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The Korean War – The Helicopter

Historical Perspective / By Mark Albertson: Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of three articles commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Korean War.

On June 25, 1950, the Army began the Korean War with only 56 helicopters.1 Yet Air Force helicopters were among the first to see action. Third Air Rescue Squadron, based in Japan, was sent packing for Korea. The original intent was to pick up downed air crews; but, evacuation of wounded quickly gained priority. By the end of August, Third Air Rescue helicopters had airlifted 83 severely wounded soldiers to field hospitals. And as the war ground on, calls to evacuate wounded grew into a torrent; especially following the Allied landings at Inchon and the subsequent invasion of North Korea.

Enter Army Helicopters

An HRS-2 being readied to haul supplies during OPERATION HAYLIFT, February 1953./ U.S. MARINE CORPS – WIKIPEDIA COMMONS PHOTO

Eighth Army headquarters quickly followed suit. The first Army helicopter unit arrived in Korea on November 22, 1950 – the 2nd Helicopter Detachment, Captain Albert C. Sebourn in command. Sebourn had four H-13s, together with their aviators and mechanics. The 2nd was first assigned to the 47th Light Aviation Maintenance Company, prior to becoming operational, January 1, 1951; whereupon it was attached to the 8055th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) located near Seoul. The 3rd Helicopter Detachment became operational on January 25, 1951, followed by the 4th Helicopter Detachment, March 9, 1951. Including the 2nd Helicopter Detachment, the above units formed the core of the Army’s aeromedical capability for much of the war.2

The first six months of 1951, the detachments, with only 11 helicopters – each of which could airlift no more than two patients at a time while plagued by shortages of fuel and spare parts –airlifted 1,985 wounded. Helicopter evacuations of casualties over the course of the war amounted to more than 21,000.3 It was apparent that the helicopter was proving its mettle in the battle zone. And these helicopter detachments certainly inspired the DUSTOFF squadrons in Vietnam.

Beyond MEDEVAC

The selling point of the helicopter extended beyond medical evacuation, proving effective in overcoming those earthly impediments that hinder ground transportation so as to accentuate the mobility of the foot soldier. And the Marines showed the way.

An Army H-19 in action during the Korean War./ U.S. ARMY – WIKIPEDIA COMMONS PHOTO

Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 with 15 HRS-1s4 arrived in Pusan on September 2, 1951. It was not long before HMR-1615 went into action. In Operation Windmill I, September 13, 1951, HMR-161 airlifted supplies to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines at Hill 673, which was in the area of the notorious “Punchbowl,” on the eastern end of the UN main line of resistance. As ammunition and stores were flown in, dead and wounded were airlifted out in the first mass re-supply effort by helicopter.

First Large Troop-Carrying Combat Mission

On September 21, during OPERATION SUMMIT, HMR-161 airlifted 224 combat marines in relief of Republic of Korea (ROK) troops on Hill 884.

This first large troop-carrying mission in a combat zone by helicopter took 65 flights in four hours to complete, which included 17,772 pounds of stores and equipment.6 On August 19, 1952, OPERATION RIPPLE, HMR-161 conducted a “Hit ‘n Git” shuttle mission of rocket launchers and their crews. Once the rockets had been loosed, the crews and launchers were whisked away before enemy artillery could bracket them.

Marine success with the helicopter prompted Army Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway, commanding general, Far East Command, to suggest in 1951 the creation of four Army transportation helicopter battalions.7 And by early 1953, what had begun with medical evacuation detachments was carried forth with the Army transportation companies.

First Helicopter Cargo Unit in Combat

Bell H-13 equipped with a litter for wounded./U.S. ARMY – WIKIPEDIA COMMONS PHOTO

The 6th Transportation Helicopter Company, with 21 Sikorsky H-19 helicopters, was the Army’s first heliborne cargo unit to be employed in a combat zone. On March 20, 1953, in support of 3rd Infantry Division, the 6th re-supplied units cut off by flood waters, flying in some 34,000 pounds of stores. In May and June, in two operations in support of 25th Infantry Division, the 6th flew in more than 2.5 million pounds of supplies. On May 1, 1953, 13th Transportation Helicopter Company arrived at Inchon. Throughout June and July, the 13th evacuated 1,547 wounded. The 13th eventually joined the 6th Transportation Company to form the 1st Transportation Army Aviation Battalion (Provisional).

Thanks to the Army and Marine Corps, the helicopter showed its promise as a viable tool for war in the forbidding arena of Korea. As a result, the course had been charted towards better aircraft and equipment; new training methods; and, an emerging leadership that would forge this technology for its employment in future conflicts.

Endnotes

  1. 52 were H-13B Sioux acquired in 1948 and 1949 and four were older model YH-13As, the first of which had been acquired in early 1947.
  2. The helicopter detachments went through several re-designations. The First Hel. Det., which arrived in Korea on February 21, 1951, became the 8190th Army Unit on May 14; and then was relegated to non-operational status. Second Hel. Det. became the 8191st Army Unit, May 14, 1951. Then in 1952, it became the 49th Medical Det. Hel. Ambulance. The Third and Fourth Dets. became the 8192nd and 8193rd Army Units respectively, on May 14, 1951. In 1952, they were re-designated the 50th and 52nd Medical Det. Hel. Amb., again respectively. Then on June 1, 1953, all were collected into the 1st Hel. Ambulance Company.
  3. A quick comparison is in order here reflecting the survivability of wounded who arrived in time for medical treatment. In World War II, 4.5 percent of wounded delivered to doctors’ care died. In Korea, the rate was 2.5 percent. Rotary wing evacuation of wounded not only saved lives, it lessened the burden of frontline troops in handling wounded while getting on with the business of combat.
  4. The HRS-1 transport helicopter was the Marine Corps version of the Sikorsky S-55 commercial helicopter; to the Navy and Coast Guard it was the HO4S; and to the Army and Air Force it was the H-19. 
  5. Marine Hel. Trans. Sqdn. 161 was also known as, HMR-161: “H” is for helicopter; “M” identified the squadron as a Marine unit; and “R” for transportation.
  6. By the time of the armistice, Marine helicopters had airlifted more than 60,000 men, 7.5 million pounds of cargo and evacuated some 9,815 wounded.
  7. General Ridgway’s request for these four Army transportation helicopter battalions was a vindication of General William B. Bunker’s 1950 memo to the Chief of Transportation urging the use of the helicopter for Army materials handling. Known as the “Father of the Helicopter,” this ex-cavalryman understood the tactical value of the rotary wing conveyance of men and supplies in modern war.

Mark Albertson is the award-winning Army Aviation Publications Historian and a contributing editor to ARMY AVIATION magazine.