Near the back of the exhibit of modern aircraft at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, hangs an HH-1K in the colors of HA(L)-3, the Seawolves. The weathered dark green of the armed helo contrasts with the clean gull grey/white jets on the floor below, some with their colorful squadron markings of an age past. And yet, it represents one of the most decorated units in the Navy’s history.
1968 – After the Tet Offensive, the allies sought to exploit the losses of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese by pushing them back to the borders, entering territory that had previously been enemy strongholds. A major part of this effort was the SEALORDS (South East Asia Lakes Ocean Rivers and Delta Strategy) campaign. This campaign sought to disrupt enemy operations in the Delta area while cutting supply-lines that utilized interior and coastal waterways to the enemy’s advantage. Central to this effort were the forces of the so-called “brown water” Navy. SEALs, PBRs and the aircraft of VA(L)-4 and HA(L)-3 carried out this hard-fought campaign over the next three years.
Commissioned in April 1967 out of the four HC-1 dets operating in country (which had already distinguishing themselves), HA(L)-3 eventually grew into 9 dets which, with the exception of Det 2 which remained in place, were mobile throughout II and III Corps (and in Cambodia too). Operating either from converted LST’s like the Harnett County:
or later, from bases ashore, each det consisted of 2 UH-1B ‘s (received from the Army) and 8 pilots and crewmen, and were considered to be on call 24 x 7. The primary mission was to provide quick reaction armed helicopter close air support for all naval forces operating in the southern military regions of South Vietnam (Military Region IV and the southern half of III specifically). Secondary missions included fire support for other US and friendly forces in the delta, SEAL insertion and gun support , daily armed reconnaissance missions , overhead and convoy support for PBR operations and troop movements on and near the waterways, gunfire spotting for Army and Navy gunfire missions, medevac from confined areas under hostile fire and combat logistics flights throughout the Delta region of Vietnam. In all cases, the hostile fire was the norm and it was heavy:
It was late one night in early 1971 and as usual Charlie was on the move and after flying several search and destroy missions that day the radio came alive at 2 AM with the now famous call of “SCRAMBLE THE SEAWOLVES”. A SEAL patrol from the nearby village of Hai Yen on a sneak and peak mission had made contact with a regiment of VC (confirmed by a captive VC) and were pinned down under heavy fire and in immediate danger of being overran and a certainty of being overwhelmed and killed or captured when daylight came. Det One’s two UH1B Gunship Fire team arrived on station in minutes after executing a “Full asleep to Airborne” scramble in under 3 minutes. The situation on the ground was nearly out of control as Charlie was getting braver as it became more apparent that the SEALs were a small group. Immediately upon arrival the SEALS pinpointed the main VC Gunner positions with tracer fire and our gunners responded placing a heavy barrage of fire on the enemy positions. After getting a good fix on the friendlies, our Gunships rolled in on our first of many rocket and machine gun attacks. We Gunners positioned ourselves outside the aircraft and had to endure the blistering wind, the molten slag, white hot rocket caps and burning sparks from the rockets as we fired. The SEALs were in big trouble as we stayed outside the bird firing, concentrating our fire on the enemy closest to them while taking hits in our Gunships as we flew in a Wagon Wheel, a technique used for each War bird to cover the other while in a circle over the target. Due to the fact we were weighted down with weapons and ammo the B models couldn’t carry much fuel and after 45 minutes we would normally refuel/rearm on a mission such as this and come back out again and again. The attacking enemy fire had been rendered to only “intense fire” vice overwhelming and against SOP we had one Gunship refuel while the other stayed on station to protect the embattled SEALs. I was on the Lead Bird and we went to replenish while the trail stayed on station putting in fire.
Over the course of the three years of its existence, the pace of operations was unrelenting – but so was the demand for their capability. Consider that in 1970 alone, almost 34,000 hours were flown, the bulk by the hand-me-down UH-1B’s in combat operations (over 25,000 hours). That same year, almost 19,000 rounds of 7.62mm, 108,297 2.75″ rockets, 41,718 40mm rounds and 1.9 million rounds of .50cal were expended. The tally for such effort included over 1600 sampans and four junks destroyed, 71 base camps and 542 bunkers damaged with enemy KIA in excess of 1800. All from an average of 25 moderately armed, lightly armored, underpowered utility helicopters flown and crewed by exceptional warriors. That too was validated with 9 Silver Stars, 71 DFC’s, 3 Navy and Marine Corps medals, 21 Bronze Stars, 195 single action Air Medals, 4324 Strike/Flight Air Medals, 21 Purple Hearts and 41 Combat Action Ribbons awarded. In 1970 alone.
Upon arriving on the scene, both of the Det-3 aircraft came under heavy enemy fire from two tree lines. The SEALS had several prisoners and were under intense ground fire. They were calling for an immediate extraction for they had one SEAL with a stomach wound and Charlie was about to over run their position. Chief Wheeler was the left door gunner on his bird and was placing fire on the enemy to keep them off the SEALS as the remaining SEALORD landed and picked up half of the SEALS and the prisoners. With no other SEALORDS available for the extraction of the rest of the team, Chief Wheeler’s gunship landed at the second extraction point to rescue the wounded SEAL and the other team members. Chief Wheeler was continually firing his M-60 machine gun over the heads of the SEALS as they made their way to the bird. Chief wheeler then exited his gunship with his M-60 to allow the SEALS and their wounded man to get aboard. As the chief stood outside the aircraft and returned fire, his ammo belt twisted and jammed his gun. A SEAL in the aircraft covered him while he got his weapon going again. Chief Wheeler then jumped in the aircraft and again placed fire on the VC positions as the bird got airborne to leave the area. On departure, the gunship took several hits in the tailboom, but his helo and the covering gunship made it back to Ca Mau safely. A situation report for this mission was 4 enemy captured, 1 pilot, 1 gunner and 1 SEAL wounded, and 3 aircraft with battle damage. Chief Wheeler aided in saving the lives of the SEAL Team and his other crewmen. The Chiefs’ personal comment was “just another mission.”(HAL-3 website)
Extraordinary professionals carrying out an exceptional mission under the most difficult of conditions. Yet as the American involvement in the war was winding down, 1971 would be the last full year of operations. In March 1972, HA(L)-3 wrapped up operations and was de-commissioned after over 120,000 combat missions flown and having lost 44 aviators and combat crew KIA with another 200-plus wounded. And final honors? Judge for yourself:
5 Navy crosses
31 Silver Stars
2 Legion of Merit Medals
5 Navy and Marine Corps Medals
219 Distinguished Flying Crosses
156 Purple Hearts
101 Bronze Stars
142 Gallantry Crosses
Over 16,000 Air Medals
439 Navy Commendation Medals
228 Navy Achievement Medals
6 Presidential Unit Citations
2 Meritorious Unit Commendations
1 Vietnam Meritorious Unit Commendation
In 1976, HA(L)-4 was stood-up with a mission dedicated to Navy Special Warfare support and combat/strike rescue. Picking up the traditions of HA(L)-3, HA(L)-4, now HSC-84, continues the lineage. And the Seawolves are found at least in spirit, if not body, in another war:
If you are interested in more about HA(L)-3, there are a number of online sources as well as Daniel Kelly’s book: