Historic Marine VMO-6 Flying Unit Gone, Not Forgotten
Marine Observation Squadron Six (VMO-6) can trace its’ origins back to the formative years of Marine Aviation. Active for slightly less than half of the century of Marine Corps aviation, the squadron served during the 1920s’ Nicaragua Campaign, World War II, the Korea War, and finally through the 1960s in Vietnam. Thirty five years after it ceased operations, and in celebration of Marine Corps aviation’s 100th anniversary, a monument to VMO-6 was dedicated in the Semper Fidelis Memorial Park at the National Marine Corps Museum in Quantico VA. It honors the 66 men from VMO-6 who died as a result of hostile actions during the four aforementioned conflicts. Not only was this ceremony a tribute to those who had given their lives for their country, but it was a reunion of many veterans who made VMO-6 more than just a page in a history book.
The direct lineage of VMO-6 begins in 1920, when 39 Marines and a mixed bag of six biplanes of Flight E, 3rd Air Squadron of the US Marine Corps was activated at Quantico Barracks, Virginia. Their primary duties consisted of observation and providing flight training for Marine aviators. In July 1927, the unit was renamed Marine Observation Squadron 6 (VO-6M), and early the following year was shipped to Nicaragua to assist in fighting Sandinista rebels.
During its Nicaragua operations, VO-6M’s duties grew to include visual and photographic reconnaissance, infantry liaison and message delivery, and emergency resupply of troops. Newly developed attack and dive bombing tactics were honed in support of Marines on the ground. A Marine first was the deployment of four Atlantic TA-1 and TA-2 transports, which were American-built versions of the Dutch Fokker F.VII tri-motored transport. With these aircraft, the Marines of VO-6M developed, implemented, and refined large – scale aerial supply operations to cope with the lack of infrastructure on the ground.
In 1931, after returning to Quantico, VO-6M assembled a team of six F8C dive bombers, called the “Helldivers”, which represented Marine aviation at U.S. events such as the National Air Races in Cleveland. Soon, the team expanded to nine aircraft, and continued to favorably exhibit Marine tactical flying presentations to national audiences. Unfortunately, a reorganization of Naval (and thus Marine) Aviation in 1933 determined that a Marine squadron had to be disestablished to make way for a new dive bombing squadron, and VO-6M was disbanded at the end of June that year.
Eleven years later, World War II was entering its final phase of combat in the Pacific, and in November 1944, Marine Observation Squadron 6 (VMO-6) was reactivated at Quantico. It’s original missions were to conduct aerial observation and artillery direction for ground troops while flying in OY-1 Sentinel light aircraft, similar to the civilian Stinson 105 Voyager. The squadron participated in the Okinawa assault in early April 1945, coordinating artillery fire and delivering messages to ground commanders. Two months later, VMO-6 began making casualty evacuation flights in their OY-1s. Ultimately, the squadron flew 460 combat missions and evacuated 195 casualties at Okinawa.
After World War II’s end in September 1945, VMO-6 was moved to China for fifteen months to report on Communist Chinese operations and support U.S. operations within the country. VMO-6 then moved to California’s Camp Pendleton in January 1947, and for three and a half years the squadron trained with West Coast Marine and Navy units, perfecting radio procedures and even participating in cold weather exercises with their OY-1s. Then, suddenly everything changed.
The Korean War erupted in June of 1950. Almost immediately, VMO-6 was called upon to support the Marine combat brigade being sent across the Pacific Ocean. Helicopters and men from Quantico’s HMX-1 test unit were operationally attached to VMO-6 for their combat debut; Sikorsky HO3S helicopters joined OY-1 Sentinels aboard an aircraft carrier that arrived in Japan on the last day of July, 1950. Three days later, aircraft were in action in Korea; the fixed wing aircraft flying reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions and the helicopters evacuating casualties from the front lines. Aircraft with the “WB” tail code would become familiar sights with Marines on the ground throughout the war.
On the evening of August 8th, the Marines’ first night helicopter casualty evacuation was successfully accomplished by a VMO-6 aircraft and crew. OY-1s began another new Marine aviation mission, psychological warfare, by dropping surrender leaflets over enemy positions from their unarmed light planes. Both fixed and rotary-winged aircraft were present at the Inchon landings and participated heavily in the bone-chilling cold during the Chosin Reservoir breakout too. Rescuing downed aircrew became a critical mission for VMO-6; the helicopters rapidly proved their worth in Korea. A series of improved Sikorsky HOS and Bell HTL helicopters arrived during 1950 and early 1951, expanding the squadron’s capabilities with longer endurance and increased capacity. The Stinson OY-1s were replaced with more capable Cessna OE-1 “Bird Dogs” soon thereafter. Captain Ed McMahon, later a well known radio and television host, flew 85 combat missions and earned six Air Medals during the last four months of the war flying VMO-6 Bird Dogs.
After the fighting ended, the unit moved back to California and soon traded their Bell and Sikorsky helicopters for the more capable Kaman HOK Husky. Training with their mixed fleet of observation planes and helicopters continued at a steady pace, interrupted by a brief, partial deployment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Shortly after that deployment, the squadron was tasked with exploring methods of employing armed escort aircraft to assist helicopter-borne troop transport, and received some T-28C trainers reconfigured as close air support aircraft. During the summer of 1964, the squadron received their first Bell UH-1E “Huey” helicopter, which soon replaced all of the Kaman HOKs, Cessna OE Bird Dogs, and T-28s. With the Huey, VMO-6 developed techniques for armed helicopter escort and landing zone fire support that would serve them well during the rest of the decade.
In August 1965, VMO-6 was among a Marine Air Group that sailed for Vietnam. The next month, transport, gunship, airborne forward air control and medivac missions were being flown on a daily basis. Using the call signs “Klondike” and later “Seaworthy”, VMO-6 crews fought valiantly, losing numerous aircraft and men in the process. On August 19, 1967, VMO-6 Captain Stephen Pless and three other Marines flew a rescue mission in their UH-1E gunship that earned him a Congressional Medal of Honor, and the others the Navy Cross for their gallantry. Under intense enemy gunfire, Capt. Pless used his helicopter to shield four wounded American soldiers as they were assisted into his helicopter, all the while beating back repeated attacks. The overloaded helicopter then limped out to sea and escaped the enemy.
During the latter part of 1968, VMO-6 received O-1 Bird Dog and subsequently OV-10 Bronco fixed wing aircraft to carry out observation and forward air control duties, freeing the Huey helicopters from those roles. In May, 1969, VMO-6 set a monthly record of 3,191.7 flying hours, averaging more than 100 hours per day between Huey, Bird Dog, and Bronco aircraft. This was the apex of the squadron’s combat activity though, for later that year, during September and October, the squadron was moved to Okinawa Japan, due to President Nixon’s drawdown plan of US troop assets in Vietnam. For the next five years, VMO-6 Broncos trained with Marine units in Japan, ready to return to combat if needed. The call never happened, and on January 1, 1977, VMO-6 was deactivated, its personnel and aircraft absorbed into other units.
VMO-6’s memorial service and monument dedication ceremony at Quantico Virginia commenced on Thursday, May 17, 2012. A large group of Vietnam and Korean veterans, with many of their families and friends, joined several relatives of deceased squadron members at the National Marine Corps Museum. The first part of the ceremony was held inside the building, in its main atrium. Behind the speaker’s podium was a Sikorsky HRS-1 helicopter, the type used in the Korea War two years after the groundbreaking work that VMO-6 performed with early helicopters in 1950. Nearby, a truly historic VMO-6 helicopter is displayed; the actual UH-1E helicopter that Captain Stephen Pless flew when he earned the Medal of Honor hangs over the entrance to the museum’s Vietnam gallery.
Retired Marine Colonel and VMO-6 helicopter pilot Larry Wright served as the Master of Ceremonies, with the local Marine Corps Base Quantico Color Guard and Marine Band supporting the program. Navy Chaplain Commander John Hannigan gave the opening invocation before Marine Brigadier General Michael Rocco recounted some key moments in Marine aviation history and reminded those assembled that the reason for Marine Aviation is to support the troops on the ground. Then three former VMO-6 members, Larry Wright, Dave Bushlow and Red Trivette read the names of the sixty-six squadron members who were lost in combat, grouped together by the conflict they died in. After each group of names was read, a Marine honor guard member rang a bell three times in a time-honored salute. The indoor ceremony was concluded with a prayer of remembrance and ceremonial music.
The program continued outside of the museum, after the attendees walked in a long rank behind bagpiper Norm Weaver to the black granite VMO-6 monument in the adjacent Semper Fidelis Memorial Park. The monument is shaped like an airfoil cross-section, and has all 66 names of squadron mates lost during conflicts and figures of seven important types of aircraft used by VMO-6 etched into it. The design is the work of Wayne Wright, who incorporated the airfoil because it ” is essential to flight and its represents both the core and the vitality of the squadron. The wing has been severed at its tip and rests on edge, rising from the ground. This is meant to depict the disruption of flight; the loss of life and our eventual fall to a place of rest back on earth. While the base of the wing is earthbound, its tip projects skyward, suggesting the desire to rise again to the heavens. And so, through this structure we honor those squadron members who have fallen to rest on earth, but in memory and spirit still soar above.” A blessing was given by Chaplain Hannigan, and a wreath was laid next to the monument. A Marine bugler played “Taps” from afar, followed by a bag piped version of the Marine Corps Hymn. Shortly after this, a formation of three helicopters flew over the assembly low and loudly; the familiar “wop-wop-wop” of Huey rotor blades brought back memories – some with smiles, others with tears.
The striking black VMO-6 monument that was dedicated during May’s ceremony stands in the Semper Fidelis park at Quantico Virginia, near the birthplace of the squadron more than 90 years prior. It represents a small but very important piece of VMO-6’s history. The squadron’s soldiers were at the forefront of many Marine Aviation firsts, from supplying ground troops during the Nicaraguan Campaign of the 1920s, to medical evacuation operations in World War II. Squadron members employed Marine helicopters tactically for the first time during the Korean War, and their armed helicopter escort operations in Vietnam paved the way for today’s tactics. Although the VMO-6 squadron is inactive today, the people and their deeds haven’t been forgotten.
Ken Kula, May 2012