MCAS Miramar, Calif. --
Jim Lowery’s life in Marine Corps aviation started almost 45 years ago. He helped build an organization, rode machines into battle during one of America’s most turbulent wars, and revisited this family on Nov. 18.
His story started with a trip to the principal’s office.
“I had my choices; I could be kicked out of school or go in the Marines,” said Lowery. “They straightened me out in about a week.”
Lowery attended recruit training at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego in 1964, went to “A” school to train as a metal smith, and almost a year later began his journey with the squadron.
In July 1965, the Marine Corps transitioned from the UH-34D “Sikorsky” helicopter to the CH-46A “Sea Knight,” and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165 was born. More than a year later, in October 1966, the “White Knights” headed to Ky Ha in the Republic of Vietnam, one of four Sea Knight squadrons in the country by the year’s end.
Lowery’s early “frog” experiences were testing, as the brand-new helicopter had an inevitable breaking-in period. According to Lowery, the early helicopters had no armor, and early placement of the transmission caused some of the helicopters to “snap in half.”
Despite facing challenges with the early model Sea Knights, the helicopters proved themselves to be powerful, well-equipped machines during the war. The squadron’s main missions were troop transports, re-supplies, medevacs and cargo transports in support of ground forces. The missions were dangerous, explained Lowery, but “there were a lot of guys out there depending on you for ammo and supplies.”
On one of the more perilous flights, Lowery found himself getting in and out of Khe Sanh, which was the site of one of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam War. In addition to heated flights in some of Vietnam’s danger zones, Lowery found himself in helicopters hovering and resting their ramps on the side of mountains, shooting his .50-caliber machine gun at nearby enemy forces and participating in dangerous take-offs and lifts in the thick jungles.
“Pilots back then were fearless,” said Lowery.
Although Lowery’s tour ended in 1968, the squadron stayed in the country until August 1969, when it was reassigned to Marine Aircraft Group 15 in Futenma, Okinawa.
After Vietnam, Lowery spent four more years in the Marine Corps and got out as a sergeant in 1972.
Fast forward 37 years, and Lowery is retired, at home in Oregon browsing the Internet. He discovered an HMM-165 veteran Web site, and found himself planning a trip to Clifton Park, NY, for a reunion in August.
Roughly one thousand miles down the California coastline, at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, another decorated veteran is planning the same trip. This leatherneck happens to be the commanding officer of HMM-165, Lt. Col. Todd J. Oneto.
At the reunion, Oneto met with the veterans to describe the squadron’s current operations and offer support and camaraderie. This encounter led to an invitation for the men to visit the squadron, and meet the CH-46 helicopters of today.
Lowery arrived in San Diego on a typical day; sunny, cool and clear. Perfect flying weather. His simulated Sea Knight was piloted by the commanding officer himself, and they flew out of Miramar and around the area, offering Lowery a birds-eye view of the air station and the city in the simulator.
After the flight, the group went to lunch at the most appropriate establishment on the air station – the chow hall. Lowery commented that the chow hall food of today is much different than from his era, where the only choices were “brown or green stuff.”
One of the day’s highlights for Lowery was meeting with the Marines at the squadron. His encounter in the metal shop was filled with stories and memories that left many of the Marines with wide eyes and mouths hung open in shock. Maintenance today is much different from the early days of repair in the 1960’s.
“Like any product, there’s always the evolution of making it better,” said Lowery. “The opportunity to see what it has evolved to is outstanding.”
Like most products though, evolution can only keep it on top for so long before another product hits the market to supersede it.
“It has evolved to the point of being replaced,” said Lowery, in reference to the Marine Corps’ transition from the Sea Knight to the MV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft.
Although the squadron faces many changes in the near future, including an upcoming deployment, change of command, and reassignment to a MV-22 Osprey squadron in early 2011, Oneto says the love and respect the early members show for each other is a trend he hopes will continue for all generations of the squadron, no matter what aircraft is flying at the time.
“It’s a family here, the camaraderie is unlike any other unit,” said Oneto. “My hope and prayer is that this will be us 40 years down the road.”
Although his own 40-year journey has led him on a path from recruit training to Vietnam., and eventually to the reunion and the air station to revisit the squadron, it’s not the end just yet. The next meeting place for Lowery, and the rest of the White Knights, past and present, is going to be held on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar during the change of command ceremony for Oneto and the changeover from the Sea Knight to the Osprey in early 2011.