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. 1/LT Paul Phillips, 1/LT Dennis Peek and I met at 8 AM and 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 Dennis 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. We switched back to Tower frequency.
"Tower, this is Blacksheep Three. Ready for takeoff." All three aircraft had to be in position on the runway. ready to roll, in order to make our plan work.
Tower responded, "Blacksheep Flight is Cleared to Taxi into position on the runway. Contact departure control on UHF frequency 235.7 after takeoff. 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. Dennis and Paul were tucked in tight parade. We were off on an unauthorized division takeoff into weather below VFR minimums.
The tower was 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 where we turned sharply left to parallel the shoreline. I thumbed Dennis and Paul into cruise positions and we flew at 200 feet until we found the cluster of ships marking our CAP station. 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. No joy! 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 had improved to about two miles with the overcast about 400 feet. The first landing craft were hitting the surf as we 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 zipped towards the reviewing stands the detonations stitched a course right up to about 40 feet in front of the stands. As my aircraft passed the last blast of sand and water 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!"
Dennis Peek and Paul Phillips tail chased me around in short intervals during runs on other targets. The runs had to be simulated high drag 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 fly back out across the beach to make another run on target. Cars were pulling off the freeway lanes 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 thought it 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 3 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 the Blacksheep of VMA-214 for providing the only fixed wing aircraft in support of the Amphibious Assault at H hour on D day.
Paul Phillips and Dennis Peek went on to Vietnam where they distinguished themselves in combat while flying the A4E Skyhawk. In fact, Paul also flew as a Playboy Fast FAC in TA4Fs directing strikes on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. He was shot down and severely injured on one mission that changed his flying career. After spending a night and many traumatic hours enduring the pain of a severely broken leg and evading the enemy he was rescued. Dennis Peek was killed in Vietnam while dropping Snakes and Nape at low altitude on a hot target. The loss of Denny Peek was a shock to all Blacksheep. Paul and Dennis 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. Two other Blacksheep lost in Vietnam were 1/LTs Jack Lawson and Jan Nelson. I had the sorrowful duty of going to Jack's home with our Chaplain and notifying his wife of her great loss. War is Hell!
Back to Back We Face the Past
Donald Cathcart LtCol USMC Ret.