But in the seven mostly un-televised years that Marine UH-34Ds were “in country,” they served as everything but gunships. They carried troops, cargo, crates of ammunition that their crew chiefs kicked out the door during low passes over beleaguered landing zones, packages and paperwork on admin runs, chaplains (“holy helo” trips), bodies, and, perhaps most memorably, the wounded. Without the UH-34D’s endless medevac shuttles, many more wounded U.S. and South Vietnamese troops would have died.
The Sea Horse had been designed to be a carrier-borne Navy anti-submarine helicopter, fighting a relatively neat search-and-detect sonar war at sea. Unfortunately, the aircraft’s skin and such major items as the transmission case were made of superlight magnesium, which in the presence of saltwater did its best to become powder.
That magnesium was also to become a liability in battle. “On my second day of flying in Vietnam,” recalls former pilot Seppo Hurme, “one of our 34s was shot down, and you could see it from miles away, the magnesium burned so bright. But you never had to worry about ending up a cripple. Between the av-gas and the magnesium, you either walked away from a crash or you died.” Former HMM-363 pilot Joseph Scholle recalls, “We used to call it the world’s largest flashbulb. Get a fire anywhere and drop it in the water is about all you can do.”
Nonetheless, Hurme loved the old Dog. “That big engine up front was the equivalent of a lot of armor plate and gave you more protection than there was in other helicopters. I heard of one guy who took a hit from a 57-millimeter recoilless rifle that knocked one of the cylinders completely off. The engine kept running—rough, but they still got away. When I transitioned to Hueys, I felt naked.”
The Dog’s replacement was the turbine-engine, twin-rotor Boeing-Vertol CH-46, but the 46s soon experienced inflight failures, shedding their entire tails and tail-rotor pylons. Joseph Scholle recounts: “The H-46s would break apart right in front of the stub wings and become a section of two H-23s.” The accidents led to the CH-46’s grounding, so the Marines turned back to the faithful UH-34D. Says Scholle, “The part I grew to like was its reliability. We’d get more time out of our engines than the Hueys were getting. All that red-clay sand used to get sucked into their intakes and eat the turbine blades alive. We had an air cleaner, basically, like you have on a Pontiac. Take it out, bang it on the ground, rinse it in av-gas, and you’re back in business.”
The Dog could lose parts and survive: “It was one of the few helicopters that would fly with an inoperative tail rotor,” says Scholle. (A helicopter’s tail rotor is intended in large part to oppose the tendency of the fuselage to rotate rapidly around, and counter to, the main rotorshaft.) “A 34 has an awful lot of side area, and as long as you’re doing 45 knots, it swings around into about a 45-degree crab [angle] and stays there. It’s weird, but you can fly it.
“She’d also fly without transmission fluid,” Scholle continues. “Guys would have the transmission oil cooler shot out, the oil pressure went to zero and you’d just fly it back. You do want to keep the power up, though, because once the gearbox stops, it welds itself into a single piece.”
For their size, UH-34s were surprisingly nimble. They could get into and out of landing zones where no other helos could go, but once on the ground, the pilots were sitting 13 feet up in the air, and the people shooting at them were lying as flat on the ground as they could.
Rod Carlson was another re-routed CH-46 pilot, sent to HMM-361 to fly Dogs. Carlson drew his first night medevac mission soon after arriving at Marble Mountain, flying with Captain Rod Sabin. Wounded Marines who medics feared would die in the field before daybreak were flown out, but it was a dangerous undertaking. Carlson and Sabin waited for a summons in the squadron ready room, where, “with the red lights on to preserve our night vision, everything was the color of clotted blood,” Carlson recalls.
When the phone rang, Sabin and Carlson sprinted to their 34 and fired it up. “A constant blue-white flame from the exhaust stacks extended past my window like a huge blowtorch,” Carlson recalls. “Once we were airborne, Sabin flipped off the light switches overhead, and except for the flame, everything vanished in total darkness. I felt as though I were in free fall.”