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United States Army Aviation
The Role of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

Preparation of the Helicopter for War

The accession of John F. Kennedy to the Office of the President of the United States, in 1960, brought about profound changes that affected Army Aviation – particularly as far as using the helicopter. The military and political doctrine of "massive retaliation," espoused during the 1950s, no longer was an option.

This doctrine asserted that, if the then existent Soviet Union attacked the United States, and/or its allies, the United States would retaliate with a massive nuclear strike against the Soviet Union. Supposedly, the massive retaliation was to have been a nuclear quid pro quo.

Thus, the possibility of a nuclear strike was enough to serve as a deterrent. Actually, what happened was that the two superpowers realized the use of strategic nuclear weapons would serve no purpose other than the mutual annihilation. So massive retaliation, if not extinct, was at best somewhat extant.

Another reason for the diminishing influence of massive retaliation was the nascence of "brushfire wars." These were small wars fought with conventional weapons in Third World or nonaligned regions and involved using guerrilla and/or paramilitary forces. Such a war was already taking place in Southeast Asia at the time of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration. As we know, the region was Indo-China and was compromised of two countries North and South Vietnam. The former was aligned with the Soviet Union; the later with the United States.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States and the Soviet Union were caught up in a mutual frenzy of supplying arms, advisers, and equipment to support their respective allies in Indo-China. In 1961 the U.S. Army sent its first helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft to support South Vietnam. By 1963, the United States had 21,000 military advisers (the equivalent of a reinforced division) in South Vietnam.

As an aside, one of the most significant fixed-wing aircraft in the Army’s inventory in South Vietnam was the CV-2 Caribou, a twin-engine, medium transport. It served the Army well and had a short field landing and takeoff capability; therefore, it was suitable for incountry use. However, in April 1966, the Caribou was relinquished to the USAF as part of a memorandum of agreement (MOA) which, in turn, no longer claimed and suzerainty over tactical helicopters in South Vietnam.

The military and political activity taking place in South Vietnam in 1960-1962 time frame showed the need for the Army to examine its helicopter requirements and tactics – particularly as far as South Vietnam.

Lieutenant General Gordon B. Rogers, U.S. Army, in 1960 chaired a Board with the primary mission of upgrading Army Aviation to meet any tactical contingencies like brushfire wars or what it would later be referred to as low – or mid-intensity level conflicts.

Akin to the upgrading was the Board’s recommendation that the soon to be ubiquitous UH-1 Huey helicopter become the primary helicopter in the Army’s active aircraft inventory. The Rogers Board also recommended procurement of the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter. Both of these aircraft acquitted themselves well in the ensuing Vietnam War.

In 1962, the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, decided to conduct a study on the tactical mobility of the Army ground forces, particularly airmobility – the use of helicopters to transport troops to a given area and as a means of CAS.

Mr. McNamara later instructed General Hamilton H. Howze, the Army’s first Director of Aviation, to establish and chair a board to implement this study. The Howze Board, as it was known, convened at Fort Bragg, No. Car., in 1962.

The Board members performed numerous tests and studies, and posited the thesis that Army aircraft, particularly helicopters, could provide airmobile assets needed to enhance the combat effectiveness of ground forces. The Board also recommended fielding a cavalry combat brigade to fight brushfire wars.

The DOD, however, deferred the action on this recommendation. But DOD decided to create and test an air assault division replete with an organic helicopter unit.

The 11th Air Assault Division was established at Fort Benning, Ga., to test all facets of airmobility. The Division passed is airmobility tests by the end of 1964. On 1 July 1965, it assumed operational status as a tactical division and was renamed the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). "The 1st Cav," as it became known, had its own organic aircraft; it could provide its own tactical and logistical support. The Division’s activation was none too soon.

Because of the military and political disturbances in South Vietnam in the spring of 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to deploy tactical units to South Vietnam. In July 1965 the 1st Cavalry Division received its orders for deployment. It deployed in August 1965, arrived in South Vietnam in September 1965, and became the Army’s first division-size unit to engage the enemy.

The Division spent more than 2,000 days in South Vietnam – thus making it the longest serving Army unit in country during the war. It received numerous citations and awards for its combat activity. The Marines, however, were the first to be sent to South Vietnam with the deployment of the Third Marine Division in April 1965.


Role of Helicopters

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This page last updated: 1/2/03
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