Used essentially as delivery vans in World War II and as medical evacuation vehicles in Korea, helicopters were transformed into hunter-killers in Vietnam, thanks in large part to the efforts of a former infantry officer.
My father, a combat Marine veteran of the Okinawa campaign in World War II, once told me he was evacuated from the island on a helicopter after being wounded on Sugar Loaf Hill. Questioning his story, I said, “Dad, they didn’t start using helicopters until the Korean War.” Somewhat angered by my answer, he pointed his finger at me and said, “I’m tellin’ ya, I was evacuated off that island on a helicopter.” Still skeptical, I did some research, and sure enough, both the Army and Navy experimented with helicopters during World War II. Although helicopters rose to prominence on the battlefield in the Vietnam War, most notably through the exploits of the Bell UH-1 Huey, their military service began two decades earlier with about 130 Sikorsky R-4s in the waning days of World War II. As early as 1944 the Army was using helicopters as resupply aircraft, but choppers quickly demonstrated their usefulness in evacuating injured soldiers from isolated locations. By the Korean War (1950-53), helicopters had expanded their role in medical evacuations (familiar to viewers of the M.A.S.H. television show in the 1970s and ’80s).
By the late 1950s, the military was looking for ways helicopter technology could be further developed for future conflicts and began testing copters armed with machine guns and rockets. One of the leaders in this aviation experiment was Robert M. Shoemaker, who started his career as an infantryman with a regiment stationed in Germany after World War II and rose to the rank of four-star general after commanding a unit of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile) in Vietnam.
Shoemaker, who told his story to the Army’s Oral History Branch in 1987, was born on a small dairy farm near Almont, Michigan, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1946. He served with the 18th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, in occupied Germany in 1946. After several assignments with the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, Shoemaker went to Korea in the latter stages of the war as part of the 23rd Infantry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, and stayed in South Korea until 1954. While attending the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1959, Shoemaker decided to become an Army pilot.
During his time in Korea, as an operational planning and training officer, Shoemaker saw a training exercise for a Sikorsky H-19 unit.
“It was used to airlift a reserve battalion into a blocking position,” he recalled. “I had to go through the planning with the aviation company commander. But I had not by any means said, ‘Gee, I really have to get into that. That’s the way of the future.’ But the more I thought about it the more I thought it really might be an interesting thing. So I applied for flight school and was accepted.”
After completing his pilot training, Shoemaker was placed on the staff of the Army Aviation School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, as chief of the Plans and Programs Division in the Director of Instructions Office.
During the early 1960s, Army aviation, particularly the expanded use of helicopters, became a priority for Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In charge of the experimentation was the Continental Army Command. At the time CONARC was responsible for all units in the continental United States, the mission of today’s Forces Command. It also managed all Army “schoolhouses” and training, handled today by the Training and Doctrine Command.
CONARC had already established an experimental Aerial Combat Reconnaissance (ACR) company in 1957 at the aviation school in Fort Rucker. Because aerial combat’s future in the Army was still uncertain and the ACR’s aviation work was experimental, the unit also had nonaviation elements attached to it, including several companies of the 31st Infantry Regiment at Fort Rucker, an artillery battery and a small engineer component. In one of its early aviation experiments, the ACR attached a variety of weapons systems to helicopters, particularly the Bell H-13 Sioux light helicopter. Many of the weapons systems were fabricated at Fort Rucker.
In January 1962, Shoemaker, who had been selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel but had not officially received the rank, accepted command of the 8305th ACR Company, even though his peers warned that accepting a company-level position at that point in his career would limit his prospects for promotion.
“A lieutenant colonel, a contemporary, who had gone with me from Leavenworth to flight school who was also assigned on the Rucker faculty, told me, ‘This will kill your career’,” Shoemaker recalled. “I was surprised that anyone would bring that up. I thought this would be a great opportunity to return to troop duty, have a lot of fun and learn new things. I didn’t [see] how this could be bad.”
As the aviation experiments continued, the 8305th ACR did further work with the H-13 Sioux and also attempted to mount machine guns and rockets on helicopters such as the Sikorsky H-37 Mojave, the Piasecki H-21 Shawnee and the Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw. It also explored the feasibility of various types of airframes and weapons configurations on gunship helicopters. The researchers concluded, how ever, that none of those airframes would make a truly suitable weapons platform because of power and weight restrictions.
In May 1962, Shoemaker accompanied Fort Rucker’s commander, Brig. Gen. Robert R. Williams, to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to participate in a McNamara initiative to explore expansion of Army aviation.
The Army had put together a group under the direction of XVIII Airborne Corps commander Maj. Gen. Hamilton H. Howze to determine the extent to which air vehicles could be substituted for surface systems. The Army would have to evaluate not only aircraft requirements but also new or revised operational concepts, organizations, personnel needs, facilities and training requirements and cost-effectiveness tests. Shoemaker was only a backbencher for Williams and one of the most junior officers at the Howze Board’s first meeting, but he quickly became a significant contributor to the group’s work.
At that meeting, Brig. Gen. Eward L. Rowny, assistant division commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, asked Shoemaker to stay a day or two at Fort Bragg to work with the staff that he was putting together. Rowny was not an aviator.
“We sat down, and I was the aviation expert,” Shoemaker said, noting wryly that he had been out of aviation school for only a year and commanded an experimental aerial combat reconnaissance troop. He and Rowny brainstormed the rough design and resource requirements for a test program.
Shoemaker initially was told he would command the experimental units but instead was assigned to work with the test developers. “I would run all of the reconnaissance and the shooting tests. I enjoyed working on test development, and within a week I had cranked up the outline of tests.”
Throughout the summer of 1962, Shoemaker designed, prepared and conducted tests on a variety of concepts involving the expanded use of both rotary and fixed-wing airframes, including several major demonstrations for senior joint military leaders and the secretary of defense. “All this time I remained, on paper, the commander of the 8305th ACR,” Shoemaker said, but “I didn’t even know where the company was most of the time. My very competent executive officer ran it. I was totally absorbed in my duty with the Howze Board.”
The final Howze Board report was delivered on Labor Day. Its recommendations included the organization of an air assault division with an accompanying air transport brigade. The air assault division would be a light, quick-response force capable of being deployed anywhere in the world on short notice with minimal use of the wheeled or tracked vehicles found in a traditional Army division.
After taking some leave, Shoemaker returned to Fort Rucker to resume his command of the 8305th ACR, but soon he was told to accompany Rowny to Washington. At the Pentagon, Shoemaker was instructed to acquire a passport and depart for Vietnam on a 90-day temporary-duty assignment that included “perhaps as many as eight officers,” he remembered. The officers were assigned to Army Concept Teams on a mission to see what lessons could be learned from Army aviation’s participation in counterinsurgency operations. At the time, there were five companies of H-21 aircraft in Vietnam supporting the South Vietnamese war effort.
Shoemaker’s assignment was to evaluate testing of a Grumman OV-1 Mohawk, a dual-prop, fixed-wing airplane. The armed Mohawk detachment—six planes with .50-caliber machine gun pods and the ability to fire rockets or drop napalm or bombs—was based at Nha Trang on the coast, in the II Corps area of Vietnam. A newly minted lieutenant colonel, Shoemaker interviewed U.S. advisers at division and corps levels and collected his own observations on what the Mohawk could achieve in both surveillance and firepower. He completed his assessment around May 1963. After making his report on the Mohawk, Shoemaker was assigned to the Pentagon to work on aerial fire support techniques for Lt. Gen. Dwight E. Beach, chief of research and development.
During his assignment in Washington, Shoemaker was contacted by Brig. Gen. John “Jack” Norton, assistant commandant of the Army Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. The fort was organizing several OV-1 Mohawk platoons equipped with surveillance systems to be tested in the “Swift Strike III” exercise from May to August 1963. Because of his experience with Mohawks in Vietnam, Shoemaker was asked by Norton and Maj. Gen. C.W.G. Rich, the commander of Fort Benning, to take charge of Mohawk preparation for the exercise. Afterward, Shoemaker was selected to command the new Mohawk battalion being organized in the Aviation Brigade of the 11th Air Assault Division, which had been activated as a division at Fort Benning on Feb. 1, 1963.
But that assignment was also short-lived. Maj. Gen. Harry Kinnard, commander of the 11th Assault Division, requested that Shoemaker be his division operations officer. That made Shoemaker the center of activity in the new division. His duties included overseeing tests of helicopter tactics, techniques and procedures; ensuring the establishment of standard operating procedures and an occupation specialty structure; and drafting documents outlining the division’s organizational structure and equipment needs.
Meanwhile, the Army, as part of a major shift in emphasis from “support” to “hunt and kill” missions, was incorporating three new helicopters into its inventory. One was the UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the Huey, a troop and cargo carrier (and with modifications, a gunship). The others were the Hughes OH-6 Cayuse scout, nicknamed the “Loach,” and eventually the Bell AH-1 Cobra, an attack aircraft.
The Huey is one of the world’s most recognized helicopters, largely as a result of its service in Vietnam. Its primary missions included troop transport, cargo delivery, medical evacuation, search and rescue, electronic warfare and, later, ground attack. The Army soon realized, however, that unarmed or lightly armed helicopters used to transport “air mobile” troops were vulnerable to groundfire, particularly when the copters came down to drop off their soldiers. The troops frequently were delivered to a landing zone without support from artillery or ground forces.
The best protection for the Hueys and their troops at a landing zone during a battle would be a gunship that escorted the transport helicopters and loitered over the area as the battle progressed. An initial solution was a small number of more heavily armed Hueys—with multiple machine guns and mounted rockets—that would serve as escorts. Within a few years, the Huey gunships were augmented and eventually replaced by the first dedicated helicopter gunship, the AH-1 Cobra.
In December 1964, Vietnam was not yet a high priority for the Army, but when Chief of Staff General Harold K. Johnson made a Christmas visit to Fort Benning, he asked Shoemaker to determine how long it would take the 11th Air Assault Division to deploy to Vietnam. Johnson also told Shoemaker to restrict knowledge of the mission to the minimum number of people needed to plan it.
By the spring of 1965, the war had heated up, and the 173rd Airborne Brigade was sent from Okinawa to Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. Kinnard, the 11th Air Assault Division’s commander, ordered several officers, including Shoemaker and the division’s logistics officer, to travel to Vietnam on a secret mission. They were to scout out possible locations for the division in case it was deployed. Working closely with the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, especially Maj. Gen. William DePuy, the command’s operations officer, they selected a potential area of operations for the division in the Central Highlands. Shoemaker, analyzing the terrain and using his past experience in Vietnam, recommended placing the division headquarters and one brigade at An Khe, another brigade at Pleiku and a third brigade at Kontum.
After his return from Vietnam, Shoemaker was told he would command a battalion once his division deployed. In a speech on July 18, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson said he was sending the Army’s airmobile division (the 11th Air Assault Division reflagged as the 1st Cavalry Division) to Vietnam. On the day the division was reflagged, Shoemaker was given command of an airborne infantry battalion, the 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division (Airmobile). By Sept. 11, 1965, the “1st Cav” was operating in its assigned area at An Khe, Pleiku and Kontum.
Throughout its first year in the war, the 1st Cavalry Division had a two-pronged mission: prevent the buildup of North Vietnamese forces in the Central Highlands and give the South Vietnamese Army time to regroup because its forces were being depleted at an alarming rate. In its first large-scale operation, the 1st Cavalry Division assisted in the relief of a Special Forces camp, Plei Me, in October 1965, a precursor to the larger actions in the Ia Drang Valley, as famously depicted in the Mel Gibson movie We Were Soldiers. Plei Me was about 40 kilometers south of Pleiku, a city in the Central Highlands, and 30 kilometers from the Cambodian border. Ostensibly, the North Vietnamese attacked the Special Forces camp to draw the 1st Cavalry Division into the fight and learn about its capabilities and tactics. During the October 19-25 battle, Shoemaker’s battalion, along with other units of the division, immediately proved the validity of the aviation concepts, tactics and systems that the experimental units had developed.
After leading the 12th Cavalry Regiment’s 1st Battalion for five or six months, in December 1965 Shoemaker was given command of a second battalion-size group, the 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment. The squadron, acting as the eyes and ears of the 1st Cav, hunted for the enemy. Its units included a headquarters troop, three air cavalry troops and a ground troop. Two more air cavalry troops were added later. Each air cavalry troop had 27 aircraft: 11 gunships, six troop/cargo carriers and 10 scouts.
In less than five years—after a series of experiments with airframes, weapons systems, tactics, techniques and procedures—the airmobile operation became an integral part of the Army’s structure. The 1st Cavalry Division showed the value of an airmobile division in countless battles throughout Southeast Asia during a time when something other than a traditional armored or infantry division was needed. The heliborne soldier became the modern-day version of the old horse cavalryman—rapidly and flexibly putting decisive firepower where needed and saving American lives in remote and austere environments. Often flying day in and day out, in good weather and bad, the 1st Squadron participated in 13 campaigns and has been credited with more than 50 percent of the enemy killed by the 1st Cavalry
The “quick strike” airmobile force in Vietnam was the forerunner of today’s even more powerful 101st Air Assault Division. The airmobile concept, which continues to be refined, has been successful both in conventional conflicts, such as the Gulf War of 1990-91, and in unconventional fights in places such as Afghanistan.
The initiative, vision and leadership of Shoemaker at every rank from captain to general (a rank obtained with a promotion to brigadier general on Oct. 1, 1969), combined with the work of many contemporaries, was essential to the evolution of the helicopter from a glorified “mule” to a devastating “hunter and killer” on the battlefield.
Brent C. Bankus, a retired lieutenant colonel, is chief of the Oral History Branch in the Army Heritage and Education Center’s Military History Institute. James O. Kievit, a retired lieutenant colonel and a professor at the Center for Strategic Leadership and Development, contributed to this article.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.