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
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).