AIR SUPPORT FOR AMPHIBIOUS LANDING
RED BEACH CAMP PENDLETON, CA
An amphibious landing operation was conducted at least once a year at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, California. The operations were simulations of actual amphibious landings on foreign beaches in combat. Each operation required the combined use of landing force personnel and equipment from the Amphibious Base at Coronado, the Marine Division at Camp Pendleton and the Marine Air Wing at MCAS El Toro. Supporting Arms was a primary requirement through use of Naval Gunfire, Artillery and Close Air Support for the Amphibious Landing. The amphibious landings were also used as demonstrations of readiness and training levels for evaluation by appropriate military and civilian dignitaries higher up the chain of command and viewing stands were situated just north of, and close to, the Red Beach assault landing craft arrival zones.
The Blacksheep of VMA-214, flying A-4 Skyhawk Attack jets were usually assigned a close air support role in the amphibious landings. The landing demonstrations normally occurred in the spring or early summer which caused inclement weather to become a prominent factor in providing air support. Low ceilings and reduced visibility due to fog were the common weather culprits. One year only helicopters showed up at H hour to support the troop movement ashore. The helos proudly claimed to fly IFR through the fog to the Red Beach landings. Their IFR was short for "I Fly Roads."
When the amphibious operation was scheduled in 1969, a friend at 3RD MAW G-3 asked me to make sure Blacksheep A-4s arrived at the Landing Zone before H hour and carried out the CAS missions as tasked. As the squadron operations officer, I said, "OK. We'll make it a mandatory mission as though this is a combat operation." The response was, "Just don't have an accident. You'll be responsible if anything goes wrong." On the Flight Plan, I entered my name as leader of the flight with two wingmen who were lieutenants with replacement pilot orders to Vietnam. The mission would be a test of their readiness for combat.
The CAS commitment came down for a ten o' clock H hour. That gave our flight a take off time of about 9:15 AM. At daylight on D day the weather was WOXOF with ceiling obscured in fog with visibility zero. It was tough driving to the back gate and down to the squadron. About 7 AM, a sea breeze could be felt and hopes were high for VFR by 9 o' clock. I sat down at 8 AM with my wingmen, Paul Phillips and Dave Yates and we briefed the mission as though we could take the runway on an IFR flight plan with 3 miles visibility. Dash two would make a section takeoff on my wing and Dash 3 would roll five seconds later and join up under the overcast and we would then cancel IFR as we crossed the beach at San Juan Capistrano and fly VFR below the cloud deck to the holding point over the ships. We would make our simulated strafing and napalm runs in a loose cruise/tail chase so we would be in visual contact at all times during the flight.
The three A-4s taxied out to the takeoff end of Runway 25. The visibility was reported by the tower as one mile. There went our briefing plans! At 9:15 I signaled the pilots to go tactical frequency. I then briefed them that we would make a division takeoff with Dave on my left wing and Paul on my right wing in parade formation. Division takeoffs were prohibited by the Air Wing. I said we would use the helicopter method of going to Camp Pendleton. We would go Special VFR and follow the roads. We knew that taking off in the soup IFR we would have to go up on top and we could never get back down below the overcast when we reached the target area. I switched Dave and Paul back to Tower frequency.
"Tower, this is Blacksheep Three. Ready for takeoff." I had to get all three aircraft in position on the runway ready to go in order to make my plan work.
Tower responded, "Blacksheep Flight is Cleared to Taxi into position on the runway. Contact departure control on UHF frequency 235.7. You are cleared for takeoff."
We taxied onto the runway into parade formation. I gave a thumbs up to my wingmen. They returned the thumbs up. I called the tower, "Cancel our IFR flight plan. We will be departing Special VFR."
Tower came back, "Understand you are canceling your IFR flight plan?" There was a pause of about a minute. "I cannot clear you for a Special VFR departure."
I answered back, "Understand we are cleared for a Special VFR departure." I judo chopped my arm down as I added power and commenced the takeoff roll. Dave and Paul were tucked in tight parade. We were off on an unauthorized division takeoff into weather below VFR minimums.
I could hear the tower shouting into my headset, "Blacksheep! You are not cleared for takeoff! Abort your takeoff! You have not been cleared for takeoff." We were quickly airborne and cleaned up the aircraft before reaching the end of the runway.
I signaled a channel change to tactical frequency, switched to channel ten and heard, "Dash twup." and then,"Threep!" We stayed in parade until reaching San Clemente and crossing the beach. A left turn put us parallel to the shoreline. I thumbed Dave and Paul into cruise positions and we flew at 200 feet and found the cluster of ships marking where our CAP station was. We checked into the operational control frequency and awaited H hour. I could hear a photo F-4 calling for a let down to VFR conditions. Then other flights began trying to get down through the clag. None of the fixed wing aircraft made it down for H hour.
At H minus 5 we were cleared for our strafing passes on the landing beach. Visibility was about two miles with the overcast about 400 feet. The first landing craft were hitting the surf as I crossed the beach and turned slightly left to fly directly at the stands. The ordnance folks had prepared the beach with small explosive charges which as I came towards the bleachers the detonations stitched a course right up to about 40 feet in front of the viewing stands. As I passed the last explosion I could see spectators diving off the bleachers and some running breakneck laterally away from the stands in both directions. "Yee-Haw! How realistic is that you sand crabs!"
Dave Yates and Paul Phillips tail chased me around during runs on other targets. The runs had to be simulated snake and nape because we had no maneuvering room for other types of ordnance. We were passing very low over the San Diego freeway after coming off target on each run and pulling hard around for 180 degrees to go back out across the beach to make another run on target. Cars were pulling off the freeways on both sides and stacking up. Some began stopping in position which soon gave us a huge crowd of gawkers. I had seen the signs on that Freeway stretch which read, "No Stopping." But, I always thought that was because of the illegal alien foot traffic going north.
Soon, the fun was over and we had to go back to El Toro and face the music that I was going to hear during the 'rug dancing' I would be performing at multiple command posts. We initiated individual GCA approaches into El Toro. We arrived at the flight line about 5 minutes between aircraft. Several telephone messages were awaiting me. One was from Air Station Operations informing me that I had a flight violation. But a couple of calls were from the Air Wing G-3 thanking VMA-214 for providing the only fixed wing aircraft in support of H hour on D day.
Paul Phillips and Dave Yates went on to Vietnam where they distinguished themselves in combat flying the A4E Skyhawk. In fact, Paul also flew as a Playboy Airborne Fast FAC in TA4Fs directing strikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He was shot down and severely injured on one mission that changed his flying career. After spending a night and many traumatic hours evading the enemy he was rescued. Paul and Dave typified the high caliber of the many young Marine pilots who trained in the Blacksheep squadron and went on to squadrons in the Southeast Asia war to courageously and aggressively fly combat against the invading North Vietnamese Communists.
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.