A Marine Pilot in Vietnam

Spencer “Spence” Davies has the distinction of serving in four different branches of the United States Armed Forces. He retired after thousands of flight hours under his belt, including a successful career in commercial airliners and corporate jets. But before all those great experiences, he was a Marine.

Spence joined the US Marine Corps in 1964. Just 15 years earlier, the Corps might have felt like an endangered species. Some in the higher echelons of command believed that the days of the great amphibious assault were over. This changed with the Korean War in 1950, when the Marines got back into action. As in the Second World War, air support was an organic part of Corps operations. As a young Marine, Spence Davies had selected aviation for his discipline.

He was on the West Coast for flight training when his intended unit, Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 (HMH-463), deployed to Vietnam. HMH-463 operated the CH-53 Sea Stallion, one of the most valuable helicopters in the war. Built by Sikorsky, it was a big heavy-lift aircraft with twin General Electric turboshaft engines and made to push the limits. The CH-53 could carry around 40 troops or thousands of tons of cargo. Without the Sea Stallion, troops would have a tougher time with resupply, troop transport, and medical evacuation. The YCH-53A prototype first flew the year Spence joined the Corps, and in 1966, the first five Sea Stallions went to HMH-463. An Air Force search-and-rescue version, the HH-53B, was delivered a year later.

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A CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter rests on a recently installed landing mat at a mountain-top fire support base. The base is under construction by members of the 3rd Marine Division. (Photo courtesy US government/Wikimedia Commons)

When Second Lieutenant Davies arrived in Vietnam in 1968, the North Vietnamese had upped the ante with heavy attacks on Marine positions. The Sea Stallions were busy resupplying outposts in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) with pallets, water, ammunition, jeeps, and anything else they could carry. The Marines would meet the CH-53s from some barren hilltop, and Spence recalled how his “rotor wash looked like a dirt storm” on the ground. But the enemy would also greet his aircraft with mortar attacks. Flying into the besieged base at Khe Sanh, Spence’s crew would push supplies out their loading ramp and fly off before they were destroyed—any fixed-wing or rotary-wing birds blown up by the North Vietnamese were bulldozed off the landing strip to a kind of aircraft graveyard. Even air crews had to take their chances. The cockpit seats on the Sea Stallion were partly armored. The crew had flak vests but usually sat on them “so we didn’t get our balls shot off.” It wasn’t uncommon to come back to base with bullet holes in the fuselage. On one mission, the rotor system on Spence’s CH-53 was hit by .50 machine-gun fire and some blades had to be replaced.

American forces also brought incredible firepower on enemy positions. At one point, Spence was told to physically fly around the battleship New Jersey to avoid its tremendous naval rifles as they hurled big projectiles into NVA territory. When he flew out to a distant landing zone, Spence and his crew had to keep to a specific track, or air corridor, to avoid friendly air strikes. A Navy F-4 Phantom could be dropping napalm on his left. An Air Force B-52 could be pulverizing the terrain on his right. With the latter bomber, he observed, “It was astounding to watch the destruction those guys put on the ground.” And with defoliants and napalm, what was once lush jungle was now transformed to “the landscape of the moon.”

In 1968, the NVA and Viet Cong aimed to crash through the DMZ and hit American positions, thinning out the latter’s resources and enabling an invasion of South Vietnam. Spence recalled how “After the Tet Offensive, all hell broke loose.” Rockets and mortars came down every night. He spent a lot of time in bunkers. One terrified Marine in a bunker started whistling because he didn’t know what else to do. When things got too hot at their base, the squadron flew out to an amphibious ship to wait out the attack. It was an unusual change of scenery, as their combat helicopters were folded up and tucked into some hangar while the crew enjoyed a meal belowdecks. “It was really a big hassle,” said Spence of the relocation. “It had to be a really bad.” HMH-463, he remembered, was pushed off their base at least three times.

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A CH-53 brings a bulldozer to a hilltop base under construction. (Photo courtesy US government/Wikimedia Commons)

Most of the officers in HMH-463 were captains in their late twenties or early thirties. “It was a really experienced squadron,” Spence remarked. The guys were in a close-knit group with good camaraderie. The non-commissioned personnel were career Marines and “the backbone of the squadron.” As part of their tour of duty, the men could take up to three one-week leaves, or “R&R” for rest and recreation. That kind of badly needed recuperation could take them almost anywhere, like Australia, New Zealand, or Malaysia. Spence had the chance to visit Hong Kong. The heavy rains in the Philippines, he noted, were “like having a fire hose hit you on the head. I’ve never seen that much rain and that much volume.”

In his hotel room in some distant, picturesque country, the awful sounds of the war were gone. As Spence further explained,

It’s constant noise. You can hear guns going off. There are lots of B-52 strikes. They were constantly bombing somewhere fairly close to you and you could feel the ground shake. The most terrifying noise you could hear was a rocket attack. They made a noise that would chill you. I actually had one go right over my head and hit the hangar.

That particular rocket attack killed a couple of crew on the base. There was carnage on the ground. Spence had “never experienced terror like that. You get so scared that you get this white stuff in your mouth, and they call it cottonmouth.”

Despite all he had seen and done in Vietnam, Spence maintains what many veterans have long affirmed: “I am not a hero. All I wanted to do was get the hell out of there.” He left the Marines in 1972. He was living in Denver at the time, then moved to Alaska and joined the National Guard with an inter-service transfer. Then he moved to San Diego and used another inter-service transfer to join the Navy as a pilot with HC-9, a search and rescue squadron. Then he moved to Boise and took up a job flying for Horizon Airlines. While he was in Idaho, an Air National Guard buddy asked him to join the Air Force, and he became a maintenance officer with an F-4 squadron. This was where he finished his last five years in the military before retirement.

“You can’t rest on your laurels,” he exclaimed, “but it was pretty wild doing all four services.” Spence Davies got to play with Sea Stallions, Hueys, Sea Kings, T-58 Trojans, and a lot of other amazing aircraft, but the camaraderie was the best part. Spence lives today in East Boise, Idaho.

Additional Sources

S-65/H-53A/D Sea Stallion/ H-53E Super Stallion”. Igor Sikorsky Historical Archives. https://www.sikorskyarchives.com/S-65H-53D%20SEA%20STALLION.php

“Lineage of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463”. HMH-463 Association. http://www.hmh-463-vietnam.com/index.shtml

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