The Helicopter Road To Vietnam

Rotary-wing aircraft were a ubiquitous component of the Vietnam War. From the beginning, with obsolete Korean War helicopters carrying ARVN troops into battle, to Huey gunships evacuating wounded at Ia Drang in 1965, to giant transport helicopters evacuating the Americans from Saigon rooftops in 1975; from the war's reality to its subsequent representations in popular culture, the sight and sound of helicopters was as integral an aspect of the war as the men who fought it. This article describes how helicopters came to occupy a central part of the U. S. arsenal in Vietnam.

In 1909, a young second lieutenant at the Marine Corps Officer's School at Parris Island wrote a thesis, which reflected an early appreciation of the role of air power in military strategy. "Aviation, the Cavalry of the Future" by A. A. Vandegrift was evaluated as "unsatisfactory." 1 Vandegrift would eventually become Commandant of the Marine Corps; his idea would evolve to define a major component of U. S. strategy and tactics in the Vietnam War.

The Versailles treaty, which ended World War I, mandated the transfer of formerly German islands in the Pacific Ocean to Japan. By 1921 both Marine and Navy planners began to think in terms of a future Pacific war against the Japanese Empire. These planners correctly understood that the key to victory over Japan would be based upon the development and application of a strategy of amphibious assault.

By June 1945, the island-hopping campaign in the Pacific had proved successful in defeating the Japanese. In June and July the Marine Corps was rehearsing plans for an invasion of Japan proper. In August, the spectacular atomic explosions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war. This use of atomic weapons also blew apart any rigidity the Marine Corps may have had concerning the application of its existing doctrine in the post-World War II era.

Marine Lieutenant General Roy S. Geiger, Commanding General of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, viewed the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini as the Commandant's personal representative. Geiger had commanded the Marine amphibious force, which took part in the amphibious invasion of Okinawa. After Bikini, Geiger reported to his superiors that probable future enemies of the United States would be in possession of atomic weapons, a small number of which could destroy expeditionary forces such as had been used against Japan in the Pacific. Geiger urged the Commandant to consider the future use of atomic weapons as a very serious and urgent matter. According to Geiger, the Marine Corps must find the means to develop techniques for conducting amphibious operations in the atomic age. 2

The destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons against massed amphibious landing forces made dispersion a necessity. Dispersion, however, contained the seeds of defeat through gradual commitment of forces ashore. The task was to disperse landing forces to minimize providing targets for nuclear attacks while retaining the ability to reconcentrate these forces at the point of contact with the enemy. Transport aircraft, gliders, paratroops, and troop carrying submarines were all considered. In the end, the Marine Corps decided that helicopters would be the major assault vehicles of the future. 3

By December 1946, Commandant Vandegrift began communications with the Navy in what was the first service document known to propose the use of helicopters as a tactical vehicle for the transport of combat troops from naval vessels to landing areas ashore. This Vertical Assault Concept for Amphibious Operations offered a relatively unlimited choice of landing areas. The maneuverability of helicopters provided a means for rapid evacuation of casualties, for the transport of supplies from logistic areas to the depots ashore, and the ability to provide troops for continued land operations.

The 1950 attack by North Korea against South Korea forced a change in Marine Corps plans to integrate the helicopter into its tactical forces. Existing timetables would be revised to expedite this integration. Four helicopters accompanied the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade from the United States to Korea. The Marines were rushed to the battles of the Pusan Perimeter, reinforcing U. S. Army and South Korean troops. The brigade maneuvered rapidly and repeatedly counterattacked the North Korean penetration of the perimeter. These mobile operations quickly proved the value of helicopters in warfare. The Marine helicopter squadron was used for liaison, reconnaissance, medical evacuation of wounded, rescue of downed Marine aviators in enemy territory, observation, messenger service, supply of positions on dominant terrain features, and re-supply of units by air.

The brigade commander, General Edward A. Craig, called for more helicopters, including large transport helicopters. Craig, anticipating future airmobile tactics in Vietnam, claimed that the mountainous terrain of Korea presented a difficult problem for security of flank and rear areas. Troop-carrying helicopters would be an ideal means to place patrols on high terrain, which would take hours to climb and would exhaust the troops. These vehicles, Craig suggested, would contribute significantly to the effectiveness and security of Marine operations in Korea and insure a more rapid defeat of the enemy. 4

As early as 1951 the Marine Corps experimented with outfitting assault helicopters with 2.75 inch rockets and machine guns. By 1953 the Marine Corps claimed more experience in helicopter operations, possessed more helicopters, trained pilots, and crewmen than any other military organization in the world. 5  However, with its own organic air force to provide close air support for troops in the field, the Marines would lag behind the Army in the development of helicopter gunships.

Based upon the positive experience of the Marines in Korea, the U.S. Army formed twelve helicopter battalions in 1952. The prospect of nuclear weapons on the battlefield drove the Army's implementation of the use of helicopters just as it had the Marines. In 1954, Major General James M. Gavin, Army Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, noted that nuclear weapons, if used in future wars, would be used against land forces. The only practical counter-measure against such weapons is to drastically reduce the concentration of soldiers in the battle zone. Since fewer soldiers will have to cover more ground, there will exist a greater need for automatic weapons and for a rapid logistics system to provide them with ammunition. A defense based on dispersion necessitates developing a methodology to rapidly consolidate forces in the field. Air vehicles, including helicopters, were deemed the appropriate mechanisms to accomplish these goals. 6 By 1955 the use of helicopters for troop transport and logistics had achieved limited success within the Army.

Under General Gavin, the position of director of Army aviation was established and filled from 1955 to 1958 by General Hamilton Howze. Tests were conducted by Howze to determine the efficacy of the airmobile concept within the context of the Army's NATO commitments. When an air cavalry brigade was substituted for an U. S. armored division, the air cavalry was superior to armor in holding off Soviet units in West Germany. The army concluded that light forces with high mobility could apply firepower better than standard infantry divisions, and that the requirements for small wars appeared to be much the same as for nuclear wars against the Soviet Union. 7

By late 1961, the GVN was not faring well against the Viet Cong insurgency. To meet the increasing Communist menace to the Diem regime, U. S. President John Kennedy sent retired Army General Maxwell D. Taylor to Vietnam to explore what could be done to save South Vietnam. Taylor arrived in Saigon in October 1961. The following month recommendations were made to assist the GVN. One of the most important was the recommendation that three squadrons of Army helicopters be sent to Vietnam to increase the mobility of the ARVN. By getting South Vietnamese forces out of their static defense positions, the GVN would be better able to meet the Viet Cong threat to the rural population. President Kennedy approved this recommendation.

In September 1961 fifteen HU-1 "Huey" helicopter gunships were deployed to Vietnam for evaluation as to their utility in counterinsurgency operations. The head of the evaluation team, Army Brigadier General Edward Rowny, said his mission was to find ways to better "find and fix" guerrillas. 8 By early 1962 the increased support by the U. S. to the GVN began to yield positive results. A major factor in this shift was the deployment of thirty-three H-21 helicopters, which first brought the concept of airmobility to South Vietnam. These helicopters, used solely for transporting ARVN troops to the battlefield, gave the ARVN the ability to surprise the Viet Cong in their base areas. Initially, the Viet Cong were terrorized by these mobile operations, and large numbers of Viet Cong were killed as they attempted to flee the strike area. 9

Over time, the Viet Cong developed counter measures, which reduced the efficacy of helicopter operations. In January 1963 the previously elusive VC chose to stand and fight the ARVN and their U.S. advisors. At Ap Bac the VC constructed fortified positions in the tree lines. Foxholes were dug deep enough for soldiers to stand up inside. Machine guns and automatic rifles were positioned to achieve interlocking fields of fire. VC officers instructed their forces for many months in anti-helicopter tactics. Pamphlets were distributed which explained how VC gunners were to lead American aircraft based on the angle of approach and airspeed. The idea was to shoot ahead of the target so the aircraft would fly into a hail of bullets. Cardboard models of H-21s, Hueys, and fixed-wing airplanes were pulled along a string between poles to simulate aircraft in flight. Fire discipline was emphasized as massed fires offered the most effective means of putting sufficient rounds into an aircraft to disable it.

Ten H-21 transports, with five HU-1 Huey gunships in escort, landed in rice paddies near Ap Bac on January 2. The Viet Cong put their new tactics to good effect; in five minutes they took down four helicopters and damaged another sufficiently to force it to land in a nearby rice paddy. The guerrillas hit every helicopter out of the fifteen sent to Ap Bac except for one gunship. 10

The first Marine helicopter unit to deploy to Vietnam arrived on April 15, 1962. The former Japanese fighter airstrip at Soc Trang in Ba Xuyen Province in the Mekong Delta was the Marine base of operations. Their mission, named Operation SHU-FLY, was to haul ARVN supplies and troops in support of operations against the Viet Cong. The squadron commander was Lieutenant Colonel Archie J. Clapp, a veteran of the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns, the first carrier-based raid on Tokyo, and combat support helicopter missions in Korea.

The Marines decided not to arm their helicopters with machine guns as the Army had done. The Marines figured their best defense was to minimize the time spent on the landing zone. Machine guns would tend to block the cabin door, hindering troop egress. The crew chief could help the troops debark rather than man a machine-gun. Instead, two submachine guns were carried aboard each helicopter. Seventeen Marine helicopters were damaged by enemy fire before another squadron relieved the helicopter unit in August. 11

In addition to providing maneuverability on the nuclear battlefield, the concept of airmobility was attractive to the Army because of its ongoing dissatisfaction with the Air Force's close air support. The Army's response reflected the same thinking as that of the Marine Corps; create its own air force. This is a logical solution to problems inherent in a military establishment where one branch is the consumer of a service that another branch is responsible for providing. In 1950, Army aircraft totaled 725; by 1960, over 5,000; and by 1969 the Army had more aviation units than ground maneuver battalions. 12

Relations between the Army and Air Force deteriorated in Vietnam. At the heart of the controversy was command and control of helicopters. The Army saw the conflict in Vietnam as primarily a ground battle. Airpower was a supporting element in the Army's task of locating and destroying enemy forces. As part of the ground forces, helicopters, like tanks and artillery, should be under the control of ground commanders.

Quite naturally, the Air Force held a different outlook. Its air doctrine was more comprehensive than that of the Army and Marine Corps. Winning and maintaining air superiority is the first priority of Air Force tactical forces. Since counterair operations were not a factor in South Vietnam, the Air Force devoted between 75 and 90 percent of its tactical efforts to interdiction operations. 13 Airmen maintain that airpower is a decisive element of war in its own right and not merely a supporting arm. In this view, the full effects of airpower can only be achieved when it is centrally controlled and not divided among Army, Navy, and Air Force commanders. The Air Force felt helicopters should be employed under the same tactical air control systems as other aircraft.

The Air Force noted in World War II and Korea the air commander decided whether enemy defenses in the assault area would permit the airborne operation to proceed. In these wars, an airman had control of airborne assault operations until the troops landed; thereafter, control passed to the ground commander. This system of control was not employed in South Vietnam.

Armed helicopters were limited to providing supporting fire for the ARVN up to one minute before a helicopter assault and continuing for only one minute after the last helicopters had left the landing zone. The guns aboard armed helicopters could only be used in defensive fire missions. Air Force personnel objected to cases where helicopters were thought to be providing close air support to South Vietnamese forces. Such support was felt by the Air Force to be its mission, not the Army's. Both the U. S. Army and Air Force sought control over American tactical aviation throughout the world, and remained at loggerheads over the issue until 1966. In that year the Army abandoned its future claims to new types of fixed-wing aircraft while the Air Force agreed that the Army would keep its rotary-wing assets. 14

The Korean War forced the Marine Corps to change its strategic helicopter emphasis from the nuclear battlefield toward fighting Communist wars of national liberation. For the Army, the equivalent impetus was the Vietnam War. In the mid-1950's, under the direction of General Gavin, a study was prepared examining the feasibility of equipping the entire U. S. Army with helicopter units. The price of such a modernization was $3 billion. The conclusions of the study were rejected by Army leadership as being too costly.

By the early 1960's, the Army had to prepare for low- and mid-intensity conflicts in addition to maintaining preparedness for nuclear war. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara felt helicopters could solve the problems facing the U. S. in Vietnam. Since American and ARVN troop levels were insufficient to saturate Vietnam sufficiently in order to uproot the Viet Cong guerrillas, mobility and firepower provided by helicopters would prove compensatory. McNamara ordered the Army to re-examine its aviation requirements with a goal to significantly increasing the mobility of its forces. According to McNamara, the existing Army procurement program for helicopters was strung out over too many years.

In August 1962 the Army submitted a report in response to McNamara's directive. An air assault division with hundreds of helicopters was recommended for inclusion into the Army's force structure. The report also called for the formation of an air cavalry brigade with 144 attack helicopters. If the Air Force was reluctant to provide the requisite fixed-wing close air support the Army felt it needed, then the Army would depend on helicopter gunships. After Vietnam, the Army had more pilots and aircraft than the Air Force.

The Air Force felt this emerging Army doctrine placed too great a reliance on helicopters. The Air Force preferred to increase ground force mobility primarily by using C-130 transport airplanes with fighter protection. Helicopters, being extremely vulnerable to enemy ground fire, should be employed under very restricted conditions. Consequently, only a small helicopter force should be developed. 15

The Army formed the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) around several existing battalions to determine the utility of airmobility in mid- and high-intensity combat environments. This division was activated on 11 February 1964 at Fort Benning, Georgia, with Brigadier General Harry Kinnard as commander. Initial airmobility training was geared for individual, platoon, and company-sized units. By June of 1964 the Army added two additional brigades of infantry as well as artillery and other support units, and began testing battalion, brigade, and division tactics. In the fall of 1964 the 11th Air Assault Division successfully conducted the largest field exercises since World War II. Upon completion, the Pentagon began incorporating the Air Assault Division into the ranks of regular Army forces. 16  At this time U.S. Army aircraft accounted for about half of all aircraft in South Vietnam.17

In early 1965, Communist forces in South Vietnam directed their attacks for the first time against U. S. installations. On 22 February, General William Westmoreland, commander of U. S. forces in Vietnam, requested the deployment of two Marine Corps battalions to defend the important Da Nang air base against enemy attack. By the end of March 1965, nearly 5,000 Marines were at Da Nang. This force included two helicopter squadrons. 18

On 15 June 1965, Secretary McNamara authorized the formation of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) from the 11th Air Assault (Test) Division. On 28 July President Johnson held a press conference to announce that the 1st Cavalry was being ordered to Vietnam due to the worsening situation in that country. Thereafter helicopters flooded into Southeast Asia; by the end of 1968, over 3,000 were on hand. 19

Issues of command and control of helicopters remained paramount throughout the war. Fixed wing aircraft would escort all heliborne assaults. Concentrated air attacks would be conducted prior to the assaults to suppress enemy ground fire. The Air Force felt the increased complexity of helicopter assaults as the war progressed necessitated greater centralization of control. This view was reinforced by the risks associated with increased volumes and lethality of enemy ground fire. These differences between the Army and Air Force over the proper role of helicopters in America's tactical aerial arsenal were again manifested in the 1971 ARVN invasion of Laos. Senior air commanders believed helicopters would be very vulnerable to high volumes of enemy antiaircraft fire. Helicopters could only survive if deployed with large numbers of fighter-bombers to bomb and strafe the before and during heliborne operations.

Based on their prior experiences in South Vietnam, the Army expected North Vietnamese antiaircraft fire to less severe than predicted by the Air Force. Consequently, most of the fire support for the troop carrying helicopters during Lam Son 719 would be provided by Huey gunships; Air Force support would be limited. Army gunships were unable to effectively cope with the levels of firepower brought to bear against ARVN landing zones by the North Vietnamese. The Air Force estimated the losses of 200 of the over 600 helicopters used in the invasion of Laos. 20

Although helicopters were originally incorporated into the American military establishment as a means to deal with the problems of the nuclear battlefield, in Vietnam, rotary-wing aircraft were initially deployed as counter-guerrilla vehicles. As the war turned conventional, hundreds of helicopters were integrated into America's emerging doctrine of airmobility. One million Americans would be carried into battle in Vietnam in helicopters. 21 By the end of 1972, according to Pentagon figures, 4,857 helicopters were lost by the United States in Vietnam. 22 Even today the sound of helicopter rotors beating the air yields an enduring soundtrack of America's longest war.


1. A. A. Vandegrift and Robert B. Asprey, Once A Marine, (N.Y.: Ballantine Books, 1964), p. 63.

2. LtCol Eugene W. Rawlins, Marines and Helicopters, 1946-1962, (Washington, D.C.: Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1976), p. 8, 11.

3. Vandegrift, p. 322.

4. Rawlins, pp. 42-43.

5. Rawlins, p. 62.

6. James M. Gavin, "Cavalry, and I Don't Mean Horses," Harper's Magazine, April, 1954, p. 60.

7. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., The Army and Vietnam, (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 113.

8. Krepinevich, p. 114.

9. Krepinevich, p. 120.

10. Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie, (N.Y.: Random House, 1988), pp. 214-220.

11. Archie J. Clapp, "Shu-Fly Diary," U. S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October, 1963, pp. 42-53.

12. Krepinevich, pp. 113-114. James A. Donovan, Militarism, USA, (N.Y.: Scribner's Sons, 1970), p. 242.

13. William D. White, U.S. Tactical Air Power, (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1974), pp. 62-63, p. 66 n.8.

14. Gabriel Kolko, Anatomy of a War, (N.Y.: The New Press, 1985), p. 181. Krepinevich, p. 121.

15. William W. Momyer, Airpower in Three Wars, (Washington, D.C.: Dept. of Defense, Dept. of the Air Force, 1978), pp. 249-250, 254.

16. Loren Baritz, Backfire, (N.Y.: Ballantine, 1985), pp. 247-248; Harold G. Moore and Joseph L. Galloway, We Were Soldiers Once...And Young, (N.Y.: HarperPerennial, 1993), pp. 11-13; Krepinevich, pp. 113-126.

17. Momeyer, p. 264.

18. Jack Shulimson and Edward F. Wells, "First In, First Out, The Marine Experience in Vietnam" Marine Corps Gazette, January, 1984, p. 37.

19. William C. Westmoreland, A Soldier Reports, (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976), p. 205.

20. Army estimates were lower. Momyer, p. 324.

21. Moore, p. 406.

22. Kolko, p. 190.