Col Nelson was the first Skipper of VMO-6 in Vietnam. I am privileged to say that Art Friend is not only a squadron mate, but a friend. [no pun intended) TC
THE FOLLOWING IS FROM THE UNPUBLISHED MEMOIRS OF COL JOSEPH AUSTIN NELSON:
"11. VMO-6 at KyHa, Vietnam (the Klondikers) 1966-1967
As C.O., I was “Klondike-6”
After completing the camp building project at KyHa to the standards set by the group C.O. (Col. Vic Armstrong), he gave me command of VMO-6. This would be my last squadron that I would command. After 25 years of active duty, and approaching the age of 48, I was older than most of the parents of the officers and men in my squadron.
I was particularly delighted to get the HU-1E Gunship Squadron because I had brought the first HU-1Es into the Marine Corps three years earlier, when I had commanded VMO-1 at New River. I had been a fighter pilot for most of the past twenty-five years, and had flown combat in Grummond Wild Cats and Corsairs, and AD-4’s and anything else with a propeller on it and jet fighters. And now, I would have the gunships which in many ways were like the old fighter planes in close ground support of the troops in combat in WWII and Korea, and I’d have the opportunity to teach all fifty of my young pilots the special use of close air (and fixed wing) support I'd learned in WWII and Korea.
At least half of my pilots were qualified as TACA’s and I now had the opportunity to instill in them the value of fixed-wing air in the Marine Corps close-support concepts and how to use it effectively. We had excellent communications in the HU-1E, as did the fixed-wing pilots, so one of the biggest problems in the past was now solved. We could communicate clearly with the ground troops and with fixed-wing air, as well as with other helicopters. I taught my pilots how to utilize fixed-wing air in ways never to endanger the friendlies, and maximize the effects of their ordinance, Napalm, being one of my favorites, since I could use it closer in, parallel to the friendly lines. All these goodies were only minutes away from the hot pad at Chu-Lai. Just give them a TACAN bearing and distance and they were overhead, ready to roll in hot in minutes, where ever or whatever the situation. The most amazing thing about the fixed-wing close air support in Vietnam was that nearly 100% of all bombs I called on targets were bulls-eyes from the fixed winged jets.
I don’t remember this kind of professional accuracy in the crowds I flew with in the days of the old fixed-wing birds, even though we tried hard. Many times in Vietnam I called in jet air support, telling them that I had friendlies close by on each side of the target, that a miss would endanger friendlies, and if they did not feel good about the run, to take it around. They never failed me even once in these combat situations, and not once did we endanger our ground troops with fixed-wing fire support during my entire tour with this squadron. We found that we were ideally suited to be the eyes for the fixed-wing birds, which was a very comforting thing for them to know exactly what the situation was, as well as their BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment).
In VMO-6, I had fifty young pilots, and about a hundred dedicated young enlisted troops on the side guns. Most of my plane captains were lads only eighteen or nineteen years old. They were the most loyal Marines I had known in any war. All of these plane captains insisted on flying as side door gunners whenever their plane flew. Most of the planes in my squadron flew approximately ten hours a day, usually under enemy fire. These young men would work at night to maintain their birds, sometimes going without sleep or even food until the plane was ready to go again, and when it launched, they were in the side door with their M-60 Machine guns as well as another young man in the other door.
At KyHa we were fortunate in that the enemy-harassing rockets were never fired at our base. I figured that this was probably due to a huge secondary explosion of rocket fuel about fifteen miles west of our base. I had called in an F-4 on NVA troops in that area, and the bomb had actually hit the right guide of the NVA formation. When a "grave" exploded, about 100 meters away, it was like a launch from Cape Canaveral, which burned like solid rocket fuel about 200 feet high in the air, and about 30 feet in diameter for nearly two minutes! So, we figured this was the rocket fuel they had stored for those harassment rockets for our area. DaNang and PhuBai areas had nightly problems with incoming rockets, which affected their ability to work at night on their planes. So, their availability at times was low. My squadron, however, was able to maintain at least twenty-three birds flying every day, for an average of more than five thousand combat hours each month.
The loyalty and hard work, patriotism and dedication of every man in VMO-6, was the greatest thing I had known in my entire career. What a privilege it was to work with these lads each day, regardless of the dangers of combat. I never had to ask for volunteers to go with me on dangerous missions. One, Lance Corporeal Arthur Friend, age eighteen, from Louisiana, was typical.
On a dark and stormy night about 0100, I was working through all the paperwork in my VMO-6 office, when an emergency call came in from Crankcase 3 with First Recon (a nine-man team) saying that they were surrounded by a large enemy force and under heavy fire. They were surrounded by unknown enemy numbers out near Ho Chi Min's trail over in the mountains to the west. (We kept a special radio in our ready room to hear the whispers of the Recon Teams when they were in trouble, to expedite our help.)
As I went out to get in my airplane, it was one that had been shot up several days before, and the loyal young Lance Corporal about 18 years old who was the plane captain, was there, and he helped me strap in, ready to "go to war." He was an unusually sharp young man, gifted with common sense, and a dead-eye shot with his M-60 in the side door. This young man had voluntarily worked on the plane for two days and two nights without relief or sleep, patching the holes and cleaning the plane up getting it ready. I don't know if the lad had even stopped for food. His eyes were red, and he looked fatigued.
I told the OPS officer to get me another man to take his place with the side door machine gun, because this was going to be a very dangerous night, and he probably wouldn’t be able to survive if we went down out there in enemy country. So I asked for a replacement for him on the side door. As we hurriedly got ready for takeoff, I was making the last minute checks in the right seat (which is first pilot for helicopters) when the young plane captain with blood shot eyes came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Skipper, he’s got to whip my fanny to take my place. It’s my plane. I fix it, I’ll fly."
I said to my co-pilot, “We have about two-hundred of these here in our Band of Brothers in VMO-6, and each one is special to me.” I told the lad, “O.K., get in, and let’s go to war.” It was about 0130 when we took off. I was kind of glad to have that youngster with me because this mission was considered life or death for the Recon Team, and he could be trusted in his orientation never to endanger the friendlies, so I could allow him to have “free guns” on his side. Such was the case with the loyalty of every man in my squadron.
The weather was down to the ground and pouring down rain. We had to proceed under a low hanging ceiling along with the CH-46 rescue helicopter. In order to get there, we had to go down a dry riverbed in the mountains, at about 50 feet altitude, to stay under the low hanging ceiling. After arriving at the Re-con team, the CH-46 had to hover in the tree tops to lift each man out by cable.
I circled the CH-46 in a right hand turn, and let the side gunner spray the area around the team below to discourage the enemy from their intent. I circled as close to the hovering CH-46 as I could get to be able to draw the enemy fire, which would help the CH-46 to survive in its hover, and my side gunner would strafe in an arc as we circled. The clouds overhead were practically in the tree tops also! When he’d run out of ammunition, the right-hand gunner would furnish him more ammo. L/Cpl. Friend was able to quiet the enemy down with his M-60 and made the rescue possible. On the way out, we had to go up the dry riverbed, the way we had come in, and then cross a 400-foot ridge that was now enshrouded in clouds. This made for an anxious several minutes until we could let down on the other side over the rice paddies, hoping to get back in the clear from the storm. Fortunately, we had approximately fifty-feet of ceiling over the rice paddies near the coast, and completed our homeward bound journey. And so we brought them home safely, regardless of the weather.
There were many such emergency evacuations that Art Friend joined me as my side gunner. On another trip, when we got back, I looked the plane over, and there was a big patch of blood near the left door. I asked Friend about it, and why he didn’t tell me that he had been hit. He said he was hit earlier in the day, and that the bullet had cut about a two-inch gash in the right cheek of his fanny. He said that would be his fourth “Purple Heart” and he did not want anybody to know about it because four Purple Hearts would cause him to be transferred from combat. He said, “Besides, Skipper, I knew you needed me.”
That 18 year old boy retired from the Marine Corps as a Lt.Col. about 1995. He came to see me to tell me, "Farewell." Art Friend is his name, a Cajun from Louisiana. I attended his Retirement party which was down at Captain Rex's Restaurant in Morehead City, N.C. I noticed his uniform still bore his four Purple Hearts from VMO-6 along with a chest full of combat ribbons from Vietnam. Art Friend had not wanted to tell me about his fourth Purple Heart, because he was afraid that I'd send him home. I now realize that this command was the greatest privilege and challenge of my entire thirty-two years in my Marine Corps career. I've come to realize what I'd been told by an old-timer named Col. Chesty Puller, that the place for the leader is out front.
The UH-1E came into the Marine Corps to my command in 1962 when I had VMO-1 at New River, N.C. This helicopter, as compared to the old fixed-wing type operation aircraft of previous wars was notable. This opened up a world of new capabilities as described in these stories. Hundreds of lives were saved because of this particular aircraft and its capability in war. All my squadron ultimately became TACAs and so, we dealt in all the fire fights in our TAOR. We actually flew about 100 combat missions each day, sometimes more in the Vietnam War.
Quite often we'd leave early in the morning on a mission, then refuel and re-arm at the nearest field depo, and be ready to answer another emergency call the same day. Most times we came home after dark with not a dry stitch on our clothes from all day on the battlefields. Even my bravest sidegunners would tend to choke up when wounded ground troops would come to our squadron to say, "Thank you for saving my life!" This was all made possible by the amazing capability of the UH-1E (HUEY) Helicopter. We maintained an availability of about 23 of our 24 airplanes each day. Our crews were made up of four men: pilot, co-pilot and two side-gunners with M-60 Machine Guns. (We had four forward firing M-60s in front, and two pods of white phosphorus rockets primarily to mark targets for the fixed wing aircrafts.) In many squadrons, various crew members were affected by combat fatigue. We did not have this problem in VMO-6 during the tenure of my command with them. Despite the restrictions put upon us by MacNamara in D.C., our forces had won every battle, over all the ten years of the war! Many of our troops lost their lives because of the restrictions placed upon us like having your hands tied behind your back! We were all confident of victory, all through this war, until DOD gave it away by ordering us out (to cut and run) in 1973!
When various troops (Army, Navy and Marines) came back to San Francisco, getting off the ships or airplanes, the bands of hippies were there, demonstrating in very vulgar ways and language against us. We were asked for volunteers to form a platoon to march in the streets to block them off. When we insisted about doing it with fixed bayonets or swords, they declined our offer. This was a dark day in the history of our country which seemed to be a "mass of gutless wonders!" Years later, President Ronald Reagan, put the whole country back on its feet and pointed to the high goals we'd been taught to maintain."