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The Role of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War


This article, written by Dr. Herbert LePore, Command Historian, U.S. Army Armament, Munitions, and Chemical Command, Rock Island, Illinois, originally appeared in the Army Aviation Digest, PB 1-94-1 (July/August 1994).


Setting the Stage

To many Americans, the Vietnam War was one of the most divisive wars ever fought in our nation’s history. Most of us old enough to remember it, or to have fought in it, reflect on how the war tore at the very core of the nation’s political, sociological, educational, and moral fiber. Through the television (TV) media, Americans had a front-row seat to view the death, destruction, and suffering emanating from the war. During our almost ceaseless TV exposure to the war, the presence of a machine not heretofore seen often on TV was etched indelibly in our visual imagery and psyche. That machine was the military helicopter.

True, American troops had used the helicopter in the Korean War; however, use of the helicopter in the war was limited primarily to medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), transportation, and logistical support. TV coverage of the Korean War was minuscule as opposed to the later Vietnam War so not much was known about the helicopter.

All American armed forces had helicopters in the Korean War; however, the Army provided the most significant use of the somewhat nascent helicopter. The Army used it mostly for MEDEVAC of over 21,000 wounded American fighting men to mobile army surgical hospitals (MASHs). The Korean War was unique in that, by the extensive use of the helicopter for aerial MEDEVAC of seriously wounded fighting men, a new dimension was added to the art of war.

From the end of the Korean War in 1953 to 1962, adaptability of the helicopter to military doctrine was seriously discussed and evaluated. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) tested helicopters for transporting troops during the 1950s and early 1960s. During the late 1950s, the Army secretly placed guns on helicopters and test fired them at Fort Rucker, Ala. for possible use as aerial weapons platforms.

The reason for the secrecy were as follows: Other Army combat arms – infantry, artillery, and armor – believed the use of ordnance and armaments was restricted doctrinally to them; they thought the helicopter should not be given to an interloper like the organic Army Aviation element.

The Army also was involved in an ongoing dispute about close air support (CAS) with the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The USAF abhorred the very notion that the Army should have any aircraft armed and capable of providing some degree of CAS to ground units. That function ostensibly was delegated to the USAF because of the Key West Agreement of 1947. But, by the late 1950s, the Army was allowed to field the aerial combat reconnaissance platoon, which used armed helicopters. However, by the end of the 1950s, acceptance of the armed helicopter was still inchoate in most military circles. Not until the 1960s were armed helicopters accepted totally within Department of Defense (DOD).


Vietnam

Role of Helicopters

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