USMC Cobra

First Marine AH-1G Cobras

The Marine Corps had watched the Army’s development and initial deployment of the AH-1 Cobra with considerable interest, it made no bones about the fact that what it really wanted was a twin-engine, marinized version of the gunship. Understanding, however, that the long lead time necessary to design and test such an aircraft would significantly delay its introduction into Vietnam, the Corps decided to accept several single-engine Army variety AH-1G Models as interim gunships until the desired twin-engine AH-1J Sea Cobra could become available. Just one month before the Army deployed its first Cobras to Vietnam, the Secretary of the Navy gave his approval for the Marine buy of seventy-two AH-1Gs – enough to form a squadron of 24 gunships for each of the Corps’ three active air wings. After review, however, Secretary of Defense McNamara cut the Marine request back to only 38.

Built under Army contracts (c/n DAAJ01-67-C-0043/ DAAJ01-68-C-0469), the first ships were accepted for the Marine Corps by the U.S. Army Bell Plant Activity during February 1969. Five of the first AH-1G Cobra aircraft’ were immediately ferried to Hunter Army Airfield at Ft. Stewart, Georgia to be used by Army instructor pilots in transitioning the first four Marines into the Cobra. In addition to the five AH-1G Cobras used for training, two other Marine Cobras were set aside for further research and development studies. The remaining aircraft were rushed to Vietnam for combat evaluation as quickly as they came off the assembly line.

USMC Cobras in Vietnam

At about the same time the four stateside Marines were transitioning into the new gunship, three other Marine officers were at Bien Hoa undergoing a similar training process in preparation for the arrival of the first Marine Cobras in Vietnam. On April 10, 1969 the first four AH-1Gs did arrive in-country and were assigned to Lt. Col. Clark S. “Sandy” Morris of VMO-2 based at the Marble Mountain Air Facility located a few miles east of downtown Da Nang. Eight days later, on September 18, 1969, Maj. Donald E. P. “DEP” Miller, accompanied by 1st Lt. Tommy James, had the distinction of flying the first Marine Cobra combat mission in South Vietnam. Miller recently reminisced about his experiences during the spring of 1969:

In early April 1969 Marine Cobras arrived at Marble Mountain and VMO-2 put them to work. On April 18 Maj. Donald Miller managed to fly the first USMC combat mission in an AH-1G. It was a medevac escort of CH-46S which lasted 3.3 hours.

USMC Cobra deliveries continued and by June 1969 ten aircraft had reached the end of the pipeline at Da Nang. The three-month long evaluation went very well, and the Marines of VMO-2 were delighted with the Cobra’s sparkling performance. Former UH-1 pilots were particularly impressed with the AH-1G’s exceptional armament system. While the modified UH-1E gunships had done an admirable job since their introduction four years earlier, the new Cobra provided greater speed, firepower and flexibility. Overall the AH-1G proved far superior to the UH-1E in the delivery of accurate, close-in fire support during vertical assault operations. Finally, the new gunships were able to free the UH-1Es to perform the light helicopter mission for which they originally were intended.

Although the first Marine units began withdrawing from Vietnam during August 1969, the Marine AH-1Gs remained until the end (several AH-1Gs were used during LAMSON 719—the assault into Laos in early 1971). On May 26, 1971 the Corps’ last squadron operating AH-1Gs (HML-167) ceased combat operations and redeployed to Marine Corps Air Facility, New River, North Carolina. During the two years that the AH-1G served in Vietnam, it proved beyond a doubt that it was a vital member of the Marine air-ground combat team.