Marine Chopper Salvage

By Craig A. Thorson
8/23/2017 • Aviation History Magazine

The first Marine Corps transport helicopter squadron introduced new tactics in Korea—and took field modifications to new heights.

Just seven months after being commissioned, the first U.S. Marines Corps transport helicopter squadron, HMR-161, sailed for Korea on August 16, 1951, aboard the escort carrier HRS-1s, decked out in gloss sea-blue and sporting tail Sitkoh Bay. On board were 15 brand-new Sikorsky codes from HR-1 through HR-15.

The HRS-1 was an innovative new design, designated by Sikorsky as the S-55. By placing the radial engine in the nose, Sikorsky engineers not only solved the center-of-gravity issues of earlier designs, they also made it easier to maintain the helicopter. More important, the resulting interior space could be used to carry fully equipped combat troops or cargo. The opportunities literally opened up by this expanded space would soon be demonstrated by HMR-161. Marines had been experimenting with the concept of air assault and supply by helicopters since 1949. Now it could—and would—be put into wartime practice in dramatic fashion.

Two more squadrons had already been commissioned and were in the process of receiving their 15 HRS-1s when HMR-161 left the U.S. With three additional squadrons due for commissioning within six months, HMR-161’s men knew that replacements would be slow in coming once they reached Korea. They’d have to carefully shepherd their choppers and spare parts.

Arriving in Pusan Harbor on September 2, the squadron’s 43 officers and 244 enlisted men quickly settled in at what would be their home base, auxiliary field X-83 near Chondo-ri. On September 13, HMR-161 conducted operation Windmill I, history’s first mass-helicopter resupply mission, lifting an impressive 18,848 pounds of combat gear seven miles to a Marine battalion on the front lines and evacuating 74 casualties. Amazingly, the squadron accomplished all that work within just one hour. HMR-161’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. George Herring, cited 1st Marine Division intelligence in summing up the mission: “Without the helicopter[s], some 24 hours would have been required to complete the operation. But more important, the battalion commander…stated that he could not have successfully defended his position…without the materials brought to him by helicopter.”

Operation Windmill II followed six days later, with 10 HRS-1s lifting 12,180 pounds of supplies to the front line in 18 flights, again within just one hour. HMR-161 was making history.

On September 21, the squadron’s feats in another mission, Operation Summit, generated headlines back home. Within the span of four hours, 224 fully equipped Marines and 17,772 pounds of cargo had been lifted to Hill 884, to relieve a Republic of Korea (ROK) unit. Phase one saw the transportation of the Marines to the front. As the leathernecks clambered aboard the helicopters, one corporal exclaimed: “This can save us a helluva lot of walkin’ if someone doesn’t knock us down. There’s an awful lot of sky between here and there!” When the last man had been landed on the ridgeline, the supply phase began. With a Marine company occupying Hill 884’s ridgeline, the decision was made to bring the supplies directly to it, slung beneath the HRS-1s in cargo netting. Even though that operation was conducted in view of enemy forces, not a single ship was struck by enemy fire. The full value of vertical envelopment was quickly becoming apparent.

Hot on the heels of Summit came Operation Blackbird, conceived to counter the threat posed by Communist forces masking their movements under cover of darkness. After considerable planning and training, including a daytime dress rehearsal, Blackbird was executed on September 27. It became history’s first nighttime helicopter combat troop lift and the only large-scale night lift of the Korean War. Two hours and 20 minutes after the operation began, 223 Marines had been transported to their landing zone without incident.

But the next night, while conducting further night-indoctrination training flights at X-83, HMR-161’s streak of good fortune came to an end when the squadron suffered its first operational loss of the war. HR-15 approached the landing zone too low and slammed into the ground. The chopper bounced once before coming to rest on its right side and bursting into flames. Pilot 1st Lt. Frederick Adams, copilot Major Charles Cornwell and passenger Private B.J. Stone escaped without injury, but the helicopter was a total loss. The squadron was now down to 14 aircraft.

October would prove even busier and more costly than September. Operation Bumble Bee, the unit’s largest mission to date, envisioned nothing less than the aerial relief of an entire Marine battalion. Beginning at 1000 hours on October 11, the first of 12 HRS-1s lifted off at one-minute intervals. Using the cover of valleys and defiladed areas, they traveled the 15 miles to the front in 10 to 12 minutes, then each chopper offloaded six Marines, took on six from the relieved battalion and returned to base to repeat the process. Less than six hours later, the well-orchestrated operation had transported a total of 958 troops.

Four days later Operation Wedge provided urgent resupply and casualty evacuation for a surrounded ROK unit operating in support of the U.S. Army IX Corps. Six Marine helicopters flew in 19,000 pounds of ammunition and carried out 24 seriously wounded men. Colonel Richard Dugan of the IX Corps commented:“We had no way to resupply the unit until the ’copters showed. They did one hell of a fine job.”

On October 22, HMR-161 initiated Operation Bushbeater, intended to counter North Korean sniper fire and guerrilla activity behind the Marine main line of resistance. Taking full tactical advantage of the choppers’ speed and the element of surprise, patrol teams from the 1st Marine Division would be inserted into designated areas, then sweep them for enemy activity. Due to the rough terrain, there would be no landings; the Marine infantrymen would descend from the helicopters via 40-foot-long knotted ropes. Tom Roberts, one of the Marines who participated, recalled: “Our practice for the mission was to climb down knotted ropes attached to a tower about 20-25 feet tall. We were then to have one practice debarking from a helicopter, but that was aborted for some reason.”

As the operation unfolded, things didn’t go quite as planned for the 10 participating HRS-1s. “We flew in to the designated area,” said Roberts, “but the trees were taller than the ropes—that last step was a winner! So the pilot flew us to another spot, which meant a good long hike to join up with the rest of the platoon.”

Others experienced far worse difficulties. Helicopters rely on ground effect to maintain lift in a hover close to the ground. During this mission, a combination of knife-edge ridges and unfavorable wind conditions caused some of the helicopters to suddenly lose their lift. One pilot had to dive his chopper into a valley in order to stay airborne—with a Marine still clinging tightly to the rope underneath! Similar problems caused two of the HRS-1 pilots—Major Charles Cornwell in HR-6 and Major Edwin Shifflet in HR-9—to make controlled crashes. Within just 46 minutes, the squadron had lost two more helicopters. Fortunately for the Marines, the nine passengers and Shifflet were unscathed. And Cornwell, who had been slightly injured, brushed it aside, saying,“I’m OK, but look what I did to that helicopter!”

HR-6 had slid tail-first 300 feet down a 60-degree slope before coming to rest against some trees. HR-9 was balanced precariously along a precipitous ridge. Its rotor blades had been wrecked when they flexed downward on hitting the ground, smashing into and severing the tail boom. Now, in less than two months of operations, the squadron’s strength appeared to be down to 80 percent.

Given the seemingly inaccessible location of both wreckages, the initial determination—as annotated on the helicopters’ respective aircraft history cards—was that they were to be written off, even though each had barely 200 hours’ total time. But knowing there were no replacement aircraft available, the men of HMR-161 refused to accept that assessment.

Major Shifflet, who was also the squadron’s engineering officer, joined Captain James T. Cotton and Chief Warrant Officer Pat L. Summers in planning a salvage operation. First, the squadron’s combat photographer, Staff Sgt. H. Michael McMahon, made a photographic aerial reconnaissance of both crash sites, doing the honors from the open cargo door of an HRS. After the photos were analyzed, liaison was then established with the Shore Party Battalion and the Engineer Battalion of the 1st Marines. A plan was quickly finalized to disassemble both choppers at their crash sites and fly the pieces out.

Members of the Shore Party Battalion, under the command of 1st Lt. John J. Fernane, debarked from hovering HRS-1s via knotted ropes, then cleared landing sites as close as possible to the downed helicopters. Using shovels, picks, axes and even explosives, they quickly finished the work. Next, two four-man teams of HMR-161 mechanics, supervised by Tech. Sgt. Thomas M. McAuliffe, were flown in and put to work dismantling the choppers into transportable units such as engine, rotor-head, transmission, landing gear and tail boom.

Using block and tackle, Marine muscle and no doubt plenty of colorful language, the pieces were then moved to the newly cleared landing sites. HR-6’s parts proved to be the toughest to remove, since they first had to be hauled 300 feet up a 50- to 60-degree slope, then carefully lowered 400 feet down a 40-degree slope on the other side. The parts were either loaded aboard HRS-1s or slung below them in cargo nets for the four-mile trip to K-18 airfield near Pusan, home to the squadron’s major maintenance echelon. Using HR-10 as a flying crane, squadron executive officer Major William P. Mitchell retrieved the largest part, the 1,000-pound fuselage of one helicopter, hanging it beneath his chopper.

Once everything had been recovered and inventoried, the real work began. The best, and in some cases the only, serviceable parts from the two helicopters were selected. Under the supervision of Summers and McAuliffe, a new HRS-1 began to emerge like a phoenix. The reborn chopper’s aircraft history card noted that on November 18, 1951, less than a month after having been stricken from the list, it was reinstated into the inventory of the Navy Bureau of Aeronautics. While most of its parts came from HR-6, the members of HMR-161 couldn’t let the memory of HR-9 pass so easily. So a number 9 was added alongside the 6 on the ventral fin, and the conglomeration became HR-69. The squadron was back up to 13 helicopters.

Whether by choice or due to a lack of parts, HR-69 was equipped with steel skids in place of the castering front wheels and also lacked trim stabilizers on the tail boom (their absence apparently having little or no effect on pitch trim). Like their counterparts in World War II, HMR-161’s mechanics experimented with field modifications to suit their flight crews’ needs and to compensate for a lack of spare parts. HR-69 wasn’t the only HRS-1 in the squad to be equipped with skids, nor was it the only chopper to fly without stabilizers. In time, however, HR-69’s skids gave way to conventional wheels, and stabilizers reappeared on the tail boom.

Replacement aircraft started arriving by March 1952, and later that year the squadron began receiving the new HRS-2. In December 1952, HR-69 participated in its last operation in Korea. Adorned with a painting of Santa Claus on its nose and “Merry Xmas” on the fuselage, it flew in (what else?) Operation Santa Claus, delivering presents to an orphanage and to the 1st Marine Division’s forward echelon.

In February 1953, HR-69—which had by then accumulated nearly 800 hours—returned to the States for an overhaul in San Diego. Months later, gleaming in a new coat of gloss sea-blue paint, it was assigned to the U.S. Navy. Shipped to Naval Air Station Oppama, in Japan, it briefly joined HU-1 in August 1953 before being transferred to HS-2 aboard the escort carrier Sicily. Three months later it rejoined HU-1 at Oppama, staying with the squadron until April 1955, when for the second time it was listed as stricken, this time for good. The helicopter was then transferred via the Military Assistance Program to France, for use in Indochina. In June 1957 it was administratively “returned” (on paper only) to the U.S. government via the U.S. Air Force. Along with five other HRS choppers, it was immediately transferred to the Vietnamese Air Force, which used the type until the mid-1960s.

While the reconstructed chopper’s final disposition is unknown, we know that it played a key role in demonstrating the value of a new concept, vertical envelopment. Had it not been for the innovative spirit of a hearty band of Marines, a helicopter whose story might have ended on an unnamed Korean ridge would surely not have been given a new lease on life.

HMR-161 continued to make headlines as its members refined their vertical envelopment tactics. None of the squadron’s helicopters was ever lost to enemy fire, nor were any known to have been hit. The squadron finally stood down from assignment in Korea on March 12, 1955, having flown more than 30,000 hours and made 32,000 flights. Now designated VMM-161 and flying the V-22 Osprey, the squadron recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.


First-time contributor Craig A. Thorson writes from Fort Worth, Texas. For further reading, he suggests: Cavalry of the Sky, by Lynn Montross; and A History of Marine Medium Squadron 161, by Lt. Col. Gary W. Parker, U.S. Marine Corps.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.

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