The memoirs of aviators assigned to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron Three (HA[L]-3) during the Vietnam War reveal a chapter in naval rotary-wing history defined by tenacity and courage. From positions afloat and ashore, the HA(L)-3 “Seawolves” launched into enemy gunfire, in terrible weather, and on horizonless nights to provide fire support to beleaguered friendly units, insert SEAL teams, or retrieve wounded sailors and soldiers from the battlefield. With no naval precedent for rotary-wing multimission attack, assault, and rescue operations, the all-volunteer squadron rapidly developed the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to assist coalition efforts.
By the U.S. withdrawal in 1972, HA(L)-3 had helped transform the Mekong Delta into one of the most pacified areas of South Vietnam. Nevertheless, through the fog of time and with the operational departure from more aggressive rotary-wing missions, expeditionary naval aviation seems to have forgotten the Seawolves’ legacy.
Until 2011, rotary-wing naval aviators attached to amphibious ready groups/Marine expeditionary units (ARG/MEUs) performed fleet logistics support operations, search-and-rescue (SAR) alerts, and vertical replenishment but were not expected to offensively engage hostile forces. Over the past seven years, however, ARG/MEU Navy helicopter doctrine has shifted from two-aircraft SAR detachments to three-aircraft Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) detachments flying the armed MH-60S Knighthawk. Expeditionary HSCs now train to “nontraditional” Navy helicopter missions such as armed escort, rotary-wing close air support, maritime interdiction, surface warfare, and the tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel. As expeditionary HSC personnel refine their tactical employment, they should look to the Seawolves for inspiration.
HA(L)-3 was the only Navy helicopter attack, assault, and combat rescue squadron operating in South Vietnam. The key to its success was its ability to build relationships with assets from other units and services to earn their trust while demonstrating a willingness to adapt to new missions and a warfighting spirit. By adapting the same approach to ARG/MEU interoperability, today’s HSC detachments can elevate their participation in expeditionary operations.
A Call for Fire
In the early 1960s, the escalating Viet Cong insurgency in the Mekong Delta and Rung Sat Swamp threatened the livelihood and freedom of the region. South Vietnam was one of the world’s largest rice exporters, and “80 percent of its rice crop [was] harvested in the fertile Delta.” According to intelligence reports, when the Viet Cong could not obtain rice, “they resorted to extortion, theft, or confiscation” from civilians. The Rung Sat Special Zone (RSSZ) contained the Long Tau shipping channel, South Vietnam’s primary supply line from Saigon to the South China Sea. By 1966, U.S. leadership recognized that whoever dominated the channels of the Mekong Delta and RSSZ “controlled the heart of South Vietnam.”
The U.S. Navy established Operation Game Warden (Task Force [TF] 116) in December 1965 to confront the growing communist presence. Commander, Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), called for patrol craft, SEAL teams, minesweeping units, and helicopters to operate together and establish government control of the Long Tau shipping channel and the main offshoots of the Mekong River. The 120 river patrol boat (PBR) crews assigned to TF-116 bore the brunt of this task, engaging in an average of 70 firefights a month. Because of the limited mobility of ground reinforcements, it soon became apparent that “quick reaction close air support would be indispensable.” The proposed aerial force would help survey the winding waterways, stave off ambush forward of the surface patrols, and provide fire support and casualty evacuation.
Initially, Army aviation was the only local option. On 11 March 1966, two Army UH-1 Iroquois helicopters embarked on the USS Belle Grove (LSD-2) to determine the viability of shipboard quick-reaction air support. Fifteen days later, Operation Jackstay marked the first major inshore amphibious assault of the war, and the Belle Grove Army helicopters “made a significant contribution . . . until darkness precluded further accurate fire.”
As Game Warden’s tasking expanded, the “fair weather” pilots of the Army could not provide the dedicated coverage necessary for extended operations in remote areas of the Delta. Troops on the ground and crews on the rivers needed an air asset they could count on to arrive within minutes during the low-light and degraded environmental conditions (such as monsoonal rains) in which the Viet Cong operated. U.S. Naval Headquarters Saigon Chief of Staff Captain John T. Shepherd asked the Navy to provide pilots of the right dispositions and instrument training.
Navy Helicopter Combat Support Squadron One (HC-1) supplied the first cohort of Navy pilots for TF-116. Although HC-1 pilots did not have experience in armed helicopter tactics, they did have extensive instrument flying experience in low-light and marginal weather. Their early success came not only from their previous training, but also from their newly developed relationships with the other services operating in the Delta. Initially, Army UH-1B pilots would instruct HC-1 co-pilots during operational missions using “split crew” scheduling.
After just a few weeks of Game Warden tasking, Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam, reported HC-1’s “communication and coordination [with] waterborne units was outstanding.” HC-1 paid tribute to its Army predecessors by adopting (though slightly modifying) their “Sea Wolves” call sign.
In January 1967, a message released to all Navy squadrons requested volunteers to form a dedicated helicopter gunship unit based out of South Vietnam. On 1 April, HC-1 combined with three new detachments and received the designation, HA(L)-3. This larger squadron allowed HA(L)-3 to press deeper into the Delta. The Seawolves established forward operating bases ashore at Vung Tau, Binh Thuy, Vinh Long, Dong Tham, and Nha Be and afloat on tank landing ships and barges. With eight pilots, eight aircrewmen, and varying numbers of ground support personnel at each location, the detachments could maintain continuous 24-hour coverage with two four-person alert crews.
Success in the Delta
In five years of operations, the members of HA(L)-3 flew 78,000 sorties, sank 8,700 enemy vessels, destroyed 9,500 structures, and killed 8,200 combatants. The Seawolves achieved such impressive statistics by embracing their nontraditional Navy helicopter missions. The majority of personnel assigned to HA(L)-3 were “in [their] first tour out of the training command,” and the more senior members all were volunteers. Though some superior officers attempted to steer young pilots away from HA(L)-3, the squadron’s first executive officer, Commander Conrad J. “Con” Jaburg, remarked, “The warrior blood in our Seawolves said ‘volunteer’ anyway.”
In the 1960s, not only was employing helicopters in support of expeditionary attack, assault, and rescue operations unprecedented for naval aviation, but riverine warfare also represented a long-neglected mission for the entire Navy. Vice Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Commander Naval Forces, Vietnam, admitted, “Riverine warfare requires ingenuity and improvisation. There is no body of accepted doctrine on the subject.” HA(L)-3 aircrews capitalized on the lack of tactical manuals and procedures by adapting to the environment and tailoring their execution to the needs of the supported riverine patrols.
In 1967, TF-116 sailors boarded more than 400,000 vessels searching for enemy personnel and contraband. South Vietnam had a sunset-to-sunrise curfew, so Game Warden forces could treat all vessels encountered at night as hostile. Former Seawolf Tom Phillips commented, “It’s like hundreds of Army birds went home by dark and nine two-plane detachments of Seawolves would go out and replace them.” This willingness to launch at night, when the Army “did not venture out,” proved invaluable to PBR crews vulnerable to Viet Cong ambush. For the Seawolves, launching quickly and reliably when the call for assistance came was “a matter of confidence building, and the Huey crews took on the challenge with startling vigor.”
HA(L)-3’s willingness to provide multimission air support in the Mekong Delta extended to “any friendly force in trouble.” For example, the Army often would conduct low-level patrols in the OH-6A “Cayuse” or the Air Force in the O-1D “Bird Dog.” The Seawolves accompanied these patrols, ready to assist with reconnaissance, on-call casualty evacuation, or rotary-wing close air support. Their professional and consistent support of all services earned the squadron a reputation for aggressive, sound decision-making. By 1969, the Seawolves could authorize fires without the supervision of forward air controllers or command ships. They had earned commanders’ “trust and most others had not.”
A willingness to scramble for any distress call sometimes required HA(L)-3 aircrews to assume substantial risk during a mission. In his memoir, Seawolf gunner Thurman Hicks describes encountering a beached fast patrol craft “Swift” boat damaged by enemy fire. Hicks explains, “We landed to medevac the wounded . . . the sailor who needed my space was shot in the stomach. I guess you can say I sort of volunteered to stay behind until they could come back for me.” Aircraft Commander Bill McCamy expanded on Hicks’ account: “The weather was real crappy—ceiling at a couple hundred feet. After a few runs back and forth and bringing a P-250 pump to the beached Swift, we remained in the vicinity while it pumped out the bilges, did some quick repairs, and got underway.”
The expeditionary nature of HA(L)-3 required each detachment to customize TTPs to the unique conditions of its environment. What the Seawolves were able to standardize across every detachment, however, was a fighting spirit and mission focus. Former Seawolves remember that upon arrival at HA(L)-3 headquarters at Vung Tau, veteran aviators “drummed into [them] ‘fly to fight, fight to win.’ [They] knew nothing else.” This ethos steeled the aircrews to persevere through enemy fire, terrible weather, or darkest night whenever the call for assistance came. The Seawolves fostered a tradition of “wanting to be the best,” and though they flew nontraditional missions, that ethos “gave [them] the drive and desire to do what had to be done despite sometimes overwhelming odds.”
One report of HA(L)-3’s exceptional courage is from a 1971 routine patrol out of “Solid Anchor” fire base in Nam Can. The Seawolves would fly deliberately through the middle of an altitude block known as the “avoid zone” because of its susceptibility to enemy fire. They would lure Viet Cong forces into engaging, then target the location of the enemy’s tracer rounds. Unbeknownst to aircraft commander John Gana and his two-aircraft “fire team,” the Viet Cong had staged an antiaircraft machine-gun trap. Gana recalls, “Our team quickly transitioned from a defensive move to an offensive attack directed squarely at the suspected enemy position. . . . We reached the treetops and turned to home base to ‘hot rearm,’ refuel, and jump back into the fight.”
The Seawolves invited enemy fire to flush out positions threatening friendly units on the ground. They accepted their assigned missions with tenacity and managed the risk by leaning on experience and training. Commenting on this disposition, the Center for Naval Analyses concluded, “The young U.S. Navy officers and enlisted men assigned to river patrols performed aggressively and responsibly on their own initiative. . . . Helicopters were essential to riverine operations in fire support, observation, and medical evacuation.”
HA(L)-3’s operational success was enabled by an equally motivated maintenance team. With only two aircraft to provide 24-hour alert coverage, Seawolf helicopter upkeep became an all-hands effort, with enlisted Navy door gunners attending a week of maintenance education in each workshop. To ensure expeditious and reliable alert launches, the whole aircrew would assist in reloading, fueling, and servicing the aircraft or performing more involved repairs while “off duty.” At Vung Tau, veteran aviators would fly with new copilots to test post-maintenance aircraft prior to certification for operational flight. These combat-tested Seawolves “all wanted to pass along what they had learned and all the tricks.” Passing lessons learned from peer group to peer group, maintainer to aircrew, and detachment veteran to new copilot provided continuity, preserved “trade knowledge,” and developed warrior pride.
The Seawolves’ adaptability and fighting spirit would have been inconsequential without the capacity to form cooperative relationships with friendly forces in South Vietnam. In response to the Seawolves’ first major operation in 1966, MACV recognized “the combination of imagination, initiative, careful planning, and close cooperation between services had overcome obstacles ranging from enemy fire to the improbable operating conditions” and allowed the Game Warden forces to achieve success.
Early Seawolf detachments embedded themselves into the social and professional fabric of the shore facilities and afloat staging bases they shared with SEAL teams, minesweeping units, and surface craft squadrons. Phillips explained, “We could not have been closer to the SEALs. . . . the term ‘integrating’ was unknown to us. We planned, schemed, created tactics, tried them, modified them, exchanged ideas, it was personal.”
To tailor tactics to the needs of the supported assets, new Seawolves “would go aboard the PBRs on missions to get a better understanding of the role and working environment of these smaller boats.” On the ground, the Seawolves did not limit their relationships to the professional sphere. In off-duty periods, they would regularly rendezvous with SEALs, patrol craft crews, and other collocated forces both formally and informally. They used this time to debrief previous missions and exchange lessons learned while establishing the camaraderie unique to service members forward deployed.
Reviving the Seawolf Legacy
Fifty years after HA(L)-3’s inception, the Navy again is evaluating how to incorporate armed helicopters into expeditionary operations. During the confirmation brief for a 2018 ARG/MEU exercise, Brigadier General Francis Donovan, Commander Task Force 51/5th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, commented, “I have seen different ways ARG/MEUs utilize their HSC detachments.” This statement reflects the lack of standardization and affirms the need for all expeditionary HSC squadrons to emphasize their nontraditional multimission capabilities.
The attack, assault, and rescue missions that HC-1 adapted from Army use, and that HA(L)-3 continued to hone throughout the Vietnam War, mirror the tactical syllabi all modern HSC squadrons train with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, these skills are rarely applied operationally on expeditionary deployments. HSC detachments can take steps in several areas:
Willingness to Adapt. By interfacing with ARG/MEU personnel at the appropriate level, HSC detachments can demonstrate the willingness and war-fighting spirit to invite greater ARG/MEU integration and combat application. Emulating HA(L)-3’s interoperability with collocated joint forces, HSC aircrews today should learn the language of the embarked Marines and engage with them personally and professionally. Attending staff planning conferences, exchanging and comparing tactical manuals and procedures, and encouraging social opportunities in informal settings would promote the growth of Navy-Marine Corps trust.
HSC detachments need to mirror the Seawolves’ doctrinal flexibility and awareness of Marine TTPs to engage effectively as part of an ARG/MEU team. To create opportunities to hone this familiarity, HSC leaders should plan with the operations and future operations officers of the major subordinate elements of the MEU prior to formalized staff planning or predeployment exercises.
Internal Trade Knowledge. To aid future expeditionary HSC squadrons and assist in the community’s transition from logistics to combat multimission capabilities, after-action reports (AARs) should be used to encourage skill refinement, highlight effective practices, and foster a warrior ethos. Successful or unsuccessful integrations, obstacles, unfunded requirements, and shortfalls of the aircrew and maintenance personnel need to be discussed across all squadrons and pushed to higher headquarters. This requires wider post-deployment AAR dissemination and face-to-face pass down with future deploying units.
External Advocacy. Effective Navy rotary-wing employment also requires awareness and advocacy outside the HSC chain of command. Producing storyboards and AARs for joint air and ground forces to push up their respective chains of command would increase Navy rotary-wing visibility in forward-deployed areas and improve supported commanders’ HSC capabilities and trust. By increasing discussion of AARs within outside units, the HSC community can help avoid each new ARG/MEU detachment having to reintroduce Navy rotary-wing multimission tactical training so late in the deployment workup cycle that they cannot integrate effectively.
Predeployment Integration. HSCs should look to the MEU predeployment training plan (PTP) as a platform for capabilities integration. Structured participation in the MEU PTP gives HSC detachments an opportunity for face-to-face development of TTPs, an opportunity that allowed HA(L)-3 to achieve success and earn the trust of collocated forces in South Vietnam. Active representation in the MEU PTP and standardized combat rehearsal participation could demonstrate to the amphibious squadron commander and MEU commander the combat interoperability of the MH-60S. This active involvement also would provide ARG/MEU leaders a way to validate to higher headquarters the proven benefits of MH-60S support in ARG/MEU combat operations around the world.
While charting the way forward, present-day expeditionary HSC squadrons should reflect on both the historical example of HA(L)-3 and the words of Vice Admiral Dewolfe Miller, Commander, Naval Air Forces: “We are lethal military professionals. We are courageous, disciplined, and accountable.” By taking pride in the flexible capabilities of their multimission helicopter and demonstrating to ARG/MEU leaders a willingness to conduct these trained-to missions, expeditionary HSC can establish the relationships required for sustained warfighting representation. The Navy Seawolves accomplished this 50 years ago; their successors need to do so again.
1. CDR Christopher E. Rew, “Sealords and Seawolves: An Analysis of U.S. Navy Riverine Forces in Vietnam 1968–1972,” dissertation (Air University, Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: 2008), 1.
2. History Branch, Office of the Secretary, Joint Staff, MACV, “United States Military Assistance Command, Vietnam Command History 1968,” vol. I (Department of the Army, 30 April 1969), 105.
3. “Task Force 116: The Mobile Riverine Force,” Mobile Riverine Force Association, 2.
4. U.S. Navy, “U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966” (declassified 1978), 3.
5. John Darrell Sherwood, “Patrol Boat River Lethality in Vietnam” (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2010), 2.
6. CDR Donald Nichols and CAPT Charles O. Borgstrom, USN, “The Seawolves: Past . . . Present . . . Future?” (declassified 25 October 1972), 1.
7. CAPT Frederick E. Brazee, USN, “The Mobile Riverine Force, Mekong Delta, Republic of Vietnam, 16 February 1967–10 January 1968 (Personal Experience of a Company Commander and Assistant Brigade S2),” U.S. Army Infantry School (23 September 1968), 11.
8. John Darrell Sherwood, War in the Shallows: U.S. Navy Coastal and Riverine Warfare in Vietnam, 1965–1968 (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2015) 124.
9. U.S. Navy, “U.S. Naval Forces, Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, April 1966” (declassified 1978).
10. LCDR Thomas L. Phillips, USN, “Scramble Seawolves!” www.seawolf.org, 3.
11. U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966,” 28.
12. Richard Knott, Fire From the Sky: Seawolf Gunships in the Mekong Delta (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), 20.
13. U.S. Navy, “HA(L)-3 Early History.”
14. Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 126.
15. Daniel E. Kelly, Seawolves: First Choice (New York: Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998), back cover.
16. Bill McCamy, email message to author, 31 May 2018.
17. Knott, Fire from the Sky, 55.
18. ADM Elmo R. Zumwalt Jr., USN, On Watch: A Memoir (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Company, 1976), 38.
19. Edward J. Marolda and R. Blake Dunnavent, Combat at Close Quarters: Warfare on the Rivers and Canals of Vietnam (Washington DC: Naval History and Heritage Command in Partnership with the Naval Historical Foundation, 2015), 22.
20. LCDR Thomas L. Phillips (SEAWOLF 98), email message to author, 1 May 2018.
21. LCDR Thomas L. Phillips (SEAWOLF 98), email message to author, 31 May 2018.
22. Knott, Fire from the Sky, 29.
23. Knott, Fire from the Sky, 37.
24. Airman Tom Olby, “Sampan Insertion,” Navy Seawolves War Stories.
25. Phillips, email, 31 May 2018.
26. Thurman Hicks, “Thurman L. Hicks,” Navy Seawolves War Stories.
27. Bill McCamy (SEAWOLF 12), email message to author, 11 May 2018.
28. Bill McCamy (SEAWOLF 12), email message to author, 31 May 2018.
29. McCamy, email, 31 May 2018.
30. John Gana, “Firebase Solid Anchor,” Navy Seawolves War Stories.
31. Victory Daniels and Judith C. Erdheim, “Game Warden,” Center for Naval Analyses (January 1976), 6.
32. Sherwood, War in the Shallows, 127.
33. Phillips, email, 31 May 2018.
34. U.S. Navy, “Vietnam Monthly Historical Summary, October 1966,” 12.
35. Phillips, email, 1 May 2018.
36. U.S. Navy, “HA(L)-3 Early History.”
37. Brigadier General Francis Donovan, video teleconference with author, 9 April 2018.
38. Nicole Bauke, “Navy Welcomes New Air Boss at North Island,” Navy Times, 12 January 2018.