My Marine buddies called me RJ and the label has stuck through the military and my railroad career. I probably would have never been in the Military as I had a long history of medical problems as a kid. The Air Force, Army and Navy had already turned me down then I ran into old Marine Gunny Recruiter that helped me lie my way into the Marines in July 1961. In truth I got off to pretty shaky start, barely making it through Boot Camp & Aviation Training in Memphis Somehow I survived and was assigned to Ground Power at H&MS-26 in New River NC and was with MAG-26 during the Cuban Missile Crises in 1962. Following that deployment, in 1963, I was transferred to the 1st Marine Air Wing and scheduled for Japan but when I arrived in California my orders were changed and I was assigned to MAG-36 & HMM-364 which was preparing for deployment to Vietnam.
April 27 of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of the Do Xa Strike Mission that HMM-364 flew in 1964. A lot has been already published as this was during 'Operation Shufly' and due to the fact a number of Squadron Members have faithfully documented the Squadrons History. My purpose in writing however is to share views as experienced by us young Marine Helicopter Mechanic's that also flew as 'Strap Hangers' (Aerial Gunners) that day.
If you search the web under 'Purple Foxes' you will come up with our Squadrons History. Of course back then we did not consider our-self anything special We were just HMM-364 Marines and flew and maintained UH-34D (1820D Radial Engined) Helicopters. If we had a label it was simply Yankee Kilo Marines -YK being our call sign. later deployments of the Squadron in Vietnam brought a certain well earned fame and the coveted tile of 'Purple Foxes'
We deployed to Vietnam all by our lonesome in late 1963. President Kennedy was assassinated as we ferried Helicopters over to Okinawa on the USNS Breton a old WWII Jeep Carrier. We did not operationally arrive in Da Nang till January 1964 .My first day in Nam and the following three weeks were spent as a Marine Grunt. I had drawn Perimeter Guard Duty around Da Nang so the early flight operations I missed. Marine Vets who served exclusively as 0311 Infantry have somewhat a low regard for us who were with the Marine Air Wings. However In 1964 there was just us Air Wingers composed of a Marine Helicopter Squadron and our support personnel, so when there was a need for 'Grunts' we were it as well.
I now treasure the fact that as our Squadron Pilots and Crew Chiefs settled in to their first nights rest in Country, I and a few other low rank Marine Mechanics were out walking perimeter. 'Charlie' liked to shot some sort of improvised sling shot rifle at us especially just before dawn, it would scare the hell out of me - thankfully he wasn't that accurate but as the weeks went by the situation around Da Nang became highly insecure, A couple a Marines from the Motor Pool were kidnapped by the VC.and that's about when HQMC called in a Marine Infantry Company from Okinawa to help beef up our security.. So I and a couple of buddies were shuffled back to the line to again repair Helicopters.
At first I was assigned as a 1st Mech.to Sgt. Barnes, a Crew Chief who obviously wanted someone else and promptly traded me off to a Cpl. Barnum (Barney). This was when I learned that on many missions I would also be flying as a Gunner, in fact we rotated all our young maintenance troops into being 'Gunners'. Most of us were Pvt's and PFC's & there had been absolutely no promotions for 1st term Marines since we formed the Squadron for deployment, so this was a small morale boost.
Otherwise we spent our days sweating, working on and cleaning aircraft and whenever possible getting totally wasted at night on whatever form of alcohol we could obtain. A lot of us had gradually developed bad attitudes as this was not exactly a grand adventure as for our NCO's and Officers. I and another PFC for Kansas City finally did get L/Cpl in August of 1964 but I actually felt sad as there were just us two. Both of us had over 36 months in grade as PFC's so that's the only reason we received this glorious promotion to E-3 before leaving the Corps.
April 27th came not exactly as a surprise, I knew I would be flying the mission because it was long and they need the 1st Mech's refueling and taking care of the Aircraft. This was a troop insertion into a suspected VC Stronghold and we would have the Army Aviation Gunships flying alongside, it was a large operation and included all of our Squadron as well as the Army's Dragon flight. Quang Ngai was our refuel point, they had fuel bladders along side what was probably a soccer field near the side of the river & this was where we were operating out of. From there we then flew into the mountains into a mountain valley outside of a little hamlet called Do Xa. Already some VNAF AD-1 Skyraiders were trying to soften up the LZ and they were getting shot up bad with one already down. I still believe the guys who really saved that day was the Army Huey's "Dragon Flight' commanded by Capt. Jack "Woody" Woodmansee, (later LtGen. USA(Ret).
This was suppose to be a VC Stronghold but there were 'Charlies' all over the LZ in Cammie's and Pith helmets armed with automatic antiaircraft weapons. Now that didn't sound like VC to me but Capt Jack and his Dragon flight just kept taking out one position after another. We were circling above watching, when finally our CO said to hell with it & took us in - all our UH-34D's charging through this valley as all hell broke loose, every Gunner and Crew Chief firing trying to follow the enemy tracers down, ARVN's were pumped up jumping out of our Helicopters & with us trying to provide cover fire. Back and forth we were in and out of that LZ, Aircraft were down and we were picking up crews as we exited.
About the 3 or 4th sortie in Barney spotted a hit to one of our rotor blades. Not that we didn't have bullet holes all over the aircraft. As we got back on the ground we found we had taken a large caliber round right through the main spar. I went ahead and refueled noticing down the line one of our birds was shut down with what looked like a blown engine. I knew we couldn't fly with that shot up rotor blade so I purposed to 'Barney' that we swap out a blade on the downed bird. The Crew Chief of the other Helicopter was a Staff NCO not known for a wonderful disposition. Barney looked at me and then toward the other Crew Chief and said "If you want it go get it". Sure and I will probably die trying but I ran down there gathering a few more Mech's and announced to the good S/Sgt. that I was cannibalizing one of his rotor blades. He looked like he was about to explode but I jumped up alongside the Helicopter, dismantled the blade and used a tie down strap to pass it too a couple of my buddies. Then I remembered we were about out of ammo so I also confiscated all of what 'Sarge' had left .
We ran back and somehow wrestled that blade in place and I bolted it down, recharged all our weapons and was feeling like I had finally became a real Marine when here came our Aircraft Commander with some sort of Marine Officers in tow. Turns out it was our Supply Major from Da Nang and he'd heard about the battle and had flown down on a old R4D (C-47). He had been in Corps 20 years and never been in combat and was wondering if he could take my place on the next sortie in. As I glanced down the line I saw Sarge still sitting in his cannibalized Helicopter laughing like crazy. Being a PFC I did the most honorable thing, I strapped the good Major in, showed him how to charge his weapon, gave him a pat on the back, pulled the chocks and gave the wave off.
About a hour later my Aircraft landed with a few more bullet holes, a rather pale and shaken Major who wondered off. Apparently not interested in the finer points of Aircraft Maintenance nor of flying again as a Gunner. A year later I was back home in Kansas City and my folks wanted me to go to my sisters Christmas Program in my dress blues however I was missing the Gold EGA emblem for my white cover. I called the KC Marine Recruiting Office and they were willing to lend me the emblem. When I stopped by to retrieve it the NCOIC took one look at my ribbons and wings and asked me to wait a second. He came back with a Marine Officer in tow, you got it the same Major from Quang Ngai complete with Combat Air Crew Wings and a Air Medal. Being now a seasoned L/Cpl I played it real cool and let him tell everyone how he was my old flying buddy from Vietnam. I found out this Major retired six months later & as the years have gone by I've come to understand his position, he was a good Marine and nice guy just trying to make L/Col before retiring with honors.
In July 1964 we turned our Helicopters to the VNAF Squadron we had been training, cycled back to Okinawa and picked up 24 newer UH-34D's. We then deployed on the USS Valley Forge LPH-8 just in time for the Gulf of Tonkin Incident and spent 90 days off North Vietnam. then In December of 64 we all came home thanks to the leadership of our CO and the likes of Capt. Jack and his Dragon Flight.It's been 50 years now and I've often thought about the guys I was with. We weren't career Marines just a bunch of kids fresh out of High School who wanted to learn something about Aviation.
A few of us have stayed in contact & there has been numerous reunions but this is more for the former NCO's and Officers. Most of us young Marines came home, got out of the Corps, used our GI Bills and have done OK. In 1973 after working 5 years as a Air Reserve Technician for the Dept of the Air Force, I started a 30 year Railroad Career, retiring from the BNSF Railway as Lead Locomotive Machinist & Planner in 2005 My first day on the Railroad I was checking in when at the head of the ramp I saw a familiar face, He was the that young W0-1 Huey Gunship Pilot from the Army's Dragon Flight. His Bird was always parked directly across from mine at Da Nang back in 1964. I gave him a wave, he recognized me as well and waved back. I knew right then everything was going to be OK, and it was, especially when you had Dragon Flight as your escort.
Note: L/Col John H. Lavoy the CO of HMM-364 put Capt. Jack "Woody" Woodmansee in for the Navy Cross for his gallantry in action on April 27th 1964, every Marine of HMM-364 believed he deserved such but this was turned down by the Dept. of the Navy and HQMC. Primarily because the Commandant of the Marine Corps was opposed to Armed Gunships, believing that Marine Fighter cover was adequate while at the same time deploying Marine Transport Helicopters, ever since 1962, without that same Fighter cover.
For all the PVT's. PFC's and L/CPL's of 1964.
L/Cpl. RJ Keeney flew as 'Strap Hanger' (Gunner) on the Do Xa Strike Mission. Today he is a happily married, 70 year old Grandfather, retired from the BNSF Railway, member of Legion Post 327 Shawnee Kansas. He is also a member of the National American Legion Press Association
Read more: http://http://www.hmm-364.org/1964/doxa.html