VMM-163 Unit History
HMR(L)-163, the predecessor to HMM-163, activated in December of 1951. Since that time, its Marines, Sailors and aircraft have flown in continuous support of the United States and Allied operations throughout the Pacific (PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM) theaters. The squadron earned its nickname, "Ridge Runners," for its role during typhoon rescue and relief operations in the mountainous terrain surrounding Hagman, Japan.
From February to October 1965, the HMM-163 "Ridge Runners" helicopter squadron became famous for its operations in Vietnam via a LIFE magazine story that appeared in the 16 April 1965 issue. The story documented the combat death of a Marine H-34 pilot, 1stLt James E. Magel, and the rescue of wounded and paralyzed 1stLt Dale Eddy during a 31 March 1965 strike mission transporting South Vietnamese troops. Prior to this, most U.S. citizens had lacked awareness of the extent of America's involvement in Vietnam.
In December 1965, LtCol Charles A. House took command of the squadron, which had newly relocated to MCAS Futenma, Okinawa. With only one month separating HMM-163 from its return deployment to Vietnam, LtCol House and his veteran pilots determined that the unit needed a symbol to build morale and esprit de corps, especially for the newly assigned replacement personnel.
Capt Al Barbe, the Squadron Intelligence Officer and husband to a Thai bride, offered a suggestion. Because of Asian culture and beliefs, Capt Barbe proposed that eyes painted on the unit aircraft might produce an unsettling effect for the enemy, thus the concept of "The Eyes" on the front of HMM-163 aircraft was born.
On 1 January 1966, HMM-163 flew via C-130 to Phu Bai, Vietnam, relieved HMM-161, and took charge of their H-34 helicopters. HMM-163 maintainers began painting what were then called "Genie Eyes" (after the "I Dream of Jeannie" Television show) on all aircraft.
By March 1966, the ground units supported by HMM-163 were calling the "Genie Eyes" "Evil Eyes.” The squadron flew over 2,000 flight hours in ten days in support of the overrun Ashau Valley Special Forces Camp, in which Evil Eyes aircrew rescued 190 U.S. Army survivors from enemy capture. In August and September 1966, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW) issued orders to eliminate white paint on Marine helicopters; all white markings and lettering were to be either stricken or painted over in black. HMM-163 operated from a carrier off the coast of Vietnam and used the excuse that they were not directly under Wing command at that time. The "Evil Eyes," therefore, remained black and white.
In October 1966, the squadron, still with black and white "Evil Eyes," returned to Phu Bai, Vietnam under the command of LtCol Rocco Bianchi. LtCol Bianchi was a good friend of the Wing Commander, but that did not keep Major General Louis B. Robertshaw, 1st MAW Commanding General, from reading LtCol Bianchi the riot act concerning the unauthorized paint scheme. Also in the room at the time of this conversation was the Commanding General of the Marine ground forces in the area who politely interrupted with, "It sure is great to have the 'Evil Eyes' back here at Phu Bai!" The 1st MAW Commanding General relented and the "Evil Eyes" have remained to this day.
From 1964 to 1968, the squadron served with distinction in combat earning a Presidential Unit Citation, the Navy Unit Commendation, and numerous personal awards. Since returning to the United States, the Evil Eyes pursued a vigorous training program designed to produce combat ready CH-46 aircrews via thousands of training flight hours. HMM-163 received the Chief of Naval Operations Aviation Safety Award in 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1989, and 1996. Five Meritorious Unit Commendations (MUC) for the periods of 1 July 1978 through 31 December 1980, 1 January 1982 through 31 December 1983, 30 September 1983 through 30 September 1985, 22-28 January 1987, and 1 January 1986 through 31 July 1987 acknowledge the squadron's hallmark of superior performance. The squadron earned the MCAA Helicopter Squadron of the Year Award in 1979, 1981, 1985, 1990, and 2002.
Throughout the 1990s, HMM-163 continued to excel while serving as the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) for five Special Operations Capable Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU (SOC)) on deployments to the Pacific and Central Command theaters. During this time, the squadron participated in operations in the Pacific, the Horn of Africa, and the Persian Gulf, including Operation FIERY VIGIL in 1991, Operations CONTINUE HOPE, DISTANT RUNNER, and QUICK DRAW in 1994, Operation DESERT STRIKE in 1996, and Operation RESOLUTE RESPONSE in 1998.
In 2001, while deployed with the 15th MEU (SOC) to the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility (AOR), HMM-163 served with distinction during combat operations in support of Operation SWIFT FREEDOM and Operation ENDURING FREEDOM. The Evil Eyes planned and executed the longest amphibious assault in American military history, culminating in the seizure of a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in southern Afghanistan where the squadron remained forward deployed for seven weeks.
In 2003 and 2004, the Evil Eyes deployed with the 13th MEU (SOC), and again made history by serving as part of the first ever Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). The ESG concept combined surface action groups and submarines with traditional Amphibious Ready Groups (ARGs) and MEUs to offer theater combatant commanders greater flexibility and expanded capabilities. The squadron proved its worth in the CENTCOM AOR supporting multiple operations and exercises, to include Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, Operation SWEENEY, Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, Exercise IRON MAGIC, and Exercise EDGED MALLET.
During the 13th MEU deployment of 2005, the Evil Eyes supported combat operations in Iraq. The squadron’s H-1s and AV-8s provided Convoy Escort, Close Air Support (CAS), and Aerial Reconnaissance, while the CH-46s and CH-53s conducted Assault Support and resupply. The Evil Eyes also participated in numerous missions to include Operations TRIFECTA, STEEL CURTAIN, IRON HAMMER, LIBERTY EXPRESS, and RIVERGATE in Iraq, flying 2,700 combat flight hours in a 65-day period.
The Evil Eyes deployed with the 13th MEU (SOC) in 2007 in support of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM 06-08.1. The final at-sea period, Joint Task Force Exercise (JTFEX), was conducted from 14 March to 24 March. During this work up, the Air Combat Element was integral in 13th MEU gaining its’ Special Operations Capable (SOC) rating. The squadron’s main body and detachments flew general support missions, CAS, and escort missions throughout Al Asad, Al Qaim, and Al Taqaddum.
In 2008, the Evil Eyes focused on maintaining proficiency after coming back from their deployment. During the second half of 2008, the squadron was focused on conducting pre-deployment exercises to prepare for their next iteration of deploying on the 13th MEU. In the beginning of 2009, the Evil Eyes left San Diego and set sail as the Aviation Combat Element aboard the USS BOXER. Of note, this deployment marked the first deployment for the “Yankee” Series of UH-1s. After launching the ACE DET B from the Arabian Gulf, the BOXER proceeded to the Gulf of Aden and became the flagship for Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), a joint effort between the U.S., Danish, and Turkish navies to prevent pirates from attacking merchant ships in the Gulf of Aden just off Somalia’s coast.
In 2011, the Evil Eyes deployed again with the 13th MEU, executing Theater Security Cooperation (TSC) exercises and serving as the reserve element for the CENTCOM AOR. Upon its return from the deployment in 2011, HMM-163 began its transition to a tiltrotor squadron, trading its faithful CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter for the revolutionary MV-22B Osprey.
In May 2012, the Evil Eyes achieved Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in the Osprey and received the designation of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 163. By 2014, the squadron was ready to deploy once again, this time with the 11th MEU as the reserve element for the CENTCOM AOR. While on this first deployment as a VMM, the Evil Eyes participated in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. The Evil Eyes followed up this successful deployment with two 11th MEU cruises, departing San Diego in October 2016 through May 2017 and May 2019 through November 2019. During these deployments through the PACOM and CENTCOM AORs, VMM-163 conducted both theater security and combat operations, further proving the value and demonstrating the unique capabilities of its MV-22s.
The Evil Eyes spent most of 2020 adapting to garrison operations in the midst of the novel Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Due to COVID-19, Unit Training Detachments and cross-country missions across the country were out of the question. Nevertheless, the squadron persisted and continued to produce combat-ready aircrews while maintaining mission-capable aircraft.
2021 saw a gradual return towards normalcy for the Evil Eyes. For the first time since returning from deployment over a year prior, the squadron went on the road in June to Albuquerque, New Mexico for three weeks of high-altitude training and integration with Air Force CV-22s. Two months later, the Evil Eyes sent a detachment to Terre Haute, Indiana for two weeks to participate in Exercise Jaded Thunder alongside numerous U.S. Special Operations and multinational forces. To finish the year strong, most of VMM-163 detached to Naval Air Facility El Centro for six weeks to support Service Level Training Exercise 1-22.
The squadron maintained a high operational tempo into 2022. With an impending deployment, VMM-163 completed exercise Winter Fury 22 as a Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation in February. In March and on short notice, the squadron deployed to Djibouti, Africa to serve as the Aviation Combat Element, Crisis Response-Africa 22.2 with tactical control held by Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa and operational control retained by U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe and Africa. Upon consolidation of the North Africa Response Force, VMM-365, and the East Africa ACE, VMM-161, at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, VMM-163 Reinforced relieved these two squadrons and their accompanying attachments on 7 Apr 22. The squadron maintained 24/7 alert in support of Operation NEW NORMAL while supporting over 70 named operations to include Operations ENDURING SENTINEL, OCTAVE SHIELD, OCTAVE QUARTZ, YUKON ASYLUM, YUKON HUNTER, and SANAX throughout the Central Command and Africa Commands Areas of Responsibility. Throughout the months of May and June, a detachment maintained a forward presence in Mombasa, Kenya, tasked with casualty evacuation and personnel recovery for operations in southern Somalia. In total, the squadron, reinforced with four KC-130J aircraft from VMGR-252 and VMGR-352, flew 2,991.8 hours with 1774.1 combat hours, offloaded 1,434,180 pounds of fuel, and transported 5,109 passengers and 1,998,195 pounds of cargo. On 1 Oct 22, the squadron conducted their Relief in Place/Transfer of Authority with VMM-266 and retrograded home within the week to MCAS Miramar.
By persistently setting new standards of excellence, the Evil Eyes continue to blaze a trail for others to follow and look forward to the challenges the future will bring.