The 21st Helicopter Squadron was activated on 9 Jul 1956, for the purpose of providing the U.S. Army with air support in a fashion similar to the TAC Troop Carrier Squadrons. Authorized 38 officers and 91 airmen to fly and support the H-21 “Flying Banana”, the unit was assigned 29 officers and 89 airmen and attached to the 63rd Troop Carrier Wing, Donaldson AFB, South Carolina.
The Army, however, declined all support from the Air Force helicopters, and the 21st Helicopter Squadron turned to fly airlift support, search and recovery missions, and also cooperated with a communications group in an experiment to lay communications lines by helicopter. The unit flew photo, airlift, and radiological survey missions during atomic testing at the Nevada Test Site prior to inactivation on 15 Oct 1957.
The 20thHelicopter Squadron “Pony Express” CH-3’s had been flying many classified counter-insurgency missions in Laos and North Vietnam since 1966 but the AF needed an additional helicopter squadron to handle a few chores in Laos. The 20th Helicopter Squadron, E Flight, “Green Hornets”, flying UH-1’s assigned to Nha Trang, SVN, were working overtime on cross-border operations in Cambodia with MACV-SOG Special Forces in CCC and CCS. They flew for some time out of Ban Me Thout, East Field, South VietNam. Their SOG teams were being hit increasingly hard by the VC upon every insertion.
Someone, somewhere in the depths of the Pentagon decided that is was time to reactivate the 21st Helicopter Squadron.
As the new commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Hauser was the man who was handed the task of creating a unit out of the men sent to him. Pilots and aircrews were assigned, helicopter mechanics, weapons mechanics, support personnel, admin staff, training, everyone and everything it takes to make a flying unit functional arrived and were fitted into the scheme of things at Shaw AFB.
“On 1 July 1967, the unit was reactivated and assigned to Shaw AFB, South Carolina on 15 July1967 to organize, train, and equip, in preparation for immediate overseas movement. Upon arrival in early 1968 at its SEA destination, the 56th Air Commando Wing, Nakhon Phanom RTAFB (NKP), Thailand, the unit completed additional training and in-theater testing, the 21st Special Operations Squadron demonstrated operational capability in its primary mission. The virtually unlimited capabilities of the helicopter also provide NKP with a base defense and flare drop capability, civic action support, SAR availability, COIN support, EOD Alert, and regular airlift capability.”
That’s the “official version” printed in 1968. There was so much more behind those words that could not be printed in those years. The mission of the 21st, the missions of the units assigned to Thailand, and what came to be known as “THE BIG PICTURE” that we would be years in discovering.
The helicopter selected for the squadron was the Sikorsky CH-3E. Basically the rescue (Jolly Green) version without the Air-Refueling boom but much the same in overall appearance, the 21st CH-3’s had a permanently mounted rescue hoist, titanium armor, external fuel tank hard mounts and FOD/Ice Shields.
The above picture shows a 21st SOS CH-3E with the “TAT” mini-gun pod hung from the right sponson.
In addition to the 21st SOS assigned aircraft and crews, in early 1968 several flight crews and aircraft were taken from the 20th Helicopter Squadron, “Pony Express”, at Udorn to begin the 21st mission. The former 20th aircrews were experienced in classified operations in Laos and North Vietnam and would add to the capabilities in missions that the 21st would eventually become involved.
The likeliest method of improving intelligence coverage seemed to be a system originally designed to ferret out trucks entering South Vietnam by way of Laos and the Ho Chi Minh trail. This surveillance system involved the use of electronic sensors, seismic and acoustic, accurately implanted along known or suspected routes of North Vietnamese infiltration. These devices broadcast to an orbiting airplane, in this case a specially equipped Lockheed EC-121 which relayed the signal to an infiltration surveillance center at Nakhon Phanom in Thailand.
Those highly advanced (for those days) computers would correlate the data coming in “real-time” from thousands of sensors we would dropped on and around the Ho Chi Minh Trail in an effort to stop the infiltration of both supplies and troops into South Vietnam.
Prior to the arrival of the 21st Helicopter Squadron, a Navy squadron, using OP-2E Neptune aircraft delivered sensors over the trail. The Navy lost several aircraft in just a few weeks after having worked successfully for some time and the decision was made to withdraw them from their perilous mission. This would be the 21st SOS new primary mission. (Give the VC something even slower to shoot at.)
The last 21st SOS CH-3 shot down on a sensor drop mission was in Feb 1969. After several such losses, the AF decided that placing sensors with helicopters wasn’t viable, and transferred the mission to the F-4s.
Since 7th AF didn’t want us to be bored, they replaced the sensor drop mission with MACSOG “Prairie Fire”. The “Heavy Hook” SF guys were far more interesting than sensors. The only catch was that, unlike the sensors, you had to go retrieve them after they had done their job!
The 21st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), assigned to NKP Thailand was heavily involved in many aspects of the “Secret War”, the war in Laos. One of the former members, Bob Arnau, has compiled what he calls “Knife Tales” in which he has documented numerous “first hand” experiences of many of the former members of the Squadron. He continually adds “stories” as he receives them and forwards a copy to the former members of the 21st SOS. The “Knife Tales” is the history of many of those that served honorably during their tour(s) with the 21st SOS.
(COURTESY OF BOB ARNAU)
In September 1970, the 21st SOS flew eleven CH-3E helicopters and one new CH-53 helicopter which had arrived at NKP on 8 August. The squadron gradually replaced its CH-3’s with CH-53’s.
The 21st continued to see combat in Southeast Asia until 1973. It airlifted personnel from Saigon in April 1975 and airlifted US Marines in rescue of the SS Mayaquez in May of 1975.
The 21st was reassigned to the Thirteenth Air Force on June 30, 1975 before deactivating on 22 September 1975 at U-Tapao RTNAF, Thailand.
(The 21st SOS was re-activated 1 May 1988. see 21stSOS- 1988-2007)