In the predawn light, the CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter landed on the U.S. embassy roof in Saigon and piled in the last group of Americans and South Vietnamese evacuating a rapidly deteriorating situation in the capital.
Within an hour, “Lady Ace 09” landed on the USS Blue Ridge (LCC-19), Task Force 76’s command ship steaming off the coast, and discharged U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin and other evacuees. It was the 34th sortie for the pilot, Captain Gerry Berry, since Operation Frequent Wind began a day earlier. Within hours on 30 April 1975, the final flight pulled the remaining Marine security team from the embassy in collapsing South Vietnam. The emptied compound was soon overrun by North Vietnamese forces and became a symbolic image of the long war’s end.
Marine aviation played an important role in that largest helicopter evacuation ever. A symbol of the operation, Lady Ace 09, is on display at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum in San Diego. The museum is one of three Marine Corps command museums and the only one focused on Marine aviation. The museum opened in 2000 in a small building on seven acres at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, home to the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.
Most of the museum’s 48 fixed- and rotary-wing vintage aircraft were part of a collection at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California, which shuttered in 1999. The 31 aircraft on display, some on loan from other museums, showcase a century of Marine aviation history; newer aircraft, such as the MV-22 Osprey, are not yet in the collection.
Aircraft restoration and preservation remain dear to the museum. Ongoing restoration efforts led by volunteers working in a nearby hangar include an SBD-1 Dauntless, F-8E Crusader, PBJ-1J (B-25J) Mitchell, and FM-2 Wildcat. The rare Dauntless went down during a 1942 training flight and was recovered in 1995 from Lake Michigan.
Restored to former glory or not, aircraft are the museum’s big draw. Combat jets, including an RF-4B Photo Phantom, A-6A/E Intruder, and EA-6B Prowler greet visitors near the entrance gate. A foursome—an A-4C Skyhawk, A-4F Skyhawk, TA-4J Skyhawk, and A-4M Skyhawk II—showcases the attack jet’s evolution from the 1950s until final deactivation in the ’90s.
A walk through winding paths is a travel through time. An olive-green TBM Avenger torpedo bomber, pivotal in World War II’s Pacific island campaigns, sits under a large sunshade. A recently retired and restored F/A-18A features the Black Knights logo, “VW” tail code of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, and names of the first and last Hornet squadron commanders. VMFA-314 is the first to fly the Marines’ advanced F-35C Lightning II multimission jet.
The collection has one of the oldest Harrier models, a Hawker Siddeley GR.1 AV-8C—last flown by NASA—which honors Lieutenant General Thomas H. Miller, a combat pilot and the first American to fly the jump jet. The dark-blue paint on two Korean War–era planes—an F9F-2 Panther and F2H-2 Banshee—recall their disguise for nighttime missions. A gray camouflage F-5E Tiger II light fighter that saw combat over Vietnam still proves its value as a formidable adversary in air-to-air training.
Inside the museum, the stories and faces of Marine aviation come to life. Volunteers guide visitors through the rooms and offer aircraft details or personal anecdotes of life as a Marine aviator. Photographs and citations of the 2019 Marine Corps Aviation Association award recipients line the walls of one gallery. The blue NASA flight suit worn by retired Major General Charles “Charlie” Bolden commemorates his service as fighter pilot, astronaut, Space Shuttle commander, and NASA administrator. Marine aviators represent one-quarter of all astronauts.
The victims of the 11 September terrorist attacks are remembered in photographs of the burning Twin Towers and grief-stricken firefighters at Ground Zero. The attacks prompted the most recent combat deployments of Marine aviators. A desert-tan flight suit belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 165, the Miramar-based White Knights, represents pilots, aircrews and maintainers called to action, in peace and in war. A new exhibit highlighting military working dogs honors eight K-9 handlers who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An earlier war is also remembered. Almost 93,000 Marines deployed for the 1990–91 Gulf War to undo Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. An Iraqi soldier’s uniform is displayed next to Marine camouflage utilities. In photographs, a CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter hovers over the battleship Wisconsin (BB-63) and an AH-1J Cobra helicopter flies above burning Kuwaiti oil fields. The latter photograph honors Major Eugene “Smokey” McCarthy and Captain Jonathan Jack “Homey” Edwards, Cobra pilots killed in a 2 February 1991 crash in Saudi Arabia. Edwards, a father of three, was the first Desert Storm casualty to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
An exhibit commemorates Miramar’s deep ties to Navajo Code Talkers, some of whom trained at Camp Elliott, today’s East Miramar. The display honors Samuel Tsosie Sr., a Code Talker who fought with 1st Marine Division’s 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, at Guadalcanal, New Britain, Peleliu, and Okinawa. Here Tsosie, who died in 2014 at 89, is remembered by his red cap, gold uniform blouse, and Congressional Silver Medal he received in 2001, on loan from his family. His Navajo beaded turquoise necklace, silver bolo tie, silver-and-turquoise leather sash, and green fourragère of the 5th Marine Regiment adorn the blouse.
As the museum turns 20, the mission remains “preserve, honor and inspire,” and officials want it to remain relevant to today’s Marine Corps. Flying Leatherneck Historical Foundation officials liken the museum’s holdings to representing the “5th” Marine aircraft wing. The nonprofit foundation, which runs daily operations, wants to raise funds to build a permanent museum on the site. As envisioned, the 90,000-square-foot, two-story facility would display nearly two dozen aircraft and feature galleries and meeting space in a modern design reminiscent of a hangar.
Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum
4203 Anderson Ave.
San Diego, CA 92145
Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 0900 to 1530. Closed Mondays and some federal holidays.
Prices: Admission and parking are free, but donations are welcome.