Of Marine All Weather Attack Squadron 533
First Marine Air Wing/MAG-12 Special Operations Officer position suddenly became important in 1971. The job entailed maintaining all Marine Nuclear target plans and intelligence in the east Asian sector. We trained the pilots and maintenance personnel in Special Weapons, updated their target folders, and maintained current enemy defensive information. VMA(AW) 533 was the A-6 squadron assigned to SIOP. Unfortunately, the squadron could not meet the assigned mission due to lack of operationally ready aircraft. The pressure for 533 to meet the SIOP commitment caused much angst from all levels of command up to DOD. The Air Wing Commander had given Colonel Ed Rutty the SIOP Marine Aircraft Group. Rutty had been transitioned to CH-46 Helicopters in route to Westpac only weeks before my transition to H-46‘s and overseas rotation. The rotor head community wanted nothing to do with him, a fighter pilot all his career, or me, an 0-5 selectee with over 5000 hours in single pilot fighter/attack aircraft. We were essentially outcasts with helicopter orders. I too, was diverted to MAG-12 for the SIOP position.
I flew the Skyhawk two seat TA4F for proficiency. The Group CO, Ed Rutty, and I flew to several countries inspecting potential special weapons storage facilities. President Nixon had given the Ryuku Islands to Japan and that meant the special weapons had to be moved. Occasionally we flew the Wing and Group Ops Officers on key trips. Col. Ed Rutty, an ex-Blue Angel, was a smooth leader and an excellent pilot. Rutty was under great pressure to accelerate Intruder aircraft readiness. 533 was deployed to Naha, Okinawa to build readiness but his visits to Naha coupled with maintenance documents convinced him the squadron needed a change in personnel.
Col Rutty ordered me into his office one day and abruptly asked, "How would you like to be CO of VMA(AW) 533?"
"I would like to be CO of any squadron!" I responded.
He said, "I am giving you the A-6 squadron. Now go down to Naha, Okinawa and get some damn Intruders airborne!" I said, "Aye, Aye, Sir!" and left his office. I told Elmer Payne the Air Group Ops Officer that I had never even looked into the cockpit of an A-6 but to rest assured the squadron would have the best possible A-6 CO.
The change of command ceremony was on October 1, 1971. Rutty flew me to Naha in the TA4F. One A6 flew over the parade rolling and dumping JP-5. A fine mist of jet fuel settled over the parade formation. While hoping no one would light a Zippo, I wondered if that A-6 was the only flyable squadron aircraft. Following taking command of the Squadron, everyone headed for the Naha Club for a squadron reception. All hands would be given free food and adult beverages until midnight on the new Skipper’s tab. I knew my job was going to be tough because the Wing CG had told me when he sent me to Naha, “Having that squadron will be like hanging on to a hot poker!” The very first night after the celebration, my Super Grunt Sergeant Major grabbed a civilian club worker and almost put the Ryukan's head through the closed door of his Isuzu. Next day, I paid the civilian $97 for damage to his car and his ruffled pride. That unexpected act on my first day in command brought me tremendous loyalty. Incidentally, the SgtMaj quickly paid for the auto repair bill.
My first impression of the squadron was not the best. A three legged dog named Tramp met me at the parking place. Tramp gave me the sniff over like most of my officers did and did not use my leg for a fire plug only because he had to lean on my leg to lift his and I wouldn’t permit that. Andy Martin, a fine officer and a highly decorated combat A-6 pilot, was my XO. The Natops and Safety Officers explained that I was in violation of the first requirement of Natops. In that, I would have to attend the A-6 school at Whidbey Island. "Impossible." was my response. The squadron Super Safe then told me that I would have to ride in the right seat for the first five flights. After sitting in the right seat for an introduction, I asked, "Who is Commanding Officer of this squadron?" Super Safe responded, "Why you are sir!" I said, "Now that we have that figured out, let's get something else straight. I fly in the left seat. If you want to ride with me in the Bombardier/Navigator's seat, that is between you and the B/N's. Okay?" That was the end of my right seat flying.
The squadron had terrific maintenance personnel and aircrews. However, they only had one Intruder full mission ready (FMC). The squadron had a policy of not flying a plane until it was virtually full systems capable. I stopped that nonsense. With two previous tours as the F-8 Crusader Squadron Maintenance Officer, their problems were obvious to me. We needed to get all planes flyable and then we would fly them while working on the inoperable systems. Within days we had 10 A-6's flyable in accordance with the classified secret MEEL [Mission Essential Equipment Listing]. We installed operable systems as the parts came in. Meantime the crews were flying day and night. With our SIOP role, LABS practice was paramount and every flyable A-6 was mission capable for either VFR or IFR loft.
Within three weeks of taking over 533, a 4 month old Hangar Queen was coming up for test. I told the Maintenance Officer that I would fly the test. The Natops, Safety, and Maintenance officers surrounded me and said that I was not qualified with 15 A-6 hours and that it was too dangerous. I told maintenance to get it ready. The Maintenance Chief asked how much fuel I wanted. He said, "There is only 6000 lbs of fuel." I said, "That is all I want!" Who needs 35,000 lbs of fuel? Since the Aircrews and troops had not really accepted me because of my non-Intruder background, I decided to give them an F-8 Crusader simulated afterburner takeoff and a maximum rate climb in the A-6.
Major Steve Porcari, the senior 533 B/N, was assigned for the test hop; probably in hopes of keeping me alive. We performed our checks and taxied to the end of the runway. I told the tower that we needed an unrestricted climb. It was granted. I could see about 300 troops and 40 officers gathering at the edge of the taxiway near the hangar to witness the rookie CO take off in the Hangar Queen. I shoved the two J-52 engines to maximum power and rapidly accelerated down the runway. We hit 150 knots long before reaching the hundreds of troops waiting for me to pass. I held the nose gear on the runway until I reached the men, then I yanked the A-6 off the deck, sucked the gear up and climbed straight up at 10 thousand feet per minute. Steve Porcari was grabbing at the canopy rail and the instrument panel as we lay on our backs thundering upward. He had never been in such a maneuver. I was one of only two people who knew the plane was feather light. I leveled off at 23 thousand and flew around for about ten minutes. Then we returned to Naha Air Base, executed a hot overhead break, landed and taxied back to the line. The troops were there and jogged along the taxiway beside us. Tramp was hopping around on his three legs barking his head off. It was the most complete turn around of a squadron anyone could have ever seen. From that day forward, the squadron could not be stopped.
The squadron had grown accustomed to the solo crew concept where they worked as a two man team in all weather conditions, day and night, as a single aircraft. I immediately worked to turn the squadron into a team concept with any bombardier/navigator qualified to work with any pilot hampered only by their own individual shortcomings. Division flights and section take offs were frequent firsts. Happy Hour became an encouraged Friday event. We had an all-hands squadron party at the Fleet Reserve or at a Four Corners Club once a month where my dollars helped Special Services pay for the refreshments and the Mess Hall paid for the steaks and other food.
I flew with outstanding B/N’s like Ben Moody, Steve Akey, Wally Fallman, Eddie Allan, Pantke, Eggspuehler, Parker, Sulick, Oliphant, Fleming, Olsen, Dooley, Detki, O’Connor, Tarr, Dolgin, Kroboth and others. Ben Moody especially impressed me when we were practicing night LABS delivery near Okinawa using IP and TGT loft maneuvers. Ben’s scope went black. No sweat on a dark, IFR night for that professional. Ben moved over practically into my seat and operated my radar to successfully complete multiple runs and the training mission. We had countless valuable troops like Mike Corrie in supply, David Shields, Tom Greenwood, Kevin Reehl, Tom Glenn, Paul Harrington and dozens more maintenance Hawks. The squadron basketball team trounced all other teams at Iwakuni. The pilots such as Majors, Davis, Hanover, Connell, Gothard, Collins, Bear Owen, and many others were very competent and reliable. Sergeant Major Norman Sponcey was my Super Grunt leader of the troops. His firm but fair control made my job as Commanding Officer much easier.
All 10 Intruders were brought up and at the completion of the Naha deployment we flew an iron overcast back to Iwakuni. During the squadron climb out, the Operations Officer called and reported his windshield cracked and unusable. The crew had forgotten to turn off the windshield heat. I told Dick to stay in formation. He was worried about the cracked windshield. I wasn't going to let anyone go back to Naha unless it was a dire emergency and the shattered but intact bulletproof windshield was only a problem if looking straight ahead. I instructed Dick to pass the lead in his flight and fly as tail end Charlie going home. The ten Intruder echelon broke over the runway at Iwakuni. Pictures were taken as evidence of the historic event.
XO Andy Martin drew a modern hawk for our tail insignia with a two toned blue background. We than designed a new helmet design with the all seeing eyes of the Intruder patch. Some of the crewmembers wanted a Captain America design. The tails of the aircraft already bore my name, ED, which was the original squadron commissioning letters.
The squadron maintenance under Bobby G. Rutledge took the mission capable, MC, to over 80% while the full system capable percentage rose to 40%. The figures were better than even the Skyhawk squadrons in ComNavAirPac. The squadron had never flown over 330 hours in any month since receiving A-6 aircraft. We were beating the old records in the second month. Each succeeding month brought record flight hours while the operationally ready aircraft soared to over 90 percent. We stayed on top of all other squadrons during my tour as CO. FMFPAC frequently commended 533 for our exceptional performance.
In addition to our SIOP commitment, we had to maintain two aircraft and crews on Yankee Station aboard the Coral Sea. Each A-6 could carry 5 two thousand pound bombs or 30 five hundred pound bombs in the conventional warfare role. We lost crewmembers in North Vietnam. It was sad for me to write to Ellen McDonald and tell her of her Joe's missing in action (MIA) status in May 1972. Later, Bombardier Navigator Alan Kroboth survived a shoot down that killed his pilot, Len Robertson. Alan was severely injured in the shoot down and spent the remainder of the conflict in the Hanoi Hilton.
I relinquished my command to Jim Brown in June 1972 as the squadron transferred to the Rose Garden, Nham Phong, Thailand for conventional combat operations in Southeast Asia. The Hawks continued to perform in an outstanding manner, delivering thousands of tons of ordnance on North Vietnam targets.
I cherish my memories as a Hawk in the Five Hundred and Thirty Third Heavy Bombardment Squadron.
Semper Fi and Thanks Hawks!
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Retired