JABALA AIRFIELD, Iraq -- During Operation Iraqi Freedom, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 263 split from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) and rejoined their parent command, Marine Air Group 29, to conduct missions in Iraq. Based out of the occupied airfield in Jabala, CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters worked exclusively with Task Force Tarawa - the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (reinforced).
"Our primary missions with (TFT) were assault support and casualty evacuations," said Capt. Lee York, CH-46 helicopter pilot, HMM-263, from Easton, Mass. "But we constantly collected intelligence and reported what we saw up there through the proper channels."
Assault support turned out to be a variety of things for the CH-46 pilots and their crews. Typically, it meant conducting troop lifts in support of ground operations by dropping off and picking up Marines in strategic locations. However, CH-46 helicopters were also used to transport Enemy Prisoners of War (EPWs), conduct combat resupplies of water and fuel, and as scouts in aerial and route reconnaissance. Sometimes they were given the task of checking out the cause of traffic jams or investigating fires. Anything out of the ordinary was reported.
"On one mission we saw a group of about 100 people on the road marching with flags," said York. "It was unknown if they were celebrating or protesting. We called in the grid so that any ground troops in the area would be aware of it."
Casualty evacuation flights also kept the "phrogs" busy. Usually, a crew was on standby for two to three days, ready to pick up any casualties called in from the front. During casevacs, the two pilots and two crew chiefs were supplemented with a navy corpsman to assist with the casualty once he was picked up. If nothing was reported right away, then the crew might be sent on an assault support mission. Yet, certain crews in HMM-263 did conduct actual casualty evacuations.
The first occurred when the 24th MEU (SOC) was given the mission to recover the body of a Marine from Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, who was killed in action during the early stages of the war. After elements from Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Bn., 2nd Marines recovered the body, a CH-46 from HMM-263 was called in to bring it back to Kuwait for its final transport back to the US.
The second occurred on the 3rd of April, when TFT headquarters received message traffic that a squad of Marines was ambushed during a patrol on Route 7, just north of An Nasiriyah. A CH-46 crew took off from the base and shortly after, received the grid to land at and what they would be picking up.
"We received word that there were five casualties, one of them being a sucking chest wound,"" said Capt. Kyle Coughlin, CH-46 pilot, from Cleveland, Ohio. "That meant one was labeled 'immediate', and had only an hour to live."
On the way in, the helicopter received small arms fire from the ground, forcing them to turn away and redirect their approach, finally landing in the middle of Route 7 after the Marines on the ground stopped traffic. After taxiing forward, the crew was able to load the casualties on board and take off again.
"Again we received small arms fire from the ground as we passed over the city," said Coughlin. "Fortunately, they were only shooting at the sound of helicopters and we were not hit."
The crew was able to successfully bring the casualties back to Camp Viper. All of them survived.
Once the 24th MEU (SOC) finished their participation in OIF and received the word to begin the retrograde back to the ships, HMM-263 was tasked with supporting. They conducted troop lifts for the BLT, shuttling them back to the MEU headquarters at Camp Fenway. Then two days of maintenance was conducted on all of the CH-46 helicopters before they began their own retrograde back to the ship. On the April 24th, HMM-263 was reinstated with the MEU and flew back to the Nassau Amphibious ready group, where they wait to go home.