​As If Nothing Happened At All

While serving with HMM-165 at Ky Ha in 1967, our alert aircraft had a call one night to pick up some wounded Marines. With a load of both walking wounded and stretcher cases, the CH-46 approached the USS Repose, located not far off shore.

As the aircraft descended there was a power failure and the '46 settled onto the water near the Repose. The CH-46 has a water capability, but that night the seas were running heavy and the helicopter tipped over and sank. Some of the wounded didn't have a chance. The gunner was Sgt. Stan Corefield. We had been sergeants together at Quantico. Stan couldn't swim at all, and with the weight of the flak jacket he also was gone.

The plane's pilots were wearing the very heavy "bullet bouncer" over their chest. As one of them (Capt. John Tatum) described later, when the '46 went under it began to roll while sinking. In the darkness he somehow got into its passenger compartment (now filled with water) but became "lost" because he couldn't find the door. He held his breath while struggling in the rolling darkness, trying to find an opening. It wasn't the door, but he did find an exit, and struggled out into the blackness.

Capt. Tatum didn't know which way was up. As he described later, while struggling in darkness he finally thought, "To hell with it." Because he couldn't hold his breath any longer, he'd decided to give up. But at that very moment he reached the ocean's surface, and found a whaleboat close by that had been launched from the Repose.

He still doesn't know how he got through that small opening in the sinking chopper's passenger compartment, or how he was able to reach the surface with a heavy bullet-bouncer on his chest. Some were saved, both pilots and the crew chief, and a few of the wounded. But it was a tragic loss of life.

The next morning I went out with the search aircraft as it flew a grid pattern to look for bodies. The surface of the South China Sea was almost smooth, and it sparkled in the tropic sun. There wasn't a bit of debris, or any human remains. It appeared serene, as if nothing had happened at all.

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The author: Thomas Mix joined the Marine Corps in Sept. 1952 as a 16 year old. Served mostly with Marine Aviation. Vietnam in 1965 with H&MS-16, again in 1966-67 with HMM-165. Marine Security Guard with the American Embassy, Copenhagen, 1954-55. Married a wonderful Danish girl then; still happily married. Commissioned as a Warrant Officer 1962, retired with the rank of Captain, October 1972.

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Marine grunts, under fire, beat feet into one of three awaiting HMM-165 helicopters. At the rear of the CH-46 stands a squad leader ensuring that his people get safely aboard, while other assigned Marines (one with his foot on a rice paddy dike) protect the rear.
A flight of two HMM-165 sections (a total of four aircraft) flying in an echelon formation, return home to their base at Ky Ha (below), after completing a "Grunt" insertion. Note that all the bird's porthole windows have been removed— so Grunts could combine their fire-power with 2 aerial .50-caliber machine guns.

Photo by Tom Mix