The year of 1966 saw the 54th Aviation Company settle down to providing “Otter Air Service” to its customers in a routine, yet highly efficient manner. The year opened with the company under the command of Major Edison V. Hoey, who had brought the company over to Vietnam the previous August on the MSTS General Alexander M. Patch. Throughout the year records for troop movement, hours flown, aircraft availability, and cargo transported were set and improved upon as the months passed. During the year the company flew 22,057 sorties, logged 15,105 hours, hauling 66,066 passengers and 2,321 tons of cargo. Yet with such an impressive record of service, the company’s accident rate was well below the average in USARV.
During February and March the Second Platoon, which was commanded by Captain Erwin A. Schmidt until 3 April, attained its highlight of the year. This outstanding effort, in support of IV Corps was the resupply by air of the Viet Cong blockaded town of Kien Long, in Choung Thien Province. In a letter of appreciation to Captain Schmidt and the Second Platoon, dated 25 April 1966, Lt. Col. John V. Swago, G-5 Advisor to IV Corps, described this accomplishment as a “Little Berlin Airlift” which brought new hope to the people of Kien Long and played a large part in the breaking of the VC stranglehold on that area.
First Battle Casualties
On 12 March 1966, the company received its first battle casualties as a result of a mortar attack on the Vung Tau Airfield. They were SSG Gus H. Edwards and SP5 Robert D. Callahan. The mortar attack rained 80 rounds on the airfield, of which 21 hit the company area. One round was a direct hit on the tent which was occupied by Specialist Callahan. Specialist Callahan may very well hold the record for the shortest tour ever in Vietnam. With only 4 hours in-country at the time of the attack, Specialist Callahan was seriously wounded in the chest and evacuated back to the United States. SP5 James D. Webber organized the men and provided for the defense of the company sector of the perimeter. For his presence of mind, good judgment, and sound leadership Specialist Webber was later awarded the Army Commendation Medal with “V” device for heroism under hostile fire.
On 15 March the First Platoon, commanded by Captain John Malpass, Jr., moved all but two aircraft from Saigon to Vung Tau. After completion of the move, Captain Benjamin I. Kahalekulu took command of the platoon. The two aircraft, which remained in Saigon, became a section of the Second Platoon and was commanded by Captain Harold L. Smith. During the months of April, May and June, in support of the Joint United States Public Affairs Office (JUSPAO), the section in Saigon moved an amazing 1251 passengers and 159 tons of cargo. After its move from Saigon’s Tan Son Nhut Air Base to Vung Tau, the First Platoon continued to provide the bulk of the support required of the company.
With the advent of Operation BIRMINGHAM in April and May, the 54th Aviation Company began supporting the 1st Infantry Division with CONTINUOUS Radio Relay.
Flying from the airstrips at Tay Ninh and Dau Tieng, the First Platoon provided reliable airborne communications between infantry units in the field and their base camps.
On the day succeeding Operation BIRMINGHAM, the Maintenance Platoon and the 255th Transportation Detachment were called upon to return to Tay Ninh Airfield to replace an engine cylinder in an aircraft which had made a forced landing the previous day. This airfield had been abandoned the night before by the 1st Division at the conclusion of the operation. In spite of the fact that there were no facilities at Tay Ninh, and that the field was insecure, the maintenance team repaired the aircraft in only 5 hours.
Change of Command
On 8 June 1966 Major Stephen Farish, who had been the Executive Officer of the company since October 1965, assumed command of the 54th. Major Edison Hoey moved to the staff of the 222nd Aviation Battalion where he remained until his departure in July.
Change of Command
On 18 July 1966 Major Farish departed the company and Vietnam for an assignment in Europe and Major Leon O. Tieman assumed command.
July and August saw a 75% turnover of personnel in the 54th Aviation Company and the 255th Transportation Detachment. Although this changeover placed the additional burden of orientating new personnel to Vietnam, the company continued to perform its mission in an outstanding manner. In mid-July and August, the company was again called upon to support the 1st Infantry Division, this time in Operation EL PASO II. The OTTERS of the 54th provided the same reliable service that they had given during Operation BIRMINGHAM. During Operation EL PASO II the 54th Aviation Company flew over 400 hours in support of the “Big Red One”. Captain Allan Simpson lead all company aviators during the month of August with 168 hours, a record which will undoubtedly stand for a long time for OTTER pilots in Vietnam.
Change of Command 255th
On 6 August Major James Knight, who had commanded the 255th Transportation Detachment since the early part of the year, departed for the United States and Major Elgin R. March, Jr. assumed command. On 18 August Major Leon O. Tieman was promoted to the grade of Lieutenant Colonel. Mid-August saw the company experience its first accident of the year. Up until this time the company had accumulated over 11,500 hours of accident free flying. This total was only 500 hours short of the company’s desired goal of 12,000 accident free flying hours. This fete can be attributed to excellent scheduling and flight standardization policies implemented during that period by the Operations Officer, Major (then Captain) Frank B. Winn. In the month of August, which was during the height of the monsoon season, the company flew an incredible total of 1,643 hours.
September found the OTTERS of the 54th Aviation Company being employed in a new and different type mission. Fully realizing that high flying, supersonic aircraft are not always the best suited type aircraft for all missions, the 246th Psychological Warfare Company called upon “Otter Air Service” for support. Loading the aircraft with upwards to 1500 pounds of leaflets, the pilots of the OTTERS dropped their cargo over numerous small villages and thousands of acres of jungle, controlled by the Viet Cong. Pinpoint accuracy and through saturation provided by the OTTER, was given much credit for the success of the “Chieu Hoi” or “Open Arms” program of the South Vietnamese Government.
HISTORY OF THE 54TH AVIATION COMPANY (AIR MBL FW)
1 JANUARY 1966 TO 31 DECEMBER 1966
Captain Philip B. Szymanowicz, Unit Historian
SP5 Robert E. Clifford, Clerk Typist
George W. Shalicross, Major, Armor, Commanding
18th 54th 18th CAC Aviation Association
Change of Command
On 31 October LTC Tieman departed the unit for his new assignment as Executive Officer of the 222nd Aviation Battalion and the present commander, Major George W. Shallcross took over the reins of the 54th. Under the watchful eyes of Major Shallcross, the 54th Aviation Company continued to set the pace for OTTER companies in the Republic of Vietnam.
In late October, after weeks of deep concentration and thrashing about, the 54th Aviation Company came up with a new call sign which would identify the company in the role it plays in the Republic of Vietnam and in Army Aviation. With the transfer of the CV-2 CARIBOU to the Air Force, the “Big Daddy” OTTERS of the 54th became the largest fixed wing aircraft in the Army’s inventory. “Big Daddy” aircraft have been heard throughout the country successfully completing their missions under all types of adverse conditions.
November was marked by the movement of the company to a new location on the Vung Tau Airfield. Company headquarters was moved into a new semi-permanent building and the NCO’s and enlisted men moved out of “tent city” into hutments which were constructed by troop labor under a “self help” program. The maintenance facilities were later moved to a location in close proximity to the company headquarters.
During the latter part of November and early December the company was called upon to support the 196th Light Infantry Brigade in Operation ATTLEBORO. A crew and aircraft were dispatched to Tay Ninh, where they were available on a 15 minute standby throughout the operation. On 28 November a maintenance team was again called upon to perform maintenance on a downed aircraft. This time the crew left for Ban Me Thout, where they changed an entire engine. Again hindered by the lack of facilities, the men of the 255th and the Maintenance Platoon nevertheless completed their mission in a minimum amount of time and the aircraft was flown back to Vung Tau. This engine change was only one of twenty-seven engine changes made during the year.
The Maintenance Platoon, commanded by Major James M. Nazarenus, with assistance from the 255th Transportation Detachment, achieved what every other aviation unit in Vietnam had strived for – 100% mission ready aircraft – on several days throughout the year. The yearly average of 87% availability was climaxed by an unbelievable 92% during the month of December. During the year all of the unit’s aircraft were cycled through the IROAN program at Corpus Christi, Texas, rejuvenating the tired old OTTERS for continuous Vietnam service. During the course of the year the Maintenance Platoon and the 255th Transportation Detachment performed 155 Periodic Inspections. A record 90 day period without an EDP was achieved the last three months of the year due to an outstanding Tech Supply operation.
Numerous awards were presented to members of the 54th Aviation Company during 1966. To date, personnel of the unit have amassed two Distinguished Flying Crosses, four Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, forty Army Commendation Medals, one Navy Commendation Medal, and over 700 Air Medals. In addition the unit has been recommended for Meritorious Unit Commendation. CW2 Jacob D. Staples, Jr., leads all company aviators having been awarded the Basic Air Medal and 21 Oak Leaf Clusters, a fete unsurpassed by any other OTTER pilot in the theater.
With eyes to the future, the 54th Aviation Company will continue to maintain and strive to better the performance records set by those officers and men who made up the “Big Daddy” OTTER company in 1966.
HIGHLIGHTS OF 1966
Feb – Mar - 2nd Platoon aids the blockaded village of Kein Long in “Little Berlin Airlift”
12 Mar - Mortar attack on Vung Tau Army Airfield [SSG Gus H. Edwards and] Specialist Robert Callahan evacuated after 4 hours in-country.
SP5 James Webber awarded Army Commendation Medal for heroism
16 Mar - 1st Platoon moves from Saigon to Vung Tau
April – May - 54th Aviation Company supports 1st Infantry Division in Operation BIRMINGHAM
8 June - Major Edison Hoey departs and Major Stephen Farish assumes command of the company
18 July - Major Leon Tieman assumes command of the 54th
6 August - Major Eglin Marsh assumes command of the 255th
August - 75% turnover of personnel.
Unit flies 1,643 hours, 400 in support of the 1st Infantry Division in Operation EL PASO II
September - 54th Aviation begins Psychological Warfare mission
31 October - Major George W. Shallcross assumes command of the 54th Aviation Company
November - 54th and 255th move to new quarters
December - 54th supports 1st Infantry Division during Operation ATTLEBORO.
Aircraft availability reaches an all time high of 92%