MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. --
A CH-46E “Sea Knight” helicopter sits in a lot among many other historical aircraft; reserve squadron markings tell of its last home, but no physical markings represent its true history. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 165 changed that.
The Sea Knight, currently housed at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum, is “Lady Ace 09,” a Vietnam-era chopper that has a history as rich as the squadron itself.
In July 1965, the squadron formed when the Marine Corps transitioned from the UH-34D helicopter, made by Sikorsky, to the CH-46A “Sea Knight,” made by Boeing. In October 1966, the “White Knights” headed to the Republic of Vietnam.
Lady Ace 09 came off of the production line in 1968 and was assigned with three different squadrons before joining HMM-165 in Vietnam in July 1973.
During the final days of the Vietnam War, as the North Vietnamese Army advanced on Saigon, the Ford administration began planning an evacuation of all American personnel and as many south Vietnamese refugees as they could. The evacuation would become “Operation Frequent Wind.”
On April 29, 1975, an American radio station began plaing Irving Berlin's "White Christmas;" which was the signal for American personnel to move to evacuation points in the city.
Throughout the day and into the night, 80 circulating helicopters evacuated more than 978 Americans and 1100 Vietnamese refugees from the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. In the early hours of April 30, Lady Ace 09, piloted by HMM-165 Marine Col. Gerry Berry, descended onto the landing pad of the embassy to extract one of the last remaining evacuees. At 4:58 a.m., the U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham A. Martin boarded the helicopter with a U.S. flag. Less than eight hours later, the NVA raised the National Liberation Front for South Vietnam flag over the Presidential Palace, signifying the end of the Vietnam War.
After the war, Lady Ace 09 continued serving with the White Knights until the helicopter was transferred to HMM-774, Marine Aircraft Group 49, 4th Marine Air Wing. In 2004, Lady Ace 09 came to her final home, the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum.
Now, 35 years after the evacuation and six years since her San Diego arrival, four non commissioned officers took the responsibility of giving the helicopter her “true colors.”
Sergeants Joseph Dickens III, Andrew Kelly, Justin Boone and Jason Penrod spent more than a week and a half painting and remarking the helicopter, based off of a photograph taken during the evacuation.
“That was its moment in history,” said George Welsh, archivist at the Flying Leatherneck Aviation Museum. “We want to bring it back to that moment, no matter what it looked like.”
According to Welsh, staying true to the original look of the helicopter was one of the most important considerations when restoring the aircraft.
“You have to be historically accurate or the next generation will get the wrong message,” said Welsh. “It’s very important to maintain examples for that younger generation.”
Even though the museum restores historical aircraft all the time, Welsh said it was a good thing that the squadron took control of the job.
“They are more familiar with the airframe,” said Welsh. “They’re experts … This is their history, this is your history as a Marine.”
Although the Marines spent many hours restoring the helicopter back to its appearance on that historic day in Vietnam, the true achievement is what they provided to future generations, not the paint.
“This aircraft was used in a particularly significant moment in our nation’s history,” said Welsh. “You have to be historically accurate or the next generation will get the wrong message.”
The final look of the aircraft was unveiled at a dedication ceremony at the museum here, April 30, where Marines dressed in Vietnam-era uniforms re-enacted the legendary moment for crowds of Marines and veterans.