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US Marine Corps, July 17, 2015 - By Lance Cpl. Garrett White - Marines pride themselves on being willing to take the fight to the enemy in any clime and place, but will never complain about getting a lift.
Since the introduction of helicopter squadrons in military operations, Marines have been able to go farther and faster to protect America’s interests. Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron-165 is one such squadron. Having participated in some of recent history’s most iconic moments, on July 17, 2015 the unit celebrates 50 years of dedicated and storied service to Marine aviation.
The squadron was originally formed as Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-165 on July 1, 1965 aboard Marine Corps Air Station Santa Ana, California, as a part of Marine Air Group 36.
For 46 years, HMM-165, known as the White Knights, flew CH-46E Sea Knight helicopter, carrying Marines and equipment in and out of harm’s way all across the globe.
HMM-165 deployed multiple times to the Republic of Vietnam with MAG-36, conducting combat and support operations throughout the area. The squadron flew operations out of Chu Lai, Hue, Da Nang, and off the decks of the USS Tarawa, Tripoli and Valley Forge.
The squadron played an important role during the Tet Offensive, flying various support missions including flying U.S. and Republic of Vietnam forces into battle, evacuating casualties, and getting supplies and equipment to various bases and positions.
One such example, the squadron provided support during the Battle of Hue City from January 30 – March 3. During the counter-offensive, eight CH-46’s from the squadron flew members of 4th Battalion, 2nd Army of the Republic of Vietnam, into the Citadel of Hue City from Dong Ha.
After an engine failure forced a water landing, a HMM-165 CH-46 began to float due to its design, buoyancy and a still functioning second engine. The floating helicopter made its way to shore with no injuries to crew and helped codify the procedures for ‘water taxiing.’
In the final few days of the Vietnam War, HMM-165 took part in Operation Frequent Wind, the evacuation of Saigon. This operation would become the largest evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. military history. In a 24-hour period from 29 – 30 April, more than 7,000 U.S. and South Vietnamese citizens were successfully evacuated in the days prior to the Fall of Saigon.
During the evacuation, Capt. Gerry Berry, pilot of Lady Ace 09, a CH-46 of HMM-165, flew more than 18 hours, evacuating U.S. and Vietnamese citizens. Berry and his crew, evacuated American Ambassador Graham Martin from the American Embassy under direct orders from President Gerald Ford, and were some of the last U.S. Marines out of Vietnam during the conflict.
Lady Ace 09 has since been refurbished and is on display at the museum aboard Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, California.
The Vietnam War cost HMM-165 33 of its members. A list of the fallen is kept and honored by the squadron to this day.
During the interwar years after Vietnam, HMM-165 found itself deploying with the 31st Marine Amphibious Unit multiple times. Their missions ranged from deterring Soviet aggression after Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan to performing humanitarian work with the government of Sri Lanka, delivering television transmitters to remote locations across the country to provide its citizens national television coverage in 1981.
The White Knights continued protecting American interests abroad, conducting an embassy reinforcement operation of the American Embassy in the Republic of the Philippines during the country’s coup attempt in December 1989.
Only months later, HMM-165 was sent to Saudi Arabia to participate in Operation Desert Shield, the buildup of forces in defense of that kingdom. That build-up transitioned into Operation Desert Storm, the combat operations against Iraq from January – February of 1991, following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
Returning home from Saudi Arabia, the White Knights’ next assignment was with a Special Purpose Marine Air – Ground Task Force in the Philippines from July to November 1992.
Operating out of Cambodia as part of Joint Task Force Full Accounting, the White Knights’ rotors spun above the jungles of Vietnam once more, 17 years after the end of the war. The unit supported the task force until the spring of 1993, helping search for American service members who’d gone missing in action.
The squadron returned to southern California in May 1996, and was based at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, then a part of MAG-16, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and moved again to its current home, MCAS Miramar, in the winter of 1998.
In July of 2001, HMM-165 reinforced, served as the Aviation Combat Element for the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Following the terror attacks of September 11, HMM-165 pushed forward to Afghanistan with elements of the MEU, playing an important part in the initial stages of Operation Enduring Freedom and spearheading the Global War on Terrorism. Additionally, they were the primary air support for Operation Anaconda, the combat operations conducted by coalition forces in March 2002 to destroy al-Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
After their employment in Afghanistan, the squadron received orders to deploy to Iraq. In January 2002, the White Knights deployed aboard the USS Boxer, were offloaded in Kuwait, and tasked with supporting Regimental Combat Team 1 during the invasion of Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
On the night of April 1, 2003, HMM-165 was part of a joint operation successfully extracting Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, an American prisoner of war. Lynch had been captured after her convoy was ambushed during the Battle of Nasiriyah. Lady Ace served as the Assault Flight Leader for the mission, inserting 287 Army Rangers as a blocking position just southwest of An Nasiriya.
The squadron deployed to Iraq several times over the next few years, supporting combat operations out of Al Taqaddum Air Base, FOB Falcon, Al Asad Air Base, and Korean Village, some of the same locations they support in current operations.
After a series of successful Operation Iraqi Freedom deployments, HMM-165 found itself with the 15th MEU aboard the USS Peleliu in the spring 2008. The squadron demonstrated the MAGTF hallmark of distributed operations participating in two bilateral training exercises in Kuwait and Jordan, while the squadron’s detachment of CH-53 Sea Stallions spent one month stationed at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, once again in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Two years later, in May 2010, aboard the USS Peleliu, the squadron was called on to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in Pakistan after floods caused by a heavy monsoon. The squadron delivered more than 5 million pounds of relief supplies and transported more than 8,900 flood victims out of harm’s way. Additionally, the CH-53 detachment completed the longest amphibious insert in Marine Corps history when they traveled more than 725 nautical miles to Ghazi Airbase in Northern Pakistan while squadron UH–1 Hueys and AH–1 Cobras flew as air support during the takedown of the Pirated merchant vessel Magellan Star in the Gulf of Aden. This extremely successful deployment would be the last with the HMM unit designation.
When the White Knights returned home in December 2010, they retired their venerable CH – 46s after 46 years of service, and transitioned to the MV-22 Osprey platform, officially becoming Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron – 165 on April 11, 2011.
Since transitioning over to the MV-22, VMM-165 has completed one deployment in Afghanistan, operating out of Camp Bastion from August 2013 – March 2014 and is currently deployed as a part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command.
The squadron’s current commanding officer said his Marines are proud to be a part of such a distinguished legacy.
“I think our unit’s history is best summed up by our unit’s motto, ‘whatever it takes,’” said Lt. Col Ryan Sheehy, commanding officer of VMM-165. “Looking at what we did on our last deployment with the CH -46s, it’s pretty amazing what our squadron was able to accomplish. On a single day we had four different air platforms operating in three different locations, thousands of miles apart from each other, all supporting completely different operations.”
“I scratch my head wondering how they did it even today,” Sheehy said. “But that is how this squadron has done business in its 50 years of history, whatever it takes to get the job done.”
Though originally a CH-46 pilot himself, Sheehy explained that since transitioning to the Osprey he’s been impressed with the platform—and the unit’s—capabilities.
“Gone are the days of trying to compare the CH-46 to the MV-22,” Sheehy said. “It’s like comparing apples to oranges, because at the end of the day it’s not about the machine, but what you can do with the machine.”
Sheehy added, while there are obviously strengths and weaknesses inherent to any piece of equipment, the MV-22 is perfectly suited for the SPMAGTF’s mission of providing Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel capabilities for the U.S. Central Command Area of Responsibility.
“You would need multiple helicopter squadrons spread across different locations to cover an AOR as big as CENTCOM,” said Sheehy. “The Osprey has the speed and range to be able to cover the entire AOR with a single squadron from a single location, which is a pretty amazing capability for a single aircraft.”
However, while the Osprey might be the perfect tool for the job, the real success comes from the Marines who work tirelessly to make sure that tool stays in the air, said Sheehy.
“It really says something about the character of our Marines when the biggest complaint I hear from them is that a part didn’t come in on time,” Sheehy said. “It’s 120 degrees outside and they are still out there turning wrenches.”
The Marines of the squadron took time on July 17 to celebrate their unit’s heritage, and reaffirm their commitment to the mission.
“Our squadron just raises its Marines right,” said Sheehy. “Our squadron has always raised its Marines right. ‘Whatever it takes’ is how the squadron operated 50 years ago, and it’s how we continue to operate today.”