Basic School 2-65 Class Reunion 

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Paul Fratarangelo Story

Operational Control of Marine TACAIR


Paul Fratarangelo

In this short piece, which I have written for members of TBS 2-65, I will address the issue of operational control of Marine tactical squadrons during the Vietnam War.  My recollections are replete with my personal biases—but hopefully, they will make entertaining reading.

Throughout the war fighting in Vietnam, Marine leadership persisted and prevailed on shore vice sea basing the Air Combat Element (1st Marine Aircraft Wing) to better support the Ground Combat Element (3d Marine Division) in Northern I Corps.  However, as Marine Forces began withdrawing from I Corps, RVN, the Navy brought increasing pressure on the Marine Corps to contribute tactical squadrons to Carrier Air Wings (CVW).

I was a member of VMFA-333, the first Marine “F-4 Phantom” squadron to join a CVW, specifically CVW-8, embarked aboard the attack carrier USS America (CVA-66).  The fighting Shamrocks remained with CVW-8 from January 1971 through April 1973.  During this period, the squadron’s operational control moved back and forth between CVW-8 and our parent aircraft group—MAG-31.  What was remarkable about the OPCON changes, was the reluctance with which the Marine Corps ceded operational control, and the urgency displayed to regain control.  During workups off the East coast, the Corps tried continuously, with little success, to have VMFA-333 support Marine operations ashore. 

Following several months of field carrier and aircraft carrier landing practice and shipboard workups, the USS America departed Norfolk, VA, in July 1971, for a six month deployment to the Mediterranean.  With 12 VMFA-333 F-4s embarked, the America task force “chopped” from Norfolk based 2nd Fleet, to the Mediterranean based 6th Fleet.  Once VMFA-333 was back at MCAS Beaufort, CVW-8 “chopped” the squadron back to MAG-31 and we resumed our normal training and exercise support schedule. 

After a short turnaround period, America and CVW-8 began workups to return to the Mediterranean for a second six month Med-cruise.  Plans changed when President Nixon decided to abandon the absurd ROE that denied American air power access to lucrative military targets in North Vietnam.  The USS America was directed to support the escalation and her orders were changed to deploy to the Tonkin Gulf in support of 7th Fleet operations. 

Operating with the 7th Fleet was considerably different from operating with the 2nd and 6th Fleets.  You may have heard that there are two Navies—East and West Coast.  Actually, each Fleet has their own unique differences, particularly in C4ISR and airwing tactics.    Unlike the Marine Corps, which standardizes across the Corps, the Navy standardizes air tactics independently, within individual carrier air wings. 

One of my first sorties took me over Chu Lai, where I served my first Vietnam tour from November 1966 to December 1967.   At that time, Chu Lai was a bustling Marine Corps Air Station and Army base.  When I looked down from my F-4, five years later, all I saw was an absolutely deserted base, with tumbleweeds blowing across it. 

After “snapping in” with the 7 Fleet flying sorties south of the DMZ, the USS America task Force steamed north to the Tonkin Gulf and began hammering targets in North Vietnam. A highlight of our squadron’s efforts was when Tom “Bear” Lasseter and John Cummings shot down one MIG-21, and damaged, possibly downing a second MIG-21 in an aerial dogfight 3 miles north of Hanoi.  This was the only MIG kill during the Vietnam War by a Marine crew in a Marine fighter.  It was also done with a radar guided AIM-7 Sparrow missile, vice a heat seeking AIM-9 Sidewinder missile (any F-4 Radar Intercept Officer (RIO) can tell you the significance).

When we manned our aircraft on January 27, 1973, we did so, with the knowledge that Washington had decided this would be the last day of the air war.  My mission took me to a target along the DMZ.  The North Vietnamese had moved surface to air missiles to the DMZ and numerous SAMs were being fired.  I had never seen a SAM fired this far south during my first tour, and lamented to my RIO that this did not bode well for American and South Vietnamese interests.  That turned out to be a gross understatement, as America was about to lose her first war, while the South Vietnamese soon lost their Country and their freedom.

As I became more senior, I interacted more with retired Marine general officers and learned firsthand their disdain for carrier aviation and their commitment to amphibious ready groups.  Most of their concerns centered on operational control issues they had experienced while on active duty.  I argued, to no avail that in view of the decommissioning of the battleships and the small 6 STOVL aircraft Det embarked aboard Amphibious Ready Groups, that the Marine Corps should leverage the air power of the CVW’s.

During the late-1980s, Marine Corps generals decided that Marine Forces should have equal standing with Army, Air Force and Navy Forces.  Marine Forces began to be represented by Marine General Officers vice Navy Admirals and our reporting chain began to go directly to the combatant commander vice through PACFLEET or LANTFLEET.  MARFOR componency was further advanced as more Marine Corps general officers received a 4th star and were assigned as combatant commanders.  The ultimate flag and general officer ceiling was broken during 2005, when President George W. Bush appointed Gen Peter Pace as the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  Marine four-stars have commanded Atlantic, Joint Forces (formerly Atlantic), Central, European, Southern and Strategic combatant commands.  Marine four-stars have twice commanded U.S. Forces Afghanistan.  This is a lot of progress for a Service representing only 8% of the Defense Department budget.  The recent proliferation of Marine four-star generals is all the more remarkable considering a Marine did not receive a 4th star until March, 1945, when Gen Alexander Vandegrift became our 18th Commandant.     

Looking forward to future deployment of Marine Air Ground Task Forces, Marine leadership will continue to be challenged to keep the MAGTF intact, i.e., Air Combat Element in Direct support of the Ground Combat Element, and overall operational control of Marine Forces under direct control of COMMARFOR.

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