Ospreys replace last Marine squadron of Sea Knight 'phrogs'

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Marines and families explore and pose for photos with a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter after a redesignation ceremony Thursday, April 9, 2015, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The helicopter will be retired next week, as the squadron's fleet is being replaced with MV-22 Ospreys. (Jennifer Hlad/Stars and Stripes)
From Stripes.com
Marines and families explore and pose for photos with a CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter after a redesignation ceremony Thursday, April 9, 2015, at Camp Pendleton, Calif. The helicopter will be retired next week, as the squadron's fleet is being replaced with MV-22 Ospreys. (Jennifer Hlad/Stars and Stripes)

Ospreys replace last Marine squadron of Sea Knight 'phrogs'

by: Jennifer Hlad | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: April 11, 2015

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif. — MV-22 Ospreys replaced the Marines’ last squadron of CH-46E helicopters Thursday, officially ending the Sea Knight’s 50-year run as the troop and supply transport workhorse of the Corps.

Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 164 received the first Sea Knights assigned to the West Coast in early 1965 and introduced the medium-lift helicopter to combat in Vietnam in 1966. Parts of the squadron also flew missions in the evacuation of Saigon, making it the first in and last out of the Southeast Asian country.

More than 600 CH-46s, affectionately known as “Battle Phrogs,” were produced over the years, but on Thursday, just two remained. One is destined to join dozens of others in the “boneyard,” a storage space for retired aircraft, while the other — a shiny green model that flew missions in Vietnam — will go to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, Va.

Alan Schramm served with HMM-164 in Vietnam in July 1968-August 1969, flying 727 missions. He traveled from New York for the ceremony, and wiped away tears as he recalled his unit’s camaraderie.

Gordon Pirtle flew in Vietnam with Schramm as a fellow lieutenant in 1968-69 and returned to the squadron as commander in April 1982-May 1984.

Many of his memories are tied to the aircraft, he said, and it holds a special place in the former Marines’ hearts.

“The 46 is part of our life — that’s our history,” he said.

Peter Zobenica, who was also a young lieutenant with the squadron in 1968-69, said that when the Marines wrapped up the unit’s battle colors during the ceremony, it felt like a shot to the heart.

Still, he said, the aircraft had a good run.

The first Ospreys were delivered to the Marine Corps in late 2005, and in 2006, a HMM-263 was redesignated as VMM-263, becoming the service’s first Osprey squadron. The aircraft reached “initial operating capacity” in 2007, and VMM-263 left for the plane’s first deployment later that year. The Marine Corps has been slowly but steadily replacing Phrogs with Ospreys ever since.

Though the redesignation became official Thursday, outgoing commander Lt. Col. Gabriel Valdez said it started 16 months ago. The squadron has been retiring aircraft to the boneyard since Valdez arrived, but even at their age, all are in great shape and combat-ready if needed, he said.

Valdez’s first assignment out of flight training was with HMM-164, but during his time as the unit’s commander, it was classified as a training squadron: HMMT-164.

Thursday, he said he was proud to be present to see the unit drop the “T,” signifying a potential return to combat.

“This squadron’s DNA is in combat,” he said, and now it will be ready to get back to responding “to the sounds of chaos.”

And though HMMT-164 is now VMM-164, incoming commander Lt. Col. Eric Aschenbrenner assured the Marines that they are all still “knight riders.”

“We’re going to continue the legacy” of the unit, he said. “We’re just writing a new chapter.”

hlad.jennifer@stripes.com
Twitter: @jhlad