#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’[1] While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’[2]

The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’[3]

UH-1E_Helicopters_at_Fire_Support_Base_Cunningham,_1969_(11950756174)
USMC UH-1E helicopters touch down with their loads at Fire Support Base Cunningham. Artillerymen of the 12th Marines at Cunningham are supporting elements of the 9th Marines conducting search and clear operations, c. 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’[4]

As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.

Blitzkrieg from Above

Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’[5] Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’[6] The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’[7]

This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’[8]

This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’[9]

There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’[10]

This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’[11]

Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’[12]

The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses

The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.

Korean_War_HA-SN-98-07085
Troops boarding a US Army H-19 Chicksaw of the 6th Transportation Company in Korea, c. 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”[13]

James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’[14]

Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.

Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower.[15] The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’[16]

Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’[17]

Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’[18] Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.

By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.

Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’[19] Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.

The Howze Board

The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.

It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.[20]

Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.

As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’[21] In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.[22]

For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.[23]

The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.

OV-1_Mohawk_of_73rd_Aviation_Company_in_Vietnam_c1966
US Army pilot, crew, and ground crew with a Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in Vietnam. (Source: Wikimedia)

This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.

This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.[24]

Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.

Bruce_Crandall's_UH-1D
Operations during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Major Bruce Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission. (Source: Wikimedia)

The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,

The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks.[25] The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.

Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.

The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’[26]

There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.

This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’[27]

By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.

Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.[28]

HUS-1_HMM-362_Vietnam_1962
US Marine Corps Sikorsky HUS-1 (UH-34D) Seahorse helicopters of Marine medium helicopter transport squadron HMM-362 in Vietnam, 1962.

The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.

The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’[29] By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.[30]

The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’

While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’[31] According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.[32]

General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’[33]

Bell_UH-1E_Huey_takes_off_from_USS_Topeka_(CLG-8)_off_Vietnam,_in_1966
An armed US Marine Corps Bell UH-1E Huey takes off from guided missile cruiser USS Topeka (CLG-8) off Vietnam, in 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century.[34] This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.

Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’[35] This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’[36] That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.

Conclusion

In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’[37] According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’[38] Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.

Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).

Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.

[2] Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.

[3] Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.

[4] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare,’ Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2013.

[5] The Virtual Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VVA-TTU), John T. Wheeler, ‘Copter Warfare: How it Evolved,’ Associated Press, 9 March 1969, Associated Press.

[6] Colonel Achid Muchlas, ‘The Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency Operations’ (USAF Air War College Report, 1988).

[7] Hay, Vietnam Studies, p. 179.

[8] ‘Lessons U.S. Has Learned in the Helicopter War,’ US News and World Report, 23 November 1970, p. 50.

[9] Etienne de Durand, BenoÎt Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, Helicopter Warfare: The Future of Airmobility and Rotary Wing Combat (Paris: Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, 2012), p. 32.

[10] Major Beau G. Rollie, ‘Helicopters in Irregular Warfare: Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013), p. ii.

[11] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare.’

[12] Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 136.

[13] Kaylene Hughes, ‘Army Helicopters in Korea, 1950-53,’ 28 October 2016.

[14] James M. Gavin, ‘The Future of Armor,’ Infantry Journal, 62:1 (1948), p. 7.

[15] James M. Gavin, ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Harper’s Magazine, April 1954, p. 58.

[16] J.A. Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), p. 30.

[17] Major Edward P. Gavin, ‘LTG James M. Gavin: Theory and Influence’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), p. 27.

[18] Glen Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility: Birth of the Air Cav,’ Warfare History Network, 18 November 2018.

[19] VVA-TTU, Douglas Pike Collection, Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, Proposed Army Aviation Program Subjected to Thorough and Critical Examination by McNamara’s Staff, 1962.

[20] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 17.

[21] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[22] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[23] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[24] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 25.

[25] Fails., Marines and Helicopters, p. 85.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Ibid., p. 86.

[28] Captain Robert H. Whitlow, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 65.

[29] Ibid., p. 70.

[30] Ibid., p. 73.

[31] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[35] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 132.

[36] FMFRP 12-15 – Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1940), p. 39.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jen Judson, ‘Armed Reconnaissance Still biggest Gap in Army Aviation,’ Defense News, 28 April 2017.

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

By Hayley Michael Hasik

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.

The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war.[1] Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.

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As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters.[2] The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:

[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’[3]

In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’[4] The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation.[5] This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.

Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements

Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.

The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.[6]

CH-54_Tarhe_1960
A U.S. Army Sikorsky YCH-54A Tarhe helicopter in the 1960s. This helicopter was the first of six pre-production aircraft and was written off in Vietnam on 9 August 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’[7] Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.

These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’[8] In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.

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US helicopters also gained cultural resonance in other countries such as Australia. Here a ‘Huey’ lands to take members of 7RAR back to Nui Dat after completion of Operation Ulmarra, August 1967. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’[9] Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’[10] ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto.[11] AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO.[12] Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof.[13] The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’[14] Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.

General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’[15] Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:

It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.[16]

That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.

Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare

Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’[17] The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.[18]

66_01

The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’[19] Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three.[20] Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees.[21] Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.

It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.[22]

Conclusion

Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’[23] The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.

Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:

The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.[24]

Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.[25]

Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.

Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).

[2] James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.

[3] ‘Army Aviator Newsletter,’ Army Aviation, Army Aviation Association of America [hereafter AAAA], May 1954, p. 2

[4] ‘About,’ Army Aviation Association of America,

[5] ‘About,’ ArmyAviationMagazine.com.

[6] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘10-ton lift for our armed forces,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, February 1963, p. 47.

[7] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘Sikorsky’s Skycrane can carry over 10 tons of almost anything,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, December 1965, pp. 24-5.

[8] John J. Tolson, Vietnam Studies: Airmobility, 1961-1971 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973), p. 104.

[9] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[10] Hughes Helicopters, ‘Tough machine for a tough war,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 30 December 1968, pp. 18-19.

[11] General Electric, ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 20 August 1966, pp. 18-19.

[12] AVO Lycoming Division, ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 22 December 1966.

[13] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[14] Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.

[15] Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.

[16] Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).

[17] Bell Helicopter, ‘Combat Proven,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 March 1963.

[18] James R. Chiles, The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), p. 165.

[19] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘This is a horse,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 January 31 1966.

[20] Tolson, Airmobility, p. 83.

[21] Ibid., pp. 82-3.

[22] Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.

[23] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 89.

[24] Chris Bishop, Bell UH-1 Huey “Slicks” 1962–75 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003), p. 15.

[25] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 102.

#BookReview – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

#BookReview – The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

By Eamon Hamilton

Craig F. Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 272 pp.

Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory

The strategic bomber has stood as one pillar of American military strength since the Second World War, and even today, the deployment of B-1s, B-2s and B-52s to forward bases across the globe sends a strong message to potential adversaries. Serving as a true ‘Book of Genesis’ chapter to this capability, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory by Craig F. Morris covers the period of 1916 to 1942 and explores the growth of an idea within the United States Army, rather than deal primarily in technology or personalities. By recounting how air power theory matured (and was withheld) within the United States Army, he also delivers an excellent case study on how an organisation reacts to disruptive technology.

There is a stark comparison in air power capability that comes early from Morris. The book’s introduction begins with the arrival of United States Army Air Force B-17s in England in 1942. Operationally untested, their existence still spoke of the maturity of America’s investment in technology, organisation, and air power doctrine during the interwar period. Contrast that scene with the experience of the United States Army’s 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico in 1916, which Morris covers in his first chapter. There is obviously no suggestion that the 1st Aero Squadron’s Curtis JN-3 biplanes were to be used as bombers against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa; what Morris does is illustrate the lack of intellectual depth the United States Army had with its heavier-than-air aviation capability. While the technology was relatively new, that lack of innovation remains surprising considering how the First World War had quickly illustrated the utility of aviation.

The Mexican adventure serves another purpose – it introduces several personalities from the 1st Aero Squadron who were sent to Europe when the United States entered the First World War. The most significant focus of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory falls on 1917 to 1919, which stands to reason – it is here that the Aviation Section of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) first encountered the idea of strategic bombing from the Allied (and Central) powers. This transfer of ideas is explored mainly through the experiences of Edgar S. Gorrell, a veteran of the 1st Aero Squadron in Mexico who was sent to Europe to study how the United States would grow its aviation forces in the First World War. The AEF ground commanders wanted aviation to provide the battlefield reconnaissance and air defence, but Gorrell’s exposure to Allied air power theory led him to become a proponent of using bombers to open a ‘new front’ on an enemy’s warfighting infrastructure, effectively bypassing the war in the trenches on the Western Front.

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Lieutenant Edgar S. Gorrell studied aeronautical engineering at MIT following the Mexican campaign of 1916. (Source: US Air Force Historical Research Agency)

Gorrell is the personality most consistently covered in The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory, which is arguably a testament to the aviator’s recordkeeping and his early advocacy of strategic bombing. The First World War ended before Gorrell could successfully argue the case for an American strategic bomber force, but the Armistice allowed him to leave two critical legacies to the future of air power development. Gorrell was tasked with organising the official history of the AEF, an assignment which allowed him to draw together air power lessons from the AEF and Allied into an official post-War record. On top of this, he drove a post-war bombing survey that examined what impact Allied bombing made on Germany’s warfighting effort.

When dealing with the events of 1919 to 1942, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory does not enjoy the singular narrative focus that Gorrell’s experiences during the First World War afforded it (Gorrell left the military as a Colonel in 1920 at the age of 28, worked in the motoring industry, and died in March 1945). In Morris’ defence, strategic bombing theory in the interwar period was driven by complex variables, from personalities such as Billy Mitchell and rapidly growing aviation technology; through to economic resources (like the Great Depression), along with shifting strategic and foreign policy. The main conflict affecting strategic bombing theory (and the introduction of a supporting capability) was between the US Army’s General Staff, and aviation proponents within the Air Corps, as the Air Service had become in 1926. As aviation technology grew and the Air Corps Tactical School developed its ideas for air power, the Army General Staff were justifiably worried that a strategic bombing capability would lead to an independent Air Force, and a competitor for government funding.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The examination of this conflict makes The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory an excellent study in how organisations react to disruptive technology (both positively and negatively). The parallels to modern disruptive technologies (for example, autonomous systems, or space-based systems) do not feel completely analogous, given the purely historical lens of this book. That being said, it gives numerous examples of both innovative and misguided thinking at different levels within the United States Army in dealing with aviation. While history arguably vindicated the strategic bomber concept, Morris does well explain Army’s reservations with this new field.

One of the most significant qualities of The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is also the chief criticism – by covering 25 years in 207 pages, it is very concise. The narrative is clear, comprehensive, and does not feel like any essential facts have been left out. However, the quality of Morris’ writing would comfortably permit this to be a longer work, and the narrative could afford to provide further exposition to selected events, technologies and personalities (beyond Gorrell), that shaped and developed air power theory. On several occasions, this reviewer found himself looking for other resources to further his appreciation of the events in this book – especially about the limited performance of bomber aircraft during the First World War.

While remaining engaging to read, Morris’ work is academically well-presented. It both recounts history as well as briefly discussing the views of academics and historians on the subject matter where relevant. There is considerable inertia when it comes to people’s understanding of events from a century ago, and Morris is clear when he debates, debunks or reaffirms the established narratives of other authors. The introduction specifically accounts for early air power studies into strategic bombing by historians/academics including Mark Clodfelter, Stephen McFarland, I.B. Holley, and Maurer Maurer.

Martin_B-10B_during_exercises (National Museum of USAF)
First flown in 1932, the Martin B-10 was a revolutionary bomber not only for the United States Army Air Corps, but for the world. Design features such as all-metal construction, enclosed cockpit with rotating gun turrets, full engine cowlings and retractable landing gear would be standard design features for bombers over the next decade.  (Source: National Museum of United States Air Force)

Overall, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory is clear and well-sourced and can be easily approached by anyone with no depth of knowledge of the central subject matter. This reader found it to be enjoyable and informative, providing a good account of early strategic bombing theory and American air power development. While being a self-contained work, it is likely to whet the reader’s appetite for reading works covering related subject matters.

Eamon Hamilton graduated from the University of Western Sydney with a Bachelor of Communications (Journalism). He works as a Public Affairs Officer for the Royal Australian Air Force. He lives in Sydney. He runs the Rubber-Band Powered Blog and can be found on Twitter @eamonhamilton.

Header Image: A Boeing Y1B-17 in flight. This aircraft would eventually be developed B-17 Flying Fortress. (Source: Wikimedia)

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

A Case of Mistaken Identity: Colonel Edgar Stanley Gorrell – Part 1: Early Life

By Johannes Allert

In the following series of posts, Johannes Allert explores Colonel Edgar Gorrell’s role in co-ordinating US civilian aviation assets in support of military aviation strategy during the Second World War.

I came solely to benefit [American] commercial aviation, to try to keep it supreme in the air, [and] to do what I could for national defense.

Edgar Gorrell speaking before the Senate Committee Investigating Air Safety – January 1936

‘Chicago Banker, Air Transport Head, Dies.’ This headline in the Associated Press dated March 5, 1945, informed the world about the passing of Colonel Edgar Staley Gorrell and indicated that the decedent’s work evolved more around finance than flying.[1]  Later that same year his alma mater at West Point paid homage to his career stating his most notable contribution ‘was his formulation of the plan for strategic air bombardment of Germany’ and further asserted his ideas concerning aerial bombing predated those of Mitchell and Douhet.[2] His brief life, however, encompassed far more than the obituaries or a singular doctrine reveal, yet his legacy quickly faded amidst the Allies’ triumph in the World War II and was further overshadowed by Strategic Air Command’s ascent during the Cold War. With the collapse of the Soviet empire, however, interest in his work reemerged in 1990 with the publication of Marvin Skelton’s article entitled ‘Colonel Gorrell and his nearly forgotten records.’ The author, utilising West Point’s Assembly, reasserts ‘one of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany.’[3] George Williams later countered this assertion arguing Gorrell merely copied theories previously proposed by Major Lord Tiverton and Hugh Trenchard.[4] Rebecca Grant, however, rebuts this notion in her article published in November 2008 and stated Gorrell’s work concerning strategic bombardment was, in fact, the key to allied’ air victory in the Second World War.[5] In actuality, his varied career concentrated on the growth and development of civil aviation yet; historians repeatedly define him as the principle architect responsible for creating the original blueprint designed to target German industry through strategic precision bombing.[6] Further, complicating matters was the fact that, unlike many of his colleagues who frequently engaged in a very public and ideologically driven campaign promoting a bomber-centric doctrine, Gorrell’s preference involved coordination of civil air assets with military airlift operations. As history demonstrates; his results lay in actual achievements that endure today.

Edgar Gorrell’s Early Years

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At field headquarters near Casas Grandes, Mexico, April 1916, dashing airmen Lieutenants Herbert A. Dargue (left), and Edgar S. Gorrell (right) pose with Signal Corps No. 43. (Source: Wikimedia)

Small in stature, yet boundless in energy, Gorrell entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1908. His classmates nicknamed him ‘Nap’ (an abbreviation for Napoleon) and the moniker proved appropriate because, like his namesake, Gorrell was indefatigable. As a young cadet, his interest in aviation blossomed when he witnessed Glen Curtiss complete the final leg of his Albany to New York flight.[7] Briefly serving as an infantry officer, Gorrell quickly transitioned to the Signal Corps and obtained a pilot’s license within its air service section. In 1916, he flew reconnaissance missions in support of General John Pershing’s Punitive Expedition against the elusive Pancho Villa. This marked the first time in American military history where powered flight and ground forces operated jointly. Although the exercise achieved less than expected results, the experience left an indelible impression upon the young aviator.[8] During America’s brief involvement in the First World War, he served under the flamboyant and controversial General William “Billy” Mitchell; however, unlike his superior, Gorrell was short on style and long on substance. While Mitchell sparred with General Benjamin Foulois over control of the America’s emerging Air Service, Gorrell created a detailed and comprehensive air offensive aimed at crippling Germany’s industrial centre. Although hostilities ceased before his plans were implemented, they were later resurrected and used as a template in the Army Air Force’s bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War.[9]

Following the Armistice, Gorrell further burnished his credentials by chronicling America’s aviation efforts in the Great War as part of the Army’s official history – a project concocted by the general staff as an instructional aide for future wars. However, in a rush to demobilise, many perceived the gathering and analysis of squadron operations as an unnecessary task, yet Gorrell embraced the challenge and delivered a detailed report never published but often referred to as ‘The Gorrell Histories.’[10] He later incorporated aspects of his experiences in the Great War into academic lectures and speeches where he effectively debunked two myths concerning America’s involvement in the First World War. The first pertained to the ‘Billion Dollar Bonfire’ propagated by the media criticising the U.S. military’s disposal procedures of surplus aircraft at war’s end. Countering the charge of carelessness on the part of the Air Service that sent taxpayer’s dollars up in smoke, Gorrell provided a comparative analysis revealing the cost break down and the logic behind the disposal procedure.[11] Secondly, he argued that despite early setbacks associated with coordinating aircraft production congruent with allied war aims, American industry succeeded in supporting the Allied war effort by producing quality tools and equipment including the lighter and more reliable Liberty aircraft engine based upon the British Rolls-Royce design. From this and other experiences in his varied and fruitful career, Gorrell repeatedly maintained that careful planning, preparation, and just plain hard work were fundamental ingredients for success.[12]

In the next part, here, we will explore Gorrell’s role the emerging to role of civil aviation in air transport in the US.

Johannes Allert holds an MA in Military History from Norwich University and has served as an adjunct for Minnesota State University – Moorhead and Rogers State University (Oklahoma). His thesis concerning Lieutenant General Frank M. Andrews appeared in Air & Space Power Journal. He assisted in editing Naval Press Institute’s The Secret War for the Middle East – The Influence of Axis and Allied Intelligence Operations in WW II. His other articles concerning aviation appear in Minnesota History Magazine. He has also written for North Dakota History Magazine. Currently, he is a Legacy Research Fellow for the Minnesota State Historical Society and is working on a larger book project entitled Discovering Minnesota’s Lost Generation – Reflections and Remembrances of the Great War. His other ongoing book projects include Marshall’s Great Captain – The Life of Lieutenant General Frank Maxwell Andrews and Citizen-Soldier: Major General George Leach.

Header Image: A Curtiss JN-3 of the US 1st Aero Squadron during the Mexico Expedition of 1916. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] ‘CHICAGO BANKER, AIR TRANSPORT HEAD, DIES.’ Col. Edgar Staley Gorell. 54. President of Air Transport Association of America and Chicago Investment Banker, died today of a heart condition after a brief illness. Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Tuesday, March 6, 1945, http://newspaperarchive.com, (accessed 6 February 2014), p. 1.

[2] Quoting directly from Assembly ‘One of his most notable contributions to the development of military aviation was his formulation of the plan for the strategic air bombardment of Germany. It is difficult in these days. When huge German and Japanese cities lie in heaps of rubble, to appreciate the daring imagination which conceived that plan in 1917 and 1918. No Douhet or Mitchell had yet preached the modern gospel of air power.’ Gorrell’s obituary is reproduced and available on line. Cullum No. 5049. Mar 5, 1945. Died in Wash DC. Age 54 http://apps.westpointaog.org/Memorials/Article/5049/

[3] Marvin Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, Over The Front, 5(1) (1990), pp. 56-71.

[4] George K. William, “The Shank of the Drill’: Americans and Strategical Aviation in the Great War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 19(3) (1996). pp. 381-431

[5] Rebecca Grant, ‘Airpower Genesis,’ Air Force Magazine, 91(11) (2008), pp. 54-57.

[6] At Strategic Air Command’s zenith, Thomas Greer’s ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918’ published in Military Affairs states Gorrell’s plan ‘was a truly striking forerunner of the doctrine which matured years later at the Air Tactical School’ and quotes (then) Major General Laurence Kuter ‘the earliest and least known statement concerning the conception of American airpower.’ Thomas Greer, ‘Air Army Doctrinal Roots, 1917-1918,’ Military Affairs, 20(4) (1956), p. 214.

[7] Mark Clodfelter, Beneficial Bombing: The Progressive Foundations of American Air Power, 1917-1945 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), pp. 7-8.

[8] Skelton, ‘Colonel Gorrell and his “nearly forgotten records”’, p. 56-8.

[9] In James J. Hudson, Hostile Skies: A Combat History of the American Air Service in World War I (Syracuse,: Syracuse University Press, 1968), pp. 54-8, the author chronicles the friction between Mitchell and Foulois. Mitchell arrived in France ahead of his peers and after consulting with various allied air strategists, became the self-declared American authority on air power. Contemptuous of Foulois’ Air Staff, Mitchell frequently referred them as ‘an incompetent lot’ or simply ‘carpetbaggers’ this implies they were newly arrived outsiders out to take credit for his efforts.

[10] Following the Armistice, and order was dispatched to all air units directing each to prepare a history and forward it to the Information Section. However, feedback concerning the order surfaced indicating a lack of enthusiasm for the project since ‘The Z. of A. has no further interest in war. The squadrons have but one idea – getting home. Writing history does not appeal to them.’ Consequently, M.G. Mason Patrick assigned Col. Edgar Gorrell the task of assembling a staff, gathering the information, and submitting a report to include any information that might ‘assist in establishing Army aeronautics on a sound basis for the future which would leave unanswered questions that might be asked concerning the Air Service in Europe.’ Gorrell’s History of the American Expeditionary Forces Air Service, 1917-19, Record Group 120 (National Archives, Washington, D.C. 1923), pp. 1-4.

[11] Edgar Staley Gorrell, The Measure of America’s World War Aeronautical Effort (Northfield, VT: Norwich University, 1940) pp.73-7.

[12] Gorrell’s commencement address to the Norwich Corps of Cadets on 7 June, 1937 emphasized the concepts of life time learning, empathy, and above all hard work and diligence in problem solving far outweighs the label of genius. ‘Standing on the threshold of a Profession,’ Graduation Address to the Corps of Cadets Norwich University, Northfield, VT. June 7, 1937. Courtesy of Norwich University Archives & Special Collections  http://library2.norwich.edu/catablog/aviation/gorrell-edgar-s-1891-1945