Retired Army Major General Carl McNair, who commanded the 121st Assault Helicopter Company during the Vietnam War, once recalled a story about Army General Creighton Abrams—commander of all military forces in Vietnam—visiting an air base to award Distinguished Service Crosses to Army aviation personnel. Riding as a passenger in a jeep along what passed as a flight line, he noted a young man not wearing a cover and ordered his driver to pull over. Abrams had served under General George S. Patton during World War II, so he was tough, to say the least. Questioning what he thought was a soldier out of uniform, he received a response that went something like: “Sir, I am not a soldier. I am a sailor and a Seawolf, and in the Navy we don’t wear covers on the flight line.” Abrams responded, “Very well, carry on,” and proceeded on his way.
It did not take long for this story to make its way to Army units throughout South Vietnam, and it reflects the pride members of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light)—HA(L)-3—took in themselves and their squadron. They were all volunteers, from pilots to mechanics, flying missions unique in naval aviation history. The first squadron of its type in the Navy, HA(L)-3 was established and disestablished, not in a formal stateside ceremony, but in-country in the combat zone. This reflects one tenet of warfare: Emerging tactical situations and requirements often give rise to concepts or weapons that may not have been envisioned.
Game Warden in the Delta
One of the principal avenues for resupplying communist Viet Cong fighters was the populous Mekong Delta. The most productive agricultural area in South Vietnam, it featured a web of waterways that were used to infiltrate the region. To stem the flow of supplies, the U.S. Navy initiated Operation Game Warden in late 1965, establishing Task Force 116—a fleet of amphibious vessels and armed river-patrol boats collectively known as the “Brown Water Navy”—that patrolled the delta’s inland rivers and search suspicious vessels. The delta soon became a hotly contested and wide-ranging arena of warfare, where Navy small craft, SEALS, and Army ground forces faced danger at nearly every turn along the jungle-lined waterways.
With the commencement of Game Warden, the Navy concurrently adopted a new designation for its rotary-wing community: the helicopter combat support squadron (HC). These units largely operated as part of the blue-water Navy, performing the utility and plane guard duties that were established missions for helicopters operating from carriers and surface ships. With the exception of search-and-rescue missions, day-to-day operations tilted more heavily toward the support part of the squadron designation and less on combat.
This changed in 1966, when Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, offered General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, much-needed air support for his riverine forces. Army helicopters had been performing those missions on a temporary basis, but Admiral Ward proposed to provide Navy crews if the Army contributed helicopter gunships, which did not exist in the Navy’s aircraft inventory.
The resulting agreement brought members of HC-1 in country to fly UH-1B Iroquois helicopters, with the first contingent arriving on Independence Day 1966. Training under Army pilots and crews included familiarization with the aircraft, armament, and the vast area of operations. On 19 September, the first HC-1 detachment arrived on board the USS Tortuga (LSD-26), one of the collection of amphibious vessels, including tank landing ships (LSTs), that served as bases of operation for HC-1 and later HA(L)-3. The Navy men also received a new nickname—the Seawolves.
The Birth of HA(L)-3
As HC-1 detachments expanded in number, so did their array of missions, including support of patrol boats (PBRs), armed escort for landing craft, search-and-rescue, armed reconnaissance, aerial spotting, SEAL support, psychological operations, and medical evacuation. With the success of the HC-1 detachments, the Navy created a full-fledged squadron to perform the mission; the establishment of HA(L)-3 came on 1 April 1967 at Vung Tau, South Vietnam, where the new unit would be headquartered.
Conditions there were sparse as were materials, necessitating creative ways to accumulate equipment outside the normal supply chain. Aviation Structural Mechanic Third Class Joe Crutcher recalls himself and a fellow maintainer borrowing black paint from an Australian unit that they mixed with green paint provided by the Army to give the HA(L)-3 UH-1Bs a different look. Commander Robert Spencer, the squadron skipper, directed them to paint “NAVY” in white letters on the tail booms, saying, “I want the Army to know the Navy is here.”
One thing not lacking was personnel willing to serve in the squadron, even knowing what they faced. “If you go to HA(L)-3,” retired Captain Brian Buzzell recalled of the squadron’s reputation among those coming out of flight school as helicopter pilots, “you are going to get shot at and maybe killed.” Those pilots joining stateside trained under the tutelage of the Army (initially at Fort Benning, Georgia, and later at Fort Rucker, Alabama), learned how to fire and clean an array of weapons, and completed the Army’s demanding SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) school.
A Cook Takes Flight
One sailor took an unconventional route to becoming a member of the Seawolves. A cook in the consolidated mess at Vung Tau, Petty Officer William H. Johnson was adept at obtaining “cumshaw” (politely defined as “something obtained through unofficial means”) for the newly established squadron. In return, the Seawolves’ executive officer, Commander Conrad “Con” Jaburg, asked what he could do for him. When Johnson responded that he wanted to fly, Jaburg had him trained as a plane captain, his first flights making the mail run out to the detachments a couple of times a week. On one of those flights, Johnson’s helicopter received orders to extract some fellow Seawolves from a rice paddy, where they had made a forced landing after being hit by enemy fire. “We landed there and I got out with my little M16 rifle and sprayed the tree line. . . . Here I am a ‘stew burner’ and I’m in the war,” Johnson recalled. Soon he was assigned to a detachment learning to fire the M60 machine gun as a door gunner.
As the squadron became more firmly established, those it supported quickly realized there were few situations, regardless the risk, in which the Seawolves would not stick out their collective necks. Part of that came from the camaraderie in the squadron, whose members took pride in the mission entrusted to them. “[We had] total dependence on each other,” recalled retired Captain Dick Catone. “There was really no line of demarcation whether you were an O-1, O-2, O-3 or E-1, E-2, or E-3. Everyone worked together.”
That devotion was epitomized by Aviation Ordnanceman James A. Wall, who on an October 1970 combat mission was wounded so severely he nearly bled to death in the helicopter’s cabin. When he awakened from surgery, his first words were to ask about his fellow gunner on the flight, Terry Meeks, who had saved Wall’s life. Though his wounds were a ticket home, Wall chose to finish his tour with the Seawolves. He was killed in action on 19 April 1971.
Heavily Armed Hueys
Another element to that sense of pride was the tremendous firepower the squadron could bring to any fight. Retired Captain Gordon Peterson recalled the UH-1B was a “well-suited platform” for the mission. Operating in two-aircraft fire teams, the “Huey” typically carried two rocket pods, each containing seven 2.75-inch rockets, either high-explosive or Flechette, the latter devastating against personnel. A combination of Gatling guns, M60s and .50-caliber machine guns, fired by the pilots or crew-manned, rounded out the helicopter’s armament. Crewmen also carried personal weapons and often had a supply of hand grenades on board.
To provide maximum fields of fire, gunners attached themselves to the helicopter with belts so they could lean out and fire beneath it. “In an average week two aircraft would shoot about a thousand rockets and a million rounds of 7.62,” retired Commander Dick Barr, a Seawolves pilot, recalled of his HA(L)-3 detachment’s operational tempo. “The door gunners would try to keep their brass inside the aircraft so it would not go out and hit the tail rotors. You’d come back and there would be six or seven inches of expended brass in the back.”
As HA(L)-3 established itself, the squadron’s operational area expanded so that aerial coverage could be provided throughout the Mekong Delta. Buzzell recalled arriving in Vietnam in 1971 as a recently promoted lieutenant (junior grade) and being assigned as a Sealord, an element of HA(L)-3 that flew UH-1Hs and delivered supplies to the detachments: “You learned the entire delta by heart. At night that was tough.” This was especially true since navigation aids were nonexistent. After gaining this experience, pilots were assigned to detachments. According to Peterson, the members of each detachment “knew our areas of operation like we knew our own neighborhoods.”
The Aviators’ Experiences
During the squadron’s existence, HA(L)-3 demonstrated its inherent flexibility, the detachments shifting bases of operations as areas became pacified and offensive efforts were focused elsewhere. The squadron operated day and night, with Barr recalling the rapid response to any call for air support that was a hallmark of the Seawolves. “We could be sound asleep at night when the horn would go off and the 1MC would sound ‘Scramble the Seawolves,’” he said. The pilot would get a briefing on the mission, the copilot would man the aircraft and begin the start-up procedures, and the crew chiefs and gunners would arm the helicopter and untie the blades. “That whole evolution from sound asleep to in the air was less than three minutes.”
With each passing month, aircrews developed the tactical lessons that guided the squadron’s operations. Wingmen learned always to be in a position during an attack run to deliver fire on the enemy as the fire team leader’s aircraft broke off and exposed the helicopter’s vulnerable underbelly and tail. Pilots were warned to avoid prolonged flight in the “dead-man zone” from the ground up to 1,000 feet and learned never to fly parallel to terrain features such as the canals and tree lines in the Mekong Delta. Over time they knew what to look for in detecting enemy troop movements and caches of supplies and developed ideal attack runs, depending on the type of defensive position the enemy occupied. They learned the best methods for getting airborne with overloaded UH-1Bs, whether from an airfield or the small deck of an LST.
With combat operations carried out around-the-clock and often only ten minutes of flight time required to reach a target area, individual HA(L)-3 pilots and gunners accumulated hundreds of combat missions, each presenting its own challenges and on occasion providing harrowing moments in which aircrews exemplified the heroism that was a hallmark of the Seawolves. Barr, then a young lieutenant (junior grade) participated in two flights that resulted in the awarding of the Navy Cross to one of the participants.
On 14 September 1968, while he was flying as a copilot for Lieutenant James R. Walker, the pair’s UH-1B flew to support an oiler under attack from the shore. Expending their ordnance against the enemy, they were preparing to depart the scene when they received word that one of the ship’s crewmen was badly wounded. With no place to land on board, Walker put the aircraft in a hover over the bow of the moving vessel, and with the guidance of his gunner, placed one of the skids on a pylon surrounded by chain. Meanwhile, on the outboard side of the helicopter, Barr and the other gunner fired their weapons. Soon mortar fire from the shore began to rain down on the Huey, luckily not striking the blades. As they prepared to lift off, the gunner yelled to hold on. The front of the skid was beneath the pylon chain. He directed Walker clear of the obstacle and the helicopter evacuated the casualty, only to return repeatedly after being rearmed and refueled to resume attacks against the enemy.
‘The Whole World Lit Up on Us’
On 23 March 1969, Barr—by this time a highly experienced combat pilot—was flying as a fire-team leader against enemy positions on a mountain near the Cambodian border when “the whole world lit up on us. We were at about 500 feet when the aircraft was hit. It pitched to the left and the gauges started unwinding.” Hoping to autorotate, Barr quickly found that the Huey was too heavy and he ended up hitting a dry rice paddy and flipping upside down.
With his heel already shot off, Barr was knocked unconscious when his head slammed into the rocket sight, popping his left eyeball out of the socket and leaving it hanging down his cheek. His copilot, Lieutenant (junior grade) Edward Pawlowski, was killed by enemy fire, and one gunner, Aviation Machinist’s Mate Howard M. Meute, died in the crash. The other gunner, Airman Rick Abbott, suffered two broken thigh bones. A SEAL on board for the mission, Radarman Second Class Robert J. Thomas, was thrown about 30 feet clear of the wreckage. He raced back to the burning helicopter, managed to pull Barr and Abbott to safety, and set up a defensive perimeter, using only Barr’s .45-caliber pistol and three ammunition clips. An incredible marksman, the SEAL held off a force of some 30 enemy soldiers before an Army rescue Huey, driven off on its first attempt at rescue, managed to extract the survivors.
On 16 March 1972, HA(L)-3 was disestablished, its entire operational life having been spent engaged in combat in Vietnam. The statistics from its operations between 1967 and 1972 speak for themselves—more than 130,000 flight hours on combat and logistical support missions, 1,530 medical evacuations of wounded personnel, and decorations in numbers that are amazing to behold: 5 Navy Crosses, 31 Silver Stars, 219 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and 156 awards of the Purple Heart, including 44 to Seawolves who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Shortly after the squadron’s establishment, Commander Jaburg had looked to the future of attack helicopters in naval aviation. “The idea is here to stay,” he said. “It should, in fact, loom even larger in the scheme of things in our age. For brushfire wars, a quick-reaction force is essential. The helicopter attack force is one good workable answer.” The Navy carried on the tradition of the Seawolves: Navy Reserve operated squadrons HSC-84 and HSC-85 which, like their Vietnam predecessors, used armed helicopters to support SEAL operations and perform combat search and rescue, including during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2011, during the commemoration of the centennial of naval aviation, many operational aircraft received paint schemes honoring squadrons from the past. Among them was an HSC-84 HH-60H Seahawk that wore the familiar markings of the squadron that started it all—the Seawolves.
Documenting the Seawolves
For husband and wife filmmakers Jeff and Shannon Arballo, moments like one that occurred during a showing of Scramble the Seawolves at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, are the reward for the hours of work and dedication it took to make the documentary film about HA(L)-3. That night, a man arrived carrying a bag and approached Jeff, pulling out a Seawolves squadron plaque. “Dad had this hanging on his wall,” he said, explaining why he was there that night. “I wanted to know what my Dad did.”
Shannon knew the feeling. Growing up, she did not know much about her father Joe Crutcher’s Vietnam service. That changed one evening when she and Jeff attended a memorial service on board the decommissioned aircraft carrier Midway, a museum ship in San Diego in which her father and other members of HA(L)-3 honored 44 members of the squadron who had been killed in action. Hearing the stories, she asked her father if there had ever been any effort to tell the squadron’s story. Some overtures had been made, but they were too “Hollywood” for the veterans’ liking.
Jeff and Shannon met with the president of the HA(L)-3 Seawolf Association, Mike Dobson, in 2012 and proposed making a documentary. With Jeff traveling the world filming the World Surfing League, not until 2014 during a squadron reunion in Dallas, Texas, did the couple dedicate themselves to beginning work on the film. The association’s Wolfgram newsletter had announced that they would be conducting interviews, but on the first night only one squadron member showed up. The next night, Shannon’s father arrived and made an announcement about his daughter and son-in-law’s project, and that changed everything. They were family, and for the rest of the weekend, they filmed from about 0700 in the morning to 0300 the next morning. What was quickly revealed was that the veterans trusted them to tell the stories of their youth, oftentimes painful ones, and, Shannon says, “We never took for granted that trust.” The sailor whose interview lasted ten minutes was no less important than the one who spent well over an hour talking to them. Each recollection formed the fabric of the story.
More interviews followed, including those with former SEALs and PBR crewmen HA(L)-3 supported, and efforts were made to gather photographs and film footage. The Vietnam War was the first to play out on television screens back home, and not surprisingly, members of the squadron shot home movies and snapped photographs that captured the unique camaraderie and operations of the Seawolves. Some 85 percent of the photographs and footage the filmmakers used came from the veterans, much of it dug out of boxes in storage units and attics. This included 70 reels of film that were digitized, taking viewers back decades to the Mekong Delta in vivid color.
Jeff recalls that he was still putting the finishing touches on the film the week before its premier on 4 September 2018, when former Seawolves walked the red carpet to their seats. Events had come full circle for men who served their country in a long-ago war and for the film and its producers, the premier taking place on board the Midway, where the idea for Scramble the Seawolves was born.
For more information on Scramble the Seawolves, visit www.scrambletheseawolves.com.
For a limited time, members of the U.S. Naval Institute may watch Scramble the Seawolves right here on USNI.org.
Want more Naval History? Subscribe today!