CTSF director pins Navy combat medal on Vietnam vet
When Central Technical Support Facility (CTSF) safety officer Craig Jones joined the Navy out of high school in 1965, he probably never thought he'd be hanging out of the side door of a Huey firing a machine gun at a pajama-clad enemy in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam.
But that is how he spent a year of his military career, between 1969 and 1970.
Now, 42 years after the fact, Jones is being recognized for his service. Recently, CTSF Director COL John C. Matthews, at Jones' request, pinned the Navy Combat Aircrew Wing award on the former Sailor's chest.
The reason for the gap between the time Jones served as a door gunner in the Navy's Helicopter Attack (Light) 3 (HAL-3) Squadron Seawolves and the presentation of his award, Jones said, is fairly involved.
In the wake of the Korean War, Jones explained, the Department of the Navy awarded the Combat Aircrew insignia to enlisted personnel engaged in aerial combat. The U.S. Marine Corps subsequently retained the special Combat Aircrew Insignia to recognize and distinguish its air crews who had been engaged in combat missions.
It was the Seawolves' contention that the Navy's HAL-3 door gunners should have received the same honor.
"Our missions," Jones said, "were truly combat missions. We were sent out to provide fire support for SEAL (Sea, Air, and Land) teams."
According to the Seawolves Combat Aircrew Wing Coordinator Dick Catone, the missions flown by the HAL-3 Squadron were "truly combat in the purest sense", and Seawolf door gunners should have been presented with the award retroactively.
"But," Catone wrote, "…requests to obtain approval for retroactive awarding of the Combat Aircrew Insignia were denied."
Finally, after continued lobbying efforts, the chief of Naval Operations approved the awarding of the Marine Combat Aircrew insignia to Navy personnel who flew in combat while assigned to Marine Corps units as crew members. It took a little longer, but it was determined that Jones and his fellow Seawolves could, and should, receive the insignia because their missions involved direct combat support to not only Marines, but Army special forces, the Navy "brown water" sailors on river patrol craft in the Mekong Delta.
The award, it was determined, could be accorded to Navy door gunners and door gunners only.
Jones' 42-year-long path to the pinning ceremony actually began at Aberdeen Proving Ground in the early years of the Vietnam conflict.
"I went through training there to install miniguns on helicopters," Jones said.
At the time, a minigun was a six-barrel, air-cooled, electrically-driven rotary machine gun that became the weapon of choice on the attack helicopters used extensively in Vietnam in combat missions.
As the Vietnam War progressed, Jones recalled, the Navy saw its SEAL teams operating in the Mekong in need of helicopter-borne fire support.
"So the Navy got hold of some Army 'reject' birds and fixed them up," he said. "It was my job to install the miniguns in them, but I ended up volunteering to be a door gunner."
Jones was assigned to Detachment 6 of the HAL-3 Squadron that was made up of a total of nine detachments with two helicopters to a detachment. He was one of eight door gunners in the unit.
His job was to clip his gunner's belt to a D-ring in the back of his UH1-A helicopter and fire, as necessary, a hand-held M-60 out of one of the chopper's two gaping side openings. By his estimation, Jones flew more than 200 missions from that vantage point, and was part of Operation Slingshot in the Mekong Delta.
"We got shot up and shot down. We got shot down once and counted 117 bullet holes in the helicopter," Jones recalled with a smile.
But it was only one bullet that convinced Jones it was time to leave the Seawolves.
"We were on a mission, and I actually saw a bullet -- a black dot -- coming toward me. It passed my head and hit the back of the helicopter. That's when I knew it was time to move on," he said.
Now, 42 years after that bullet whizzed past his head, Jones said he was pleased, and even relieved, to receive the Combat Aircrew wings.
"It is really special to be recognized for something you did," he commented, "but when this chapter is over, that's it. I'm ready to put (Vietnam) behind me now."
Article by David G. Landmann, Army.mil