262 once stated,
“He was the squadron’s idol. We all thought the world of him as a man, an officer and a pilot…..He would never ask one of his junior pilots to fly a mission he had never flown. When we went on a ‘hairy’ mission went with the knowledge that it could be completed, because the Major had already done it several times before.”
Corporal Vernon Crews, echoed the sentiment,
“I used to like to fly with the Major because he was so damned cool when the going got rough. I guess it used to rub off on the rest of his crew, too….We got into real scrapes with him, and at times he would return back to base with a chopper full of holes. But in 13 months he never lost a man on a mission. I doubt if you can find a better helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps.”
Major Althoff was nominated for the Alfred A. Cunningham Award in 1968. Awarded to the outstanding Marine Corps aviator each year, the nomination package, prepared by LtCol Mel Steinberg, details Major Althoff’s service with HMM-262. It includes the following resume of award recommendations:
“On 2 February 1968, Major Althoff launched as section leader of two CH-46s assigned a night emergency reconnaissance team extraction. The ceiling was 700 feet and gave only 300-400 feet clearance over the zone. The recon team was surrounded by an estimated 100 NVA and were pinned down by automatic weapons fire. After making radio and visual contact with the team, Major Althoff commenced an immediate approach. Fire was received during the approach in spite of the gunships and the 46’s own suppressive fire, however, the approach was resolutely continued. Numerous hits were taken in the controls closet and cockpit as the aircraft landed, but Major Althoff calmly remained in the zone and directed suppressive fire for the gunships on several automatic weapons positions. Not until every member of the team was aboard did he lift from the zone. Immediately the aircraft took several hits causing one boost system to fail, the ramp hydraulic system was shot out, and one fuel quantity gauge fell to zero. Despite the heavy enemy fire and now IFR conditions, Major Althoff was able to return the aircraft to a friendly area and make an emergency landing.”
“On 13 February 1968, Major Althoff was leading a flight of Ch-46s resupplying the hills around Khe Sanh. As his wingman took an external load onto Hill 881S, he came under heavy .50 caliber and small arms fire. The drop was completed in spite of this fire, but as the helicopter lifted a 122mm rocket exploded in the zone just behind the aircraft seriously wounding three Marines. As the pilot headed his aircraft towards Khe Sanh, a call for an emergency medevac came from Hill 881S. Major Althoff, having monitored the actions on the radio, and with full knowledge of the enemy .50 caliber and rocket positions, immediately volunteered to pick up the critically wounded men. Approaching the zone under the cover of fixed wing jets, UH-1E gunships, and his own .50 caliber machine guns, he came under intense fire. Resolutely, in spite of numerous hits, he continued into the zone. Still taking fire and more hits, he calmly waited until all the medevacs were loaded before lifting. More fire and battle damage was received while departing the hill, but Major Althoff managed to fly the crippled aircraft successfully to Khe Sanh to desperately needed medical aid.”
“On 20 February 1968, Major Althoff launched in below minimum weather from Quang Tri to Khe Sanh to pick up emergency medevacs. Upon arrival the medevacs were not all ready. Given a secondary mission to resupply Hill 881S, Major Althoff proceeded directly to the hill to first pick up external cargo nets and slings. As he approached the zone he saw that no one had been alerted of his coming and waved off. One of the Helicopter Support Teams, however, had seen him approaching and was making his way to the hook-up point. At this time the hill exploded with incoming mortars and .50 caliber fire meant for the helicopter. The exposed Marine was severely wounded. The unit immediately called for an emergency medevac. No fixed wing or gunships were available, however, Major Althoff immediately started another approach to the hill. Upon landing, the Marines in the trenches started forward with the wounded man. Again, the zone came under heavy .50 caliber and mortar fire. The Marines took refuge in a shell crater, still Majotr Althoff remained on the ground. It took at least one minute to get the wounded man aboard. During this time, the aircraft received battle damage to the controls from the mortars and .50 caliber fire. Nevertheless, Major Althoff was able to lift off and get the critically wounded man to medical aid. The aircraft was declared unsafe for further flight due to the severe battle damage.”
“On 21 February, 1968, Major Althoff led a flight of two CH-46s to Khe Sanh to resupply the outlying hills. The two aircraft delivered 88,000 pounds of desperately needed ammunition, water and rations. Hostile fire consisting of small arms, automatic weapons, .50 caliber and mortars were received on 15 different occasions during the day and both aircraft received numerous hits. In addition the LSA at Khe Sanh was under constant artillery, rocket, and mortar barrage, making the pickups extremely hazardous. Late in the afternoon, the weather at Khe Sanh deteriorated to the point that all the hills and even the LSA were completely socked in with a large clear area separating the two. The fog and low ceiling, however, did cause the enemy to quit shelling the hills and the LS, giving the hook-up crews a relative degree of safety. In view of this fact, Major Althoff elected to continue and led his flight for another hour and a half in these hazardous conditions. This was accomplished by air-taxiing from 1 ½ miles out of the LSA in to the pick up point, guiding along a dirt road at an altitude of five feet, picking up the load and departing IFR to the clear area. The drop zones were also obscured and the same air-taxiing procedure was used except this time it was up the side of a mountain. The hazards of vertigo and minimum ground clearance made the successful completion of this mission extremely noteworthy.” (It should also be noted that the hills had not been resupplied in three days due to the inclement weather.)
“On 13 May 1968, Major Althoff launched as leader of a two plane section assigned the mission of extracting a four man reconnaissance team. The team had walked into the area the previous night to attempt to recover the body of a Marine killed in an earlier action. As the team searched for the body, they were ambushed and one member was killed and two others seriously wounded. It was determined that additional men would be need to be inserted in order to aid the wounded to a pick-up zone. Major Althoff picked up a quick reaction force and inserted them within 100 meters of where the team was pinned down by mortar and automatic weapons fire. As the reaction force moved toward the recon team, they sustained two wounded, but managed to get the recon wounded. At this time, due to intense mortar and automatic weapons fire, the team became separated into three groups and each headed for a potential landing zone. All of the zones were within 200 meters of known active enemy positions. Major Althoff unhesitatingly landed in the first zone, and while awaiting the team to board received shrapnel from mortars through the cockpit. He steadfastly remained in the zone, however, until all members of this group were loaded. Only then did he lift and proceed to the next zone. Again, the aircraft came under mortar fire, again he waited. The third zone was no zone at all, but a bomb crater on the side of a steep slope. The steepness of the slope precluded entry through the rear ramp, so Major Althoff maneuvered to a position sideways just over the crater and hovered with the crew dropped the side door and pulled the Marines on board. While in this precarious hovering position with only inches of rotor clearance from the side of the hill, the aircraft came under automatic weapons fire and again sustained battle damage. Major Althoff, however, resolutely remained in the zone until the last man was aboard, the departed taking all members to safety.” (One of those recon Marines, Corporal James D. King, later stated, “For Major Althoff to turn and one more time fly straight into what he knew was an extremely life-threatening situation for himself, his crew, and the other Marines on board was far beyond what any Marine would view as duty. If not for his devotion to God and country and extreme bravery, myself and others certainly would have been in God’s hands.”)
“On 18 May, 1968, Major Althoff was diverted from resupply work at Khe Sanh to an emergency reconnaissance team extraction. The team was located on a steep ridgeline bordered on one side by trees, and covered with 8-11 feet high elephant grass. Mortars were seen impacting in the team’s position and by the time Major Althoff arrived, seven of the eight men had been seriously wounded. Neither the team nor the UH-1E gunships or the 01-C Spotter overhead could spot the source of the mortars. Due to the gravity of the situation, however, Major Althoff decided to attempt an immediate extraction. During the approach two mortars landed within ten meters of the team’s position, but the approach was resolutely continued. The ridge line could only accommodate two wheels so Major Althoff backed in with only his main mounts touching and the nose of the aircraft hanging over a 200-300 ft. drop to jagged rocks below. Several of the recon team were unable to help themselves to the aircraft, so the two side gunners left the aircraft and began carrying them on board. The loading was extremely slow, and mortars continued to land within 10-30 meters of the aircraft, Major Althoff resolutely remained in the zone maintaining his precarious position for eight minutes. Automatic weapons fire was received during this time but was quickly silenced by the crew chief using the starboard .50 caliber machine gun. Not until every member was aboard did Major Althoff lift from the zone and depart.“
“On 3 June, 1968, Major Althoff launched as section leader of two CH-46s with a mission to resupply Khe Sanh. They were diverted to an emergency medevac mission. The unit was located atop a 1500 ft mountain with the top 1000 ft in a cloud. The unit reported taking incoming mortar fire all morning. Major Althoff then asked the unit’s radioman if he could hear the sound of his rotors. He reported that he could. With this Major Althoff disappeared into the cloud as he air-taxied up the side of the mountain (once again one of the most dangerous maneuvers in helicopter aviation) Between this aviator and the ground radio operator, neither of whom could see the other, the zone was reached and the wounded loaded on board. He was further informed that further down the mountain were five more critically wounded men, but that the steepness of the slope would not allow them to be carried to where the helicopter sat. Once again, relying solely on the directions of the radioman, Major Althoff airtaxied, in completely IFR conditions, down the mountain to a point where the wounded Marines could reach the helicopter. The five men were picked up and all were expeditiously taken to medical aid.”
During his time with HMM-262, Major Althoff earned three Silver Stars, three Distinguished Flying Crosses and more than 50 Air Medals. (There are any number of Marines who flew with Althoff, or who were rescued by Althoff, that feel those Silver Stars should have been Navy Crosses or Medals of Honor. ) Additionally, he was awarded the Cunningham Award and it should be noted that both the nomination package and the award citation clearly credits Major Althoff with the development of the SuperGaggle, despite the fact that many others have claimed to be responsible for it’s implementation in resupplying the hill outposts:
“During his squadron’s commitment to the support and resupply of the Khe Sanh Combat Base, Major Althoff conceived, developed and coordinated unique tactical concepts to insure mission accomplishment. His development of fixed-wing tactical jet, helicopter gunship, and helicopter transport time sequences and delivery techniques coupled with flawless coordination of the committed air elements before and during each resupply mission made a signal contribution to the survival of this outpost.”
It should also be noted, that is was Major Althoff who flew United Press International photographer David Powell onto 881S. Powell’s photographs of life on the hill are some of the most notable of the Vietnam War, and captured the grim realities of life under siege. Said Powell, “The best thing I have ever done was photograph the Marines who held the outpost on Hill 881S. I would not have been able to do that without Major Althoff and the Marines of HMM-262.”
UPI photographer David Powell
And so I can only ask, why is it, that this squadron’s history is not better known? Why is it that David Althoff remains largely unknown except to those very well-versed in Marine Corps history? The Marines who served with HMM-262 represent the VERY BEST of Marine Corps aviation, and this squadron deserves to have their history shouted from the rooftops. Perhaps LtCol Althoff said it best,
“When I first checked into HMM 262 in June of 67 I knew that I was joining a Squadron that had a great combat reputation. After I was there a short while I discovered the reason for that well deserved reputation. I soon had total confidence in all members of the team that made up this top-notch combat outfit. From top to bottom, or rather from one end to the other, I developed a very deep respect for each and every one of you. I knew I could depend on the quality of the maintenance, the skills of the HACS and the Co-Pilots, the expertise of the crew chiefs and gunners and the support that was provided by everyone else on the "Team" (the bravest and most dependable men I have ever met).
What I saw was complete and total dedication and commitment to the mission that we were assigned. I especially enjoyed the closeness and camaraderie that we shared as we flew, worked, laughed and partied together. We also cried together over those Marines we brought back in body bags or shot to pieces, and our roommates and friends who gave their all in that strange land so far away.
I had the privilege of serving with you on the SLF aboard the Tripoli and the Valley Forge. The "POOR DEVILS". We then went ashore at Quang Tri in December of 67 and supported the troops all along the DMZ from the mouth of the CuaViet river on the coast to Dong Ha, Con Thien, Gio Lin, Camp Carroll LZ Stud, the Rock Pile, Razorback Ridge, Khe Sanh, Lang Vei, all of the hills around Khe Sanh, Hue, Phu Bai, and a whole lot of other "bad assed" spots, too numerous to mention. I left the squadron in July of 68 with tears in my eyes knowing what those of you that were staying behind would be facing in the months to come.
I will never ever look at a young American in his late teens or very early twenties and have any doubts about what he can and will do if he is called upon to fight for his country. I saw so many of you risk everything and willingly go far above and beyond the call of duty to rescue your fellow Marines from the most desperate situations; never hesitating to go back and do it again, day after day, night after night.
The Squadron was aptly named the FLYING TIGERS and each of us will carry the mark of the TIGER to our graves because it was so indelibly inscribed on our bodies, our hearts and on our minds. I'm proud to be numbered among the finest group of fighting Marines in the history of the Corps, HMM-262.”
Well said, Col Althoff, and to all of the veterans of HMM-262, my thanks for allowing me the honor and privilege of spending time with you, and “walking with Giants.” Your accomplishments, your devotion to the mission at hand, your sacrifices, were nothing less than extraordinary.
* The photos in this blog are courtesy of Colonel David Althoff and David Powell.