In late April Colonel Merchant's Marines joined with VNAF and U.S. Army elements to launch what would be the costliest and most viciously opposed heliborne assault attempted in South Vietnam during the 1962-1965 period. On the 26th, Merchant, Lieutenant Colonel La Voy, and Lieutenant Colonel George Brigham, the task element operations officer, flew to Quang Ngai and Pleiku to participate in the final stages of planning for a multi-battalion heliborne offensive into the Do Xa area, the mountainous Viet Cong stronghold located along the northern border of II Corps. At Quang Ngai officials from the II Corps headquarters had already completed the general plans for Operation SURE WIND 202 (Vietnamese code name: QUYET THANG 202(*), the size of which demanded the use of all transport helicopters available in both I and II Corps. The Marine representatives learned that HMM-364's role in the upcoming operation would be to helilift a 420-man South Vietnamese battalion from the Quang Ngai airfield to Landing Zone BRAVO, an objective located about 30 miles due west of the pickup point. Simultaneous with this assault, a U.S. Army helicopter company based at Pleiku was scheduled to transport two ARVN battalions (960 troops) from Gi Lang, an outpost located 24 miles west-southwest of Quang Ngai, to a second landing zone about eight miles west-southwest of Landing Zone BRAVO. The operation was to begin on the morning of 27 April, with the first assault waves scheduled to land at 0930. Due to the distance between the mountainous landing zones and because two different helicopter units would be conducting the respective troop-lifts, the operation plan treated the two assaults as separate operations. A U.S. Air Force U-10 aircraft had been assigned to carry Colonel Merchant, the TACA [Tactical Air Controller, Airborne], and other ASOC [Air Support Operations Center] representatives who would coordinate the helilift into Landing Zone BRAVO. Twenty Vietnamese A-1H Skyraiders had been assigned to provide tactical air support for the Marine portion of the operation. Twelve of these attack aircraft were scheduled to conduct preparatory strikes on and around the landing zones, four were to orbit above the area after the helicopter landing began, and the remaining four were to be positioned on airstrip alert at Da Nang. Five Army UH-1B gunships were assigned to escort the Marine UH-34Ds to and from the landing zone.
The preparatory air Strikes around Landing Zone BRAVO began as the first ARVN heliteams boarded the 19 Marine and two VNAF helicopters at Quang Ngai. Following the VNAF's air strikes, the escorting Army gunships swept in for a pre-landing reconnaissance of the zone. They were met by fire from Viet Cong .50 and .30 caliber machine guns. The gunships countered with repeated rocket and machine gun attacks on those enemy positions that could be located but were unable to silence the Communist weapons. Meanwhile, the loaded Marine and VNAF helicopters cleared Quang Ngai and were closing on the objective. After the UH-lBs expended their entire ordnance load- and most of their fuel in attempts to neutralize enemy fire. Colonel Merchant ordered all helicopters, transports and gunships alike, back to Quang Ngai to rearm and refuel. With the transports and gunships enroute to Quang Ngai, the ASOC summoned the on-call VNAF A-lHs to attack the Viet Cong positions. During ensuing strikes one Skyraider was damaged severely by .50 caliber machine gun fire. The Vietnamese pilot turned his smoking aircraft eastward in an unsuccessful effort to nurse it to the Quang Ngai airstrip. The attack bomber crashed less than one mile from the west end of the small airstrip.
The A-1H air strikes on and around Landing Zone BRAVO continued until 1225. Shortly after the strikes ceased Colonel Merchant ordered the first wave of transport helicopters to land the ARVN assault force. Escorting UH-lBs were still drawing fire as the first flight of three UH-34Ds approached the contested landing zone. This time, however, the Marine and VNAF pilots were not deterred. The first UH-34Ds touched down at 1230 with their machine gunners pouring streams of orange tracers into the surrounding jungle. Despite the high volume of suppressive fire, several helicopters in the first wave sustained hits from Viet Cong automatic weapons. One, damaged critically, crashed in the landing zone. Its crew members, all of whom escaped injury, were picked up by another Marine helicopter, piloted by Major John R. Braddon, which had been designated as the search and rescue aircraft for the operation. Another UH-34D with battle damage proceeded to the outpost from which the Army helicopter missions were originating and made an emergency landing.
The second assault wave was delayed while VNAF Skyraiders renewed their efforts to dislodge the enemy from his positions around the embattled landing zone. The helilift resumed at 1355 in the face of reduced but stubborn Communist resistance. During this phase of the troop lift, one VNAF and several Marine helicopters were hit by enemy .50 caliber fire. The Vietnamese aircraft, which lost its tail rotor controls, spun sharply while trying to take off and crashed near the center of the zone. Its crew members escaped injury and were picked up by Major Braddon's rescue helicopter.
After this incident, as the South Vietnamese soldiers began fanning out from the landing zone and forcing the Communist gunners to withdraw deeper into the jungle, the landing proceeded somewhat faster. The fourth and final assault lift of the day was executed at 1730, after which 357 of the 420 ARVN troops had been transported into Landing Zone BRAVO. During the first day of the operation, 15 of the 19 participating Marine UH-34Ds were hit. Only 11 Marine and VNAF helicopters originally assigned to support the operation remained airworthy. The heliborne assault portion of SURE WIND 202 was completed the next morning. Fourteen UH- 34Ds from HMM- 364, several of which had been repaired during the night, and four Army UH-lBs lifted the remainder of the South Vietnamese battalion into the landing zone. By then the intensity of the enemy action in the surrounding hills had diminished greatly. Only one Marine helicopter was hit and it suffered only minor damage. Upon finishing their tasks, HMM-364's aircraft proceeded to Gi Lang, the outpost from which the Army helicopter company was operating, to help it complete its portion of the assault lift.
Aircaft losses for the operation continued to accumulate on the second day when a Marine UH-34D was caught in the rotor wash of other landing helicopters and crashed while approaching the runway at Quang Ngai. The aircraft plummeted into an irrigation canal adjacent to the airstrip, rolled over onto its side, and completely submerged. The crewmen managed to climb to safety but the helicopter was a total loss.
On 29 April, three UH- 34Ds flew a maintenance-inspection team and a Marine security squad from Da Nang into Landing Zone BRAVO to assess the damage suffered by the two helicopters which had been shot down on the first day of SURE WIND 202. The inspection team found that four bullets had struck the Marine aircraft. The VNAF aircraft, on the other hand, was riddled by nearly 30 bullets, including a .50 caliber round that had severed the tail rotor control cable. The inspection team concluded that both helicopters were damaged beyond repair and proceeded to destroy them where they had fallen.
Originally, MACV and II Corps planners had anticipated that the Marine helicopters would not be required to support SURE WIND 202 beyond the initial assault. It soon became apparent, however, that the daily helicopter requirements for the operation would exceed the aviation assets available in II Corps. The American command in Saigon, therefore, directed Colonel Merchant's task element to continue providing support for the duration of the offensive. Accordingly, the task element commander assigned a liaison officer to the 2d ARVN Division headquarters. This officer was tasked with coordinating daily aircraft requirements. When SURE WIND 202 finally ended on 25 May, HMM-364's crews had contributed 983 sorties and 800 flight hours to the South Vietnamese effort in northwestern II Corps.
Captain Robert H. Whitlow, USMCR
(*)The meaning of Quyet Thang is Determined to Win. Therefore, the correct translation of Quyet Thang 202 is Sure Win 202, instead of Sure Wind 202.